Summary: 32nd Gentle Thinkers Debate (Free Will and Justice)

Some scientists think that free will is an illusion. If that is true, can we hold people accountable for crimes? Would this erode our justice system? How would the justice system have to change to accommodate this?

Note: This summary is interpreted from notes taken during the second debate on this topic and may contain errors. It is not a definitive text and should be used a means of sharing and developing ideas. Edits have been made to make this summary easy to read therefore it does not reflect the actual flow of conversation.

If you wish to correct mistakes, be attributed to or contribute content, please contact me or post a comment.

More summaries can be found via the Summary Index.


Introductory statement on the topic.

  • Some of the debate’s attendees disagreed with the premise of the introductory statement (see above link). The justice system’s aims shouldn’t be limited to protection, deterrence and retribution.

  • The justice system needs reform, most of the debate attendees thought that the idea of this system being used to deliver retribution is a major issue. We should consider focusing on deterrents and protection of communities.

  • Vengeance and retribution are different and not synonyms. Vengeance is disproportionate to the crime. Retribution is an act that is scaled to match the magnitude of the crime. It looks at how the crime affects the victims and is measured accordingly.

  • For some, our judicial system isn’t capable of dealing with retribution as a counter-measure.

  • Incidents between Israel and Palestine have been interpreted as acts of vengeance: retaliation whose magnitude is not equal to the crime, but more open to interpretation.

  • “There is no thing as an unjust or just war.” – A member commenting on how implausible justifications for war are.

  • Propaganda is a useful and dangerous tool for persuading the masses.

  • We treat people with mental illness differently. We might be more likely to punish healthy people in hopes they can be reformed or deterred from committing criminal acts. E.g. a 25 year old kills another person; you will be making assumptions about this person. You will think of them differently if you are told they have a tumour on the part of their brain that affects their emotions. (Example via Sam Harris )

  • Isolation and deterrents are different solutions to prevent crime. Isolation is part of protecting communities and individuals from (potentially) dangerous people. It is a good solution for those who can’t be rehabilitated. Deterrents are there to convince people not to harm themselves and others.

  • Incognito by Dr David Eagleman suggests that people who commit crimes may have faulty wiring in their brains (mentally ill). [Book website] [Guardian Review] [NPR interview with Engleman]

  • We may perceive suicide committed by a young person as tragic. We can argue that they are using their free will to make that choice.

  • Laws prevent you from doing what you want and they reflect the society communities want to regulate. Voting is a coarse way of regulating and changing society. Focusing on changing a law means that we ignore how laws are made and enforced.

  • Laws hold people accountable regardless of the existence of free will. We need to level the blame at someone but where does the buck stop?

  • Accountability and responsibility were concepts brought up during the discussion. One member stated that they didn’t understand what the word meant and explained that from his understanding, accountability is what is left when you have responsibility and take away trust. Another interpretation is that accountability is simply the word used by humans who feel the need for the buck to definitely stop somewhere to give us someone to blame for bad events.

  • We appear to have differing views on how the judicial system should be run. Some of us think of it as a system to prevent crimes whereas others think of it as a system to deliver punishment. We need to clearly define the “judicial system” and how it is enforced.

  • The judicial system has to assume that there were choices available to be made prior to a criminal act. Someone who kills by accident isn’t legally punished but does have to live with the (moral) repercussions of the incident. Judicial systems take into account of the mental health states of the accused.

  • Judicial systems are not flexible and while we use them to fix problems, they aren’t very effective in most cases. E.g. dealing with psychopaths or sociopaths. Internal inconsistencies in the judicial system suggest it will take us some time to reform it. It also brings up examples like how legally we treat a drunk driver at the same level as a murderer.

  • Most of us choose to abide by the rules.

  • Judges can interpret the law to the extent that the laws allow.

  • A punishment should reflect the degree of choice and control held before a crime was committed.

[Editor Note: Another interesting idea: If the degree of punishment should be proportional to the degree of choice involved, then shouldn’t the degree of praise by proportionate to the degree of choice in an altruistic act (i. e. if you dive in to save a drowning child without thinking, then you aren’t a very good person because you didn’t put any rational thought into it, so you don’t deserve any praise or reward – this is exactly what many free will arguments say about justice, just applied to good acts instead of bad acts).]

  • A country like Norway will calculate your fine for a road offence using your annual income. A high income earner has more to lose.

  • Empathy and compassion are important qualities to have when making a decision and can be neglected during the process or in discussion.

  • The mentality towards the judicial system in some progressive countries is that on rehabilitation and what will benefit societies and people rather than focusing on punishment.

  • Do you have a moral obligation to save a drowning child? Should we be punished for not saving this child? What about for saving them? Most people in these situations act on impulse and do appear to be embarrassed when questioned about it afterwards.

