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Without Free Will There Is No Justice


Free will denier Jerry Coyne has a post on the bid for parole of Leslie Van Houten, one of the acolytes of Charles Manson who killed several people in 1969. Coyne argues that parole is reasonable (it was recommended by the parole board and vetoed by Governor Jerry Brown). I take no position on her parole, but Coyne’s arguments about free will and criminal justice are worth discussing.

Coyne, with my commentary:

I’m a determinist about human behavior, which I think is the only rational stance to take if you accept science…

If you “accept science,” you don’t accept determinism, which has been ruled out in physics by an ingenious series of experiments over the past several decades. It is the consensus of physicists that nature is non-deterministic, in the sense that there are no local hidden variables. Coyne’s rejection of the overwhelming evidence that nature is non-deterministic is a rejection of science, just as his denial of free will is a rejection of common sense and reason.

Like all of us, Van Houten was a product of her genes and her environment.

We are free agents, influenced by our genes and our environment, but are free to choose the course of action we take. Determinism is not true, denial of free will is self-refuting (If we are not free to choose, why assume Coyne’s opinion has any truth value? It’s just a chemical reaction, determined by genes and environment), and our intellect and will are immaterial powers of the soul and are inherently free in the libertarian sense of not being determined by matter.

We are not meat robots. If we were meat robots, why would anyone listen to Jerry Coyne?

That does not mean, of course, that she shouldn’t have been incarcerated for her crime. There are three reasons why even determinists favor incarceration: protection of society from an unreformed criminal, deterrence for others who see what will happen if they transgress, and reformation of the inmate so that they can be released…

There is a fourth reason for incarceration: justice. Notice that Coyne’s three reasons are principles of animal training — punish and intimidate the animals, and train the miscreant animal to behave differently. Coyne’s system is appropriate to dogs and cattle.

Justice, which is a principle appropriate to man, presupposes moral culpability, and thus presupposes libertarian free will. Coyne’s system of human livestock management is not a criminal justice system at all.

Even more disturbing is that Coyne’s system of human husbandry is entirely compatible with preventative incarceration. After all, if there is no moral culpability, and the purpose of incarceration is to protect society, why not incarcerate people who are likely to commit crimes before they do it? Why wait for the crime, if social control is the objective? If the incarcerated person objects “But I’m not guilty of anything,” the determinist reply is “No one is guilty of anything, and therefore no one is innocent. Guilt and innocence are meaningless without moral culpability. Control of behavior is what counts, and your behavior is best controlled by incarceration.”

Coyne’s system is inherently totalitarian. The consequences of it are chilling. Coyne’s denial of justice as a principle in jurisprudence has precursors in the great totalitarian systems of the 20th century, in which millions of innocents were incarcerated or worse without the determination of any actual guilt, for purposes of ‘social control.’ Under totalitarianism, there are no innocents. The goal of a totalitarian state is control, not justice.

If Coyne’s ideas hold sway, the cry of the unjustly imprisoned man “this is unjust, because I’m innocent” will be met with “Justice is irrelevant, because without free will, ‘justice’ is meaningless. Your incarceration serves a social purpose, which is adequate reason for your incarceration. It doesn’t matter if you’re guilty of committing a crime, because no one is ever guilty. And no one is ever innocent.”

The real reason why Van Houten killed is because her genes and her environment left her no alternative. She could not have done otherwise, and I think all of us admit it, even if we believe in some kind of free will that’s compatible with determinism… But Van Houten did not “choose,” her own path — not in any meaningful, punishment-worthy way… None of us “choose” our own path, and none of us could have lived a life different from the one we did.

What offensive tripe. It’s more insulting to Van Houten to call her an animal without free will — which is implicit in Coyne’s denial that she is a free agent — than it is to call her a human being who is responsible for committing murder. To hold a person responsible for her actions is to respect her dignity as a human being. Coyne’s assertion that she is beneath moral culpability is a denial of her humanity.

Of course Van Houten chose to kill, just as millions of law-abiding people choose not to kill. Our choices are always influenced by genes, environment, etc., but that does not mean that we don’t choose. A bad upbringing, bad genetics, brain disease, immaturity, ideological dispositions, and a host of other factors can make it easier or harder to choose a certain course of action, but that course of action is still chosen.

In some situations the influences on our choices are so strong that the law declares us not legally responsible for our choices — for example, if we have a psychiatric or neurological disorder that renders us incapable of distinguishing right from wrong. But that does not mean that we did not choose. It means that the law does not hold us accountable for our choice in circumstances in which we cannot understand or comply with the moral standard on which the law is based.

Should Van Houten get parole? I don’t know. But justice (tempered with mercy) must be a part of that decision, and it is justice itself that Jerry Coyne denies.

Photo: Statue of Justice, Central Criminal Court, Old Bailey, London, by Lonpicman (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons.

Michael Egnor

Senior Fellow, Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Michael R. Egnor, MD, is a Professor of Neurosurgery and Pediatrics at State University of New York, Stony Brook, has served as the Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery, and award-winning brain surgeon. He was named one of New York’s best doctors by the New York Magazine in 2005. He received his medical education at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and completed his residency at Jackson Memorial Hospital. His research on hydrocephalus has been published in journals including Journal of Neurosurgery, Pediatrics, and Cerebrospinal Fluid Research. He is on the Scientific Advisory Board of the Hydrocephalus Association in the United States and has lectured extensively throughout the United States and Europe.



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