“I’m Not Guilty, Because I Had No Choice”
We were talking last week about rationally choosing (for whatever reason) one action above another action. But, what if “determinism” is true and that our choices are limited by both our nature and nurture. What if every decision we make could be predicted by someone who knows all of our personal history, and the only things that are truly random in our lives are the events not yet “programmed” into our profiles. Once all of the information is available, no decision we made or action we took would seem random at all, since whatever we did would just be a part of what we were already determined to do. For example, if two people saw the same wallet on the ground, a scientist would be able to predict with certainty which one (if either of them) would pick it up and which one (if either of them) would pocket the cash before throwing the wallet in the closest dumpster or which one (if either of them) would leave the cash in the wallet and try to contact the owner of the wallet.
So, if it is true that with enough information about us we can be this predictable because our actions are “determined,” can we really be blamed if we keep the cash and toss the wallet? What if we decide to rob a jewelry store and shoot the owner? After all, if keeping the cash someone lost or robbing a store is just part of our historical (both genetic and environmental) make-up, should we be blamed for being the person that we were determined to be and over which we had no control?
Granted, we hear about people acting against their basic nature, but we only hear those stories when everything the person inherited or learned was bad and they chose to be something more acceptable (or even higher than the highest expectations of anyone) in society than their nature (inherited background) or nurture (learned traits from family, culture, friends, etc.) could have predicted. Still, with enough data, even these exceptional people could have been predicted by someone paying attention. That is determinism; people do not really have the freedom to act differently than they do actually act.
So, if Determinism is true, then we are wasting our time trying to do the right thing because it is the right thing, or trying to make a decision that will maximize the happiness of the majority of the people affected by our decision, or even by trying to live rationally and virtuously so that when we reach old age, we have no regrets. At best, believing that we have some sort of control over our lives is like trying to act in a play where we have a script to follow and yet we think we can pull a surprise ending on the audience; but, they know how the play ends, so even if we change a few words in the dialogue, everyone is fully aware that nothing is really going to change before the final curtain.
If that is true, why do we put to death serial killers or praise scientists who come up with new medical cures? All they are doing is living their lives and doing what could have been predicted according to their genetics (nature) and environment (nurture). The scientist had no more choice in what he would discover than the serial killer had in who would become his victims. Of course, Libertarianism and Compatibilism (Soft Determinism) try to offer a reasonable “out” (at least for the serial killer), but we cannot completely escape the idea that some actions are causally determined—whether or not we are aware of the causes.
This is where it gets tricky. If any part of determinism is true, how can we even talk about “ethical choices”—regardless of whether we are discussing Aristotle, Mill, Kant, or even Moral Relativism? Ethical “choices” do not exist if some sort of determinism dictates our mindsets that predispose us to making predictable “choices.” We end up “choosing” what we were expected and predicted to “choose” because of our genetic and environmental backgrounds.
So, here is the task.
• First, can we really assign moral responsibility to someone who has violated a societal norm if that person was deterministically predisposed to breaking it because of his nature and nurture? Explain your reasoning. Of course, a “yes” answer would mean that there is no justification for punishing people who break the law (whether it is exceeding the speed limit or killing someone).
• Second, in what ways do either Compatibilism or Libertarianism offer less obstacles for a society that feels a vindictive need to punish people whose behavior is different than our own? Explain why or why not.
• And, finally, is punishing people who do not act like us (or, on a tangentially related subject, do not think like us) an indication of our own deterministic nurturing (which includes a close-mindedness to differences in people’s own notions of ethical behavior and responsibility? In other words, is our objection to certain behaviors and lifestyles that others did not a choose for themselves a result of prejudices against those behaviors and lifestyles that we did not choose either?
Regardless of whether you answered “yes” or “no” to that last question, you need to be able to defend it; because, how you see your determined predisposition or not regarding people different from you (even if they are not criminally-inclined) will have a significant influence on how you view various rights and freedoms to which people different from you are entitled. Or, regardless of your race, income, religion, and so forth, if you are totally determined by genetics and upbringing, it is rather pointless to talk about rights and freedoms, since none of us have any control or influence unless something in our deterministic personalities has written it into our genetic or environmental coding. But, that conversation will come up again in two weeks. Right now, we just want to figure out if the criminal should be expected to have some sort of sense of moral responsibility for breaking society’s norms (laws).