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For context, this question came from discussions around some sentence lengths seen in the US prison system - where individuals can end up being sentenced for terms far exceeding their possible natural life (hundreds of years, etc).

Were it the case that reincarnation were possible, and said prisoner, after death, continued in a new body with no memories of their past life or crimes, would they still be morally obligated to finish their sentence? Would this depend on their knowledge of their past life?

(In turn, would the state be morally obligated to find and re-arrest the prisoner, were such identification possible?)

(If the argument in favour is that losing their memories made them no longer culpable, would that not mean a sufficiently traumatic brain injury, for example, would also justify freeing them?)

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    The question is highly speculative. It is existentially important only for those who believe in reincarnation. In general, those who believe in reincarnation do also believe in the karma-doctrine. According to this doctrine the individual soul continues to exists after each life in a new body. Karma and reincanation ensure the rebirth in a form depending on the actions in the previous life. The new form is not necessarily a human form. But the exact conversion factor of a previous sentence is not known.
    – Jo Wehler
    Commented Mar 11 at 20:00
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    Morally obliged in which ethical setting? What may be moral for me here and now may not be moral for you oversea and tomorrow. As the question is formulated, answer can unfortunately only be opinion based.
    – Johan
    Commented Mar 11 at 20:25
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    Is this a serious question or are you just trolling us?
    – D. Halsey
    Commented Mar 11 at 23:35
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    That is not how the ethics of reincarnation works, "rebirth is governed by the causal laws of karma (good actions cause pleasant fruit for the agent, evil actions cause unpleasant fruit, etc.)" SEP. The reincarnated form (one can be reincarnated as a plant or animal) and circumstances are themselves the retribution for past life as a whole, both good and bad parts, there is no need to import those parts piecemeal.
    – Conifold
    Commented Mar 12 at 3:31
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    Why go as far as the US system? Right here see the ban-periods of stackexchange. Here is one. Ironically his highly upvoted answer is really one of the most superb on the subjects. As it happens we are all "reincarnated prisoners' finishing our 'sentence'. And in the process accumulating new crimes with their sentences. This is usually called the axiom of karma
    – Rushi
    Commented Mar 12 at 4:12

4 Answers 4

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Morality is a subject under debate rather than settled, but it is mostly just Legalist moral thinkers who treat law abidement as a moral necessity. Meanwhile the moral failings of legalism have received extensive discussion. There is a near consensus among moral thinkers that legalist thinking is a seriously flawed approach to morality, so the moral need for a reincarnated individual to voluntarily complete a prior sentence is not recognized by moral philosophy.

Whether it is appropriate for a society to protect itself from a prior offender, or to impose punishment out of a cosmic obligation, are the other possible reasons to consider re-imprisoning a reincarnated convict.

As with morality, there is not a consensus on how reincarnation might work if it is the case. BUT, among reincarnation believers, there is an effective consensus that, even if character passes from life to life, that the universe acts to maintain moral rules, and humans need not act on past life transgressions.

The Abrahamic faiths hold by guilt surviving death, AND that the universe calls for humans to punish evil, but they generally deny reincarnation, so their thinking is not applicable.

Secularly, there is good evidence that, despite whatever predispositions one may have, that human behavior and character are highly dependent on both upbringing and on acts of will. This is why human societies have become massively less violent over the centuries — our moral suasion and norms are effective in improving our behavior.

This malleability of moral behavior is highly relevant, because it means a reborn soul, no matter its past evil, has the potential to be a saint in its next life. Society does not need protection from reborn villains.

So, there is no good reason to extend punishment to a reborn offender.

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Well one could ask what purpose does the prison sentence serve to begin with. Usually the criminal punishment has 3 objectives, prevent immediate harm due to the threat of repeat offenses, rehabilitate the criminal, provide restitution for the victim.

Now prison does protect the public from that particular criminal. Life and longer than life sentences make a mockery of the idea of rehabilitation and apart from satisfying a morally dubious lust for revenge they don't do anything in terms of restitution for the victim.

So it's already a 1/3. While being detrimental to the criminal and society which has to provide for them and justify to itself their mistreatment.

Also it's not as if the state banks upon the "moral obligation" of the criminal. They have law ENFORCEMENT and claim the right to use violence and coercion to make the criminal comply and guard their compliance, whether they consider that their moral obligation or not.

So it's already questionable whether the prisoner has an obligation to stay within the prison and not escape if there is a chance. Like for example in Germany escaping (from prison) isn't even a punishable offense (partially because of a Nazi practice where open doors were used as an excuse for murdering people "killed on the run", rather than "illegally executed"). So it was ruled that the urge not to be locked up is an intrinsic human desire, that cannot be blamed on the prisoner. Though if they damage stuff, harm guards, steal prison equipment and so on, they might still commit a crime.

But suppose the criminal believes in the system, believes that he has done something wrong and accepts the sentence and the sentence is the expression of society and especially the victim and continues to sit in prison till they die.

How would that rebirth work? Like are they the same person? Do they look the same? is "crime" an intrinsic part of their genes or the result of making wrong decisions and being at the wrong place at the wrong time?

