What is required for someone to be guilty? This has been brought to the forefront of our minds by the case of Carroll v. Alabama. A robbery-turned-murder, the case of Taurus Carroll has come to the forefront in recent weeks. Falling into the gray areas between differing state laws and provoking Supreme Court intervention, the crime’s adjudication has caught our interest. The issue is not guilt in the sense of whether Carroll committed murder or not. On that the jury, Alabama courts, and Supreme Court were unanimous. The issue is staining guilt: culpability for the act committed because the defendant and none other is responsible for it. If this is guilt, what is required to be guilty?

Intellectual ability, say the rulings of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the other five Supreme Court judges siding with her. Intellectual ability, said the Supreme Court over a decade past in the case of Atkins v. Virgina. In the controversy surrounding Carroll, only the instrument used to measure intellectual ability is under debate, but not the criterion of guilt. The definition of this mental state includes factors of stability, intelligence, and—controversially in Carroll—adaptability. Carroll’s lawyer succeeded in having the original death sentence reviewed because of a withholding of the death sentence in the similar case of Moore v. Texas. Many defend Alabama by saying that Texas’ instrument for assessing mental disability is, as Ginsburg herself said, an “outlier,” not the standard. However, the Supreme Court held that the measure used by the Alabama court stressed adaptability too much, and risked lumping mentally disabled in with mentally able. The debate, once again, is over the instrument. Tweak the questions given to Carroll in one direction and he comes out as stable and responsible for murder. Tweak the questions in another direction and he comes out as intellectually deficient and, thus, only worthy of a life sentence without parole. It seems clear that we are not talking about any mental deficiency that prevented him from knowing he was robbing and killing. (See this BuzzFeedNews article.)

But what does it really take to be answerable for your actions, particularly when the action in question is murder? As C. S. Lewis argued in his well-known article, “The Humanitarian Theory of Capital Punishment,” what the Texas court ruling in Moore, the Supreme Court, and Carroll’s lawyer have lost is the notion of “Desert.” Desert is fundamentally a right, a right to be punished according to one’s guilt and no further. It is a human right. And that is because the concept of Desert assumes that all it takes to be guilty is to be human. The moral weight of our actions is a dignity which we do not share with animals; a crime committed by ourselves must fall upon our own soul. To take this away, to say that Carroll is not capable of guilt because of a deficiency in his mind, is to make him inhuman. In fact, it hinges the degree of our humanity on the quality of our heads.

I have another question: What does it take to make the one who kills you guilty? In the sixties and seventies, Bernard Nathanson was a pro abortionist. I don’t mean he was pro-abortion; I mean he personally killed nearly 5,000 babies and was involved in scores of thousands more. Beyond that, he worked tirelessly throughout the sixties to push legislation that would increase the number of abortions in our country. But he lived at what was to him an interesting time. At the height of his bloody career, he discovered the new technology of the ultrasound. “Now,” he said in his documentary, “for the first time, we have the technology to see abortion from the victim’s vantage point” (see this article by Bethany Jenkins of the Gospel Coalition). As I read Jenkins’ article on Nathanson this week, what struck me was how simple it was for him. He saw the highly-formed baby responding to shocks and learning from patterns inside the womb, and he believed: it was human. To our jaded eyes today, this man who could kill his own child and the children of friends without batting an eyelid was rather soft-hearted. Seeing the baby was all it took.

Nathanson’s story demands, “What could possibly make the rest of us believe it was a human being?” And I am afraid that given the prevailing framework of belief on what a man is, the answer is—nothing. We have divorced the concept of humanity from physical reality. We may see a baby, but that don’t mean it is one. (We may see a white woman, but that don’t mean it ain’t a man, a black woman, or a unicorn.) The problem, I believe, is not that bodies aren’t real to us. We believe in the physical with all our hearts. We can see the chopped-up parts and monitor the fetal “blob” with a nice clinical accuracy. We appeal to chemistry to explain our behavior, and all is forgiven. The problem is that personhood is no longer real to us. “The fetus isn’t human,” the pro-choice say. “Yes it is,” the pro-lifers respond. “How do you know?” the pro-choice ask. And there is no answer that can possibly gain traction in that worldview.

From the extinction of the death sentence to the extermination of children in the womb, we show ourselves to be a people afraid. We are afraid that there is, at bottom, no dignity in us. The soul which once gave us distinction from the animals looks dubious and shadowy. Ryle’s ghost in the machine is only a ghost, and feels so much less real than the machine. The ghost is not real enough to hold guilt nor real enough to make others guilty for extinguishing it. The only comfort to this fear is the Word of God which tells us, no permission asked or granted, that we are human. We can bear guilt, and whoever takes the life of one of us is guilty.


Lewis, Clive Staples. 1972. The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment. In God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. [Orig. pub. 1971]