Brain-damaged man executed for murder—but all criminals are “brain damaged”

Last night the state of Missouri executed by lethal injection the convicted murderer Cecil Clayton. Clayton, however, was brain-damaged, and in a way that probably contributed to his crime. The situation is described by The Guardian:

The state of Missouri executed its oldest death row inmate on Tuesday – a man who was mentally impaired from a work accident that removed a large portion of his brain – after his final appeals failed at the US supreme court.

The execution of Cecil Clayton, 74, was delayed for several hours, while the supreme court weighed appeals from Clayton’s defense attorneys.

Lawyers acting for Clayton, 74, had called on the nation’s highest court to intervene and stay the execution. In a petition to the nine justices, they argued that it would be unconstitutional to execute the prisoner because under a series of rulings in recent years the supreme court has banned judicial killings of insane and intellectually disabled people.

Clayton lost about a fifth of his frontal lobe in 1972 when a splinter from a log he was working on in a sawmill in Purdy, Missouri, dislodged and slammed into his skull. The damage has had a long-term impact on his character and behavior, with a succession of medical experts chronicling problems ranging from uncontrolled rage to hallucinations and depression.

The frontal lobe has an important function in controlling impulse and emotion.

Here’s his crime, from MSNBC:

Then, in 1996, Clayton’s life changed forever – again – when he shot and killed a police officer. Before Barry County Sheriff’s Deputy Chris Castetter even got out of his vehicle at Clayton’s home – where the officer had gone to investigate a domestic dispute – Clayton fatally shot Castetter in the head, according to police.

Here’s Clayton (photo from the Guardian):

Missouri Execxution

And here’s a scan of Clatyon’s brain from MSNBC. The damage is obvious and severe:


A brain scan shows the missing portion of Cecil Clayton’s brain. Clayton suffered brain damage in a sawmill accident that required one-fifth of his frontal lobe to be removed. Courtesy of Attorneys for Cecil Clayton

Both the governor of Missouri and the Supreme Court rejected Clayton’s appeal, though admitting he had what they euphemistically called “adaptive deficits.” What they saw as more relevant was Clayton’s ability to understand why he was being killed. More from the Guardian:

“Mr. Clayton’s IQ, since his accident and subsequent deterioration, now falls within the range required for intellectual disability,” the defense wrote in its appeal to the high court. “And there is substantial evidence of adaptive deficits; Mr. Clayton, even in prison, cannot without assistance order canteen items or navigate the telephone system.”

Missouri said that medical exams had found Clayton understood why he was being executed and that meant he was competent to face the needle. They argued that Clayton’s intellectual deficits had to be present before he turned 18 to let him escape execution and that he waited too long to raise his claim.

“As one who has carried a badge most of my adult life, I share the outrage of every Missourian at the murder of law enforcement officer, Deputy Christopher Castetter,” Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster said in a statement following the execution. “Cecil Clayton tonight has paid the ultimate price for his terrible crime.”

This execution is a prime example tragic results that come from people’s failure to understand determinism and its consequences for justice, reward, and punishment. What happened to Clayton is a direct and unavoidable consequence of his background and genes, but also of the public’s erroneous notion that people have “free will”—that in many situations we (and Clayton) can freely choose to act other than the way they did. In fact, science tells us that Clayton had no such choice, whatever the prosecutors say. Our brains are computers made of meat, and run programs based on their wiring, which comes from the genes we inherited and the environments we experienced. There is no ghostly “we” that can override the output of those programs.

The MSNBC link was sent to me by Dr. Russell Jacobe, an anesthesiologist in Texas who should know something about the brain (name and email used with permission). Jacobe sent me his own analysis of the issue, and rather than reiterate what he said, which I fully agree with, I’ll just reproduce what he told me:

The above [MSNBC] link references an execution that has implications regarding freewill. The prisoner, Cecil Clayton, suffered a traumatic brain injury and years later murdered a policeman. After the injury Mr. Clayton had gross abnormalities in the frontal cortex on MRI (missing a significant part of it) personality changes, problems with impulse control, and a decrease in cognitive ability. I do not believe he had the ability to choose his actions at the time he committed the crime. This seems an obvious case where continued medical treatment, not execution, would have been more humane. This patient/prisoner had macro changes to the brain that our current MRI technology can easily identify. What if in the future we can define abnormalities or brain damage at a finer level? There are probably many cases of brain damage in the ranks of murderers that we can’t pinpoint yet via scans or testing. I believe, as neuroscience and genetic testing improve, we will learn that most violent criminals have physical reasons for why they broke the law. We may learn that it is not their fault that their brain structures and pathways predispose them to violence just like it is not a diabetic patient’s fault that her blood sugar is high. Such advances would have profound repercussions for how we punish crime in this country.

I’ve enjoyed your work and website for years and look forward to the new book. Obviously, I had no choice but to send you this email.

But I would go further than Dr. Jacobe, adding something I’ve always believed: every criminal has “brain damage” in the sense that the constitution of their brain, as determined by their environmental history and genetics—in conjunction with the situation in which they found themselves when they transgressed—had no choice but to commit a crime that damages society. Nearly all philosophers agree with that kind of determinism. A criminal could not have done otherwise at the moment of his crime, just as we have no choice about whether to have a sandwich or a salad at lunch.

This determinism makes hash of the notion that we should judge or punish criminals based on whether they “knew right from wrong” or whether they “can understand why they are being executed”. Yes, some miscreants do know and understand those things, but, given that they couldn’t have acted otherwise, why is that relevant? It’s entirely possible to know that what you’re doing is wrong by society’s lights, and yet still be unable to resist doing wrong. Sociopaths are the most extreme example of this: some clearly understand that society judges their actions as wrong, but they themselves don’t feel that they’re wrong. But even criminals who sense that their own actions are “wrong” still have no choice in what they do. And their IQ is irrelevant, too. No matter how “smart” you are, your choices are just as constrained as anyone else’s. We’re all responsible for our missteps, in the sense that we made them and punishment of the miscreant may be warranted. But we’re not morally responsible, for that means that we could have freely chosen a better way.

What Clayton needed was not a lethal injection, but treatment. Yes, perhaps treatment couldn’t help someone with such a severe brain problem. In that case rehabilitation might be futile, but Clayton would still need to be jailed—for both the protection of society from his poor impulse control, and to deter others less obviously debilitated from committing similar crimes.  Biological determinism is still compatible with confinement for these things. Deterrence, rehabilitation, and sequestration are the reasons we determinists favor incarceration, whether it be in a jail or a hospital. (Deterrence is simply the action of an environment circumstance—the observation of someone suffering for what you might contemplate doing—on your neurons.) But in all cases our goal should be the good of society and the possibility of changing the prisoner so he can re-enter society without endangering us all.

But Missouri’s goal in this case goes far beyond that: its goal was largely to punish Clayton for what he did. In other words, the motivation was retribution. This is clear from both the stated “outrage” of the attorney general and the notion that Clayton had to “pay a price” for his crimes—the loss of his life.  Clearly, both of these statements assume that Clayton could have behaved otherwise—could have refrained from the murder. Outrage is not a useful emotion toward someone whose crime probably stemmed from brain damage.

But it’s not a useful emotion to feel towards any crime, although such emotions, and the desire for retribution, may have evolved as a way to protect society from offenders. But rationality has taken us beyond these primitive feelings: we understand determinism, we understand that people’s actions are completely determined by factors over which they have no control, and we can put aside our childish emotions and adopt a truly humane approach to justice. When we realize that criminals never had a choice, we can then let science rather than knee-jerk reactions guide our actions. What punishment is the best deterrent for others? What are the chances that an offender, if released after a certain period, is likely to re-offend? What is the best way to treat prisoners, “brain damaged” or otherwise, to cure them?

All this is, in principle, accessible through research, but little is being done. We’re still letting primitive emotions rather than reason guide our actions. When they slipped the needle into Clatyton’s veins yesterday, it was an act not of reason, but of irrational and state-sponsored retribution. How can it possibly make sense to kill someone for something they could not help doing?


