A common objection to determinism is the notion that if our thoughts and actions are causally determined by preceding states and events, then the notion of responsibility vanishes in a puff of logic, and there are no longer any valid grounds for enforcing laws. This seems absurd on so many levels I can't begin to even understand how someone might seriously support this opinion. Causality would also determine whether we punish or not, and why should this realization alone be enough to causally force us to stop punishing people? Do we really only punish people because we think they as they were, confronted with the same situations, could have done otherwise? Why should causal determination eliminate responsibility if the person "responsible" is still the most salient source of the events in question? If our choices are not determined by a combination of our own nature, logical considerations and exterior circumstance, than we must be behaving randomly, and how does that justify punishment or law enforcement any better? But at the same time, it is indeed a very common belief. So my question is, could you explain why so many people believe that accepting causal determinism of human behavior leads to loss of the ability or willingness to enforce laws? Where is the logic behind this thought?

You raise an excellent issue here! It's true that it is often claimed that if determinism is true, and every event--including choices or decisions--is determined by preceding events, then choices will not be free, and hence agents will not be responsible for their choices or decisions, and so the agent cannot be responsible for the actions that follow upon choices or decisions, and consequently, there is no basis for sanctioning the agent for those actions that break the law.

It seems to me that the reason that this belief is as common as it is is because philosophers with incompatibilist intuitions think that agents are not free, and, hence, not responsible for their choices/decisions unless either the agent is able to do otherwise or the agent is the ultimate source of her choices. (It seems to me that these conditions are distinct: one might hold that it is a condition on freedom that agents be able to do or choose otherwise than they did without also holding that the agent is the ultimate source of her choices; however, if one holds that an agent must be the ultimate source of her choices in order to be free, it generally also is the case that it is maintained that agents have alternative possibilities. One reason that I think that this distinction needs to be drawn is because certain compatibilists--who think that determinism does not undermine human freedom--can accept the principle of alternative possibilities, although of course they will give it a compatibilistic interpretation, but no compatibilist can hold that agents are the ultimate sources of their choices, in light of the fact that compatibilists believe that determinism is no threat to freedom, and the truth of determinism would imply that agents are not the ultimate sources of their choices.) But if laws are taken to govern the acts committed by agents who are not free, this might seem to be an instance of what Thomas Nagel, in his wonderful paper, "Moral Luck" (collected in his volume, Mortal Questions, which includes many other wonderful papers as well and which I highly recommend), calls 'moral luck', and any legal judgment made about those actions would be unfair. The basic idea here is that laws can only apply to agents who are capable of obeying or disobeying laws, but if determinism is true, agents do not have that ability--at least, they do not have the ability, at the moment that they choose, of choosing otherwise than they actually do--and consequently, only if determinism is false can laws hold for agents.

While this view may rest on questionable assumptions about the nature of human freedom and the nature of law, I don't think it's absurd: such a view only seems absurd if one has either deep-seated compatibilist intuitions or deep-seated intuitions about the nature of law that take it to be a practice that is not tied to incompatibilism about freedom, or perhaps not even tied to the ascription of freedom to the agent in question. (Indeed, both compatibilists and incompatibilists about human freedom--from Thomas Hobbes to Moritz Schlick to J. J. C. Smart to Derk Pereboom--have maintained that law is either compatible with compatibilism about freedom or that it can function even if human beings are not free.) After all, the discovery that the world does not allow a necessary condition of an ongoing practice to hold might well provide a reason--if not a cause--for not continuing that practice.

The deep question, however, is what relation there is--if any--between law and conceptions of human freedom. This is a deep and interesting question. that many philosophers--including all the philosophers that I have mentioned in this rresponse--have addressed; I think, however, that in addition to reading articles by philosophers, one might gain some purchase on this issue by considering the law of torts, which has to do with ascriptions of responsibility. By looking and seeing just how issues of responsibility are treated in the law, one might thereby be in a better position to determine just how relevant philosophical discussions of responsibility are to the practice of law.

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