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Free Will Denial and PreCrimes

Michael Egnor

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Tamler Sommers, an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Houston who blogs at Naturalism.Org, argues that we don’t really have free will, and that giving up the idea of moral responsibility would be beneficial to society:

[T]he idea that criminals do not morally deserve punishment is tough to accept… In fact, giving up on the idea of deep moral responsibility has no … anarchical or distressing consequences. Let’s suppose we did start viewing terrible crimes as we do natural disasters. Would this mean we would not try to prevent future crimes?  Of course not, no more than it would suggest that we not tape our windows or retrofit buildings to protect ourselves from hurricanes and earthquakes. It would mean only that we cease to relentlessly blame criminals (or political figures) for their behavior.

Sommers inadvertently points out the most dangerous consequence of the denial of free will. If we deny free will and treat criminals as we would treat natural disasters, then preemption of crime becomes the logical goal, just as preemption of damage from natural disasters is smart public policy. As Sommers candidly admits, we should “try to prevent future crimes.” We tape our windows before hurricanes, reinforce our buildings before earthquakes, and evacuate our trailer parks before tornadoes. We don’t blame hurricanes and earthquakes for the damage they cause, in any moral sense; natural disasters aren’t guilty of anything. They’re just physical events. A consequence of this pragmatic approach is that we preempt the damage caused by natural events. We act before the natural disaster has happened, to mitigate its effects.

If we treat criminals the way we treat natural disasters — as physical events without moral culpability — the pragmatic approach is preemption as well. Why wait for a murderer to commit murder? In order “to prevent future crimes,” by Sommers’s reasoning, we can identify people with a statistical propensity to commit murder (based on race, age, sex, prior behavior, etc.), and incarcerate them before their crime, and prevent the damage.

Of course, Sommers would argue: you should’t incarcerate innocent people for crimes they haven’t committed! But if Sommers is right, and free will is not real, then there are no innocent people, any more than there are guilty people. There is no innocence or guilt at all, because innocence and guilt only have moral meaning if we have free will. If there is no free will and no innocence and guilt, there are just natural systems (us) doing what natural systems do. And, as with natural disasters, it’s prudent to preempt.

The preemption of crime is the theme of the Tom Cruise film Minority Report, which describes an imaginary world several decades in the future in which people are arrested and incarcerated (in a virtual reality world) before they commit crimes, based on the skills of experts who can visualize the future. The “crimes” of which they are convicted are called PreCrimes.

In Sommers’s society in which free will is denied and guilt and innocence are rendered meaningless, there is no moral reason not to incarcerate people for PreCrimes. Of course, they’re not guilty, but they aren’t guilty even after they commit a crime, and they are never innocent either. Why wait to incarcerate people predisposed to crime? Why wait to board up your windows and evacuate your home with the approach of a hurricane? Why wait until a man has committed a crime to incarcerate him?

Hannah Arendt observed that a hallmark of totalitarian states is the eclipse of the concept of guilt and innocence. In a totalitarian state, masses of people are managed like livestock, irrespective of any imputation of personal guilt or innocence. Hitler didn’t kill Jewish children because they were guilty of crimes. He cared not whether they were guilty or innocent. Stalin didn’t starve millions of Ukrainians because they were individually guilty. He starved them as a matter of public policy, without regard for individual moral culpability.

The denial of free will, and the denial of moral culpability that follows on it, is the cornerstone of totalitarianism. The denial of free will does not, pace Dr. Sommers, herald an era of tolerance and understanding. It heralds an era of human livestock management, and the early experiments based on denial of free will and moral culpability — in Germany and the Soviet Union — have already been run.

Photo: Tom Cruise in Minority Report, via YouTube.