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DeCamp Bioethics Seminar: “‘A Kind of Insanity in My Spirits’: Frankenstein, Childhood, and Criminal Intent”

Melissa Ganz, University Center for Human Values and Marquette University

October 13, 2021 · 4:30 pm6:00 pm · Zoom

University Center for Human Values

The Ira W. DeCamp Bioethics Seminars are open to all students, faculty, and interested members of the public. Seminars range across a wide variety of topics at the intersections of philosophy, biology, medicine, ecology and public policy. The seminar series is made possible by a generous grant from the Ira W. DeCamp Foundation. Register for this event here.

Criminal responsibility in England underwent an important shift between the late seventeenth and early nineteenth centuries. Before this period, jurists focused less on whether a person meant to commit an act and more on whether an individual actually committed it. English law thus made little distinction between children and adults. In the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, however, criminal responsibility became linked to new ideas about human understanding.  Jurists such as Matthew Hale and William Blackstone maintained that individuals could not be guilty of crimes unless they fully understood and intended the consequences of their actions.  In this talk, I argue that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) endorses the new conception of criminal intent and helps to justify the raising of the age of criminal capacity. Victor Frankenstein places responsibility for the murder of his brother, friend, and spouse squarely on the shoulders of the being he creates and promptly abandons. But while the novel acknowledges the horror of the creature’s violence, it refuses to condemn him. Shelley repeatedly emphasizes the creature’s lack of understanding and intent. In its portrait of parents’ role in and responsibility for the making of criminals, as in its emphasis on the need for forgiveness and rehabilitation of young offenders, the novel extends the critiques of the era’s penal reformers, while anticipating innovations in juvenile justice that would emerge at the end of the nineteenth century.

Melissa Ganz, Associate Professor of English at Marquette University is a 2021-22 Laurence S. Rockefeller Visiting Faculty Fellow, but because of Covid-19 she is remaining in Wisconsin for the Fall semester.  She works on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British literature and culture, with a particular focus on the relationship between literature, law, and ethics. Her book, Public Vows: Fictions of Marriage in the English Enlightenment (University of Virginia Press, 2019), offers a new account of the marriage plot, arguing for the centrality of nuptial law to early fiction and of novels to nuptial regulation.  She has also written on legal and ethical questions in novels by Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James, and Robert Louis Stevenson, and on courtroom storytelling in nineteenth-century America. Her current projects include a study of eighteenth-century British literature and penal reform, a study of nineteenth-century fiction and criminal responsibility, and a series of essays on Romantic women writers’ engagements with moral philosophy.

Gideon Rosen, Stuart Professor of Philosophy, Chair of Philosophy Department, Princeton University, will respond. Peter Singer, the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics in the University Center for Human Values, will chair.

For more information about the University Center for Human Values, please visit their website.

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