Saturday, 31 August 2013

Free Will and Punishment

I have a lot of time for both Sam Harris and Dan Dennett. I find I often disagree with Harris, but his arguments are usually interesting and well-considered. The disagreements I have with him are often subtle, as in the case of The Moral Landscape, where I think his moral framework is perfectly valid and useful but not the only objectively correct one.

I seem to agree with Dan Dennett most of the time. I like his thinking on consciousness, religion etc, and I admire his gentle, humorous and thoughtful way of expressing himself.

However, Harris and Dennett find themselves in disagreement on the subject of free will, and I have to side with Harris on this one. I think the disagreement is an important one when considering questions of moral responsibility.

I think Harris expresses his and my position very well on his blog post discussing his points of disagreement with Dennett. Metaphysically speaking, there's pretty much complete agreement. Both men agree that we are essentially machines, and that our decisions are causally determined by our brain structures, stimuli, etc.

In my view and Harris's, there is some sense in which we could not have chosen other than how we did. Though today I may agonise over which choice to make, the decision I finally make tomorrow is already set in stone, I just don't see it yet. This position is known as determinism.

The traditional alternative view is libertarianism, which holds that we are always free to make alternative decisions and so our decisions are not causally determined by the laws of physics. As such, this view of free will is not usually deemed to be compatible with scientific naturalism and its defenders are usually religious.

(As an aside, I should briefly note that my simple illustration of determinism is not literally true, as quantum mechanics means that the randomness inherent in reality may be amplified through chaotic effects to make our decisions a little more unpredictable. This can probably be safely ignored in discussing the deterministic vision of free will Harris and I share, because this randomness is difficult to construe as being compatible with libertarian free will. In my opinion, it aids clarity if we pretend that nature is as deterministic as clockwork.)

Dennett's view is entirely metaphysically compatible with determinism, as far as I can tell. I don't think he would disagree with anything I've just said. The point of contention is that he thinks determinism is entirely compatible with free will, and so his position is known as compatibilism.

This initially seemed pretty surprising to me. In a way it still does. Free will as commonly understood is entirely in opposition to determinism, so I found it hard to see what purpose could be served by merely changing the definition of free will to describe deterministic decision making. Dennett defends this view by arguing that we are free in the sense that no external agency is controlling our actions. If we have puppet strings, they are to be found within our brains, as part of us. As such, we do genuinely choose our own actions, and so we can be said to have free will.

So far I don't have a major problem with this. It's just a redefinition of terms to describe something subtly different, what Dennett calls free will "worth wanting". This is not unusual for philosophical disagreements, which I think often boil down to semantic differences on the interpretation of terms.

The difference comes in what these different definitions imply, and perhaps the most important consequence of these disagreements is our interpretation of moral responsibility.

If there is such a thing as free will, then we have justification for punishing the perpetrators of crimes. We hold the criminal to be morally responsible, and so we feel entitled to do what is considered immoral in normal circumstances - the deliberate infliction of suffering upon a conscious human being.

If there is no free will, however, then the criminal could not have acted otherwise - their action was already predetermined by their biology and biography. There is no fundamental distinction between the criminally insane and the criminal, so there should be no difference in treatment. Any punishment we might inflict must therefore be justifiable on utilitarian grounds - raising the overall well-being of society, with equal consideration given to the guilty and the innocent in the moral calculus.

We do, very strongly, feel an antipathy for those who have wronged us or others. We all root for the bad guy to meet a messy end in our fiction. If there is no free will, then this impulse to vengeance is morally unjustifiable, yet since we feel it so strongly there is a felt need to find a justification. I think Dennett's compatibilist views are in part motivated by this desire to retain the traditional, intuitive notion of moral responsibility.

Of course, denying free will does not mean that punishment is morally impermissible. It just needs to be justifiable on utilitarian grounds, and I think that can be achieved.

Five different reasons to punish offenders occur to me. I think it might be useful to break those reasons down.
  1. Deterrence of others from committing the same crime
  2. Rehabilitation of the offender
  3. Prevention of the offender from committing future crimes (e.g. imprisoning a violent offender to protect the public)
  4. Comforting those affected by the crime
  5. Retribution
I have ranked these in decreasing order of defensibility or relevance, as I see them.

For me, deterrence is clearly the most important reason to punish offenders. It is also the one ground on which I can see a case being made for being lenient to those affected by mental disorders. If it can be shown that a mentally unhealthy offender is not deterred by fear of punishment, then perhaps there is no point in seeking to deter such people. Of course, this is a tricky argument to apply in practice, because it is generally impossible to know whether an individual has the capacity to be deterred, and not seeking punishment for crimes committed by the mentally unhealthy may contribute to a culture where even sane people are less deterred.

