Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam is facing a controversy after a photograph surfaced from his medical school yearbook showing one person in blackface and another wearing a Ku Klux Klan hood. The media alleged the governor was the one in blackface.
The controversy came just months after Supreme Court justice Brett Kavanaugh, faced allegations of sexual assault going back to his high school years.
As a philosopher, I believe these cases raise two ethical questions. One is the question of moral responsibility for an action at the time it occurred. The second is moral responsibility in the present time for actions of the past.
I argue that there are reasons to think that moral responsibility can actually change over time – but only under certain conditions.
Locke on personal identity
Skara kommun/Flickr.com, CC BY
Philosophers implicitly agree that moral responsibility can’t change over time because they think it is a matter of one’s “personal identity.” The 17th-century British philosopher John Locke was the first to explicitly raise this question. He asked: What makes an individual at one time the very same person as an individual at another time? Is this because both share the same soul, or the same body, or is it something else?
“Personal identity is the basis for all the right and justice of reward and punishment,” he wrote.
Locke believed that individuals deserve blame for a crime committed in the past simply because they are the same person that committed the past crime. From this perspective, a person would still be responsible for any of the alleged actions of a younger self.
Problems with Locke’s view
Locke argued that being the same person over time was not a matter of having the same soul or having the same body. It was instead a matter of having the same consciousness over time, which he analyzed in terms of memory.
Thus, in Locke’s view, individuals are responsible for a past wrong act so long as they can remember committing it.