Execution of the mentally disabled

This is one issue in which how you conceive of “free will” can have real consequences in people’s lives.

Warren Hill, an inmate on Georgia’s death row, has an IQ of 70, which is close to the borderline figure that Georgia considers “mental retardation”. The state can’t execute the mentally retarded.

As the CBC News reports,

A panel of seven state and independent psychologists agrees he is “mildly mentally retarded” and should be precluded from the lethal injection needle.

That might satisfy Texas or Florida to spare Hill’s life, as those capital-punishment states rely on a “preponderance of the evidence” to decide who should be put to death.

But not Georgia.

The Empire State of the South stands alone in America with a death-penalty law that requires a defendant prove intellectual disability “beyond a reasonable doubt” to win clemency.

Now I’m completely opposed to the death penalty, whether or not the perpetrator is “mentally retarded,” suffers from some other malady, or is “normal” and judged able to tell right from wrong. Execution is a brutal punishment for an enlightened country: a punishment that costs more than life without parole, and which has no palpable deterrent effect. Its only value is retribution, which serves no social purpose. And for Hill it’s worse than this, since he’s come close to execution several times.

Georgia’s department of corrections has tried three times since July 2012 to give Hill a fatal dose of execution drugs, only to be stopped by 11th-hour stays of execution.

In at least one of those instances, Hill already had a sedative in his system before the lethal injection was halted.

The question here is why people like HIll, who may eventually be spared for having a low IQ, should be treated any differently from “normal” murderers.

Even the family of Joseph Handspike, the cellmate who taunted Hill in 1990 and was later beaten to death by the condemned inmate with a nail-studded board, has appealed for Hill to be removed from death row on humanitarian grounds.

Kathy Keeley, executive director of the Atlanta-based group All About Developmental Disabilities, said the goal now is to get legislators to draft and introduce a new bill in January without the “beyond a reasonable doubt” language.

“Our Supreme Court decided years ago that you should not — and cannot — execute somebody with an intellectual disability,” Keeley said.

So that’s the law, and it’s obviously designed to give special treatment to those who, I guess, can’t tell right from wrong or internalize the consequences of their crime.

Kammer [Hill’s lawyer] allows that psychiatric diagnoses are, by their nature, very complex, with experts making assessments on “a reasonable degree of scientific certainty,” rather than making absolute conclusions.

IQ measurement is also an imprecise science, with possible standard deviations of plus or minus five points.

Warren Hill’s case “illustrates that people whose condition is right on that cut-off point, they’re most at risk for being wrongfully executed,” he said.

“When you get to these close cases, you really want the system to err on the side of finding” intellectual disability.

There’s an ironic wrinkle to this case as well, observes Richard Dieter, director of the Washington-based Death Penalty Information Centre.

Dieter pointed out that, until 1988, no U.S. state had ever passed a law prohibiting the execution of inmates found “guilty but mentally retarded.” Georgia took the first step with its provision.

As I said, I don’t think anybody should be executed by the state for crimes—anywhere. Even Saddam Hussein should have been sentenced to life without parole.  The U.S. is one of the few First World countries to retain this barbaric punishment.  Here, from Wikipedia, is a figure showing which countries retain the death penalty (brick red), and those which have abolished it for all crimes (blue). Other colors are countries that use it sparingly or haven’t used it for at least a decade:

Picture 5

Picture 6

But here’s my question: if we are going to spare condemned criminals on the grounds of “mental disability” or “not knowing right from wrong”—presumably because they had no choice about whether to commit the crimes—on what grounds do we execute “normal” people?  After all, nearly everyone here is a determinist who believes that nobody, not even the intellectually competent criminal, has a choice about whether they murder or not. In some sense, every death-row inmate has a “brain disease”: the disease of determinism.

And, once we get rid of the death penalty (soon, I hope, but probably not in my lifetime), shouldn’t we start treating every criminal as if he/she had a brain disease? Granted, you should treat mentally impaired people differently from non-impaired ones (medication might, for example, be more useful for the former), but, in the end, we should draw no distinction between classes of criminals who supposedly had a “choice” about whether to commit their crime, and whether they had “no choice.” That is a phony distinction.  If there is a distinction to be drawn, it should involve who is more likely to offend again, what kind of rehabilitation is most helpful, and what kind of punishment will best deter others. None of these involves the issue of whether a criminal did a deed “of his own free will.”

h/t: John


  1. Posted October 28, 2013 at 8:42 am | Permalink


    • Jesper Both Pedersen
      Posted October 28, 2013 at 8:43 am | Permalink


      • gbjames
        Posted October 28, 2013 at 8:50 am | Permalink


        • Jesper Both Pedersen
          Posted October 28, 2013 at 9:18 am | Permalink

          Hmm…didn’t work, trying again.

    • Posted October 28, 2013 at 10:14 am | Permalink

      Actually, I think I may well stay out of this one. State-sponsored premeditated murder at the hands of a credentialed physician is far more barbaric than a crime of passion, and I can only imagine what’ll happen to my blood pressure if I feel compelled to engage in people advocating or even just apologizing for it.

      This is a discussion that, sadly, needs to be had…but I’m probably not the best one to have it with….


      • Posted October 28, 2013 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

        I used to be pro-execution. A part of me, perhaps an ugly part of me, would want nothing less if someone murdered my baby – which happens all too frequently. Why would that person deserve to take another breath? A guy just slaughtered 5 family members- the youngest being a one year old whom he decapitated. Why does that person get to continue on?
        What is the value in keeping these people alive?
        HOWEVER, the real problem here is that if even one innocent person is murdered by the state, then the whole system is flawed, isn’t it? If a disproportionately large number of death row inmates are non-whites then that says something else about the system being broken. As I learned more and more about the business of state-sponsored killing, I realized I could no longer hold my stance and consider myself moral (well, at least I try to be). No matter how personal, gruesome, or heartbreaking the crime was we can not and should not retaliate.
        I don’t believe in rehabilitation for the worst of the criminals – those who killed because they enjoyed it – but perhaps there is hope for those who just got caught up in a bad situation, i.e. crimes of passion. Our prisons are such a mess – overcrowded with people who do not need to be there for our protection – drug offenders especially. I don’t know how to fix it all – but I do know the death penalty solves nothing or makes us safer.

        • Timothy Hughbanks
          Posted October 28, 2013 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

          Even beyond the racial bias evident in the system, DNA-evidinced based exonerations offer up one of the clearest “controlled experimental” tests of how badly flawed the system is.

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted October 28, 2013 at 4:23 pm | Permalink

          Yes, I see it as the “dark” side in me too but also a natural, human side and this is why we “contract out” punishment to the state which is supposed to be more objective than us.

          I think what I struggle with when thinking about the real baddies is what you describe as the limits I suppose of actually putting this into practice – i.e.: innocents could be killed. I don’t like that idea either. I tend to not want the death penalty for these reasons but I wonder how I’d feel if these limits could be lifted. If we could guarantee that no innocent would be executed accidentally and that the elimination of the offender helped the lives around them….I’m not sure.

          The other thing I have heard people say is they are uncomfortable with the State having the power to execute their citizens. I think this is Jerry’s perspective. I get that too.

          So for now, I err on not wanting the death penalty but I could be persuaded to change my mind.

          • Posted October 28, 2013 at 4:50 pm | Permalink

            In a perfect situation, with no possibility of murdering an innocent, then I would be very hard-pressed to find a reason to keep these monsters alive. I would want them to die in the manner that their victims died. I acknowledge that part of me. However, as you mentioned, life in prison might be more of a punishment since we don’t believe in life after death and hell.

            • Diane G.
              Posted October 28, 2013 at 11:21 pm | Permalink

              What about what it says about us? That we find ourselves capable of deciding to take a life and go about calmly and efficiently (or sometimes not so much) carrying it out doesn’t give one pause?

              Haven’t we grown beyond murder as a solution to anything?

              • Lianne Byram
                Posted October 29, 2013 at 4:51 am | Permalink

                I suspect that many death penalty proponents only think state administered murder is a good solution for other people’s messed up children.
                I agree completely that the death penalty reflects on us all in a tragically negative way. I wouldn’t want any part of it and I’m proud of Canada for abolishing it.

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted October 29, 2013 at 9:32 am | Permalink

                Not sure. I asked myself if I could carry out the execution. I think I could but not without being changed forever, just as I would be changed forever if I had to witness someone’s atrocities.

        • Posted October 28, 2013 at 7:33 pm | Permalink

          ” A part of me, perhaps an ugly part of me, would want nothing less if someone murdered my baby – which happens all too frequently.”

          I think there is suboptimal punctuation in that sentence.

          • Posted October 28, 2013 at 8:20 pm | Permalink

            Really? I didn’t know the grammar police were in force on this blog. I’m already intimidated to jump in as there are many highly educated contributors here.
            Thank you for embarrassing me. I hope it was worth it.

            • Richard Olson
              Posted October 29, 2013 at 9:39 am | Permalink

              Human animal protection/nurturing instinct, particularly female gender, linked intricately with clan & tribal preservation, confronts post-Enlightenment awareness. 80,000 years or so of evolutionary social development is suddenly outfitted with a newfangled supercharger, i.e. rational methodology based upon empirical observation. The desire for revenge motivates, still, closer to half the numbers of humans than the close to zero percent desired. Overcoming this desire seems to me to be an evolutionary process that, like opposition to equal civil and legal equality for non-heterosexuals, reaches a tipping point and then begins to recede.

              In some remote outposts, like America, powerful opposition to corraling, taming, and harnessing our lizard selves comes from, I don’t know, clinging to emotional belief? Obstinate resistance to change?

              Annie Dillard wrote in an essay once that she never knows what she truly thinks about many things until she begins to write about them. That just happened here, with me. My headlights are still sweeping in a bit of a wide arc.

              • Posted October 30, 2013 at 7:58 pm | Permalink

                I loved reading this post – thank you.

            • Diana MacPherson
              Posted October 29, 2013 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

              Don’t worry about it Jeanine, I think you have a lot of intelligent things to say. Please don’t feel afraid to share in the future.

              • Jesper Both Pedersen
                Posted October 29, 2013 at 12:49 pm | Permalink


              • Posted October 30, 2013 at 7:57 pm | Permalink

                Thank you, Diana. I was pretty embarrassed and thought about not posting any more – but you guys are too awesome and I’m not going to let grammar bullies get in the way. ❤

              • Diane G.
                Posted October 30, 2013 at 9:27 pm | Permalink

                For what it’s worth, Jeanine (not much, I’m afraid), my reply was offered only in a light mood. I should have stopped to think if it were appropriate to try to be humorous when the subject is so serious.

                (Reminded me of a paper my boss once wrote on gull control, in which he wrote, “persistent individuals were shot more frequently.” So I guess I just had an untimely flashback.)

          • Diane G.
            Posted October 28, 2013 at 11:14 pm | Permalink

            I had been thinking of noting that her baby must be awfully tough…

            • Posted October 31, 2013 at 8:28 am | Permalink

              Diane, I can’t reply to your other post to me, but I just wanted to say I know your comment was totally light-hearted and not meant to embarrass me in the slightest! I wasn’t at all speaking of you when I referred to “grammar bullies”. I should rewrite the sentence, but I think it’s just shooting a dead horse (and killing it over and over?) 😉
              Gull control sounds awesome! We could use some of that on our beaches!

              • Diane G.
                Posted October 31, 2013 at 8:02 pm | Permalink

                Thanks, Jeanine. Good to know, I’d still been worried.

          • Mark
            Posted October 29, 2013 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

            Really? How many times was your baby murdered?

  2. Posted October 28, 2013 at 8:47 am | Permalink

    if we are going to spare condemned criminals on the grounds of “mental disability” or “not knowing right from wrong”—presumably because they had no choice about whether to commit the crimes—on what grounds do we execute “normal” people?

    I guess the answer to that is deterrence. If someone doesn’t have the mental capacity to understand their acts and the consequences then deterrence would be less effective.

    • Posted October 28, 2013 at 8:52 am | Permalink

      The convicted person’s mental competency probably does not influence whether the punishment works as a deterrent to others.

      • Posted October 28, 2013 at 8:55 am | Permalink

        True, so it is showing compassion towards someone for whom deterrence would be ineffective.

        • Posted October 28, 2013 at 9:06 am | Permalink

          Okay, I see what you mean. This person could not have been deterred.

        • Posted October 29, 2013 at 3:16 am | Permalink

          Under determinism, anyone who is not deterred could not have been deterred. Unless you can show that deterrence is also a contributory component cause of a would-be murderer not murdering. Any data is likely to be statistical rather than being shown to be effective in any specific case, since non-murderers are not examined to see if their not murdering was significantly caused by the deterrent.

          All of which still is not related to free will. One is caused to murder or not. One is caused to be deterred from murdering or not.

          • Posted October 29, 2013 at 3:35 am | Permalink

            I think not everyone is being careful with the definition of “determinism” (myself included). Relative to the free-will debate, the word “determinism” is often used broadly to mean “governed exclusively by physical laws.” In this broadly construed definition, a quantum measurement would be considered “deterministic” even though the outcome is random. Physical non-determinism refers to statistical laws that still leave no room for “free will,” since choice is supposed to be something more special than a coin toss.

            It seems to me that when we speak of “deterrents,” we mean that there is a statistically predictable change in behavior — an effect — which is caused by the deterrent. Social scientists are pretty good at constructing models (theories) that predict the kinds of people who are likely to respond to a given policy. Speaking of individual persons, we can say a person “could be deterred” if they possess characteristics that fit the model.

            I think this is “determinism” in the broad sense. “Free will” is supposed to be something that is not fully reducible to physical laws or to coin-tosses.

            • Posted October 29, 2013 at 4:28 am | Permalink

              I agree. That’s why I disagree with compatibilists in how they use the term ‘free will’. I don’t see deterrence being relevant to the disagreement on free will free will between compatibilists and incompatibilists. I made the point because I wondered if Coel, as a compatibilists, was making the connection or just offering deterrence as a response to “on what grounds do we execute “normal” people?”, irrespective of the free will detail.

          • Posted October 29, 2013 at 4:29 am | Permalink

            Under determinism, anyone who is not deterred could not have been deterred.

            That doesn’t follow. They could not have been deterred by exactly that level and form of deterrence, but they possibly could have been deterred by a different level or form of deterrence.

            • paxton
              Posted October 31, 2013 at 11:25 am | Permalink

              Correct me if I’m wrong, but if everything is determined, then Jerry had no choice but to write this post, we had no choice but to read it, whether we are convinced or not is determined even before we read it, whether Hill is executed or not is already determined, whether Georgia, or the US changes the law is already determined. It makes no sense for us to work for some goal, because the outcome is already determined. Indeed we have no choice in whether to work towards a goal or not.

              What is the evidence for this belief? It sounds like Calvinistic predestination without the God. No doubt there are many influences over our behaviors, but to say we have no control over what we do is to reduce us to the level of inanimate matter.

    • Dominic
      Posted October 28, 2013 at 9:07 am | Permalink

      “Deterrence” has been shown not to work – if it did those countries that execute would not have murderers would they?! The key here is that most of the countries that use it or retain it are either brutal dictatorships or hotbeds of religion. I think there is a key link there regarding tolerence of dissent or towards dissenters.

      An example of the brutality is Iran
      & since then

      • Posted October 28, 2013 at 9:14 am | Permalink

        I’m not defending the death penalty, but when you say that “deterrence has been shown not to work” what is your control experiment?

        If your control is countries where they instead sentence people to 30 years in jail, then that alternative could itself be a considerable deterrent.

        Thus your control for your claim should really be a country where they say: “fine, kill as many as you want”, and let them off scot free.

        • Dominic
          Posted October 28, 2013 at 9:37 am | Permalink

          There must be US states where they no longer apply the death penalty? They would be a control. Do they have a higher number of murders per 100,000 say than those with the death penalty? I gather that executions are comparatively rare now in the US – 43 in 2011, but I suppose that you could look at historical data.

          No time to look into this – maybe someone else can – a recent article

          • Posted October 28, 2013 at 9:50 am | Permalink

            It’s a control if you’re comparing the relative deterrence of death penalty versus long jail sentences, but not if you’re assessing the deterrence of the death penalty (as oppose to letting people off scot free).

            It could be the case that (1) the death penalty is a big deterrent, and (2) no bigger a deterrent than long jail sentences.

            • Jesper Both Pedersen
              Posted October 28, 2013 at 9:55 am | Permalink

              I think long jail sentences are just as big a detterent as the death penalty.

              Few murderes and criminals do their deeds with the intention of being caught.

