In the light of the critique of 'free will', can blame and punishment ever be rationally justified? Consider hard cases, such as brainwashing, crimes of passion, the influence of drugs, medical or psychological conditions etc.

We are all learning machines. Choices do not happen in a vacuum. Individually, we make a myriad of choices every day - many of them ethical ones. And individually, we are each a member of a social group where others of our kind make similar kinds of choices just as frequently. Over the course of evolution, "good" choices survived long enough to procreate. "Bad" choices died out. However, evolution is slow. We have evolved the ability to learn. We learn from every experience. So we can never exactly rerun a "Test scenario" and expect exactly the same output. Every time we evaluate our alternatives and, make a choice, decision or judgement, we learn more about ourselves and the world around us. We learn to improve our processes of evaluation and choice by distinguishing "good" choices from "bad" ones. Therefore, as an aide to learning - both for ourselves and for others - it pays to advertise those decisions that are notable for being "good" and "bad". Passing judgement on one's own choices, and the choices of others, serves the purpose of making plain how such choices "ought" to be made. Practice only makes more perfect when we can recognise when our aim is off.

We assume that other people are just like ourselves. We assume that the best way of teaching other people to make "good" choices, and steer clear of "bad" ones, is to make plain what kind of choices are considered "good" and "bad". Hence our judgements (moral and otherwise) on the choices made or contemplated. Hence the purpose of praise and blame, punishment and reward.

To be "responsible" means "To be answerable or accountable for something within one's power to control". Where, given our current context, that "Something" is a choice or decision or judgement where -

And to be "within one's power to control" includes any situation where by choosing one alternative over another, one can influence the consequences in a predictable manner. One is not considered responsible for unpredictable consequences.

Does the responsible chooser of "bad" choices deserve to be punished? (After all, he could not have chosen other than he did.) What is the meaning of "deserve" in this context? The dictionary says "deserve" means "be worthy of, merit, earn". The responsible chooser of a "bad" choice evaluated the alternatives, had sufficient information to make reasonable predictions of the consequences, and was neither coerced nor the victim of random events. Surely then, the responsible chooser's "bad" choice is worthy of, merits, has earned the blame and punishment?

If the objection is that the chooser could not have chosen other than he did, and is therefore not to be held responsible, then the objector must provide a definition of "responsible" that includes some element not covered in the above. To maintain that a "responsible" choice must include an ability of the agent to choose otherwise than he did - given the exact circumstances that prevailed, then the objector is guilty of misconceiving the nature of both "Free Will" and "responsibility". Even in a Determinist's reality, where the chooser cannot have chosen other than he did, what is wrong with telling the chooser that he chose wrongly? The next time anyone faces a similar choice, they will do a better job of choosing, because the blame and punishment will be part of the "past history" that will go into the determination of the future outcomes. Praise and blame, punishment and reward are not bestowed in order to influence the past. They are bestowed in order to influence the future.

So the answer is "Yes!" For three reasons:

(i) to teach the chooser to change the way he evaluates and selects alternatives (punishment tends to reduce repetition, and provide an incentive for better use of learning opportunities);

(ii) to teach me what kinds of choices to avoid, and what kinds of standards my social groups apply (I can learn by example); and

(iii) to teach you that I mean what I say when I tell you that certain of your choices will result in undesirable consequences for you (advertised punishments make for good deterrents).

So runs the general argument. Some concrete examples of possible "Special considerations" will help clarify the proper interpretation of this position.

Brainwashing. According to the dictionary, "brainwashing" is "intensive, forcible indoctrination, usually political or religious, aimed at destroying a person's basic convictions and attitudes and replacing them with an alternative set of fixed beliefs." In other words, brainwashing involves the intentional and (importantly) coercively imposed distortion of an individuals standards of evaluation so that the individual chooses alternatives that he would not normally choose. The victim of brainwashing chooses according to the standards imposed by the brainwasher, not according to the standards he has learned himself. Therefore, borrowing from Hume, the actions of the brainwashing victim are not caused by "The character and disposition of the person who performed them", so they "can neither redound to his honour, if good; nor infamy, if evil". The brainwashing victim is not a responsible chooser. The chooser is a victim of a coercion imposed choice.

