The Illusion of Free Will and What it Means for the Justice System


Excellent quote from a really good article by David Eagleman:

Instead of debating culpability, we should focus on what to do, moving forward, with an accused lawbreaker. I suggest that the legal system has to become forward-looking, primarily because it can no longer hope to do otherwise. As science complicates the question of culpability, our legal and social policy will need to shift toward a different set of questions: How is a person likely to behave in the future? Are criminal actions likely to be repeated? Can this person be helped toward pro-social behavior? How can incentives be realistically structured to deter crime?

The important change will be in the way we respond to the vast range of criminal acts. Biological explanation will not exculpate criminals; we will still remove from the streets lawbreakers who prove overaggressive, underempathetic, and poor at controlling their impulses. Consider, for example, that the majority of known serial killers were abused as children. Does this make them less blameworthy? Who cares? It’s the wrong question. The knowledge that they were abused encourages us to support social programs to prevent child abuse, but it does nothing to change the way we deal with the particular serial murderer standing in front of the bench. We still need to keep him off the streets, irrespective of his past misfortunes. The child abuse cannot serve as an excuse to let him go; the judge must keep society safe.
(via.)

Or put more simply: how can our justice system be slightly less stupid and broken.


3 thoughts on “The Illusion of Free Will and What it Means for the Justice System

  1. The difficulty with any discussion based on the premise that free will is an illusion is that many of the words in every human language become rather useless.

    Take the phrase: “how can our justice system be slightly less stupid and broken.” How? Can? Justice? None of those words have any referent in a universe (like ours :-) where free will doesn’t exist, and “stupid” and “broken” are highly questionable as well. The justice system either will or it won’t become less stupid and broken, by some purely causal mechanism, whatever that means.

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