  • Peter Singer hypothetical: You have the choice to save a drowning child but you are wearing very expensive shoes, would you still save that child? Most people would react emotionally to this hypothetical and say “yes”. But would you save a child in a third world country by sending them an equivalent amount of money to the costs of the shoes?

  • In Germany one has a legal obligation to help if they witness an accident. In some countries, you can be charged if you injure a person you rescue or interfere with an accident.

  • What is the purpose of tossing a person in jail? Isolation? Mandatory rehabilitation? Punishment? Revenge? Retribution? We should objectively analyse people and situations to determine a well thought out outcome.

  • Psychiatrists do tests before a person is paroled to determine the chance of recidivism or re-offence. Unfortunately the odds of a psychiatrist’s prediction are slightly better than flipping a coin. How these tests are developed and administered may be the problem, science based assessment may be a better alternative. [Wikipedia entry on recidivism]

  • We may be placing too much focus on the perpetrators and not the victims of a criminal act. Take this joke for example: Two guys come across a seriously injured person lying in a gutter. They walk over them and one says, “The person did this really needs some help.”

  • The judicial system should be focusing on protecting potential victims and prevent crimes from occurring in the future.

  • Having perpetrators of criminal acts and the families of the victims sit down together to discuss the incident may have surprising results.

  • People under hypnosis may not or won’t follow a command if it is something they object to. Despite the common misconception, free will isn’t removed when you are under hypnosis.

  • Humans tend to focus and attribute significance of the outcome rather than the circumstances or quality of the surrounding decisions of an act. This is known as moral luck. [Wikipedia entry] [Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry]

  • We may need to work on our definitions of free will as we may have dual definitions of this concept. Here are some of the definitions that appeared during the course of the debate:

• Dr Karl’s definition of free will

• Free will is the ability to override emotions and impulse.

• Free will as the ability to make choices.

• Free will as inhibitions does exist. These can be removed or replaced by various means.

• Free will is the emotional side with rational thoughts and decisions. We can choose to react with or after emotional outbursts.

• Emotional intelligence, “being mindful” and emotional consciousness are other names for free will. This is a skill that has to be learned.

[Editor Note: Due to a recording error, the Yogic perspective may have been misinterpreted. We will correct this if we can get more information of this definition of free will.]

• The Yogic take on free will: To the extent I identify with my ego, my behaviour is influenced and determined by various factors. E.g. environment, cultural background etc. This is an illusion; the ego is actually a mad dictator. Ego is a self-perceived control and focus on “I”. [Article on Free Will from a Yogic perspective]

• If you become aware of this, you can become purely aware of yourself and become objective. Thought, blame and punishment go out the window. Everything is just is, there is no good or bad behaviour.

  • Most of the group agreed that we have free will and the ability to judge consequences when making choices. Others preferred the neurological evidence that indicated that free will was an illusion but agreed that pretending it existed was useful. Some of us felt that free will is like money: people have to believe in it for it to work.

  • We don’t seem to be aware of many things we do. For most people, there is an unbalance with the uncurious brain and rational action taken. People who are prone to external influence aren’t aware of their objectivity or lack thereof.

  • Most people might be on auto pilot and therefore have limited free will. One’s auto pilot can be described as fulfilling needs based on a hierarchy. E.g. Basic need (eating for survival)  (complex need) companionship.

  • We can override our needs but we have to stop and think before implementing these changes. It is surprising how small things bother people differently. E.g. overtaking another driver or petrol prices.

  • Humans may emotionally respond towards injustice and informally create a justice system through their responses. We may have created rules to excommunicate undesirable people from our tribes. A member commented that another example of cultivating desirables could be seen in early human societies killing off the elderly to allow healthier and productive members to live whereas now we can afford to feed and care for the elderly.

  • We are programmed in particular ways and subconsciously react to certain influences. Chemical changes in our bodies may influence things such as memory, brain activity, perception of time and focus.

  • We may get out of control depending on the external and internal influences. We are not in control of ourselves in these instances. We may do what are considered inappropriate actions during these times.

  • “The way you do one thing is the way you do everything.” – A comment on how humans aren’t aware of how they programmed.

  • Circumstances may push us to enact unusual or untypical behaviour. For some, shock tactics can be used for beneficial purposes. E.g. bringing bullying behaviour to the attention of others and preventing it from happening again.

  • We may have to mentally override biological needs and emotional and ethical responses to make choices. Running on auto pilot doesn’t override the brain.

