—— Mr. Fischer, what do you think about ...GUILT?

Illustration Thomas Fischer. Er sitzt, vor ihm steht ein Strafgesetzbuch.


When we speak of guilt in the context of criminal law, we’re talking about assigning responsibility. And about the fact that the state has the right to enforce a punishment if someone violates the law.

But to legally punish a person for their ­actions is no trivial matter. To do so, the person must have actively committed a crime, or abetted it through neglect. Furthermore, the act must be illegal and not have been committed in self-­defense or in forced compliance. Finally, a person must be able to be held responsible for their act — that is, of sound mind and having acted with their own free will. Only then is someone guilty of a crime in the legal sense and responsible for it.

However, there’s a difference between guilt in the legal sense and in the moral sense. ­Sometimes we consider someone to be guilty morally although they are not guilty legally—and vice-versa. This gut feeling is deceptive be­cause it is shaped solely by our own values. That’s why we perceive crimes as having varying degrees of seriousness. For instance, I personally can’t re­ally get worked up about fare dodgers or some­one selling five grams of marijuana. In other ­cases, compassion for perpetrators can arise ­since they are just as poorly off as their victims. It’s also not uncommon for unfavorable situations or failed life plans to become entwined, encourag­ing cri­me­. That is why we can sometimes understand, humanely and morally, why a person ­becomes a ­cri­minal—even in the case of more ­serious crimes.

The judiciary will be facing quite differ­ent problems in the future. For example, who is ­responsible if an artificial intelligence injures someone? Machines themselves currently bear no responsibility. At the same time, technology is emancipating itself and making its own decisions. Is the machine acting of its own free will? According to the law, that’s exactly one of the prerequisites for being able to take responsibility for an action.

Some brain researchers also fundamentally doubt the existence of free will. For them, decisions are controlled solely by neurons. Without free will there would also be no responsibility. But how is a society supposed to function if no one takes responsibility for their own actions?