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Free will and the justification for punishment


To: Christopher W.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Free will and the justification for punishment
Date: 11 September 2006 09:00

Dear Chris,

Thank you for your email of 4 September 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.'

The second dialogue in unit 2 is inspired by P.F. Strawson's British Academy lecture 'Freedom and Resentment' (in Strawson 'Freedom and Resentment and other Essays' and also reprinted elsewhere).

Strawson develops his argument from a broadly 'compatibilist' view according to which there can still be workable notions of freedom and responsibility on the assumption that determinism is true. The simplest version of compatibilism holds that punishment is necessary in order to change an individual's behaviour, and also functions as an effective deterrent. In choosing which persons to punish, we select those who are capable of changing their behaviour in response to punishment. So you would not, e.g. punish the bank clerk for handing over the money at the point of a gun.

Strawson argued that it is essential to being persons in relation that we adopt certain 'reactive' attitudes to one another, such as blame and resentment. It would be impossible to take on board a determinist theory of punishment - where 'punishment' is merely a matter of setting an example or altering a person's 'controls' - without losing that which makes us persons.

In the dialogue, Maggie tries to go one step further than Strawson, in trying to account for the 'rationale' of what appears, despite all that Strawson says, completely irrational: namely, arguing against what a person has done, given that it is impossible, given the prior conditions which in fact obtained, that the person might have done otherwise than he or she in fact did.

To say we 'have no choice' in the matter isn't good enough. 'It's irrational but we can't help doing it' looks a very weak defence of the 'belief' in free will.

This is the big issue surrounding free will which presents the stark choice between a view of ourselves as responsible and rational, and a view of ourselves as mere robots or puppets.

However, the question asks for more than this. Whatever our philosophical view of free will - or even if we have never heard of the philosophical arguments which put free will into question - we find ourselves confronted by cases which make us think twice about criticism and blame and the institution of punishment.

Consider, for example, the famous Patty Hearst case. Patty was the daughter of the famous reclusive millionaire Randolph Hearst. She was kidnapped and later took part in a bank robbery carried out by her captors, the 'Symbionnese Liberation Army'. There appeared to be ample evidence from the CCTV cameras that she was participating enthusiastically in the robbery. The defence argued that she had been 'brainwashed' by her captors and was therefore not responsible for her actions. The prosecution rejected this argument, on the grounds that they had to judge Patty Hearst as she is now, a fully fledged criminal. How she became a criminal was just water under the bridge.

Take any criminal, and undoubtedly there is a story you could tell about how they became a criminal, admittedly not just in terms of things that happened or were done to them but also choices that they made. Yet these choices themselves can be understood. Where do you draw the line?

These cases create greater difficulties for someone who seeks to defend the 'necessity' or 'importance' of belief in free will. The closer you look, the harder it is to see the special character or mark which distinguishes 'genuine' cases of freedom. Who really 'deserves' punishment? does anyone?

On a determinist view of punishment, on the other hand, things are much simpler. F.H. Bradley gives the example of the master of hounds who gives his dogs a good thrashing before they go out, 'just to show who's boss'. Undoubtedly, pre-emptive 'punishment' can be very effective. Bradley was concerned to show the absurdity of a determinist view of punishment, but the argument can be easily turned round. Why only punish the 'guilty'? Isn't the only question what course of action will be most effective in inducing good behaviour?

The response is that there is no way of avoiding the problem of freedom by pretending that we are not persons. In that sense, Isaac Bashevis Singer is right. However, if some despot was determined to create a world where 'persons' no longer existed - a world of 1984 - they might yet succeed.

All the best,