              • freethinkinfranklin
                Posted October 28, 2013 at 10:13 am | Permalink

                Exactly !! Its just as much of a deterrent as the promises of eternity in paradise is or the consequence of eternity in hell…. How many theists think of this before they kill? Nowhere near the amount of them that have their “real” come to Jesus moment once the cell door closes. My thoughts and concerns go to the folks that are killed in our name by the state then found innocent. This is unacceptable in a freethinking progressive society who main goal is proclaimed to be justice for all !!

            • jeremyp
              Posted October 28, 2013 at 10:02 am | Permalink

              I think the deterrence effect relative to long jail sentences is useful to know. It’s a bit similar to modern medical trials. If you are testing a new drug for a potentially fatal disease, you don’t test against placebo because that would be randomly consigning people to their deaths. you test against the current best treatment and see if your new one is better.

              So it would be useful to know the deterrence effect of the death penalty as compared to a lengthy prison sentence, but I’m not sure you can do it by just measuring the current stats for two states. How would you determine cause and effect?

      • Posted October 28, 2013 at 11:11 am | Permalink

        Even if the death penalty is found to be effective as a deterrent, there remains a question as to whether it is a necessary deterrent. There seem to be societies (many, in fact, judging from the map in the original post) that achieve a satisfactory standard of justice without using the death penalty.

        • darrelle
          Posted October 28, 2013 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

          And there is another issue to consider, though it is even more difficult to try and quantify.

          What affect does having a justice system that uses the death penalty have on the “moral zeitgeist” of the society as a whole? Does this cause people to become more accepting of violence in general, or validate and therefore perpetuate such views and behavior? Is conditioning people to think that killing other humans that are no longer a danger to anyone else okay? What does killing these criminals do to the people that are closely responsible for doing the killing? Is this something that is compatible with achieving the better society that most of us would want to live in?

          • Diane G.
            Posted October 28, 2013 at 11:24 pm | Permalink

            Precisely. The side we arrive at in this debate says far more about us than it does about the murderees.

    • Curt Nelson
      Posted October 28, 2013 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

      Isn’t the point of this post that there can be no deterrence since we don’t have free will, that the only real purpose prison serves is to contain us so we can’t do the bad things we are determined to do?

      • Posted October 29, 2013 at 1:27 am | Permalink

        You still have deterrence in a determinsitic world, it is one of the inputs that affects the decision.

        • Curt Nelson
          Posted October 29, 2013 at 7:06 am | Permalink

          This is why I don’t get free will. To me the question should be: Do we have souls – a ghost in the machine, or are we simply meat machines?

          I understand and can answer that one easily: We are our brains and our brains are machines. There is nothing else. So, yes, we are a product of our genes and our environmental influences. That is so easy.

          Now I need to understand what that simple fact has to do with prison, fault, guilt…

          • Posted October 29, 2013 at 8:20 am | Permalink

            “To me the question should be …”

            So you have that one question. And we compatibilists entirely agree with your answer to it.

            Now, shall we stop there and never ask another question ever? Or might we get interested in other questions about the goal-oriented choice-selecting behaviour that animals display?

            • Curt Nelson
              Posted October 29, 2013 at 9:17 am | Permalink

              Do we have free will? is one question. That question is, to me, about as confusing as it can be when what it is really getting at is the question of a soul. That’s a good question – is there such a thing as a soul? It’s mostly a religious question and it’s easy to answer if one is not religious.

              It evidently spawns many more questions, though, especially if the answer is no. It’s the thinking behind these secondary questions that I don’t get. Please tell me what having no soul means for how we practice justice.

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted October 29, 2013 at 4:23 am | Permalink

      As Jesper hints down-thread, “deterrence” only works in theory if the person being “deterred” has a significant expectation of being caught. Which in most cases they don’t.

  3. Greg Esres
    Posted October 28, 2013 at 8:50 am | Permalink

    Determinism only gets rid of one justification for the death penalty. There are at least three or four others. Not saying they’re right, of course.

    • Kevin
      Posted October 28, 2013 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

      For all practical purposes there are infinite number of reasons why the death penalty can be justified. It does not mean any of them are reasonable.

  4. Steve Bowen
    Posted October 28, 2013 at 9:04 am | Permalink

    One strong argument against the death penalty is that it is not really a punishment…unless of course you believe in all that afterlife gobbldygook and are convinced the perp is going to hell prematurely (although why a few decades extra on eternity should make a difference I can’t fathom). I suspect US religiosity is one reason why it is one of the few 1st world countries to retain it.

    • Dominic
      Posted October 28, 2013 at 9:09 am | Permalink

      Besides, religion gives a ‘get out of hell free’ card does it not? You can be bad all your life then sincerely repent faced with death, & get forgiven.

    • Pete Grimes
      Posted October 28, 2013 at 9:35 am | Permalink

      I don’t really get this. If you are saying that the death penalty isn’t a punishment, then how can the act that obtained the sentence be considered a crime?

      The death penalty removes from the perpetrator exactly that which he removed from the victim, the wealth of potential experiences that would have been available to them had their life reached a more natural conclusion.

      Expecting just oblivion after death, rather that a continued opportunity to gain new experiences [of whatever nature], and ending the one chance you have to experience your existence, would make the punishment more terrible rather than less, wouldn’t it?

      It would for me, anyway

      • Kevin
        Posted October 28, 2013 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

        Many people do not care about life. In America, suicide is about the fifth leading cause of death.

        I can think of people I have met who, if they wanted someone dead, their own death is not a consideration and certainly not a deterrent.

    • John K.
      Posted October 28, 2013 at 11:13 am | Permalink

      Not sure about you, but I am still pretty afraid of dying even without the afterlife stuff. I still have things I want to do and people I want to help out before I stop living. It seems like a very substantial punishment to me.

  5. Posted October 28, 2013 at 9:04 am | Permalink

    I think the logical connection between “free will” and retributive justice is extremely weak. Retributive justice flows from a raw, impulsive desire to punish people. Once we start talking about the objectives and outcomes that we desire from our justice system, we are forced to become determinists, because “outcomes” can only be measured and managed by appeal to causes and effects. Even if the outcome is “making stakeholders feel satisfied that someone was punished,” the policymaker must view satisfaction as an effect and punishment as a cause. It doesn’t matter at all if people “really” have free will; by building and managing a justice system we treat people like automata (with statistical variations, of course).

  6. Diana MacPherson
    Posted October 28, 2013 at 9:05 am | Permalink

    If there is a distinction to be drawn, it should involve who is more likely to offend again, what kind of rehabilitation is most helpful, and what kind of punishment will best deter others. None of these involves the issue of whether a criminal did a deed “of his own free will.”

    I think this is spot on. We need to look at this from a practical perspective. I know that at least in Canada, there is a distinction drawn for people who are mentally incompetent – they will be placed in a facility for mental health not a jail. I’m sure this is the same for other countries & it speaks to addressing what is the best approach.

    I used to see the death penalty as viable if it meant it better protected the public but it costs less and protects the public just as well if they are forever incarcerated as long as they are unable to torment people from jail (this has happened in Canada where a person who raped & killed children would phone & send letters to the parents of those children).

    • Pete Grimes
      Posted October 28, 2013 at 11:13 am | Permalink

      I agree with your points completely, however there are just a few things that prevent me from following you the whole way.

      1) In Europe at least, the tendency is away from whole life tariffs even for the most egregious of premeditated murders, even those of children or public service officials murdered in the line of duty. Most murderers now can plan to enjoy a life outside of the prison after their “rehabilitation” is complete.

      2) Most prison regimes are now so tightly regulated that the only effective way of controlling long term inmates is to give them such privileges as to make their existence, in many ways, superior to that they could have expected had they not been convicted.

      3) Often, the conditions of existence of a murderer torment people. Consider the Moors Murderer Ian Brady [who murdered children, by his own admission for the “existential experience”, constantly returning to court to improve his conditions, whilst simultaneously taunting the parents of his victims by refusing to identify the burial sites of their children.

      4) The re-offending issue, which I have already done to death

      • darrelle
        Posted October 28, 2013 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

        But are any of those problems significant enough to warrant a death penalty, or merely to make improvements in the current system?

        • Pete Grimes
          Posted October 28, 2013 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

          That’s kind of my point.

          I’m fairly sure that the lack of viable alternatives substantially effects [rational] people’s opinion on the death sentence.

          When the referendum to revoke the death penalty was held in the UK, many peoples opinions were “swayed” towards its revocation by the promise that the punishment for premeditated murder would be penal servitude for life without the possibility of parole.

          Yet we now see people who would, pre-1965, have been hung being released after less then 20 years in conditions that most of the world would not consider punishment, after clearly ineffective rehabilitation, whilst their victims remain, of course, dead, and unavailable to the families who now see a comfortable murderer, living on their tax money having “paid his debt to society”

          You’ll forgive me, I’m sure, for thinking that the murderer has got somewhat the better end of the deal.

          Of course changing these parameters would effect my position on the death penalty, how could they not?

          To do otherwise would be irrational and, if it’s all the same to you, I’ll leave that to the “no death penalty at any cost” brigade

          • darrelle
            Posted October 28, 2013 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

            You have a problem. I gave you no reason to come off to me with an attitude. You whine about rationality and here you are letting your emotions make an ass out of you.

            • SA Gould
              Posted October 28, 2013 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

              The only reason I changed my mind on the death penalty is that in the USA we are *incapable* of administering it fairly.

            • Pete Grimes
              Posted October 28, 2013 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

              My apologies, it wasn’t my intent to come off to you with an attitude. I think [hope] the perception comes from idiomatic differences.

              I trust you find my other attempt to answer your point [below] a little less emotional

              • darrelle
                Posted October 28, 2013 at 4:22 pm | Permalink

                Thanks. Apologies in return if I misjudged your comment. You may be right about idiomatic differences.

            • Andrew Platt
              Posted October 29, 2013 at 10:13 am | Permalink

              Really not sure what Darrelle is complaining about here. Where is the “attitude”? Where is the “whining”? All I see is Mr. Grimes making excellent points.

              He has nothing to apologise for and it is rather a shame that he has done so.

              • darrelle
                Posted October 29, 2013 at 6:29 pm | Permalink

                Such wit! Such rectitude!

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted October 28, 2013 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

          I was going to suggest similar. When, if ever, does it become too dangerous are too awful to keep a dangerous person around? I posted about Clifford Olsen below….you could argue that the failing of the justice system allowed him to taunt the victims of his family but what is to be done with a dangerous sociopath? I almost need more data. From reading about guards in high security prisons, they make sure they do not wear wedding rings or make anything known about themselves to other guards while on the job because the inmates watch them always and have friends on the outside that could torment their families.

  7. Posted October 28, 2013 at 9:10 am | Permalink

    There’s too much confusion in this post. Adding the issue of free will is a red herring, since what is at issue is the question of competence. The question is not whether an individual has free will, but whether he can exercise it competently. Additionally, if determinism is the rule, then Georgians, apparently, have no choice. By suggesting that there is a good argument here against capital punishment, is to suppose that people do things for reasons. But what is in question, in the case of the mentally handicapped person, is precisely whether he has this capacity. Besides, it is arguable that, free will or not, capital punishment is an offence against human rights; that in contributes to, rather than inhibits, the commission of violent (or other unlawful)acts; and that the number of innocents known to have been executed is sufficient reason, of itself, to condemn capital punishment as unjust. Determinism contributes nothing at all, so far as I can see, to this issue.

    • Dominic
      Posted October 28, 2013 at 9:43 am | Permalink

      “contributes to, rather than inhibits, the commission of violent (or other unlawful) acts” – that may be true. States manage a ridiculous double standard when they condemn killing when it is between individuals but condone it when it is between states.

      I reccommend the chapter in Jared Diamond’s “The World Until Yesterday” on crime & punishment, for a view on how traditional societies deal with killing.

    • Pete Grimes
      Posted October 28, 2013 at 9:57 am | Permalink

      Interesting point about the execution of innocents [which I think you’ll find, given the current state of forensic science is a number tending to zero].

      In the UK *just last week* a man, has his sentence reduced for his second murder, as the imposition of a “whole life” sentence is contrary to his Human rights. This follows from, having committed a murder immediately after release from serving a previous sentence for manslaughter, is released after 18 years of his sentence, a reformed character. Upon release, he visits one of his old fellow cellmates, and demands money, and backs up his demands by badly beating his potential benefactor with a deadly weapon. A Good Samaritan guilty of nothing except wishing to be of service to his fellow man, attempts to intervene and is callously murdered for his trouble, by this “reformed character”.

      Are those people who would have seen the man dancing at the end of a rope for his first brutal murder now entitled to ask “Who takes responsibility for the execution of this innocent?”

      No I thought not

      • dongiovanni
        Posted October 28, 2013 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

        Care to substantiate the claim about the number of wrongful executions tending to zero?

        I would also say that the situation you have described probably requires better diagnostic tools, as the man is blatantly still mentally ill and should never have been allowed to leave in the first place, in which case I’m not sure how exactly he’s a “reformed character”

        • Pete Grimes
          Posted October 28, 2013 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

          I was merely using the referents used by freewheelinfranklin [below], which shows a distinct decrease in exonerations as forensic techniques increase the safety of initial convictions.

          It’s hardly rocket science

          If you have a better set of figures demonstrating a decease in the safety of convictions as the efficacy of forensic science increases, I’d be really interested to see it [and more than a little amazed TBH]

          If you are going to adopt the position that anyone who commits a crime does so because they are mentally ill then, you are right, there is no logical repudiation of that position.

          In fact, I think the Soviets found it was gangbusters as the cornerstone of their penal system [in the same way that people who dissented from the communist regime were also “obviously mentally ill”] however I think most of the civilized countries in the world currently consider it unhelpful in terms of advancing jurisprudence

      • Dominic
        Posted October 29, 2013 at 4:06 am | Permalink

        You say the man was a ‘reformed character’ – is that what the court said or is that sarcasm? Why do people become criminals? I would say in a majority of them it is because of issues in childhood, alcoholism, sexual abuse etc. Carl Sagan discusses this in Demon Haunted World. There may well be others who are psychopathic & perhaps the example you give is one such. The failure of the system or individuals within it, to realize that this man was a high risk if released does not, it seems to me, make it necessary to execute all murderers because they might do it again. They might not do it again. We would have to see how many murderers who were released & were within the ‘norm’ of behaviour (that is not psychopaths – I assume there are ways opf trying to work this out?) went on to kill again.

        This story sounds like a story to bring joy to the Daily Mail editorial team. Using the phrase “dancing at the end of a rope” makes it sound as if people should or would take pleasure in seeing or having a person executed. What states do is remove emotion from the justice system.

      • eric
        Posted October 29, 2013 at 9:06 am | Permalink

        Your anecdote doesn’t support the death penalty, it supports a policy of treatment to help prevent recidivism and punishments that don’t make the servers more likely to commit crimes.

        Well, I should say that it supports the death penalty if you assume a 100% recidivism rate (to murder, no less) that is essentially fixed and unchangable. Neither of those assumptions are true in real life. As long as the recidivism rate can be reduced by social policy (it can) and isn’t 100% (it isn’t), the argument “and when he re-commits?” does not lead to the conclusion “death penalty.”

    • Posted October 28, 2013 at 11:25 am | Permalink

      I agree with the substance of your point, that the death penalty is neither supported by “free will” nor ruled out by determinism. Approaches to punishment may be flavored by one’s stance on determinism, but ultimately are not determined by it.

    • Kevin
      Posted October 28, 2013 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

      I agree. Free will is not relevant to this issue.

    • Leigh Jackson
      Posted October 28, 2013 at 7:00 pm | Permalink

      Competence as regards the exercise of the will, will suffice. No need for that little word “free”. But it’s more. It’s essentially about the assessment of degree of responsibility for one’s actions. Does the mental heath of criminals matter when when deciding what should be done with them? The human will is determined regardless of their state of mind, one way or another. Does the state of mind make a difference is the question?

  8. Posted October 28, 2013 at 9:18 am | Permalink

    After all, nearly everyone here is a determinist who believes that nobody, not even the intellectually competent criminal, has a choice about whether they murder or not. In some sense, every death-row inmate has a “brain disease”: the disease of determinism.

    Well, except that isn’t the consequence of physical determinism. It would be like saying that, say, because all digestion is physically determined that there’s no difference between someone who has, say, Crohn’s disease and soemone who doesn’t, or even someone who has colon cancer, as they all have a digestive disease: the disease of determinism. But that makes no sense; surely we can see that the other cases are malfunctions of the identifiable digestion process, and cases that we can and should correct.

