Why your concept of “free will” is important

I’ve lied for the second time about not discussing free will, but this will be a short post since we’ve touched on the issue before.   Several readers have claimed, with some justification, that maybe we should ditch the term “free willl” because it has different meanings to different people.

But that doesn’t end the discussion of determinism versus nondeterminism of human behavior, because one’s view on that question has profound implications for whether and how we punish people.

There are several justifications for punishing transgressors and criminals, including:

  • deterrence
  • protection from society (by sequestering criminals)
  • rehabilitation and reformation of the miscreant
  • retribution (“an eye for an eye”)

Whether you believe that humans can “choose” their actions—or, alternatively, that our actions are predetermined (largely or completely) by the nexus of genes and environments—can have a huge impact on your views on punishment and how to carry it out.  We already recognize this by treating convicted criminals differently based on how “free” we judge their actions to have been.  Someone who commits a crime while severely mentally ill can be found “not guilty by reason of insanity.”  I doubt that many of you deny that we should treat such people differently from “normal” criminals.  Criminals with mental disorders might still be sequestered for punishment and “rehabilitation” (psychiatric treatment), but the notions of deterrence and retribution make less sense.

As the article linked to above explains, what if some “normal” criminals had just as little choice as someone who is mentally ill? Perhaps their genes and environments made them completely unable to do anything other than what they did when they committed a crime. Maybe they were savagely beaten or sexually abused as children.  Maybe they were exposed to environments that predisposed them to violence.  In such cases, do we completely ignore the fact that they may have had as little “choice” about committing a crime as someone who was mentally ill?

So even if you are a compatibilist, and choose to define free will—as do Dan Dennett and many readers—as something that holds even if human behavior is completely determined, this doesn’t end the discussion.  The issue of how we regard and punish transgressors remains.  In my view, this leaves only the justification of “protection from society” and “deterrence” somewhat unscathed—but leads to different notions of “deterrence” and “rehabilitation.”

Regardless of how we conceive of free will, then, we still need to ponder the impact of biological determinism on our notions of responsibility and punishment.  This is one area where science can have a huge impact, for it continues to show us that our choices aren’t as “free” as we thought.  Is there anyone here who thinks that scientific studies of the basis of human behavior are irrelevant to punishment?

173 Comments

  1. Diego
    Posted July 11, 2011 at 4:49 am | Permalink

    I am dating a philosopher and it’s been very useful in helping me keep up with your ongoing free will posts. Before this most of my philosophical arguments were about species concepts or about parsimony vs. likelihood vs. bayesian. 😉 Anyway I am glad for your posts because they have stimulated some interesting discussions with my lovely philosophy lady.

    • Jeanine
      Posted July 11, 2011 at 6:44 am | Permalink

      Can I date her too? Most of this is so over my head!

      • Diane G.
        Posted July 13, 2011 at 1:40 am | Permalink

        LOL! (I can so identify..)

  2. Marella
    Posted July 11, 2011 at 4:55 am | Permalink

    WTF is a “normal” criminal? The vast majority of them are of low IQ and very many are mentally ill even if not legally insane. They are mostly under 30 years of age. Half of them wouldn’t be in there if recreational medications were legalised and available safely at reasonable prices.I don’t really believe in free will, it seems to have nowhere to come from but I’m in favour of deterrence and keeping dangerous people off the streets for their safety and everyone else’s. I am not in favour of spending millions of dollars keeping a bunch of potheads in gaol. The whole penal system is a mess, free will is the least of its problems. The thirst for vengeance and the puritanical urge to ban everything that causes pleasure ensures that. We need to get beyond them.

    • Leigh Jackson
      Posted July 11, 2011 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

      I agree.

      However here in the UK, our new Home Secretary has just been politically hung-drawn-and-quartered for airing the idea of having more lenient punishments for criminals who ‘fess-up early on in the legal process and thereby spare victims of crime from having to go through the trial process.

      Vengeance is ours sayeth society.

      • Kharamatha
        Posted July 12, 2011 at 3:15 am | Permalink

        But wait. That’s still inefficient. You’d get vengeance in more cases if offenders had incitament to cooperate.

        Setting vengeance aside, it would almost certainly remove more criminals from the streets.

  3. Egbert
    Posted July 11, 2011 at 4:56 am | Permalink

    “Is there anyone here who thinks that scientific studies of the basis of human behavior are irrelevant to punishment?”

    I think the notion of punishment itself is a matter of philosophical debate.

  4. Posted July 11, 2011 at 5:06 am | Permalink

    This topic has been long dead, since neuro scientists have proven there’s nothing like free-will. Decision are made in areas of the brain we don’t have conscious access to (orbitofrontal prefrontal cortex and ventromedial prefrontal cortex) on the basis of previously stored values of dopamine and serotonin and then transferred to associative areas of the cortex when it becomes conscious.

    The issue on whether to punish transgression or not, is also not for us to discuss. Robert Trivers already proved we have something called Moralistic Aggression, which is our genetically predisposition to punish cheaters, criminals and non-cooperators. So even our moralistic aggression is determined. To discuss whether to punish or not to punish is like deciding whether to feel hunger or not to feel hunger.

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted July 11, 2011 at 5:14 am | Permalink

      I strongly disagree. Maybe it’s “dead” to you, but many readers will take issue with your take on free will. But, more important, our actions and views can certainly change given the “environmental intervention” of reading and talking about these things. And certainly whether or how we punish people HAS changed over time, so it’s not analogous to feeling hungry or not, which is a behavior that is pretty much impervious to change.

      • Chris Granger
        Posted July 11, 2011 at 10:53 am | Permalink

        Agreed. I kind of get the impression from some people that they equate determinism with “we can’t change it so why bother?” but these very discussions can and do inevitably change our brains and the way we’ll react to things in the future.

        • Posted July 11, 2011 at 11:50 am | Permalink

          +1

          It’s the error of conflating determinism with fatalism. Fatalism is the claim that some events will happen *no matter what*. Fatalism implies that what I do doesn’t matter. Fatalism is false.

          Determinism only says that some events will happen *given the current state of the universe, and given the laws of nature.* What I decide and what I do can matter a great deal, even if (indeed, especially if) determinism is true.

          • Kharamatha
            Posted July 12, 2011 at 3:19 am | Permalink

            I’d say [i]only[/i] if at least some interactions are deterministic.

            But guess which of the two Hollywood likes more? Even when the power to change things is emphasised on the big screen, it’s a heroic fight against fate, breaking what “should”, divinely I assume, have happened.

    • AT
      Posted July 11, 2011 at 5:49 am | Permalink

      good point

      but the issue not “dead” because we will soon see a LOT of crime and anticosial behavior

      overpopulation + inability to meritably employ idle-mindedness = CRIME

      overpopulation on the rise
      with ovepopulation on the rise inability to meritably employ drone/burden overpoipulation on the rise too

      result

      CRIME will inevitably RISE

      Conclusion?

      Eventually people will become “numb” to the “morality” debate and punishment will be more of a convenience issue than morality issue

      We should focus on why we overpopulate and what it means to our _continuos_ viability as individuals and species

      http://www.condition.org/breakdow.htm

    • Posted July 11, 2011 at 6:46 am | Permalink

      Your second paragraph is wrong. You’re missing the part where humans make choices. We can choose not to punish someone for retribution if we don’t think they deserve it. This conversation is about whether they deserve it – and the conclusion we make will determine how we approach punishment.

      For a longer, completely deterministic account of how this works, see my comment here.

      • Posted July 11, 2011 at 10:12 am | Permalink

        Just to add to what Tim has written, the analogy with hunger is nor apt. We may experience hunger or “moral aggression”, but those are passive experiences, and merely experiencing those sensations or states of mind is not the same as actually taking action, i. e., “to punish or not to punish.”

        The analogy might be salvaged in this wise:

        In the case of hunger, we may or may not go get something to eat, depending on any number of variables. Additionally, the specific food we select is not determined simply by our sensation of hunger. There is a LOT more stuff at play.

        In the case of “moral aggression”, we may or may not punish someone who’s committed a crime, depending on any number of variables. Additionally, the specific punishment meted out is not determined simply by our experience of “moral aggression.” There is a LOT more stuff at play.

        “Hunger” should be compared to “moral aggression,” not the act of punishment.

        This also assumes that “moral aggression” really is a universal – and that if it is, we all experience it in the same way, to the same degree, etc.

    • Posted July 11, 2011 at 8:40 am | Permalink

      Perhaps your point about “Moralistic Aggression” is that most people in society are going to demand punishment for “wrongdoers”, regardless of what science reveals about why they did it?

      I certainly feel a primal urge for anyone who harms vulnerable people, or even animals, to be punished, even if my more rational side can see mitigating circumstances or the futility of such punishment.

  5. Posted July 11, 2011 at 5:10 am | Permalink

    The retributive aspect should not be dismissed out of hand just because the actions are not chosen. There is some evidence that people are more likely to be dishonest or cheat if they perceive that cheaters in their society are going unpunished — independent of whether there is any chance that they themselves will be caught. In other words, it’s not just simple “I don’t want that to happen to me” deterrence: it’s “why should I behave if everybody else is getting away with murder?”

    Of course that doesn’t give us carte blanche to just eye-for-an-eye everybody and ignore human rights concerns, so that people can feel better. But my point is, while the retribution aspect is philosophically hollow, it possibly has some practical value after all. How we balance those concerns is another matter — but it can’t be dismissed so easily.

    • Nick B.
      Posted July 11, 2011 at 6:40 am | Permalink

      I agree with that. Retributive justice may be very important for widely shared societal goals. Discarding it altogether because people don’t have “free will” seems premature, to say the least.

      Another concern of mine on this topic is why the repudiation of punishment is always restricted to “criminals”. Does not the same philosophical conclusion oblige us to repudiate all forms of punishment and reward? At least insofar as these behaviors/impulses are not calculated for achieving another goal (i.e. deterrence) but are carried out because people are believed to be deserving? I’ve never seen anyone even bother with this.

      Lastly, does it seem to anyone else that there is a contradiction at the level of our consciousness when we talk like this? In one breath we deny “free will” and in the next we presuppose it. Does not ‘ought’ imply ‘can’? Note that I am not saying that we have free will. I’m just saying that at the level of our consciousness there seems to be inconsistency.

    • Leigh Jackson
      Posted July 11, 2011 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

      If it is the case that a sufficient number of people behave as you describe, then innate moralistic aggression would seem to make sense in evolutionary terms, if it produces improved societal cohesion.

  6. Posted July 11, 2011 at 5:19 am | Permalink

    I’m surprised — because you seem like an excellent scientist — that you’re not thinking like a scientist here. Regardless of the social or political nature of some belief, only the scientific question is answerable: what experiments or observations could in theory distinguish between determinism versus nondeterminism of human behavior? The outcome of the experiments/observations would tell us which was true; the *setup* of the experiments would tell us what both *mean*.

    I’ve been investigating and thinking about the issue for many years, but I have not read nor have I been able to think of any experiments or observations that could differentiate between the two. I’ve concluded that absent the ability to distinguish between the two, the question is ontologically meaningless.

    Perhaps you’ll have more success.

    Absent such an experiment, the question becomes: which delusion do you prefer and why? In other words, pure theology.

    The questions I find interesting are: what kind of a society do we want? How can we most effectively achieve it.

    A few year ago, I recall Richard Dawkins using a scene from Fawlty Towers to illustrate this question. In the scene, Basil Fawlty’s car stalls, and Basil cannot restart it. Of course, time is of the essence in the scene. Basil becomes angry and starts beating the car with a branch.

    As I recall, Dawkins ascribes the humor of the scene to the fact that the car does not have “free will”. I disagree with Dawkins: the scene is funny because beating a car with a branch is a spectacularly ineffective method of repairing it.

    Similarly, I don’t look at how we respond to deviant or unacceptable behavior using the paradigm of what we “deserve”, a concept that as best I can tell requires some sort of delusional belief about metaphysical “free will”. I’m not able to come up with a way of talking about “deserts” or “free will” in any kind of scientific, empirical way.

    Instead, I look at two different questions. What kind of society do we want? How can we most effectively achieve such a society? Thus, when I look at deterrence, protection, rehabilitation/reformation and vengeance, I simply ask these (and related) questions. Do these measures effectively promote a society that I want? What sort of society do these measures bring about? What people might prefer (consciously or unconsciously) the sort of society that these measures bring about?

