Determinism and justice 


My good friend argues in this post that the notion that we have freewill makes us unjust and that in order to build just societies, we need to see the world as deterministic.

What are your thoughts for or against the above thesis 

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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

63 thoughts on “Determinism and justice 

  1. Or, perhaps it is not free will, but determinism that is the source of retributive justice. For example:

    The point of “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” is to demonstrate to the offender the harm that they have inflicted on someone else. The point of this type of penalty is (a) to provide a deterrence to those considering inflicting harm on others (because they will reap the same harm upon themselves) and (b) to teach the person what it is like to be on the receiving end. This is deterministic causation, a penalty designed to reduce harm within the community.

    We can also see determinism justifying the presumption that a small harm can justify a much harsher penalty. The penalties are listed. When the offender deterministically causes the crime he also causes the penalty.

    Ironically, many Christian leaders and organizations have been at the forefront of prison reform and as advocates of rehabilitation. And they generally believe in free will. One other thing they believe in is “redemption” (rehabilitation) of even the worst sinner.

    So free will is getting a bum rap. After all, there is no such thing as rehabilitation without the notion of a person who can be redeemed through counseling, drug treatment, education, job training, post-release follow-up, and other rehabilitation programs. The goal of rehabilitation is a person who can autonomously make better choices in the future. And free will is a synonym of autonomy.

    Liked by 4 people

    • makagutu says:

      Hi Marvin, good to see you again.
      Did you read the post at all? Have you read your comment aloud to yourself?
      I think not because you’d have noticed it is contradictory. Retributive justice is only possible because you think a person could have acted differently. It’s the basis of an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.
      The determinist holds that a person could not have acted differently other than they did in that situation so that an eye for an eye becomes cruelty.
      There would be no need for rehabilitation in a freewill system? It is unnecessary. People can act differently if they choose to.

      Liked by 1 person

      • When we speak of “could have’s”, “would have’s”, and “should have’s”, we are imagining how things might have turned out IF we had made a different choice. This is how we learn from our mistakes. And learning from our mistakes serves the evolutionary purpose of avoiding those mistakes in the future.

        To say that “I could have done otherwise” simply means that I had more than one option to choose from at the time. And that “IF I had chosen a different option then things would have turned out differently”.

        The concept of inevitability refers to the single choice that I DID make, and has nothing at all to do with what I COULD HAVE decided.

        When people use the phrase “I could have done that instead”, they are not asserting any supernatural ability to travel back in time — except in their imagination. We imagine ourselves making a different choice, and we imagine how things might have turned out differently. Perhaps this mental review will convince them that they still made the best choice. Or it may reveal a better option that they might try next time.

        We learn this process from our parents. When correcting us, they will sit down with us and suggest a better choice than the one we made. And will talk over how things could have turned out differently IF we had done this instead of doing that. Thus we learn how to make a better choice next time.

        Or, perhaps they’ll do as my father did when I thought it would be funny to put some pins in my little sister’s modelling clay. He took a pin and held it near the point so as not to do me any real damage and showed me what it felt like, several times. And it was not as funny as I thought. 🙂

        So, that’s what “could have’s” are all about. They’re about learning from our bad choices in order to make better choices in the future.

        The idea of actually resetting Time to a prior point in the past, the hard determinist’s thought experiment, never actually happens in reality.

        And, if it did happen in reality, then all of our options would also be reset, and we would have the exactly same possibilities to choose from as we did the first time around.

        We would make the same choice, of course, but we would still have to MAKE the choice in the same fashion as we did before, by considering multiple possibilities, evaluating how we thought each choice would turn out, and then choosing the one we thought was best.

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        • makagutu says:

          It appears to me you like to hear yourself speak. Saying I could have done is wishful thinking. It has no bearing on real life.
          Knowing you had alternatives equally makes little relevance to this discussion except to the extent it informs us of the other possibilities.
          There is nowhere I mention anything supernatural.
          We can imagine all we want what would have happened had we taken an alternate route other than the one we took. All these is, as I have said above, wishful thinking.
          Your parents teaching supports the idea that behavior can be modified through nurture. It tells us nothing about freewill or lack of it

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          • The final prior cause of the will, and the subsequent action, is the person considering the options and making the choice. It is the person as they are at that moment that is the most meaningful and relevant cause of what happens next.

            Within the whole material universe, there is only one place where you will find purposeful action, and that is within a living organism. And the only place you will find deliberate action, is in intelligent species like us.