  1. geckzilla
    Posted March 18, 2015 at 9:39 am | Permalink

    It’s tempting to follow your reasoning and say that perhaps a large percent of the population can’t help but feel the need for this sort of retribution.

    • darrelle
      Posted March 18, 2015 at 10:16 am | Permalink

      That is so, and I am about as sure as can be that Professor Coyne would largely agree with your statement. Though he might modify it a bit for clarity to something more like, “none of the people who feel the need for this sort of retribution can help but feel that way.”

      But, that is not a very good argument in favor of, or against, capital punishment. It is just the way things seem to be, given our current state of knowledge. Interestingly, it also seems to be that we, humans, are capable of reasoning, planning and culture by which we can alter our behavior in ways contrary to our emotion / instinct driven responses.

      • Posted March 18, 2015 at 11:33 am | Permalink

        I’m not so sure you can act contrary to one’s instinctive response. I’m not sure that the “reasoning, planning and culture” are not instinctive, as well. One’s initial, instinctive response might be overridden and a new instinct be installed in its place; but the response is still instinctive. What you wrote still implies a free will hanging around somewhere that can conjure up absolutely new planning, etc. I’m not convinced; I don’t see the mechanism for such.

        • darrelle
          Posted March 18, 2015 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

          I don’t think so. If you want to call it replacing one instinct with another, I think that might be reasonable. It all depends on what is meant by “instinct.” It seems pretty evident that we can change each other’s minds about things. I don’t see that that necessarily entails any kind of free will divorced from determinism.

          In our cultures we have undeniably devised all kinds of codified behavioral rules that are contrary to what the typical human would prefer to do / have done, “in the moment.” For example, a brother wanting to kill the person who raped his sister. This is the kind of thing I was trying to describe.

          By whatever means are entailed by the deterministic reality we find ourselves in, we do actually do the things we call “choosing,” “deciding,” “reasoning,” etc., and they are real processes though we don’t understand them well.

      • geckzilla
        Posted March 19, 2015 at 1:11 am | Permalink

        One wonders how we ever manage to get out of it in the first place. Yet, here we have many places where execution is illegal. Clearly, there is no simple explanation for how decisions are made, whether it’s to commit a crime or create a law.

  2. Posted March 18, 2015 at 9:42 am | Permalink

    You might find Steven Pinker’s arguments in “Blank Slate” to be interesting.

    The rough idea: even if our behavior is determined by factors beyond our control (no free will), the idea of deterrence is still a useful one (put consequences that a person has to take into account for their decision tree).

    Of course, that isn’t about the death penalty per se (and I am against it for a variety of reasons and am glad that Illinois did away with it).

  3. Posted March 18, 2015 at 9:42 am | Permalink

    You say, “We’re still letting primitive emotions rather than reason guide our actions.”

    But earlier you said that determinism is so complete, “we have no choice about whether to have a sandwich or a salad at lunch.”

    If that is true, then it would seem we don’t have a choice either of whether to let “primitive emotions rather than reason guide our actions.”

    It would seem to be impossible to get outside of the deterministic loop.
    For me I guess it is impossible to think no one has any choice, including ISIS and HAMAS.

    • Posted March 18, 2015 at 10:07 am | Permalink

      We don’t have a choice about what we do at any given moment, but our actions in the future can be influenced by what we hear. So if I tell you that you should change the justice system, and your brain’s programs find that comporting with a given result,then I could change your mind about that, even if I was determined to say what I did (and of course, other people’s words influenced my brains). Yes, it’s impossible to get out of the deterministic loop–that’s called “physics.” But that doesn’t mean that we can’t change each other’s minds, or that we shouldn’t fight to stop people, like ISIS, whose brains are also influenced to behave in ways that are bad for society.

      • Vaal
        Posted March 18, 2015 at 9:36 pm | Permalink

        Jerry Wrote: “We don’t have a choice about what we do at any given moment, but our actions in the future can be influenced by what we hear. So if I tell you that YOU SHOULD change the justice system,…”

        (Emphasis mine)

        But there is the sticking point that a number of us keep raising. That use of the word “should” (or any such prescriptive language). How exactly do you make sense of such prescriptions given the context of determinism as you tend to present it.

        The argument starts with the premise that Clayton had no real choice – that we need to acknowledge he “could not have done otherwise.”

        And that this state of affairs of course excepteds to everyone.

        But then, what logically consistent argument do you present to someone who says: “I blame Clayton for his choice. Why are you telling me I ought to change my mind? I have no “real choice,” I have my determined viewpoint and can not choose otherwise.”

        Replying that “My admonishing you has the potential to change your behaviour” seems a non-sequitur because it just doesn’t answer the internal logic problem being pointed out. Faulty arguments influence people’s behaviour all the time. “I know the bible is true because it tells me God never lies” has inherent liabilities as an argument. If you point out the internal problem and the Christian replies “But my output can influence people’s inputs – my argument can change persuade some people and alter their behaviour!”

        Certainly it can. People are swayed by bad arguments all the time. That reply just does nothing to remedy the problem in the argument though.

        So back to “should.” If you are saying I SHOULD change my attitude toward Clayton, while at the same time having stated we can not do otherwise, then that doesn’t compute.
        “Should” implies “can” – if I can not do otherwise than hold the view I do, telling me I should change it is as logical as telling me i “should” act in accordance to physics or should disobey the laws of physics. These are things about which I have no choice to do otherwise, which is why we recognize such prescriptions as absurd.

        So, it still seems absurd to argue on one hand that I “can never have chosen otherwise” AND that I SHOULD choose X Approach over Y.

        That’s the apparent contradiction we keep seeing, and which “my saying it might influence your behaviour” doesn’t seem to address.

        To someone replying to your admonitions “but I can’t do otherwise” it seems to make any sense you have to say “yes you CAN do otherwise.” You have to be able to acknowledge that the person you are making the prescription to does have some robust sense of “choosing between alternatives” to make sense of your prescription.

        When you get into the nitty gritty of what such “choice” can mean WITHIN the context of determinism, I don’t see how you don’t really step on to the road of compatibilism.

        And as compatibilists will argue, the types of distinctions you must start making WITHIN a deterministic framework about when it would make sense to say “I did have a choice” or “I didn’t have a choice,” these distinctions end up looking pretty much like our everyday distinctions to begin with!

        (I know, I know, like anyone needed to hear that again…)

        I also want to add that I’m very sympathetic to the underlying view Jerry has on this issue of crime and blame and punishment. I just keep stumbling over some of the logical details, at least as I see it presented here.

    • Kevin
      Posted March 18, 2015 at 11:00 am | Permalink

      Emotions and insecurity drive people to faith. Science leads them away. This is a fact. Each of us can decide what universe we live in. The universe does not care, but only science corresponds to what the universe is.

      Determinism is not relevant when it comes to deciding what we want to believe (of course it is still determined).

      You might want to think about what is possible, i.e., I can eat a salad, I can eat a sandwich, from what is physically impossible (or improbable), like tunneling through the earth to china for a sandwich.

    • Gary
      Posted March 19, 2015 at 3:26 am | Permalink

      So very well said – thank you!!!!

  4. Larry Esser
    Posted March 18, 2015 at 9:46 am | Permalink

    For a number of years, I had to work with someone whose behavior didn’t make sense. He would treat people very badly for no reason but then seemed truly startled when those people got upset with him or stopped dealing with him. The strangest thing was that his behavior never changed; it took a long time for me to grasp that he had no empathy and was not able to learn it, just as someone who is color-blind from birth cannot learn what color is. This person was, for want of a better term, a sociopath (he never committed any act of physical violence that I knew of) and the only thing you can do with someone like that is get as far away from them as you can. You will never change them. “Blaming” them for their behavior is just as useless as blaming a color-blind person for not “understanding” color. That ability is not in their brain.

