If There is No Free Will, Is Everything Permitted?


As the brain sciences advance, the space for free will shrinks. Many philosophers, legal analysts, and regular people worry these findings will undercut our moral and legal systems that rely on notions of personal responsibility. If a defendant pleads "not guilty" on the grounds that "my amygdala made me do it," how can we justify punishing him for something over which he had no control?

The New York Times is reporting experiments in which people primed to believe that there is no free will were more inclined to cheat. To wit:

In one [experiment], 30 college students were asked to solve math problems on a computer. Some were first asked to read a passage arguing that most educated people do not believe in free will. The volunteers were told that owing to a computer glitch, the answer would pop up after the problem if they did not the hit the space bar. They were asked to do so but told that no one would know. Members of the group encouraged to doubt free will were more likely to let the answer appear.

In the other study, about 120 students were asked to answer problems on a sheet of paper, with the promise of $1 for each right answer. Those who had read statements skeptical about free will, when allowed to grade themselves and then shred the answer sheet, took more money than they should have, the researchers said.

The findings, they said, raised questions about how human behavior might change if the belief in free will continued to decrease. But they cautioned against reading too much into the results.

But is "free will" really necessary for a system of retributive justice? What is interesting in the above experiments is that the subjects believed that they could not be caught cheating. This illustrates the fact that there is more than a little truth to H.L. Mencken's observation that "conscience is the inner voice which warns us that someone may be looking." The possibility of punishment acts as a deterrent in even a completely deterministic world.

See my column on "Prozac Justice" about some of the pitfalls of moving from a system of retributive justice to a therapeutic state.