On free will and punishment


My position on free will is known to the readers of this blog. I am not saying anything new in this post. Here is a passage from Nietzsche that I hope to hear your comments on.

Have the adherents of the theory of free will the right to punish?— People who judge and punish as a profession try to establish in each case whether an ill-doer is at all accountable for his deed, whether he was able to employ his intelligence, whether he acted for reasons and not unconsciously or under compulsion. If he is punished, he is 
punished for having preferred the worse reasons to the better: which he must therefore have known. Where this knowledge is lacking a man is, according to the prevailing view, unfree and not responsible: except if his lack of knowledge, his ignorantia legis [ignorance of the law] for example, is a result of an intentional neglect to learn; in 
which case, when he failed to learn what he should have learned he had already preferred the worse reasons to the better and must now suffer the consequences of his bad choice. If, on the other hand, he did not see the better reasons, perhaps from dull-wittedness or weakness of mind, it is not usual to punish him: he lacked, one says, the 
capacity to choose, he acted as an animal would. For an offense to be punishable presupposes that its perpetrator intentionally acted contrary to the better dictates of his intelligence. But how can anyone intentionally be less intelligent than he has to be? Whence comes the decision when the scales are weighted with good and bad motives? 
Not from error, from blindness, not from an external nor from an internal compulsion? (Consider, moreover, that every so-called “external compulsion” is nothing more than the internal compulsion of fear and pain.) Whence? one asks again and again. The intelligence is not the cause, because it could not decide against the better reasons? 
And here one calls “free will” to one’s aid: it is pure willfulness which is supposed to decide, as impulse is supposed to enter within which motive plays no part, in which the deed, arising out of nothing, occurs as a miracle. It is this supposed willfulness, in a case in which willfulness ought not to reign, which is punished: the rational 
intelligence, which knows law, prohibition and command, ought to have permitted no choice, and to have had the effect of compulsion and a higher power. Thus the offender is punished because he employs “free will,” that is to say, because he acted without a reason where he ought to have acted in accordance with reasons. Why did he do this? But it is precisely this question that can no longer even be asked: it was a deed without a “for that reason,” without motive, without origin, something purposeless and non-rational.— But such a deed too ought, in accordance with the 
first condition of all punishability laid down above, not to be punished! It is not as if something had not been done here, something omitted, the intelligence had not been employed: for the omission is under all circumstances unintentional! and only the intentional omission to perform what the law commands counts as punishable. The 
offender certainly preferred the worse reasons to the better, but without reason or intention: he certainly failed to employ his intelligence, but not for the purpose of not employing it. The presupposition that for an offense to be punishable its perpetrator must have intentionally acted contrary to his intelligence—it is precisely this 
presupposition which is annulled by the assumption of “free will.” You adherents of the theory of “free will” have no right to punish, your own principles deny you that right! But these are at bottom nothing but a very peculiar conceptual mythology; and the hen that hatched it sat on her egg in a place far removed from reality.

The Wanderer and his shadow, F. Nietzsche

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About makagutu

As Onyango Makagutu I am Kenyan, as far as I am a man, I am a citizen of the world

18 thoughts on “On free will and punishment

  1. fabryhistory says:

    It is easier to forgive ourselves, and our fellow humans, when we meditate on this:
    “Consider, moreover, that every so-called “external compulsion” is nothing more than the internal compulsion of fear and pain.”

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    • makagutu says:

      In a world where there is no freewill, forgiveness or understanding why a person acted is possible and with it compassion. On the religionist world with freewill, man is always ripe for punishment

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  2. shelldigger says:

    This is a tough one, thanks Mak.

    I believe, at least here in the states, some thought is given to a defendants motive. Whether the crime was premeditated or a spontaneous act of a moment of anger/jealousy/greed. With the premeditated determination having a harsher consequence.

    Still myself (at this point in time) being grounded in a compatibilist state, I see man as having choice. If you make the choice to slay someone for the $ in their pockets, I feel like some punishment is due, regardless of whether one knew it was against local laws. Of course exceptions for those with limited faculties/disabilities resulting in mental problems would have to be weighed.

    I think the assumption “having preferred the worse reasons to the better: which he must therefore have known” is a bit presumptuous (if I am reading this right, let me clarify I see “worse reasons” as consequences of crime and ‘better reasons” as making the decision not to commit the crime due to lawful repurcussions, if I am wrong here then my point is likely moot .) There are many a motive for committing crimes, and most if not all of these perps think they can get away with it or are above the law. It is not a matter of them having weighed the consequences of the crime. Instead a matter of having weighed the benefits of the crime, and believing they could get away with it. This guy needs to be punished.

