Punishment makes sense in the absence of free will

By Rane McDonough


If it is true that there is no free will, then it stands to reason that people cannot have changed any decisions they have made.  If this is the case, then how can we as a society ethically punish evildoers? If they could not have possibly altered their behavior, how can we hold it against them on a moral level?

First, we need to look at the nature of the punishment being inflicted upon the wrongdoer. The current punishment system in America and much of the rest of the world is not very good at helping victims and the rest of society at large. It helps no one to have people who have wronged others placed in confinement for their misdeeds. The only reasonable way to punish someone who may not have had the ability to behave differently is through forced restitution.

This is relatively easy for most property crimes. The thief or vandal must pay restitution equal to what they have stolen or destroyed along with the costs the victim occurred in bringing the criminal to justice. If the criminal is incapable of coming up with sufficient funds, then they should be forced to labor for equal value. Even if we say the criminal could not have avoided stealing or damaging property, the punishment is morally sound because all the punishment requires is that the guilty party pay what he owes to the victim.  Society is not being unfair even assuming the criminal couldn’t have acted differently than he did; it is merely taking back what rightfully belongs to it.

Once people know that someone is a criminal, people will trust him less. Life will be harder for him because of his criminal record. Once again, this punishment is nothing but fair. The people have the right to be distrustful of a known criminal; his or her presence makes them less secure. The criminal’s continued punishment is not based on some misguided principles of morality but on simple acknowledgement of the facts. He has no intrinsic right to make people trust him, even though without the trust of others life becomes more difficult.  Even if the criminal could not help his behavior, people are justified in their mistrust towards him.

Whether the people of a society include personal animosity with the forced restitution and subsequent ostracizing of the criminal is dependent on their personal decisions, but it isn’t inherent in the judicial system itself.  It is possible to simply treat the criminal with distrust and disdain, in fear that the criminal may misbehave again without holding the criminal morally responsible for past bad acts.

With violent crimes, punishment becomes somewhat trickier. Punishment needs to be meted out based on the severity of the offense. The question then becomes how do you determine the severity of the offense?  It has to be determined with input from both those affected by the crime and those who will be affected by the punishment. A judge should try to assess the extent of the damage done and demand concessions from the guilty party accordingly. This is done in civil court in the United States on a regular basis. There are suits for things such as assault and wrongful death which result in restitution to the victimized party if resolved in their favor.

Once again, the perpetrator will always carry the stigma of having been convicted of the offense.  There are few things that will ruin people’s opinion of you more than being convicted of murder. The point is that serving time in prison does not serve justice or victims; it just wastes time. This time could often be the most productive years of a person’s life and instead of forcing this person to repent with actions to ameliorate the situation they caused, we lock them in a cage and treat them like an animal. The myth of the current prison system is that it holds criminals until they are suitable to be let free again, but it just doesn’t work.  Forty-three percent of criminals in the United States go back to prison within 3 years of being released.  It is an inefficient and expensive system which does not do a good job of serving the needs of victims or society as a whole.

So not only could there be a justice system compatible with a lack of free will, but it could also be a better one than our current imprisonment-obsessed one.  If we spent less time trying to “rehabilitate” criminals and spent more time getting them to actually compensate those who they have wronged, we would have not only a more just system but a system more geared to the needs of victims.

Rane McDonough is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]