Thursday, January 22, 2009

Let's play "Slippery Slope!" (Determinism & Justice edition)

It is often objected that determinism makes justice incoherent, or renders morality impotent, or some other such claim resulting in the practical concern that, "If determinism is the case, then a criminal justice system makes no sense." It's worded differently, depending on who's saying it, but this is ultimately the conclusion of their arguments and - I suspect - a major grievance against determinism.

For any who don't know, determinism (Easy Mode, Hard Mode) is the idea that the entire Universe - humanity included - is on causal rails. As a consequence, there can be no such thing as free will - as compelling an illusion as it is, it is still merely an illusion. The three positions surrounding the issue of free will can all be derived from an inconsistent triad (an inconsistent triad is a set of three common-sense propositions which can't all be true), viz:
1. People have free will.
2. Causality regulates the entire Universe.
3. If people have free will, they must somehow defy causality (i.e. "1 and 2 cannot both be true").
If one rejects 1, then one is a determinist; if one rejects 2, then one is a libertarian (philosophical libertarianism is distinct from political libertarianism); if one rejects 3, then one is a compatibilist. It bears mentioning that compatibilism is at least a little bit silly, because it typically involves redefining "free will" such that 3 is manifestly false; as a consequence, the libertarian's meaning of "free will" is not preserved, and so the libertarian's meaning of 1 is covertly rejected. In other words, compatibilists are determinists in disguise who want to preserve the phrase "free will" in the common parlance, robbed of its philosophical force.

At any rate, the problem of moral responsibility is at least respectable on its face: it doesn't really make sense to blame or punish someone for something if they were unable to do otherwise, and determinism definitely holds that "for any action that a person has taken, that person was unable to do otherwise." That's a consequence of being on causal rails. However, as I intend to show, determinism not only fails to make moral responsibility incoherent, it actually encourages a more humane theory of justice when properly understood.

So, without further ado, let's play Slippery Slope!

Our first order of business shall be to lay out some starting premises:
A) Justice, essentially, is the idea of "people getting what they deserve."
B) Generally, justice is desirable - we want people to get what they deserve.
C) There is such a thing as "causality."
D) Because of C, we can talk coherently about causal sequences (or "causal chains").
E) Because of D, we can meaningfully distinguish between types of causes (e.g. "sole causes" vs. "partial causes," "immediate causes" vs. "root causes," etc.).
F) There are also chains of moral responsibility - no matter your ethical system, if there is moral responsibility at all, it must follow some kind of chain, from the moral status of the event back to whatever it is that is morally responsible for that event.
G) Moral chains and causal chains are not identical, but moral chains must overlap causal chains.
H) Corollary to G is its converse: there can be no chain of moral responsibility where no chain of causal responsibility exists (in other words, one is not morally responsible for that which one does nothing to cause).
I) Determinism at least seems to take the edge off of justice.
The particular phrasing of the above is not designed for precision, but rather to foster agreement. For instance, A is not exhaustive - justice may mean "rewarding good and punishing evil," but these rewards and punishments are deserved - so, no matter the details of your theory of justice, I think that we all (myself and you, the General Reader), can agree that the "core" or "essence" of justice is "people getting what they deserve," while exactly what is deserved may remain at issue for another discussion.

So far, we all ought to be able to agree that justice is a desirable thing, it needs chains of moral responsibility upon which to operate, and these moral chains have to "stick to" causal chains which can get complicated. Given that, let us imagine that Bert hypnotizes Ernie, and as a result of this hypnosis, Ernie becomes a serial murderer; Ernie's first victim is Big Bird. Big Bird's murder is a morally bad act, to be sure, and we can see that Ernie is the immediate cause of it (well, the method of murder is technically the immediate cause, but whatever). But, since we understand that Ernie only murdered Big Bird because Bert hypnotized him into becoming a murderer, we can see that the causal chain extends through Ernie back to Bert. I think we can all agree that the moral chain also goes back to Bert, but in order to do so, it must go through Ernie.

This puts Ernie in an interesting position: neither the causal nor the moral chain has its source in Ernie, yet Ernie committed the murder itself and is thus inextricably involved. And, per my stipulations, Ernie will kill again unless we do something about the causal antecedents which precipitated Ernie's actions. In short, and obviously, Ernie's hypnosis should be cured - we don't want him to keep running around killing people, do we? Moreover, I think Ernie deserves to have his hypnosis cured, which makes curing him a just action. While it is too late by far to give Big Bird what he deserves, we can still do justice to Ernie by curing his hypnosis. Obviously, something needs to be done about Bert and his hypnotic method as well, since the creation of murderers tends to be detrimental to society.

