Free will is an illusion. There's little doubt about this, though it will make some time for this scientific fact to be accepted by most people. Wrong habits of thinking take time to change. Here's a comic strip example.
In my most recent post about free will, I gave a poor review to a book that somehow managed to conclude that even though determinism rules, and free will is an illusion, the justice system still should assume that a person was freely responsible for making the choice to commit a crime.
This continues to leave the door wide open to making retribution a rationale for inflicting severe punishments on so-called "evil doers," rather than having a justice system focus on rehabilitation of criminals and protecting society from criminals during their period of rehabilitation (which could be a life sentence in the rare cases where no possibility of of rehabilitation exists).
A regular commenter on this blog, "Appreciative Reader," left this comment on the post:
Brian, can you talk about (or perhaps link to) the specifics of what you have in mind when you advocate for our penal/justice system to focus on prevention of crime and rehabilitation of criminals (as opposed to going for something like "punishment")? What would such a system actually look like?
I'm also sharing some excerpts from one of my favorite books about free will, Richard Oerton's "The Nonsense of Free Will: Facing Up t0 a False Belief." I've written about the book in several posts, but I don't believe I've shared these quotes before. Oerton is a British lawyer, so his views about the justice system and free will are well-informed.
Here's some of what Oerton has to say in a chapter called "Towards a rational penal system."
In a system which made no concessions at all to irrationality, retributive punishment would play no part whatsoever, but the other aims of sentencing set out at the start of Chapter 21, would still be relevant.
[These are: (b) the reduction of crime (including its reduction by deterrence); (c) the reform and rehabilitation of offenders; (d) the protection of the public, and (e) the making of reparation by offenders to persons affected by their offences.]
The overriding purpose would simply be the protection of society through the prevention of crime. The focus would be on the harmfulness, rather than the wickedness, of the offender. Imprisonment would still be necessary in very many cases -- and in the case of offenders who were both dangerous and unreachable, it might have to last a very long time -- but subject to that, the aim of those involved in the penal system would be to decide on the approach best calculated to turn the offender away from crime.
It is here, in relation to the treatment of offenders, and not in the hair-splitting statutory rules about deserts and culpability, that their varying mental states would be important. Under our present system, reform of the offender hardly gets a look-in, and our prisons are full of people with mental illness which goes largely untreated.
Official statistics tell us that three-quarters of prisoners have below average I.Q.s, that over two-thirds have one or more mental health disorders and that nearly one-tenth are psychotic (that's to say, insane).
The only prison in the country which is run entirely on therapeutic principles is Grendon. Its regime, far from being soft or lenient, makes much greater demands on the prisoners than any ordinary prison: a consultant psychiatrist uses unexpectedly colourful language in saying that it provides "group therapy with turbo-charged-rocket-boost-high-voltage-plasma-engines, going at warp factor ten."
A report by the Chief Inspector of Prisons in 2009 reaffirmed its "remarkable achievements with some of the ... most dangerous and difficult prisoners." It was awarded the Longford Prize in 2008, when the judges described it as a beacon of hope for the prison service.
...I feel real anger, too, about the way in which, when such criminals are caught, we ignore all the distorting influences which society has allowed to bear upon them, along with any contribution which their genetic endowment has made to their criminality, and treat their crimes, not as a result of these things, but as a result of something called free will.
If free will really did allow us to choose our personalities, or to slough them off at will, who in the world would freely choose to have the personality of a serial killer, or to act in accordance with it? Would you choose even to step into the slightly more comfortable shoes of Burglar Bill?
Criminals are victims of causality just as their victims are, and none the less so if, as sometimes happens, causality has made them arrogant, gloating and glad to be the people they are.
There is another lesson which determinism teaches us about crime, and that is the need to intervene more often, more early, and more effectively, in the lives of those who are on the way to becoming criminals. Although attempts actually to do this are spasmodic and half-hearted, the need to do so is becoming increasingly to be recognised.
Even if we profess to reject determinism, we know deep down that our only hope of making a real reduction in crime lies in tackling at an early stage the chains of causality which lead to it. We cannot rely on "free will" to do the job; it will not come riding to the rescue at the last minute, like the U.S. Cavalry in an old Hollywood film.
It is true that the imposition of penalties on convicted offenders may deter them from future crime, because it modifies the causal chain, but this comes too late -- too late for the criminals and too late for their victims.