A Criminal Mind …

So, Jerry Coyne seems to be determined (in any sense of the word) to talk about free will, and specifically how we don’t have it. In this post, he talks about a case where a court upheld an execution order for someone who had brain damage, and essentially is arguing that it makes no sense to argue over whether or not someone knows whether something was right or wrong, or was capable of knowing what is right or wrong, because it makes no difference. Regardless of that, they had no real choice in what they did. Now, one of my constant criticisms of Coyne that I don’t think he’ll ever address — because I can’t comment there anymore and he’s never shown any interest in replying to pretty much anything I write here — is that Coyne consistently argues that we can maintain a meaningful notion of responsibility, but determinism eliminates any chance of us having moral responsibility, while the claim that is usually made is that a hard determinism eliminates any responsibility that I might have for my actions, and so I can’t be held responsible for something that I can’t actually do. The only way this builds to morality is by tying it to the idea that ought implies can, and that if I can’t act morally then no one can say that I ought to. Or, rather, all moral statements are ought statements, but if I can’t do other than what I do then one cannot say that I ought not do that, or ought to do something else. So if Coyne can eliminate all normative claims, then he might have a criticism against morality wrt hard determinism, but he would have lost responsibility first and he clearly wants to hold people responsible for their actions to justify being able to lock them up or do things to “correct” their behaviour … and “correcting” their behaviour seems to imply some sort of normativity, even if only a weak notion of normativity.

But let’s start with his characterization of what hard determinism says that we’re like:

Our brains are computers made of meat, and run programs based on their wiring, which comes from the genes we inherited and the environments we experienced. There is no ghostly “we” that can override the output of those programs.

Now, Coyne likes to take shots at compatiblists, but compatiblists like Dennett, at least, accept that, to some sense … except that they argue — and more convincingly than Coyne does here — that what we are is the sum and output of those programs. So, no, they don’t argue that there is some ghostly “we” that overrides it, but that what we call “we” is nothing more than the output of those programs. And those programs make decisions and are capable of understanding morality. And since we are those programs, the programs can be said to be responsible for the consequences of our actions, and so we can be held to be responsible for the consequences of our actions. If this move isn’t made, then what we seem to have is the same sort of responsibility that a rock has when it breaks a window. But we can see that it makes sense to say that if I pick up a rock and throw it at my neighbour’s window, I’m responsible for the window breaking and so have to make restitution for doing that. The compatiblist view sketched out here argues that because my action was determined directly by the decision-making processes of my brain, then I’m responsible in a special way that the rock, which has no such processes, is not. And we can further test this by asking what would be the case if instead of a rock I pick up Jerry Coyne and toss him at the window. And we’d still say that he doesn’t have to make restitution for the broken window, because while he’s directly responsible for it breaking — his hitting it is what broke it, after all — I’m the one who is actually responsible for it; he really had no choice in the matter because his decision-making processes weren’t involved, while mine were. The best that Coyne’s view can do here is look at where you’d have introduce changes to change the behaviour and ensure it doesn’t happen again, but the best he can do is work to the same conclusion with a much clunkier method, since it has to start from presuming whether the behaviour is desirable or not, and doesn’t work easily to say that someone has correct behaviour and so has properly functioning processes. So, first you have to classify the behaviour, and then you identify what you need to do to change it. The compatiblist view assigns responsibility first, and then can figure out whether the behaviour should be praised or condemned or corrected.

Now, most people would call the responsibility I have there a moral responsibility. This is precisely the sort of responsibility that Coyne says we don’t have and is not useful.

But let’s move on to his objections to being worried about whether or not someone knows right from wrong:

Yes, some miscreants do know and understand those things, but, given that they couldn’t have acted otherwise, why is that relevant? It’s entirely possible to know that what you’re doing is wrong by society’s lights, and yet still be unable to resist doing wrong. Sociopaths are the most extreme example of this: some clearly understand that society judges their actions as wrong, but they themselves don’t feel that they’re wrong. But even criminals who sense that their own actions are “wrong” still have no choice in what they do.