    Be careful, though: thinking about these questions in some depth turned me from a liberal into a communist.

    • Egbert
      Posted July 11, 2011 at 5:35 am | Permalink

      The irony is, that if there is no free-will, then you don’t have much of a choice about what you want, nor does anyone else. Societies build themselves based on desires rather than what is rational, and the familiar hierarchies form spontaneously.

    • Posted July 11, 2011 at 6:48 am | Permalink

      what experiments or observations could in theory distinguish between determinism versus nondeterminism of human behavior?

      Um, every psychology experiment ever?

      • SAWells
        Posted July 12, 2011 at 2:33 am | Permalink

        No. Any experiment is going to give you a series of observations. There’s no way to determine if that string of observations was predetermined or not.

        • Posted July 12, 2011 at 8:38 am | Permalink

          We infer causality from experiments. That’s determinism.

    • Miles
      Posted July 11, 2011 at 7:49 am | Permalink

      what experiments or observations could in theory distinguish between determinism versus nondeterminism of human behavior?

      Free will is the idea that our will is not determined by physical principles – i.e. a special miracle just for little ole us. If that’s not an extraordinary claim that one should reject in the absence of extraordinary evidence, I don’t know what is.

  7. Posted July 11, 2011 at 5:31 am | Permalink

    The implications of determinism for criminal justice are explored by Joshua Greene and Jonathan Cohen in their widely cited paper, “For the law, neuroscience changes nothing, and everything” available at http://www.wjh.harvard.edu/~jgreene/GreeneWJH/GreeneCohenPhilTrans-04.pdf They conclude (and I agree) that it’s difficult to justify retribution – the idea that offenders deserve to suffer for their offenses whether or not such suffering deters, rehabilitates or makes society safer – if we accept that they are completely caused to be who they are and act as they do, and so couldn’t have done otherwise in actual situations. But there are retributivist compatibilists who argue that even though criminals could *not* have done otherwise, they still deserve to suffer even if no good consequences ensue. I find this bizarre and inhumane and counterproductive, but the strength of our innate retributive inclinations ensures that apologists for retribution (following in the footsteps of Kant) will likely be with us for a long time. It’s great that Jerry is on the progressive side of this debate, which is rapidly gaining visibility, http://www.naturalism.org/criminal.htm

    • Miles
      Posted July 11, 2011 at 8:04 am | Permalink

      Surely it is obvious that punishment is for the benefit of onlooking society more than the individual being punished. Punishment of wrongdoers prevents further infractions by causing onlookers to want to stick on the straight and narrow in order to avoid punishment themselves and because they don’t feel like stooges for doing so – they don’t feel dumb for following the law while others ignore it and get off scot free.

      Once you realize that, then punishment always serves a purpose, unless the onlookers do not identify with the prisoner in any way, like if the prisoner is mentally ill and none of the onlookers are, or unless the punishment is conducted inside a black box with no one the wiser on the outside, which never happens. Black box scenarios always fail in the real world: it is the major argument against torture to my mind for example.

      • Posted July 11, 2011 at 8:16 am | Permalink

        unless the onlookers do not identify with the prisoner in any way

        As is the case with pretty much each and every criminal, especially the sociopaths. (Yes, the two sets are congruent to a large extent.)

        We’re all special in our own minds. “That could never happen to me.” “Yes, but I deserve that money.” “I’m too smart to get caught.”

        Remember: humans aren’t rational animals so much as rationalizing ones.

        Cheers,

        b&

        • Miles
          Posted July 11, 2011 at 9:18 am | Permalink

          Of course many upstanding citizens don’t empathize with criminals in the slightest, and many overconfident baddies who can’t see themselves getting pinched, but there are many shades on the scale from upstanding to degenerate, and there are lots of people who know someone in jail, have done time themselves, or who merely view the law as an opponent in the game of life, and I suspect they see the offender’s point of view more or less clearly.

          Perhaps the degree of reliance on punishment as a form of deterrence should be pegged to the degree to which likely offenders empathize with the miscreant. Perhaps that is too subjective, too arbitrary an evaluation to charge our courts and parole boards with making, and we should ask them to make the punishment fit the severity of the crime instead of the manner.

          Regardless, I don’t see what is to be gained by dismissing any possible deterrent effect of punishment, other than rationalizing restraint for unnamed, predetermined reasons.

          • Posted July 11, 2011 at 10:00 am | Permalink

            I addressed this above. As a society, we grew out of that kind of barbarity when we abandoned the Hammurabic codes. The costs to individuals and to society as a whole are horrific.

            …unless you oppose the International Day Against Stoning that PZ has featured at the moment…?

            b&

            • Miles
              Posted July 11, 2011 at 10:35 am | Permalink

              Um, whoa. Maybe I should make myself more clear: I am arguing for a secondary consideration of punishment as a deterrent after primary consideration is given to rehabilitation. Something along the lines of a year in prison for every million dollars you steal, plus a year for every person you threatened with a gun. Only not even mandatory sentences, more like suggested guidelines, with eligibility for parole upon recommendation of a psychiatrist one meets with no less than once a month.

              I am not arguing for automatic death sentences for bank robberies. In fact, tally up the above and you get maybe 10 years for robbing a small bank.

              And quite frankly, you did not address any of my previous points above. Some people empathize with criminals and deterrents prevent crime in principle, even if the true effect of a deterrents need more scientific investigation.

              • Posted July 11, 2011 at 10:46 am | Permalink

                The difference is in degree, not in principle. You’d deprive somebody of a quarter of their productive adult lifespan rather than half of their manipulative digits. Frankly, I’m not sure which is worse.

                Even those criminals who would agree with you in principle that heavy sentences deter them don’t take such principles into consideration when planning and carrying out their crimes.

                Worse, many of them do consider such deterrents…and decide that, if they get caught, their lives are over anyway, so why not go in with guns blazing? It increases their odds of getting away and doesn’t make the penalties any worse.

                And never mind the practicalities. Doesn’t the moral equation bother you in the slightest?

                Was Mengele justified in doing his horrific experiments on a limited number of people because it helped save the lives of a great many more?

                On what basis would you oppose me slaughtering you and roasting your carcass to feed the line at a homeless shelter? After all, just by taking your one single life, I could give hundreds a nutritious hot meal and all that goes with it.

                b&

              • Miles
                Posted July 11, 2011 at 11:34 am | Permalink

                I’m quite happy to make concessions to the argument that the sentencing scale should leave room for deterring a blaze of glory showdown with the police, but that’s not an objection to taking into account deterrent effects. It is merely one more item to take into account when sentencing.

                As for the difference in degree between taking someone’s hand and taking an eighth of the average modern lifespan, I note a few minor differences: time sentences can be adjusted both individually and generally should new evidence surface, time allows for a controlled environment facilitating reformation, and parole could mean much less time.

                As for cannibalism and medical experiments without consent, my main objection is victim selection. The arbitrariness of victim selection would undoubtedly be unfair to the victim and would spread fear in the population as a whole. Besides that kind of power is too much to put into the hands of any person or institution – the risk of abuse is way too high. Any one of these objections would likely more than suffice to outweigh any supposed benefit.

              • Posted July 11, 2011 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

                And the power to lock people in cages for decades at a time isn’t too much for any person or institution? And that power isn’t abused? And the benefit to society of incarcerating millions of non-violent drug offenders isn’t outweighed by the costs?

                Whatever….

                b&

              • Miles
                Posted July 11, 2011 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

                The justice system affords the accused the right to a trial by jury, to be decided by the facts of the case. And the laws are passed by a democracy of which all citizens are a part.

                I can’t see your medical experiments being authorized by a delegation of the people, nor have you suggested that such people would have the right to argue their case. The comparison doesn’t make sense.

              • Posted July 11, 2011 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

                So you would support jury penalties that included requiring prisoners to be subjected to medical experimentation?

                If so, that’s truly horrifying.

                b&

              • Miles
                Posted July 11, 2011 at 9:21 pm | Permalink

                If I were on the jury I would oppose involuntary medical experiments, and if I wasn’t I would try to reverse the policy through the proper democratic channels.

                Supporting the investiture of power in a ruling authority does not mean supporting every exercise of that power.

      • Bernard J. Ortcutt
        Posted July 11, 2011 at 8:52 am | Permalink

        There are a variety of justifications of punishment but they can be divided into the Consequentialist and Deontological varieties. The Consequentialist justifications derive from the public interest. So, (1) Deterrence and (2) Confinement, and (3) Rehabilitation are the classic Consequentialist justifications. But some people defend Deontological justifications as well. They argue that people deserve punishment simply in virtue of committing crimes (at least malum in se crimes). Deontologists don’t justify punishment on the basis of any purpose at all. They justify it based on the desert itself.

        • Miles
          Posted July 11, 2011 at 9:01 am | Permalink

          Deontology is wrong. Can the naturalistic community move past it already please?

          • Bernard J. Ortcutt
            Posted July 11, 2011 at 9:15 am | Permalink

            Why? Are you just going to go with bare denial or do you have an argument? Just as Sam Harris is a Consequentialist Moral Naturalist, someone can be a Deontological Moral Naturalist. There would be nothing unscientific or unnatural about it at all. You’re free to question whether their arguments are any good for their claims (as people have argued against Harris), but you can’t rule it out on naturalistic grounds.

            • Miles
              Posted July 11, 2011 at 9:52 am | Permalink

              Why should someone inherently deserve punishment for causing harm? If you hurt someone, do you have a moral duty to punish yourself, regardless of the consequences? If so, does that apply if you accidentally start a nuclear war and kill everyone else on the planet? In that case there really would be a deontological duty to punish oneself quite severely, but consequentially speaking, what point would it serve?

              Deontology is based on unfalsifiable essences and only serves to draw attention away from consequentialism which is all about things which manifestly exist: consequences. Deontology is merely an attempt to justify one’s prejudices and desires as moral using wishful thinking and faith, and it is exactly as silly as religion.

              • Bernard J. Ortcutt
                Posted July 11, 2011 at 10:10 am | Permalink

                I don’t understand why someone would think that Deontological justifications are any more or less problematic on naturalistic grounds than Consequentialist ones. No one denies that consequences exist, but the Consequentialist believes the consequences provide moral justification for punishment. That requires more than just believing in consequences. I can understand someone who rejects both Consequentialist and Deontological justification on Naturalistic grounds, e.g. an Error Theorist, but I fail to see how someone can think one is naturalistically OK but the other is deeply problematic. It is perfectly possible for someone to be a Deontological Moral Naturalist. No “essences” or spooky metaphysics necessary. I’m not saying they’re right, but it’s not ruled out on grounds of naturalism.

              • Miles
                Posted July 11, 2011 at 10:56 am | Permalink

                Given your example of deontological morality, some people deserve punishment, I don’t see how you can claim that deontology doesn’t involve essences. What is “inherently deserving punishment” if not an essential quality?

                A deontological argument goes something like this: “People deserve punishment for their crimes, so eye for an eye.” “No, people deserve punishment for disobeying god’s will as described in this book.” “No, people deserve punishment as a means to an end.”

                There is no method of resolving deontological disagreements other than flatly denying other people’s subjective beliefs. Consequentialism allows for disagreement based on the facts of the case and progress is achieved through empirical investigation into what the ends wills be, i.e. a science of morality.

                How is deontology not simply codifying moral intuitions and prejudices in an analogous way to theists unjustly elevating their beliefs beyond debate?

                Nor do I see why you disregard my example of the absurdity of deontology.

                Finally, moral skeptics generally oppose the existence of a universal morality or a moral compulsion to behave a certain way. But consequentialism is about ethics, not morality, so I don’t really see how the objection applies. In other words, consequentialism is about determining the optimal laws, societal practices, and individual behaviors for encouraging joy and alleviating suffering, and damn whether it’s moral or not.

    • Bernard J. Ortcutt
      Posted July 11, 2011 at 8:10 am | Permalink

      I don’t see how it’s any harder for a Compatibilist to be justify retributivist punishment than it would be for a Libertarian. A moral realist could believe that deserving punishment is a property that someone has simply in virtue of committing murder, rape, etc… regardless of any other justification.