    So the same thing, surely, would apply to the choice-making processes in the brain as well. So we can indeed identifiy actual cases where the choice-making proceses are clearly not working as designed and cases where they are. So, then, we can clearly identify cases where they really do have a “brain disease”, cases where they are impaired to the point where the choice-making processes are clearly not functioning, and so where they don’t actually make choices at all. And in those cases, it is clear that we have to treat the malfunction if we can, or else limit them if we can’t. Now, the only way to map this to criminals is to claim that any decision to commit a crime is, in fact, an equal failure of the choice-making processes. Except that this is ridiculous, as people may indeed make a perfectly rational and proper choice to commit a crime, and in a case where it might even be considered heroic to do so, like those who are engaging in civil disobedience or someone who steals food to feed their starving children. So you can’t translate “criminal” to “flawed choice making process”. Sure, at the extreme end of anti-social behaviour — mass murder, for example — you might be able to identify a mental problem, but it wouldn’t be in the choice making processes, but in the input to it; it would be about what they care about, not about how they choose. And if they are choosing properly, then they indeed had a choice … and chose what we consider wrongly.

    The only counter is to deny that we have choice-making processes, but nothing in determinism allows for that move.

    • Sines
      Posted October 28, 2013 at 10:15 am | Permalink

      This is a big concern of mine over Jerrys derived conclusions from determinism. Personally, the things Jerry advocates as coming from free will I already have perfectly ‘free will compatible’ answers for. Namely that the government shouldn’t be in the business of revenge in the first place. It doesn’t matter whether a person is ‘free’ or not, it’s just a bad idea to give government the responsibility for satisfying bloodlust.

      But a large part of it is that people still make decisions. That those decisions were decided billions of years ago doesn’t affect that. People still collect data, process it, and provide an outcome. The outcome is what I judge.

      After all, a person is no more than their brain. To say that a person is a ‘victim’ of their deterministic brain is to suggest a ghost in the shell, a passenger consciousness that is subjected to joy or suffering through no control of it’s own.

      But since we’re generally not dualists, the person is the brain. The person is the actions. The person is the thought processes.

      As such, my acceptance of determinism has had no real effect on my opinions of people, and I’m not really sure how it could. This is not to say that the lack of dualism that lead to determinism hasn’t had an effect, but determinism itself is an effect without any subsequent causes for me.

    • Leigh Jackson
      Posted October 28, 2013 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

      “you can’t translate “criminal” to “flawed choice making process”. Sure, at the extreme end of anti-social behaviour — mass murder, for example — you might be able to identify a mental problem, but it wouldn’t be in the choice making processes, but in the input to it; it would be about what they care about, not about how they choose. And if they are choosing properly, then they indeed had a choice … and chose what we consider wrongly.

      The only counter is to deny that we have choice-making processes, but nothing in determinism allows for that move.”

      Jerry is asking should we translate “criminal” to “brain disease”. That cannot be right. Criminals are always law-breakers, not always brain damaged – or moral imbeciles. I agree with you that the law should be about translation to flawed choice making according to society’s norms.
      Not the processes which underlie mentally sound decisions, judgment about which should be left to the province of the medical profession. The law should be about society’s right to encourage law breakers to desist from doing so. By humane means. One can argue for capital punishment on rational grounds but I don’t find the arguments compelling. On the contrary I think there are compelling grounds against. There is a rational case for humane incarceration with opportunity for restoration and rehabilitation. For habitual criminals then humane incarceration may be the only long term solution. Incarceration is what most people would consider a punishment all of its own. But punishment beyond that lurches steeply downwards towards positive cruelty. Sam Harris territory. Dangerous territory indeed.

      We of course have choice making processes determined by natural causes acting on and within our brains. The laws based on the mores of society result from those processes, just like the actions based on the mores of criminals of sound mind.

      • Leigh Jackson
        Posted October 28, 2013 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

        Careless, not all criminals are lawbreakers, some are falsely convicted.

  9. freethinkinfranklin
    Posted October 28, 2013 at 9:24 am | Permalink

    Its a failed system, we have put to death more the 140 inmates that were later found to be innocent. This list contains names of people who were found guilty of capital crimes and placed on death row, and were later found to be wrongly convicted. Some people were exonerated posthumously.
    a very biblical conterdiction supported by the very same folks that had their hero put to death. who would jesus execute? kids? the disabled? anyone? i think not.

    • peltonrandy
      Posted October 28, 2013 at 10:01 am | Permalink

      “Its a failed system, we have put to death more the 140 inmates that were later found to be innocent”

      Did you accidentally leave out some words in this statement or did you mean it exactly as written. If so I am curious as to where you got the number 140.

      • freethinkinfranklin
        Posted October 28, 2013 at 10:20 am | Permalink

        @ peltonrandy
        have you looked at the link?? the link names them by name…. ts not new news that we have in the past and will in the future kill people in the name of justice, while understanding we are failable beings. if this is OK to you, your a diffrent kind of person then i am.

        • peltonrandy
          Posted October 28, 2013 at 4:51 pm | Permalink

          Yes, I looked at the link. The link names all those who were found guilty of capital crimes and sentenced to death and were then later found to have been wrongly convicted. But not everyone on this list was executed. Read the first sentence of the wikipedia entry:

          “This list contains names of people who were found guilty of capital crimes and placed on death row, and were later found to be wrongly convicted. Some people were exonerated posthumously.”

          Please note that it says some were posthumously exonerated. And I accept that this is true. What I was questioning was where you got the idea that all 142 of those on this list were executed.

          Finally, killing innocent people is not okay with me. And nothing in my original comment, if read without “reading between the lines”, should have led you to even suspect such a thing. I was merely inquiring as to your source for a specific fact you stated. If this fact is correct, then all is well. I agree with your main point that we are fallible and this alone is reason enough to not employ capital punishment. But I don’t think we should advance our arguments and our common cause by using either incorrect facts or facts that are not or cannot be substantiated. So I merely want to know how you drew from the article the conclusion that we have put to death 140 innocent people.

    • Pete Grimes
      Posted October 28, 2013 at 10:29 am | Permalink

      I think you will find that the majority of these people were not actually executed, but released from death row in rude health.

      There were, of course, several who were subsequently found guilty, and executed, for different murders, but it is hard to understand how that indicates anything, except the quality of the rehabilitation element contained in their previous “wrongful” conviction

      • freethinkinfranklin
        Posted October 28, 2013 at 10:44 am | Permalink

        its not what i’ve read, however, if even 1 innocent person was put to death wrongly, this is somehow OK? is the wrongful disruption of one’s freedom acceptable as well? a well told lie can cost a person their freedom or life at the hand of those seeking truth and justice in your name. unacceptable in my book.

        • Pete Grimes
          Posted October 28, 2013 at 11:33 am | Permalink

          Then I suggest you take the advice you gave to peltonrandy and follow the link.

          I do find it unacceptable that people can rail against “one single innocent life” taken by the state, and using ancient and inaccurate figures to completely repudiate the continuing advances of forensic science, whilst “simultaneously dismissing innocent lives lost as result of their leniency as “just one of those things”

          • freethinkinfranklin
            Posted October 28, 2013 at 11:50 am | Permalink

            @Pete Grimes
            Oddly Pete its forensic science that uncovers that these now dead “convicts” were in fact innocent. Nobody is saying or contending that ““simultaneously dismissing innocent lives lost as result of their leniency as “just one of those things”, although a nice attempt at a straw man, we in fact want the guilty to be held accountable using the forensic science that is available, not a well told lie as has been the case since god was a boy. As its always been 2 wrongs will never make a right.

            • Pete Grimes
              Posted October 28, 2013 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

              Ah I see, so we can have confidence in modern forensics when it exonerates people who were convicted before it’s availability, but not as a tool for measuring the validity of guilty convictions obtained using it?

              Most of whom, as you appear to be unwilling to acknowledge, left death row under their own steam, rather than in a bag.

              • darrelle
                Posted October 28, 2013 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

                Yes, exactly. Beyond a reasonable doubt is a very reasonable metric to use when death is what is at stake.

                Just so I can be clear I understand you, can you clearly answer, “do you think that the death penalty has some advantages that are desirable enough to use even when you know that a certain small percentage of the time you will be killing an innocet person?”

              • freethinkinfranklin
                Posted October 28, 2013 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

                No one stated anything like your last statement at all, quite the contrary, I agree with using science to convict the guilty as well as adjudicate the innocent, you do know it can do both right? However many never had that option and many have gone to their deaths due to well told lies. And yes I do understand some have left the cell they never should have been put into in the first place, under their own “steam”, but I also do understand many of the innocent also left in those body bags, as you state.

              • Pete Grimes
                Posted October 28, 2013 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

                Sorry Darelle, your post didn’t have a reply [too far nested I guess].

                Let me alter your question slightly [without altering the meaning too much I hope] So I can answer it

                Do you think that the death penalty has some significant advantages over the current system that are desirable enough to use even though you know that a certain minute and constantly decreasing number of those executed will be innocent?


                By dint of the fact that I am quite prepared to dispatch soldiers off to support foreign policy initiatives knowing not all of them will return, that I expect public servants to protect my welfare and security despite knowing that it will inevitably cost some of them their lives, or that my certain knowledge that around 2000 innocents will be killed on the road in the UK this year does not, inevitably, lead me to suggest that motor vehicles should be banned.

                That is not to say that conditions could not change to cause me to change my opinion but, against the current environment it would have to be a “yes”

              • freethinkinfranklin
                Posted October 28, 2013 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

                @Pete Grimes
                classic strawman usage on an indefensible point that you’ve already lost… nice try.

              • Pete Grimes
                Posted October 28, 2013 at 2:07 pm | Permalink


                We also seem to have a small difference of opinion as to what a strawman actually is 🙂

    • JT
      Posted October 28, 2013 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

      This is the miscarriage of justice argument. A philosophy professor whose youtube handle is SisyphusRedeemed did an interesting video on this on his youtube channel (search for “The Death Penalty and the Strange Paradox of Innocence” and his follow-up video where he answers to some criticisms of his argument). He attempts to debunk the miscarriage of justice argument. He is against the death penalty for various reasons, but he does not find the miscarriage of justice argument compelling. I thought his reasoning was pretty sound. According to his sources, you are 10 times more likely to be exonerated on death row than if you are given a life sentence. So, paradoxically, it is better for an innocent man to be given a death sentence if he ever hopes to get out of jail alive. I recommend watching the videos.

      • Leigh Jackson
        Posted October 28, 2013 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

        If that’s the best shot an innocent man has it perfectly demonstrates what a monstrously absurd system it is.

        • JT
          Posted October 28, 2013 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

          Yes, the whole system may be terribly flawed but, paradoxically, the system actually works better for those who are condemned to death. An innocent man is far more likely to die in prison with a life sentence than with a death sentence. Strange, but true. By the way, I do not support the death penalty, but I do agree with Sisyphusredeemed that the miscarriage of justice argument is not compelling.

  10. denniskeane
    Posted October 28, 2013 at 9:26 am | Permalink

    “…a punishment that costs more than life without parole.”

    I would love a reference for this. On a number of instances I have attempted to figure out if this is true or not and haven’t been able to find a definitive analysis.

  11. Lianne Byram
    Posted October 28, 2013 at 9:33 am | Permalink

    I’m vehemently opposed to the death penalty for anyone as it is cruel and barbaric. I agree with your conclusion that determinism precludes a real choice to commit an offence.
    Perhaps some people find it easier to accept different treatment for the mentally disabled because their lack of choice-making capacity is more obvious.
    I think rehabilitation,restitution and the intelligent and sparing use of incarceration are the way to go. Retribution has no place in either a civilized society or towards beings incapable of free will.
    I also think we need to identify and implement social structures and conditions that give rise to pro social behaviours and deter or suppress antisocial behaviours.
    The more I study human psychology, the more I realize that our behaviour is greatly affected/determined by our environment and external conditions.

    • Pete Grimes
      Posted October 28, 2013 at 10:05 am | Permalink

      A little confused.

      In the case of murder, what does “restitution” mean?

      • Lianne Byram
        Posted October 28, 2013 at 10:48 am | Permalink

        I wasn’t thinking about murder in particular. Different interventions would be appropriate for different offences and people. Having said that I was taught in anthropology that one First Nation (can’t remember which) required a murderer to become the adopted son of the parents of the victim, in order to provide all the services that the deceased son would have provided had he lived. Interesting.

    • peltonrandy
      Posted October 28, 2013 at 10:10 am | Permalink

      I am confused by talk of rehabilitation. If we accept that a person who commits a murder had no free will choice in the matter, then how can we assume that such a person can be rehabilitated? Doesn’t rehabilitation assume that an offender can choose to mend his/her ways after undergoing some rehabilitative treatment? Or am I missing something here? If a person kills – or commits any other crime – for deterministic reasons, then is it not true that if exposed to the same deterministic set of circumstances they will commit the same offense, and therefore rehabilitation cannot alter this outcome? Or again, is there some element of understanding that I am missing regarding this matter.

      • Posted October 28, 2013 at 10:21 am | Permalink

        Environmental interventions can modify the brain in a way that changes future behavior. Lobotomies are one (gruesome) example! So is less drastic intervention, like some kind of therapy. If your brain gets changed, you might be less likely to commit a crime in similar circumstances.

        • Posted October 28, 2013 at 4:40 pm | Permalink

          Hasn’t it been shown that certain types of behaviors are not “curable” by modest means such as therapy? Child molesters (I am speaking of true child molesters – not a 19 yr old that had sex with his 17 yr old girlfriend. I am speaking of, what is known in the prison system as “diaper sniffers”)are unable to be cured and even medical castration is often ineffective. How do we humanely change the brains of these people if therapy is ineffective? My husband and his family ran a program for sex offenders where they could live and work but they were required to check in, had a curfew, and had to prove their whereabouts at all times. Their parole officers also had better access and connections to them. Well, the state (CA) pulled the contract a few years ago citing budgetary restraints – so now these people are scattered and doing who knows what. I guess my point is I do not believe the most violent, broken among us are able to be rehabilitated, nor should we spend the time and money on the worst of humanity. At best, all these people have to offer, is data. Data on what to look for and possible means of prevention – which is valuable, but “treatment” is not really applicable in these situations. I would say even if lobotomies were given the green light, I have the same objection to that as the death penalty – the possibility of wrongful lobotomy deems the approach unsatisfactory.

          • athiest in a foxhole
            Posted October 29, 2013 at 4:18 pm | Permalink

            Jeanine, when I was in college, I was pro death penalty. But like all idealists, reality hit me in the face. I am still pro death penalty but only in the most horrendous cases. But I think the death penalty should be abolished because it is administered by us humans who are fallible. I’d prefer to see life in prison without chance of parole for the most heinous crimes. With some kind of treatment to reduce recidivism. What works, I don’t know. But I hope that medical science can eventually even treat the worst kinds of mental illnesses such as pedophiles. I have some reason to believe neurology is finally making the first steps.

            I’m a combat veteran who suffered a mild traumatic brain injury while serving in Iraq. As a result I suffer from severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD – my symptoms: severe insomnia, blinding migraines that can last for days, ANGER at everything and everyone, short term memory nonexistent, severe stabbing pains in my arms and legs for no reason, blood and guts filled nightmares, and a whole terrible lot more. I have been suffering from this for several years now – each year worse than the last. Traditional talk therapy with a psychologist, medication and talk therapy with a psychiatrist, talking to other vets, none of it helped. All it did was let me push the problems down inside until something provoked me to an angry bitter expletive riddled tirade and fears I might become violent for reasons beyond my understanding or control.

            However last year my psychologist learned of a new type of neurotherapy at a brain science conference and she referred me to a doctor who is using it.

            The term ‘new’ is relative, this technique has been around for about 2 decades, but recent advances in computer hardware, software, and sensory technology has vastly improved its success. Its so new my insurance won’t pay for the therapy because its experimental – they just pay the neurologist for the specialist consult after each session.

            To develop my treatment plan, the neurologist recorded my brain activity using a Qualitative EEG with my eyes open staring at a point, eyes closed, and with my eyes open processing information (reading/looking at pictures). This recording was sent off to a lab that compared my brain activity to that of 40 other individuals with no known neurological/behavioral problems, of the same gender and age bracket. The lab turned these differences into a software program that was sent back to my neurologist’s office.

            Twice a week for nearly a year now, I go in for therapy. My therapist puts sensors on my head to monitor the brain activity in the areas we are working on during that session. I sit there and watch a computer monitor for 20 minutes. I can watch whatever I want. I usually bring in science documentaries or anime series.

