Determinism, philosophically, in opposition to free will, is the idea that every act that we take are predetermined by prior actions, our own or that of others. We don’t have free will, but our actions are reactions to what has happened before.
If that’s the case, if our actions are predetermined and not chosen, how can we justify a legal system that punishes people for their actions? If their actions are not even a choice of theirs, how can we go around putting people in jail for what they have done, and still sleep well at night?
To answer this, we must discuss and understand punishment, and why we punish transgressions of the law. Is it as a sort of state-issued system of karma, where doing something bad makes something bad happen to you? Is it revenge, where the victim of the crime has the right to some sort of retribution, a peace of mind that whoever did the horrible act is now justly punished for it? Is it to prevent and scare other people away from the path of crime, knowing that they will be more or less severely punished if they do follow it? Or, again another reason, could it be a work of rehabilitation, to help the criminal back into the life of ordinary people? The life of you and I, where we don’t break the law, and abide by the rules society has laid out for us.
Punishment based on a legal system can be carried out by all of the reasons above, and certainly many others as well. If we look back to the ancient world, punishment was often based around personal retribution. You did something bad to me, so I’ll do something bad to you. An eye for an eye. But today, what is the cause of punishment? If it is a sort of collectively issued system of karma, a punishment for their choice of doing something bad, we, under the idea of determinism, certainly shouldn’t sleep well at night. We would punish someone for something they couldn’t avoid doing, something in which they had no choice.
But if, instead, punishment were based on one of the other two reasons, to prevent future crime, both from other people and the criminal himself, it wouldn’t necessarily be immoral to “punish” someone, even if they can’t be said to be personally responsible for their actions. If knowing that committing a crime makes it likely to get caught and punished, would that motivate people to stay away from criminality? If that’s the case, and the argument could be made about the singular criminal as well, wouldn’t that, possibly, justify punishment? The justification then wouldn’t be about punishing the person in retrospect for the bad actions they made, as they can’t be held responsible for it, but rather to prevent further crimes. Something that would benefit both society as a whole, and the potential victims on a very personal level.
Now, if that’s the case, can’t unrightful punishments be justified? That, without the cause of a crime, an innocent person would be punished to prevent future crimes from the rest of the population. It could be argued, using this type of reasoning, that innocents would be thrown under the bus in order to save the collective from a life of crime. It’s certainly the case that the argument could be made, especially in the short term. But there are a couple of issues with it, making it not quite as easy as it might seem.
First of all, there’s the issue of a person’s right, whether innocent or not. In the very idea of a social contract, the government or the power of the state would have the right to punish the guilty. But to punish an innocent, could be argued, especially from a deontological perspective, is outright wrong. That there wouldn’t even be a discussion around it. But let’s put deontology and even virtue apart for a moment, and discuss this from a purely utilitarian perspective – the moral theory that is most likely to approve of such a thing.
If utilitarianism is to condone the punishment of an innocent, the suffering of the innocent person would have to be surpassed by the utility that would come to other people, through, in this case, the decrease in crime. That, although lacking empirical evidence, could be argued for. So let us assume that, for the sake of argument. It would be justified if, and only if, word or suspicion of the unjust punishment would leak out. If word would come out, it would nullify the trust that people has in the justice system, knowing that they one day be accused and punished, even though their innocence. This would in turn make people less likely to follow the law (for the sake of avoiding punishment), potentially raising the rate of crime.
Combining utilitarianism with determinism, punishment of an innocent can be justified. This is if it’s virtually impossible for any word of it coming out to the public, as well as under the assumption that we can dismiss the role a constitution or human rights would hold.
If we buy the concept of determinism, punishment is still valid and morally defensible. It is merely a matter of which approach and which cause we choose for punishment.