      Considering it “bizarre and inhumane and counterproductive” is biography not argument. What arguments do you have that they are wrong? (I’m agnostic on this as I think the retributivists and anti-retributivists have both failed to prove anything.)

      But in any case, I fail to see how Compatibilism has anything to say about the justifications of punishment at all.

      • Posted July 11, 2011 at 8:39 am | Permalink

        “A moral realist could believe that deserving punishment is a property that someone has simply in virtue of committing murder, rape, etc… regardless of any other justification.”

        Of course the moral realist will be asked to provide reasons for this claim, it can’t just be asserted. About which, see Joshua Greene’s paper “The Secret Joke of Kant’s Soul,” in which he argues that “deontological judgments tend to be driven by emotional responses, and that deontological philosophy, rather than being grounded in moral reasoning, is to a large extent an exercise in moral rationalization,” http://www.wjh.harvard.edu/~jgreene/GreeneWJH/Greene-KantSoul.pdf

        I think retributivism is bizarre, inhumane and counterproductive since I don’t see any good reason to inflict suffering that isn’t tied to achieving desirable consequences that can’t be achieved non-punitively. The underlying principle is the humanitarian injunction to minimize unnecessary suffering; more at http://www.naturalism.org/criminal.htm

        • Bernard J. Ortcutt
          Posted July 11, 2011 at 9:08 am | Permalink

          Retributivists don’t try to justify retribution on consequential grounds, so I don’t see how that argument touches them in the least. Joshua Greene is badly missing the point if he thinks this has to do with consequentialist and deontological rationalizations. The question is whether people have the actual property of deserving punishment and in virtue or what, not about judgments about whether someone deserves punishment. He’s doing moral psychology when we were really asking about the moral facts. Moral psychology is great and all but it doesn’t directly answer the question about moral facts (if there are any).

          • Posted July 11, 2011 at 9:24 am | Permalink

            “The question is whether people have the actual property of deserving punishment and in virtue of what…”

            Right, and Greene argues that once you’ve given up on deontological accounts of desert, which he sees as simply rationalizations for our retributive urges, there’s no reason to suppose that people have the actual property of deserving punishment. In which case criminal justice should be consequentialist, not retributive.

            • Bernard J. Ortcutt
              Posted July 11, 2011 at 9:45 am | Permalink

              I’m willing to believe that as a matter of moral psychology that people who believe they are being purely rationalistic are motivated in part by emotions. I’ve always thought Kantians were more than a little delusional on that count. At best though, it means that a group of deontologists has a poor grasp of their own moral psychology. What does that tell us about moral facts (if there are any)? Nothing.

            • Nick B.
              Posted July 11, 2011 at 11:06 am | Permalink

              On Green’s view do people have the actual property of deserving anything? Can they deserve the opposite of punishment?

  8. Posted July 11, 2011 at 5:57 am | Permalink

    I suspect free will might merely be our brain’s way of giving up when faced with so many possible variables that it cannot deduce exactly why it made the decision it did.

  9. Sastra
    Posted July 11, 2011 at 6:03 am | Permalink

    I suspect the real issue regarding retributive punishment isn’t going to ultimately come down to whether or not you believe in free will (compatibilist; contra-causal), but whether or not you believe in essences — non-reducible, non-physical fundamental forms — and apply it to the concept of “self.” Things are what they are because they are that way; you are who you are because you are you and make the decisions you do from your nature. Essences do not develop or grow out of other things, nor do they change in reaction to environment. They are pure, and unencumbered by petty needs for analysis or nuance.

    Belief in essences is the result of the sloppy way our brains think and categorize. It underlies all forms of supernaturalist thinking.

    What would you be like if you’d been raised in a different environment, and had different parents, and a different body, and a different brain? The fact that this ludicrous question seems to make sense — you are still “you” and not someone else — is based on essentialist thinking. Educated people resist it; people who give in to their instinctive, intuitive tendencies do not. A criminal is what he is because he is, that’s all. If you don’t think YOU would have committed the crime under the same circumstances, then he shouldn’t have either. Evil must have been part of his nature, his essence.

    We punish bad essences because they are bad, just the way we throw out trash because it is trash. A simplified and simplistic view of reality allows people to sweep humanity into broad categories of good and evil, damning as many or as few as necessary, unconcerned with extraneous factors.

    • Jeanine
      Posted July 11, 2011 at 7:00 am | Permalink

      What would you be like if you’d been raised in a different environment, and had different parents, and a different body, and a different brain?

      This is a question I thought of often in my childhood. To me it seemed easy to suppose that my mind would still be recognizable no matter what vessel contained it. If much of our behavior is biologically predetermined, then wouldn’t a good portion of “you” still be “you” regardless of environment? Anyway, as I noted in a previous comment, this is all really difficult for me to follow.

      Regarding punishment – I can agree with much of your opinion intellectually, but emotionally it’s hard – especially the people who can do horrible things to babies/children – the woman who put her 2 week old daughter in the microwave for example – or the man who raped and beat his 8 DAY old daughter – no…I can’t have any sympathies for perpetrators of such horrific acts against helpless beings and my very shallow, knee-jerk response is to give a big thumbs up when proposed with the question of whether or not they should be “punished”. However, I am glad that there are people thinking about this – we CAN do better.

      • Kharamatha
        Posted July 12, 2011 at 3:44 am | Permalink

        Well, sure. But I think the important question here is: Do you believe that the punishment of that woman and that man would serve the purpose of satisfying your own rages, or do you believe that there is a thing inside of them that is labelled “Punishment Pending”, for the sake of “just because, that’s why”?

    • Miles
      Posted July 11, 2011 at 8:19 am | Permalink

      Sastra, I love this insight. Essences must be what religious people think the soul is.

    • Leigh Jackson
      Posted July 11, 2011 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

      “Belief in essences is the result of the sloppy way our brains think.”

      Andrew Shtulman says essentialist thinking is not sloppy thinking – it’s basic to how our minds work. It also poses a challenge to learning how evolution works. “Why People Do Not Understand Evolution” in the current issue of Skeptic. I recommend the article.

  10. Anthony Paul
    Posted July 11, 2011 at 6:06 am | Permalink

    Scientific studies of the basis for human behavior are relevant to punishment. I see no issue at all there. What we actually end up doing about punishment, if anything, and why, is another story.

    • jay
      Posted July 11, 2011 at 10:01 am | Permalink

      Agreed.

      Free will is not essential for punishment to work. Animals learn from painful experiences, about fire, about gravity, about thorns. This input modifies their subsequent behavior hopefully for the better.

      The same with punishment, it’s just an organized training structure. Even a completely deterministic organism or suitably designed machine can learn from bad experience… the smarter ones can learn from bad experiences of others.

      • Leigh Jackson
        Posted July 11, 2011 at 4:23 pm | Permalink

        There is truth in this, but in practice a fearful overkill is employed. Prisons are essentially dumping grounds for the wretched of the earth; the learning-from-experience is confined, I am quite certain, to a tiny proportion of criminals.

  11. Posted July 11, 2011 at 6:07 am | Permalink

    As the The Barefoot Bum argues, although with an odd conclusion, there is no evidence either way for the determinist picture – it is just a picture, an idea, that applies to everything. And freedom is an idea too, along with the (religious) idea of pure free will.

    What makes humans so interesting is that ideas are part of the causal network. That’s what parts of the brain are doing – using ideas. Ideas aren’t a fantasy or illusion because we made them up over the course of history, they are the foundation to human cultural life – and we’d better be careful what we do with them.

    The point about pre-determination that is so abhorant is that it is an idea that has a massive causal effect in the human system, an effect it takes no responsibility for, by its own terms.

    It makes people more passive, feel less responsible, and does not encourage courage, open mindedness, imagination, empathy, and all the things that make people better people.

    Whatever your system of justice, it has to embrace ideas of freedom, responsibility, and all the rest (as well as drawing a line when someone is brain damaged, of course). It has to engage with ideas of redemption, compassion, forgiveness, and punishment, in order to be truly human. If neuroscience undermines this, makes it something inhuman, then you’ve lost the point of justice.

    • Diane G.
      Posted July 13, 2011 at 2:09 am | Permalink

      “Like.” Very much.

  12. Posted July 11, 2011 at 6:19 am | Permalink

    In my book, retribution is every bit as criminal as armed robbery so you can feed your crack habit. It’s no more justifiable at the societal level than it is in preschoolers.

    I also think that threatening incarceration (or worse) as a means of deterrence is almost, but not quite, completely and totally ineffective. Education and a solid social support infrastructure are waaaaaay more effective at proactively reducing crime. There’s really no comparison.

    That leaves protecting society by removing criminals, which I wholeheartedly support as a first step, and rehabilitation. Once you grow up past wanting to kick Billy because he punched you, rehabilitation becomes blindingly obvious as the right thing to do. If you have a choice between spending resources on keeping somebody away from society and that person positively contributing to society…well, why is this even a question?

    Cheers,

    b&

    • Nick B.
      Posted July 11, 2011 at 6:47 am | Permalink

      And why do you think it is every bit as criminal?

      • Posted July 11, 2011 at 6:57 am | Permalink

        Retribution is hurting somebody else to make yourself feel better — nothing more. You’re cloaking yourself in the mantle of law to do exactly that which the law otherwise condemns.

        Would it not be criminal to go around raping people because it felt good? Shooting them just because you get a kick out of listening to them scream in agony? Hanging them because you think it’s funny the way they twitch their feet?

        Why is it that you suddenly get a free pass to do such things to somebody because they did it first?

        And that’s ignoring the whole question of false accusations and convictions. If you lock somebody up falsely, that’s bad enough. If you also give that person job training and the like, it’s not so bad.

        But torturing and murdering people?

        That’s what criminals do.

        Cheers,

        b&

    • Coel
      Posted July 11, 2011 at 6:56 am | Permalink

      “I also think that threatening incarceration (or worse) as a means of deterrence is almost, but not quite, completely and totally ineffective.”

      Just for the record, if society offered no punishment for robbing a bank, and simply delivered a lecture on why it was wrong and asked me to promise to be a good boy in future, then I’d go and rob a bank. Why wouldn’t I?

      • Posted July 11, 2011 at 7:03 am | Permalink

        You’re distorting my position.

        If you really would use violence or the threat of violence to steal money from a bank, a stern lecture would hardly be sufficient to keep you from doing it again, wouldn’t you agree?

        It may well be that you cannot be rehabilitated by current techniques sufficiently enough that your release would represent a net gain for society. Isolating you from society for a long time — the rest of your natural life, even — may well be the best method society has available (currently) to protect itself from you.

        That doesn’t mean we should give up on you completely, of course. Maybe new advances in psychiatry will some day give insights in the proper ways of treating sociopaths such as you.

        Cheers,

        b&

        • Coel
          Posted July 11, 2011 at 7:08 am | Permalink

          “Isolating you from society for a long time — the rest of your natural life, even — may well be the best method society has available (currently) to protect itself from you.”

          What’s the difference between that and “threatening incarceration (or worse) as a means of deterrence” which you declared “almost, but not quite, completely and totally ineffective.”?

          • Posted July 11, 2011 at 7:20 am | Permalink

            Frankly, I couldn’t give a damn whether or not fear of prison is what keeps you from expressing your sociopathic desires.

            The purpose of the incarceration is to keep a known sociopath (as demonstrated by the unjustifiable use of aggressive violence inherent in bank robbery) from having an opportunity to reoffend.

            If it has a side-effect of convincing you that you’d be better off not robbing the bank in the first place, all the better. But producing non-sociopath citizens is the job of the schools, not the prisons. Prisons are only for the failures, and should only exist as a last line of self-defense.

            b&

            • Coel
              Posted July 11, 2011 at 7:48 am | Permalink

              “Frankly, I couldn’t give a damn whether or not fear of prison is what keeps you from expressing your sociopathic desires.”

              Well you should, since it is a major purpose of the criminal system!

              “The purpose of the incarceration is to keep a known sociopath … from having an opportunity to reoffend.”

              And to deter. Leave bank robbing aside. If there were no penalty for violating speed limits, would more people violate them? If there were no penalty for fiddling ones tax returns, would more people fiddle them? If there were no penalty for shoplifting, would more people steal from shops?

