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Do we have free will?  I don’t have anything more to offer as far as evidence.  But I do think it is clear that morality and our justice system is a complete flop if we don’t have free will.   Most proponents of determinism agree that, if they are correct, we are not morally responsible/culpable for our actions.  But they still might believe there is a right and wrong way to act.    So, they don’t completely abandon hope of morality or a rational justice system.


In my opinion determinism allows only a crippled view of morality.  It doesn’t matter what direction morality points us we are on a train going wherever we are going and we can’t get off anyway.  Our hope for a rational justice system would also seem to rely on dumb luck.    How might our meta-ethical views concerning determinism impact our criminal justice system?


Traditionally criminal laws were grounded on four different notions, vengeance, retribution, deterrence and/or rehabilitation.   Retribution has replaced vengeance, although sometimes people fail to draw a distinction between the two.   I am not aware of anyone who believes in hard determinism but still maintains we should keep retribution as a grounds for our criminal justice system.  Retribution is the most important aspect of our criminal justice system but that will be the topic of another post.  Here, let’s consider the claim that even if determinism is true we can still pass laws for deterrence or rehabilitation purposes.


For example, Sam Harris says if you are a determinist like him:   “We could forget about retribution and concentrate entirely on mitigating harm. (And if punishing people proved important for either deterrence or rehabilitation, we could make prison as unpleasant as required.)”



He like many determinists agree retribution is out.  But he claims we can still hope to achieve two other goals of our criminal justice system – rehabilitation and deterrence.   Deterrence is the idea that we can prevent people from committing crimes if they think undesirable things will happen to them as a result of those crimes.  So we can pass laws with punishments that are unpleasant and thus we make it less likely people will commit crimes.    Rehabilitation, at base, is the notion we can do things to criminals such that they will act in a way we want in the future.


So, if we accept determinism and still think deterence and rehabilitation are viable, we find ourselves saying we have no influence or control over our own behavior, but we do have influence and control over other people’s behavior.  Traditional wisdom suggests the opposite.  Common sense suggests we have more influence over our own actions than we do over other’s actions.  Is it possible that we can have no influence over our own actions, yet we are still be able to influence other people’s actions?  No, not in any meaningful sense.


I think this is an example of people not fully appreciating the far reaching implications of their position.  If determinism is true then even saying “we could make prison as unpleasant as required” plays on an ambiguity and is not actually accurate.  The ambiguity is in the term “could.”  “Could” can mean: we have the option.  Or “could” might mean: it is possible.

In Harris’s usage he seems to suggest “we have the option to make prison as unpleasant as required.”  But of course, on determinism we have no options.  We must do what we are going to do, and can’t do otherwise.  So that meaning of the word “could” leads to a contradiction in his beliefs.


If he means just that “it is possible that we would make prison as unpleasant as required….”  Then we might ask so what?    It may be possible, but we have no influence over our actions so we have no way to make that possibility a reality.


Our very sense of self is obliterated by determinism.   We are like ping pong balls in a lottery machine.  Yes we “could” bounce into other balls causing them to jostle and become a winning number.  In the sense of “could” that “it is possible” that happens.  But, of course, those ping pong balls have no control over themselves so it is not an option they have.


It makes no sense to take the perspective of the ping pong ball.   If we throw out free will then we throw out our whole notion of self.   It is no longer even sensible or meaningful to think in terms of what we “can” or “could” do.   We are just parts of a system that must act however we are going to act.


For those who are interested in the free will debates I highly recommend this set of lectures: