I don’t want to cut off discussion of the previous post, particularly given the important questions recently raised by David, Eddy, Josh, and Neil; but there are only a few days remaining in May, and there is a question that particularly troubles me, and I should deeply appreciate having the insights of my Flickers friends.
For the reasons ably set out by Derk, Neil, and Galen, I believe we cannot justify moral responsibility, and that blaming, punishing, and rewarding in accordance with “just deserts” is fundamentally unfair. I gather that there are a few Flickers Folk who do not share that view; but that’s another issue. One of the most troubling challenges for those who reject moral responsibility is this: What do we do about punishment? Of course the ideal answer is easy: eliminate it, by concentrating on better early social and educational programs that provide genuine opportunities and prevent people from becoming violent criminals. In addition, there are some justice programs that seem to move in a positive direction (such as restorative justice programs). Still, no one believes that we can totally eliminate punishment, at least in the foreseeable future (though we might well dramatically reduce it from the insane current U.S. levels). As Dennett points out, even the restorative justice programs rely on a threat of punishment (if you don’t participate, you’ll be turned over to the standard program and probably imprisoned). Further, Dennett makes a very strong case that there is a deep unfairness in any form of imprisonment if one denies moral responsibility, and that the moral responsibility system is “the best game in town” until someone comes up with an alternative. Dennett’s essay, in which he further develops many of the important themes of his work and expands on them with great force and clarity, can be found at Tom Clark’s naturalism.org site (a rich resource indeed); together with Tom’s insightful response, Dennett’s response to Tom, and finally my inadequate response: if my response had been adequate, I wouldn’t still be worrying about this problem, would I?
Our society contains some violent and dangerous people, and some must be isolated/imprisoned for the protection of society. But on my view, no one – not even Robert Harris – justly deserves to be punished/imprisoned. Saul Smilansky (in “Hard Determinism and Punishment,” 2011, Law and Philosophy) poses this problem as a reductio of hard determinism: in very inadequate summary form, Smilansky’s rich argument is that given the denial of moral responsibility, no one justly deserves punishment/imprisonment; thus those who deny MR would be obligated to replace punishment with “funishment,” making “prisons” as pleasant as possible (indeed, they would have to make prisons the equivalent of five-star hotels); but that would not only be inordinately expensive, it would also destroy any deterrent effect and might even encourage some people to commit crimes in order to enjoy the funishment facilities; so crime would increase, costs would be impossible, and the result would be something not even hard determinists would want; thus following the demands of denying MR results in a situation that those who deny MR would reject.
From my perspective, recognizing the fundamental unfairness of the moral responsibility system is the best way forward to developing a system in which we minimize punishment, provide genuine opportunity, and find better ways to shape people who are more thoughtful, have a stronger sense of positive self-efficacy, and are less inclined to violence; in short, denying MR promotes examination of the detailed causes of human behavior and of how to shape positive behavior. But even if we eliminated moral responsibility, we would still have the problem – maybe forever, at least for the foreseeable future – of what to do with those persons who pose a genuine threat to others. So my question is this: If we reject moral responsibility, and agree that no one justly deserves imprisonment, but we also recognize that we cannot do without some form of imprisonment for the protection of society, what would that imply? Would it involve the denial of MR in a fatal contradiction, or lead to Smilansky’s reductio of impossible “institutions of funishment”? Suppose one who denies moral responsibility says: Yes, we must imprison some people, even though they do not deserve it; and that’s a terrible thing; but I never suggested that denying MR would make the world perfect, only that it would make it better. Denying MR will not eliminate all the injustice in our world; some people will still have to be imprisoned for the protection of society, and we cannot turn prisons into institutions of “funishment,” because that is not economically possible and it might well be counterproductive; but it is better for us to recognize that in imprisoning a dangerous offender we are doing something that is unavoidable but still unjust, rather than pretending that we are dealing out justly deserved punishment. Recognizing that we are doing something unjust will motivate us to find better ways of shaping behavioral alternatives, and it will prevent us from making prison any more unpleasant than necessary (we will be more likely to imprison in places like Norway’s Bastoy Island rather than U.S. Supermax hell holes), and it will prevent us from imprisoning more people than absolutely necessary. If punishment cannot be eliminated, that is not a special problem for those who want to eliminate moral responsibility; rather, the problem is that the world is not just, and not all injustice can be eliminated from our world. No one justly deserves to be imprisoned, but we will not be able to eliminate prisons for the foreseeable future. Those who deny moral responsibility recognize that as a moral problem; but it is not a problem that is caused by denial of moral responsibility, and it is not a problem that opponents of moral responsibility should be obliged to solve before they argue that moral responsibility is morally wrong. Rejecting moral responsibility is a positive step toward reducing injustice, not a source of injustice.
Thanks again to Thomas for this wonderful site, and for this special opportunity; and to all who have made these discussions – certainly for me – very helpful. I’m looking forward to Neil’s postings; and in anticipation of that, here is a passage from Ecclesiastes: it is clear that when Solomon wrote it, he was inspired by Neil’s Hard Luck.
I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.