Amnesia and remorse: how much should we expect?
When people do bad things – especially when they cause a lot of harm to others – we usually hope that they will experience something like remorse: that they will feel horror at the thought of what they did to the person harmed, that they will resolve to avoid causing similar harm in the future, and that they will be motivated to apologise and offer reparation, where possible. Penal systems in some jurisdictions deem remorse so important that it is considered a valid reason to mitigate the amount of punishment the offender receives. But, what happens to our expectations for emotion if the person cannot remember committing the offence; if he feels so detached from it that it is as if he did not commit it? An interesting case from Poland raises this question.
Maciej Zientarski was a celebrity driver on a TV programme similar to our Top Gear. On the 27th February 2008, accompanied by his motor journalist friend, he was given a Ferrari to test drive. The test drive didn’t end well. CCTV cameras captured footage of the car being driven at speeds of between 140-150kph along a 50kph road, serial over-taking, and the eventual head-on smash into the pillar of a bridge above. The motor journalist died at the scene but the driver, remarkably, just about survived.
Following a month in a coma and a year and a half of rehabilitative treatment, Maciej Zientarski remembers none of this. In fact, he remembers nothing from the two years preceding the date of the crash. Following the crash, it was two years until Zientarski was declared fit to stand trial, having failed two psychiatric assessments in the intervening years due to his inability to follow multiple days of questioning. When the trial eventually went ahead, Zientarski was found guilty of an offence that corresponds closely to causing death by dangerous driving. He was sentenced this month to three years in prison.
Of particular interest in this case is the focus – of both the prosecution and of Zientarski himself – on the absence of remorse. The lack of emotional response exhibited by Zientarski to his wrongdoing raises interesting questions, particularly given his extensive memory loss. The prosecution argued that Zientarski’s lack of remorse was a significant aggravating factor in the case and so should be taken into account when determining the appropriate sentence. The prosecutor said what roughly translates as, ‘I can see no signs of remorse…it doesn’t look like what you did sits deep in you’.
Zientarski would agree, but this is not because he is defiant. Instead, his inability to remember the incident – and to even identify with the person who was driving the car – impedes the emotional moral response that we would usually expect. In a television interview Zientarski said that he really wants to feel remorseful but he just can’t. For him, it is like someone describes to him the plot of a film and then tells him ‘by the way, the bad guy was you’. Further, he struggles to reconcile the idea that he was the driver with what he remembers about himself from before the accident – the extreme risk-taking is incompatible with what is preserved of his self-image. But he knows that it was him, he says that he ‘just has to accept the word of others and the evidence presented’. Zientarski is troubled by his lack of remorse – his inability to feel the horror that accompanies the profound awareness that it was I that irreversibly harmed another. Zientarski reveals that he now has three pictures on his bedroom wall: one of the car before the accident, one of the car after the accident, and one of his journalist friend’s grave. He is trying to awaken his emotions.
Regardless of whether we think remorse should be relevant to an assessment of penal desert in this or any case, remorse is usually of great moral relevance. A person who responds remorsefully to significant wrongdoing is seen as morally better than the person who remains cold or even defiant. It demonstrates understanding of the nature of the wrong that was done and deep concern for the person harmed. We might even think that the person who already understands what he has done – the harm that he caused – deserves less censure.
So, should we, like the prosecutor, be concerned by Zientarski’s lack of remorse? Should we expect him to keep staring at those three pictures until he feels something? His lack of memory of the decisions he took on that drive and his difficulty in believing that he is a person who could take such risks mean that he lacks the connection to the event – and to the person involved in the event – that might be necessary for deep and profound remorse. There are undoubtedly questions raised about personal identity here – both in terms of connectedness and continuity.
A final point to consider is that people in general have different capacities for feeling emotions, including the emotion of remorse. Perhaps we shouldn’t expect an equal depth of response from everyone. It is possible that Zientarski’s accident and subsequent coma affected his capacity for emotion. Where a person is unable to feel the remorse that we might expect, perhaps a second-order moral response to the lack of emotional response is the most we can hope for. Zientarski is clearly upset by his lack of remorse, even remorseful about it in some ways: he apologises for it and stares at the three pictures almost penitentially. Where extreme memory loss and/or limited capacity for emotion preclude profound remorse, perhaps this ‘intellectual’ reflective response suffices.