Of all the questions asked during the Q&A phase of the recent A/Theist debate on Free-Will vs Predestination, the most incisive was a lady, let’s call her “Jane”, asking about personal responsibility and punishment for crimes committed in instances where our free will might be impaired (as in the case of, say, a tumor on the brain – as I described in my analysis of the debate – Here…).
This is a great question.
We are all frustrated by the modern judicial system, which seems more concerned with the background and extenuating circumstances of a criminal, than punishing him for his crime.
I am no different to you in this: if a loved-one of mine was murdered or raped; I’d be the first to want a suspended sentence for the perpetrator – suspended by the neck, that is.
Retribution, afterall, is fundamental to the human psyche and the foundational cornerstone to the history of all law in all cultures.
Because all ancient cultures around the globe have retribution as the basis of their law, we cannot single out the peculiarly amplified Abrahamic lust for retribution as the root of this all-too-human condition. But, the fact that in even civilized countries today, a hand is sometimes placed on a bible while speaking an oath, there is evidence enough to indict our most enlightened societies with giving undue credence to superstition and allowing it to still permeate our advanced judicial thinking.
And what does the contents of that bible, and the stain on thinking it has marked out over centuries, have to say about culpability for crimes?
Well, our history in biblically manipulated law in the West draws a crisp black-and-white line for crimes and punishment; offering no latitude for extenuating circumstance; where crimes are identified to a perpetrator, the prescribed punishment is urged by the Bronze Age manuscript to be blindly applied. To see this sort of old-testament thinking still applied in all its miserable glory, we turn to Shari law – where even the victim of a rape might be punished for out-of-wedlock sex! Such is the ghastly reality of the implacable mind that squats unencumbered by pity within the unthinking zealot.
So – returning to Jane’s question: Where do we draw the line for culpability if the free-will of the perpetrator is compromised?
The question is much harder when we squint at it through the bars of emotional retribution; but when we look at it with the more objective prevention and rehabilitation, things clarify:
Let me illustrate: This past week in the USA, the abductor and rapist, Castro, was rightly and justifiably sentenced to life-plus-1,000-years behind bars. His crimes were heinous to the point that total and irreversible isolation and insulation from society is an imperative. In a past age he would be labeled as “evil” and “a monster” and probably tortured to death. This label and that action, though, is not helpful. The label harks to the supernatural possession I mentioned earlier; and, thus labeled, the case is closed and nobody cares to look much further than that. But, in doing so, we lose the opportunity to dig into his neurology and circumstance that led him to his crimes.
The concept of digging into his circumstances has to do with profiling – with looking for correlations in his background that might allow us to intervene and prevent future abductors, rapists or serial killers from ever acting out on their ‘evil/monstrous deeds’.
You will note that I labeled the deeds here as ‘evil’ or ‘monstrous’, but not the individuals as evil or monstrous. That nuance is critical; it defines a schism that we must work at widening in our own minds between the action and the actor.
Our present era finds us still with a foot in each of two distinct eras; on the one hand we’re swearing on a mystical book called the bible, and then immediately presenting DNA or advanced psychological evidence. Our transition from our superstitious past to our considered scientific future is not yet complete; and it is this difficult period that has thrown up Jane’s “culpability” question.
The history of crime was about punishment (for retribution) – our future in centuries to come, will undoubtedly give us the tools to preempt many more crimes; addressing and treating the potential perpetrators through profiling, psychology, un-imagined brain scan technologies, neuro-chemical interventions, etc.
Until then, we can only do what our science allows; to try to prevent crime, to isolate criminals and learn from them. It is not a perfect system, but, in 2013, it is also not an end-point; it is just a beginning. What we don’t need is to recoil from an imperfect evolving system to the draconian superstition filled one of our forbears’.