Let's leave Bert aside for the moment. The situation we're looking at is thus: Ernie engaged in a problem behavior, even though the problem behavior was out of his control, and in order to do justice to Ernie, we are proposing to address the cause of the problem behavior so that it will no longer be a problem. Furthermore, we are also proposing to take broader actions to prevent the same cause of Ernie's problem behavior from causing similar problem behaviors in others, even though such problem behaviors would not ultimately be the fault of those who fell victim to this cause. This is humane, good, and just.

This is also a deterministic model of justice. Anyone who proposed that Ernie must be punished rather than merely cured would reveal himself for a sadist, since punishing Ernie is not necessary to solve the problem at hand. If, as in the real world, it turned out that we could only (or even most likely) prevent problem behaviors in Ernie by punishing him, then punishment would be an option on the table - but our focus should be on solving the problem, not on administering punishment. And so, in the real world, our justice system ought to be focused primarily on solving the problems that cause people to harm others. Punishment certainly can facilitate this, and so ought not to be rejected out of hand, but it also should not be pursued as if it is good by itself, or even necessary for justice to occur. Those who would advocate punishment when it is not necessary are, consequently, asking for unnecessary harm to come to an individual - seemingly for its own sake. And wishing harm upon others for no good reason is a well-respected definition of sadism, which most certainly is not justice.

There's even a snappy common-sense angle to take on this. Empathy is a good thing, as it inspires people to treat others how they would like to be treated themselves. Those who think it is OK to harm others must clearly have a problem with their empathy (those who harm others solely out of ignorance merely need to be educated). This means that there's something wrong with them, that their "moral sense" is somehow inadequate at the moment. So - and here's the snappy part - if these people have something wrong with them, how is harming them supposed to improve things?

A deterministic model of justice, as we have seen, naturally encourages a more humane criminal justice system, and exposes the sadism in retributive justice for what it is. Retributive justice should only be used when necessary, and should not be relished, but does not conflict with a deterministic worldview (visible retributive justice can still generate perfectly deterministic deterrence, for example). There is no inherent conflict, therefore, between determinism and justice, so the apparent problem mentioned above in I turns out to be illusory.


Zach L said...

May I nitpick a little here? Great article (of course), but the line "Empathy is a good thing, as it inspires people to treat others how they would like to be treated themselves" -- it's misleading on two counts.

First, empathy isn't always good, as it isn't always desirable. From the perspective of a military general, for example, empathy is bad -- feeling acutely the suffering of the people you're oppressing is great from a humane standpoint, but it's bad for business. Likewise, a doctor who feels too much empathy for his patients is more encouraged to use untested drugs, or to fall into depression should he fail to save them.

Second, and like I said I'm being very nitpicky here, it inspires one to treat others how they want to be treated.

You know the old argument: "What if I'm a masochist? if I treated others how I wanted to be treated, there'd be broken bones from here to tuesday!" etc. etc. It's purely linguistic but it's always something that stuck in my head.

Something I would like to see discussed: people who are lacking in a moral and empathic sense; sociopaths, people with asperger's (the actual syndrome and not just whiny internet nerds) -- how do you help them? It's only tangentially related, but cultivation OF a moralistic and humane way of life is a topic worth exploring, I think. Especially given that more and more it looks like our biology plays a much bigger role in our mentality than previously thought (see: this NYTimes article.).

Jack Phillips said...

I've never seen the argument that you're claiming is made against determinism and its inability to allow us to have a criminal justice system. What specific philosophers are you arguing against? It might help if you show their actual arguments and point out why they fail. Otherwise this looks like you're paraphrasing to the point of it becoming a strawman.

It seems more reasonable that a free will advocate would be making a weaker argument, something like: how we define 'moral responsibility' is dependent on the intentions of rational beings. If determinism is the case, and if intentionality is a prerequisite to moral responsibility, then there is no such thing as moral responsibility.

The criminal justice system is about what is legal/illegal. This doesn't need to interact with morality. So why would the free will advocate conflate the two?

In the end it seems you're more attacking retributive justice v. an empathetic kind of justice. That's fine, but free will doesn't necessitate retribution nor does it exclude empathy, so why make this an issue about determinism?