Stockholm Syndrome. Fear is a powerful emotional reaction. And it is an evolutionarily adaptive one. Fear prepares the body and mind to deal with an immanent threat. One of the ways of defusing a threatening predator, is to assume a submissive posture. This sort of thing happens all the time in the normal course of inter-personal relations. However, there are some circumstances where the fear and the threat are so great, and the alternative means of dealing with the situation so constrained, that the individual has little practical choice but to demonstrate complete submission to the predator. When the alternative is almost certain death, complete submission to the attacker might just possibly buy you some time. Man is not alone in having evolved violence limitation instincts in response to abject submission. That is why being the victim of "Stockholm Syndrome" is generally considered to be in the same category as Brainwashing. The chooser is a victim of a coercion imposed choice.

Crimes of Passion. That "balls override brains" is not an acceptable excuse for failing to use proper rational thought in the forecasting and evaluation of consequences. That it happens all too frequently is regrettable, but no escape from responsibility. One's "passion" is just as much a part of an individual's "character and disposition" as is one's rational capacity to choose wisely.

The Bandwagon Effect. Sometime people just like to go along with the crowd. Or with a particularly charismatic leader. They "check their brains at the door" as it were, and let others do their choosing for them. Like with crimes of passion, this is not an acceptable excuse for failing to use proper rational deliberation. That it happens all too frequently is regrettable, but no escape from responsibility. One's willingness to delegate decisions is just as much a part of an individual's "character and disposition" as is one's rational capacity to choose wisely.

Drugs. If self-inflicted, the effects of drugs on one's rational faculties falls into the same category as "crimes of passion". The choice to intentionally disrupt one's own rational abilities is as worthy of labelling "good" and "bad" as are the choices that might result therefrom. If the drugs are coercively imposed from without, however, the scenario falls into the same category as brain-washing. Only if the drugs are required medication to prevent or cure some ailment, can a case be made that the resulting disruption of normal cognitive behaviour is excusable. Although in such cases, it may be counter-argued that the expected side effects were predictable, and should have been allowed for. Ultimately, in such cases, a judgement would have to be made on a case by case basis, as to how much responsibility the individual has for the choices being questioned.

Medical or Psychological Conditions. To the extent that the conditions diminish the individual's ability to forecast consequences, and evaluate alternatives against a learned standard of what is desirable and undesirable, the individual should be considered less than fully responsible. Like the case involving the effects of medically necessary drugs, however, consideration needs to be taken of the extent to which the disability is or was predictable, and to which preparatory measures could have been taken to avoid the "bad" consequences.

Youth and Ignorance. These are relevant considerations only to the extent that the individual has not had sufficient opportunity to learn an appropriate set of standards against which to evaluate alternatives, or sufficient knowledge of reality to make reasonable forecasts of the consequences of the alternatives available. Neither youth nor ignorance is relevant if the "average person" (of that age) would be normally expected to have had the necessary knowledge, or have acquired the necessary standards. (eg. The "ignorance is no excuse" position of the law. Although this is becoming less and less meaningful as the law becomes more and more obscure, obtuse, and downright inconsistent.) Remaining wilfully ignorant out of conscious choice, not making use of the available opportunities to acquire the necessary information, is a "bad" choice that is blameworthy and punishable in and of itself.

Stupidity. Far too many people all of the time, and everyone of us far too much of the time, are simply just plain stupid. "The circuits are functional, but no one is home." We make choices that we know (or would know if we thought about it) are not the best of the alternatives available. We fail to look for less obvious alternatives. We do not consider the consequences of our actions. We do not apply the standards we have learned. We willingly do what we are told, or what habit has trained us to do. But with the exception of stupidity that is pathological enough to be considered a medical or psychological condition (in which case it falls into the same category as "medical and psychological conditions" above), stupidity is no excuse from responsibility. In fact, our common everyday penchant for making stupid choices, and doing stupid things, is one of the primary reasons why we all make judgements about our own, and other people's choices. It is only if we are held accountable for our stupid errors, that we will ever learn to be less stupid in the way we govern ourselves.

[Up] [Home] [Next]