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The Case of the Determinist Judge

by Bill Meacham on January 28th, 2011

I know a guy who is a retired judge and a hard determinist. He believes he has no free will and that everything that happens is completely determined by what has already taken place. He thinks that if there were a computer powerful enough and if it could model all the data points of the universe, then it could tell us what will happen next.

Some have speculated that people who do not believe in free will would be less subject to conscience and guilt and would behave in less socially-accepted ways than those who do believe in it. If a man were to regard his inclination to adultery as not a freely-willed choice, they say, he would be more likely to indulge.

I’m not convinced of that. My friend the judge acts quite ethically and helpfully. He is a genuinely nice guy, and quite thoughtful. He certainly acted as if he had some choice in the matter when he made pronouncements from the bench. And he acted as if the defendants had some choice as well, meting out punishments based on their degree of guilt, a concept that would make no sense at all if the defendants could not have done otherwise than to commit their crimes.

In fact, I asked him about that, about how his disbelief in free will affected his judicial decision-making. He said that regardless of what he thought about the matter, he had to act as if he and those who were on trial had free will. He had to act as if he and they were agents, not objects.

Being an agent means several important and related things: that one has a mind, an interior life not directly perceptible to others; that one has beliefs and desires; that these beliefs and desires are more important for understanding one’s behavior than purely physical attributes such as one’s blood sugar or brain chemistry; and that, as an agent, one exists primarily in a social world composed of other agents with interiority, beliefs and desires like one’s own. As such, one has the capacity for empathy toward other people, understanding them by imagining how it would feel and how the world would appear if one were in their place.

The judge had a sign on his desk that only he could see. It said “There but for fortune go I.” His point was that only accidents of birth, genetics, upbringing and social privilege put him in the position of judge rather than accused. With that in mind, he could view the accused dispassionately and mete out punishment that, he hoped, would correct the bad behavior instead of being punitive from an outraged sense of morality. His sign reminded him to have empathy for the poor blokes standing in front of him.

Were he not a physical determinist but a religious determinist, his sign might have read “There but for the grace of God go I.” In either case the belief in determinism has no effect on practical decision-making. Far more important is our ability to empathize with others, to understand why they act as they do from the point of view of their own interiority and agency. The judge can look at a defendant and recognize that they are the one who got themselves in a fix. He can’t make them change (although he can lock them up so they will do no harm), but he can influence their decision-making by adjusting how they view the consequences of their actions, that they will likely get caught and punished if they commit the crime again. The judge hopes and intends that changing their beliefs about what will happen if they commit another crime will influence them to go straight instead. But such influence is not causality; it is not guaranteed to work as applying sufficient force with a lever is guaranteed to move a physical object.

There were only two times when the judge’s sense of empathy failed, both of them when he was trying hired killers. When he looked in their eyes he saw no sense of common humanity. They had human bodies, but inside there was nothing human, only cold, calculating appraisal. If he had been legally permitted to order their execution he would have. (For various technical reasons, he was not.)

The judge acted toward people as if they were people, not objects, except when they showed no evidence of being human. Evidently a sense of empathy for another’s feelings, thoughts and desires is of the essence of being a true human being. Having a sense of compassion, as the world’s great ethical traditions maintain, is a must for living a fulfilled life.

From → Philosophy

  1. steve permalink

    Sounds like a guy I used to know.

  2. adam permalink

    This judge understands the dogma of “anatta” or “no soul”.

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