Side notes:
It's funny that you refer to free will as an illusion because on the causal determinism article you link it refers to our common view of the past being fixed as an illusion. From a purely physical standpoint, there's no reason to think that events in "the future" cannot effect events in "the past". Though this is counterintuitive. I'm now curious to see if contemporary physics makes the metaphysics and ontology that determinism relies on false or unlikely, and if so, then what do we have?

D said...

Thanks to both of you for your comments! I'll address them individually:

OK, yeah, empathy can result in bad consequences, sure (but just 'cuz it's bad for a general doesn't make it morally bad). And the Golden Rule can sometimes backfire. What I was going after was the more general point that "the ability to feel the joy and suffering of others as one's own tends to result in doing less harm to others and thus increases utility."

I didn't have any particular philosophers or papers in mind when writing this, I was actually trying to make a positive case for "determinism does not rob moral terms of their 'oomph,' and is compatible with a robust theory of justice." Mainly what I was responding to was the memory of several personal conversations with people who argued that determinism makes "justice" and "moral responsibility" into silly ideas. If you want something in writing somewhere, then I'm throwing my hat into the ring of this mess. For instance, where it says, "our current notion of moral responsibility is founded on libertarian (and dualist) intuitions" - I'm responding to those intuitions, not particular philosophers.

Also, I don't think anyone seriously disputes whether we can have a criminal justice system with determinism; the question is as to whether doing so makes any sense, and I'm trying to show that it does. And finally, I'm not sure what your last paragraph (before the side notes) is about - I'm not trying to convince anyone that determinism is the case, just that we can still meaningfully talk about things like "moral responsibility" and "justice" if we also believe in determinism.

jemand said...

But isn't the whole crux of the situation you're trying to solve basically, the criminal was predetermined to commit that act, now what *choice* do we as a society take to respond to/punish that?

Which is ridiculous on it's face when put that way, if the criminal is determined, so is society's response. But... that determined outcome generally is never the one you'd get from "meh, whatever, I don't care...." it generally comes by *assuming* there is free will somewhere in the system. Either in the criminal's actions or in society's response. And while I don't *actually* think there are any non-causal agents at play, I don't think we will actually get to that determined outcome unless we reason *as if* there were.

D said...

Not quite, jemand, but you still make a good point. And you're right that it's ridiculous on its face when we start talking about society having a choice while individuals do not.

I will agree that the phenomenology of choice is too persistent an illusion to ignore. We still experience deliberation, introspection, and metacognition, regardless of whether or not we could do otherwise. What I am arguing against, however, is the idea that "people getting what they deserve" (i.e. "justice") is rendered into a farce when you take free will out of the equation.

Retributive notions of justice, which cluster around ideas of punishment and tit-for-tat morality, do break down when looked at through the lens of determinism. My argument is that a better way is possible when we take determinism into account. Does that help clarify things?

jemand said...

Well, it is somewhat clarifying, but I guess I'm still sitting here thinking that whether or not retributive notions of justice are widely abandoned in society is also going to be determined, lol, no matter how good or bad your argument, because determinism works on all our beliefs as well, ultimately.

Determination breaks down even the notion of listening to an argument and having being "free" to decide whether or not it is reasonable-- that conclusion will ultimately also be determined, quiet as determined as the original argument and all actions.

So not only is the criminal's behavior determined, so is society's response, but not only that but the stated *reason* for the response and belief of whether or not retribution is justified, is *also* determined... etc. etc.

I mean, even your last phrasing, "a better way is possible when taking determinism into account" implies that there *is* a possible other course we could have chosen, which would not be true given determinism.

Anyway, that's why I generally abandon all talk of determinism, even though I think *ultimately* it's true, it's just way to awkward to work with. You can get to the same legal conclusions with simple psychology which acknowledges environmental and genetic inputs but which still implies freedom at innumerable points in the system. I think that's a way easier argument to make than basing it in determinism, which when you invoke it generally balloons out of control.

That said, I do *like* your argument and think it logical, but I had no choice in that opinion ;)

D said...

It's all a song and dance, and we all have our parts to play, and we all play them perfectly whether we like them or not.

Welcome to the schism between conventional truth and metaphysical truth! The bottom line for me is that we should let this knowledge temper our moods, but we should also keep in mind that it's no bad thing to use a language of convenience (so long as we all know that it's just a language of convenience).