            The trick is that while I’m being educated or entertained, the monitor is responding to the activity in my brain. When the areas we are training that day are in the normal range of activity, the image on the monitor is clear and crisp and a faint audible tone is given by the system as a reward to my brain. When my brain activity is not within the normal range the image on the monitor is dim and hard to see. The subconscious mind automatically tries to make the image crisp and clear. Per my neurologis this is because our brains are so visually oriented and the training method employees basic reward based learning theory.

            It sounds incredible but it works. My migraines have gone from several a week to 1 every few months. The strange pains in my limbs have completely ceased. I haven’t had any nightmares in months. My memory is finally getting better but still needs work. My ‘ANGER’ that lasted for hours and days is now just ‘anger’ that only lasts a few minutes and this is after stopping taking medication to control my anger. My hand-eye coordination is better. I was starting to slur my speech and stutter when stressed – gone. My hearing taste and smell are better. I’m better at shooting pool and playing video games!

            I’ve referred a couple of my friends with family members having problems to my neurologist and they’ve had incredible improvement as well. One of them had a child whom they feared was on the road to becoming dangerously violent – the child was exhibiting severe antisocial/sociopathic and the beginnings of violent behavior. The kid is nearly normal now. Both my friends I referred were much younger than me and have responded much quicker, I guess the younger the brain, the more easily it adapts and learns from the neurotherapy. It may also be that I have a lot more to relearn – there was something wrong with dang near every part of my brain and some parts of my brain weren’t communicating with any other part of my brain.

            I know a handful of examples of success in patients who hadn’t committed major violent acts * don’t amount to ‘we can cure pedophiles’, but I really do think its a huge step in the right direction. (* If you don’t count my 20 years as an infantryman and 2 years combat in Iraq)

            I sincerely apologize for being long winded but this neurotherapy has saved my life and changed it for the better. Without it, I’m pretty sure my PTSD would continue the way it has been – getting worse month by month, year by year until I’d be unable to hold down a job or maintain any kind of familial, friendly or romantic relationships and end up as another mentally ill homeless vet.

            I don’t care what your politics are, this thing here is literally the best news of my life:


            If anyone wants a referral to my neurologist, please let me know. I know he’s in the DFW area of Texas but he can probably hook you up with someone providing the same neurotherapy in your area.

            • Diana MacPherson
              Posted October 29, 2013 at 4:27 pm | Permalink

              What a great story! It’s great to here progress being made in these areas and I’m glad it worked for you! I know how awful migraines can be as I’m a regular sufferer and once suffered for 2 years with one every single day. I can’t imagine having painful symptoms on top of that though I know the pain really changed my personality during that time.

            • athiest in a foxhole
              Posted October 29, 2013 at 5:09 pm | Permalink

              To be clear, which I probably wasn’t when replying to Jeanine because I get very emotional when talking about about my interaction with modern medicine and rewiring the mind:

              In my youth, I was pro death penalty because I thought it was socially just in the eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth, kind of way.

              Then I grew up. I could still stomach it for those who are guilty of the most vile, horrendous, and despicable crimes imaginable, except for one thing…people can make mistakes or be swayed one way by emotion when the evidence leans the other way.

              Judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and juries can make mistakes and incorrectly sentence the innocent to punishment up to and including the death penalty due to a mistake.

              The state has no right to execute the innocent mistakenly or intentionally. If an innocent person is executed by the state then the state has committed murder in my name. This is wrong.

              Therefore, I can’t in good conscience accept the death penalty as a valid punishment. Therefore the worst punishment we should accept is life in prison without parole. If the condemned is later exonerated then the state can give them their freedom and should pay financial damages for destroying their life.

              I hope we as a society, people, planet full of apes that mostly fling verbal feces at one another can figure out some humane way to fix/repair/rewire the guilty so they don’t remain a threat to society. Maybe someday we’ll have something like the ‘death of personality’ in


              Yes, I just replied to myself (facepalm).

            • Posted October 30, 2013 at 7:46 pm | Permalink

              Sorry I’m late in responding, but thank you so much for sharing your story. I have been just too busy with work and home (frantically trying to finish my brilliant (not) idea of making a candy robot costume for my kid…yeah…what was I thinking?)
              Anyway, I do appreciate the fascinating information you shared with me. I had no idea we were on to such things for therapy. I’m so sorry you went through so much, but am sure glad to see it’s getting better rather than worse. If such treatments could be effective for pedophiles and violence offenders, maybe there could be more “rehab” approaches to our criminal “justice” system. Actually, it should be mandatory. Conventional therapy is just not effective for a wide variety of behaviors. Again, even with such breakthroughs, some of these people should not ever be allowed back in normal society.
              On a more personal note, I wonder if such a treatment would be effective for chronic pain – I suffer from severe nerve damage (c-section gone bad and subsequent repair surgery gone even more awry) and live on Norco and Gabapentin. I hate the dangers and stigma of being on such a strong narcotic and I refuse to move to something stronger even though the Norco is now less effective. It would be wonderful to have a complimentary method of treatment. Traditional “pain clinic” techniques such as meditation/relaxation are ridiculous for nerve damage as it’s so random, zingy, and intense.

              • Diane G.
                Posted October 30, 2013 at 9:23 pm | Permalink

                I’m so sorry to hear that, Jeanine!

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted October 31, 2013 at 5:43 am | Permalink

                I thought the same thing re: pain. I’m a wreck. I’m actually working from home because I’m hurting all over today and can’t stand driving for 2 hours. I know my issues are all neuropathy ones especially the pinched nerve in my neck.

              • Jesper Both Pedersen
                Posted October 31, 2013 at 5:53 am | Permalink

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted October 31, 2013 at 6:22 am | Permalink


              • Richard Olson
                Posted October 31, 2013 at 10:27 am | Permalink

                Several months ago I set a goal of accomplishing 100 pushups in a day, and 6 weeks ago I was at 84. The next day I woke up with pain from the scapula to the right elbow and muscle spasms on the right side of the back/triceps, and a triceps with almost no strength capacity. Two weeks ago I finally began treatment with a PT for what appears to be a pinched nerve in my neck. The awful & debilitating pain was remedied after the first two treatments — more PT treatments are scheduled before an MRI to determine the extent of spinal insult — and I have a twice-daily regimen of exercises I do at home. The triceps muscle is still a limp noodle, and it will be a few weeks or better before a prognosis for the future is available. I am unable to do a single pushup with proper form. I feel robbed, violated, cheated, and most unfairly f*cked.

                But if I never again experience what I went through for a almost 3 weeks before consulting a physician — the sleep-robbing pain, the inability to tolerate standing or just about any sitting position, no motorcycling — I will be very grateful for at least that.

              • Jesper Both Pedersen
                Posted October 31, 2013 at 11:41 am | Permalink

                That sounds awfully painful, Richard, I hope you’re making progress and the pain is fading.

                I suffer from Morbus Crohn so I’m on strong painkillers from time to time when it flares up. Whoever invented the no pain no gain saying, surely haven’t tried real and lasting pain.

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted October 31, 2013 at 11:52 am | Permalink

                Ugh that sucks. I have to go for the dreaded scope soon because I have something very wrong since I got the strange stomach flu this summer.

                So many people are a wreck on this site.

              • Jesper Both Pedersen
                Posted October 31, 2013 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

                Sorry to hear that, Diana, fingers crossed it’s just a temporary problem.
                I get scopes done regularly, but now under full anesthesia after a rather unpleasant experience.

                We’re a scrappy bunch. 🙂

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted October 31, 2013 at 11:43 am | Permalink

                Unfortunately for me, the nerve in question is irritated by a bone spur in my neck which cannot be operated on given how high up it is (high risk of paralysis). I’ve had the pain for 10 years now. Usually it results in chronic spasms in the neck & shoulder muscles. Today, I have referred pain up into my jaw and through my eye. Nerve pain is the nastiest pain!

      • Jesper Both Pedersen
        Posted October 28, 2013 at 10:23 am | Permalink

        I think you’re forgetting the effect people can have on other people.

        Rehabilitation makes sense according to determinism because we can change the conditions that lead to the crime and hopefully change the criminal’s perception of society and his/her fellow human beings.

      • Posted October 28, 2013 at 11:30 am | Permalink

        You can compare it to repairing your car. If some part of your car brakes down, you can repair or replace that part, and subsequently your car is fixed. A criminal can be considered as a person with broken parts, which might be fixed like we can fix your car. That’s what rehabilitation does.

  12. lanceleuven
    Posted October 28, 2013 at 9:35 am | Permalink

    Looking at the red patches on that map I have to say, that’s some interesting company you guys are keeping over the pond!

    • Diane G.
      Posted October 28, 2013 at 11:32 pm | Permalink

      I was hoping you wouldn’t notice that…


  13. Posted October 28, 2013 at 9:36 am | Permalink

    I understand the deterrent and cost counter-arguments to capital punishment, but what about preventing repeat of crime? Aren’t there almost weekly cases of criminals being released on parole who could have been executed for their crimes, had that been an option, who then re-offend? Although rare, sometimes criminals escape from prison as well. Do they also give other convicts dangerous ideas?

    As an FYI, John Douglas, an FBI profiler, was consulted for the movie ‘Silence of the Lambs’ (Jodie Foster’s boss was based on him). John played Scott Glen a tape that had been made by some sickos committing a very violent crime. It reduced Scott to tears, and apparently he said that he had no idea that such people existed and that he could no longer object to the death penalty. (ref. ‘Mindhunter’ by John Douglas)

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted October 28, 2013 at 10:57 am | Permalink

      This is where I need to see the most practical way of prevention. I think also we need to think about how much these individuals affect those who have to guard them. I’m not as opposed to the death penalty ad others. I suspect that in many cases not killing someone for their crimes is a worse sentence than death esp if they live out their lives in solitary confinement. For me it is all about protection of the public. Whichever works best.

      I realize I’m probably an outlier with these views but perhaps it is because I do not consider all life equal.

      • Posted October 28, 2013 at 11:36 am | Permalink

        Life imprisonment is not necessarily a more humane way of punishment than the death penalty. A lot of people with a life sentence are suffering from severe depressions as a result of the fact that they will never be free again. Some of those prisoners will attempt to commit suicide.

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted October 28, 2013 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

          Oh yes I know that life time incarceration isn’t necessarily the better choice and I thought I made that clear in this post. I look first to protect the world from this person if this person is a vicious, deadly person. I actually do not think the death penalty is inhumane compared to a life in solitary confinement or a life in person with other nasty people because when there is oblivion you feel nothing where you feel probably a lot of nasty things if you are not mentally damaged if you live in confinement.

          • Posted October 28, 2013 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

            The problem with the death penalty, as has been noted, is that innocent people are put to death by the state. If someone is in prison for life, and evidence arises that exonerates them, at least we have a chance of rectifying it – albeit it can never be perfect – we have a chance to right a wrong. I do agree that solitary confinement is inhumane and I don’t know why there aren’t stricter limits and oversight on this particular punishment. It should only be used as a “time out” until situations are restored – not as a means of open-ended punishment.

            • Diana MacPherson
              Posted October 28, 2013 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

              Yeah, I think it is because others will kill them. One such individual I know that is always in solitary is Paul Bernardo because he would be killed immediately by the population.

      • Lianne Byram
        Posted October 28, 2013 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

        One of the biggest problems I have with the death penalty (among many) is that it severely punishes the innocent family, friends and loved ones of the offender. I also see it as manifesting, and therefore promoting at some level, the very violence that it seeks to punish and deter.
        It is well within our power to make the experience of life in prison more tolerable.

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted October 28, 2013 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

          I don’t know, does it really prompt more violence? You euthanize someone in the same way you would euthanize a dangerous animal and you do so in a painless, kind way.

          Moreover, is the innocent family of the perpetrator of violence not already hurting? They live with the crimes their relative committed against others.

          I’m not pro or con the death penalty but I’m looking for only the most practical and humane way to protect people from becoming victims. I always have in mind the crimes of the nastiest. One I think about often is Clifford Olsen who, as this article says “He wrote taunting letters to some of his victims’ families that graphically described what he did to their child.” Perhaps it is a failing of the legal system that allowed a person like this the ability to write or use a phone. It is clear he was a dangerous sociopath but what do you do with these dangerous ones so they do not endanger or torment the guards or the families of his victims. Is it worth keeping them around if we cannot fix them? I don’t know.

          • Posted October 28, 2013 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

            Uggh – I shouldn’t have clicked on that link. I think killers of his type are less likely to go after guards or other inmates. These types want victims not challenges. I don’t know how he was allowed to send such letters to the families – what a nightmare – total nightmare.

          • Posted October 28, 2013 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

            “You euthanize someone in the same way you would euthanize a dangerous animal” — executions are not necessarily so clinical. My home state of Utah recently carried out a firing squad execution, which is supposed to be our last execution using that method…

            Even though some criminals are undeniably evil beyond repair, if you lived in one of those countries with no death penalty, would you consider this sufficient reason to create a death penalty and start executing them? It’s worth remembering that the USA is the oddball when it comes to supporting the death penalty. Most of the world seems to function without it, regardless of the pros and cons.

            • Diana MacPherson
              Posted October 28, 2013 at 4:34 pm | Permalink

              I do live in one of those countries without a death penalty and at this point I’d so no I wouldn’t want to bring it back for the practical reasons people have mentioned:

              1) Killing of innocents
              2) State deciding to kill you

              I’m wondering if we could guarantee that innocents were not going to be put to death would we still be okay with the state doing this?

              Also, would it be okay if we euthanized humanely as our way of execution….

              I guess what I’m asking is, are there other reasons we shouldn’t kill the non fixable & dangerous?

              • Posted October 28, 2013 at 4:54 pm | Permalink

                Perhaps I should rephrase my thought in light of your last sentence, “are there other reasons we shouldn’t kill…” Suppose we imagine, hypothetically, that the death penalty doesn’t exist anywhere, and civilization is still generally thriving. We could then turn your question around and ask, “are there reasons we should kill…” I think most people would resist the discussion altogether.

                It seems more difficult to argue “let’s introduce a new tradition of killing” than it is to argue “let’s retain the status quo.” From my perspective, in order to justify the status quo we should have to meet the tougher standard. We should have to prove that it’s a really bad thing when murderers are allowed to live in prisons. I don’t think that’s the case.

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted October 28, 2013 at 6:59 pm | Permalink

                I guess that’s the question I’m trying to answer. Is there ever a reason to kill someone as part of the rules set out by and executed by the state? I don’t have an answer, but I feel kind of guilty for asking the question because we know enlightened countries and people are supposed to abhor such things.

          • Lianne Byram
            Posted October 28, 2013 at 5:43 pm | Permalink

            I’m sure the perpetrator’s family would be hurting, at least initially, but I don’t know of any greater pain than the cold blooded killing of one’s child for example. I don’t think it would matter that the killer was a paid state employee. If anything the pain might be worse as the state would be using your tax dollars and doing the awful deed as your representative. I think euthanasia is completely different as it is done with a person’s consent at his/her request. I don’t think the dog analogy holds because a person would suffer due to his/her sentience. In worst case scenarios like Clifford Olson, further victimization can be prevented by incarceration without parole and proper in custody management . I think when dealing with human beings it is not enough just to consider the admittedly crucially important safety of the public. The offenders are members of the public too, often with horrendous histories of abuse themselves. I think we would be going down a very slippery ethical slope if we started dehumanizing offenders in the way you suggest, no matter how hideous their crimes.

            • Diana MacPherson
              Posted October 28, 2013 at 5:51 pm | Permalink

              I don’t think that I’m dehumanizing them but putting greater emphasis on protecting the innocent from further harm (including harassment and also the threatening and danger of their keepers) than from protecting the perpetrator from discomfort. Then again, I do like most animals much more than killers like Olsen or Bernardo.

              The state however would still put the person in discomfort with your tax dollars – most likely if they are as bad as the cases I’ve mentioned where solitary confinement is necessary to stop other inmates from killing them, like the Paul Bernardo case that I linked to.

          • Diane G.
            Posted October 28, 2013 at 11:36 pm | Permalink

            Could you be that person? That person delivering the lethal injection?

            Should anyone be?

            • Diana MacPherson
              Posted October 29, 2013 at 9:35 am | Permalink

              Funny, I actually answered that up further. I think I could but not without being changed forever but learning any part of a crime changes you forever.

            • athiest in a foxhole
              Posted October 29, 2013 at 4:40 pm | Permalink

              Yes, I could be that person. Note that I’ve served 20 years in the US army as an infantryman and 2 years combat in Iraq. I’d look at it the same way I’d look down the barrel of my rifle at someone in combat and determine if they were a threat or not. Threat = bullet. No threat = no bullet.

