It Takes Just As Much Free Will To Punish As To Do Wrong

It Takes Just As Much Free Will To Punish As To Do Wrong

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Thing that always cracks me up about anti-free will arguments is the contradictions. Too many of those arguments take this shape: if only people knew they couldn’t make choices, they’d make better choices.

I had no choice but to say that. And you have no choice but to laugh. And a few of you had no choice but to pass on that rollicking joke to somebody else (use the share buttons below).

That second paragraph is a joke, too, of course, but more on the amusing side than a do-you-get-it elbow poke guffaw. But it’s also an argument.

We met it last time discussing Sabine Hossenfelder’s failed attempt to disprove free will. What’s even funnier—today is filled with good humor—is that when she was confronted with the I Have No Choice, she scoffed and dismissed it. She went on instead to other arguments she mistakenly thought proved her point.

My dears, it really is an unanswerable argument. If nobody has a choice, then nobody has a choice. Even those people who dispute that nobody has a choice.

That means those who punish wrongdoers have no choice but to punish wrongdoers, even if wrongdoers have no choice but to commit wrongs.

Nothing could be plainer. Punishers aren’t granted momentary free will, if free will doesn’t exist, to do their punishing. They must punish. Or, if they are granted free will only in those instances they punish, but not when they commit wrongs, then free will exists.

Enter academic Barbara H. Fried, who discusses the argument that the people who choose to punish shouldn’t be exercising their free will to punish, because the wrongdoers punished had no choice but to do wrong.

…scientific research into the determinants of human behavior has told us over the past four decades. Most of that research…points to the same conclusion: our worldviews, aspirations, temperaments, conduct, and achievements—everything we conventionally think of as “us”—are in significant part determined by accidents of biology and circumstance. The study of the brain is in its infancy; as it advances, the evidence for determinism will surely grow.

One might have expected those developments to temper enthusiasm for blame mongering. Instead, the same four decades have been boom years for blame.

Retributive penal policy, which has produced incarceration rates of unprecedented proportions in the United States, has been at the forefront of the boom. But enthusiasm for blame is not confined to punishment.

Love how she blames blame mongers?

To say “I have no choice but to be hungry, I must eat or die” is true. We are in this sense slaves to our biology. But that sentiment is equivalent to this one: “I have no choice but to be sucked down by earth’s gravity, and I cannot fly.” We are also slaves to gravity. And electromagnetism, and a host of other things.

(The same guy who circled every instance of “fish” in his copy of Moby Dick and who penned in the margins “Ackshually, whales are mammals” so that nobody would think he was fooled, is now saying, “Ackshually, we and earth are attracted to each other because of our mutual gravitational attraction.”)

To say we have free will in no way is to say our will cannot be constrained by circumstance. Of course it can be. Whoever said it could not?

Determinism is the idea that all things are governed by unbreakable physical “laws.” It is false. Its falsity is proved by witnessing it to be false. We are confronted by choices, and we make them freely, within whatever constraints exist at the time.

Determinism is believed to be true based on theory. On models. Theory says, “With material things, this has no choice but to follow that, and we, ourselves, are material things.” Accepting that, it does follow that free will is out. Our bodies are, theory says, only following blindly certain physical “laws”.

I put the scare quote around “laws” to signal I am not on board with this interpretation of Nature. My take is that the world works not by laws of nature, but the law of natures. Things operate according to their nature. What is of essence is essence.

It is of course possible I am wrong about that. It makes no difference. We still observe free will. It therefore exists. I don’t know how. I would love to know how, but that I cannot demonstrate how does not mean that what I observe is false. I’ve used the example before, but it’s like how people used to say in the 1970s that bumblebees can’t fly because theory insists they cannot. And therefore we don’t really observe them flying?

With bumblebees one of two things has to go: theory or observation. Same thing with determinism: theory or observation. You can’t have both.

I also jettison the materialist premise of determinism. We are not entirely material beings. Again, maybe I’m wrong. That still doesn’t kill the observation.

I’m veering too far from Fried. She doesn’t want to outright say free will is false, but she wants to put it into a pill and make it disappear. Thus she attacks the constraints side of the argument, intimating these are overwhelming:

For the metaphysician, the theoretical possibility that one could have acted otherwise in some alternative world may suffice to establish free will. But if the question is whether we should hold a real-life Smith blameworthy in this world, one would think that the requisite sort of free will is not metaphysical but practical: When all is said and done, how plausible is it to think that Smith could have acted differently?

To take an all too frequent scenario, suppose that Smith grew up in a neighborhood where drug dealing was the most common form of gainful employment. He was raised by a single mother who was a cocaine addict, and by the time he was twelve was supporting his family by selling drugs. When he was seventeen, he got caught up in a drug deal gone bad, and in the altercation that ensued, he shot and killed the buyer.

How should we think about Smith’s level of moral responsibility?

We say Smith murdered the buyer, that’s how. And we punish him. The form of punishment can also be constrained or mitigated by circumstance—which everybody also agrees with.

But to say, as Fried wants to say, that he “really” had no choice, and that therefore punishment is not due at all, is false.