              To me the answers are obviously “yes”, and that the deterrent effect of punishment is central and fundamental to human society. Sorry if that upsets your utopian view of things!

              • Posted July 11, 2011 at 7:58 am | Permalink

                If there were no penalty for violating speed limits, would more people violate them?

                Actually, no. And that makes perfect sense once you understand that speed limits are set by traffic engineers determining what the 85th percentile speed is for a given stretch of road and then making that the limit.

                If there were no penalty for fiddling ones tax returns, would more people fiddle them?

                Our self-reporting income tax system is so royally fucked up that there’s no point in even starting on this one.

                If there were no penalty for shoplifting, would more people steal from shops?

                Ask all those stores that have self-checkout machines. They sure seem to think not.

                Sorry if that upsets your utopian view of things!

                And I’m sorry that the only reason you’re not a threat to society is because you perceive society to be a threat to you. Most of the rest of us are too busy building up society to think about how we can tear it down.

                b&

              • Coel
                Posted July 11, 2011 at 8:19 am | Permalink

                “Ask all those stores that have self-checkout machines. They sure seem to think not.”

                No, such stores are only calculating that savings on staff time are greater than the losses from increased shoplifting. None of those shops has declared that anyone is welcome to steal from them with no penalty.

              • Posted July 11, 2011 at 8:36 am | Permalink

                Oh, so naïve.

                Stores that used to have one cashier and a half a bagger per half-dozen checkout lines now have one person to check IDs for alcohol purchases and help others with trouble.

                Before, it’d be the bagger getting, say $8 / hour and the cashiers getting $12 / hour. As a good rule of thumb, double the employee’s pay to get to the company’s additional expenses (taxes, insurances, training, and the like). So, we used to have ($8 * 2 * 3) + ($12 * 2 * 6) = $192 / hour, as opposed to $24 / hour now. Consider the reduced managerial overhead as well, and you’re probably looking at close to $200 / hour in personnel cost savings.

                Do you really think people are shoplifting to the rate of anything even vaguely close to $200 / hour in those stores?

                I suppose if you’re a shoplifter yourself — and, the way you’re defending sociopaths in the thread, it wouldn’t surprise me all that much — that might make sense to you, based on extrapolation.

                But the fact of the matter remains that the overwhelming majority of the population realizes that the penalty for shoplifting isn’t incarceration — that really, truly is just for the clueless and antisocial idiots we haven’t figured out how to deal with otherwise.

                No, the real penalty for shoplifting is other people being happy to steal from us if we’re happy to steal from them; the store going out of business because everybody steals from them (and therefore we can’t shop(lift) there ourselves any more and the store’s employees themselves becoming desperate); and transforming our own self-images from that of productive members of society to parasitic scum.

                In other words, the real reason people don’t steal is that they’ve grown out of the Terrible Twos.

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Coel
                Posted July 11, 2011 at 8:51 am | Permalink

                “Do you really think people are shoplifting to the rate of anything even vaguely close to $200 / hour in those stores?”

                No I don’t — and that’s because society will punish, condemn and disapprove of those that do.

              • Posted July 11, 2011 at 8:59 am | Permalink

                If you really think that fear of punishment is the only thing that compels people to be civil, then I both pity and fear you.

                For the fact of the matter remains that the overwhelming majority of people understand quite well why crime is bad, and personal fear of the long arm of the law is so low on that list that it’s not even on their radar.

                It’s also the case that those whose only motive for not committing crimes is to avoid punishment represent a depressingly significant portion of the criminals in our society.

                What can I do to persuade you to consider of the consequences of your actions beyond the next five minutes?

                b&

              • Coel
                Posted July 11, 2011 at 9:13 am | Permalink

                “If you really think that fear of punishment is the only thing that compels people to be civil, then I both pity and fear you.”

                Not the only thing, no, but social disapproval and punishment are still huge factors in conditioning human attitudes.

                “For … the overwhelming majority of people … fear of the long arm of the law is … not even on their radar.”

                I think you’re judging how things are in a society with a large and long-running degree of disapproval and punishment for anti-social behaviour, and thus failing to consider how things would be if those things were absent.

                “What can I do to persuade you to consider of the consequences of your actions beyond the next five minutes?”

                That’s a baffling question! The whole point of what I’m saying is that we *do* consider the consequences of our actions, in terms of societal disapproval and punishment, and our attitudes are heavily conditioned by that!

              • Posted July 11, 2011 at 9:20 am | Permalink

                The whole point of what I’m saying is that we *do* consider the consequences of our actions, in terms of societal disapproval and punishment, and our attitudes are heavily conditioned by that!

                And my point is that it’s only sociopaths who’re “heavily conditioned” by “the consider[ation of] the consequences of our actions, in terms of societal disapproval and punishment.”

                For the overwhelming majority of us who aren’t sociopaths, there are far more reasons of much greater significance that keep us from even considering criminal behavior in the first place.

                b&

              • Coel
                Posted July 11, 2011 at 9:31 am | Permalink

                I think you have too utopian a view of human nature, ignoring the “tragedy of the commons” that self-interest can cause actions that harm the greater good.

                In such ways, enough people will continue to take fish, because they individually benefit, even if such fishing is driving the fish to extinction.

                This can only be countered by agreed restrictions backed by societal disapproval and sanction for violators. Merely telling people that the fish are going extinct and expecting them all to individually desist doesn’t work (at least, not sufficiently well).

              • Posted July 11, 2011 at 9:44 am | Permalink

                <sigh />

                Such situations only arise when once-plentiful resources turn scarce, and, again, it’s the realization that people are harming themselves that drives them to make the agreements in the first place and stick to them — not the fear of the warlord’s goon squads.

                I mean, really. Do you honestly think that all law and justice is derived from the threats of the powerful? Just how do you think these people in positions of power got to be powerful in the first place? Single combat cage fights?

                b&

              • Coel
                Posted July 11, 2011 at 10:09 am | Permalink

                “… it’s the realization that people are harming themselves that drives them to make the agreements in the first place and stick to them …”

                I think we’re going to have to agree to disagree. I think that peer disapproval and societal sanction are a powerful part of ensuring that people keep to collective agreements.

                You seem to ignore that people are social beings and that “reputation” and other aspects of our interactions with our fellows are very important to us.

                “I mean, really. Do you honestly think that all law and justice is derived from the threats of the powerful?”

                No, I’d think that peer-disapproval and peer-imposed sanction are as important as that of tribal leaders. Of course tribal leaders can only be leaders with the consent of the led.

              • Miles
                Posted July 11, 2011 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

                Ben Goren

                Just how do you think these people in positions of power got to be powerful in the first place? Single combat cage fights?

                Competition breeds ruthlessness. Politicians and CEOs are selfish to the point of being functional psychopaths.

                Coel

                I think that peer disapproval and societal sanction are a powerful part of ensuring that people keep to collective agreements.

                I agree.

            • Diane G.
              Posted July 13, 2011 at 2:45 am | Permalink

              But producing non-sociopath citizens is the job of the schools, not the prisons.

              Afraid I mostly disagree; perhaps the schools can be of some help, but IMO it’s the family & socio-economic milieus that kids are born into that play an exponentially larger role in kid-outcomes. (And possibly genes. Because sociopaths can appear in “the best families.”) As awful as it is to contemplate, I’m afraid a fair number of kids are lost before they ever reach kindergarten.

              And I love ya, Ben, and so wish I believed in your assertion that people ultimately reason themselve into morality; but that does not appear to me to be the case. I have not seen a lot of evidence indicating that a large proportion of a given populace ever reaches that plane.

              (See “Montreal Police Riot:”

              http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,840236,00.html )

              • Posted July 13, 2011 at 6:42 am | Permalink

                While I agree with you that the current most common source of malcontents is dysfunctional families, I would argue that the schools are also the largest single factor in preventing widespread…um…malcontentism.

                Imagine for a moment if schools everywhere — public and private — were suddenly shut down, for an entire generation. What would the ratio of productive citizens to violent parasites look like then?

                It’s akin to infectious diseases. Currently, most infections result from poor hygiene of one sort or another, but that’s only because vaccines and antibiotics have wiped out the 90% of other sources. We take vaccines and antibiotics for granted, as we do universal public education…but a quick observations of those parts of the world that lack such modern amenities should be all that’s necessary to remind ourselves of why we are where we are today.

                As for the Montreal Police Riot? I think the final few sentences of that Time article make my point perfectly:

                On Montreal’s Black Tuesday, however, it was a relatively small band of thugs, militant students and separatists that caused most of the damage. Only when the looting began did other, less committed opportunists join in. Ordinary citizens amused themselves chiefly by running red lights—but nothing more.

                We need police and a criminal justice system, unquestionably. But we only need them to protect society against the exceptions. For the overwhelming majority of people, it wouldn’t even occur to us to join in the looting.

                Those red light runners? After the first crash they learn about (or probably sooner), the worst they’ll do is treat the red light as a stop sign. It’s not the fear of a ticket that prevents people from running red lights, but an understanding that the rules of the road are there to prevent wrecks, and that following those rules is good self-defense even (especially!) when others around them aren’t following them.

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Diane G.
                Posted July 14, 2011 at 2:21 am | Permalink

                Imagine for a moment if schools everywhere — public and private — were suddenly shut down, for an entire generation. What would the ratio of productive citizens to violent parasites look like then?

                It would depend on what the parents were like. Societies have universal public education because the citizenry–which also constitutes the ‘parent-ry’–desire it. This is sorta a chicken-&-egg question…

                For the overwhelming majority of people, it wouldn’t even occur to us to join in the looting.

                But it does sort of validate the effectiveness of deterrence…

                I wish I shared your optimism. Unfortunately I have no trouble coming up with examples among fairly close acquaintances of people who will cut every corner they can and rationalize gaming the system because they can get away with it, “everybody does it,” etc. I see morality as a sort of day-to-day thing; we get small opportunities to demonstrate it (or not), and they show our character. Get too much change back by accident? Point it out to the cashier. But I know way too many people who think, “wow, I got lucky!” I tell my kids that very few of us are going to get the opportunity to run into a burning building and rescue someone; everyone thinks they would be a hero in dramatic circumstances, but it’s the day-to-day minutia that show our true natures…

                (And this disagreement may be merely a glass-half-full/half-empty thing. [Gawd, am I trite today.] We uber-cynics are just very sad idealists at heart.)

              • Posted July 14, 2011 at 5:01 pm | Permalink

                I think it very much is a half-glass thing.

                I’d like to think that it wouldn’t take too much cheating for even your acquaintances with antisocial tendencies to realize that they’re not acting in their own self-interests by doing so.

                Just look at the social dynamics of drunk driving have changed over the past few decades. Yes, law enforcement and penalties have stepped up, but it’s also gone from something that people used to brag about to something that people are ashamed to admit. That’s social evolution in action, and purely the enlightenment of self interests.

                Cheers,

                b&

        • Posted July 11, 2011 at 8:06 am | Permalink

          @ Ben

          Where is your sympathy for the victim’s family? Say our imaginary bank robber happens to kill a clerk. He is incarcerated and eventually rehabilitated so that he will be a “net gain” for society. Tough shit for the victim’s family? Do they just need to get over their desire for vengeance in your opinion?

          I don’t mean to straw man your argument but I’m very unclear on your stance at the moment. I haven’t read your book so I am unsure if this is addressed there.

          Andrew

          • Posted July 11, 2011 at 8:22 am | Permalink

            You have two problems with your reasoning.

            First, what do the victims gain aside from satiation of their blood lust? And how is that blood lust any different from the one that resulted in their own victimization?

            Second, you’re falling victim to the sunk costs fallacy. The damage is already done. Yes, “tough shit” — because there’s no other option. As my dad says, you can’t un-ring a bell.

