Ethics, Punishment and the Dead Child in the Back Seat

Washington Post columnist Gene Weingarten received a Pultitzer Prize for his feature, “Fatal Distraction: Forgetting a Child in the Backseat of a Car Is a Horrifying Mistake. Is It a Crime?” Focusing on the grief of parents who caused the deaths of their own children by negligently leaving them locked in over-heated cars, Weingarten, to his credit, doesn’t advocate a position in his article, although it would be impossible to read it without feeling compassion and empathy for his subjects, both those who have been prosecuted and those who have not.

The article squarely raises a classic ethical conflict, as well as the question of the role of punishment in society. As always with ethical standards, the issue ultimately encompasses how we decide what is in the best interests of society. Weingarten points out that there is no consensus on whether parents who inadvertently kill their children in this way should be brought to court: some prosecutors bring charges, others do not. Which is right?

I don’t like my answer much, but I think it is inescapable, once the emotion is left behind. Continue reading