Home Forums Litterae Forum Oedipus Rex Making the leap between knowledge and guilt

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    Making the leap between knowledge and guilt.

    Can we be guilty of an action if it’s done without knowledge? How important is motivation (having it or not having it) in the culpability of a crime?


    Daniel Hall

    I would say that we should not, morally speaking, be responsible for evil acts that come about by mistake or without our knowledge. Evil and wrong doing needs to be a conscious decision, or else you cannot call the person who commits the act evil. Practically speaking, evil things can be done accidentally or without the participants knowledge, but you cannot really call the individual who accidentally caused the act evil any more than you could blame an asteroid for careening into the earth and causing massive destruction. Now, if the asteroid, in the vastness of space, eyed a pretty blue planet and launched itself at the sphere knowing of the massive death that would come, that would be different.

    Unfortunately, I do believe that justice is more important than the labels we ascribe to crimes committed. Evil unintentionally committed is still evil and need be dealt with through the law. However, I feel a more lenient eye should be cast on accidental evil doers. Without knowledge of the effect of our actions, we cannot be said to fully own them. Perhaps every time I step in a puddle on a rainy day I am smashing and annihilating a microscopic civilization of sea monkeys. While this is doubtlessly sad, and if it were proven I should be held responsible and made to avoid frolicking through the puddles, I don’t believe you can call my innocent puddle splashing an evil. Still, the innocent need justice and the guilty, knowing or not, need punishment….


    Henry Peterson

    I remembering wrestling with Oedipus Rex and the problem of fate back in my university days. I think the one thing that bothered me was the idea that fate was a plan written in stone. The whole point of Oedipus’ ordeal is that there literally could not have been any other outcome other than him murdering his father and marrying his mother.

    But if fate is unavoidable, I often wondered why we are held responsible for anything. Sure, Oedipus unknowingly did all these things, but whether he was knowledgeable or ignorant the result would be the same no matter what. So how is it that there is any personal responsibility for anything ever? What’s going to happen is going to happen.

    I guess what I’m saying is that if we are going to adhere to Sophocles’ interpretation of fate, then Oedipus should be regarded the exact same whether he had done these actions with or without knowledge. How should he be regarded? As innocent? As guilty? THAT, I’m not sure of.



    This is to Daniel:

    Are you saying we shouldn’t be held morally responsible for evil acts unknowingly committed, but should still be punished by the law? What purpose would that be? It wouldn’t ‘teach’ the person anything… And what about people who try to do the good thing and end up doing something bad by accident? (Ie. Paying to put piping into your town – but not knowing that lead piping will hurt the town).



    @Henry Peterson – that assumes that fate is completely unavoidable! Not sure about that!


    Henry Peterson


    I think that is, at least according to Sophocles, the very idea of fate. Fate, by its very nature, is unavoidable. And if fate is something that can not be changed, then how can it be said that anything we do is of significance?

    Oedipus was going to kill his father and marry his mother, it was impossible for anything else to happen. So in this sense, he really isn’t guilty at all. He is more like a pawn within the universe.

    I suppose it boils down to trying to reconcile this very definitive understanding of fate with the conception that we have free will; that we are, at least in some way, able to decide what our future will look like.


    Daniel Hall


    I believe that justice must be carried out. If someone accidentally killed your family or unknowingly stole from you, you would say that they are innocent of any reprimand? Let’s say that I unknowingly fed your child something they were deathly allergic to and they died as a result. Does my non-knowledge of their allergies excuse the fact that because of something I did someone else died?

    To take the mortality issue out of the question, if I was going to buy a new pair of sunglasses and put them in my cart, then accidentally walked out of the store with it, the store is justified in bringing charged against me if they had video of me doing so, yes? I am not an evil person or knowingly a thief, but unknowing and non ill intentioned thief I am, and need be dealt with as such.

    Would you praise a intentionally evil minded person who unintentionally did a good deed? If a murderer killed someone who was planning on killing many more people, perhaps in a terrorist attack, are they worthy of praise? What do you think?



    Sean Mcpartlin

    I do not belief one should feel obligated to feel guilt at the realisation that one haas committed a crime unknowingly. Action should be taken to aid the victims of said crime (perhaps not as rash as the blinding of ones self) but the feeling of guilt are unjustified in this case. That being said as we’re all human feelings of guilt for the most part are unjustified but that doesn’t prevent us from feeling guilt?
    You make interesting points, although i disagree. If one committed a “crime” unknowingly the act of punishment is made redundant and serves a symbolic purpose of crime & punishment rather than a pragmatic & effective purpose of helping the victims. The punishment of those who unknowingly commit crime serves only those who have an impersonal, inhumane and unjust perception of justice. I do agree though in some cases it is inevitable to be reprimanded for example in the stealing of sunglasses, the victim in this instance is oblivious to your ignorance of the “crime” and your explanation would be faced with contempt and lead to eventual action but the act of punishing those who have unwillingly or unknowingly committed an act of evil or have broken the law is in itself unjust.
    Kind regards,

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