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Just deserts

Dan Dennett and Gregg Caruso had a thoughtful debate about free will on Aeon recently. Dennett makes the compatibilist case in admirably pithy style. You need, he says, to distinguish between causality and control. I can control my behaviour even though it is ultimately part of a universal web of causality. My past may in the final sense determine who I am and what I do, but it does not control what I do; for that to be true my past would need things like feedback loops to monitor progress against its previously chosen goals, which is nonsensical. This concept of being in control, or not being in control, is quite sufficient to ground our normal ideas of responsibility for our actions, and freedom in choosing them.

Caruso, who began by saying he thought their views might turn out closer than they seemed, accepts pretty well all of this, agreeing that it is possible to come up with conceptions of responsibility that can be used to underpin talk of free will in acceptable terms. But he doesn’t want to do that; instead he wants to jettison the traditional outlook.

At this point Caruso’s motivation may seem puzzling. Here we have a way of looking at freedom and responsibility which provides a philosophically robust basis for our normal conception of those two moral basics – ideas we could not easily do without in our everyday lives. Now sometimes philosophy may lead us to correct or reject everyday ideas, but typically only when they appear to be without rational justification. Here we seem to have a logically coherent justification for some everyday moral concepts. Isn’t that a case of ‘job done’?

In fact, as he quickly makes clear, Caruso’s objections mainly arise from his views on punishment. He does not believe that compatibilist arguments can underpin ‘basic desert’ in the way that would be needed to justify retributive punishment. Retribution, as a justification for punishment, is essentially backward looking; it says, approximately, that because you did bad things, bad things must happen to you. Caruso completely rejects this outlook, and all justifications that focus on the past (after all, we can’t change the past, so how can it justify corrective action?). If I’ve understood correctly, he favours a radically new regime which would seek to manage future harms from crime in broadly the way we seek to manage the harms that arise from ill-health.

I think we can well understand the distaste for punishments which are really based on anger or revenge, which I suspect lies behind Caruso’s aversion to purely retributive penalties. However, do we need to reject the whole concept of responsibility to escape from retribution? It seems we might manage to construct arguments against retribution on a less radical basis – as indeed, Dennett seeks to do. No doubt it’s right that our justification for punishments should be forward looking in their aims, but that need not exclude the evidence of past behaviour. In fact, I don’t know quite how we should manage if we take no account of the past. I presume that under a purely forward-looking system we assess the future probability of my committing a crime; but if I emerge from the assessment with a clean bill of health, it seems to follow that I can then go and do whatever I like with impunity. As soon as my criminal acts are performed, they fall into the past, and can no longer be taken into account. If people know they will not be punished for past acts, doesn’t the (supposedly forward-looking) deterrent effect evaporate?

That must surely be wrong one way or another, but I don’t really see how a purely future-oriented system can avoid unpalatable features like the imposition of restrictions on people who haven’t actually done anything, or the categorisation of people into supposed groups of high or low risk. When we imagine such systems we imagine them being run justly and humanely by people like ourselves; but alas, people like us are not always and everywhere in charge, and the danger is that we might be handing philosophical credibility to people who would love the chance to manage human beings in the same way as they might manage animals.

Nothing, I’m sure, could be further from Gregg Caruso’s mind; he only wants to purge some of the less rational elements from our system of punishment. I find myself siding pretty much entirely with Dennett, but it’s a stimulating and enlightening dialogue.

Posted in Conscious Entities.