John is 30 years old. Jack is 10 years old. They are clinically sane. One day, John feels a sudden, uncharacteristic urge to kill. He murders an innocent stranger. On the same day, Jack feels the same urge to kill. He also murders an innocent stranger. John and Jack both admit responsibility for the murders. They acted in the same way for the same reason. Their actions had the same result. Should they be punished in the same way?

Great question! In practice, at least in the United States, the punishment and even the trial will be different. The 10 year old would be tried in juvenile court. The jury would not be made up of only 10 year olds. John, on the other hand, would have a jury (if there was a jury) of fellow adults or peers, and the possible consequences would be different. I suggest that one reason for a difference in punishment is that while both John and Jack admit responsibility (which I assume involves admitting that they knew that what they did was wrong) the child (and a 10 year old is a child, based on international standards, e.g. UN definition of childhood) did not have as full of a grasp of the wrongness of the action as the adult. It may also be the case that the child had / has less resources mentally to address deviant desires / urges. I think we expect adults to engage in greater self-mastery, to exercise greater restraint and control of desires than children. Although the claim may seem odd: sanity for a child may differ at least in degree from sanity for an adult. It would be odd, but not insane for my four year old nephew to think he could put on a ring that would make him invisible (after all, Bilbo Baggins did this in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings), but I would be quite insane to think so.

There might also be another way to think of punishment: if a 10 year old is found guilty and given a 10 year sentence, by the time he is 20 he will have spent half of his life in prison. Insofar as part of the role of punishment through prison / incarceration is rehabilitation and reformation, this may be more likely to hurt Jack's chances of reforming. Under such circumstances, perhaps less than 10 years incarceration is warranted (especially if there is admission of guilt, reform, parole, reliable supervision when released...). Perhaps a lesser sentence would be less likely to harden him into a life of such crime. John getting a 10 year sentence would perhaps also harden him, though it would mean that he has spent less of his life time in prison than Jack. It may be that John is more likely to think that he is not a hardened criminal, but someone who made a mistake and paid for it with one third of his opposed to Jack who might (again "might") think: "Half of my life I have been branded a criminal. That is who I am."

That's my best shot at this point in replying to your most excellent question.

Allow me to add that your question really forces one to think about a philosophy of age or aging. When do the values, the virtues and vices of childhood, differ (if at all) from what we think of as the virtues and vices of adulthood? Along with Elizabeth Olson as co-author, we address this in a chapter in a forthcoming book The Catcher in the Rye and Philosophy. There are no easy answers, I am afraid, but there are some good suggestions by other contributors to the book, due out in 2012.

Read another response by Charles Taliaferro
Read another response about Children, Ethics, Punishment