    • Sastra
      Posted March 18, 2015 at 9:59 am | Permalink

      Years ago I read The Mask of Sanity, a seminal work on sociopathology. The author makes the same point you do: sociopaths are usually their own worst enemies. Few of them are violent. Instead, they keep undermining even their own goals, over and over again, without self awareness or the seeming ability to remember that they ought not to do X if they want Y.

      • Larry Esser
        Posted March 18, 2015 at 11:34 am | Permalink

        That’s it–but what took me so long to get was that this person did not know this and never would. That speaks to what Jerry is saying here, that the brain can be damaged or simply not have the means to do certain things. In such cases, one cannot just punish a person and expect it to really change them, although such people can and, in the case of psychopaths must, be restrained or kept from harming others. But they will not be able to change because they do not have the kind of brain that lets them do that. Jerry is quite right to say the man in this case should not have been executed for, in a very real way, he could not stop himself from doing what he did. But such people can and must be restrained. Of course, if you don’t know they will do something like this before they do it, on what grounds can you restrain them? That is the hard part.

        • Sastra
          Posted March 18, 2015 at 11:46 am | Permalink

          Robert Sapolsky once gave a talk on the under-developed (compared to humans) frontal lobes of iirc orangutangs and the way it influenced their ability to hunt. They would form a group, trap prey, start running towards it in Lean Mean Hunting Machine mode, in for the kill — and then one of them would notice the butt of the orangutang in from of him and bite it. Because it’s a butt in front of him. Apparently. A fight ensues and the deer or whatever escapes safely.

          The ability to restrain oneself for a larger goal is an important one.

          The problem with sociopaths is that they don’t seem to be impaired. My mother works with the mentally handicapped, taking them on trips and such. She knows which ones can handle responsibility and which ones will agree and forget or agree and do the opposite and argue. And the general public can usually tell they’re challenged and they make allowances. But sociopaths blend in … until they don’t.

          It’s also difficult to tell a clinical sociopath from someone who is just being an entitled asshole.

          • microraptor
            Posted March 18, 2015 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

            Frans De Waal said that about baboons- they would chase a gazelle, then one would notice the baboon in front of it and suddenly attack. They apparently lack the same concept of past, present, and future that humans and chimpanzees have- they live in the “now” so when they see the fleeing baboon that might be a rival, they forget that they’re trying to hunt a gazelle and think that they were trying to get the rival the whole time.

            • Sastra
              Posted March 18, 2015 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

              Ah, I think you’re right — Sapolsky was talking about baboons, not orangutangs. I was at his talk, but I did not recall correctly. De Waal presumably makes the same point. They both study primates.

              • Tim Harris
                Posted March 18, 2015 at 6:42 pm | Permalink

                Yes, the ‘men of the forest’, mostly solitary & arboreal, don’t go hunting in groups, chasing deer through rain forests, and most of Sapolsky’s work has been with baboons.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted March 18, 2015 at 7:17 pm | Permalink

        “…sociopaths are usually their own worst enemies. Few of them are violent. Instead, they keep undermining even their own goals, over and over again…”

        This seeming paradox has been observed for millennia. Socrates and Plato hashed it over; they called it akrasia. Let’s hope neuroscience finally brings us some answers.

        • Night-Gaunt49
          Posted March 20, 2015 at 11:30 pm | Permalink

          The smarter sociopaths and or psychopaths are the real dangers. The ones who can sweet talk you to follow them then screw you as they sail to the top of a corporation or in the military or in any organization. Some of them are artful in faking they care, but should one get in charge things won’t work out well. They tend to take glory of others but do nothing positive for the company they work for. Take those golden parachutes while everyone below gets the fallout of the disaster that should have been avoided.

          They tend not to become shell shocked, no PTSD since they have no emotional anchor to anything other than themselves they can do things that would an otherwise empathic person would never do. They think of us as weak to their strength. Ayn Rand though it a superior trait of her “superior man” only they aren’t murderers in her mind, they are statesmen an builders not petty criminals.

          You do not want them running your church, your company, your nation-state. They have no real allegiances either.

          However if they are brought up in a loving family there is a good chance they won’t turn to the worst aspects of their condition. Euthenics does work.

  5. Sastra
    Posted March 18, 2015 at 9:54 am | Permalink

    But rationality has taken us beyond these primitive feelings: we understand determinism, we understand that people’s actions are completely determined by factors over which they have no control, and we can put aside our childish emotions and adopt a truly humane approach to justice.

    People who are not determinists are also capable of recognizing mitigating circumstances and considering the criminal’s entire background, upbringing, situation, brain damage, and so on. We can discover and agree that we’re all complicated and embedded in our environment regardless of whether or not there’s ‘free will’ and the hypothetical ability to have chosen otherwise. Personally, I don’t think getting into the laws of physics is particularly useful or necessary in order to make an argument against retributive punishment.

    The problem with religion isn’t so much that it carries along a belief in free will, it’s that it creates a storyline which treats real human beings as superficial characters in a neat and simple narrative. Bad guys get punished. The minute someone can step outside of that and think “there but for the grace of God go I” the illusion is shattered. Reality is I think a far more powerful and pointed weapon than debates on determinism and “meat robots.”

  6. krzysztof1
    Posted March 18, 2015 at 9:56 am | Permalink

    Is there more than one side to this issue? The answer may lie in whether the death penalty is warranted for more than one reason. Is this case complicated because the victim was a police officer? Is it complicated because some persons with similar frontal lobe damage don’t commit murder? I am against the death penalty in general, but I don’t know how I would feel if it could be shown that it is an effective deterrent to violent crime. I would probably still be against it. A life for a life is primitive vengeance no matter how you rationalize it, in my view.

    • Posted March 18, 2015 at 10:13 am | Permalink

      Well,as far as I know, the evidence is that it’s not an effective deterrent, and if that’s the case then we needn’t consider the death penalty further. And for the sequestration criterion, in terms of cost,it’s cheaper to keep someone in jail for life without parole than to kill them.

      • krzysztof1
        Posted March 18, 2015 at 10:38 am | Permalink

        That’s kind of what I figured (deterrence).

        • Night-Gaunt49
          Posted March 20, 2015 at 11:33 pm | Permalink

          What we need are real deterrents, and the Death Penalty isn’t one of them. Incarceration for 50 years is pretty much life. And if they do get out when they are 70, there is little chance of them hurting anyone else unless they are mentally ill enough to have a compulsion then they must stay incarcerated but not in prison which is a pathological place and if your survive you run the risk of coming out as one.

      • Larry Esser
        Posted March 18, 2015 at 11:38 am | Permalink

        One hundred percent agreement with Jerry on this.

      • Posted March 18, 2015 at 11:40 am | Permalink

        I think you’ll have to justify that claim, that it’s cheaper to house and feed someone than to kill them; especially if you discount the legal fees wrung out of the situation of a death penalty. From a pure maintenance standpoint, getting rid of the person has to be cheaper than keeping them alive.

        • darrelle
          Posted March 18, 2015 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

          He was not speaking about what might be possible. He was talking about the way things actually are.

          • John Scanlon, FCD
            Posted March 18, 2015 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

            Yes, it might be possible to abolish the appeals courts and carry out death sentences in the dock, or minimise court time by executing suspects on the street or in their homes as an alternative to arrest. The former approach wouldn’t ever happen in a democracy, but the latter seems to get a pass in many places.

            • darrelle
              Posted March 18, 2015 at 5:02 pm | Permalink

              You wouldn’t happen to be a strategist for the US Republican Party would you? That kind of talk would certainly garner the votes of a certain segment they typically target.

        • S.A. native
          Posted March 18, 2015 at 9:24 pm | Permalink

          And what proof do we have that incarceration is a deterrent?

          And it would be cheaper to let the murderers go free than to keep them locked up.

          • darrelle
            Posted March 19, 2015 at 6:05 am | Permalink

            There are two separate issues relevant in your argument. Deterrence and preventing the murderer from being able to murder anyone else.

            Even if incarceration is ineffective as a deterrent it is still effective at isolating murderers from the general population.