            I’m also reminded of the First Rule of Holes. Remember, it doesn’t matter whether or not you were the one to dig the hole in the first place!

            b&

            • Posted July 11, 2011 at 9:24 am | Permalink

              At the risk of getting further off topic.
              First, I think it would prevent mental anguish to the victim’s family. I think you may feel that the family’s anguish at seeing their son/daughter/wife/husband/child’s murderer walk away free (he has truly been rehabilitated) < the murderer’s physical well being. I respectfully disagree. I think the murderer’s right to life is forfeit once he has forfeited the victim’s right to life. Just as my freedom to move my fist ends at someone else’s body or property.
              As to the difference, are we not here to argue that environmental circumstances can influence behavior? Just as we assign different amounts of blame to someone who steals for greed versus someone who steals to feed their starving kids. I assign more blame to the murderer’s bloodlust than I do for the family’s bloodlust which was caused by the former’s actions
              Second, my sunk costs fallacy. “If it has a side-effect of convincing you that you’d be better off not robbing the bank in the first place, all the better.” I think you were leaving out the pay off of deterrence. I get from your other posts that you mostly don’t believe deterrence works and again I respectfully disagree. I suppose you don’t do much highway driving. Many people will regularly go 5 or 10mph over, then slow down as soon as they see a cop. If not to prevent themselves from getting a ticket why would they do this?
              Andrew
              @Miles
              I believe this is directed at me. I have no objection to this, and as such I’m for the death penalty in cases of malicious murder. As a member of society I can vote for my belief’s until I see evidence to change them.

              • Posted July 11, 2011 at 9:32 am | Permalink

                Sorry I copied from word and that mess wasn’t supposed to come out as a wall of text, my apologies.

                Andrew

              • Posted July 11, 2011 at 9:50 am | Permalink

                You’re missing a sense of proportionality.

                Chopping off the hands of first offenders will reduce the rates of petty theft, yes. But the long-term cost to society far outweighs the short-term benefits to the shopkeeper.

                The same is true of executions.

                And it’s for similar reasons that crimes are committed against the state, not the individual. When criminals were expected to pay restitution to the victims, they wound up becoming the chattel property of their victims — and slavery is powerfully toxic to any society, no matter the short-term justifications claimed.

                b&

              • Miles
                Posted July 11, 2011 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

                Owing the victims a debt is debt slavery, which is quite distinct from chattel slavery in that debtors historically have had more rights than cows, like the ability to buy their freedom.

                Ben, first you made rampant and misplaced accusations of sociopathy, now you’re confusing debt slavery with chattel slavery. I can’t help but see a pattern of self-righteous polemic playing out. Refusing to recognize gradations of evil may mollify your own senses, but it neither facilitates in communicating your ideas nor convincing others in the long run. It’s a shame too, cause you do have many good ideas.

              • Miles
                Posted July 11, 2011 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

                Not to mention you are failing to take into account the full effects of crime as well, Ben. Theft erodes trust, it causes merchants to require more security and pass on the costs to their customers, it makes people afraid and less empathetic, it reduces willingness to cooperate with others on the individual level and at the international level and every level in between, and when you eliminate cooperation you are left with competition which further breeds ruthlessness.

              • Posted July 11, 2011 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

                Wait.

                Are you somehow arguing that chattel slavery and debt slavery exist independently? Or that the one isn’t as bad as the other? Or that either isn’t somehow utterly abhorrent?

                As to your second reply, the only conclusion I can draw is that you think the plebes aren’t able to come to such conclusions themselves and must be beaten into submission. I thought such imperialistic notions had died out with the Enlightenment, but I guess not.

                b*

              • Miles
                Posted July 11, 2011 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

                Chattel slavery is obviously worse than debt slavery… Having your wages garnished to pay off your loans is not nearly as bad as having the obligation to work for a master with the right to whip you and beat you.

                Oh please, fleshing out the countervailing point to a one sided argument does not make me an apologist for the aristocracy or imperialism or whatever.

              • Posted July 11, 2011 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

                Do you really think debt slaves ever manage to work off the debt?

                Do you really think the slavemasters only whip and beat their chattel slaves and would never think to mistreat their debt slaves?

                Do you really think the slavemasters or the slaves give a flying fuck as to how the slave wound up in the stable?

                If so, you are completely clueless about the most basic facts of slavery in both historical and modern times.

                b&

              • Miles
                Posted July 11, 2011 at 9:11 pm | Permalink

                The Roman slave system was set up in such a way that slaves could generally expect to earn their freedom. Slavery in the U.S. was not. There is a great deal of variety in historical slave systems, with some systems affording slaves more rights than others.

                If you count the modern system of debt collection in America as slavery, then it is a very mild system of debt slavery historically speaking, as debtors are often able to pay off their debt and are not allowed to be whipped.

              • Posted July 12, 2011 at 9:38 am | Permalink

                Oh, wow. A slavery apologist. In this day and age.

                Unbefuckinglievable.

                b&

              • Miles
                Posted July 12, 2011 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

                Distinguishing between gradations of evil does not mean I am attempting to justify that evil – only introduce some perspective. Kinda like how petty theft is not as bad as murder does not imply that petty theft is OK.

                The only reason I didn’t waste space condemning slavery was that I thought that went without saying. Could you please attempt to interpret other people charitably for a change?

          • Miles
            Posted July 11, 2011 at 8:34 am | Permalink

            Justice is served when an offender has paid their debt to society. That debt is decided by the state in the U.S., not the family of the victims.

            • Miles
              Posted July 11, 2011 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

              Eh, I shouldn’t have made that argument. It tugs on the heart strings a bit, but it’s not really true. A truer argument, though with less pathos, would look something like the following:

              What point does vengeance serve? There is no justice, no moral debt, only better or worse outcomes, progress or regress. The past is done and we must move on.

              • Posted July 11, 2011 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

                I would like to clarify my view. I was answering to Ben’s view that there should be no vengeance/punishment. To me, putting a person in jail for x years for committing crime z IS vengeance/punishment, and we should have this. Justice is what we as a society agrees are acceptable forms of punishment/vengeance for behavior. I was not trying to advocate for the victim’s family (or anyone else) to take the law into their own hands.

                What point does vengeance serve? Depends on your definition of justice, as I defined it societal vengeance is justice. The rest of your post I’m not sure I understand. While we should strive to forgive in all cases that is often far easier said than done.

                Andrew

              • Posted July 11, 2011 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

                Incarceration is punitive, to be sure, but that’s a bug, not a feature.

                If we had a less onerous method of achieving the same goals (protecting society and rehabilitating the criminally sick), we should latch on to that method in a heartbeat.

                In some cases, we do. Different kinds of therapies, community service projects, and the like, have proven effective in certain circumstances. In others, even the general prison population must be protected from the worst of the worst.

                It’s a judgement call, which is why we have judges, juries, and prison review boards.

                b&

              • Miles
                Posted July 11, 2011 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

                Red,

                If justice is societal vengeance, then that just shifts the question to what point does justice serve? I don’t care about justice, I care about more happy, less sad.

                Ben,

                You keep telling me that punishment should be avoided, but you haven’t addressed the argument that punishment of wrongdoing acts as a deterrent. Put up some evidence to the contrary if you disagree, please.

              • Posted July 11, 2011 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

                Oh, I fully acknowledge that there are at least some deterrent effects of punishment, though I suspect it’s rather less effective than you seem to think it is.

                My point is that the costs of punishment are substantial and to be avoided if at all possible.

                Amputation is 100% effective at eliminating hangnails, yet I’m sure you’d agree that said effectiveness is perfectly irrelevant to a discussion of nail care.

                As a more relevant example, amputation is sometimes called for in the treatment of gangrene, yet it’s still something to avoid if at all possible. Just because we don’t have anything better (at the moment) doesn’t mean that we should welcome amputation unreservedly or that we shouldn’t seek alternatives that are less harmful.

                Or is it your position that punishment is somehow desirable…?

                b&

              • Miles
                Posted July 11, 2011 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

                Google “Public goods games with punishment”

                Some interesting game theory about how punishment is a bad idea for maximizing self profit, but when humans actually participate, the empirical data shows that punishment encourages group cooperation far better than rewards do. Something to do with how we are irrational beings that thrive on punishment I guess o.0

              • Posted July 11, 2011 at 4:26 pm | Permalink

                I think the benefit of social justice/vengeance is that it is perceived as “fair.” People want to be in a society that the think is fair. That includes punishing people who break the law and helping those who can’t help themselves.

                Andrew

      • Jamie
        Posted July 11, 2011 at 9:15 am | Permalink

        Would you also steal candy from a baby? And if not, what are the differences between robbing a bank and robbing a baby?

        • Coel
          Posted July 11, 2011 at 10:00 am | Permalink

          The benefit of the candy would not outweigh the guilt and self-dislike I’d feel taking it from a baby. However, the benefit of $5M would outweigh the guilt I’d feel taking it from a large bank.

          • Posted July 11, 2011 at 10:06 am | Permalink

            So, you wouldn’t steal candy from a baby, but you’d steal millions of dollars from thousands of parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and siblings of babies?

            How utterly reprehensible.

            Have you no shame?

            Just who the hell do you think that money in the bank belongs to? Scrooge McDuck?

            You really are a sociopath. You don’t give a flying fuck about anybody but yourself, and the rest of society is nothing more nor less than something to exploit as best you can.

            You belong behind bars for certain, because there’s nothing of significance preventing you from doing terrible things to innocent people for no good reason whatsoever.

            b&

            • Miles
              Posted July 11, 2011 at 10:18 am | Permalink

              Again, laws don’t just have to measure up to the standard of “Would it dissuade me?” They have to measure up to “Would it dissuade everybody or close enough to everybody?”

              I’d say $5 million is enough to distract many people from the harm they committed plus enough leftover personal benefit for them to rationalize their personal risks in a no punishment justice system. We aren’t arguing for harsh punishments, merely some appropriate room for punishment in the sentencing equation.

            • Coel
              Posted July 11, 2011 at 10:21 am | Permalink

              “Have you no shame?”

              Yes I do, but $5M on the other side of the scales might tip the balance!

              “You really are a sociopath. You don’t give a flying fuck about anybody but yourself, …”

              Actually, that’s the opposite of what I’m saying. I’m saying that the reaction (disapproval and punishment) of my fellows is a very large part (aka deterrence) of why I would not do such acts.

              It is *not* just a rational calculation of long-term self-interest, it is more about being a socially conditioned and socially evolved human being.

              Imagine a society where people genuinely didn’t disapprove of or want to punish behaviour such as bank robbing. Obviously such a society could not function long.

              And that is why we have evolved to have social emotions such that we desire the approval of our fellows, and why we as humans disapprove of and want to punish those who transgress collective rules, and why we are thus deterred from actions that would attract disapproval or punishment.

              Thus deterrence and threats of disapproval and punishment are essential glues of human society.

              • Posted July 11, 2011 at 10:33 am | Permalink

                So, you’d deprive thousands of people of their life’s savings for $5M for yourself, driving them into lives of poverty, hunger, and desperation — and you’d do it with a smile.

                How many people would you rape, torture, and / or murder for $5M? Or would you want $10M for that job? Maybe we could cut a deal?

                See, that’s the difference between you and the overwhelming majority of people in society. No amount of money could get us to do anything like that to somebody else, no matter the so-called “reward.”

                Not only is there no desire to do so in the first place, but there’s the understanding that the only way to live in a society where people don’t go around thieving, raping, and murdering is by not being the ones going around thieving, raping, and murdering in the first place.

                For the sake of the rest of society, I really, really, really hope you learn that lesson for yourself before you take an opportunity when you don’t think you’ll get caught.

                b&

              • Coel
                Posted July 11, 2011 at 10:51 am | Permalink

                “So, you’d deprive thousands of people of their life’s savings for $5M for yourself, driving them into lives of poverty, hunger, and desperation — and you’d do it with a smile.”

                Well no, robbing a large bank of $5M would not deprive anyone of their life savings, it would deprive lots of people of a couple of bucks each. And I wouldn’t do it with a smile, I’d do it feeling somewhat guilty.

                “See, that’s the difference between you and the overwhelming majority of people in society.”

                I find your faith in people quite touching! Are you really suggesting that, in the scenario we are discussing, where society prescribes no punishment at all for the above bank-robbing, and thus where there is no deterrent, that a large number of people would not try it?

              • Posted July 11, 2011 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

                So, now that we’re haggling over price, what’s yours?

                Would you rob $1m from a local credit union?

                How about that guy on the subway in the $1,000 suit — would you steal his wallet while he’s distracted with that phone call about the Jennings merger? I’m sure he can afford it.