              Its not a direct 1 on 1 correlation but as an executioner carrying out the laws of the land I’d probably look at it in a very similar way – the condemned has been judged a threat by society, therefore they need to be removed from society. If the death penalty was the method selected by a court of law as the method to remove the condemned from society instead of imprisonment, I could do it.

              Note that like Diana MacP says, it would definitely have an effect on you, me or whomever did it. See my reply to Jeanine at number 11.

              Note that in the southern US up until the electric chair and hanging were outlawed as inhumane, prisons would often pick up a vagrant or drifter and pay them to be the one to pull the switch that actually killed the condemned.

              Firing squads would consist of local law enforcement or prison guards. They would receive their rifles already loaded most with blanks, but one or two with actual bullets so no one would know who actually fired the killing shot.

              I guess these were an attempt to remove the responsibility/taint of murder at the hands of the state from the local community.

  14. Posted October 28, 2013 at 9:42 am | Permalink

    I’ve read several of your determinism posts and I’m trying to understand it all. If a murderer has no choice in murdering then maybe those who apply the death penalty have no choice in applying it. Does determinism mean, in simple terms, that no one has a choice in their behavior…ever?

    • Posted October 28, 2013 at 9:47 am | Permalink

      By the way, this is not meant to be a justification for the death penalty. I’m just trying to understand what you mean when you are talking about determinism. I’ll re-read some of those posts. I get the impression from some of the articles that the consensus of determinism is that everything, even the turkey sandwich I ate for lunch, was determined at the big bang.

      • frothingslosh
        Posted October 28, 2013 at 10:52 am | Permalink

        Honestly, you basically hit on one of my issues with the whole discussion. If Jerry is right and every action we ever take is already long-since pre-determined by physics, then punishment becomes nothing more than barbaric retribution. If it was predetermined that someone was going to rob someone or kill them, then punishing them for something they had no choice in doing is flat-out wrong.

        Basically, the very idea that all of our actions are predetermined absolutely undercuts the entire concept of Law, as all legal systems (at least in regards to criminal law) rest upon the idea of choice and free will.

        • Posted October 28, 2013 at 11:13 am | Permalink

          I don’t want this to be construed as being rude in Jerry’s living room. That is something I’d never do. But it bothers him (rightfully so) when people do that. So he kicks them out (which is his perfect right to do). But according to that logic the person who was rude had no choice to be rude. So “punishing them” is of no value. But then according to that logic Jerry has no choice but to react to that the way that he does (not that I’m suggesting there’s anything wrong in the reaction). Is this determinism suggesting that people cannot be rehabilitated? If they can be, wouldn’t that suggest choice? Or if they can’t wouldn’t that suggest that our society might be better off without some of it’s members as they have no choice but continue to offend and re-offend? Maybe I just don’t understand it correctly.

          • frothingslosh
            Posted October 29, 2013 at 7:02 am | Permalink

            That’s the paradox I see in Determinism as applied to to social, ethical, and moral constructs. It doesn’t claim people can or cannot be rehabilitated, because rehabilitation requires choice. Rewired, yes. Rehabilitated, no.

            It’s always struck me as the ultimate passing of the buck – X cannot be held to blame for his actions, because they were fated to occur. However, if he gets punished, it’s because that, also, was fated to occur. If you extend that to the logical end, anything, no matter how brutal, barbaric, or monstrous, can be justified as having been predestined. (Yes, I know it’s reductio ad absurdum, but it IS a valid tool if used correctly.)

            In the end, the only answer I’ve ever found (and freewill vs. predestination has a long history in religious philosophy) is that regardless of the arguments put forth by both sides, we must ACT as if we have free will in order for society to function.

            • Posted October 29, 2013 at 7:13 am | Permalink

              “Fate” is distinct from “determined.” The concept of fate usually implies that some outcome is supernaturally guaranteed, even if you try to escape it, like in the “Final Destination” movies.

              Determinism does remove “blame” as a primary concern for justice. It isn’t because “X cannot be held to blame”, but because “blame” is just a sort of metaphysical state of being that has no direct function.

              Instead the primary concerns are (1) restitution for victims if possible, (2) protection against future offenses, and (3) rehabilitating the offender so that they can be recovered as a contributing member of society in the future. If all three of those objectives could be achieved, then what is the relevance of “holding X to blame”?

        • Vaal
          Posted October 29, 2013 at 8:40 am | Permalink


          So…we shouldn’t hold the criminal responsible for his crime because his actions were determined and he couldn’t have done otherwise, but we should be more responsible about our reaction in dealing with the criminal…even though the same could be said of us?

          There’s a contradiction there that I’ve yet to see worked out.


          • frothingslosh
            Posted October 29, 2013 at 8:55 am | Permalink

            That contradiction is precisely the kind of thing I was trying to point out.

            As to cjwinstead’s post, my browser just ate a fairly long reply, and I really need to get back to work. I’ll try to remember to rewrite the thing after work. 😦

  15. Michael Johnson
    Posted October 28, 2013 at 9:48 am | Permalink

    JC: If there is a distinction to be drawn, it should involve who is more likely to offend again, what kind of rehabilitation is most helpful, and what kind of punishment will best deter others. None of these involves the issue of whether a criminal did a deed “of his own free will.”

    I’m expecting the rotten tomatoes here, but I’ll bite.

    Let’s make the case really clear cut. Mr. X poisons his wife because he thinks the poison is sugar, and he wanted to sweeten her meal. Mr. Y poisons his wife because he thinks the poison is poison, and he wanted to kill her. JC thinks no distinction should be made in terms of who was “free” here. We should just decide on the basis of who’s more likely to offend again, what rehabilitation is effective, and what deters others more.

    OK. But notice what the compatiblilist has been saying. Free action = action that is intentional (controlled in the appropriate way by one’s beliefs and desires). We can accept that everyone’s actions are determined, but still distinguish the intentional poisoner from the unintentional one.

    Intentional poisoning is a great predictor of whether one will offend again. It’s a good diagnostic of which rehabilitation methods work (you teach the unintentional poisoner the difference between sugars and poisons… that’s not what you do to the intentional poisoner). Punishing intentional poisoners might cause other intentional poisoners to rethink; punishing unintentional poisoners is unlikely to affect the other unintentional ones.

    (I should say that I’d run the same argument for the mentally handicapped, but it gets way more subtle and sophisticated. I don’t think mental handicaps have anything to do with JCs point– and I don’t think he does either.)

    So the compatibilist says: “See, excellent reason to adopt our notion of free will. It’s the one that accurately tracks all the features free will was supposed to track, as when punishment is appropriate.”

    ::throws smoke bomb, exits room hastily::

    • Darkwhite
      Posted October 28, 2013 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

      There is no need for either compatabilism or the term free will here. As you yourself point out, the key difference between your two murderers is that one of them have difficulty telling sugar and poison apart, whereas the other thinks that sometimes, killing people is the best thing to do.

      Furthermore, it is very plain that the first person needs to stop keeping poison in his cupboard, which is something he will probably do on his own accord while mourning the loss of his wife, whereas the second person needs to be convinced that the laws against murder trumps his personal preferences, which seems to require more than a weekend seminar. There is no need for any metaphysics to explain why these two people should be treated differently (if one wants to keep the homicide rate low).

      Finally, I find your use of free will even more absurd than what I usually see compatabilists bring to the table: that free will is what you exercise when your actions are uncoerced by external factors such as guns pointed at your head. You seem to have widened this even more, suggesting that when your actions don’t bring about the results you hoped or intended, they are not truly free – that the accidental poisoner was somehow robbed of his free will by poor eyesight.

      The logical next step seems to be to say that only those whose lottery tickets paid off acted of free will, not those who lost their money. Where do you draw this line?

      My personal conjecture is that even the self-styled compatabilists fail to agree on what they mean by free will, primarily because the term is so contradictory that it requires constant redefinition to keep this from becoming apparent.

  16. Charles
    Posted October 28, 2013 at 10:01 am | Permalink

    I just can’t get used to seeing the words “mentally retarded” in a serious context. That expression would get you disciplined, sacked and instant pariah status if used in the UK in any educational setting… (and don’t get me started on “handicapped”)

    • Jesper Both Pedersen
      Posted October 28, 2013 at 10:06 am | Permalink

      Language is a funny thing. In Denmark we still use the term handicapped… at least in everyday language.

    • Posted October 28, 2013 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

      I’m genuinely curious… what’s the UK expression du jour? “Mentally disabled?” Or has it migrated to “mentally differently-abled?”

      • Posted October 28, 2013 at 6:29 pm | Permalink

        On reflection, am thinking current terminology there is along the lines of “cognitively impaired”, “cognitive impairment”, etc., despite the loss of precision. (e.g., also applies to temporary drug-induced states). Or “intellectual disability”, which (true to form in these matters) has nearly twice the syllables.

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted October 28, 2013 at 6:45 pm | Permalink

          I consider myself cognitively impaired when I have a migraine (which I think I’m getting again – crap) because I have a hard time finding words & thinking clearly.

        • Diane G.
          Posted October 28, 2013 at 11:39 pm | Permalink

          I was actually under the impression that “mentally retarded” was no longer considered correct in the US either. We’ve moved on to “developmentally disabled” or some such.

          • Posted October 29, 2013 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

            I think that’s right – at least in professional/clinical and scientific language.

            As these things go, it’s normal for a delay until the next round of agreement sets in. Just yesterday, looking up something unrelated I came across some Malcolm Gladwell prose written a few days ago where he specifically said “the mentally retarded”, so apparently he hasn’t gotten the memo either.

            In my field, the word “prostitute” has now been declared a pejorative, so the sanitation squad has been busy inventing the new term “CSW” which stands for “commercial sex worker”. Nevermind most aren’t “commercial”, and that many with straight occupations will take umbrage calling what some CSW do “work”. (e.g. fellating someone for crack, like Ted Haggard did.) I’ve done pretty much an area census of pros, knowing the stories of more than a thousand. I’d classify perhaps 5 as CSW.

            It’s only a few moments ago that I discovered Steven Pinkah coined this phenomenon the “euphemism treadmill”. It just keeps going and going and going…

            • Diane G.
              Posted October 30, 2013 at 12:39 am | Permalink

              Surprised that Gladwell wouldn’t know.

              OK, please tell me what is meant by that use of “commercial.” Obviously something more than just being paid.

              “Euphemism treadmill.” Perfect.

              • Posted October 30, 2013 at 4:40 am | Permalink

                It is a political move, brought on by those who advocate across-the-board legalization in all contexts. (personally, I’m not opposed, at least on any moralistic grounds… but see the issue as something needing to be taken in the context of any given local situation.) So by framing the whole thing as a “commercial” enterprise, like any other commercial enterprise (i.e. in the sense of commerce) and pairing it with “work”, it lends the whole thing blanket legitimacy and (supposedly) reduces the amount of victim-blaming going on.

                In my view, it whitewashes the ugly reality of the mental illness, violence and drug-fueled nature of what is going on outside bordello, nightclub and “consort” contexts. It also reduces precision that is already inherent in the perfectly scientifically accurate term “prostitution”, defined as exchange of sex for money or drugs, regardless of the context… which really is what is happening most of the time, no matter where one goes on the planet. (as opposed to what is happening in, say, Las Vegas, the chicken ranch, or San Juan Puerto Rico — I’d say there is a lot more “CSW” going on in those places, but they are the exception, not the norm) It does little to actually help the plight of those that are in extremely dire situations, keeps the more uncomfortable truths (mental illness, murder, child abuse and neglect, substance dependency, etc.) out of mind, and stokes many social scientists’ feeling of smug moral superiority (they *get it*). All that payoff from one stupid euphemism.

  17. Brad
    Posted October 28, 2013 at 10:12 am | Permalink

    My sentiments lean towards the primal where children are concerned. I feel that anyone who tortures and murders a child should die. I freely admit that anyone who feels differently has achieved a level of sainthood/enlightenment that I simply do not aspire to.

    • freethinkinfranklin
      Posted October 28, 2013 at 10:58 am | Permalink

      @ Brad
      What if that person is wrongly convicted and years after his being put to death the truth is reveled? What then? We say oooops sorry?? It takes no manner of “sainthood” or “enlightenment” to understand we are in fact failable and that death is unretractable.

      • Posted October 28, 2013 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

        That’s my feeling too – there are too many “oops”. I feel the same Brad – the primal part of me would want to smash someone’s head to a pulp if they murdered my child. But then – would it make me feel better? Would there truly be “closure”. My baby would still be gone whether or not the perpetrator lived. Nothing would bring him back to me. If I later found out I had beat the wrong person to death – an innocent person – how would that make me feel? Horror upon horror. If even one person is wrongly put to death, then the system has failed. We have put dozens of innocent people do death – mostly African Americans. This is not ok. A child murderer should absolutely be removed from society – I agree it takes a very twisted, dark person to murder a child. The 2 yr old son of the NFL player who was beaten to death by the mother’s boyfriend died horribly at the hands of a monster – how do you look at a toddler and beat them until their skull breaks? I can’t ever understand. That person has no rights to normal society from here on out. I struggle with my knee jerk reaction – I want this guy to hurt – really, really bad. Yet again, what do we gain with revenge? This is why we need a system that is greater than our instincts and greater than our bloodlust.

  18. Sines
    Posted October 28, 2013 at 10:29 am | Permalink

    I usually skip over free will articles because I’m just not that interested. However, this one got me in because I’m at least mildly interested in the Death Penalty (my general stance is that I’m not against it in principle, but that I’m not aware of any practical way to deploy it ethically).

    So I thought I’d make a statement here, just to see what people think about it. For all I know, Jerrys has expressed this exact idea, it’s just that “Free Will” is second only to “Boots” in interests I do not share with our esteemed host, so I’ve likely missed it if he has.

    Simply put, I see “Free Will” as a Deepity. For those who don’t recall, a Deepity is any phrase that is false in any sense that it would be profound, and true only in the sense that it’s trivial.

    Of course, we all agree we have the ability to make choices. A choice is simply a brain processing data and coming to a conclusion. This is a part of free will, but only in the most boring and trivial sense.

    On the other hand, in the sense that it would be profound, it’s false. I think we know what I mean by this, but I’d go further than the usual qualifications of a deepity. I’d say that free will in any ‘profound’ case is absurd.

    After all, what would free will apart from determinism mean? It would mean there was no reason for the actions we take. Who would be interested in that?

    And when you think about it, dualism and souls don’t get you any farther. Your soul would be just as deterministic as your brain. If the soul has any effect on behavior whatsoever, it must have tendencies, and act in concert with the brain. Some souls would be kinder, some would be more vicious, some would be more relaxed and some would be more excitable.

    Unless all souls are the same, in which case the brain is the sole determinant of actions, then the soul is another deterministic cog that adds up to the machine that is a person. And what determined the nature of your soul? Not you, of course.

    Ultimately, for ‘you’ to be any kind of meaningful entity, you must be deterministic. Otherwise you are just a collection of random actions with no core central personality guiding things.

    This is why I generally find the free will posts on this page to be uninteresting. God COULD exist. Creationism COULD be true. You can therefore explain why they’re not. But arguing whether or not free will exists is like arguing whether or not a triangle has four sides. There’s really not a whole lot to say to about it.

    I can point out dozens of disproofs for god and go on for days, but this post contains pretty much everything I have to say about free will.

  19. Larry Gay
    Posted October 28, 2013 at 10:36 am | Permalink

    In the interest of accuracy, one standard deviation for IQ tests is 15, not 5 as stated in the CBC article.

    • Larry Gay
      Posted October 28, 2013 at 10:43 am | Permalink

      Maybe they are talking about the standard deviation of IQ for a single individual measured many times. That’s probably it. Not really important to the discussion.

      • John Taylor
        Posted October 28, 2013 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

        I think this is the way they meant it. If you are on death row you would probably be very interested in the error bars.

  20. rainbowwarriorlizzie
    Posted October 28, 2013 at 10:42 am | Permalink


  21. Kevin
    Posted October 28, 2013 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

    I have never seen a convincing argument that free will (correct or not) should have anything to do with criminal justice. An aside: putting people to death for any crime is insulting to humanity’s collective intelligence.

    • Pete Grimes
      Posted October 28, 2013 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

      Lets just try the old Popper test on that, shall we?

      What would cause you to abandon your position on your opposition to the death penalty?


      Then it is simply an act of faith, not a rational conclusion.