            So is killing murderers. It then becomes primarily an ethical issue. Do we kill even if it is not necessary to achieve the goal of protecting the general population?

          • Night-Gaunt49
            Posted March 20, 2015 at 11:35 pm | Permalink

            What a wonderful false analogy. As long as we have them under lock and key, they cannot hurt anyone outside. Now inside is another matter and the way prisons are run is pathological. Change that and they might start changing those incarcerated.

            First, take them out of private hands.

      • kevin7alexander
        Posted March 18, 2015 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

        Well,as far as I know, the evidence is that it’s not an effective deterrent,

        AFAICT it may even be an incentive. Think about people who climb rocks or jump out of planes or ride motorcycles too fast. Doing dangerous things is exciting!! Doing things that may kill them is, for some people, a rush.
        Remember Ted Bundy who travelled all the way to Florida to kill a twelve year old girl. As I remember it he went there because Florida had just re-instated the death penalty which he said improved the high.

    • darrelle
      Posted March 18, 2015 at 10:30 am | Permalink

      I can absolutely guarantee that the fact that the victim was a police officer sealed this man’s fate. No doubt about it.

      • John Scanlon, FCD
        Posted March 18, 2015 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

        Not a complicating factor, but an extreme simplifying factor as far as that cop and that attorney general were concerned.

      • Michael Waterhouse
        Posted March 18, 2015 at 6:42 pm | Permalink

        I agree. No doubt at all. It is obvious from the tone of the accusers rationalizations.
        And their general attitude that killing or even hurting one of them is much worse than hurting anyone else.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted March 18, 2015 at 7:23 pm | Permalink

        I think you’re right.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted March 18, 2015 at 8:08 pm | Permalink

      The only non-refutable argument that I’ve ever heard in favor of the death penalty is the “just deserts” position — that there are some crimes so heinous that the only way for society to express its opprobrium for the act is to take the perpetrator’s life. (I don’t subscribe to this argument myself, and believe capital punishment to be unjustified in all instances.)

      The problem (among others) with this position is that it has proved impossible for our justice system to administer the death penalty in any impartial, consistent manner. First, the system is plagued by biases — as to race (both the perpetrator’s and the victim’s), as to economic status (ditto, ditto) and even as to gender (woman being very rarely condemned to death and even more rarely executed, including where their crimes are virtually identical to those committed by men).

      Second, even if we could eliminate such biases, no one has ever devised a system by which fact-finders (in some jurisdiction, juries; in others, judges) can reliably isolate cases deserving of capital punishment from those that are not. (Most people unfamiliar with the workings of what Justice Harry Blackmun termed the “machinery of death” feel about such cases the way Justice Potter Stewart felt about pornography: “I know it when I see it” — but only because they’ve never tried to sort such cases in a rational manner.)

      As a result, even under optimal circumstance (which never exist), the death penalty is implemented in an arbitrary and capricious manner. Indeed, it would be no more arbitrary and capricious to take all offenders convicted of Murder in the First and march them down a fairway during a thunderstorm with 1-irons held over their heads to let nature to take its course.

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted March 19, 2015 at 12:32 am | Permalink

        And of course the major trouble with the death penalty which makes it different from any other is that if (or when) you find out the conviction was wrong it’s too late to correct it.

        • Ken Kukec
          Posted March 19, 2015 at 1:58 am | Permalink

          Yep, there’s that, too. A complicating factor in this regard is that (with the exception of a few high-profile, cause célèbre-style cases) once an offender expires — either by execution, or as is much more likely given the lengthy duration of most death-row incarcerations, by natural causes or suicide — all efforts to find exculpatory evidence or other basis demonstrating that his conviction was unwarranted come to a halt.

          • Night-Gaunt49
            Posted March 20, 2015 at 11:39 pm | Permalink

            So far there is no deterrence for the corruption of the police and courts that have sent innocent people to death row and to murder by the state. None of them get the death penalty for murder do they? Perfect crime with everyone complicit. Fix that first then we will see.

            Too much religion in our penal system, all of it bad.

  7. Diana MacPherson
    Posted March 18, 2015 at 10:27 am | Permalink

    In this case, I suspect the judge and jury understood determinism….it’s so obvious he had a brain injury that affected his self control if you look at that image. I think they instead chose to ignore the evidence of determinism to satisfy their own urges to exact revenge. They probably feel they have done the right thing because their thirst for revenge has been quenched.

    • darrelle
      Posted March 18, 2015 at 10:34 am | Permalink

      Particularly when you add in the traditional honor code among law enforcement groups. Just like the judge said.

  8. Posted March 18, 2015 at 10:42 am | Permalink

    Great article. I’ve been debating for 40 years with a friend about whether or not free-will exists. On my side, the belief that physics precludes free-will, on his side his decision whether to have a Twinkie or a salad for dinner proving he has free-will. Ah well, it’s an argument we’ll probably carry to our graves. He’s my best, and now at 70 my only friend, I think he’s an idiot, on the other hand he thinks I am the idiot. C’est la vie.

    • Posted March 18, 2015 at 11:46 am | Permalink

      When it comes to the Twinkies or the salad for dinner, either there is a criterion for making a choice—and a criterion precludes free will; it’s an algorithm against which the data are applied—or the choice is arbitrary, a flip of he coin—which, again, is not an expression of free will. If one has chosen to flip a coin, there is an algorithm which led one to that choice.

      The essential problem with free choice is lack of a workable definition. How could a choice be possibly free? What does freedom mean when making a choice? Free from reason?

      • Vaal
        Posted March 18, 2015 at 7:45 pm | Permalink


        I believe you have a false dichotomy going there.

        If I chose a Twinkie over a salad it is a “free choice” insofar as I am physically capable of eating either, and had an opportunity to eat either. That is the “having a choice” part.

        I had a stronger desire for the Twinkie, and I was able to fulfill the act of eating the Twinkie – I was not constrained from doing so physically, nor threatened by another person to do as he desired rather than as I desired, etc. that is the “freedom” part of the equation.

        Basically, this is the regular, everyday sense of “freedom” that most of us imply when we speak of having been free to choose.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted March 19, 2015 at 2:22 am | Permalink

      Isn’t it great how, when you come to such a profound interpersonal understanding — like idiot-vis-à-vis-idiot — nothing, no amount of disagreement or discord, can buck your friendship?

      • Diane G.
        Posted March 19, 2015 at 3:00 am | Permalink

        Just like some marriages. 😀

  9. Posted March 18, 2015 at 10:48 am | Permalink

    I think execution is barbaric and wasteful. Wasteful of the potential for understanding what makes people tick, and of all the people we need to understand, the outliers – the most rotten or the most intelligent – are the ones we need to understand most.

    Having said that, as heinous as the prison system is, Missouri may well have put that man out of his misery. At least he’s not suffering anymore. If the prisoner had awareness enough to regret his actions, I would think living with that for years and decades would be a far worse punishment. Which is why so many convicts go quietly I’m sure.

    And speaking of environmental effects, I’m curious what the consensus is now on the coincident increase and decline in US criminality along the respective concentrations of atmospheric lead? It was a comelling theory when I first heard of it (if Dr. Pinkah discusses it in Angels It would be interesting to read his analysis.

  10. Randy Schenck
    Posted March 18, 2015 at 10:50 am | Permalink

    I would not argue with any of the analysis of this discussion or that religion plays a big part in why people seem to want this death penalty. But none of it gets down to a cure or at least an attempt at reducing the number of shootings. You could elect to keep this fellow alive and treat him properly the rest of his life. The killings and shooting go right on as they always will.

    Until the culture and society in this country does a lot of changing in such a way as to allow reason to take hold we will accomplish very little. Guns are as available as candy in this country and there are millions of mentally disturbed folks out there.

  11. Posted March 18, 2015 at 10:51 am | Permalink

    Your argument makes no sense when extended to the actions of all parties involved. If the condemned had no free will over his actions then, by definition, those who executed him also had no free will over their responses. To argue that the executors should have exercised their free will by acknowledging that none of us have free will is confusing.