And – on that note, I will move to conclusion with the following observation:
If you missed Carte Blanch this Sunday, do watch it on the catch-up channel – there was a fascinating case of about 50 people around the world suffering from “Foreign Accent Syndrome”:
Imagine the scene… a migraine sets in, and, when it clears, your voice and accent and manner of speech has utterly changed. All of a sudden, it sounds for all the world like you’re ‘putting-on’ a thick French, Russian or Chinese accent – But it never goes away! Forever more, you, a local, will turn heads wherever you go as people presume you are a foreigner. You simply won’t fit in anymore. At the very least, you will never win the confidence and trust from strangers that locals enjoy by merely talking.
Worse yet – friends and family will at first think you’re taking the piss… And then? When you cannot restore your old/actual accent?
Well… it all depends on where and when you’re going through this dreadful plight:
Our modern science tells us you have experienced a brain stroke and killed a portion of the brain associated with language. This hasn’t ‘made’ you foreign, but it has caused your sentence structure, cadence, pace and pronunciation to sound like you’re foreign. Of course… that is just an accidental foreign-identification; it just happens that your impediment matches a typical and known accent.
But that is not how the hot-heads of religion would see it at all – In the badlands of Afghanistan your life-insurance agent would soon be making a contribution to your deceased estate. But, even in the bible belt of 21st Century’s ‘civilized’ America, the howl of “POSESSED!” will ring out. Rest assured that you would not be viewed as a victim – but rather as the active participant (albeit accused that you did not pray earnestly enough) who, of free will, went into league with some French, Russian or Chinese djin or spirit – that now possesses you. And we all know where that leads!
So – once again we see the tragedy of superstition misidentifying the factors that dog free-will by importing a supernatural agent, where a straightforward medical one is at play.
I don’t anticipate much or any opposition to what I have said from the rational readers. If it comes, criticism will be leveled from the theistic camp; and to those people I say – you can look inward to see a victim who does not know free will. I say this with the confidence of predicting to a high probability that the religion you now harbour in your head was not yours for the choosing: Your religion came to you through your parents and/or immediate surroundings; it is a genetic legacy and predisposition for you to be primed for superstition, handed down to your generation through a long line of ancestors (in common with mine) who lived out their lives as prey animals on the African plains; and whose genes survived precisely because they were suspicious of every small noise behind a bush or creak in the night – and superstition is suspicion’s projection onto the evolved mind.
I make a claim of high probability for your following cultural norms, rather than lucidly choosing intelligent paths; on the strength that religion is exceedingly regional. Were you born in Islamabad, only a fool would suggest you’d be anything but fiercely opposed to the notions you now only carry in your head because of an accident of birth in a Christian land.
So that – your entire world view is tinted with a theistic slant, and a Christian one at that, which you did not choose. From within that view, you simply do not have free will. But your will is not limited by a supernatural realm, it is limited by your unfounded and purely inherited belief in a supernatural realm…. I hope you grasped the nuance there.
I lump this last thought in with this essay; which is about culpability in criminal acts; because it is not inconceivable that history will find you as guilty of not thinking clearly, in the same way that it has found guilty our ancestors who burned witches at the stake or sacrificed their loved ones to imagined gods. Although you probably have not sacrificed the body of your children, you have sacrificed their minds – and that is a cruel thing from a rational perspective.
But, in fact, you are not guilty – you are merely acting out on your limited free will.
So – in summary, Jane; since we are not yet in the era that crime is identified before it happens, and the would-be perpetrators treated – we cannot but isolate criminals from society. As much as we emotionally would like to see harsh retribution for a crimes against us or others, it is not objectively the best solution. The best solution is to be brave, to accept the point we are at in our social skills development, to keep incarceration and other punishments at some level that it hopefully dissuades the majority from crime, and use the tools at our disposal to propel our understanding of the underpinnings of crime – so as to reach a new era of crime elimination.
It is with this spirit (of not demonizing you for your inherited religious madness) that I offer my efforts to help your children move past the automatic clinging to your god and its related superstition as a comfort blanket, and help you understand why this must be done.
This article relates to: