Case Study 2: Should We Respect Irrational Choices?
It is widely accepted that we ought to respect the free choices of individuals when these choices do not harm others. Proponents of this view might justify their position by appealing to John Stuart Mill’s famous ‘harm Principle’:
“The sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number is self-protection. The only purpose for which power can rightfully be exercised over any member of a civilized community is, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. . . . Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.” (On Liberty)
If Mill is right, then we should allow adult members of our society to do as they wish so long as they do not harm others. The state or community is not warranted in interfering with a person’s choices or way of life for any other reason. On the assumption that Mill’s harm principle is correct, what should we say about people who harm others who wish to be harmed? Is it possible to harm another person who requests this treatment? And is the state or community justified in interfering in such cases?
One of the most shocking cases of this kind occurred in Germany in 2001. As reported by Reuters, Armin Meiwes killed and ate his victim, Bernd-Juergen Brandes, upon his request. The latter had posted an ad on the Internet for someone to “obliterate his life and leave no trace.” Brandes traveled by train to meet Meiwes in March of 2001. Meiwes followed Brandes’ expressed wishes by killing and consuming him.
In 2006, Meiwes was found guilty of murder and sentences to life in prison. The court rejected Meiwes’ defense that he could not be convicted of murder because he killed his victim upon his request.
(1) Did Meiwes murder or otherwise harm Brandes, given that Brandes requested this treatment?
(2) Did Brandes make a free choice? Did he make a rational choice? Why or why not?
(3) Is the state justified in interfering in cases of this kind? If so, how might it justify its interference?
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Freedom and Determinism
Case Study 1: Who Is the Victim?
Sophistry and Illusion
In May 2006, Jerry Buck Inman raped and murdered Tiffany Marie Souers in her apartment. Souers was a 20-year-old engineering student at Clemson University in South Carolina. Inman, a registered sex offender, spent 18 years in jail for rapes that he committed while he was a teenager. He raped and murdered Souers just nine months after his release from jail. Inman pleaded guilty to the rape of Souers and requested the death penalty. He wants to die for his crimes and claims to be overwhelmed by feelings of guilt and shame.
But Inman’s attorney, Jim Bannister, argued that capital punishment would be unfair:
“He said Inman ‘came into this world impaired to start with,’ living in a home where his father molested him and his mother suffered from mental illness…’What is it about a man’s background that could put him in a position to be capable of such a horrendous and unthinkable crime?’ Bannister asked Circuit Court Judge Edward Miller, who will decide Inman’s fate.” (MSNBC)
Suppose that Bannister could provide us with overwhelming evidence that Inman was sexually and emotionally abused as a child. How would this evidence influence our evaluation of him? Would we still view him as a free and responsible agent? Or would we instead view him as the victim and inevitable consequence of his abusive past? Are his parents also partly to blame for the murder of Tiffany Marie Souers?
Please share your thoughts with us below.
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We have put together a short tutorial on the terminology of the free will debate. We hope that you find this helpful.
Causal determinism: Causal determinism is the thesis that every event is necessitated by earlier events in conjunction with the laws of nature.
Compatibilism: Compatibilism is the thesis that causal determinism is compatible with free will and moral responsibility. Compatibilism does not involve the acceptance or rejection of causal determinism. Rather, it concerns the relationship between (a) causal determinism and (b) free will and moral responsibility.
The idea here is that causal determinism does not preclude free will and moral responsibility: we can be free and morally responsible even if causal determinism is true. Compatibilists who accept causal determinism are soft determinists.
Incompatibilism: Incompatibilism also concerns the relationship between (a) causal determinism and (b) free will and moral responsibility. The incompatibilist believes that if causal determinism is true, then human beings are not free and morally responsible. On this view, causal determinism rules out (or is incompatible with) free will and moral responsibility. The incompatibilist accepts the following two claims:
(3) If causal determinism is true, then we are not free and morally responsible.
(4) If causal determinism is not true, then we may be free and morally responsible.
Incompatibilism, like compatibilism, does not involve the acceptance or rejection of causal determinism. A person who accepts both incompatibilism and causal determinism is a hard determinist. An incompatibilist who rejects causal determinism and believes that human beings are free is a libertarian.
It is important to note here that a person can accept incompatibilism and reject causal determinism without believing that human beings are free and morally responsible. The acceptance of incompatibilism and the rejection of causal determinism does not secure the truth of libertarianism. A person may believe that indeterminism, or the rejection of determinism, is insufficient for free will. The fact that the universe may involve a certain amount of chance does not explain how free will is actual or even possible. After all, if my thinking or deciding is based upon chance, then I would seem to lack an important form of control over myself necessary for free will. Free action is not just action that is uncaused or random; it is action that is controlled or guided by a person’s reasons or choices.