    • Posted March 18, 2015 at 11:01 am | Permalink

      I’m sorry, but you don’t understand determinism, I suspect. People can CHANGE their responses based on input. And so people who formerly favored capital punishment can oppose it if they listen to arguments against it and those arguments are “convincing” (i.e. makes them change their minds). Try thinking harder about free will, and being a bit more polite when you make a first comment (I suggest reading the Roolz on the left sidebar).

      • Posted March 18, 2015 at 11:08 am | Permalink

        My apologies if my comment was offensive.

        • Posted March 18, 2015 at 11:59 am | Permalink

          I didn’t find your comment offensive in the least; I thought it was a reasonable statement and accurate, to boot. I think Jerry might be misinterpreting determinism. You are correct in that those who executed him had no more control over their choice, either.

          Yes, people can and do change their algorithms based on input; but that input had no choice but to come into them, either. It’s predetermined that Jerry will try and spread his brand of rationality around; and it’s predetermined who will pay attention and why. We plea for reason, not because our pleas make the difference, but because we are programmed to make the pleas. We change our minds because our subliminal brains change their minds, not because our consciousnesses change. There is no true conscious thought. Your consciousness does as much thinking as your TV screen does; it’s just a monitor.

          • darrelle
            Posted March 18, 2015 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

            Determinism does not equal predestination.

            In the context of free will debates those that deny contracausal and dualistic conceptions of free will typically consider “determinism” to mean something like “all aspects of human cognition are determined by antecedent conditions in accordance with known physical laws.”

          • John Scanlon, FCD
            Posted March 18, 2015 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

            But no, because the computer can ‘see’ the monitor. Consciousness is part of a feedback loop; it’s not an output screen, it’s a sense.

            • Michael Waterhouse
              Posted March 18, 2015 at 10:53 pm | Permalink

              Is it a sense really? What is it sensing? By what mechanism?
              It may be that consciousness is a pure epiphenomenon.
              That it is like a monitor, merely representing the functioning of the brain, that part that we call the conscious part.
              This is the illusion of the self and free will.

              • John Scanlon, FCD
                Posted March 19, 2015 at 7:17 am | Permalink

                How do any senses work? When you pay attention to something in the visual field, your eyes swivel, converge, focus, adjust aperture etc. to select and enhance information coming from the object of attention. Analogous tuning happens in other sense organs when you pay attention to sounds, smells, textures, muscular and visceral sensations etc. Each sensory modality provides a time-varying vector of firing rates across a finite number of afferent neurons. Neurons in the cortex only take input from other neurons (including themselves), so it’s all the same stuff, not a hierarchy with a ‘top’ level.

                When ‘you think’ about something in short-term or long-term memory, or something imaginary, or use limited sense data to identify and reconstruct partially-sensed external objects, most or all the information attended to comes from inside your own head. Attention picks out objects and structures, not modalities; it pulls information from the afferent nerves (indirectly) and from different regions of the cortex without distinction between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’. Of course ‘consciousness’ is a much-abused word (virtually meaningless in many uses), but I take it to refer to the process in which attention moves across (some region of) the entire sensorium and memory in much the same way as the eyes move across the visual field. Can there be consciousness without attention or vice versa? Attention, whether directed ‘outward’ or ‘inward’, makes new memories that can (usually; see Sacks, Damasio etc. for exceptions) affect short-term and long-term future consciousness and (via a time-varying vector of firing rates across a finite number of motor neurons) future behaviour.

                Attention is pretty narrow: you might assume it’s a lot fatter than the read-write head of a Turing machine, but the ‘tape’ is not passive: unattended, unconscious, parallel neural processes are also busy making and transforming memories that ‘you’ may come across and decide to ‘own’ later. This retroactive owning of previously unconscious stuff is often mistaken for the ‘conscious mind’ being much bigger and more powerful than it actually is, or a different kind of thing altogether.

          • Posted March 18, 2015 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

            Thanks. That is a very interesting perspective.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted March 18, 2015 at 8:53 pm | Permalink

        Jerry, I think the confusion may arise from seeing determinism as a web, one in which every causal factor in an event is itself subject to the deterministic causal events that preceded it, ad infinitum. From the standpoint of Laplace’s demon — with the entire history and future of the universe entailed by the current position of all particles within it and a complete understanding of the deterministic laws of nature governing them — whither and whence do the opportunities for “change” arise?

        (I understand the problems for the demon posed by quantum effects, chaotic events, and thermodynamics/entropy — well, through a glass darkly, I do — but what of human agency as a source of change?)

  12. Posted March 18, 2015 at 11:03 am | Permalink

    Jerry, thank you very much for writing this! I hope you can get it republished for a wider readership.

    I do volunteer work in prisons, and I have found that most felons are themselves survivors of terrifying childhoods. They are victims, too, and if we want to have a peaceful and harmonious world, we’d better come up with something better than the current system of “if you hurt society, society hurts you back”. It only multiplies suffering!

    And if anyone reading this can spare a few minutes a week to make a real difference to someone languishing in prison, get in touch with me, and I’ll point you to a good pen-pal program.

    • Karen
      Posted March 18, 2015 at 11:30 am | Permalink

      I’ve reached the point of being convinced that ALL punishment for the sake of hurting back is unacceptable. Yes, our human first reaction is to retaliate, but does that help our society? We would do much, much better to really focus on rehabilitation. And for people who need to be locked up for their own and others’ safety, surely we can do orders of magnitude better than our current prisons.

  13. quiscalus
    Posted March 18, 2015 at 11:59 am | Permalink

    Being someone who was born and raised in the not so great state of Misery, erm, Missouri, I can say that I am not surprised. Our governor is a Democrat, but a right of center Dem,if that makes any sense, in a really red state (blue specks around KC, St. Louis, and maybe a few college towns). We are anti-education, pro-gun, anti-intellectual, pro-religion, anti-progress conservative bunch of bumbling nitwits (and that’s on a good day). I am related to people who think the best form of punishment is still biblical eye for an eye, including torture if that’s what the criminal did to the victim. There is no logic, no compassion, no rational thought, just emotion, religion, and guns. We’d rather spend ten times the money on prisons than on prevention. The governor would never stand a chance at getting elected to any office in the state if he dared stop executions, and getting elected/reelected is the only thing that matters, of course. Hell, I guess we’re lucky that executions aren’t public hangings, but considering the direction we are going…

    I am constantly ashamed, disgusted, disappointed, but never really all that surprised in how our state acts. I can’t imagine it getting better any time soon.

  14. tubby
    Posted March 18, 2015 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

    I am confused about why having suffered the injury that lead to his impairment happening before the age of 18 or after would have had an effect on whether or not he was eligible for the death penalty. It happened before he committed the crime, contributed to it, scans show the severity of the damage and they knew how it effected him. How in the world does the age at which is happened even play into it other that maybe trying to say because he was an adult when it happened it somehow should not have had the same kind of effect on him?

    • Heather Hastie
      Posted March 18, 2015 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

      I thought the same. It seems completely unreasonable for his age to make a difference. I get the feeling that many of those involved knew this man shouldn’t be executed, but because in the US so many jobs are elected positions, that factor outweighs all others in the decision making process. A red state won’t re-elect an official who opposes the death penalty in a case like this.

  15. Posted March 18, 2015 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

    In dealing with crime, what is frequently the most important question is the one rarely asked: what are one’s objectives when dealing with criminals and crime? I think a lot of discussion goes astray because people are reaching for different, unspoken objectives. A common, unspoken objective, I believe, is to reduce crime or the harm done by crime. I think we tend to cluster around that objective in our discussions and reasonably think that everyone else shares that same objective, when it’s patently not the case.

    Our entire criminal “justice” system is based, not on crime reduction, but on retribution. When the President says he wants justice for the Boston bombers, he doesn’t mean that he wants to ameliorate the system which produces such people in the first place; he’s saying he wants comparable punishment. That’s what “justice” means in America: eye-for-an-eye. You do something bad; we do something bad to you. It’s rarely framed as “you do something bad; how can we make sure it doesn’t happen again?”