      I’d have to say, that I think constructing social policy on faith rather than reasoning is much more of an “insult to humanity’s collective intelligence” than supporting a social policy that you yourself find unacceptable

      • Kevin
        Posted October 28, 2013 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

        I think I agree that it is not a rational conclusion. The truth is, I do not care if society puts some of its members to death. It would make no difference, in my view. Even if I was a totalitarian, on this issue, I would ask people to democratically decide if they want to put people to death.

  22. Pete
    Posted October 28, 2013 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

    In 1910, scored against today’s norms, our ancestors would have had an average IQ of 70. From our point of view half of the population back then was mentally retarded. Would you say that half of the population couldn’t tell that murder is wrong? I don’t think anybody should be treated defferently just becoaus of an IQ of 70.

    • John Taylor
      Posted October 28, 2013 at 4:03 pm | Permalink

      Murder rates have dropped over time.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted October 28, 2013 at 11:38 pm | Permalink

      I’m sorry but I doubt that (re IQ). I just cannot credit either that people were so thick in 1910, or that IQs could have changed so much in just 4 generations.

      • Diane G.
        Posted October 28, 2013 at 11:42 pm | Permalink

        I so agree. By extrapolation, I suppose Jefferson would have had a negative IQ.

      • Posted October 29, 2013 at 1:33 am | Permalink

        IQs have changed very much says wikipedia: “Ulric Neisser estimates that using the IQ values of today the average IQ of the United States in 1932, according to the first Stanford–Binet Intelligence Scales standardization sample, was 80”


        • infiniteimprobabilit
          Posted October 29, 2013 at 3:14 am | Permalink

          OK, thanks for that link. It looks as if Pete quoted correctly, the increase in measured IQ is real, though the effect is the subject of some debate.

          I still don’t think genetic change could have made much difference in innate intelligence in that time, or that people in 1910 were significantly dumber than today. Just reading the Wikipedia article, it looks to be complicated and controversial (and a digression off the topic of this post).

          • Jesper Both Pedersen
            Posted October 29, 2013 at 6:30 am | Permalink

            I wonder how IQ testing has developed since then and what effect that has had on the scores?

  23. eric
    Posted October 28, 2013 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

    if we are going to spare condemned criminals on the grounds of “mental disability” or “not knowing right from wrong”—presumably because they had no choice about whether to commit the crimes—on what grounds do we execute “normal” people?

    I’ll make a half-hearted defense. The IQ70 person doesn’t necessarily understand why they are being killed, so its more cruel to them. The regular IQ person does. They may not agree with the punishment, but they can intellectually fathom it.

    I’d also note that even if JAC’s rhetorical question makes a valid point, it doesn’t necessarily lead to liberal social justice policy. A ‘consistent determinist’ could reply ‘okay, capital punishment for everyone that commits a specific crime, regardless of IQ.’

    I’m completely opposed to the death penalty

    If you’re for euthanasia (I’m guessing you are), then an outright ban doesn’t make sense. Its inconsistent because you’re now denying the euthanasia right to the convicts. In such a case, isn’t the consistent liberal social policy to sentence them to lifetime (or appropriate) confinement, but also allow them the option of death instead?

    • Jesper Both Pedersen
      Posted October 28, 2013 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

      This might sound a bit cynical, but if you decide you want to die then sooner or later an opportunity to make it so will arise.

      Another tricky question might be, should we allow assisted suicide for those that already are on death row?

      • eric
        Posted October 29, 2013 at 8:53 am | Permalink

        This might sound a bit cynical, but if you decide you want to die then sooner or later an opportunity to make it so will arise

        The same argument could be made today – no need for ‘choice in dying’ because people can make the opportunity arise.

        That argument is rejected by euthanasia supporters because (at the risk of putting words in peoples’ mouths) such suicides rob the person of their dignity, ignore the real costs associated with the current legal fallout from suicide, and is likely to require the person to use a method that is unnecessarily painful to either them or their surviving loved ones.

        That last issue is particularly relevant to death row or solitary confinement criminals, since the state has in fact actively sought to remove from them any possible device that would let them kill themselves “conventiently” in their cells. So if they do it, they very likely had to use some sub-optimal (read: painful and messy) method.

        • Jesper Both Pedersen
          Posted October 29, 2013 at 10:57 am | Permalink

          Not all people are capable of commiting suicide physically, but then again when that is the case they will probably also have great difficulty expressing their intentions.

          My cynicism was regarding those already on death row awaiting execution and if they should have a say in when and how they wish to go.

          Without the death penalty it won’t be an issue.

          • eric
            Posted October 30, 2013 at 6:41 am | Permalink

            and if they should have a say in when and how they wish to go.

            If you’re pro-euthanasia, then I think the ethical position is that you have to give them the choice between lifetime incarceration or euthanasia.

            But in a scenario where someone is under penalty of death, its a tough question as to whether giving them some control over method is more cruel or less. Frankly, that probably depends on the person: some people are going to find comfort in the choice, while others are going to see ‘the state is forcing me to pick my own death’ as a form of additional, cruel, punishment. I suppose the closest thing to a “single right answer” is to fix the method, but make reasonable alternate methods available on legal appeal. Thus, criminals who don’t want the choice don’t have to make it, but those who do, can expend some effort to have their say in how they die.

        • SA Gould
          Posted October 29, 2013 at 11:03 am | Permalink

          “…no need for ‘choice in dying’ because people can make the opportunity arise.”

          Not really. My mother was diagnosed with ALZ early on. Read all the choice-in-dying literature. Nothing she could do about it, as it’s quite a gradual process and you end up… no longer really being you.

  24. Leigh Jackson
    Posted October 28, 2013 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

    We should not regard all criminal acts as evidence of mental impairment. Mental impairment must be determined by medical professionals, not defined as such by virtue of breaking the law.

    • Leigh Jackson
      Posted October 28, 2013 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

      Ditto for brain disease.

  25. Richard Olson
    Posted October 28, 2013 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

    ‘After all, nearly everyone here is a determinist who believes that nobody, not even the intellectually competent criminal, has a choice about whether they murder or not. In some sense, every death-row inmate has a “brain disease”: the disease of determinism.’

    I simply do not understand what the definition of ‘choice’ is that would enable me to fit into the determinist camp JAC refers to. The above claim about choice has enormous hurdles to overcome, as far as my limited capacity is able to conjecture, before it significantly alters the unanimous decision in Morrissette vs U.S. 1952.

    The principal facts I discovered researching the death penalty once for a policy paper assignment in ’82 (I leaned pro penalty, and was very mindful of that bias as I proceeded):

    1) any deterrent effect from imposition of the death penalty is at best impossible to clearly establish; 2) statistics showed the murder rate almost universally spiked in states in years following high execution rates, then steadily declined until the next spike in execution rates; 3) the rate of murder is lower in states that seldom or never execute.

    My policy recommendation when I wrote the paper summation: the death penalty serves no useful purpose. State imposition of the death penalty is statistically proven to be racist and arbitrary, can not be shown to have demonstrable deterrence effect, and in fact statistics indicate execution by federal or state authorities confers an imprimatur of sanction for taking of human life as retribution. Interesting recent data: study results released late summer of 2013 (I’m not gonna search for a link) reveal that over half of all US executions occur in less than a dozen counties, in (I think) 3 states.

    It ain’t about justice, it ain’t about ‘closure’. It’s all about revenge, is what I concluded then, and nothing has come to my attention since that alters that conclusion.

    The financial cost of execution is high due to expense from appeal processes (that I adamantly oppose limiting) and the very high costs of Death Row solitary confinement.

    As bad as state sanctioned murder is, in a penal system that is in so many respects really fucked up, I am inclined to think almost all imposition of solitary confinement is a very close runner-up to Worst Item of Fucked Up Stuff out of all the items on that lengthy list. Sometimes I wonder if there isn’t a two way tie for first place.

    Solitary confinement is a primitive and barbaric punitive torture. How this practice escapes definition as cruel and unusual is something I am unable to comprehend. It has some efficacy when utilized in very limited circumstances for very brief periods with a tiny population of offender and even then should be closely overseen. Every second of the process should be available for video review upon demand.

    The USA has thousands of prisoners confined indefinitely in this fashion, and it is not unusual for individuals to be held in solitary for multiples of years, up to and including decades.

    • darrelle
      Posted October 29, 2013 at 5:53 am | Permalink

      Thank you for sharing your experiences on this issue. The keystone of this issue should be whether or not it works. As you point out the data does not support that. In that case what could be adequate justification? Satisfying emotional cravings for revenge?

      Even though I am sure that I would strongly crave revenge if someone close to me were murdered, I’ve been there and I did, I don’t think that justifies a death penalty. I’ll go even further and say that I think it is bad medicine to satisfy the grieving persons craving for revenge.

  26. Posted October 28, 2013 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

    Coudn’t agree more with the last two paragraphs. Sam Harris has made the same point. If we were able to see the antecedent causes of our behavior and the antecedent causes of those causes and so forth..whatever it is that would find would be just as exculpatory as a mental illness or a tumor that influences your decision making.

  27. MNb
    Posted October 28, 2013 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

    The only thing you have shown is that “free will hence capital punishment” is a non-sequitur. Well, I’m not surprised. Norway has the most “soft” penal system in the world. Still I doubt if Norwegians en masse reject the idea of free will.
    They are just interested in reducing recidive and are quite successfull at it, free will or no free will.

  28. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted October 28, 2013 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

    shouldn’t we start treating every criminal as if he/she had a brain disease?

    Perhaps, if it means “as if”.

    The harder question would be how to correlate criminal activity with “disease” [“an abnormal condition that affects the body of an organism” ; en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Disease ]. It would be more frequent, but would every crime revolve around “abnormal conditions”?

    • athiest in a foxhole
      Posted October 29, 2013 at 5:26 pm | Permalink

      I seriously doubt every crime would be reduced to the criminal suffered from mental disease. If your family is starving and the only way you can get food is to steal it, I think most people would steal it – survival is one of the most fundamental and powerful drives.

      Children and teenagers who run away from abusive homes often ‘voluntarily’ end up living a life of crime, as a thief or prostitute, because they fear being sent back to their abusive home if they go to legal authorities for help.

      By voluntarily, I mean they can’t think of any other way out of the situation they are in – its the least bad option they can find. Note that this probably isn’t the case, as there are all kinds of charities that try to help kids in these situations but the kids don’t know about them, don’t trust them, or are paralyzed by fear and just get washed down the proverbial creek without a paddle.

  29. Posted October 28, 2013 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

    Using the death penalty as an example is a bit odd because virtually all compatibilists outside of the USA would presumably also be against the death penalty.

    Granted, you should treat mentally impaired people differently from non-impaired ones (medication might, for example, be more useful for the former), […] None of these involves the issue of whether a criminal did a deed “of his own free will.”

    As far as I can see, this appears to be where you contradict yourself.

    And as for the last sentence, should somebody who is forced to steal a valuable item by a criminal who has abducted their spouse be treated the same way as somebody who steals the item out of their own free will? If no, then you are a compatibilist in all but self-awareness. If yes… well, I can hardly fathom why one would treat the two cases the same.

    If an incompatibilist takes the stance that everybody should be punished the same regardless of their mental capacities and freedom to make choices, that would logically extend either into punishing nobody at all or into punishing dangerous animals, diseases and natural disasters the same way as humans, depending on where on the axis it is that they want to treat everybody equally.

    If that is actually what incompatibilism leads to, and mind you I rather think I have misunderstood something here, then it is a much more deranged philosophy than I would have thought. And I had only just convinced myself that most incompatibilists are stealth compatibilists who merely dislike a certain terminology, because, well, I would not have expected them to want to prosecute a landslide…

    • Vaal
      Posted October 29, 2013 at 9:07 am | Permalink

      +1 Alex.

      The incompatibilists will usually chime in to say “Don’t be silly, of course we should treat those two cases differently in practice.”

      It’s just that I’ve yet to see them make a case for this, that doesn’t, as you point out, end up helping themselves either explicitly or implicitly, to the logic of the compatibilist position.

      Unless one acknowledges that there is a very valid, important, practical real-world sense in which you can say “you could have done differently” or “you CAN choose between these
      different ways to react to the situation…”
      Then you are left with no prescriptive force to your argument. And saying “but telling people to act differently can still be an input that affects their behavior” is no remedy for this problem whatsoever, because
      that doesn’t make whatever you are telling someone any more coherent. People fall for all sorts of bad, incoherent arguments that affect their behavior so simply saying that the noise you make to someone might affect his future behavior isn’t an answer to “But do your arguments to that person actually MAKE SENSE?

      So I either see incompatibilists just not really addressing this incoherency in their arguments, or to the degree they start successfully making sense of prescriptive arguments within determinism, they just end up going along the same road as compatibillism anyway.


      • Darkwhite
        Posted October 29, 2013 at 10:32 am | Permalink

        There is nothing incoherent.

        You just need to be able to tell the difference between your rice cooker not working because it’s not plugged in, and when it systematically blows every fuse in the house, preferably without any language about coercion and free will.

        Just like the different rice cookers call for different remedies – for the first, plugging it in, for the second, returning it to your retailer – so do somebody taking criminal action in very exceptional circumstances warrant different treatment and one who simply displays wanton disregard for the law.

        • Vaal
          Posted October 29, 2013 at 11:18 am | Permalink


          That misses the point being made.

          It’s not that you can’t take actions to treat people differently based on the different ways that act.

          It’s whether you can given them coherent REASONS, good arguments, for acting differently, rather than just using brute force, locking them up or whatever, to get your own way.

          So if you want to modify someone’s behavior by saying: “You shouldn’t have done that, next time you should do THIS and here’s why…” you’ll have coherent reasons for doing so.

          But you will have shot yourself in the foot on the starting line if you’ve started by saying “determinism means no one really has a choice in how he behaves.”

          In that case, when you try to reason with a criminal, prescribing some alternative action to the one you want him to resist, he can rightly say “but, you’ve already told me I don’t really have a choice and I’m not really responsible.”

          Further, to talk about how WE non-criminals ought to treat criminals presumes the same thing: that WE have a choice, that we could “choose to do otherwise.”

          Either prescribing behaviors just don’t make sense given determinism, in which case you leave yourself with no good arguments for why anyone should act differently. Or prescriptions DO make coherent sense given determinism. But to acknowledge that entails acknowledging the logic of compatibilism.


          • Darkwhite
            Posted October 29, 2013 at 11:53 am | Permalink

            There is no need to obfuscate anything with talk about choice. Like bad weather discourages fishermen from taking to the seas, because it directly changes their expected the risk and reward calculus, so does a credible guarantee of retribution discourage people from theft.

            Embracing determinism is not at all shooting oneself in the foot. The point of retributive justice is not to have a private conversation with someone’s dualist soul and win them over with reason. A world with enforced law is materially different from one without, and this directly affects behavior, exactly because a deterministic algorithm responds to its input.

            • Vaal
              Posted October 29, 2013 at 12:07 pm | Permalink


              That still simply avoids the issue raised.

              If someone is doing something “bad,” will you have actual good reasons and arguments TO GIVE HIM as a way of changing his behavior, or do you only have force to get-your-way?

              Saying things like “because it directly changes their expected the risk and reward calculus,” doesn’t answer this question. Because all sorts of things change peoples risk/reward calculus, but that in of itself doesn’t tell us WHICH courses of action one OUGHT to do or prescribe. If Fred asks you for a dollar on the street, you may just say “no.” But if he holds a gun at your child’s head, that’s action will change your risk calculation to be sure. But just pointing out “one can alter other people’s risk calculations” doesn’t answer whether Fred’s
              threatening your kid is good or bad or whether Fred ought to change such behavior.

              Unless you want to leave yourself only brute force as a way of changing people’s behavior, you’ll acknowledge that we need to also be able to reason with people to influence their behavior. Which means, whatever you are going to prescribe to someone has to MAKE SENSE.

              But how do you do that on your view? How do prescribe some other route of action, some different behavior, if you’ve started out saying “People don’t REALLY have a choice?”
              You’ve rendered yourself helpless on those terms.

              Try not to speak in generalities and you should see the problem:

              Presume you have a son who has got in his first scrape with the law.

              You want to explain to him reasons for why he should change his behavior. What could you say to him, to give him such reasons, that don’t PRESUME he has a “choice” in the first place to make sense?


              • Darkwhite
                Posted October 29, 2013 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

                It depends entirely on the situation. If I think he is unaware of the possible consequences, I will inform him. If I think he might be underestimating the risks involved, I’ll let him know. If I deem the matter important enough, I might signal retributive behavior, lie to him, physically restrain him, etcetera.

                All of this assuming he is a deterministic agent, who responds to his environment in somewhat predictable ways, such as not wanting to get hurt or punished and being concerned with his own well being.

