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The Fallacy of Determinism

Updated on January 13, 2019

Determinism is the view that all our choices are entirely the product of prior causes. There is no free will. Only one path is open to us in any situation. The compatibilist view of free will is also denied, as not really freedom.

Given that, many determinists have argued we cannot justly punish people for doing any wrong, as they could not help it. Moreover, that we should be sympathetic as well toward people with impulses of this kind.

Yet, by determinism, a person who wants such people punished cannot help it either. Whatever feelings they have for them would also be determined. Here then many determinists seem to forget their own doctrine.

Not all do, however. 18th century French philosopher Baron d'Holbach wrote, in his book "Good Sense", Ch. 81, p. 33:

"'If the actions of men are necessary, if men are not free, by what right does society punish criminals? Is it not very unjust to chastise beings, who could not act otherwise than they have done?' If the wicked act necessarily according to the impulses of their evil nature, society, in punishing them, acts necessarily by the desire of self-preservation. Certain objects necessarily produce in us the sensation of pain; our nature then forces us against them, and avert them from us. A tiger, pressed by hunger, springs upon the man, whom he wishes to devour; but this man is not master of his fear, and necessarily seeks means to destroy the tiger."

Similarly, American reporter and writer Ambrose Bierce wrote a humorous short poem which illustrates this same idea:

"There's no free will," says the philosopher;
"To hang is most unjust."
"There is no free will," assents the officer;
"We hang because we must."

Similarly, a story about Zeno of Citium, the ancient Greek philosopher who founded Stoicism, has the same point. In it, a slave caught stealing told Zeno he could not help doing so, because that was his fate. Zeno retorted that his fate was also to be punished for theft.

Determinists generally reject this conclusion, claiming that realizing people cannot help themselves causes us to feel compassion toward them and realize they must not be punished. This is not guaranteed though.

First of all, it begs the question that this would be the only rational conclusion. In other words, we might take the view that criminals should be punished for their acts to satisfy the victims, for instance.

A harsher view might be taken toward people deemed unable to change. There, we might conclude they should be simply imprisoned for life, or even killed. One might believe a person cannot help themselves-it does not entail mercy.

Determinists themselves do not think that criminals should just be left off, so far as I know. Instead, imprisonment can be justified for deterrence, prevention and reform of criminals, rather than simply to punish them.

Logically though, if a criminal has been concluded to be incurable, then even capital punishment (or perhaps euthanasia) could be justified too. Such criminals, far from receiving compassion, might be viewed similarly to mad dogs, and put down.

Euthanasia has already been requested by a Belgian prisoner being held in isolation (though it was denied). Critics have rightly said this seems like capital punishment by another means (which Belgium has abolished).

Moreover, some may not be satisfying with anything but harsh punishment. Yes, that may be deemed irrational by determinists, but they too cannot help themselves here assuming determinism is true. Should they not receive compassion too?

The idea that determinism dictates compassion or leniency does not follow. It may for some, but not all. The opposite could equally be the case. We are determined to do many things, on determinism, many conflicting with each other.


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