When actions are determined, consequences must be too

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This is one of the most horrific views I’ve ever seen advocated by tenured staff at a Western university, ever. Let me explain why.

Let’s think about this logic for a moment. What this is effectively saying is that, since the decision as to whether or not you will eat the dessert is out of your control (statement) therefore you are absolved of responsibility for it, and should not feel bad (conclusion).

The statement is certainly true, and in a far broader sense you might realize. We live in a deterministic world where our actions only ever take place in the context of the total sum of all that preceded it, and the impact that these generated. An example of this is that you might be physiologically inclined towards sweet things, but lack the neurological hardware necessary to abstain – simplifying, we might say that your ‘impulse’ module is set to high and your ‘restraint’ module is set to low. It’s difficult to dispute the scientific fact that individuals in circumstances like these with a neurological setup that predisposes them to certain actions may have little to no control over their impulses.

But how about the conclusion. Should this really absolve you from responsibility? If we say that you aren’t responsible for your actions because your ‘brain has already decided for you’ then what about in the case of rape? It’s not uncommon to hear, in courtrooms, defendants talk about ‘not being able to control themselves’. The Iraqi refugee who raped a 12-year old boy in an Austrian swimming pool last year defended his actions as the inescapable consequence of a ‘sexual emergency’.

Murder is another case we might examine. The circumstances typically resulting in physical conflict trigger a ‘fight-or-flight’ response in us, activating our endocrine systems and pumping our bodies full of adrenaline and other chemicals that cloud judgment and promote physical action. In such a circumstance, it’s also possible to say that your brain made the decision for you, precluding free will.

Now ask yourself – what difference does it make if some (or even all) murders and rapes do lie outside of the realm of our control? Are we going to start judging rapists in courts of law on the basis of their proclivity to hypersexuality, refusing to jail any rapists if indeed we see that their brains ‘already decided for them’. Murder, too? The grounds would be little different from the logic deployed in this advertisement, in either case.

What am I getting at here? The conclusion you’re seeing above is horrifically wrong and terribly dangerous. A deterministic worldview is an accurate one, but this does not – and cannot – preclude holding individuals responsible for their actions. The consequences if we don’t – a world in which murderers, thieves, rapists, and worse are able to stalk the streets with impunity – are far too high to accept.

Even though our actions may sometimes lie just outside of our control, that doesn’t mean that the consequences shouldn’t. When we lack agency to act, this agency must not be manipulated to avoid punishment. When actions are determined, consequences must be too.

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