Observations about the universe, life, Lausanne and me

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Moral Dilemma

Imagine you are accused of a crime, but can't remember anything. Do you try to defend yourself? Are you feeling guilty? Would it feel unfair to you if you were convicted?

I am not speaking about me, thankfully, but about the German prime minister of Thuringia, Dieter Althaus. On the first of January he collided with Mrs. C. on the ski slopes of the Riesneralm in Styria, Austria. He wore a helmet and (barely) survived, she did not and didn't. According to eye-witnesses it was his fault - he disregarded warning signs and went around a barrier there to prevent exactly this type of accident.

But here is the twist: He doesn't remember anything of the incident. This is fairly common after severe injuries, particularily when suffering head trauma, so there is no reason to doubt Mr. Althaus - especially since he was in a coma  for two days.

Yesterday the trial took place - Mr. Althaus was accused of involuntary manslaughter. And he did a very honourable thing: Since he doens't remember anything, he didn't even show up for the trial, but rather admitted his guilt and accepted any punishment the court would agree on a priori. Because of this, the court session was very short - it took only one hour, and Mr. Althaus was fined 33 300 Euro and 5000 Euro compensation to Mrs. C's widower.

There is some grumbling in the juridical profession in Austria about the speed of the trial, but what is there to deliberate? The only thing they had to do was to decide on the punishment, everything else was clear.

I'll tip my hat to Mr. Althaus comportment, it can't be easy to admit guilt to something you can't remember doing, butit was the right thing to do.  That's the kind of behaviour I'd like to see in all politicians, standing up to their mistakes.


  1. Agreed. Given that there was compelling evidence of error, I would do the same (I think). I wish more trials went that smoothly.

    However, wouldn't it considerably less cut and dried if you suspected a crime (or were suspected of committing) a crime with minimal or even no evidence, say something circumstantial or motive only? One that would involve malice aforethought?

  2. Yes, but the amnesia you commonly get with accidents and head trauma only erases the accident itself, and maybe the minutes before it. If you'd planned the crime, you would still remember that.

    But if we are specualting about hairy moral situations, how about this one:

    You wake up with short-term amnesia, and they tell you you are suspected of having commited a crime. There are no eye-witnesses, and probably not enough evidence to commit you. But when the suspected course of events is told to you, yo decide that given the cicumstances, you probably would commit the crime exactly as accused. How do you plead?

  3. Can't answer directly. If I suspect the course of events is true because I'm the criminal type I probably plead not guilty because criminals and responsibility rarely go together.

    If, however, we were talking about a crime like, say, killing my daughter's rapist slowly with a nail file, I'd probably plead guilty with pride. From my non-criminal viewpoint, I'm really not likely to commit a crime unless I'm willing to pay the consequences