  • We fill in gaps to justify decisions without being aware of why we made a choice. We have a predisposition of thinking we are more in control of ourselves. We need to become aware of the biases of others but also our own. Meta-bias describes the phenomena of being blind to our own biases but not that of others. [Wikipedia article] [Overcoming Bias post]

  • We focus on personality biases and traits when others make mistakes but provide excuses based on circumstance for our own. We have a tendency not to think about the circumstances surrounding another person’s mistake. E.g. “He overlooked this estimate because he’s lazy.”, “I misread it because I’ve so much work on my plate.” This is known as Fundamental attribution error. [Wikipedia article] [WiseGeek post]

Interesting questions asked by the group

Do victims (and their relations) get emotional highs from the punishment of a criminal?

Do anti-crime deterrents work?

Is retribution accommodated by the judicial system?

Do we have problems with how we use the word “justice” systematically?

Are we more likely to promote and idealise protective and preventative measures?

Should we look at the quality of the decisions made that lead to a criminal act?

Do people underestimate the malleability of their morality? People can be very easy to influence by applying different variables like peer pressure and environment.

Do we have free will?

How do we justify our actions? Can this be called free will? E.g. an airline could justify a ban on Arabic passengers by looking at the moral rights of Islam and the demographics of jihadists.

Is justification a matter of perspective?

Was the existence of the extermination camps of the Third Reich hidden from the general populous?

Is a fanatic (e.g. suicide bomber) sane?

How do we define normal, sane and insane?

Are you insane if you commit or attempt suicide? One could argue that we mean mentally ill instead of insane.

Are you insane if you commit or attempt suicide because you have a terminal illness?

Are we rational when making choices concerning suicide or euthanasia?

Is it society’s responsibility to protect the suicidal and mentally ill from harming themselves?

Should we make punishments harsher if people react emotively towards a situation? Should we rehabilitate people who commit crimes of passion?

Are we taking away people’s free will by enforcing laws?

Are we aware of the consequences of having free will?

Does everyone have free will?

Do laws restrict and externally influence our free will?

Do people accept responsibility for their actions?

Do we focus too much on perpetrators and not enough on the victims? Or is it the other way around?

Do we look at the magnitude of an event and not the punishment?

Who is held culpable? Where do we draw the line?

Is it extremely useful to pretend that free will exists?

Do we use the terms “justice” and “judicial systems” in different ways to each other?

Can we hold the mentally ill accountable for criminal acts? What if they have no recollection of the act? Is there free will involved in such instances?

Sleepwalkers are not accountable when they commit a crime. Can the judicial system handle or hold someone responsible for such a crime?

Can everything we do be made or predicted by an algorithm?

Is there a difference between free will and subconsciousness?

How do we define free will?

Has there always been a justice system in human societies? Have we just had informal justice systems?

Do we overestimate people’s morality systems?

Are you “thinking” when you react emotionally (or with extreme emotions)?

Are we biologically biased towards “goodness”?

Is telling people they are responsible for their own actions an effective strategy?

Is rehabilitation feasible?

Are more crimes committed by drug addicts or people of particular cultural or sociol-economical groups?

Do people under the influence of drugs have free will? Do they have free will before consuming them?

Should victims or their families have a say in the punishment of a criminal? (Some of the group agreed that this would be a bad idea due to their bias against the criminal.)

Should the emphasis be on the responsibility of a person, protection of others or the prevention of the crime?

If a percentage of CEO’s fit the psychological profile of psychopaths, does that indicate that some of these traits are essential to be successful?

Should free will channelled in the “wrong” direction make a difference in the judicial system?

Do criminal acts benefit societies by preventing other instances of these crimes from reoccurring?

Is free will limited?

What do we mean by “need”? Is a need purely defined as something essential for survival? Do we mean “motivation” or “want” when we discuss needs?

Is road rage a new phenomenon? How we perceive and react to signals from other drivers does seem to depend on our cultural background. E.g. in Vietnam, flashing your lights at another driver indicates your desire to overtake or move into a lane. In Australia, flashing your lights may imply something else.

Additional content

Philip “Dr Death” Nitschke [Wikipedia entry] [Exit International website]

Gun laws especially those of the United States

Primordial terror

Felony homicide/Felony murder rule [Wikipedia entry] [ post] [Example case]

Crime rates and rates of crimes committed by drug addicts

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs [Wikipedia entry]

Boys and Girls Alone – UK reality TV show where children create the “rules” [Wikipedia entry] [Daily Mail article] [Guardian article] [Episode Guide]

Lord of the Flies [Wikipedia entry]

The socialisation of gender differences between males and females. E.g. guns for boys and dolls for girls. Have these differences between biologically hardwired in us?

Time perception [Wikipedia entry] [Smithsonian Magazine article] [Brain pickings post] [TED talk]

Slowing down of time experiment by Dr David Eagleman [YouTube video]


More summaries can be found via the Summary Index.


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