Once again, we have the argument that constraints only affect the wrongdoer, but not the punisher. Those who punish also grew up in certain ways, and live now in certain ways. They too must follow the path destined for them, if Fried is right. Thus they must punish.

Fried is careful not to make any direct statements, except to castigate “blame mongering”. If the criminals who are unpunished in her regime go on to wreak havoc and make life miserable for many, she can always say “I was only asking questions.” No blame can be directed at her choices. She must not be punished.

I first learned of Fried through Steve Sailer, who includes Richard Pryor’s crude thoughts on jailing criminals.

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  1. McChuck

    Let us conduct a thought experiment. All those who say, “Free will does not exist” and “Murders must not be punished” shall be lined up, and murdered one by one. After each murder, the rest shall be questioned. Will their opinions on the topic of free will and punishing murderers change as the murders approach closer and closer to them? Oh, no, we can’t possibly stop the experiment. That would require free will. And of course someone told the murderer to murder, and provided the weapon, which (in their theory) totally exonerates him from any possible blame.

  2. dave snark

    A cat doesn’t philosophize about whether there is free will or not (presumably) but if another cat sniffs its butt at the wrong time it smacks the crap out of it. How can they do that? Don’t they know the other cat just had no choice?

  3. Hagfish Bagpipe

    I wonder if Barbara H. Fraud is related to Sam Bank-Fraud.

  4. Ye Olde Statistician

    1. Volition is the Intellective Appetite; i.e. a hunger for [or revulsion to] the products of the Intellect [Concepts]. It is analogous to the Sensory Appetites relative to the products of Perception.
    2. You cannot desire what you do not know.
    3. Your knowledge is in many cases incomplete.
    4, Therefore, your Volition is not completely determined.

    Folks often confuse motives, influences, tastes, habits, and the like with Causes and Causes with Determinism. But ‘Laws of Nature’ are always ceterus paribus, “all else being equal.” They apply only in certain circumstances. Newton’s Second Law, e.g., states that the acceleration experienced by a mass m is “determined” by the impressed force F. If you drop a dollar bill from the Tower of Pisa, you will find influences other than gravity on its motion. Now crumple it into a compact ball, and it will drop in a more satisfyingly Newtonian manner. Yet F [gravity] is the same and m [mass of the dollar bill] is the same. Clearly, Second Law is not universal. It applies to “heavy bodies” falling “in a vacuum.”

    Hume, however, insisted that Causation was an illusion.

  5. JohnK

    Closely related to modern, distinctly unserious ‘philosophical’ discussions of ‘free will’ is the modern, distinctly unserious ‘theological’ question, “Dare We Hope that all men will be saved?”

    Which, in common with similar ‘philosophical’ discussions, also amounts to the view that there is no free will. Viz., that no one ‘really’ hates Christ with His Church, that no one ‘really’ refuses the Way, the Truth, and the Life, that no one ‘really’ defines Hell as “spending an eternity with Christians,” etc.

    I have more than once found Matt’s ‘philosophical’ accounts of free will to be radically insufficient theologically. But “Daring to hope” amounts to the view that, in the end, our best efforts to oppose Christ with His Church are in vain — we “dare to hope” that God takes no one seriously.

    After all, God took the Devil himself seriously, even to the extent of “preparing a place” from which the Devil can be apart from God, and hate God and oppose Him, forever. Could God do us no less courtesy, we who are little less than the angels?

    So, whatever our difference re ‘free will’, Matt and I firmly agree: God does — and will — take you seriously.

    In terms of the theological category of the ‘moment’ of our death, which ‘moment’ is an enfolding into the death of the Lord, the only death that remains, for He has defeated death: without possibility of prevarication, at the ‘moment’ of your end, you are going to be gifted with that for which your life on earth has prepared you — with exactly what you really want.

    Be careful what you wish for.

  6. Jim Fedako

    Fried’s is but another example wokist projection.

    In essence, Fried is “otherizing” those she deems beneath her. They are subject to a materialism (a product of our systemically evil society – or what’s left of it) that eliminates free will, while she and her ilk have free will (being the vanguard, of course).

    It’s an extension of the -ism that claims they lack the mental ability to (say) get the government IDs she can so easily acquire.

    They have no agency, but she does.

    What a smug way to view those around you.

  7. I don’t want to say that everything you believe (or, at least write here) is wrong, but it is.

    Freedom of choice is an illusion created by a lack of information. We generally do not know what causes us to undertake action A instead of action B and rationalize this by claiming we are free to choose between them – but if we knew enough, we’d see one of the two as inevitable and the other as impossible. In a sense this is just like the common reading of quantum processes: there are n possible outcomes, we have no info about their likelihood, and so assign p=1/n to each of them until an outcome is determined – but if we knew all the requirements for outcome (real) to happen, we’d also know that the outcomes (imaginary) were impossible to begin with.

    So apply this to a drug deal gone bad: the IIs (idiots involved – & no headshack references please!) have never had the information on which to base other lifestyle choices and so ended where they ended – perfectly inevitable in retrospect.

  8. Johnno


    If there is no Free Will, then THERE ARE NO HATE CRIMES!

