I present here some thoughts on free will, indiscretion, crime, and sanctions.
I have reported earlier on this blog my reading of Free Will (Free Press, New York, 2012) by Sam Harris, and I have read some other books that touch upon the subject. What follows is for the most part not original with me, but represents a kind of synthesis of what I have learned about this subject.
We are self-aware creatures. We regard the world, perceive sounds, odors, sensations, we can observe our own bodies, we can think, and we can even think about thinking. Many feel that we have the ability to choose what to do, to direct our minds, as if there were a little version of ourselves in our minds, directing our behavior. This idea is at the heart of the concept of free will and is the foundation for a dualistic theory of the mind. Dualism is widespread, having adherents in both religious and legal scholarship. The basic tenet is that given a set of circumstances, one can freely choose one of several actions. Put that simply most people do not object to this statement.
It is only on reflection that we realize how little control we have over our minds. Thoughts enter our heads by surprise quite often. They change due to our conscious processing or they disappear without being considered in any depth. Example: I am thinking about a pink hippopotamus at the moment, for no good reason. Now I am turning my attention to the next paragraph of my essay, and shortly I will no longer be thinking about that pink hippo – unless of course it comes back to mind…
Scientists have conducted experiments (discussed by Harris in his book) that show that certain events in the brain strongly correlated with decisions take place before a person is actually aware of the decisions he or she makes. The delay is sometimes several seconds in length. This is evidence that the decision is made by our unconscious, and is represented by brain activity that takes place before the decision becomes a part of our conscious attention. This evidence is consistent with the idea of determinism.
Determinism holds that everything has an antecedent cause (despite atomic-level indeterminacy, which is considered irrelevant at the scale of the brain and in any case random). Determinism is a fundamental assumption of science, and its value is assessed by the practicality of the results produced by science. On this view, given a set of circumstances, there is only one action a person can take – the one that is caused by the events preceding it. Thus the things we do are imposed on us by the sum total of circumstances. We are not therefore morally culpable for anything bad we do, or morally praiseworthy for anything good we do. We do everything because we are caused to do it. If you think this does not follow, consider an example described in more detail by Sam Harris in his book. Imagine a boy who accidentally shoots his sister to death with a gun. He will not be held accountable for this by anything like a prison sentence. But if the boy is 21 years old and does the same thing, there will be legal consequences. Yet again, if he is shown after the fact to have a brain tumor that could have caused his actions, he would not be held morally accountable, but would instead qualify for medical treatment at state expense. As soon as we know or even suspect the cause of his act, and recognize that it has nothing to do with his wishes, our opinion of what to do with him changes.
Nobody pretends that there is a practical means of documenting the chain of causes for any but the simplest of systems, let alone the brain. Thus, to all practical purposes we cannot predict reliably what another person will do, and if we are honest with ourselves, we cannot reliably predict what we ourselves will do. This makes us feel as if people are free to do whatever they want, but the determinist holds that that is really an illusion. Furthermore, the determinist position is that we nevertheless are responsible for the things we do, whether they are good or bad, not because we chose to do them freely, but just precisely because we and not somebody else actually did them.
This has implications for social customs and law.
Imagine that I laugh out loud at a funeral. That would be considered an unusual and bad behavior on my part. It would likely have negative social consequences for me. Recognizing this, I refrain from laughing out loud at a funeral, but then again I might go ahead and laugh, and nobody, perhaps not even I, could explain why. However, if it were normal to laugh out loud at funerals, it would be unusual to act strictly grave and circumspect.
Thus it is that social circumstances influence our behavior, and that influence is not completely compelling. Practically speaking, it is as if I can of my own free will violate social convention. (After all there is no documenting the reason for my strange behavior)!
Now when people violate social conventions or commit crimes, society does indeed impose sanctions on them. These can be quite harsh sometimes, even to the point of executing those who commit the worst crimes. What is the effect of the deterministic view on this? A dualist might say “Quite a lot.” If we cannot point a finger of indignation at a person just because his bad actions have been determined by allegedly unknown processes he cannot control, society would rapidly collapse. But one can argue in response to this that society needs to prevent bad behavior and is quite right to attempt to do so. Compared with the dualistic view that holds so widely in law and religion, the only thing that the scientific attitude changes is the moral indignation that accompanies the social sanction that offenders receive. According to this view, recognizing the physical facts underlying behavior does not alter the need for society to regulate it.
All this affects the debate about the character of sanctions. These can range from a lifted eyebrow to the detonation of a nuclear bomb, without altering the fact that human brains are integral parts of the body and that there is no self-conscious “mini-brain” in each that directs decisions made by the brain. The scientific view is that consciousness is a property of the brain arising from its organization, but it is not informed by the entire brain – many brain functions take place without coming to our conscious attention. And few would deny that the unconscious has a powerful influence on conscious thought, especially in the light of recent scientific investigations. This view is strongly supported by medical and psychological experimentation and observation, and is fully consistent with our subjective perceptions, if we are honest about them.
What can we say about the sanctions we impose on bad behavior? This is a vast subject with a long history. The whole body of law, secular and religious, domestic and international, deals with it. Obviously I cannot address all that, but it seems important not to ignore the insights that determinism offers. One such insight is that vindictiveness is not justified by the physically determined character of human actions. Where do we see vindictiveness? It is prevalent, more or less. The most severe sanctions are imposed for the worst offenses. An extreme example of sanctions is warfare, but capital punishment also qualifies as a top priority for our attention. In Europe, there are no countries that execute convicted criminals. In the United States, China, India, and most Muslim countries, the death penalty persists. Thanks to DNA fingerprinting, it has been found recently that a small but significant percentage of those convicted of murder are later proven to be not guilty, both in the USA and the UK. Probably no legal system on earth is free of errors like this; it is virtually certain that capital punishment will lead to innocent people being executed. This is a powerful argument against the death penalty in the USA. Another argument is on the grounds of efficacy. Those who support the death penalty for certain crimes claim that it is a deterrent. But police report that most criminals believe that they will not be apprehended or convicted of crimes that they commit. If that is true then the existence of such penalties is without effect on the likelihood that they will commit capital crimes. There seems to be no scientific evidence on the effect of capital punishment on murder rates. Daniel Nagin, a criminologist at Carnegie Mellon University, has said, “Nothing is known about how potential murderers actually perceive their risk of punishment(1).” Considering the deterministic character of human behavior, the purpose of sanctions on serious crimes would be limited to preventing the criminal from repeating his offense, and would no longer include a component of revenge. That does not mean that severe sanctions should not be used, or that they should not be graded according to the gravity of the offense, but it does mean that the goal of sanctions should be socially practical. We should really look at what the evidence says about the effect of prison on criminals, which sanctions work and which do not, and how can we regulate behavior of criminals by other, possibly cheaper means than prison or execution. But if free criminals think that they will not be caught, there can be no credible deterrence in heavier prison sentences or capital punishment.
What does seem to lower crime rates is an enhanced security policy, which increases the real and perceived likelihood that an offender will be apprehended. This may include very simple things, such as fixing broken windows, keeping streets and sidewalks in repair, and enforcing building codes, in addition to putting police in greater numbers in areas where crime rates have risen. There is some empirical evidence for the efficacy of such a “broken windows” strategy.
On this view, there are some real social benefits to be had from a science-based conception of the basis of human behavior. Not the least of these would be a reduction in the cost of prisons and improvement in the built environment and its security.
1. Death Penalty Information Center