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On Free Choice, Consider the Compatibilist Option

Jerry Coyne

Jerry Coyne recently said a very silly thing, and Michael Egnor and Granville Sewell have both called him out for it already. Here it is:

There are ramifications for the justice system. I firmly believe that if we grasped that nobody, including criminals, has a “choice” in whether or not to do something, like mugging someone, we would structure the justice system differently, concentrating less on retribution and more on keeping baddies out of society, trying to reform them, and using punishment as a deterrent to improve society.

Jerry Coyne thinks that criminals don’t have a “choice.” (What are those quotation marks doing there?)

I want to add a comment about the rest of his statement, because it is politically (and even theologically) important. Coyne is quite right that we should acknowledge that there are systematic causes of crime, that we should address them. There are many factors that not only correlate with but really do contribute causally to crime. Poverty, lack of opportunity, lack of family stability, lack of a place within a society (and sometimes merely the perception of these things in a noxious subculture) objectively make a person more likely to commit crime. It is important to acknowledge these things, so that we can respond to crime with prevention and also redemption, and also so the rest of us can be grateful for our own “privileges.”

Denying Common Sense

But why should this lead to a denial of free will? Why should the existence of one prior kind of causation exclude the existence of another later kind of causation? Who said there is a unit sum of blame to be assigned, and that you can get away with murder just because someone else is also to blame? Even if the influence of poverty (for example) was so strong that statistically, every poor person became a mugger, it is still true that no one will actually commit a mugging unless they choose to. No matter what evil influences there may be on a person, the moment he chooses to do evil (Oops did I say “he”? How sexist!), a line has been crossed. Each person who understands what he is doing, is responsible for it. Punishment is not merely a deterrent: It is just. To deny this is not only to deny the reality and dignity of human agents, it is to deny common sense itself. 

This leaves me wondering why people like Jerry Coyne make these arguments. Is he trying to evade responsibility for something? Does he have a guilty conscience? Does he want to convince himself that the feeling of badness is an unfortunate biological or cultural leftover, and not the voice of reason itself?

Consider Compatibilism

Or is he confused about what free will is at a philosophical level? Let me own up: I am a determinist like him, but that does not mean I have to deny the self-evident fact of free will: I know (truly) that I make free choices all the time. I know that if I don’t make them, they will not be made, and I know that I am responsible for them. If determinism is also true, that does not mean that free will is false. It could be simply that there is a problem with the philosophical abstraction called “libertarian free will” (which seems to assert indeterminism as a fundamentalist tenet). I won’t even attempt to explain here what the problem might be, but I will say that I call myself a compatibilist, as do most of the mainstream academy, many ID proponents, and many religious people. 

So Jerry, what is this uneducated silliness about denying choice and moral responsibility? Do you think we are all monkeys or something?

Photo credit: Letizia Bordoni via Unsplash.