                Part of your post segues into -ought-, on which Hume was entirely right and I have nothing to add: oughts derive only from our emotional preferences.

              • Vaal
                Posted October 29, 2013 at 2:21 pm | Permalink


                Thanks for the reply…

                I did already presume have a conversation with him about consequences, risks, etc.
                But saying generally “I’d inform him…” doesn’t get to the crux of the issue which is, as you see, the “ought” problem – prescriptions for behavior.

                How will you reason through “good” and “bad” options with your son without presuming there are options; that there are choices?
                You simply have to adopt that point of view to make sense.

                I agree about Hume as well; I think he did a great service in flagging the is/ought divide – not so much that it was impossible to bridge, but that, since people so often slide in a non-sequitur fashion from some “is” they believe to an “ought,” that we should notice this and demand to see how they are bridging this gap. Which is what I’m doing here.

                It doesn’t follow from “it IS the case that doing X might affect someone’s behavior” to “therefore we OUGHT to do X.” Yet that is just the non-sequitur many incompatibilists, Jerry included, seem to keep throwing on the table when the simply highlight the fact that “it still makes sense to argue what we should do, since that can affect someone else’s behavior.” So can hitting them with a rock. But that doesn’t tell us which arguments are good or not, what actual coherent reasons we can give people to take one action over the other, exist.

                Hume pointed to our “passions” in
                his attempt to detect where our reasons for actions arise. I agree, it makes sense: you have a desire or goal for something, it gives a reason for acting toward that goal.
                But that still leaves us having to justify any prescriptions for actions, even if they derive from our desires/emotions/feeling. Because if “route A” won’t get you what you want and “route B” WILL get you what you want, you have to be able to say that coherently to have a reason to choose rout B over A. But to make sense of recommendations like: “If you want to avoid becoming a diabetic you ought to stop eating 4 donuts a day” you have to have some way of understanding ourselves as actually “having a choice” to stop eating or not.

                Which…to the degree you make sense of these things given determinism, seems to be the road to compatibilism.


              • Posted October 29, 2013 at 2:43 pm | Permalink


                If not choices, how would you call the choices of fishermen and thieves instead? Even a chess computer makes choices.

                But I question the entire logic of this post. Logically, there are two positions from which it would follow that everybody should be treated the same, regardless of whether they did something voluntarily, under coercion, under the influence of medication, or accidentally: (1) Everybody has supernatural magical free will that allows them to make good decisions independently of their previous experiences and current state of brain chemistry, and (2) nobody can make decisions because determinism is true and thus it makes “no difference” why somebody did something.

                And then there is one position from which it follows logically that people should be treated differently: (3) determinism is true and thus we do not have magical contra-causal free will that allows us full control even when we are drunk or insane, but even given determinism there are still important differences between those who did something voluntarily, those who were forced, those who could not fully control themselves, or those who made an accident. That is the compatibilist stance.

                So if you argue that somebody who deliberately knocks you over should be charged with assault but somebody who accidentally bumps into you should not, or that somebody who committed a crime because they are insane should be medicated but somebody who did it while sane should not because it would not work, then you are a compatilist.

                The rest is semantics, and it would be nice if we could at some point clarify the question whether “free will” or “choice” have contra-causal, supernatural meaning to the majority of people based on empirical data instead of our respective gut feelings.

              • Darkwhite
                Posted October 30, 2013 at 1:32 am | Permalink

                I would have responded to all of this, but I would merely be repeating myself and chasing ever moving goal posts. My original reply gave the whole framework necessary for incompatabilist penal justice, and neither the is-ought problem (which compatabilism does nothing to resolve) nor the Goldbach conjecture is at all relevant.

              • Posted October 30, 2013 at 5:56 am | Permalink

                The fact that many incompatibilists have mistakenly convinced themselves that goalposts are being moved is one of the many problems of this discussion. Perhaps it would be good to try to understand what compatibilism entails before one concludes either that it is obviously wrong or that it is the same as dualism.

              • Darkwhite
                Posted October 30, 2013 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

                From your original post:

                — Should somebody who is forced to steal a valuable item by a criminal who has abducted their spouse be treated the same way as somebody who steals the item out of their own free will? If no, then you are a compatibilist in all but self-awareness. —

                Incompatabilists can tell the difference between malfunctioning rice cookers and ones which aren’t plugged in. They can also tell the difference between people who steal to save their spouses and those who do it for more trivial reasons.

              • Posted October 30, 2013 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

                That is very nice, but if the incompatibilist position is supposed to be any different from the compatibilist one, then the former must be that because of determinism, because the failure to function of the rice cooker was predetermined anyway, “it makes no difference” whether it does not work due to lack of power or due to being broken.

                And note that this phrase in quotation marks is indeed in various variants constantly used in this discussion despite the indeterminist immediately turning around and behaving as if it would make a difference.

  30. Posted October 28, 2013 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

    Aside from the question of determinism, I think the death penalty subject overlaps with themes from “The Authoritarians,” the eBook highlighted in a previous post on this site. The book lays out evidence that a significant fraction of people derive enjoyment from punishment; from knowing that some “bad person” got what they deserved. In the mid-90’s I worked processing survey data for political campaigns, and one of our projects involved a death penalty questionnaire among likely voters in Texas. I’ve never forgotten one of the verbatim responses: “I don’t believe in the electric chair. I believe in the electric bench. Line ’em up!” I can’t help but suspect that the reason we hold onto the death penalty is not because we need it for any just purpose, but because people (a significant number of them) derive some kind of enjoyment from the concept.

    • Diane G.
      Posted October 28, 2013 at 11:44 pm | Permalink

      It wasn’t that long ago that hangings were a public spectacle, purposefully performed in large public squares to accommodate the crowds.

      • Dominic
        Posted October 29, 2013 at 3:35 am | Permalink

        Not far from there to witch hunts…

      • Posted October 29, 2013 at 4:03 am | Permalink

        Damiens the Regicide is a popular historical example on the subject. He was convicted of slightly wounding Louis XV, and was subsequently given a public execution in which he was tortured, drawn and quartered, axed and burned at the stake, while the crowd cheered. The brutality of this execution played some role in the adoption of the guillotine.

        In 1791, Robespierre supported the first bill to abolish the death penalty in France. The bill failed, and Robespierre himself was later executed publicly. Public executions continued in France until 1939, and were often used to dispose of political enemies during frequent revolutions and power struggles in the 19th century. There does not seem to have been much public outcry against public executions or the death penalty; many people seemed to enjoy watching them, and a strong majority favored the death penalty during that era. Support for the death penalty in France has fallen since the 1990s, and it was constitutionally abolished in 2007, but polls indicate there is still around 45% who favor the death penalty.

  31. Posted October 28, 2013 at 7:02 pm | Permalink

    Interesting juxtaposition of posts. This one and the one on the closure of the Choice in Dying website.

    I’m resoundingly against capital punishment, and resoundingly for the right to choose euthanasia in the case of terminal illness.

  32. Posted October 28, 2013 at 8:16 pm | Permalink

    No one has the right to take another’s life. Whether it is a calculated cold blooded murder or a crime of passion, somebody has lost his/her right to live. Killing someone because he has a low IQ is unacceptable. It is primitive and can only be compared to the behaviour that of Hitler. A person with a low IQ should be cared for; they need kindness and patience from others. What kind of a person is a normal person? We all have weaknesses- that can be corrected or not.

  33. Jimbo
    Posted October 28, 2013 at 9:16 pm | Permalink

    I get confused on this issue. If a serial killer according to Jerry “has no choice” in commiting murder due to a brain disorder, then how could rehabilitation ever work? Or taking the argument to the extreme, why would law enforcement ever release a murderer back into society? If the convicted killer has no “choice”, how will he then suddenly acquire what none of us apparently has to begin with: the ability to do otherwise? What would “rehabilitated” mean anyway? That the criminal learned skills that allow their murderous impulses to be kept in check? What then IS motivation vs compulsion? Can an addicted smoker never quit by choice (and by choice, I mean serious reflection upon future consequences).

    • Posted October 29, 2013 at 8:23 am | Permalink

      This is something many people get wrong. “No choice” doesn’t mean “no choice under any circumstances”. This is why the question of free will is independent of the justice system. In civilized countries, there are 3 reasons for incarceration or other forms of punishment: deterrent (certainly works in general; check out Steven Pinker’s description of the Montreal police strike), protecting society from people known to be dangerous and rehabilitation. None of these depends on whether the criminal has free will. Especially if we believe there is no free will, but rather that we respond to stimuli, then we should shape the environment so that the stimuli deter crime.

      • Richard Olson
        Posted October 29, 2013 at 5:24 pm | Permalink

        ‘This is something many people get wrong. “No choice” doesn’t mean “no choice under any circumstances”. This is why the question of free will is independent of the justice system.’ — I’m not sure if you are speaking only and specifically to the philosophical/neuroscience “free will” terminology, purposely omitting legal definitions. If so, I have no comment. In regards to legal terminology, of course, the language used in Morrissette v US 1952 is liberally salted with that very term because it is such a significant portion of the ruling. The case is the existing precedent in determining defendant competency.

        • Posted October 30, 2013 at 1:00 am | Permalink

          No, just “free will” in the scientific sense.

      • paxton
        Posted October 31, 2013 at 4:26 pm | Permalink

        ” if we believe there is no free will, but rather that we respond to stimuli, then we should shape the environment so that the stimuli deter crime.”

        If we have no free will, then what does it mean that we “should” do something? We will do what we are destined to do.

  34. Anthony leet
    Posted October 28, 2013 at 10:39 pm | Permalink

    To some of the commenters here who think that prison is not a harsh enough punishment. I have been in maximum security prison in Australia and it was hell. Locked in a cell 23 hours a day, no tv no books, being treated like a sub human by the gaurds. Being assaulted and threatened with rape. NO rehabilitation just lock you up and forget about you. Where is the civil in civilisation.

    • Tumara Baap
      Posted October 29, 2013 at 2:04 am | Permalink

      Anthony: What you describe is not usual incarceration. Solitary confinement is entirely another can of worms. Unfortunately I don’t think a lot of people realize solitary confinement is one of the worst forms of cruelty conceivable. It’s in that category of punishments – torture, killing etc – which no human under any circumstance should mete out to another human. This applies whether it’s for a heinous crime, or whether administered under the authority of a state, and regardless of whether it poses a risk of wrongful conviction. Interestingly enlightenment era Americans leery of monarchs and the Catholic Church were more receptive of the notion that there is a line which no civilized society ought to ever cross.

      Atul Gawande’s searing essay “Hellhole” is an eye opener on the exquisite cruelty of solitary confinement.

  35. Posted October 29, 2013 at 5:12 am | Permalink


    In addition to the all the good points made here, in opposition to the death penalty and also in highlighting the problem of intellectual impairment, I’m posting this wiki link about the latter subject.

    It gives good insight as to the politically correct usage of terms (mental retardation continues to be used in some circles, in some cases for its specificity and in others through lack of understanding). Please note that the Special Olympics and other groups representative of the disabled/challenged want people to stop using ‘mental retardation’, etc.

    I also note the following from the wiki article, which suggests that the range for the designation of intellectual disability is an IQ from 70 to 85:
    “Usage has changed over the years and differed from country to country. For example, mental retardation in some contexts covers the whole field but previously applied to what is now the mild MR group. Feeble-minded used to mean mild MR in the UK, and once applied in the US to the whole field. “Borderline intellectual functioning” is not currently defined, but the term may be used to apply to people with IQs in the 70s. People with IQs of 70 to 85 used to be eligible for special consideration in the US public education system on grounds of intellectual disability.[citation needed] ”

    Note that people with intellectual disability may exhibit “some or all of the following characteristics”:

    Delays in oral language development
    Deficits in memory skills
    Difficulty learning social rules
    Difficulty with problem solving skills
    Delays in the development of adaptive behaviors such as self-help or self-care skills
    Lack of social inhibitors ”

    It would be good to know more about what support is currently being offered to intellectually challenged students, and what is the current method being applied in the justice system.

    I note these sections from the wiki article:
    “Until the most recent revision of diagnostic standards, an IQ of 70 or below was a primary factor for intellectual disability diagnosis, and IQ scores were used to categorize degrees of intellectual disability.
    Since current diagnosis of intellectual disability is not based on IQ scores alone, but must also take into consideration a person’s adaptive functioning, the diagnosis is not made rigidly. It encompasses intellectual scores, adaptive functioning scores from an adaptive behavior rating scale based on descriptions of known abilities provided by someone familiar with the person, and also the observations of the assessment examiner who is able to find out directly from the person what he or she can understand, communicate, and such like. IQ assessment must be based on a current test. This enables diagnosis to avoid the pitfall of the Flynn Effect, which is a consequence of changes in population IQ test performance changing IQ test norms over time. ”

    Given the systemic challenges in scoring intellectual disability, I fail to see how applying the death penalty to a borderline case (or any case for that matter) can be an act of justice.

    • Jesper Both Pedersen
      Posted October 29, 2013 at 6:37 am | Permalink

      Good post. Thanks.

  36. Posted October 29, 2013 at 8:17 am | Permalink

    “a punishment that costs more than life without parole”

    This might be true, but there is no believable reason why it should be true. (Of course, the death penalty is too important an issue to be decided on based upon cost. However, you seem to be using the cost argument as an argument against it. Would you argue in favour if it were cheaper? If not, then don’t use the argument at all.)

  37. marvol19
    Posted October 29, 2013 at 8:52 am | Permalink

    My take on this – sketchy maybe, I’m no philosopher nor a criminologist – would run as follows:

    Without free will, humans can be (must be) treated as black-box machines with certain input given a certain outcome.

    So for starters there are laws in place that threaten to punish bad behaviour. Well-functioning humans are deterred enough by this that they rarely, if ever, break the law.
    Certain humans however will and do break the law so we conclude that the deterrent was not strong enough for them, i.e. something is not functioning optimally in their mind. These humans we punish, in the hope of giving a stronger input to activate the deterrent.

    Then there are those humans who are so resistent to even this stronger deterrent that they repeatedly break the law or break the law in especially gruesome ways. We conclude that deterring is not helpful so punishment changes to prevention. This is where some people call for life-without-parole or capital punishment, as per personal preference.

    For those who are mentally ill, we already know in advance that deterring will not work. We also know this is not due to something being specifically wrong with their morality (as with the above cases) but due to wider issues. Therefore punishing them as we do people of normal intelligence seems unfair.

    [I think the weak part of the reasoning here is that one could reason that every criminal is in some way mentally ill and therefore nobody should be punished. As I said I’m an expert in neither criminality nor philoshopy, nor morality]

  38. Andrew Platt
    Posted October 29, 2013 at 10:18 am | Permalink

    I just Googled the figures for the number of executions in the United States and they show that there were only FOUR in the north-east since 1976. Even in the south, the figure of 1106 over the same period equates to less than thirty per year. It is hard to see why the US warrants its brick red colour on the map.

    How many murders were there in the same period? It is hard to tell as the site I found gives data per 100 000 people but it is safe to say that as there are far more murders than executions, very few murderers face the death penalty.

    A punishment can only ever be a deterrent if there is a realistic chance that the guilty will face it. It is therefore no surprise that the death penalty in the US as currently applied provides no deterrent. That does not mean it could never be a deterrent; the only way to be sure is to do the experiment.

    Those concerned that innocent people could be wrongly executed ought to consider that every murder victim is an innocent person wrongly executed.

    Then again, perhaps we do not need to do the experiment at all. Data from countries where the death penalty has been abolished ought to give an indication of whether it is a deterrent or not. I will leave that research to others. Alternatively we can just look at this from a logical point of view. If the penalty for speeding were death, and if it were known to be strictly enforced, do you not think drivers would pay very careful attention to their speedometers?

    As for determinism, if we are all automatons then no-one is truly guilty of anything. The only point of punishment in this scenario is to provide a deterrent, in the hope that the algorithms running in the majority of meat computers will be forced down a path away from murder, rape and robbery. Any deterrent could have value, perhaps even the death penalty if it were shown to be effective.

    Ironically, it only makes sense to spare those who are mentally incapacitated if we believe in free will. Only then can we draw a distinction between those who understand it is wrong to murder and those who do not.

    • Richard Olson
      Posted October 29, 2013 at 5:10 pm | Permalink

      The issue of deterrence is dealt with at length in Furman v Georgia 1972, the case that resulted in over 200 crimes the death penalty is deemed a cruel and unusual sentence, plus a lengthy moratorium on imposition of the penalty imposed pending additional studies which were utilized in subsequent cases challenging portions of Furman.