            Any version of determinism that overlooks or minimizes human causal agency is false, because it fails to include ALL meaningful sources of causation.

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          • makagutu says:

            The will is uncaused. Your action is an expression of the will.
            Tell me how the human causal agency works. Maybe that would be an interesting discussion

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          • Human causal agency is physical, biological, and rational.

            (1) As a physical object, I behave passively according to the “natural laws” of physics. If I am dropped from the leaning tower of Pisa at the same time as a bowling ball, I and the bowling ball will hit the ground at the same time.

            (2) As a biological organism, I behave purposefully to survive, thrive, and reproduce. This is no longer behavior that can be predicted by physics alone. The “natural laws” of living organisms are instead understood and predicted by the life sciences, like biology and genetics. Unlike passive behavior, the biological organism will “defy gravity” by walking up hill to MacDonald’s to get something to eat. In the same fashion, a tree will send roots into the ground and branches into the sky in order to find the sunlight and water it needs to survive. Note that this is purposeful, but instinctual rather than deliberate action.

            (3) As an intelligent species, I can imagine alternative ways to satisfy my purpose, evaluate these options, and choose what I will do. The mental process is called “deliberation” and the behavior that results is called “deliberate”. It is at this level that we are said to have “free will”, the ability to choose for ourselves what we “will” do, when “free” of coercion or other undue influence. The behavior of intelligent species is no longer predictable by physics or biology, but now we must add the social sciences like psychology and sociology.

            At all levels our behavior is still deterministic, whether caused primarily by physical, biological, or rational causes (or some combination of the three).

            Does this answer your question? Or do you have follow-ups?

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          • makagutu says:

            1. Only in a vacuum
            2. Walking up a hill is not defying gravity.
            3. You can imagine many ways to get down from 11th floor of a building. And your choice will be determined by other causes.
            So again what’s your point?

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          • 1. Picky.

            2. Right. No physical laws are ever broken by biological or rational causation. It’s just that the laws of physics are insufficient to predict the behavior of certain objects. For example, a car stops at a red light, and physics cannot explain why this car stopped while cars in the crossing street are still moving. The “natural law” governing this event is published by the Department of Motor Vehicles, not the Physics Department.

            3. Well, I can get down from the 11th floor by taking the elevator, going down the steps, or jumping out the window. If I were a bowling ball, one choice would be as good as the other. But I’m a living organism and an intelligent species, so I have a significant interest in making the best choice.

            No cause external to me has this interest in my choice. It exists nowhere else in the physical universe except within me. Perhaps I’m trying to add steps to my Fitbit watch, in which case I’ll take the stairs. Or, I may feel tired and decide instead to take the elevator. Neither of these two causes (one rational and the other biological) are external to me. Both are integral to who and what I am.

            So the only meaningful and relevant cause of my choice is me.

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          • makagutu says:

            1. How
            2. A driver stops unless you are talking self driving cars.
            3. Unless you mean bowling balls think and have motives. So again your example doesn’t advance your argument

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          • No external cause has any interest in my choice to use the stairs or the elevator. Therefore, the only meaningful and relevant cause of my choice is me.

            When my choice is serves my own purpose and my own reasons, then I am acting of my own free will. And the term “free will” means that I was free to decide for myself what I will do. No one forced that choice upon me against my will. No one manipulated me against my will to do their will instead.

            It’s a simple concept. And a definition that everyone understands and correctly applies in nearly all practical scenarios.

            My question is how did the philosophers and theologians manage to become so confused about it.

            And why would any rational person go along with them.

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          • makagutu says:

            You ever heard of circular reasoning? You are a master at it.
            My question is how do non philosophers like you get it so muddled up?
            And why anyone would believe you

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          • Well then, thanks for the opportunity to participate in the discussion.

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          • makagutu says:

            And most welcome
            Hope to see you around more

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  2. I understand, yet reject, the religious context under which debates over free will and determinism frequently take place. Theists are most hypocritical in such debates, and anti-theists are quite opportunistic. The absolutist arguments which proffer the idea of pure free will, or the lack thereof, are abstract rationalizations having little relation to the real world. It should be apparent to anyone that we human beings make personal choices everyday which have variable consequences, and that much of our circumstantial lives lay beyond our direct control.

    Liked by 4 people

    • makagutu says:

      I agree with you on so many points.

      Liked by 1 person

    • basenjibrian says:

      Excellent comment, Robert! The purist position makes no sense from either end

      I actually found Marvin above (and at the linked site) making some good arguments, though. I am not convinced that “hard determinism” is even that useful at the level of explaining human actions or to guide human society or social behavior.