                And what about Bernie Madoff? After all, he only defrauded rich people of their capital investment funds. I’m sure you don’t have any beef with what he did, since it’s exactly what you’d do in a heartbeat given the same opportunity.

                Are you really suggesting that, in the scenario we are discussing, where society prescribes no punishment at all for the above bank-robbing, and thus where there is no deterrent, that a large number of people would not try it?

                Do you have any idea how many people (accountants, programmers, managers) are in theoretical positions where they could embezzle on a massive scale with far less risk than the idiots going into bank branches with guns blazing but don’t?

                Yes, there are ample opportunities for people to steal millions and retire to a life of luxury in a banana republic somewhere, virtually risk-free. They don’t try it because, fundamentally, they’re far more interested in building things than cannibalizing them.

                b&

            • Miles
              Posted July 11, 2011 at 11:04 am | Permalink

              Also, sociopaths actually want to hurt people/society; psychopaths merely don’t care; selfish altruists (the vast majority of people) balance their own interests against society’s interests though they want to help both; and pure altruists only care about society without a thought for themselves.

              Of course, these are labels are more of a slope than a series of distinct levels, but could you please reserve the label “sociopath” for actual sociopaths and not use it indiscriminately on any selfish act?

    • Miles
      Posted July 11, 2011 at 8:53 am | Permalink

      Just wanted to say I’m with you on most fronts: schools are the first line of defense, not prisons; rehabilitation should be the primary* purpose of prison, not punishment as a means of deterrence; and I presume (though you weren’t explicit about this) that you agree that the legal system should be concerned solely with reducing harm, not with imprisoning nonviolent drug offenders.

      *Is there any role for deterrence? It’s not just the fear of punishment, it is the sense of fairness, the sense that one isn’t being played for a fool when one follows the rules religiously and everyone else just ignores them, like with jaywalking. I think deterrence should be low on the list of priorities, but surely it has some influence?

      Consider the bank robbery example above: if there wasn’t much punishment for bank robberies where nobody got hurt, surely enough people would rob banks that it would make a mockery of the justice system, and before you know it people who otherwise wouldn’t consider it would think, “Well if everyone else is doing it, why not? I’m being left out.”

      Then again, that’s just a what if question really. I don’t have enough experience with criminal justice systems to say how much crime is driven by desperation and how much is driven by greed and lack of concern for others. Need moar data!

      • Posted July 11, 2011 at 9:07 am | Permalink

        Though I don’t partake, myself, I vehemently oppose punishment of non-violent drug use. (Operating a motor vehicle while impaired is reckless endangerment and should be treated as such, of course.)

        Think through the consequences of widespread bank theft a bit further. How long would it be before you yourself withdrew all your money because you didn’t trust the bank to keep it safe?

        Now that you’ve got your money under your mattress, what’re you going to do to protect it there?

        Doesn’t the benefit of trusting the bank to protect people’s money outweigh any short-term gains you might get from abusing that trust?

        If only a small minority agreed with you on that matter, wouldn’t you pool your resources with them — and, in so doing, outcompete the lawless hordes raping and pillaging each other?

        And, hey-presto, we’re right back where we started: a healthy society dominated by trust, not two-year-olds who lack impulse control.

        Cheers,

        b&

        • Jamie
          Posted July 11, 2011 at 9:25 am | Permalink

          There’s another way to look at this. Since ‘robbing a bank’ is just a proxy for ‘living the good life,’ what’s at issue is whether the good life is a scarce resource or not. Once people achieve a good life, motivation for bank robbing dissipates. Your bank robber may not be the sociopath you claim him to be. He may simply be someone who has been excluded from achieving the good life in a more acceptable manner. If the good life is a scarce resource, there will always be bank robbers. It may be the bankers, not the bank robbers who are the sociopaths.

          • Posted July 11, 2011 at 9:53 am | Permalink

            Of course, many of the greatest crimes in history have been white-collar crimes. And we haven’t figured out a very good way to deal with them, yet — just look at the current financial meltdown.

            But, whatever the solution may be, it most emphatically is not holding a gun to a teller’s head.

            Cheers,

            b&

        • Miles
          Posted July 11, 2011 at 10:10 am | Permalink

          The benefit to society of trusting the bank to protect people’s money surely outweighs any short-term gains to society from abusing that trust, but I am not society, I am an individual.

          Unless I am already fairly well off, it seems absurd to proclaim that tens of thousands of dollars in my pocket is outweighed by the cost to my person of a less efficient banking system and if caught, confinement and anger management classes in reasonably nice accommodations until I convince my captors I am no longer a threat.

          In other words, until poverty is cured a significant portion of the population would see a divorce of personal and societal interests if punishment as a deterrent were abandoned completely.

          • Posted July 11, 2011 at 10:35 am | Permalink

            I am not society, I am an individual.

            If ever there were a clearer, more succinct definition of the term, “sociopath,” I’ve yet to encounter it.

            b&

            • Miles
              Posted July 11, 2011 at 11:42 am | Permalink

              Clearly you don’t understand the definition of sociopath, though how you can fail to see that individual consciousness does not see with the eyes of all individuals in a society is perplexing to me. Surely, you’re not that stupid? Are you speaking in some deep metaphor that I don’t understand? Are you trying to make the point that individuals are part of a society? Cause I don’t dispute that; I am merely recognizing that I am not the whole society, nor can I feel what the whole society feels. I can forgo my own interest to pursue the interest of society as a whole, but to deny that I have a separate, unique interest in the first place is madness.

              Ok, fine. I can kind of see if your material self-interest overrides your physical self-interest and aligns with the interest of society as a whole, but even in that case you have a material interest in your own well being that is distinct from society’s. How the frak is that sociopathic?

              • Posted July 11, 2011 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

                My dictionary defines the term as, “a person with a personality disorder manifesting itself in extreme antisocial attitudes and behavior and a lack of conscience.”

                Somebody who considers himself apart from society is the ultimate expression of antisocial.

                b&

              • Miles
                Posted July 11, 2011 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

                “Antisocial” being the key word, not “asocial.” Sociopaths are not merely unconcerned with the interests of society, they actively seek to destroy society as an end in and of itself.

                Accepting that you are a part of society, but not the whole is all I have tried to get you to do. You are not the organism named society, you are but one piece of it, and you have an independent will. Some of the individuals in society will be antisocial, some asocial, and many with divided allegiances between their self interest and societal interest.

              • Posted July 11, 2011 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

                Of course individuals have their own interests. And it is a civic duty to use whatever influence you have to mold society to your liking as best you can.

                But it is antisocial in the utmost to express separation or a divide from society.

                We are all society. That’s the ever essence of the concept.

                b&

  13. Ludo
    Posted July 11, 2011 at 6:31 am | Permalink

    It is (I think) useless and futile to speak about ‘free will” as some sort of absolute and separate mental power. Is it not much more appropriate to use “freedom of choice” instead? And this our freedom of choice varies with circumstances which are biologically, socio-biologically, medically, economically, socially, culturally, politically and historically determined. So our individual amount or degree of freedom of choice is determined (created and limited) by lots of different factors acting together, and acting differently on individual persons and on collectives or groups of people. Good health, good education, good socialization, good economics, and good politics are necessary conditions to ensure a reasonable degree of freedom of choice. And what is a ‘reasonable degree’? That also is a variable – the continually varying outcome of a never-ending debate among individual people and groups of people (political and cultural organizations, nations, academic and non-academic collectives, trade unions, lobbies, artists, writers – and so on, and so on.)
    I do not think that there exist any absolute or objective norms to judge criminal actions of individuals (or collectives) – we just do our best (I hope) by compromising and improvising and trying to reach satisfactory consensuses.

  14. Coel
    Posted July 11, 2011 at 6:37 am | Permalink

    “But that doesn’t end the discussion of determinism versus nondeterminism of human behavior, because one’s view on that question has profound implications for whether and how we punish people.”

    Personally I think it doesn’t actually have profound implications for punishing people. A lot of what we state as our justifications is merely a superficial rationalisation for attitudes that are deeper and biological and are essentially pragmatic (having been programmed by evolution, which cares only for the pragmatics, not for philosophy).

    I’d bet that two people taking opposite stances on the above question would still pretty much agree on what to do with criminals (even if their stated rationalisations might differ).

    • Coel
      Posted July 11, 2011 at 6:44 am | Permalink

      “Is there anyone here who thinks that scientific studies of the basis of human behavior are irrelevant to punishment?”

      So that’s a yes from me, at least largely irrelevant.

      • Miles
        Posted July 11, 2011 at 9:33 pm | Permalink

        Interesting. Is that a descriptive or proscriptive yes, though? In other words, would you like to see societal rewards and punishments better tailored to the latest scientific understanding of human nature, and why?

        • Coel
          Posted July 12, 2011 at 7:47 am | Permalink

          See post 33 (Lotharloo) for what I mean. Our attitudes to punishment are empirical and pragmatic. We hold misbehaviour against someone because doing so works. We don’t hold it against the mentally ill because doing so doesn’t work and is thus pointless (in the Basil Fawlty thrashing a car sense).

          The above holds regardless of one’s stance on freewill, and no finding of neuroscience is likely to overturn it (since it is empirical and pragmatic). That’s why I don’t regard the “freewill” debate as being important for our judicial system.

          Also, these attitudes will have been programmed into us over our evolutionary past. There is an anecdote about chimpanzees (in a de Waal book if I remember) where an alpha male tolerated bad behaviour by a mentally deficient juvenile, when any other juvenile in the group would have been punished severly.

  15. Dominic
    Posted July 11, 2011 at 6:40 am | Permalink

    I am reminded of the brown bears of Romania. Bear with me… I seem to recall that the only person privileged to hunt them was the dictator Ceaușescu. He had bears hand reared but they were too friendly to humans but were a nuisance to people and unable to fend for themseolves so died. as a consequence he had a new batch of bears, reared on meat only, that were beaten by the people who raised them. surprise surprise, these bears were extremely agressive. as with bears so with people. There will be a natural variation in behaviour – passive, aggressive curious, friendly curious, etc, but this will be exaggerated by the development when young. Once the plastic period of youth is over, when any animal is mature, it is very hard to change what has become ‘hard-wired’ I would say.

  16. SAWells
    Posted July 11, 2011 at 6:40 am | Permalink

    I do love being told that we should think and act differently, because our thoughts and actions are inevitable and predetermined.

    • Posted July 11, 2011 at 6:53 am | Permalink

      Determined by what?

      Our previous experiences, values, preferences, BELIEFS, IDEAS, etc.

      Jerry is arguing for the IDEA that we should adjust the way we punish given our growing understanding about human behavior. If you find that IDEA to be reasonable, you’ll CHANGE your thoughts and actions, too.

      Christ why is this so hard for people to get?

      • SAWells
        Posted July 12, 2011 at 2:39 am | Permalink

        I get it perfectly, thank you. I expressed amusement, not incomprehension. Get over yourself.

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted July 11, 2011 at 7:36 am | Permalink

      Well, I had no choice–it was predetermined that I write this post today. Nevertheless, that action COULD change your feelings or behavior, for my words constitute an incursion into your neurons.

      Thinking about this stuff too long, well, that way lies madness.

      🙂

      • Posted July 11, 2011 at 9:59 am | Permalink

        It was determined that you’d choose to write this, but that choice-making process is just as real as what determined you to engage in it. You had a choice in a very real sense, in that no one compelled you to write what you did; your choice arose out of your own character and desires. But of course if you take determinism as equivalent to compulsion (which it seems you’re determined to do), you’ll continue to claim you didn’t have a choice, even though that choice perfectly reflects who you are and what you want. Oh well…

        “Nevertheless, that action COULD change your feelings or behavior, for my words constitute an incursion into your neurons.”

        Yes, determinism (cause and effect regularities) doesn’t mean that things don’t and can’t change, rather it explains *why* things change.

  17. Posted July 11, 2011 at 6:56 am | Permalink

    Excellent post, Jerry!

    I’m surprised however that you don’t seem to think rehabilitation is possible with “normal” criminals??

  18. Bernard J. Ortcutt
    Posted July 11, 2011 at 7:16 am | Permalink

    You can still be a Compatibilist and think that Retributivist punishment is justified. Retributivists believe that people should be punished because they deserve it. Deserving punishment sounds like a weird property for someone to have, but it’s no weirder than any other purported ethical property. It requires a form of Moral Realism, but there’s no reason a Compatibilist couldn’t be a Moral Realist as well.