Rehabilitation of the offender is also a good reason to punish offenders, but only if it can be shown that the punishment works. Too often prison inmates repeat offend. On the other hand, drivers caught speeding once may learn to be more careful in future. Only analysis of empirical data is going to tell us whether a given punishment is likely to be defensible from a rehabilitation point of view.

Prevention of future crimes is also defensible, but it only applies in a minority of cases of moral transgression. Examples might include firing an employee, locking up a murderer, or revoking a driving license. In cases where these punishments are time limited, the benefits are limited accordingly.

I'm far less sympathetic to the final two arguments, chiefly because of my stance on free will. I think the impulse to seek retribution is an immoral holdover from our evolutionary history, and I think the world would be a better place if we could excise it from our collective psyche. Any comfort the victim might get from punishing the perpetrator arises from indulging this immoral impulse.

And yet, it cannot be denied that some victims will feel better if their aggressor is punished, and I do think this is worthy of consideration. Most people would probably think in terms of whether the victim deserved to be consoled, or whether the criminal deserves to be punished, but I cannot find a basis for thinking in these terms if libertarian free will does not exist. Instead, I think it is more defensible to think in terms of whether the consolation of the victim is greater than the suffering of the convict. I think that in most cases this will not be true.

It's for reasons like these that I oppose the death penalty. It seems not to be an effective deterrent and it has no opportunity to rehabilitate the offender. It does very effectively prevent the offender from committing crimes in future, but life imprisonment would achieve the same ends. Any comfort to the victims of the crime is outweighed by the cruelty of state-sanctioned murder. Finally, every execution feeds and justifies the retributive instinct and devalues human life in the process.

And so, as much as I like Dan Dennett, I have to disagree with him on compatibilism. It's best to deny free will altogether rather than try to find a place for it within a naturalistic worldview just so we can justify the torture of criminals.


  1. Hi Disagreeable,

    This is off-topic. I would have sent it by email, but couldn't find an address.

    I've been following your latest exchange with Massimo about the Chinese Room. I feel sympathy for you. I know how frustrating it is to receive such unthinking responses to one's carefully considered arguments.

    I long ago came to the conclusion that it's pointless arguing with Massimo in comments to his blog. To be as charitable as possible, he doesn't have time to do them justice. To be less charitable, he just shoots from the hip, without much thought. Add to that the fact that he seems deeply confused about AI, and I suggest that you're wasting your time as far as that subject is concerned. Still, it's your time to waste!

    To be fair, I've found the same sort of thing with most other bloggers. (You're a rare exception.) I guess they don't have time to do their day job, write a blog and reply carefully to all their commenters (the majority of whom probably don't have good points).

    When I first got on the internet I wasn't used to engaging in arguments. I'm quite a shy person who will rarely argue much face-to-face. But I started with a naive faith in the power of rational argument. Oh, how sorely I was disappointed. ;)

    I appreciate (now) the difficulty of explaining a philosophical position to someone to whom it's alien. So I don't expect to persuade someone on a difficult philosophical point, even if he is paying attention, and I'm reluctant now even to try. But mostly I find people don't even pay sufficient attention to understand the relatively straightforward points. Still, I know people are busy and I have more time on my hands than most, so I'm a bit more sympathetic than I used to be.

    Well, this has turned from commiseration into a bit of a rant, so I'll stop there. Thanks for listening, if you've got this far.

    1. I should really set up an email address for people to contact me from this blog. I'm anonymous because I want to be able to state my opinion freely without worrying about future employers or clients taking offense, etc.

      Anyway, thanks for your supportive comments!

      I think the problem with online communication is that there's a very low signal to noise ratio, as you note. I hope that over time, interacting in a community can lead to having a good reputation. By that time, hopefully insightful comments can get the attention they deserve.

      It is a bit frustrating debating with Massimo but I would try to stick to your charitable interpretation. I do think he's intellectually honest, but doesn't have the time to deal with online discussions properly.

      Although, judging by his debate with Eliezer Yudkowsky, I wonder if he's a bit slow to understand other people's points of view even in a more direct format.

    2. Ok, I've added a contact form, so you and others should be able to get in touch now if you have any other comments.

  2. Well thought out. I like how you see the impulse to revenge as needing to be gotten rid of. Thanks for the ideas!