      We get back to “the flap of a butterfly’s wings causes a hurricane” argument.

      The decisions we make have guiding causes and backgrounds and reasons and biases, but pure determinism to me seems to see human beings as almost purely robotic entities. Even if “true” in some sense, how can one run an organized society in that way? If everything happens because it must, why even have laws? Maybe society deserved the serial killer so no punishment can be imposed? It’s all random chance and causality and history.

      Not very useful at all.

      Liked by 1 person

      • “Not very useful” is the key point. If we presume (as I do) that everything that happens is always inevitable, then the fact of inevitability becomes irrelevant by its very ubiquity. It is like a constant that always appears on both sides of every equation, such that it can be safely subtracted from both sides without affecting the result.

        The only reasonable thing to do is to acknowledge the fact, and then just ignore it, because it makes no practical difference to any issue or real life scenario. And it appears from our experience that any attempt to draw meaningful implications from the fact of inevitability will result in mental errors and paradox!

        Liked by 2 people

        • Scottie says:

          Hello Marvin. Thank you for the way you reasoned and wrote the second paragraph. That is what I was trying to say in my much more muddled way in my response to you the other day. Because it makes no practical difference couldn’t you say the whole issue is an intellectual game like “how many angels can fit on the head of a pin”? Hugs

          Liked by 1 person

          • makagutu says:

            That it is a topic that has occupied philosophers and laypeople for ages, I think makes it an important issue of discussion. It’s practicality is a different matter.
            Same way we can debate whether Homer wrote the Iliad or not or whether Socrates knew Plato.

            Liked by 1 person

          • Scottie says:

            Hello Mak. I see your point. It is not as useless as I thought if it can train your mind. I was thinking of it only from the point that when I go about my daily life and everything that entails, I never think hey was that free will or determinism. So I figured the subject did not matter. Anyway, thanks for showing me a different P.O.V. , sadly as I don’t know much on these type of things. Hugs

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          • makagutu says:

            Hello Scottie,
            We have not spoken in a long time. Have I stopped writing interesting things or did I become boring 😉
            Well, no one asks whether that was freewill or determinism. The same way people rationalize after the fact.

            Liked by 1 person

          • Scottie says:

            No you did not become boring. Instead you went way over my head. SO I couldn’t really add to any of the the conversations and a lot of times I barely followed them. In fact I gave you a shout out in a video I did the other day. I have learned things on your blog. Also I have had health issues I am dealing with that sometimes means I don’t get a lot done on the computer. I still get an email when you post and I do come see what the post is about if I can be at the computer. I will jump in if I can but I may sound like Homer Simpson. 🙂 Be well. Hugs

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          • makagutu says:

            Ah Scottie my friend. I hope you are well now or if not getting better. I should check out the video.
            You can say anything on this blog. It’s like a fireplace where friends meet to unwind

            Liked by 1 person

          • Unwind and throw shit into the fireplace to see how fast it’ll burn! Yeah, baby! I luvs me a good ‘ole fire at Mak’s place. 🙂

            Liked by 2 people

          • makagutu says:

            Dry shit burns for long 🙂

            Liked by 1 person

          • Effectively, yes, Scottie.

            Reliable cause and effect is meaningful in that we can discover the specific causes of specific effects, and by that knowledge gain greater control of our environment, like preventing diseases through vaccination and short term weather prediction.

            But the single fact of universal inevitability, even though it is logically derived from reliable causation, is worse than useless, because hard determinists perversely employ that single fact to tell us we have no control at all over our own destiny. And that attitude is harmful to human well-being.

            Liked by 2 people

          • 3, if they’re very short.

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        • makagutu says:

          What is your point? You admit in one instant that whatever happens happens and then immediately after declare it irrelevant. Why so

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          • Well, it is irrelevant because there is nothing that anyone can or should do about inevitability, per se. If I may paste from my blog the problem I had as a teenager —

            I was a teenager in the public library, reading about the determinism “versus” free will paradox. The idea that everything I did was inevitable bothered me, until I ran across this thought experiment:

            Suppose I have a choice between A and B. I feel myself leaning heavily toward A. So, just to spite inevitability, I’ll choose B instead! Seems too easy. But then I realize that my desire to spite inevitability just made B the inevitable choice. So now I have to choose A to avoid the inevitable. But wait, now A is inevitable again … it’s an endless loop!

            No matter what I choose, inevitability always switches to match my choice!

