I am a recent graduate of a bachelor's degree in Philosophy. I studied some of the basic arguments of
the free will/ determinism controversy of the great thinkers and the postings on this site. My current
"allegiance" is toward a strict deterministic viewpoint because of the impression that science has
given me, though I am not a professional scientist. I do not understand how so many thinkers say
they are determinists and then talk about who should be punished. But more odd to me is how after
just saying that everyone is under rigid causality they are now saying to not punish under certain
I think the most coherent angle is to say, "Punish...or don't..it doesn't really matter...it is the law of the
universe that these things had to happen, even your attempt to talk about it, the philosophers to try to
change it despite iron causality controlling them etc. It is also necessary that we should have spent
time talking nonsense about it. A very great person is just as necessary as a base criminal. He has
only tricked us into thinking he/she is great because we believe he/she could have done otherwise. In
the material world which is us as well, there are no special people."
This seems to me the real last temptation of the philosopher, not pity as Nietzsche thought.
Let's assume for the sake of this discussion that the thesis of determinism is true. If it isn't, then we
have the comfort of knowing that the future is not a foregone conclusion. But it doesn't make much
difference so far as the free will debate is concerned. There is as little justification for punishing an act
which has no cause, as there is for punishing an act that is determined by the agent's prior state.
In response to this challenge, the theory of punishment goes through several dialectical spirals:
Level 1If it is determined that the agent acts, then it is also determined that we respond with
sanctions. The force of calling this response 'punishment' can be explained in terms of its intended
effects, as can the development of rules for deciding when it is, or is not, appropriate to punish. In the
vocabulary of determinism, we learn to discriminate cases where punishment is effective from cases
where punishment is not effective. Punishment is not effective for automobiles which fail to start, for
infants who lose control of their bladders, for adults who are not in possession of their faculties, or for
adults who, though in full possession of their faculties, did what they did as the result of physical
That primitive theory of punishment is refuted by the example cited by F.H. Bradley, of the Master of
Hounds who gives his dogs a good thrashing before they go out on a hunt "just to show them who's
boss". According to the Level 1 theory, there is no reason why we should not 'punish' those who have
not committed any wrongdoing, but might possibly be deterred from doing so by being given a
Level 2As an institution, the practice of punishment gains enormously in effectiveness from being
combined with the natural, though in deterministic terms irrational, human desire to see the
wrongdoer 'paid back' for their wrongdoing. This provides the motive for distinguishing cases where
punishment would be effective, but not deserved, from cases where punishment would be effective
and deserved. Rather than undermine this powerful institution, we forbear punishment of the
innocent, even in cases where it would otherwise be very effective as a deterrent.
The problem with this theory is that distinguishing between the 'guilty' who deserve to be punished
from the 'innocent' who do not can only be effective so long as those on whom punishment is
administered do not reflect on the implications of the rationale supplied for making this distinction.
For, if they do, if they realize that it was not possible, given the initial conditions, that either the 'guilty'
or the 'innocent' should have chosen to have acted otherwise, they will refuse to accept that there is
any real difference between the two cases.
Level 3Punishment has to be seen within a wider framework of our interpersonal attitudes. The
seminal paper is P.F. Strawson's British Academy lecture 'Freedom and Resentment' (reprinted in
several places, including his collection Freedom and Resentment and Other Essays). For example,
although you profess determinism, you submitted your question in the hope of a reasoned response.
In pressing the 'submit' button you did not merely intend to bring about a certain effect (as would be
the case, e.g. if the answers for 'Ask a Philosopher' were not produced by humans at all but by a AI
program running on a supercomputer). The human world brought into being by our inter-personal
attitudes — a world where arguments are 'valid' or 'invalid', where actions are 'right' or 'wrong', where
punishment is 'deserved' or 'undeserved' — cannot be dismissed as an illusionmerely on the grounds
that it cannot be perceived from the fully objective standpoint. On those grounds, the passage of time,
the world of our sense experience, consciousness itself are mere 'illusions'. An excellent book to read
on these issues is Thomas Nagel The View from Nowhere.
That is not the last word on the subject, however. Even though we may accept the impossibility of
discarding this 'double vision' of the world and our place in it — the world seen from the subjective
and and from objective viewpoints — there remain reasons for metaphysical disquietude. We praise
or punish people for the choices they have made. It is part of what it is to see a person as a person
and not a thing that we do not try to 'get behind' the person to see the chain of causes leading back to
the moment of their birth that accounts for their being the way they are, or for choosing the way they
chose. Yet at the same time, we feel a keen sense of cosmic injusticethat one human being has
been 'chosen' by the world to do good, while another person has been 'chosen' to do evil.
However, cosmic injustice is the one injustice that cannot be righted by human efforts. To think that
we can right it by refusing to make judgements 'good' or 'bad' is the illusion which, I suspect,
continues to grip you.