I’m convinced that most people go through life making few real choices. Oh, we all can all look back and say “Oh, decided to do so-and-so”, but I’m convinced that we didn’t make a choice in the sense of sitting down, making list, considering alternatives, options and consequences. I guess that the nearest that we would come to doing that would be when we are budgeting, or deciding where to go on holiday.
No, our “choices” are driven by needs (“We need to go to the mall to buy….”) or desires (“Let’s eat at the Peppermill today. I had a great omelette there last week!”). Someone comes up with a need or desire and we go along with it or we don’t.
My point is that there is a thing, which I believe doesn’t exist, called “Free Will” which allows a free choice between alternatives. There is a philosophical war going on between the believers in “Free Will” and those believing in “Predestination” for millennia.
It seems to me that the closer you look at the Free Will/Free Choice thing, the more you discover the reasons that people make the choices that they do. The more reasons, obviously the less “free” the choice will be, and the more you dig the more reasons you find and the less free the choice becomes. I contend that eventually, the room for freedom of choice shrinks to nothing.
An interesting test would be to put people into a box with a screen and two buttons, and not give them any instructions except “Go into the box and sit down”. Maybe play them some elevator music to set the tone. When you pull them out after 10 minutes or so, they will have pushed zero, one or two buttons. If you then say, in a neutral tone, “You pushed zero, one, two buttons”, they will immediately begin to tell you their justifications for their action or actions.
Justification are not reasons. People often something like “Well, you left me in there with no instructions. Buttons are for pushing, So I thought that I would push one and see what happens” or “Nobody told me to push the buttons, so I didn’t”.
These statements say little about the reasons for the person’s actions or inactions. The reasons that they press or don’t press the buttons relate more to a person’s character and state of mind at the time than the justifications given. For instance, the person may be a rule follower, and without rules, would do nothing. Another person may be a rule breaker and, without rules, feels free to do whatever they wish. We all are a mix of both types of course.
People don’t think “I’m a rule-breaker, I’ll push a button”, so they can’t really claim this as a reason for their choice, and they can’t be said to have made a free choice if constrained by this innate or learned facet of their behaviour.
Some people believe that, in spite of the postulated fact that there is only one possible outcome when a choice is made, that a choice has in fact been made, since if the circumstances had been different a different choice would have been made.
This seems to me to be dodging the question. (It’s not “begging the question” in the strict usage of the phrase). I look at it like this: if we were to roll back time to before the moment that a choice was supposedly made, such as the point when the door of the box closed, and we let time roll forward again, could anything different happen. It is my contention that since all other factors remain the same, that the same thing would definitely happen.
Which brings me to the point of this post, which is, how do we justify meting out punishment for a crime, when the criminal was unable to choose not to commit it. Take away the concept of free will and punishment of the criminal seems cruel, unnecessary and unethical at the first glance. Wikipedia gives four justifications for punishment.
Justifications for punishment include retribution, deterrence, rehabilitation, and incapacitation.
Of those justifications the first, retribution, is problematic in a predestined world. The criminal could not have not committed the crime, so revenge or retribution loses most of its point.
However, retribution is rolled up into deterrence. If other criminals see what happens to the criminal in question, they will possibly be less likely to commit similar crimes. In other words the reluctance to suffer the consequences becomes part of their character which results in them not doing similar. When the chance to commit a similar crime arises then this factor becomes part of the character and they do not do it.
Similarly the criminal in question will be deterred (one hopes) from committing the crime again. He will hopefully be rehabilitated and the punishment for his current crime will influence him when the possibility of committing a similar crimes turns up. The punishment is in his memory and is a part of his personality and could be a reason for not committing the crime in the future. He may claim, in the future, that he “chose” not to repeat his crime, but in fact he could not chose to do it because of his personality and his memory of his punishment.
If the punishment results in a prison sentence then of course he cannot commit the crime or similar crimes. Wikipedia uses the term “incapacitated” and indeed that is so if he is imprisoned. An execution is a pretty final way of “incapacitating” a criminal and for many justice systems it it the ultimate punishment for severe crimes.
In the past in many countries, the criminal was tortured before execution, a process which horrifies us these days, but which seemed justified at the time. It at least some of these cases the intent was “drive out” evil influences.
The past crimes of others and their subsequent treatment, whatever it was, also serves to warn and influence others who might also have otherwise committed similar crimes. So even in a predestined world punishment would have a deterrent effect on others as it will influence others. In fact the only difference between a universe which allows for free will (somehow) and a predestined universe is the idea of “blame”.
The “free will” universe blames the wrongdoer, but the predestined universe doesn’t as the wrongdoer could not do otherwise than he did. There are still reasons for punishment in a deterministic universe in spite of that.