Saturday, April 7, 2012

Free will and the justification for punishment

To: Foo Weng L.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Free will and the justification for punishment
Date: 11 June 2007 09:58

Dear Foo Weng,

Thank you for your email of 3 June with your first essay for the Possible World Machine, in response to the question, 'In the light of the critique of 'free will', can blame and punishment ever be rationally justified? Consider hard cases, such as brainwashing, crimes of passion, the influence of drugs, medical or psychological conditions etc.'

In your essay, you show a good understanding of the question at issue. You pose a very simple and effective criterion for deciding whether or not an individual is to be held responsible, and if appropriate, punished for a bad action. The decision turns on our assessment of a person's 'ability to handle his reaction towards a particular circumstance.'

This formula contains two ideas: that human beings are naturally constituted to 'react to circumstances', which both humans and non-human animals are able to do, and the concept of 'handling' which in the intended sense only humans can do.

Behind this formula is the recognition that, even if determinism is true and everything that happens in our lives is a causal consequence of our physical state when we were born and all the influences that we have been subjected to from that moment in time, we nevertheless have a special power of causality over our own actions, which comes under the general title of the 'ability to reason' or 'ability to make rational decisions'.

This power of rationality is itself ultimately a causal consequence of our physical state at birth and all that has happened to us. Nevertheless, it provides the basis for identifying those persons, or those actions, which are considered to be 'responsible' and therefore fit for censure or punishment. This is known as the 'compatibilist' view of human freedom because it accepts that 'freedom' is in this sense consistent with causality.

'Why bother to set up laws for the sake of preventing crimes?' On a determinist view, punishment only 'works' on those individuals whose behaviour can be corrected with incentives. The shoplifter who suffers from kleptomania is not deterred by the thought of punishment, which is why treatment is considered a more appropriate response.

There are criticisms that could be made of this view of punishment, but that is not the primary concern of this essay. The question we are concerned with is how one resolves the 'hard cases'.

It is important to note that 'dealing with one's reactions' is not something that only humans do. If you train a dog never to jump up on the dining table and grab food while you are eating, then you have given it a behavioural inhibitor which conflicts with its immediate 'reaction' to the circumstance of smelling the delicious steak. However, teaching humans to be moral and respect the law is not the same as training a dog because reasoning is involved.

The special kind of 'dealing' that humans do is to think ahead and to reason about right and wrong. This is arguably the key to resolving the hard cases.

Consider the notorious 'Twinkie' murder case in the USA where the accused put forward the defence that he had eaten an entire pack of Twinkies (a sugary biscuit) just prior to the incident and his body was reacting to an abnormally high level of blood sugar. He got into an argument and killed two people (checking on Google, I find that this story is now described as a 'myth', as Twinkies were not the main issue in the court case, but that's not important for the point I am making).

Suppose it was true that in certain circumstances - and in certain individuals who are abnormally disposed to this reaction - it is possible for this to happen. Unlike the case of deliberate drug taking, we can't blame the individual for taking the sugar 'drug'. Some part of him knew that in pulling out his gun what he was doing was wrong, but in his physical state it was much easier to 'let go'.

Or consider the famous 'Patty Hearst' case where the kidnapped heiress was 'converted' to the cause of the Symbionnese Liberation Army and took an active and enthusiastic part in a series of bank robberies. The jury were convinced by the prosecution argument that although her change in attitudes and behaviour was 'caused' by the brainwashing she had received from her captors, the person in the dock was 'Patty Hearst as she is now', and not the innocent young woman who was kidnapped.

In both cases, what is significant is that reasoning is not absent. We are not talking about compulsive behaviour, or individuals who show any sign of mental illness. So are these cases where a reaction could have been 'handled' but was not? or cases where an individual's ability to 'handle' is fatally diminished by circumstances beyond their control?

It is an attested fact that normal people can do very abnormal things in a rage. 'Road rage' is now becoming increasingly common, with quite horrific crimes committed by people who under normal circumstances one would never consider to be criminal or have criminal tendencies.

In the Patty Hearst case, the opportunities for 'handling reactions' might have come during the time when she was being allegedly brainwashed by her captors. It is harder to see how this applies to the determined female terrorist who joined in the planning of the bank robberies.

- These are just some things to think about.

All the best,

Geoffrey