            Hmm. So, who or what is controlling the choice, me or inevitability?

            — So, what can anyone actually do about the inevitable, except to just be oneself, do what we do, and choose what we choose? Isn’t that what we inevitably will do, anyway?

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          • makagutu says:

            I don’t know a polite way of saying this, but I think you are confused.
            My point from the very beginning is we will do what we will. After the fact we can say I could have or would have but those mean nothing. And given the same circumstances, we will still act the same way.

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          • The confusion comes from viewing “reliable causation” itself as a cause. Inevitability is a concept, not a cause. Determinism is also a concept, and not a cause. These concepts are not anthropomorphic causal agents that force us to act against our will. Only objects and forces can be said to exist in actuality, and only objects and forces can actually cause anything to happen. We happen to be one of those objects.

            So the correct answer, as to whether it is me or it is inevitability that is controlling the choice, is that it’s actually me.

            If we want a more accurate anthropomorphic image, it is us choosing what to do next, and inevitability is just sitting in a corner with a notepad, waiting to see what we do next. 🙂

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          • makagutu says:

            I can tell you I don’t know what you are talking about.

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          • Quite alright.

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      • makagutu says:

        Interesting when you put it this way. The society doesn’t desire the serial killer but he or she is there and that unfortunately is their make. We would wish that there were no serial killers.
        What we do with the serial killer is the question. Do we kill them or do we incarcerate them in a solitary cell or do we try rehabilitation?
        I think our choice here is dependent on among other things how we view human action; whether he chose to be a serial killer or can’t help but kill.
        That’s how I see it.

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      • Exactly, I couldn’t have explained it any better.

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  3. Remember what Richard Nixon once said to his wife, Pat: “Pat, I’m determined when I say, ‘Ain’t no freewill ta’ be found no-wheres! Show me a will fer less’n .69 cents, and I’ll give ya’ a big fat CEE-GAR!’ ”

    Now, let me go operate some of my freewill and create an argument on this topic that no one’s yet heard and doesn’t sound and look like rats running through the same maze, over, and over, and over, and over, and over, again. Nothing shows me how un-free our wills are than the arguments surrounding “freewill”. Like Yoda said once on the matter, “Very small and limited, arguments on freewill are.”

    Liked by 4 people

  4. renudepride says:

    I agree with Mr. Vella’s comments above. Religion needs to remove itself from discussions/debates/discourses where it has no business. As a society, we have surrendered far too many prerogatives to the communities of faith. Thank you, my Kenyan brother, for offering this here. Naked hugs!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Amen. 🙂 Free will is not originally a religious concept. There has always been a distinction between someone being blamed for what they deliberately chose to do and another person not being blamed for the same act when they were forced (coercion) or manipulated by someone (hypnotist) or something else (mental illness) into doing something that would normally be against their will.

      In philosophy, the underlying question is whether inevitability (which follows logically from reliable cause and effect) can be viewed as a meaningful constraint upon us. I suggest not.

      Without reliable cause and effect, we cannot reliably cause any effect, and would not be free to actually do anything. Every freedom we have, to do anything at all, relies upon us living in a deterministic universe.

      And this is not a meaningful constraint, because what we will inevitably do is what we would have done anyway! It is exactly identical to us just being us, doing what we do, and choosing what we choose.

      On the other hand, a guy holding a gun to our head is a meaningful and relevant constraint upon our choices. And so is a mental illness that impairs our normal functions of perception or our moral judgment.

      Liked by 3 people

    • makagutu says:

      I agree with you.
      Naked hugs my brother

      Liked by 1 person

  5. john zande says:

    I liked the reasoning.

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  6. I don’t think the post supports the thesis. A lot of current justice systems are based on the idea of free will, and they’re developing towards non-retributive and non-deterrence based measures. Prison diversion programs are one good example, where people convicted of a felony can get help for things that contributed to the crime in the first place.

    Likewise, determinism can get used by monsters too. Re-educating people to train them for socially acceptable responses technically would be a valid punitive measure. It even has the allure of rehabilitation so people could support it without realizing what they’re getting into.

    One doesn’t have to be a determinist to know what is fair or just. Many other values go into justice systems. Free will or determinism doesn’t chain people to specific views of justice.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Justice is about protecting rights. Practical rights arise from agreements. The constitution is an agreement. Elected legislators negotiate further agreements regarding rights as laws that prohibit behavior violating those rights.

