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Karen Matthews is a terrible woman. There’s a sentence we’d all sign off on, wouldn’t we? Shouldn’t we? Well, it depends what is meant by ‘terrible’.


What, I hear you say, are you suggesting? That we feel sorry for her? To a certain extent and in a certain way, yes, I am going to suggest that.


When a neglected child commits some offence we say, quite rightly, that we shouldn’t blame her. We say that she is merely a victim of a certain causal history, one that brought cruel fate. But when Karen Matthews does something heinous we forget what has happened to make her the way she is. It’s as if something magical happens at eighteen that allows us to disregard the causal history in the case of a ‘consenting’ adult.


In fact, nothing magical happens at eighteen. What might happen is that a person develop the cluster of abilities that allow her to make informed and responsible choices – that she  be able to get enough distance, as it were, between her own desires and the decisions she makes. But that clearly didn’t happen with Karen Matthews, who went on living in an adult world with  (at least in part) the mind of a selfish child.


That the vast majority of people do in fact develop the autonomy to rise above the egoism of childhood is why we back up laws with punishments. Part of being an autonomous adult is thinking ahead to the consequences of one’s actions, and punishments are there to sway those that teeter toward temptation yet have the strength of will to resist. But it seems quite clear that Karen Matthews could only think ahead to the gratification of her own desires.


At the danger of reading too much into this case (a danger Chris Dillow suggests we resist), discerning why someone acts as Ms Matthews did, as Polly Toynbee has pointed out, is usually not hard to discern – a broken home, unloving parents, a history of physical and sexual abuse, a lack of education, bad diet, drug and alcohol abuse, perhaps even just genetically inherited low intelligence (although I doubt this is a factor in many cases, and even where it is it can usually be overcome). It is almost always for these reasons that such a  person sails past her eighteenth birthday without learning the abilities we unthinkingly ascribe to consenting adults.


This isn’t to suggest Ms Matthews can’t exercise choice simpliciter. It is to say that the choices that appear to her as possible and salient are limited (and in her case downright perverse) because of her underdevelopment as a person. If that’s so, why don’t we view her in the same light as the neglected child? Why do we say she is terrible for making the choices she did? It seems to me the factoring in of the relevant causal history in the one case and not the other is utterly arbitrary.


What usually happens when someone turns eighteen (or thereabouts) is  simply that a certain causal history does occur – one which enables the autonomy requisite to live the moral life of a fully developed adult human being.  When it has so occurred we take ourselves to be justified in blaming someone for lapses in judgement thereafter precisely because the right array of choices appear to her as possible and salient.


The villain of the piece here is the Kantian-Christian idea that each of us can act morally regardless of our causal histories. It seems to me that this is false. Moral action requires moral deliberation and that in turn requires possessing the cluster of abilities that allow the right choices to appear to one.


This is not just a philosophical position (although I happen to think the position is justified by philosophy alone), it is a position that is beginning to be backed up by science. Neuroscientists can produce brain scans that display the difference between normal and neglected children. What sets them apart is that the former and not the latter possess the neural pathways that fund various cognitive abilities, including the abilities essential for responsible behaviour. Neuroscientists can also produce brain scans that show the difference between adults who can and can’t delay their own gratification in order to exercise self-control and think ahead to consequences, and the difference is the same lack of relevant neural pathways. But it’s not all doom-and-gloom causal determinism: neuroscience also suggests that for most of our adult lives, neural pathways can be engendered anew.


So in a sense Karen Matthews is a terrible woman – she is terrible at being a woman because she still acts with the egoism of the selfish and confused child. An awful failure of socialisation afflicts her just as it afflicts the neglected child.


The bonus of seeing things this way is that the failure, as a social failure, concerns us. And we would do better to be thus concerned than to indulge in the self-congratulatory vindictiveness that seems to abound. After all, did we choose the causal histories that meant for us turning eighteen did actually mark passage into responsible adulthood?