    In cases where that moment of anger causes a violent reaction which results in a crime, I would call that what it is. Maybe this would be an unconcious act, but it is still a crime none the less. Subject to local law.

    While I can consider some acts of external compulsion a result of an inner compulsion of fear and pain. I cannot consider all acts of external compulsion a result of an inner compulsion of fear and pain. I think we are a tad more complicated than that.

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    • makagutu says:

      The question is, do we choose our motives in any sense of the word? Do we chose what we shall will? I don’t think so and this being the case whereas I agree that society needs to protect itself, I find punishment reprehensible.

      At the moment of commission of the crime, I think it is the greater motive that will be acted upon. And as I have said, it is this I don’t think we can control.

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      • shelldigger says:

        I understand that at the moment one chooses a path of action, and acts upon it, the course of events often escalates into something unintended from the beginning. A guy just beat his wife to death for cooking the wrong meal. I doubt he intended to kill her at the moment he picked up the stick, but she is dead regardless. I doubt his intent was murder, but a murder was committed. At any time, from the very second he picked up the stick, he had the option to put it down. He could have whacked her once, twice, or not at all, I believe this man certainly chose to beat his wife, I do not think he meant to kill her, I still believe a murder was committed, at the very least manslaughter.

        I am curious as to your take on this example, not so much to argue, but to better see where you are coming from.

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        • makagutu says:

          You need not worry, as a friend of this site you can ask as many questions as you will.

          In the above example, you are looking only at the death of the woman and that is the one you are saying he didn’t chose to do, which we can’t be sure. We will take his word for it. However, in my view, we can say there were at lest two choices, beat his wife or not, that he beat his wife means the greatest motive was that other than preferring a peaceable solution to the issue.

          A life has been lost. The society this man was brought up in made it possible to be violent towards women. The issue of the meal then is the final stroke on the back of proverbial horse that led to the point where we are now.

          Should he be punished? I don’t know.
          Is there any good to be gained from punishing him? Am not sure.

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          • shelldigger says:

            Yes, I agree we can’t be sure his intent was not to kill her, it could have been his intent. I can only suspect he only meant to make an example of her perceived insolence, then the entire thing got out of hand.

            Yes the society he was brought up in and the religion he subscribes to, I would presume played a large role, in this incident.

            I still feel like the guy had options other than beating his wife to death with a damn stick. If my wife makes something I wasn’t expecting for supper, the thought does not even cross my mind that she should be beaten. I just say “okay let’s have “X” for supper.”

            Clearly his greatest motive, was that moment in time where he made the choice to beat her, rather than scold her, or just roll with the new dish for supper. His intent when he picked up the stick was to use it as a weapon to inflict bodily harm to his wife. At any time before the first blow all the way to the final blow that resulted in death, he could have changed course. He had the option to stop at any time.

            We are social creatures. We have to have some kind of basic laws to keep our society from breaking down into some chaotic Mad Max environment. If this man goes unpunished, what happens if he remarries and beats the next wife? There was certainly no incentive taken to keep him from being a repeat offender.

            What keeps an otherwise decent guy from saying: hey, he didn’t get in any trouble for killing his wife, and mine is being a PITA, maybe I’ll kill her…?

            We can argue that he was a victim of his upbringing, his religion, and his his environment. We can also argue the wife was a victim of the husband.

            I am not sure we can do much about religious culture that promotes the belittling, and beating of women, except to hope for the day when these attitudes change. perhaps with the death of religion, equality can finally be achieved. You and I will not live to see this day, we can only hope it will come.

            In the meantime we have a murderer on our hands, that needs to be dealt with in some fashion. 15-20 for manslaughter with time off for good behavior would be my guess.

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          • makagutu says:

            Maybe he wouldn’t do it a second time whether we jail him or not, Keeping people in jail haven’t reduced the crime rates.

            From an observer point of view, for that is what we are, it is easy to say that he had this or that choice. It is not the same if you are the one in those shoes. And if we take all the factors at play, I don’t think we can with any justice say he had a choice.

            Education is a good way to solving part of this problem. Question is, what type of education?

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  3. aguywithoutboxers says:

    The entire concept of free will is too rooted in the mythology of belief systems that are not based on any scientific proof. It is flawed in part because every discussion concerning free will is based on punishment for some conceived bad behavior. There’s too much history of belief system and hierarchy of “thou shall not” for me to see any point. There are far too many judges in this world already.

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  4. Sonel says:

    This made me think of the story in the bible where god gives people free will and then kills everyone with a flood for not acting the way he wanted.

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  5. nannus says:

    Personally, I don’t believe in free will. Besides that, even if we had free will, I am opposed to punishment. I have writen about this before (http://asifoscope.org/2013/01/15/punishment/), maybe you are interested in it.

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