  19. Simon
    Posted July 11, 2011 at 7:35 am | Permalink

    Is there anyone here who thinks that scientific studies of the basis of human behavior are irrelevant to punishment?

    Sure they are. However if we are serious about taking a comprehensive look at this issue, such studies should include members of law enforcement and the criminal justice system-not just criminals or criminal suspects.

  20. vel
    Posted July 11, 2011 at 7:39 am | Permalink

    I’m for detterance but I don’t see why the death penalty cannot be used for this. It does not have to be determined as “retribution” but as simply getting rid of a useless and dangerous part of the population. I do advocate for improving the justice system to make as sure as possible that we do not kill those who are innocent. But keeping those who are not innocent, alive and using resources? It makes no sense. Someone else’s freedom ends when they impinge on mine. I don’t have to hate them to want them gone. Claiming that it is “not their fault” also is weak since we have others who have gone through the same environment and genetics and haven’t become banes of civilization. At some point, personal choice comes in to the picture. If it it totally disregarded, we have no right to ever say anything is wrong since there will always be some mitigating factor if we say no one is “truly responsible”.

    • Jamie
      Posted July 11, 2011 at 8:45 am | Permalink

      You are wrong that we have others with the same genetics and environment. Every person’s genetics and environment is unique. That’s why the determinism question cannot be solved by looking at two differente decisions made by two different people presented with the same circumstances.

      Electrons are identical. You can do an experiment once with 1000 different electrons and it’s the same as having done the experiment 1000 different times with one electron. The same is not true of human beings.

  21. NewEnglandBob
    Posted July 11, 2011 at 7:42 am | Permalink

    Deterrence and protection of society should continue for circumstances where we can not decipher the ability of a ‘criminal’ to control behavior. As neuroscience progresses to understand the brain there will be a shift towards curing and rehabilitation. This has already affected the legal system over the last 100 years and will continue to do so

  22. Scott P.
    Posted July 11, 2011 at 8:27 am | Permalink

    I disagree vehemently with this entire line of argument. Whatever the “true” nature of the causes of human behavior — whether, given perfect knowledge, we would find it deterministic, random, or something in between — the fact is that, given our current state of knowledge, we cannot in fact predict, even in theory, what a person of a particular gene combination and environment, etc. will do. Our current situation is completely indistinguishable from a universe in which free will exists.

    Given that, to use speculative logic to decide that we live “deterministically” or “randomly”, and to completely overhaul our human institutions based on our conclusions, is, literally, crazy. It’s no different in principle from believing in original sin and the Treasury of Merit, and thus embarking on government-mandated baptisms and sales of indulgences.

  23. Jamie
    Posted July 11, 2011 at 8:35 am | Permalink

    To punish someone is to hurt them, ostensibly for a high moral purpose. With young children the purpose is said to be rehabilitative and formative. With ‘hardened’ criminals, the purpose is usually only said to be the protection of society. Either way, if it turns out that it is a history of being hurt that causes people to become unruly, then some explanation needs to be advanced of how additional, deliberate hurt is supposed to undo the causation of previous hurts rather than simply reinforce it.

    The question goes beyond whether actions are determined or not. We must inquire into precisely how actions are determined. If it turns out that criminals are created by too loving parents spending too much time with their children and buying them too much ice cream, then a corrective of social isolation and deliberate mis-treatment makes a certain amount of sense.

    The quandary is that the most likely real remedy to a history of mistreatment is to treat a person well. But that would be perceived as a reward for misbehaving. We can never treat mis-behavors better than we treat the ordinary Joe and Jane. In order to improve how we treat mis-behavors, we must first improve how we treat people generally. If it is true that unruliness is a consequence of mistreatment, this, of course, would have the added benefit of reducing the overall amount of unruliness that needs to be dealt with. This is the question Sam has raised with his The Moral Landscape. What does it mean to treat someone well? What are the conditions under which persons thrive? This is an empirical question.

    Given a knowledge of what causes unruliness, the ‘high moral purpose’ of punishment can either be fulfilled or repudiated. Other motives for punishment (revenge, anger) might still operate. We can look into the causes of such motives as well. If it turns out that people who feel a strong urge for retribution have been mistreated in certain ways, the culture of such mistreatment can be addressed directly, and the underlying “biological imperative” for feelings of revenge can be tamed by a culture of better treatment of all individuals in society.

  24. Myron
    Posted July 11, 2011 at 8:51 am | Permalink

    “The Impossibility of Ultimate Moral Responsibility:
    There is an argument, which I will call the Basic Argument, which appears to prove that we cannot be truly or ultimately morally responsible for our actions. According to the Basic Argument, it makes no difference whether determinism is true or false. We cannot be truly or ultimately morally responsible for our actions in either case.
    The Basic Argument has various expressions in the literature of free will, and its central idea can be quickly conveyed. (1) Nothing can be /causa sui/—nothing can be the cause of itself. (2) In order to be truly morally responsible for one’s actions one would have to be /causa sui/, at least in certain crucial mental respects. (3) Therefore nothing can be truly morally responsible. …
    A more cumbersome statement of the Basic Argument goes as follows:

    (1) Interested in free action, we are particularly interested in actions that are performed for a reason (as opposed to ‘reflex’ actions or mindlessly habitual actions).

    (2) When one acts for a reason, what one does is a function of how one is, mentally speaking. (It is also a function of one’s height, one’s strength, one’s place and time, and so on. But the mental factors are crucial when moral responsibility is in question.)

    (3) So if one is to be truly responsible for how one acts, one must be truly responsible for how one is, mentally speaking—at least in certain respects.

    (4) But to be truly responsible for how one is, mentally speaking, in certain respects, one must have brought it about that one is the way one is, mentally speaking, in certain respects. And it is not merely that one must have caused oneself to be the way one is, mentally speaking. One must have consciously and explicitly have chosen to be the way one is, mentally speaking, in certain respects, and one must have succeeded in bringing it about that one is that way.

    (5) But one cannot really be said to choose, in a conscious, reasoned fashion, to be the way one is, mentally speaking, in any respect at all, unless one already exists, mentally speaking, already equipped with some principles of choice, ‘P1’—preferences, values, pro-attitudes, ideals—in the light of which one chooses how to be.

    (6) But then to be truly responsible, on account of having chosen to be the way one is, mentally speaking, in certain respects, one must be truly responsible for one’s having the principles of choice P1 in the light of which one chose how to be.

    (7) But for this to be so one must have chosen P1, in a reasoned, conscious, intentional fashion.

    (8) But for this, that is, (7), to be so one must already have had some principles of choice P2, in the light of which one chose P1.

    (9) And so on. Here we are setting out on a regress that we cannot stop. True self-determination is impossible because it requires the actual completion of an infinite series of choices of principles of choice.

    (10) So true moral responsibility is impossible, because it requires true self-determination, as noted in (3).

    This may seem contrived, but essentially the same argument can be given in a more natural form. (1) It is undeniable that one is the way one is, initially, as a result of heredity and early experience, and it is undeniable that these are things for which one cannot be held to be in any way responsible (morally or otherwise). (2) One cannot at any later stage of life hope to accede to true moral responsibility for the way one is by trying to change the way one already is as a result of heredity and previous experience. For (3) both the particular way in which one is moved to try to change oneself, and the degree of one’s success in one’s attempt at change, will be determined by how one already is as a result of heredity and previous experience. And (4) any further changes that one can bring about only after one has brought about certain initial changes will in turn be determined, via the initial changes, by heredity and previous experience. (5) This may not be the whole story, for it may be that some changes in the way one is are traceable not to heredity and experience but to the influence of indeterministic or random factors. But it is absurd to suppose that indeterministic or random factors, for which one is ex hypothesi in no way responsible, can in themselves contribute in any way to one’s being truly morally responsible for how one is.
    The claim, then, is not that people cannot change the way they are. They can, in certain respects (which tend to be exaggerated by North Americans and underestimated, perhaps, by Europeans). The claim is only that people cannot be supposed to change themselves in such a way as to be or become truly or ultimately morally responsible for the way they are, and hence for their actions.”

    (Strawson, Galen. “The Impossibility of Ultimate Moral Responsibility.” In: Galen Strawson, /Real Materialism and Other Essays/, 319-336. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. pp. 319-20)

    • Jamie
      Posted July 11, 2011 at 9:42 am | Permalink

      That’s very interesting… a kind of Zeno’s paradox of moral responsibility. And yet, in spite of Zeno showing conclusively that I cannot move, I move. And though moral responsibility can thus be shown to be impossible, I can nevertheless claim to have it, just as I claim to move.

      I think the weakness in the argument is in the assumption that an infinite regress cannot be ‘solved.’ Why not? Since my movement apparently ‘solves’ one proposed by Zeno, why can’t my moral responsibility ‘solve’ the one you propose?

      • Posted July 11, 2011 at 10:29 am | Permalink

        @Myron: I like it! Thanks for posting.

        @Jamie: Zeno’s paradox (in which there exists an infinite number of points between location A and B, such that one could never get from A to B) has an easy response. There is also an infinite number of divisions of time that one uses to travel from A to B, so there’s no problem with motion whatsoever.

        Zeno simply proposed a novel way of looking at motion – a way which brought up a new question that required a new answer. But we have the answer; the problem is a trivial one.

        What to do about moral responsibility, however, isn’t trivial or easily solved. Although I would hesitate to argue that point too strongly, since you haven’t defined moral responsibility yet.

        • Jamie
          Posted July 11, 2011 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

          I am unconvinced by your solution to Zeno. All you have done is to show how, in addition to an object being unable to move, time is unable to pass. For surely if before a second hand can tick, half the allotted time must pass, and then half of the remaining time etc in an infinite regress, we shall have to wait an infinite amount of time (an eternity) for each tick of the clock. Merely lining up these two infinities like two corresponding number lines does not resolve the paradox to my understanding. For surely understanding how the tortoise moves is equivalent to understanding how time passes? For there is no motion except in time.

          I admit to being untutored in the matter, however, and would happily accept a demonstration of where my thinking goes astray.

          Also, I am happy to accept whatever definition of ‘moral responsibility’ you labor under when showing it to be impossible. I don’t need to posit my very own definition distinct from yours. I’m just saying that while an infinite regress posses a logical problem, in real life, movement happens, time passes and just possibly moral responsibility exists in spite of hermetic logic.

          • Posted July 11, 2011 at 9:12 pm | Permalink

            For surely if before a second hand can tick, half the allotted time must pass, and then half of the remaining time etc in an infinite regress

            Um… no?

            How long does it take an infinitely small fraction of a second to pass? An infinitely small fraction of a second. Division does not pose a problem for the passage of time.

            • Jamie
              Posted July 13, 2011 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

              You could have skipped introducing time as part of your solution to Zeno then, as surely the same applies to a finite amount of space? The abstract, infinite divisions of space (dimensionless ‘points’) do not sum to an infinite quantity of space.

              • Posted July 13, 2011 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

                It’s all in how you describe the original problem. If you consider the original problem to be an infinite quantity of space, then it’s sufficient to say that infinite divisions do not equal an infinite quantity.

                But most conceptualizations of the problem involve time, as evidenced by the fact that they involve words like “before,” “then,” and “after.”

              • Posted July 13, 2011 at 3:04 pm | Permalink

                If you consider the original problem to be an infinite quantity of space, then it’s sufficient to say that infinite divisions do not equal an infinite quantity.

                Erm, I think you must have a typo in that sentence, for the dividends of any infinite quantity are also infinite. Indeed, for at least the simplest case of rational numbers, the dividends are equally infinite as the original (even if they encompass a smaller range).

                That is, there are exactly as (infinitely) many rational numbers between 0.0 and 1.0 as there are between 0.0 and 0.5 — and it’s the exact same infinite number as between 0.00000000000001 and 0.00000000000009.

                (I’d have to think a bit to figure out how introducing reals into the mix in various ways affects things. At the very least, dividing an infinite set of reals by a rational amount will result in dividends of equal size as the original set, I think.)