Now, Coyne is consistent in claiming that we need to figure out how to correct bad behaviour and prevent it from happening again:

What Clayton needed was not a lethal injection, but treatment. Yes, perhaps treatment couldn’t help someone with such a severe brain problem. In that case rehabilitation might be futile, but Clayton would still need to be jailed—for both the protection of society from his poor impulse control, and to deter others less obviously debilitated from committing similar crimes. Biological determinism is still compatible with confinement for these things. Deterrence, rehabilitation, and sequestration are the reasons we determinists favor incarceration, whether it be in a jail or a hospital. (Deterrence is simply the action of an environment circumstance—the observation of someone suffering for what you might contemplate doing—on your neurons.) But in all cases our goal should be the good of society and the possibility of changing the prisoner so he can re-enter society without endangering us all.

So, my response here is to say that whether or not they have any real choice, it is incredibly important to know whether or not they know or are capable of knowing whether the behaviour is right or wrong, and on a moral level, to determine how to treat them and if they can be treated at all.

So let’s take five cases under consideration:

1) A kleptomaniac, who knows that stealing is wrong but has a brain condition that means that they get an uncontrollable urge to steal.
2) A psychopath who is incapable of understanding that stealing is wrong. This maps to Coyne’s example of the sociopath, but the sociopath is someone who can know that others believe that stealing is wrong but can’t know it themselves. And if you doubt that characterization, think of someone from today transported back in time to when slavery was considered moral, and note that they’d clearly know that the people then think that slavery is right, but surely wouldn’t know that it was right themselves.
3) Someone who is capable of knowing that stealing is wrong, but hasn’t learned it yet.
4) Someone who knows that stealing is wrong but is being compelled to do it by an external force, like a gun to the head or a threat to a loved one.
5) Someone who knows that stealing is wrong but has decided that the benefit to them outweighs any moral considerations.

What can we say about these cases?

For 1), we ought to say that the kleptomaniac is a moral person but unfortunately has a mental condition that pushes them to act in bad ways. They are not morally responsible for their actions because they are not responsible for them. We need to treat them with drugs or surgery to remove this very tragic burden from them.

For 2), the psychopath is clearly amoral. They cannot be held morally responsible for their actions because they cannot understand or adopt any moral stance. We need to treat them for their condition and/or make them capable of acting morally.

For 3), they are a moral person but their moral learning is incomplete. We need to teach them that stealing is morally wrong, and then we can be assured that they will not steal again. Note that we cannot do this for the previous two cases; the kleptomaniac already knows that stealing is morally wrong, and the psychopath can’t learn that stealing is wrong until we cure their condition.

For 4), they are a moral person, so we need to take out the external force, and then they will act morally. Note that again we can’t do this for the other cases, as none of them have an external force directly impacting their decisions.

For 5), they are at best amoral and likely immoral. These are the sorts of people that we might definitely need to lock up because they’ll never act morally because they disdain morality. They are people that need strong deterrence and punishments to make it so that they never decide that their own interests trump the right action.

So, five cases, five different responses, all of which are neatly and adequately and even powerfully supported by notions of “free will” and “moral responsibility”. I assume that Coyne will agree, at least, with the recommendations for how we should treat these people — he won’t want us to treat the kleptomaniac like the person who is choosing to act despite knowing that it’s morally wrong — and so he needs to find a way to ensure that his analysis comes to these same outcomes. Thus, despite the fact that he’d argue that none of them make “real choices”, the factors that are normally associated with choosing are, in fact, relevant to deciding how we treat them. Thus, Coyne will either reintroduce the precise distinctions that he’s trying to eliminate under different names, or else he’ll treat people identically when they really shouldn’t be while he’s trying to correct their behaviour.

Ultimately, almost all compatiblists want to accept determinism while preserving these incredibly useful and powerful tools that seem to go along with the notions of “real choice”. The biggest problem with all hard determinist views is that either they have to eschew all of these tools or simply reintroduce them while castigating their opponents for clinging to the outdated terms while clinging to the concepts those terms represent. This does not make hard determinism a philosophically appealing position, as it leads to attempts to define your opponents out of the game rather than arguing/evidencing them out of the game.

And there is much defining out of the game in Coyne.


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