If a person seems to have done something wrong, we check that they weren’t forced by circumstance. If we find they had no choice, we don’t punish them.
As we learn about the detail of ourselves, we see more and more circumstances forcing our decisions. The social context, your beliefs, your genes, your personality disorders, some randomness you didn’t control. In the end the circumstance of being yourself threatens to doom you to all of your actions. Many feel this is a threat indeed, for then we must abandon responsibility as a concept.
The extremes of this are treated as philosophical issue, but at the margin it is quite practical. This week for instance a murderer had his sentence cut because his genes promoted aggression. A common sentiment among those commenting is that in these cases we should distinguish between punishment, prevention and rehabilitation. He does not deserve to be punished as he had no choice, but that we don’t want him around, so he should be politely detained and helped.
Trying to draw a line between what could and couldn’t have been any other way under the circumstances is of course misguided. There is not even a gradient of degree of choice on which to draw a line for practical purposes. Everything was determined. But there is another important gradient. The key factor is how different reality would have needed to be for the person to make a different ‘choice’.
At one end of this gradient, all a killer needed was for one neuron to fire differently and she would have chickened out. At the other end, things would have had to be different for years for the death to be avoided. For instance the killer is a careful driver who runs over a child darting onto the road. He could have prevented it by never driving, which would have required their whole life to be different.
At some point, the cost of being good is equal to the cost of potentially getting punished in a certain way. Sins that are cheaper to avoid than this we should punish in that way (if prevention is worth the effort to us), those that it would take more to alter we should not.
This gradient seems to approximately coincide with when we call things a matter of choice. We also seem to roughly draw a line on it where our usual punishments, such as social ostracism, fail to change behavior. If a behavior can’t be brought down by stigma and bad treatment, it’s probably out of your control. If it can, it’s you. If people persist in smoking and drinking after we have stigmatized them and banned them we conclude that they are probably addicted. When a persons’ illness clears up on invitation to a party, we suspect them of control. I’m not sure how well responsibility felt coincides with punishment being worthwhile, but it looks approximately close. There is also the matter of which choices we can see the restriction on. Until recently we couldn’t see that DNA was an influence. Are there other influences that we can see and we still count as choice, or can’t see and count as no choice?
Anyway, for some reason the line where we punish looks to us like predictable vs. not predictable, so when we look closely and find more predictable things, we want to move the line. This is a problem, because knowing about genes doesn’t make it any more expensive to change behavior influenced by them.
Some people, on thinking about this, say that lack of choice has no implications for responsibility then. We can safely embrace our physicality free from ethical consequences, because responsibility isn’t about philosophical free will. This I disagree with. The logic behind punishment may be independent of vague notions of choice, but our feelings about responsibility are tied to the latter and indifferent about the former. If we actually managed to believe in determinism, punishment may be well justified, but we would largely lose the will to do it. This would be a problem, because it would still be justified.
Perhaps as a society we could understand the merits of punishment and commit to consistently punishing law breakers, but now with cool compassion. This would do little good though. Plenty of punishment isn’t by the law, but by individuals. Even what the law deals with often requires individuals to tell the law about it. If people weren’t lividly bent on justice, they wouldn’t report thefts, damage and violence, because it takes them effort and often gives them nothing but the pleasure of retribution. If punishment were to become a coldly calculated activity we could lose the ability to commit on an individual level to irrationally pay the costs of punishing. That would spoil the cooperation we currently have between one another and ourselves over time to keep harmful activities rare.
I still believe in determinism of course, but I don’t think this is necessarily a safe belief.