Justice and Determinism

“Justice is a certain rectitude of mind whereby a man does what he ought to do in the circumstances confronting him” Thomas Aquinas.

According to their website, part of the Justice Department’s mission is to “seek just punishment for those guilty of unlawful behavior.” In my view, the idea that people who do wrong should be punished for the sake of punishment itself is philosophically misguided. I think given what we know today, we can and must construct a more scientific and humane philosophy for securing justice and public order; a philosophy which is not based in medieval reasoning.

In our world today, there are many mechanisms that play into reducing criminal and other antisocial behavior, varying greatly from state to state, country to country, especially when it comes to punitive measures. In Arizona, crimes are categorized into classes of misdemeanor and felony by the severity of the offense, and a strict range of sentences are doled out accordingly. But how do we determine the severity of a crime and the appropriate sentence?

According to Arizona Revised Statutes, manslaughter is considered a class 2 felony with a first-time presumptive sentence of 10 years imprisonment, whereas first degree murder is considered a class 1 felony, punishable by “death or life imprisonment” (13 A.R.S. §§ 703, 1103, 1105). This same law defines manslaughter as second degree murder “upon a sudden quarrel or heat of passion resulting from adequate provocation by the victim” or “while being coerced to do so by the use or threatened immediate use of unlawful deadly physical force upon such person or a third person which a reasonable person in his situation would have been unable to resist,” among other things. First degree murder is defined differently, as meaning to cause the death of another person knowingly and with premeditation.

Such distinctions exist in many statutes across the United States and throughout the rest of the world. I think what we can gather is that the degree to which a person intentionally set out to commit murder is a core determinant in the severity of their crime and therefor the harshness of their punishment. What we see is the factors ‘heat of passion’ and coercion degrading this degree of culpability, creating a lesser crime. The issue is that it can be strongly argued that the the deeper we dive into biology and physics, the less and less culpable anyone is for anything. Passion and compulsion aren’t the only factors in behavior.

Take for instance: A low-resolution analysis may yield that a person did commit murder, and such as there were no extenuating circumstances, did so wittingly and with premeditation. The immediate question I would ask is:

1. What precisely constitutes a person?

Often when we think of a person, we view them somewhat abstractly, as some kind of spirit within an animal. The reality is that no such spirit exists. You can cut a person open, shoot X-rays through them, put them in an MRI, use bells and whistles to search some sort of spectral phenomenon, and yet you will find nothing which cannot be reduced to energy and matter. Essentially, a human being is an extraordinarily complex biological machine with a mainframe computer called the brain. Next I ask:

2. What does it mean to wit or premeditate?

If a person is a biological machine, their actions are the result of biological mechanisms, which I suspect most people will agree with on some level. One might concede that some actions can be induced (or left uninhibited) by mechanistic faults, such as a psychiatric disorder (i.e. schizophrenia or psychopathy) but maintain that people without these malfunctions are left to their conscious, rational devices. This is not correct. A person thinks and acts they way they do because of almost infinitely-reducible events going on in their brain and nervous system. As it happens, the more resolute your analysis into biological factors, the less and less you find an individual’s conduct is their own (insofar as anything can be ones’ own). Really, we conscious humans are more viewer than actor in the theater of life.

In Einstein’s words, “everything is determined, the beginning as well as the end, by forces over which we have no control.” All events have prior causes, each of which have prior causes of their own. Just as every child has parents, and each parent has parents of their own, going back to the beginning of mammalian life on earth. This is a great cosmic domino effect, only strengthened by the onslaught of scientific discovery. Even in the case of quantum indeterminacy, which Einstein fervently opposed, Stephen Hawking assured us that at the scale of animal cells, quantum probabilities rarely contradict classical mechanics (pg. 32 of his book Grand Design). Furthermore, even if events are not absolutely determined but are instead probabilistic, it does not change the fact that people do not have control over them.

What we discover in a more detailed analysis is that the guilty person is only guilty insofar as a domino is guilty of knocking over the next domino. A phenomenon is not freed from the iron laws of nature just because it is more complex than can be properly and fully understood in the present age. Given this information, is it righteous to punish a person for the sake of retribution? Should we increase sentences due to the immorality or depravity alone?

