Guilty for feeling nothing

ma died

I’ve always toyed with the idea of becoming a lawyer, a barrister specifically, and the way criminal trials are conducted interests me greatly. Last summer I had the privilege of shadowing a judge in criminal court, and watching a sex offence trial. It was only then that I realised just how much personal prejudice I had against the male defendant. This got me thinking about how we determine the measure of someone’s guilt, beyond the basic act of agreeing they violated the law. This is important when deciding sentences, and whether someone may be let off early.

I think a big factor in determining whether to let someone go early, is whether they have shown remorse, as we judge this as a signal they won’t re-offend. A book that addresses the issue of remorse incredibly well is The Outsider by Albert Camus, in which Meursault’s lack of remorse leads to his sentencing. The Outsider, charts the life of a man named Meursault, who following his mother’s funeral, commits an act of seemingly random violence. The novel follows the story of his trial.

What makes this so interesting, is the questions Meursault is asked by all the lawyers, to try and ascertain whether he feels guilty for his crime. There is an important distinction made in the book, between the feeling of guilt, and the feeling of regret. Meursault is seen to regret having committed his crime, however not for moral reasons, more because he does not like prison or the repercussions of his act. The prosecutors play off this beautifully, attacking the ways he acted previously, for example towards his mother (he placed her in a care home). They try to portray him as an emotionless human being, and for this, they conclude he must be punished. Camus writes such that the reader is able to hear Meursault’s thoughts, and see that he acts not out of a lack of compassion, but out of the desire to live life easily and simply. With regards to the care home and his mother, he rationalises that he simply couldn’t afford to care for her anymore.

It is a thought provoking book because it asks the question what is guilt, and should we punish people for a lack of it, even when they have no interest in re-offending? Is a lack of remorse enough to sentence someone to death? I do not know quite where I stand, and The Outsider is an unsettling read, but one I would fully recommend.

camus cover

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