Determinism is not blame-free

If a person seems to have done something wrong, we check that they weren’t forced by circumstance. If we find they had no choice, we don’t punish them.

As we learn about the detail of ourselves, we see more and more circumstances forcing our decisions. The social context, your beliefs, your genes, your personality disorders, some randomness you didn’t control. In the end the circumstance of being yourself threatens to doom you to all of your actions. Many feel this is a threat indeed, for then we must abandon responsibility as a concept.

The extremes of this are treated as philosophical issue, but at the margin it is quite practical. This week for instance a murderer had his sentence cut because his genes promoted aggression. A common sentiment among those commenting is that in these cases we should distinguish between punishment, prevention and rehabilitation. He does not deserve to be punished as he had no choice, but that we don’t want him around, so he should be politely detained and helped.

Trying to draw a line between what could and couldn’t have been any other way under the circumstances is of course misguided. There is not even a gradient of degree of choice on which to draw a line for practical purposes. Everything was determined. But there is another important gradient. The key factor is how different reality would have needed to be for the person to make a different ‘choice’.

At one end of this gradient, all a killer needed was for one neuron to fire differently and she would have chickened out. At the other end, things would have had to be different for years for the death to be avoided. For instance the killer is a careful driver who runs over a child darting onto the road. He could have prevented it by never driving, which would have required their whole life to be different.

At some point, the cost of being good is equal to the cost of potentially getting punished in a certain way. Sins that are cheaper to avoid than this we should punish in that way (if prevention is worth the effort to us), those that it would take more to alter we should not.

This gradient seems to approximately coincide with when we call things a matter of choice. We also seem to roughly draw a line on it where our usual punishments, such as social ostracism, fail to change behavior. If a behavior can’t be brought down by stigma and bad treatment, it’s probably out of your control. If it can, it’s you. If people persist in smoking and drinking after we have stigmatized them and banned them we conclude that they are probably addicted. When a persons’ illness clears up on invitation to a party, we suspect them of control. I’m not sure how well responsibility felt coincides with punishment being worthwhile, but it looks approximately close. There is also the matter of which choices we can see the restriction on. Until recently we couldn’t see that DNA was an influence. Are there other influences that we can see and we still count as choice, or can’t see and count as no choice?

Anyway, for some reason the line where we punish looks to us like predictable vs. not predictable, so when we look closely and find more predictable things, we want to move the line. This is a problem, because knowing about genes doesn’t make it any more expensive to change behavior influenced by them.

Some people, on thinking about this, say that lack of choice has no implications for responsibility then. We can safely embrace our physicality free from ethical consequences, because responsibility isn’t about philosophical free will. This I disagree with. The logic behind punishment may be independent of vague notions of choice, but our feelings about responsibility are tied to the latter and indifferent about the former. If we actually managed to believe in determinism, punishment may be well justified, but we would largely lose the will to do it. This would be a problem, because it would still be justified.

Perhaps as a society we could understand the merits of punishment and commit to consistently punishing law breakers, but now with cool compassion. This would do little good though. Plenty of punishment isn’t by the law, but by individuals. Even what the law deals with often requires individuals to tell the law about it. If people weren’t lividly bent on justice, they wouldn’t report thefts, damage and violence, because it takes them effort and often gives them nothing but the pleasure of retribution. If punishment were to become a coldly calculated activity we could lose the ability to commit on an individual level to irrationally pay the costs of punishing. That would spoil the cooperation we currently have between one another and ourselves over time to keep harmful activities rare.

I still believe in determinism of course, but I don’t think this is necessarily a safe belief.

6 responses to “Determinism is not blame-free

  1. When we allocate responsibility, we assign rewards and punishments to various actions. We use punishments and reward to control people’s behavior.

    Responsibility is a somewhat less morally neutral term than terms such as reward and punish given that responsibility typically implies a set of obligations and proscriptions that are subject to moral censure or legal consequence.

  2. At what point does it become the society’s/government’s responsibility to create a system that shapes one’s environment/situation to such a degree that any illegal behaviour by the individual can be considered a fault with the system, and not the individual?

    A modern day example would be the so-called ‘massive online games’. Many players who have been banned from such games for bad behaviour argue that because the makers of the game have complete control over both the physical and social laws of the world, that any actions they take within the game should be considered completely legal within the context of the game. In other words, they should not have been able to even do any action that would be considered illegal.

    • Many players who have been banned from such games for bad behaviour argue that because the makers of the game have complete control over both the physical and social laws of the world, that any actions they take within the game should be considered completely legal within the context of the game.

      This fails to pass the laugh test for me as an MMO player. It seems to be similar to a broader class of arguments you see involving malicious exploitation of any sort of code – “it’s okay that I ran malicious code on the ATM and cleaned it out because I was just doing what the software allowed me to”, “it’s okay that my spyware took all your passwords because I was really just doing what your computer allowed”, etc. While there are of course more defensible examples on the opposite end of the spectrum (I know in WoW we have “creative uses of game mechanics”), it’s clear that this is just another gradient issue where either extreme can be taken to ridiculous lengths.

      • Perhaps I phrased this wrong. The point is not really the morality of the action; either way, obviously the action is not okay. The point is what to do after the act.

        After someone hacks an ATM, I think we agree that we should attempt to revert whatever hacked transactions occurred. But then, should we punish the hacker or patch the ATM? We can do both or neither of course, but at what point is it silly to punish people?

        I suppose one way to look at it is how cost effective punishment is versus patching. If only a few are exploiting the ATMs, we can punish the few and not patch the thousands of ATMs. If thousands are exploiting, then maybe it’s cheaper to not punish and just patch. In this case, individual blame is dependent on the scale of the actions versus the cost to fix the system.

  3. As a functionalist theory of why we have praise and blame and are inclined to believe in free will, I agree with all of this. I’m not sure if there’s a normative argument you’re trying to make here as well, though.. if so, I think your normative and positive terms are awkwardly-entangled. Lack of choice may not have implications for blameworthiness, but I think it does for responsibility or ethical consequences in a metaphysical sense. I think it’s at best pointless to ascribe ethical judgments to determined acts… but I’m not a moral realist, and I’m not sure you are.

    • Normative argument = determinism is dangerous for some values

      “Lack of choice may not have implications for blameworthiness, but I think it does for responsibility or ethical consequences in a metaphysical sense.”

      Exactly my point if you swap ‘metaphysical sense’ for ‘vague human intuitive way’.

      I am a moral realist, just as I am a cucumber realist. What makes you think morality has a ‘metaphysical sense’?


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