                Cheers,

                b&

        • Jamie
          Posted July 11, 2011 at 4:47 pm | Permalink

          Oops, forgive me, Tim, for confounding you with Myron in the above post.

    • Miles
      Posted July 11, 2011 at 11:54 am | Permalink

      We don’t have free will, but we have will: we consider various options and choose one even if that choice was predetermined. So if our choice in a crime was predetermined but we could reasonably be expected to have considered various alternatives, then we bear ultimate moral responsibility anyway.

      Or you could just damn the morals and stick with ethics: the systemic attempt to improve the world, regardless of right or wrong.

      • Leigh Jackson
        Posted July 12, 2011 at 4:58 am | Permalink

        A predetermined choice is an oxymoron. We have personal responsibility for our actions in so far as we are under no external form of coercion and understand the likely consequences of our actions. That does not constitute ultimate responsibility because we are not fully responsible for being what we are, or indeed for the world being what it is.

        • Miles
          Posted July 12, 2011 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

          Fine, a predetermined preference that is still our preference then. My apologies for the word confusion 🙂

  25. Posted July 11, 2011 at 9:22 am | Permalink

    Does a dog have free will? Most of us would suppose that its free will would be pretty limited.

    Still, we train dogs with the aim of achieving acceptable behaviours, punish unacceptable behaviour, reward good behaviour and generally get along very well with them if they don’t poop on the carpet too often. Sometimes they are even beloved family members in practically all respects. Heck, many people spend a fortune to cure their illnesses and keep them around a little longer.

    Dogs sometimes get punished. The really bad ones that attack people have to get put down, even without free will. (Not that I’m advocating that for humans!)

    How about a really intelligent dog? Other than its limited language abilities and legal status, is it really that different from a human?

    My point is that we don’t really need “free will” to have workable social systems, accountability or even a justice system.

    • Jamie
      Posted July 11, 2011 at 9:47 am | Permalink

      You don’t have to have ‘justice’ to have a ‘justice system’ either. Aren’t you curious as to the true state of affairs? Or would you be content with a ‘working’ system built on delusions?

  26. Posted July 11, 2011 at 11:35 am | Permalink

    Jamie, I am curious about many things, but not really about “free will”, since I don’t think there is any such thing. I was just pointing out that it is not necessary.

  27. Posted July 11, 2011 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

    Is there anyone here who thinks that scientific studies of the basis of human behavior are irrelevant to punishment?
    I’m late to the party, but I’ll offer an answer nonetheless:

    Only people who believe that the notions of free will and moral responsibility are incoherent will think that scientific knowledge of the causes of behavior are irrelevant. IIRC, Galen Strawson defends such a view: It doesn’t matter what the empirical facts are (he argues), we can never be the “ultimate cause” of our actions, and this means we can never really be morally responsible for those actions.

    Libertarians will hold that if there were an accurate deterministic (naturalistic) account of our actions, then those actions wouldn’t be free (but they think no such account could be accurate).

    Compatibilists hold that the *way* actions come about is crucially important for whether those actions are free, and whether we’re morally responsible for them (and so whether we deserve to be punished for them). So in general, compatibilists will claim that neuro-scientific studies will be very relevant to deciding appropriate punishment.

    Of course, the question of the ethics of punishment is itself a difficult philosophical problem, even apart from questions of freedom.

  28. John K.
    Posted July 11, 2011 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

    Barefoot Bum more or less nailed it, the free will/determinism arguments can make no predictions about future behavior, cannot be falsified, and have no real meaning. This need not be a problem for a goal oriented punishment system.

    Society is under the same obligation to remove a dangerous person as it is to extinguish a dangerous fire. As long as the goal is to protect the members of society from harm, the nature of an “intelligent agency” can be neglected. This is not to say that intention does not matter, a killer with the motivation of seeing others suffer is clearly more dangerous than the one that lost control seeing the infidelity of their spouse, so keeping in mind the goal of societal safety, the removal from society and the rigor of determining complete rehabilitation should be different. In the same way, the cause of a fire determined to be from a legal but unsafe electrical wiring practice presents greater danger than one started by a lightning strike, and society can react accordingly based on the goal of public safety and on its understanding of the causality of the problem.

    The question of the origin of a person’s actions only needs to be considered as far as empirically possible. Free will/determinism can be left as an unknown, as it must be, since it makes no predictions about the behavior of people and cannot be used to predict the future of the society that wants to control the future to its own benefit.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted July 11, 2011 at 7:59 pm | Permalink

      Barefoot Bum is half correct or not at all correct, depending on how you consider it.

      Obviously the philosophical issue is non-falsifiable, that is why it is philosophical and inconsequential in the first place. And indeed why it is inconsequential.

      However, physics can and does distinguish between deterministic and non-deterministic systems. Physical deterministic systems fail to map to philosophical determinism FWIW, by way of deterministic chaos. The philosophical idea is a non-testable mess.

      The other half of the testability issue is with an emergent folk psychology free will model. Obviously a sufficiently complex system deviates from set behavior, we can’t describe the context well enough to map it to a simple algorithm as we lack sufficient data. One can always map data to an algorithm, but we need a sufficiently simple one to proclaim “automatic behavior”.

      This fallibility of observing sufficiently complex organisms as simple automatons constitutes the searched for test.

      So either we forget the philosophy and have all testability (my preference), or we substitute perfectly good physics for philosophy and have an half-and-half world of “determinism”/free will models.

  29. Neil
    Posted July 11, 2011 at 5:23 pm | Permalink

    I do not know if I can articulate this idea correctly, but even if each of us lacks free will individually, if everyone’s actions depends on everyone else’s actions, do we not have free will as a group? Perhaps my decision to read this thread today was causally determined, but what I read here affects my brain state, and what I do next, which in turn will affect what someone else will do next, etc. It is turtles, all the way down.

    • Miles
      Posted July 11, 2011 at 9:26 pm | Permalink

      The way I think of it is we have a will, or the ability to consider options and decide on one we prefer. That our will is likely predetermined and not free, though, in no way diminishes that fact that our will exists.

  30. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted July 11, 2011 at 7:38 pm | Permalink

    Well, finally. This is one of the established uses of “free will”, and must be treated by advocates for change.

    Is there anyone here who thinks that scientific studies of the basis of human behavior are irrelevant to punishment?

    Likely not.

    But that is rather orthogonal to morality and what the justice system regards as necessary to perform its function (whatever it is). Both these endeavors are simplified by a simple effective theory of “free will”, that admits that a sufficient complex deterministic* system is not determinable.

    ————–
    * Not “determined” since deterministic chaos prevents a deterministic system to have an always for all times determined path.

  31. MadScientist
    Posted July 11, 2011 at 11:10 pm | Permalink

    I would like to know how ‘determinism’ is defined here. If the word is used in the same sense as in physics then all processes within a human are deterministic and in that sense you can say a person is deterministic. However, determinism does not rule out genuine choice and it has not been determined that the ability to choose doesn’t exist. At the moment this is a case in which judgment is best suspended for lack of evidence. Nor do I believe even a genuine lack of choice should influence punishment – given an absence of choice, punishment should be guided by the question “does it work?” Ideally punishment should be guided by that question at any rate.

  32. Darth Dog
    Posted July 12, 2011 at 12:45 am | Permalink

    The whole focus of this thread is on evil actions. We should no longer punish people who commit evil because it just reflects a problem with their brain machinery. The only time punishment is ok morally is if it is shaping (ie manipulating) future behavior.

    Ok. Maybe that is right. But what about the other side of what is a symmetrical situation. What about good actions? What about achievement? Do I no longer thank someone for a kind act because they had no choice in the matter? Should I no longer give credit to someone for an achievement because they couldn’t do otherwise?

    Heck, why should I even say “thank you” to someone who does something nice, other than to reinforce the behavior (ie manipulate the person).

    If you are honest about the whole thing and apply the same ideas to good actions as to bad, it sure sounds like you end up with a very depressing picture of the world.

    • Posted July 12, 2011 at 3:43 am | Permalink

      I think our usual appreciation for kind or good deeds is mostly about reinforcing those behaviours. It’s a reward for that person for doing something that we like.

      Should they get “credit” for doing something about which they had no choice? Well, why not? It makes the world a bit more pleasant and easier to live in.

  33. Lotharloo
    Posted July 12, 2011 at 7:00 am | Permalink

    I’m not sure why this is such a difficult problem:

    1) For a “normal” person, we know that the existence of punishment for crimes acts as a deterrent, free-well or not, determinism or non-determinism. This is a factual observation.

    2) For someone who is severely mentally ill, this is not the case. So it does not make sense to apply the same punishment.

    • Coel
      Posted July 12, 2011 at 7:16 am | Permalink

      A very sensible and succinct post.

  34. DV
    Posted July 12, 2011 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

    Do retribution and deterrence exist only in societies of conscious animals? No. Retribution, deterrence, rewards and punishment figure prominently in social animals. The rewards and punishment become part of the environmental factors that input into the animal’s brain’s programming as it computes and generates an output or action. This should be true whether the brain has the emergent properties of consciousness (in which free will makes sense) or not.

    In other words, the behavior came first, then the philosophizing came later for consumption by the conscious mind. “Free Will” is in the same boat as “Love”. Good enough concepts within a useful model of reality to a conscious mind. But of course, this model of reality is only the creation, and only for the consumption, of conscious minds. Everything actually reduces to chemistry.

  35. Badger3k
    Posted July 12, 2011 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

    I just got done listening to the July 5th episode of Reasonable Doubts (the podcast) and they mention Horgan and talk about Free Will and Determinism. They have several episodes covering the topic (I think one was titled “Free Willy and Determinator” – I liked it). Interesting stuff, including some Templeton-funded papers that seem flawed before you even know the funding source. You can either go to their site or look it up in iTunes (and maybe others).

  36. Posted July 12, 2011 at 4:26 pm | Permalink

    I find it funny how Dennett is often considered an uber-reductionist. In his many works – yes he dismantles common sense folk ideas about consciousness, free will, evolution and religion to name some of the biggies. What often isn’t noticed is that he always tries to put humpty dumpty back together again albeit in a more rational scientific way in one form or another in his works – compatabilism is one example to me. Yes, compatabilism makes perfect sense it just seems hollow to me. Putting the pieces back together again seems superfluous – its just acknowleging what we already know – we fall for these illusions. Maybe it’s just a matter of taste but to me when the dismantling is complete the job is done.

  37. Hector Brenes
    Posted July 12, 2011 at 9:22 pm | Permalink

    There is no connection whatsoever between the assumption of comprehensive determinism in the cosmos (it changes from one state to the next, in whatever the cosmic “time quantum” is, depending only on the “from” state and the governing laws of physics) and the assumption of FULL free will for the purpose of social organization. As a practical matter we already make significant concessions to the assumption of free will in the cases of well-understood impairments to cognition and responsibility. Our internal experience already gives us a sense of free will on which we can still rely … like forever, while realizing that our internal experience and how we sense it, is totally a byproduct of the all-enveloping deterministic machine: the whole cosmos.

  38. Peter Beattie
    Posted July 22, 2011 at 7:08 am | Permalink

    What is interesting to me is that the idea is still so prevalent that some people just are criminals and just are sociopaths. It’s as if Nazi Germany, Milgram’s obedience studies, the Stanford Prison Experiment, and everything else under the rubric of the fundamental attribution error hadn’t happened.

    Just as no one will display criminal behaviour whatever the circumstances, we all have a “price” (whether in terms of money, perks, a loved one under threat of torture or death) that would, in one situation or another, compel us to do something we would call criminal. We all hope never to end up in a situation that would effectively falsify our self-image of “I could never do such a thing”—but that would be much like hoping to win the lottery.

    And as to “punitive justice”, I think that is a contradiction in terms. Punishment in itself does not serve justice, as pretty much everybody here arguing for it has made explicit. It is its effects that are said to serve justice: deterrence and some kind of compensation for damages. In other words, punishment is seen as one way to achieve those ends. But then it incumbent on anyone arguing for it to show that there are not other ways that achieve the same goals in a more effective way. (People are deterred by the prospect of consequences, of which punishment is just one instance.)

    Plus there is the matter of punisher and punishee both being corrupted by inflicting harm on another person and having it inflicted on them, respectively—which also indicates that there might be a problem with proportionality.


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