      A “just penalty” seeks to protect the rights of all the interested parties: (a) it will seek to repair the harm done to the victim if possible, (b) it will attempt to correct the behavior of the offender, (c) until corrected, it will protect society typically by holding the offender in prison, and (d) it will protect the offender’s right to a fair penalty by doing no more than is reasonably necessary to accomplish (a), (b), and (c).

      Liked by 2 people

  7. Scottie says:

    The free will / determinism debate is just an intellectual exercise that is over thought in my opinion. What is , simply is. The reality we live in is what we have to deal with. In this reality we seem to make our choices and do what we want, with the caveat that other people can and do put pressure on us to things. To me it makes no difference to my perception of reality if this view I stated above is free will or determined actions because it is the way it works, the way it seems to me the person doing those actions. So it doesn’t matter if it is all determinism of if it is all free will, the actions I take, the way I see the world, appears to me as my choices and so to my perceptions it is free will. Well that is just my opinion on the matter. Hugs

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m a compatibilist. When properly defined, determinism and free will do not conflict. Determinism asserts that objects and forces within our universe behave in a reliable, and thus theoretically predictable fashion. Predictable implies causal necessity (inevitability). Keep in mind, though, that determinism doesn’t actually do anything, only the objects and forces in play can actually cause stuff.

      We just happen to be one of those objects. And we participate in three levels of causation: physical (passive), biological (purposeful), and rational (deliberate).

      As physical objects, if you drop one of us off the leaning tower of Pisa at the same time as a bowling ball, we’ll both hit the ground at the same time. The physical sciences are sufficient to predict this behavior.

      As biological organisms, we are driven to survive, thrive, and reproduce. Our behavior is thus purposeful and it is explained and predicted by the biological sciences.

      As an intelligent species, we are able to imagine, evaluate, and choose. At this level our behavior can be deliberate, and at this level the concept of free will emerges. Our behavior at this level requires the social sciences to explain and predict.

      I believe that our behavior is deterministic at each level. Even at the level of purpose and deliberation, our own purpose and our own reasons will reliably determine our choice.

      However, when it is our own purpose and our own reasons that control our choice, we call this a “freely formed will”. The “free” in free will does not mean “uncaused”, but simply that it was authentically our own choice, “free” of coercion or other undue influence.

      When we make the choice ourselves, for our own purpose and our own reasons, the final prior cause of our choice is actually us. A functional MRI will locate that process as an actual event in our own brains. And there is no distinction between us and our brain (actually, we exist as a process running on the hardware of our brain, similar to a program running on a computer).

      So, there is no conflict between (a) the fact that it was authentically us making the choice (free will) and (b) the fact that our choice was inevitable, and could be predicted by anyone with sufficient knowledge of how we think and feel.

      Thus, determinism and free will, when properly defined, are compatible concepts.

      Liked by 3 people

      • Scottie says:

        Well reasoned and thoughtfully explained. I am not arguing the points you describe very well above. I think they simply make no difference if the version you state is correct, the verion others claim is free will or determinism. When we interact with our environments and live our lives we do it in a way that simulates free will. We interact in our environment in a set way that is not theoretical. In reality we act as though we had total free will. In that case it doesn’t matter the label, or which way of looking at it is more intellectually correct. It doesn’t change the way we interact with our reality. Hugs

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  8. Mordanicus says:

    I would argue it’s harmful to society to tie a fundamental discussion on ethics and hence justice to shaky metaphysical concepts such as determinism and free will. Any argument on justice based on determinism/free will is a non sequitur, therefore we need to formulate justice in terms independent from unprovable metaphysical positions.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Swarn Gill says:

    I guess I find myself to be a determinist. I mean the idea that we might not all be a bit robotic sounds less romantic on the surface, but who said truth had to be romantic? That being said, deterministic still puts us a far distance from predictive. It’s a more superior model in my opinion for explaining behavior than free will. And even if we don’t have free will we still are capable of learning and thus being able to survive better and help others to survive better. If improvement and growth is possible without free will then what does it matter. Every species on the planet tries to survive better as conditions change, whether through changing climate, or changing predation. We’re doing the same thing (on average). But to whatever degree we are deterministic, I would certainly say the underlying assumption that we have free will is one of the more pervasive and harmful ones, and we’d serve ourselves better by breaking away from that paradigm.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. basenjibrian says:

    I am “informed” by a tacky sign at the Bible Church on my way to work that “Human sin is the cause of all evil”. More determinism at work! SIN is the cause of all.

    ROFLOL. SIN caused the typhoon, I guess?

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