One hiker recently gave a vivid interview about her encounter with teens she witnessed starting a major forest fire in Oregon.
A public outcry for the punishment of the teen seen throwing a smoke bomb into a dry gorge followed. Officials have not yet decided if they will arrest anyone, and if they do, whether the individuals in question will face charges as juvenile or as adults. A very helpful discussion of the legal options available to Oregon can be found here.
In response to the public's demands, there has been some effort to point to new research on brain development, which suggests the development of our brains takes far longer than we previously believed. For an example, see here.
And yet, if we begin to cite brain studies as a way to keep from holding teens responsible for the consequences of their actions, imagine the incentive this would create for teens just like those in this story. They would be aware, know and understand that they would not be held fully responsible for throwing fire crackers at extremely dry woods.
This does not seem ideal. And yet neither does it seem right to regard 15-year-olds as responsible as an adult.
The courts' tendency to focus on whether the fire was started intentionally or not also seems to miss both what the public is concerned about. No one seems to be assuming it was intentional behavior.
Aristotle offers us a way to think about the teen's tossing of the firework that is not complicated but also not very commonly suggested today. Aristotle suggests that the young always act voluntarily. They are, after all, the ones making the movements, ordering their limbs to move.
The young, however, do not always act with "knowledge".
Young teens are operating in some type of “ignorance”.
Now, as pointed out, even by the witness, it is nearly impossible to imagine that a teen lighting a firework does not realize fire can spread. But this is not the only kind of ignorance to which Aristotle refers. He also acknowledges one's inability to appreciate the consequences of his or her actions. (This is certainly a popular refrain about teens, so maybe Aristotle is on to something!)
And yet this alone is not enough to settle responsibility. Aristotle invokes a criterion for those of us acting “in ignorance” due to our youth or situation. How remorseful do we feel?
If we are not remorseful, as the witness was able to observe about the smart-aleck and giggling teens, then Aristotle suggests we become responsible.
In other words, only if we are truly appalled at the damage we are surprised we caused does “acting in ignorance” become meaningful.
This set of distinctions seems useful here, where the callous reactions of these particular teens are so striking.
Roberts, Jean. "Aristotle on Responsibility for Action and Character." Ancient Philosophy 9 (1989): 23-36.