    Every act of Sexamaphobia and anti-sarcasitism is natural and THEREFORE LOVING because it comes from Mother Nature, whom we have NO CHOICE but to protect from HER own fossil fuel excrements by liberally using it up so that it will be cleansed by returning to precious carbon so that SHE use these nutrients to TRIGGER Climate Armageddon and have an abortion of the number of unwanted life threatening HER planetary career to become more like that male sexist chauvinist Mars whom must step aside because SHE can be a Strong Independent Sterile Red Planet too! That is HER RIGHT as SHE HAS NO CHOICE! Thus neither do I when I refuse to get vexxinated, because I want to die to HELP HER, and I have NO CHOICE but to accept HER TOTALLY NATURAL 100% NOT MADE IN A CHINESE LAB FAUCI SWEARS gift of Covid to facilitate HER dreams, as Mx. Earth is truly a minority amongst the Stars, oppressed by the pregnancy of life and ruining her vibrant blue hair!

  9. Uncle Mike

    Do the crime and you do the time. My choice, as the last guy with the free will to make it. Sorry, bot-a-toms. Live it or live with it. That’s an order.

  10. Ordinary people can see that some actions are freely chosen and others are not, even if they have only a vague notion of what it means. Philosophers then insist that in order to qualify as “free,” a choice must be completely unrelated to any prior events that might have influenced it: in other words, it is “uncaused.” Such nonsense often causes favorable decisions about tenure.

  11. Milton Hathaway

    Determinism always seems like a rabbit-hole to me. We should be lenient on criminals who commit grievous crimes if they had a problematic upbringing? Sorry, society’s response is predetermined, we have no choice. What’s that, you say? Not Determinism, but Pseudo-Determinism? But then who gets to decide what is predetermined and what we can change?

    Besides that, punishment is only one motive for incarceration; another huge motive is deterrence, especially the deterrence achieved by physically separating the dangerous individual from society. Arguing that the criminal is a product of their environment may sway some from the punishment angle, but backfires badly from the deterrence angle.

    Bottom line for me is that I find Determinism uninteresting, because it is unactionable. I’ll go one further – I generally find pure philosophy uninteresting because it is unactionable. Philosophical arguments are presented with words and only words, for measurements aren’t possible. (If measurements are possible, we don’t call it philosophy anymore. E.g., discussing the human soul is philosophy; trying to measure it’s weight upon death is science.) This means that words are being used as a model for reality, and as we know, all models only say what they are told to say.

    If philosophy is a just a model of reality created from strung-together words, then one might assert that all philosophy is wrong, but some philosophy is useful.

  12. BDavi52

    The whole Free Will Question is asinine. But what else is new?
    Having abandoned the issues which truly do and can and should make a difference because each of those reeks of ‘metaphysics’, the supernatural, and God, Philosophy is left counting angels on pin heads, dancing. It’s something to do, after all.

    Is there Free Will? Of course there is. Or not. It matters not a whit. If my utter and absolute belief in Free Will as something I both experience and witness is itself but a pre-determined outcome in a pre-determined universe running down a pre-determined rut, what difference could it possibly make? If I so believe and act as I believe and expect of the Other the same belief, action, and consequence sequence….and if all that is itself but a deterministic shadow play, who cares? There is no difference in those worlds.

    In any kind of practical sense, Free Will is the only game in town.

    Without it, why bother?
    And since we all so bother and always have and always will, why worry?

    Let’s go get some ice cream!

  13. Barry Malcolm

    At what age or stage of development does free will become relevant? Certainly an all loving god doesn’t bestow free will on innocent children?

  14. John B()

    I’m veering too far from Fried. She doesn’t want to outright say free will is false, but she wants to put it into a pill and make it disappear.

    Everything you thing you think do and say is in the pill you took today – In The Year 2525 (Rick Evans)

  15. spudjr60

    Why do Cultural Marxists (otherwise known as Anti-Christian bigots) argue against Free Will.

    To make an excuse for their unrepentant sinful behavior. They have successfully used this to excuse the unrepentant sins of sexual perverts and have actually made these sins a source of “Pride”.

    Also, when they say the people who punish have no free will, but to punish, they are excusing the number one goal of all Socialist governments. That is, to punish their enemies. They are saying, “We aren’t choosing to punish these people, because we have no choice in the matter because the “arc of cosmic justice” is forcing us to do this task. And observational example: The treatment of the folks who went on an unguided tour of the US Capitol Building on Jan-06-2021.

  16. Forbes Tuttle

    Let me improve on Barbara Fried’s take…

    “To take an all too frequent scenario, suppose that Smith … When he was seventeen, he got caught up in a[n] … altercation … , he shot and killed [someone].”

    The implication of her narrative is that all the elements I removed were causal to Smith’s act of shooting and killing someone–and beyond his ability to alter his life course since birth. As to the facts of committing a crime, those elements are window dressing–curtains drawn shut to obscure the view.

    If we take her view that free will doesn’t exist, she not going to like what happens next.

  17. Ragnarok

    Fried and her co-ethnics always throw open the prisons once they get powerful enough. The argument against free will is not serious, it’s just a means to accomplish this goal.

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