    Think of the situation some years back when a number of Amish school children were killed by a gunman, and the Amish immediately went to the family of the gunman and offered their help and condolences.

    For many religious people, it’s more important that their religion be obeyed and that the paths to heaven are maintained than to have peace of Earth; this is what leads to killing for apostasy. It also leads to juries voting for execution. The idea of peace of Earth is way too abstract to temper one’s sense of justice; it’s much easier to deal with the situation on hand.

    All that being said, you can be sure that the fact that he killed a cop was the deciding factor.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted March 19, 2015 at 2:35 am | Permalink

      Killing a law-enforcement officer acting in the course of his or her official duties is an aggravating factor making an offender death-penalty eligible (usually pursuant to a statute expressly so providing) in capital-punishment jurisdictions.

  16. Kurt Helf
    Posted March 18, 2015 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

    The problem with the blanket statement “All criminals are “brain damaged”” is that the terms criminal and crime are undefined. Are we including only major, violent crimes, such as murder, or are minor, nonviolent crimes, such as drug possession, included in the definitions?

    • Posted March 18, 2015 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

      According to Sam Harris it’s “tumors all the way down”; everyone is as determined by nature as the Texas mass killer with a brain tumor. (Episode 59 Tumors All the Way Down)

  17. Paddy
    Posted March 18, 2015 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

    I cannot buy the argument of determinism. Not only does it remove all blame but also all credit. This man had no choice but to commit the crime he did when he did it, and Mozart had no choice but to write what he did when he did.

    I once heard Michio Kaku state that it is known what you will have for breakfast on January 1st 2020, but until I see proof of this I cannot buy into it. Just like the guy who was hit and killed by a drunk drier had no choice but to die at that point, the diver had no choice but to drive drunk, no. Before I believe that we are all just trains on a set track with no control over speed, direction, distance to terminal or even the view on the ride I’ll need proof.

    That surgeon who saved your life had no choice, that mugger who ruined your day, even you don’t have a choice whether you like punk or pop, sweet or sour. Simple decisions like tea or coffee, Coke or Sprite, red or white, all out of your hands. even whether you enjoy the experience or not was already determined.

    People may have a predisposition towards things, but not predetermination.

    • Posted March 18, 2015 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

      How do,you test the idea of determinism? Whatever response the test subject gets is predetermined? If I am not right, please correct me, but this doesn’t sound like a refutable hypothesis.

    • Heather Hastie
      Posted March 18, 2015 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

      Determinism isn’t predetermination. You can change your mind given new ideas and arguments.

      • Posted March 18, 2015 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

        I can see that determinism is not predeterminism. I don’t see how determinism can be tested.

    • natalielaberlinoise
      Posted March 18, 2015 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

      Paddy, I have no knowledge of the determinism discussion jargon but I’d like to respond to your post with my simple words nevertheless.

      Our actions matter a great deal – they shape the way we shape the world we live in.

      When we think about doing something, may it seem ordinary or unusual to us, we weigh pros and cons in our minds and we make choices. Those choices matter.

      The choices that we make are part of our learning process.

      A very simple example: i am a girl who loves cats. At a very young age I would see a cat and start screaming in delight and run towards it. Of course I then learned that cats don’t appreciate being stormed at and had to learn the hard lesson to be more patient with them.

      Now when I have a cat close to me, I might pet it and if I am so lucky that the cat purrs, then I feel joy and delight.

      But of course I never chose to be a girl who likes cats. I had no say in my genetic material, or in the circumstances of my upbringing. It wasn’t even up to me that cats would be part of my environment. Instead I might have been someone who likes torturing others and feels a sense of satisfaction from that. Indeed, if some factor changes my brain considerably, like it happened in this poor bloke’s case, I may vey well one day be a “monster”.

      I thank my lucky stars that I am not. But it is not my merit that I am not a violent creature. I can not take credit for it. I am just who I happen to be.

      That doesn’t mean that we should not applaude someone when we like their actions or tell someone off when we disprove of what they are doing: our actions shape the world we live in.

      Any activity I choose can only be the result of all factors leading up to that moment preparing the decision, which is again inevitably formed as the result of all that makes up “me”. I can not change that. You could say that who I am as a person continues to change and unravel itself to me in time until I die.

      Thus there is no reason to feel superior or inferior towards one another. Contemplating that gives me great solace. And puts the judging of others in perspective.

      Oh, and I wish I was better at putting thoughts succintly. Not much choice in that either, although trying to learn

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted March 18, 2015 at 7:42 pm | Permalink

      You sound like you don’t buy it because you don’t like it. As Morpheus says, “Welcome to the desert of the real.”

      Nevertheless, we cannot escape the laws of physics. If you could send me back to the exact moment yesterday I would still eat that same sandwich because my brain states, experiences, knowledge, etc. would be exactly the same. The only difference could maybe be if there were some chaos thrown in somewhere and we don’t know how big of an impact chaos plays on determinism.

      • Night-Gaunt49
        Posted March 20, 2015 at 11:44 pm | Permalink

        I can see why predeterminer via determinism, or known actions taken and will be taken can mess of those who are against predestination and no free will. They live in a world where what you makes you yourself. good things done and bad things done are all your regardless of situation. (Why they have a problem with situational ethics.) To them it is turning people into blameless robots free from guilt or innocence. But how far does it go?

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted March 21, 2015 at 7:28 am | Permalink

          I still think you an be proud of your accomplishments but you should know that a lot of it is the luck of the draw that you happen to have a certain bio-chemical make up and you live in a certain place with certain affluence. Go a little further and you realize you also happen to have certain experiences, certain predilections because of said experiences (and bio-chemistry) and it is much more clear that you aren’t really the one in control of anything.

          I maintain that the world is lucky that I have a hard working pre-frontal cortex. Without it, I’m sure there would be a lot of injured people around me & I’d be a long time incarcerated.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted March 19, 2015 at 3:02 am | Permalink

      Paddy: A lot of people — maybe all of us at times — have this feeling intuitively. But then you have to ask yourself, what excludes us from the physical laws that govern everything else in the universe? Can you come up with an answer to that question that doesn’t boil down to “magic”?

      Does “choice” presuppose free will? A cheetah chooses which antelope to cull from the herd. Does the cheetah have “free will”? Is the cheetah’s choice, like yours, exempt from the physical laws of the universe?

      These are not easy questions. Excogitate on them long enough, you can run into yourself coming around the next corner.

  18. Posted March 18, 2015 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

    Maybe you’ve already seen it…

    Daniel Dennett’s “Stop Telling People They Don’t Have Free Will” at YouTube (Big Think) uploaded just a couple months ago.

    Food for thought?

    • Heather Hastie
      Posted March 18, 2015 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

      I’ve heard this argument before, and I don’t really buy it. One of the big arguments in some religions is that before you are even born, it’s determined whether or not you’re going to heaven i.e. predestination. When it was first introduced, it did result in small numbers joining hedonistic sects for a time, but in the end made no difference whatsoever. This is essentially the same thing. It may make a small difference in some people for a limited period, but I see no compelling reason to believe it will make people behave badly long-term. It’s also a “little people” argument, which always annoys me anyway – it’s like saying some people need religion because they don’t have the intellectual capacity to cope without it.

      • Posted March 18, 2015 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

        You say, “but I see no compelling reason to believe it will make people behave badly long-term.”

        However keep in mind that determinism does have very strong effects on some people’s behavior.
        When some are told they have no choice, if they are depressive it creates despair.

        In contrast, for those with strong wills their thinking that determinism (whether religious or nonreligious is true makes them feel invincible. And thus they behave differently. Examples of this vary from Stonewall Jackson to modern Muslim terrorists to dialectical materialists.

        In my opinion (and some historians’), whole historical epochs have been influenced by the concept of determinism.

