Free will revisited (crime & punishment)

Whenever the subject of free will versus determinism is discussed the question of crime and punishment is raised. This is quite reasonable for if human life is a chain of cause and effect wherein choice has no place, it is clearly wrong to punish people for deeds that they could not avoid committing.

A defence based on this concept has sometimes been used in court to sway the judge in favour of the accused, saying that the latter found himself in such a fix that he was unable to avoid committing the crime. Such defences are not usually more than partially successful because the view entertained by courts, reflecting Western moral beliefs in general, is likely to be that while we may be disposed by nature, by temptation or by circumstances to commit a nefarious act, we are nevertheless sufficiently masters of ourselves to step back from the deed and to refrain from it.

The simplistic view is that I will be tempted to perform some prohibited action (e.g. saving money by travelling on a train without buying a ticket), recognize that this is “wrong” but do it anyway and that I am therefore “guilty” of knowingly doing a wrongful act. However, if we look more closely at our motives and feelings, I think we will see that any action really results from a mass of conflicting impulses: we may have many reasons for doing something and many reasons for not doing it and unless we are to remain frozen in indecision, there needs to be some way of resolving the conflict. Take the following imaginary scenario.

Fred has a violent disposition. He has been charged with assault on several occasions and served a prison sentence for one particularly vicious attack. He is known for responding violently to anything he perceives as an offence against him. He is married and loves his wife dearly and hates the idea of her coming to harm. One day, his wife admits that she has been having an affair. Anger, bitterness and hurt rise within Fred and he raises his hand to strike her.

What happens next?

I think that what happens next depends on the resolution of all the conflicting impulses generated within Fred’s brain. His resentment and anger might win the day leading to him giving his wife a beating; or his love for her – or fear of going to prison – might cause him to relent and lower his hand. Whichever happens, he will afterwards explain to his mates down at the pub how he decided to beat her or to let her off. But was it really a conscious free decision?

One recommended way of choosing between competing products or courses of action is to make a list of features that you consider important and then to score each product for each feature. For example, if you are buying a kitchen appliance, you might rate highly such features as ease of use, small size and low running costs and less highly features such as colour, advanced options and the fact that Victoria Beckham has the identical model. You then add up all the scores and choose the particular item that has the highest score.

Would you say that by applying this method you were exercising free will? You might say yes because you chose to use the method in the first place but that is irrelevant since it raises the question of free choice on its own behalf. What we want to know is whether, having reached a “decision” by a more or less automatic process, we consider that we have operated according to free will. More simply still, if I “decide” by tossing a coin, am I really “deciding” at all or acting deterministically?

Now again consider this web of conflicting impulses within us whenever we choose a course of action, illustrated by Fred hovering between hitting and not hitting his wife. In other words, a decision emerges from the unchosen resolution of all these conflicting impulses. This is more obviously the case when we act on reflex as when angered by an insult or frightened by some threat because there is then simply not enough time for us to think things through; we have to respond instantaneously. But even if we do have time to list all the relevant factors, assign their respective scores and do the arithmetic to find the “best” solution, does that get us off the hook? Are we not still responding to a set of impulses beyond our control?

None of this proves that we do not have free will but it does suggest that all of our “decisions” are at least “strongly guided”. Oscar Wilde famously said “I can resist anything except temptation.” How many of us privately recognize besetting sins – obligations we fail to honour, vices we fail to avoid – for which we chide ourselves but which we never manage to correct? Can we really insist that we have choice in such matters?

About SilverTiger

I live in Islington with my partner, "Tigger". I blog about our life and our travels, using my own photos for illustration.
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7 Responses to Free will revisited (crime & punishment)

  1. ggwfung says:

    Once something has been set in motion, we are powerless to stop it. For example, allowing oneself to be provoked will perforce lead to an uncontrollable outcome; the marble has been dropped from the cliff. When one is tired or weak, there is less ‘will” to draw upon, so there may be more consideration given for such cases.

    We then should take a step back. At the moment of “choice” there may be only so many factors we are able to control. But there are untold number of decisions made previous to that point that can influence a good or poor decision.

    In the case of Fred with his violent disposition there are complicating factors. Does his wife know of his tendencies? Has she suffered from it before? There is a clear victim here if she is struck, but staying around and having the affair would be an action bordering on complicity; there are many many decisions leading to that one point that she could have had influence over.

    In summary: freezing that one point in time and asking the question of free will, there will be very few controllable factors available to the individual. But life is a stream of continuous choice, and we acculumate all our decisions. We are, ultimately, masters of our own fate.


  2. Dejan says:

    Excellent post! It seems to me that we have limited free will. But how to explain this? The question of free will is closely related to answer to the question “Who am I?”. If you are body, there is one type of freedom, if you are mind there is another type of freedom, and so on.

    So, our answers to the question of existence of free will will always depend on our answers to the question “Who am I?”. They are like x and y coordinate and we are the function.

  3. SilverTiger says:

    Thanks to both for your comments and interest.

    To ggwfung: The modern view of free will, as explored in the book by Mark Rowlands that I have just reviewed makes pessimistic reading for those who believe in free will yet I find the notion of determinism somewhat paradoxical, for reasons I have already explained.

    Views of the world such as the 4D model of General Relativity, suggesting that if time is a dimension “like” (although not the same as) the 3 spatial dimensions, then the past, present and future must all be simultaneously present, meaning that all of time is already mapped out and that we are merely following a line through it, are inimical to free will. Moreover, what are we to make of suggestions that some particle interactions are best explained by signals being exchanged, one of which goes forward in time and the other backwards in time? This implies that the past is somehow “aware of” the present (its future) and thus cooperates in giving the future its form.

    There are, luckily for “free-willers”, other voices and other arguments which I hope to get onto at some point.

    Thank you Dejan, for the point about personal identity. I have already posted on the topic of identity, here and here, but without explicitly making that connection. I will bear it in mind for future posts.

    Email SilverTiger

  4. anxiousmofo says:

    SilverTiger writes:

    … if human life is a chain of cause and effect wherein choice has no place, it is clearly wrong to punish people for deeds that they could not avoid committing.

    Not necessarily. The threat of punishment can act as a deterrent, adding another impulse (e.g., keeping out of jail) to the mix, leading to fewer crimes. It can also be ethical to imprison people with a history of crime in order to make it more difficult for them to commit future crimes.

    I do agree that our freedom to choose how we act is not without limits, which makes a difference in the level of severity of punishment which I would advocate.

  5. SilverTiger says:

    To anxiousmofo:

    The point surely is that if we have no choice then we have no choice over whether we punish criminals. The judge who punishes is as much driven by determinism as the accused who commits the crime. We may question the value of punishment but it remains beyond our power to take a decision on the matter.

    It may indeed be the case that punishment acts as a deterrent, making criminals less likely to commit crimes in the future but if so, this would simply be part of the determinism that drives them.

    Email SilverTiger

  6. anxiousmofo says:

    I agree with your last comment as to what we can conclude if there is no free will. I’m not making an argument about whether we have free will or not, but only on the ethics of punishment.

  7. SilverTiger says:

    The ethics of punishment (based on the notion that we do have free will) is a big subject all on its own. Maybe we can get to it one of these days. (So much to blog, so little time to blog it in šŸ˜‰ )

    Email SilverTiger

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