Thursday, July 26, 2012

Determinism and individual accountability

In the wake of the Aurora tragedy, there has been a great deal of discussion about individual accountability, societal and genetic influences on behavior, and theories of punishment. This quote by Ronald Reagan typifies the conservative reaction to the idea that a criminal might not be fully responsible for his or her behavior.  However, this is really a straw man argument, because people with deterministic leanings do not argue that society is solely responsible for crime.  Rather, determinists, materialists, and others who reject dualism believe that human behavior is strongly (or totally) influenced by a environment and heredity.  If there is some little "unmoved mover" in our heads that is ultimately responsible for making decisions (and thus creating personal accountability), it must have very little to do in light of the myriad of factors that effect our thought processes.

One can be a determinist and still believe in incarceration and other forms of punishment. For example, it is necessary to separate a criminal from society in order to prevent future crime by the same individual, as well as to deter criminal acts by other individuals.  

What is difficult to accept, however, is the concept of retributive punishment, which only makes sense in a context of complete and unfettered free will.  Even religious conservatives, in a moment of honesty, must agree that this does not exist.  To argue otherwise is to ignore all of the psychological and sociological studies, not to mention the latest brain research, that shows our behavior is influenced (I would say controlled) by forces internal and external to each of us. A good example of this includes the many studies showing the influence of oxytocin on human behavior, particularly in the case of mother/infant interactions.  


I had some questions on Thinking Atheist about what point I was trying to make.  Allow me to clarify.

As is probably clear from the post, I am a determinist. Free will, I believe, is an illusion. Nevertheless, like everyone else, I proceed as if I had free will. Determinism is often confused with pre-determinism or fatalism. What it really means is that everything that happens is based on conditions such that, given them, nothing else could happen. This includes my decisions from moment to moment. All of my experiences up to that point, all of the environmental, genetic, and social forces combine to make my choices.  The "me" in my brain is simply creating a narrative to explain the decisions that my brain, like a computer, was making according to a set of inputs.

Because I believe the universe is deterministic, I believe it is ridiculous to "punish" someone for their acts. Separate them from society, rehabilitate them, whatever, but don't "punish" them.

The gipper's point, I believe, is the antithesis of this sentiment.

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