        • Posted March 18, 2015 at 4:33 pm | Permalink

          Yeah, there’s no substantial evidence for that save the very weak paper of Vohs and Schooler, which measured effects over just one hour. You could also say that we should keep religion because it has beneficial effects on people’s behavior. Keep in mind that if people are told there is no God, it creates despair. Or so say many accomodationists.

          • Posted March 18, 2015 at 4:52 pm | Permalink

            The religious hard determinism of Luther, Calvin, Knox, Cromwell, and the determinism of Augustine, and the determinism of most Islamic scholars in the last 1, 300 years did have have
            very bad historical results.

            Plus, the hard determinism of Marxists, who think that it is historically determined that Marxism will become worldwide also had significant impact.

            And, last but not least, it would seem that if everything is determined, then everything that has happened in history had to happen:-(
            And everything terrible in the future has to happen.

            Maybe so, but it seems that an alternative scientific view is possible such as Stephen J. Gould’s outlook that humankind might not even have shown up if time was run again.

            Chance and creativity seem as possible as determinism.

            But then I’m biased because my degree is in Creative Writing:-)

            And as you emphasize, it couldn’t be otherwise, so I will go to my death convinced that 9/11 and all other horrible events in the past didn’t have to happen.

            Humans had the ability to choose alternatives.

            • Posted March 19, 2015 at 4:19 am | Permalink

              Gould’s position was ill thought out; the asteroid that hit the earth and may have extinguished the dinosaurs, which he considered a “contingent’ effect, was actually deterministic. HOwever, there is TRUE indeterminism in nature–quantum effects–and those COULD have affected the course of evolution because both the results of the Big Bang (the particular planets that formed) and the occurrence of mutations, which fuel evolution, and fundamentally and irreducibly unpredictable, as far as we know. Therefore if you reran the tape of the Universe from the Big Ban, it’s likely that life (if it even began) would be very different. Gould, I think, was right, but for the wrong reasons. I talk about this in Faith versus Fact. As for determinism being a bad worldview, which I don’t agree with, that says NOTHING about whether it’s true or not, or whether we have free will. So please stop arguing that point of view.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted March 19, 2015 at 3:15 am | Permalink

        I don’t believe in predetermination or anything like it, yet have been committed to hedonism and “behave[ing] badly long-term” since before I can remember. What about me Heather, what about me? 🙂

    • Kevin
      Posted March 18, 2015 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

      I miss Dennett’s point. I have no free will and yet it makes me no less moral than if I had free will.

      I really do get the feeling that people who would begin to behave like Cretans just because they were shown they have no free will are the same who require a celestial dictator in order for them to be moral.

      • Heather Hastie
        Posted March 18, 2015 at 7:15 pm | Permalink

        And who’s to say those people wouldn’t end up behaving like that anyway? Imo, they must, for some reason, have a predisposition for that kind of behaviour.

  19. Posted March 18, 2015 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

    Perhaps you’ve seen this already…

    Daniel Dennett’s “Stop Telling People They Don’t Have Free Will” at YouTube (Big Think) uploaded just a couple months ago.

    Food for thought?

    • Cliff Melick
      Posted March 18, 2015 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

      As much as I like and respect Dan Dennett and his work, this argument introduces a straw man into the free will discussion; it scores no point for or against having or not having free will, but simply argues that the effects of telling people they have no free will may result in undesirable consequences. Should truth be suppressed because it may have unwished for consequences? I think not.

  20. Posted March 18, 2015 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

    There’s a secondary motivation behind free will in cases like these and that is the notion of an afterlife. If people aligned their beliefs with the evidence (none) of a continuation of individual consciousness after death, would killing someone really be that much of a retributive punishment? I don’t think anyone would argue that even a botched execution, like some of the ones covered in the past on this site, is more punishment than 40 years “in the hole” with just your thoughts and the 4 darkened walls. This is not to say we should be doing this to people either, as it is still retributive rather than rehabilitative. But, the belief that God is going to give executed prisoners their ultimate punishment sooner rather than later certainly has to play into the mentality of many death penalty advocates. I’m sure we’ve all heard statements like, “There’s a special place in hell waiting for so-and-so…” as they gleefully anticipate sending the prisoner on his way there.

  21. Christopher Easterda
    Posted March 18, 2015 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

    “This execution is a prime example tragic results that come from people’s failure to understand determinism and its consequences for justice, reward, and punishment.”

    I lean rather heavily toward determinism. But the quote above baffles me. Logically, those supporting or advocating Clayton’s death likewise had no free will in the matter. So is this discussion, and all others like it, simply physics in action?

    • Posted March 18, 2015 at 4:38 pm | Permalink

      Yes, the discussion is physics in action. But so what? If people have a computer program in their brain that says that free will should mandate executions, are you saying that no intervention, no argument, can change that opinion? That’s surely wrong. We can change people’s behaviors all the time by simple interventions. Just tell someone to take their clothes off, and then do it again with a gun to their head. It’s one of the biggest misconceptions that I’ve seen on this site that arguments cannot work because everything is determined. That’s simply not true, and we all know it. People’s brain computers are evolved to facilitate their survival and reproduction, and so you can influence them by pointing out ways to do that. Granted, our pointing that out is also determined, and so on through an infinite regress of determinism, but what this does not mean is that you can’t change people’s minds by arguing with them. We just have to grant that our own arguments are also determined.

  22. Wayne Robinson
    Posted March 18, 2015 at 4:32 pm | Permalink

    Free will involves making conscious uncaused decisions. Most decisions are unconscious (the conscious mind rationalises them afterwards) and have a cause (everything has a cause, even if it’s unconscious determined by the person’s genetics and history).

    I agree with Benjamin Libet that people have free won’t (the capacity to veto bad decisions, if not affected by drugs or brain damage, as in this man).

    Anyway – there’s a new book ‘Presumed Guilty’ by Bret Christian (dealing with the crimes of Eric Cooke – the last man executed in Western Australia in 1964), and the men who were convicted for the murders he did, including Darryl Beamish, profoundly deaf-mute who was convicted and condemned to death ((fortunately commuted by the government because not even it could stomach the thought of executing such an obviously socially and physically disadvantaged individual).

    Christian notes that capital punishment doesn’t have deterrence value, noting that Britain used to have public hanging for around 240 offences, including pick pocketing. Pickpockets still plied their trade in the thousands strong crowds viewing the hanging of pickpockets, undeterred.

  23. Ken Kukec
    Posted March 18, 2015 at 4:34 pm | Permalink

    In its implementation, the death penalty is arbitrary and capricious to the max. I defy anyone to compare the cases of those who have been execute with those who have been spared, and to draw some meaningful distinction between the two. It’s time we had leave of the whole rotten mess.

    • Diane G.
      Posted March 18, 2015 at 9:23 pm | Permalink

      Those who have been spared often had money and Big Lawyers.

      • Michael Waterhouse
        Posted March 18, 2015 at 11:02 pm | Permalink

        Yes indeed.

    • Diane G.
      Posted March 18, 2015 at 9:24 pm | Permalink

      And were probably white.

      But all this has been said above, I know.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted March 19, 2015 at 12:23 am | Permalink

        FWIW (& it may not be worth all that much), I expanded on this a bit in the thread following comment #6 above.

        • Diane G.
          Posted March 19, 2015 at 12:53 am | Permalink

          Yes, I did read that, but–sorry!–forgot it was you. *red face*

          • Ken Kukec
            Posted March 19, 2015 at 3:41 am | Permalink

            Sometimes I forget I’m me, too, so no need to blush — or maybe I’ll just blush along with you.

  24. Yon Fishman
    Posted March 18, 2015 at 10:18 pm | Permalink

    I would like to add that the argument against ‘free will’ does not depend on the brain being a deterministic machine shaped by our genes and environmental influences. The argument would still hold even if there were genuine randomness operating in the brain.

    For to the extent that our choices are determined, they are not ‘free’, and to the extent that they are random they are not ‘willed’. Either way there is no such thing as ‘free will’.