Hard determinism: Hard determinists accept both incompatibilism and causal determinism. They believe that causal determinism is true and incompatible with free will and moral responsibility. Hard determinists argue that agents lack control over their actions since they lack control over all of the events that necessitated (or led up to) their actions. For example, I may desire to live the passionate life of an artist. But given that I did not choose the genes and life experiences that created this desire in me, I am not in control of it (and am thus not free with respect to it). When we take a close look at the causal history of a particular action, we will see that we lack ultimate control over it.
Consider the following illustration of this:
Birth > I enjoy finger painting as a child. > I excel in art classes during high school. > I want to attend art school. > I decide to attend art school. > I attend art school.
Soft determinism: Soft determinists accept both compatibilism and causal determinism. They believe that human beings are (a) causally determined, and (b) free and morally responsible. After reading about hard determinism, many students of philosophy find soft determinism counterintuitive and difficult to grasp. How can we be free if all of our actions are necessitated by past events? There are several ways that a soft determinist might reply to this question. In the first place, a soft determinism might argue that the reasons that cause our actions do not limit our freedom; rather, they express our freedom. A reason does not interfere with my freedom so long as it is my reason. I act freely so long as I act voluntarily or on the basis of my own desires, reasons, or choices. A soft determinist may also respond by pointing to the relationship between causal determinism and morality. As David Hume famously argued, we can only hold a person responsible for her actions if we can trace them back to something permanent or semi-permanent in her, i.e., her character. The practices associated with morality are only possible if causal determinism or ‘necessity’ is true.
Libertarianism: Libertarians are incompatibilists who reject causal determinism. They believe that human beings cannot be free if they are causally determined. Libertarians and hard determinists are in agreement here: both reject the soft determinist’s understanding of freedom. On their view, an action is not free if it is caused by something over which an agent has no control. If an agent does not have ultimate control over what causes her to act (reasons, desires, etc.), then she is not free. For the libertarian, a free person must in some sense be self-made or self-caused. She must possess the God-like ability to cause things to happen without her actions being causally determined in turn. How can this be? One philosophical task for the libertarian is to explain how this is possible. The libertarian must also face the empirical challenge of finding space in the physical universe for this type of freedom and ‘agent causality’ to exist.
Source & Links
David Hume presents his famous arguments in support of soft determinism in An Enquiry Concerning Human Nature. [David Hume. An Enquiry Concerning Human Nature. Ed. Eric Steinberg. (Cambridge: Hacket Publishing, 1977), pp. 53-69.]
You can also find this work on Google Books.
For more information on the free will debate, check out the free will entry on the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
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Al Gore has recently called upon young people to engage in civil disobedience to stop the construction of coal plants that do not have carbon capture and sequestration:
“If you’re a young person looking at the future of this planet and looking at what is being done right now, and not done, I believe we have reached the stage where it is time for civil disobedience to prevent the construction of new coal plants that do not have carbon capture and sequestration. I believe for a carbon company to spend money convincing the stock-buying public that the risk from the global climate crisis is not that great represents a form of stock fraud because they are misrepresenting a material fact.”
You can read the full story here.
We are passing this message on to our viewers. There is so much misinformation being spread about global warming and the environment. It is time for philosophers, scientists, students, and others to stand up and get involved.
Project Idea: We think that it would be great for a team of experts to develop a website like Factcheck.org to investigate various claims about the environment. The public needs to have access to a comprehensive information source regarding environmental science. Does a site like this exist?
Many people are dismissive of environmental concerns because they take them to be a far left invention. It can be difficult for people to navigate the news and the inconsistent stories that they read about the world. Given that we cannot all examine the science behind these claims, it would be great for there to be an independent way of setting the record straight.
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We have decided to create a new category on our site: fallacies. From time to time, we will add posts about specific fallacies or fallacies in the news. We will start today with the fallacy of false dichotomy.
A disjunctive syllogism is a common argument form with the following structure:
(1) Either p is true or q is true.
(2) p is not true.
Therefore, q is true.
The disjunctive syllogism does not tell us that p is true, or that q is true: it tells us that one or the other is true. This form of argument commits the fallacy of false dichotomy when its disjunctive premise (1) is false.
Consider the following well-known example:
“Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” – George Bush (here)
(1) Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.
(2) You are not with us.
Therefore, you are with the terrorists.
The problem with this argument is that (1) is not true: it does not exhaust all possible options. A person may, say, oppose the war in Iraq without supporting the terrorists. It does not follow from the fact that a person does not support an American policy or war that he or she supports the terrorists.
Irving M Copi, Carl Cohen, and Daniel E. Flag. Essentials of Logic (Second Edition). (Upper Saddle River: Pearson, 2007), 75-76.
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