      Footnotes in the justice’s opinions refer to statistical analyses on available data, not limited to the FBI national compendium of federal murder trials, convictions resulting in death penalty judgement imposed, tracking of legal actions post sentencing and disposition of those cases including executions, reductions in sentence from execution, and exoneration due to reversals of conviction. The FBI began systematically collecting this data during the ’30’s, if my memory serves me well, but it may have been in the ’20’s. The state’s followed this lead in a non-uniform fashion.

      No data exists for the 6K world historical era of capital punishment. The USA’s 30+ years of ubiquitous death penalty data results in analysis results that yield, as I noted above, inconclusive evidence establishing a deterrence effect, and rather substantial evidence that those years with high numbers of executions in particular states are more often than not followed by a year with a spike in that state’s homicide rate.

      Another source on death penalty history data and how it contributes to national policy, including the US, Europe, and the rest of the world, is deathpenaltyinfo.org. I’m not sure what remains to be learned from some new experiment.

    • darrelle
      Posted October 29, 2013 at 6:22 pm | Permalink

      Andrew Platt said:

      ”A punishment can only ever be a deterrent if there is a realistic chance that the guilty will face it. . . . That does not mean it could never be a deterrent; the only way to be sure is to do the experiment.”

      This issue has been studied extensively in other countries and worldwide, in addition to the US. The general consensus among experts on the question “is capital punishment an effective deterrent or not,” is that there are no statistically significant findings either way. There are of course outliers. Some quotes in support.

      ”Our survey indicates that the vast majority of the world’s top criminologists believe that the empirical research has revealed the deterrence hypothesis for a myth… 88.2% of polled criminologists do not believe that the death penalty is a deterrent…”
      “Recent econometric studies, which posit that the death penalty has a marginal deterrent effect beyond that of long-term imprisonment, are so limited or flawed that they have failed to undermine consensus.”
      “In short, the consensus among criminologists is that the death penalty does not add any significant deterrent effect above that of long-term imprisonment.”
      Michael L. Radelet, PhD, Sociology Professor and Department Chair at the University of Colorado-Boulder, wrote in his 2009 article “Do Executions Lower Homicide Rates?: The Views of Leading Criminologists” in the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology:

      ”If executions protected innocent lives through deterrence, that would weigh in the balance against capital punishment’s heavy social costs. But despite years of trying, this benefit has not been proven to exist; the only certain effects of capital punishment are its liabilities.”
      John Lamperti, PhD, Professor Emeritus of Mathematics at Dartmouth College, wrote in his Mar. 2010 paper “Does Capital Punishment Deter Murder? A Brief Look at the Evidence,” published at math.dartmouth.edu

      ”Recent studies claiming that executions reduce crime… fall apart under close scrutiny. These new studies are fraught with numerous technical and conceptual errors: inappropriate methods of statistical analysis, failures to consider all the relevant factors that drive crime rates, missing data on key variables in key states, the tyranny of a few outlier states and years, weak to non-existent tests of concurrent effects of incarceration, statistical confounding of murder rates with death sentences, failure to consider the general performance of the criminal justice system… and the absence of any direct test of deterrence.

      These studies fail to reach the demanding standards of social science to make such strong claims… Social scientists have failed to replicate several of these studies, and in some cases have produced contradictory results with the same data, suggesting that the original findings are unstable, unreliable and perhaps inaccurate. This evidence, together with some simple examples and contrasts… suggest that there is little evidence that the death penalty deters crime.”

      Jeffrey A. Fagan, PhD, Professor of Law and Epidemiology at Columbia University, said in his Feb. 1, 2006 testimony “Deterrence and the Death Penalty: Risk, Uncertainty, and Public Policy Choices” published on the website of the US Senate Committee on the Judiciary, Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Property Rights

      ”Despite the fact that abolitionists have not proved non-deterrence beyond a reasonable doubt, they have succeeded in showing by clear and convincing evidence that capital punishment is not necessary as a deterrent to crime in our society.

      In light of the massive amount of evidence before us, I see no alternative but to conclude that capital punishment cannot be justified on the basis of its deterrent effect.”

      Thurgood Marshall, LLB, late Justice of the US Supreme Court, in a June 29, 1972 Furman v. Georgia concurrent opinion, stated

      Andrew Platt said:

      ”Those concerned that innocent people could be wrongly executed ought to consider that every murder victim is an innocent person wrongly executed.”

      For this admonishment to work you would first have to show that there is good reason to believe that the death penalty is actually more effective at deterring murder. See above for a start on how that has failed to happen despite an effort to do so. Also, since most people who argue for abolishing the death penalty use the claim that it does not improve deterrence as a major reason for their position, the implication that they are neglecting to think of the victims is inaccurate at best.

      Andrew Platt said:

      ”Alternatively we can just look at this from a logical point of view. If the penalty for speeding were death, and if it were known to be strictly enforced, do you not think drivers would pay very careful attention to their speedometers?”

      It is just as easy to use logic to show how your example is not analogous to capital crime vs capital punishment. One example:

      ”People commit murders largely in the heat of passion, under the influence of alcohol or drugs, or because they are mentally ill, giving little or no thought to the possible consequences of their acts. The few murderers who plan their crimes beforehand — for example, professional executioners — intend and expect to avoid punishment altogether by not getting caught. Some self-destructive individuals may even hope they will be caught and executed.”

      The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), in its Apr. 9, 2007 website presentation titled “The Death Penalty: Questions and Answers

      • Andrew Platt
        Posted October 30, 2013 at 4:19 am | Permalink

        I thank Richard Olsen and Darrelle for their replies.

        We all know that we can prove whatever we want with statistics, particularly in situations where there are so many variables to be taken into consideration. For example, just looking at the murder rate in this case is not good enough because advances in medical science over the years mean that many who survive attacks now would not have done so years ago; if all other things were equal we would expects a dramatic drop in the murder rate over time due to this fact alone.

        Those who are opposed to the death penalty for religious, political or moral reasons will obviously try to use the statistics to demonstrate its failure as a deterrent, or will be ready to quote from papers that reach the desired conclusion. Those in favour of the death penalty will do the opposite. Scientists would, I hope, be ready to look at things a little more dispassionately.

        My quick analysis was far from scientific for it relied on one dataset that I cannot be sure is correct. It does tend to suggest though, that no conclusions at all can be reached either way from recent U.S data because the death penalty is so sparingly applied. The scourge of drink driving has largely been eradicated in Britain because almost everyone caught gets banned; if there were only a 1 in 30 or 1 in 50 chance of receiving a ban there would still be drunks behind the wheel everywhere.

        If the death penalty were conclusively found to be an ineffective deterrent it would take some explaining. After all, if people are prepared to change their behaviour to avoid losing their driving licence would we not expect them to be even more careful to avoid losing their life?

        Darrelle tries to explain that away, saying, “people commit murders largely in the heat of passion, under the influence of alcohol or drugs, or because they are mentally ill.”

        Are we sure of that? Many murders are committed in acts of gang warfare, during robberies, in revenge and in attempts to evade justice. All of these are pre-meditated.

        Some, such as crimes of passion, will not be deterred; but a deterrent does not have to deter all crime to be considered effective.

        Alcohol and drugs are no excuse for murder since the individual chooses to take them (assuming free will) and therefore voluntarily abandons their reason. If they were an excuse then drunk drivers could be excused for running over pedestrians while sober drivers would be charged for driving without due care and attention. In fact if drugs and alcohol were an excuse we could make sure we were sufficiently inebriated before doing away with the neighbour who annoys us so much, thereby evading justice.

        As for the mentally ill, I repeat my point (since it was not addressed) that this is only significant if we have free will. If we are all automatons then the boy who throws a brick through a window is no more culpable than the brick, for they are both merely obeying the laws of physics. What does it matter whether the boy is mentally incapacitated or not – by any definition of incapacity – if his influence over events is no more than that of a brick?

        Treating people as inanimate objects unable to make decisions is no way to run a society, of course, which is clearly a problem for those who reject free will.

        • darrelle
          Posted October 31, 2013 at 8:15 am | Permalink

          “We all know that we can prove whatever we want with statistics, particularly in situations where there are so many variables to be taken into consideration.”

          This is true, but I don’t think it is applicable here. Several of the references I gave above are to studies conducted by scientists, and there are many more available. Statistics is an integral part of science. There is an enormous amount of evidence that indicates that the statistical tools used in science to analyze data are well understood. We know how to use them to accurately determine the probability that results are accurate, or not. As I mentioned earlier, if you go looking you will find that the consensus among experts, many of them scientists and mathematicians who have conducted formal studies of the issue, is that the evidence does not support the claim that “capital punishment is a more effective deterrent than imprisonment.”

          “After all, if people are prepared to change their behaviour to avoid losing their driving licence would we not expect them to be even more careful to avoid losing their life?”

          This example, and your past ones, all seem to have a similar problem. They seem to require that we suppose that the options are death or no punishment. This is obviously not the case. The options are death or imprisonment. The chances of imprisonment are very high indeed. Alternatively, perhaps you wish us to assume that imprisonment is such an ineffective deterrent that it can be dismissed. In that case the evidence is very clearly against you. You also assume that the motivations and conditions leading to crimes like drunk driving are similar enough to crimes like murder to usefully compare.

          “Darrelle tries to explain that away, saying, “people commit murders largely in the heat of passion, under the influence of alcohol or drugs, or because they are mentally ill.””

          You do know that that is not true, right? Go take another look. I did not say that. Not, you inaccurately described what I meant, I literally did not say that. It is a quote, with attribution, that I used to point out that you can use logic to rationalize anything you want to. As I said in the original comment. But, just to touch on one category, premeditated vs not, here is some interesting data from the FBI.

          “Of the murders for which the circumstance surrounding the murder was known, 41.8 percent of victims were murdered during arguments (including romantic triangles) in 2010. Felony circumstances (rape, robbery, burglary, etc.) accounted for 23.1 percent of murders. Circumstances were unknown for 35.8 percent of reported homicides. (Based on Expanded Homicide Data Table 12.)”

          That certainly suggests that the percentage of murders that are not premeditated is not trivial.

          Perhaps I am misinterpreting you, but your position seems to be that even though the evidence to date, lots of data & numerous studies, does not support that capital punishment is a better deterrent to murder than imprisonment, it is preferable to go ahead and kill people because it might be. Even when there is irrefutable evidence that some innocent people will get killed. I disagree with that position. If, as the evidence suggests and the experts agree at about 92% to 8%, that the data does not show better deterrence with capital punishment, why kill people?

  39. Vaal
    Posted October 29, 2013 at 11:43 am | Permalink

    Prof Coyne’s questions cut to some obviously hard, deep issues. I think they are sort of being hashed out in other conversations in this comments thread. But the thing is it doesn’t pose a *special* difficulty for compatibilism that incompatibilism doesn’t also face. From either standpoint, we still have the tricky job of acknowledging the actual differences in people’s situations, in people’s competency, abilities, physical options, characteristics, specific influences, types of coercion, etc…and then how we treat these cases differently.

    As for the death penalty itself, I’m not for it mostly because it doesn’t seem conducive for promulgating empathy, and an aversion to harming others, in a society.

    Which sends a stronger message that killing is wrong? Killing the killer? Or, saying “killing another person is so wrong we won’t kill even murderers, so long as we can keep them from harming another person.”

    It seems at least intuitive that the latter would be more likely to mitigate the desire for killing in a society, vs the former. And there does appear to be some empirical evidence for this, looking at the murder rates of societies taking that stance vs corporeal punishment.

    That said, one of the common arguments AGAINST the death penalty that I don’t agree with is the one that states something like “Even IF the death penalty had some deterent effect or worked or served justice, the risk to the innocent is too great: if ONE innocent person is killed accidentally in a death penalty system, it’s not worth it.” Or even a more general “what about innocent people being killed?”

    We don’t really allow that objection to stop us from going to war, or for that matter building tall buildings, driving cars, playing sports, or any of the countless activities or endeavors that have the liability of innocent people being killed. No one can promise perfect results in any endeavor, so the objection that there might be casualties isn’t especially compelling.

    Unless one can show there is some reason to expect what we might consider “excessive” casualties in a system (and perhaps that is the case).

    But, anyway, I think there are other reasons against the death penalty.


  40. Mark
    Posted October 29, 2013 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

    I don’t care how low a person’s IQ is. If they’re intelligent enough to know to beat someone with a “nail studded board,” then they’re intelligent enough to understand the results of that beating and that it’s wrong to do it.

    • Posted October 30, 2013 at 9:33 am | Permalink

      This violates the “fundamental investigative principle of neuroscience”, which is that if you can conceptually draw a distinction, you can probably find a brain condition in which they are disassociated. In this case, we don’t have to look too far: motor actions and ethical evaluations seem to be quite distinct in the brain.

  41. Piyush
    Posted October 30, 2013 at 11:44 am | Permalink

    That map is a bit misleading: it is a bit weird to color India the same hue (~20 executions since 1950, all for “rarest of the rare” cases mostly involving multiple murders) with China and the USA which have that that many executions every year.

    • Piyush
      Posted October 30, 2013 at 11:46 am | Permalink

      The ~20 should be ~50, sorry for the mistake.

  42. Posted October 30, 2013 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

    According to an article, The Psychological Power of Satan, published yesterday by Scientific American:

    “According to this research, one of the central features of BPE [Belief in Pure Evil] is evil’s perceived immutability. Evil people are born evil – they cannot change. Two judgments follow from this perspective: 1) evil people cannot be rehabilitated, and 2) the eradication of evil requires only the eradication of all the evil people. Following this logic, the researchers tested the hypothesis that there would be a relationship between BPE and the desire to aggress towards and punish wrong-doers.

    “Researchers have found support for this hypothesis across several papers containing multiple studies, and employing diverse methodologies. BPE predicts such effects as: harsher punishments for crimes (e.g. murder, assault, theft), stronger reported support for the death penalty, and decreased support for criminal rehabilitation. Follow-up studies corroborate these findings, showing that BPE also predicts the degree to which participants perceive the world to be dangerous and vile, the perceived need for preemptive military aggression to solve conflicts, and reported support for torture.”

    The concept of “evil souls” seems closely allied to determinism (in the sense that people ultimately have no control), which views rehabilitation as simply futile. This would seem to be a variant of determinism that supports the death penalty (albeit a falsifiable one). Happy Halloween.

  43. Ro Kess
    Posted October 30, 2013 at 7:21 pm | Permalink

    I’m against capital punishment, for all the usual reasons. However, I would think that it is more logical to use it against somebody who is mentally deficient than somebody who isn’t. If a person is not competent, and doe not know the difference between right and wrong, and has no ability to improve, and a tendency towards violence, they are always going to be dangerous. They can even kill people in jail, as this man did. They are equivalent to a dangerous dog–they may not be responsible for their actions, they shouldn’t be made to suffer, but they are just not safe to have around, and never will be, and will never do anything to mitigate what they did.

    However if a person committed a murder as a crime of passion, or profit, or for whatever reason, and they do know the significance of what they did, then it would be more unreasonable to give them the death penalty. They may be able to be reformed, and go on to do something good. Even if not reformed, they might do something like explain their actions and lead to better prevention, participate in a “scared straight” program which leads to deterrence, etc. Kind of lame examples, but but I can imagine a person who killed somebody making up for it in some way, if they recognize what they did was wrong.

    • SA Gould
      Posted October 30, 2013 at 7:58 pm | Permalink

      A crime of passion is completely different from a murder for hire. At least in the eyes of the criminal justice system.

      • Ro Kess
        Posted October 31, 2013 at 10:31 am | Permalink

        How so? If they are executing this guy for a crime of passion, what do they do with hired killers?

        • SA Gould
          Posted October 31, 2013 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

          In the eyes of *the criminal justice system* hired killers are considered far worse than crimes of passion. Had a friend who did statistical analysis for such.

          • Ro Kess
            Posted October 31, 2013 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

            Isn’t this guy who committed a crime of passion being executed by the criminal justice system? I don’t get what you are saying.

            My point was that they are doing it backwards by executing competent people and not executing incompetent ones. People who are not capable of knowing right from wrong and who have demonstrated the ability to kil somebody are probably always going to be dangerous, because they are unlikly to change. (Unless the incompetence was due to a treatable mental illness, of course.)

            On the other hand, people who are mentally competent may be remorseful, they may be able to be rehabilitated, they may have insights which would be beneficial to other people, etc.

            I’m not arguing for executing mentally incompetent people, just that I don’t understand why the laws say they shouldn’t be, while mentally competent people should be. It seems backwards, if you are concerned with decreased risk to other people and possible benefit.

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