A Mental Case
February 26, 2009 § 31 Comments
This isn’t nearly as difficult as people are trying to make it.
Bob steals a bag of gold. A week later, Bob spends that bag of gold to buy tickets to Disneyland. Bob knows what he is doing the whole time: he doesn’t have amnesia or mental illness or whatever.
I’m interested in focusing on the second specific act, Bob spending the bag of gold.
To say that the morality of his act ‘depends on his mental state’ can mean any number of things, some of which are true and some of which are false. It is true in general, for example, that Bob’s culpability for spending the stolen gold depends on his mental state. (Well, not really in this case, because we have stipulated that he knows what he is doing. But in general, if he was delusional and thought he had been given the gold by his uncle or whatever, he might not be culpable).
For example, one kind of mental state is “Bob knows he stole the gold, but he wishes he had won it in the lottery rather than stealing it”. And nothing about that mental state can make it morally licit for him to spend the gold on tickets to Disneyland.
So it is platitudinously true that our culpability for our acts depends on our mental state. But it is not true in a way that helps any of my critics. My critics seem to want the objective status of the bag of gold – stolen or legitimately won – to depend on Bob’s mental state at the time he spends it. But the gold’s objective status doesn’t depend on Bob’s mental state at the time he spends it, even though it is not a material property of the gold.