John Demjanjuk was found guilty this past Thursday of 28,060 counts of accessory to murder for serving as a guard at the Nazi’s Sobibor death camp. He is now 91 years old, and the alleged crimes (the case is under appeal…other courts have found him to be a victim of mistaken identity with regard to other charges) took place more than 70 years ago when he was boy.
Here’s my basic question: assuming that they have convicted the correct human organism, is John Demjanjuk the same person who committed those crimes? Surely he is numerically identical with the human organism that did participate in these atrocities, but are we justly punishing a 91-year-old man for what the 20-year-old John Demjanjuk did? I’m not making a point about mercy here, I’m asking a question about justice.
The important philosopher Derek Parfit famously argues that this kind of punishment would not be just. Persons, at least in the moral sense, are just collections of interests. These interests change over time…and especially from age 20 to age 90. The person Demjanjuk was when he was 20 is radically different from the person he is now. (One interesting upshot of this understanding is that making decisions based on one’s distant future is form of charity for another person.) Parfit would say that it makes little sense to punish Demjanjuk now…indeed, because he is a different person, it would be unjust to do so.
Christians, I think, would reject the moral anthropology which gets Parfit to this conclusion (persons are more than just collections of interests), but could we end up in a similar place for different reasons? Perhaps this is too dualistic, but Christians are not in the business of talking about justice for bodies, right? We are in the business of justice for moral entities. Indeed, we believe that baptism and other kinds of grace-conferring activities have the capacity to radically change a person’s moral constitution. We even speak about being ‘born again’ in ways which imply that the same human organism can become a very, very different kind of moral entity over time.
Are we serious about this? If so, I think we need to at least entertain the possibility that Demjanjuk is no longer the same moral entity now, more than 70 years after the crimes. And if we come to the conclusion that he is not, Christians could agree with Parfit that punishing him for 70-year-old crimes is unjust.