The realization that free will is an illusion destroys the moral and philosophical foundation of justice in our society. We must endeavor to solve this problem, using new found truths to correct our system so that it serves new goals based on accurate precepts. Instead of punishment, perhaps justice should mean restoration and rehabilitation. Perhaps instead of prison sentences, we could use indeterminate terms of custody where an inmate is released upon completion of a process of redemption and rehabilitation. I believe we should evolve the definition of justice to mean defeating crime while creating the best outcome for victims and perpetrators alike.

I think the most important takeaway from determinism is that we cannot rationally hate one another. This is not to say I condemn people with bouts of hatred— we happened to evolve to savagely hate people who we perceive to have wronged us. But when we compose ourselves and think clearly, can we not instead feel bad for wrongdoers as we do for victims? After all, they’re the ones who are broken. Were witches burned at the stake possessed by Satan, or were they just schizophrenic? Was Ted Bundy evil, or was he just a psychopath? When people are deemed sufficiently damaged as to constitute a threat to the public, they no longer endure lawful freedom within our society.

However we approach these issues, we should strive to more honestly adhere to our values, abandoning archaic systems they no longer reasonably support.

Main photo license and source. No changes made.

4 thoughts on “Justice and Determinism

  1. I don’t believe that determinism should affect our system of justice. We may safely assume that all events are reliably caused by prior events. In fact, I think everybody already believes in reliable cause and effect, because we require reliable causation to do everything that we do. In order to walk we need gravity to be reliable, not pulling us one moment and pushing us away the next. We exist as collaborative collections of reliable causal mechanisms, from the heart pumping blood through our veins to the electro-chemical reactions that keep our thoughts flowing. So, I would agree with you that every choice we make is causally necessary from any prior point in history.

    However, I disagree with the notion that this reduces anyone’s culpability for a deliberate criminal act. The problem is that determinism applies equally to every action. If it is used to excuse the thief who stole your wallet, then it can equally be used to excuse the judge who chops off the thief’s hand. It is like a constant that always appears on both sides of every equation, and can be subtracted from both sides without affecting the result.

    Pragmatism would suggest that we use the operational definitions of our terms rather than abstract philosophical constructs. Philosophy’s definition of “free will” is a choice we make that is “free from causal necessity”. And if we use such a definition then of course there can be no free will. But this definition creates a paradox: if I am free of reliable causation, then how can I also be free to reliably cause something to happen? The notion of freedom subsumes the notion of reliable causation! Therefore the philosophical definition must be dismissed as irrational.

    The operational definition of “free will” is a choice we make that is “free of coercion and other forms of undue influence” (hypnosis, brain tumor, mental illness, etc.). This is the definition that everyone (outside of philosophy) understands and correctly applies to most practical scenarios. And it is the definition used to assess legal responsibility.

    Justice seeks to protect everyone’s rights. A just penalty would (a) repair the harm to the victim if possible, (b) correct the behavior of the offender if corrigible, (c) protect society from further harm by restricting the offender’s freedom until his behavior is corrected, and (d) do no more harm to the offender than is reasonably necessary to accomplish (a), (b), and (c).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I greatly appreciate your well-written and thought-out comment! I think what I was trying to say is not so much that people’s actions should be excused, but that we view people less like moral agents and more like wild animals. When you shoot a lion, you don’t do it out of some great hatred or desire for revenge, but because you don’t want to be eaten by it. We should be putting people in prison not because we hate them and want them to suffer, but because it’s the only way to protect the rest of us. And frankly if we’re going to be putting people in prison, we need to take a lot more responsibility as a society for making sure that prisons are safe, drug free, cruelty-free, and not completely devoid of pleasure.

      I plan on sometime writing about some ideas I have for dealing with criminals, which will include alternatives to prison and ways to humanize/dignify incarceration.


  2. A motivating discussion is definitely worth comment. I do think that you should write more on this subject, it may not be a taboo subject but usually folks don’t talk about these subjects. To the next! All the best!!


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