Like at least you've established that they have no memory of their past life. So already with that information it would make this pretty weird. Because they would have done nothing wrong. In fact they might not have done anything at all and from their perspective it's absolutely reasonable to assume that you're lying and/or are insane. Like you have no evidence for their guilt, their involvement in the deed, them being the same person and so on. So apart from a "potential risk" of becoming a criminal one day, which isn't even a certainty and might not be higher than that of any other person, there's nothing that makes them a criminal.

So you would essentially lock up an innocent person. Again a very dubious 1/3, though likely even less because you essentially commit a crime against an innocent person as society.

Like in order to feel an obligation you'd need the connection to the deed and if you can't remember that, don't feel like you have committed the crime, don't intend to do it and didn't actually harm someone, why would you isolate yourself from the world? How could you rehabilitate yourself and how could you provide restitution?

And if that is supposed to be an allegory for what if someone loses their mind or some "Ship of Theseus" idea, where "if all your cells replace after x years, are you still the same person who committed the crime and thus responsible for it". Well that would actually be a good question and yeah you kinda are the person on those old photographs at least you've always been with that person, though at the same time you do actually have changed since then so you're no longer that person.

Also culpability is a different question, which is about whether AT THE MOMENT OF THE DEED you were within your means to commit the crime and be able to realize the immorality of that crime. So for example if you were completely wasted drunk at the time of committing the crime, you could end up being unculpable because at the time of the deed you were not able to make rational decisions. Though if you knew your drunk self is violent and you drank anyway, you could be fund culpable for your deliberate decision to drink and risk endangering other people with that.

While if you committed a crime while being clear in your mind and later a concussion wipes your memory or whatnot, you would have been culpable at the time, though this culpability has no impact on who you are now. Like you're in a different situation. Like suppose you're meant to idk lift a weight. You fail. Your trainer tells you to exercise more, you do. Through an accident you lose your arms, is the advice to exercise more still a good idea? It was when it was given, but now the situation has changed and it no longer serves its original purpose.

Same with insanity only being a "get out of jail free"-card if you assume that they fake it, otherwise it's just an acknowledgement that prison isn't helping you and isn't the suitable remedy for your problems and the problems that you cause.

So likely no, but the specifics would depend on more details not given in the setup.

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    We would need a system that reliably changed people's attitudes for the better in order to do any rehabilitation. If we had that, just use it before people commit crimes.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented May 22 at 11:10
  • I know of someone who went to prison because on drugs at the time of a crime he didn't assist in but was present with the people who did it. Law says life in prison without parole. Essentially, he is being punished for having bad judgement about the people he associated with, as a late teenager.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented May 22 at 11:12
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    Ideally you mutually craft a moral framework and gather continuous input on how realistic it is and teach how to derive ethical acting from that. And if something happens hear all sided to check whether it was preventable and how and whether that is an individual error or a systemic problem or just shit happens. So ideally people know or at least can be told what they should do and having that be realistic to do. Punishing people for consequences regardless of their own agency on the other hand makes avoiding law enforcement the best course of action for how erratic it behaves.
    – haxor789
    Commented May 22 at 12:38
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The way I see this question we have two central issues: the first is what makes one morally obligated to serve a prison sentence (assuming that dodging a sentence is immoral), and the second is the mechanism of reincarnation (assuming that reincarnation happens upon death).

For a general idea of why it might be immoral to dodge a prison sentence, we can look to theories of debt to society, where committing crimes violates the social contract necessitating corrective action. The simplified idea of social contract theory states that people agree on moral and political rules and that to live by the social contract is to live morally; through this framework, if crimes are committed and no corrective action is taken the crime is harmful not only to the victim of said crime but to society as a whole because it works to invalidate the social contract.

Rebirth has a lot of interpretations through different philosophers and religions throughout the years. Plato talks about reincarnation as he believes that souls are not created or destroyed, but recycled. Buddhism recognizes a cycle called "samsara" with the ultimate aim of "nirvana" (or escape from the cycle of death and rebirth). What is important to note is that metaphysical beliefs are at the core of belief in rebirth, and these beliefs also have impacts on compatible ethical frameworks.

In Buddhism, government punishment could be seen as a part of the karmic process, so long as the goal of punishment is rehabilitation (due to the ideas of compassion and non-violence in Buddhism); however, in the process of rebirth, one is assigned a position relative to the karmic process, as such it would be unlikely that carrying jail-time into a second life would be seen as moral.

Plato talks extensively about what constitutes a just society in "The Republic", and makes a more direct statement about capital punishment in "The Laws". Plato does not seem to disagree with the concept of capital punishment, outlining a view where punishment is proportional to crimes. Plato's description of rebirth seems to suggest a similar view to the Buddhists, where the process of rebirth serves as a payment for the actions during life (whether positive or negative).

Overall it does not seem likely to me (through the lenses I am aware of) that someone who is reborn would still be responsible for the crimes of their past life/lives, as rebirth itself is generally seen as a payment for past actions, and an opportunity to do better.

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If you knew just what she went through before getting reincarnated, it wouldn't even occur to you to send her back to jail. So no, they would not be.

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