    Nonetheless, we can still meaningfully refer to choices being ‘free’ insofar that they are made in accordance with our desires (e.g., freely donating money to a homeless person), as opposed to being made ‘against our will’ (being forced to hand over money at gunpoint).

  25. Matt
    Posted March 19, 2015 at 2:57 am | Permalink

    I think knowing whether someone understands that what they did as wrong is important, even in a justice system for deterministic machines.

    Humans have the ability to understand rules, and incorporate them into their decision making process. We can understand that breaking social rules will lead to negative consequences. Someone with brain damage may have that ability diminished. They may not be able to make those kinds of judgments and that effects how we should deal with them.

    We need the threat of punishment for society to function, but it would be pointless to apply it to people who are incapable of taking future punishment into account when making decisions.

    I completely agree with you about retributive justice and the death penalty, but I don’t see how determinism comes into it. I would be interested in seeing a strong, logical argument for why retributive justice would make sense if we did have dualistic free will.

  26. lancelotgobbo
    Posted March 19, 2015 at 6:07 am | Permalink

    “What happened to Clayton is a direct and unavoidable consequence of his background and genes…”

    If by background you mean his injury, and if by genes you mean those that might have made him clumsy and thus have his accident. Otherwise, using background in its usual sense, you give the impression he was prone to this behaviour even before his brain injury. I think the point is that he acquired a brain lesion that happens to sit in a very important area for inhibiting behaviour. If it could be shown that his personality changed significantly after the accident his lawyers ought to have introduced that at his first trial.
    It’s embarrassing that mid-Victorian England got criminal responsibility in such cases just about right with the M’Naughten rules in the mid-1840s, leading to the construction and opening of Broadmoor hospital in 1863. That’s the kind of place Clayton should have gone to (it’s actually quite nice – I visited there as a psychiatry resident in 1985). Meanwhile, I’m sorry to say that the barbarous lack of understanding for the role of mental illness in the US justice system continues to appall me.

  27. sensorrhea
    Posted March 19, 2015 at 7:20 am | Permalink

    One problem with your determinism argument is that the authorities likewise could not help themselves but put him to death. They HAD to do it. They had no free will about it.

  28. Ken Kukec
    Posted March 19, 2015 at 8:16 am | Permalink

    Here’s where I come down on the whole free-will-or-determinism thing:

    I’m for it. Determinism, that is. Mainly, because I see no alternative to it, at least no alternative that doesn’t eventually decoct to “magic.” Me, you, every other man-or-woman-jack in town — I can’t accept that we get a pass from the laws of physics, like the top seeds getting a bye in the first round draw of March Madness, every time we deign to make a decision

    Thing about free-will belief, though, is it dies hard. And even after it’s slain, it has a way of slipping the crypt to haunt clear-eyed thinking — a budgie returned from the fjords whither it pines to peck away at our ontological reasoning.

    The recrudescence of moribund counter-causal free-will ideation has several causes. First: Our learning — though not primarily, or even significantly, formal education. From the time we were old enough to hear, but too young to listen, people having been talking to us in ways that presuppose our power to make decisions that could come out either way, telling us that a good outcome rides on our willingness to make the right decision: Parents. Authority figures, Peers. The old man asking if we’re gonna cut across his lawn again. The schoolyard bully daring us to cross a line in the playground sand.

    Next: Our thinking, as shaped by our learning. I’m going to stop smoking…I’m going to join a gym and start working out…I’m gonna grab a smoke and a beer, stat…so why are we even thinking about this stuff if there’s no way different outcomes turn on our choices?

    Also: Our intuition. I just know that the rest of you are making decisions whose outcome could go either way — and how they go could affect me! I also know the lady behind me in the checkout line knows she’s ramming me with her grocery cart, despite her feigned obliviousness; doing it on purpose, I tell ya, an act of unencumbered, libertarian free will, if ever there was one. And if she doesn’t knock it off forthwith, we’re gonna go full contretemps before we reach the cashier. How can there be but one determined outcome to an existential crises like that?

    Finally: Our direct experience. I get home from a long day in the salt mines, and the family says, Let’s get take-out — Chinese or Italian? As expectant eyes stare, I ponder. I scratch. I chew my cheek and try to remember which one we got last time. Were the ribs at the Pagoda any good? Does Luigi’s cook the ziti al dente? Are appetizers or deserts included with the Family meals? I change my mind half a dozen times. I decide that I can’t decide, so decide to flip a coin (though it’s still me, of course, deciding how the deciding will go). I decide I don’t like the way the first flip turns out, so decide to go for best-of-three flips.

    Now I don’t believe for a second that the natural laws of the Universe have been suspended while I dither like some take-out-or-delivery Hamlet. But damned if it doesn’t feel like an outcome-in-the-making choice is underway — maybe a whole slew of ’em.

    And it sure doesn’t seem like the outcome depends on any chain-of-causation dating back to — who knows? — the Big Bang. Or to anything else that occurred before I undertook the momentous Chinese-or-Italian question. But it does. It must. Here I stand, I can conclude no other. Determinism wins the day.

    Now my head hurts, I’m sleepy…and hungry, too. But like Buridan’s Ass, I’m trapped in perfect equipoise between Chinese and Italian, and will likely perish of inanition before anyone even reads this comment.

    • StephaJL
      Posted March 19, 2015 at 4:03 pm | Permalink

      You, sir, win the internet for this comment.


      • Posted March 19, 2015 at 9:19 pm | Permalink

        And of course he couldn’t help but win it.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted March 20, 2015 at 10:39 am | Permalink

        Thanks. Every writer wants to find his/her public. Two’s a start.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted March 20, 2015 at 11:52 am | Permalink

        Also, in the spirit of J.P. Sartre, I must respectfully decline your award of the internet. I prefer to remain (un)known as Kukec the perverse WEIT commenter, rather than Kukec the Internet Award winner.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted March 20, 2015 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

        On second thought, screw that Sartre noblesse oblige shit. Where do I claim my prize? Do I gotta pay taxes on that? What’s the “internet” worth?

  29. Dean
    Posted March 19, 2015 at 11:20 am | Permalink

    I read these determinist ideas with a lot of interest, even though it makes me very uncomfortable to think that my sense of agency over my own actions may be an illusion.

  30. Posted March 19, 2015 at 11:47 am | Permalink

    Even if you don’t agree with Jerry about FW and moral responsibility, etc. there’s still the fact that this man was so injured he couldn’t order food or use a telephone without help. What happened with the forensic psychologist that did the assessment for NCR? (Or rather the local equivalent.) I would think that being so profoundly mentally handicapped would make his supposed understsanding massively unlikely.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted March 20, 2015 at 1:25 am | Permalink

      Absolutely agreed. In a way determinism is a red herring. Even if one throws it out the window and regards individuals as free-will-responsible for their actions, the guy was still brain-damaged. If anyone is to be spared execution for reasons of mental incapacity, he should have been.

    • Posted March 20, 2015 at 11:17 am | Permalink

      Also, given what I know (limited, admittedly) about front lobe stuff, it seems to me that it is also possible that he suffered from knowing perfectly well *what* is correct, but was unable to put it into action – in other words, he suffered from akrasia, in the philosophical sense.

  31. davidlduffy
    Posted March 20, 2015 at 7:05 pm | Permalink

    Discussing evidence that free will skepticism can be a net good rather than a threat to social order:

    You might remember the behaviorists see the four levers as positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, positive and negative punishment. None of these requires free will. That is, deterrence can be effective in dogs or humans, regardless of the rationalizations under which it is done. It could be argued that authorities being dyed-in-the-wool believers in desert means we are more likely to believe that punishment will follow – making deterrence more effective. Arguments about things like liberty, equality and proportionality are separate, and don’t have to hang on a belief in free will either.

    Regarding medicalization of criminality – there are many arguments against it, starting from the paucity of reliable knowledge, to human rights. Many people would prefer a few years in jail to be locked up for life because a psychiatrist has the opinion that their risk of reoffence is, say, 1% per year. You might think that’s not so different from a parole board…

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