Without free will, can we still justify criminal imprisonment?

By Aristophanes

If a physical event is deterministic, it is incompatible with free will — that is, a person’s ability to act at his or her own discretion — as such agency requires the existence of alternative courses of action. If a physical event is indeterministic, as physicists propose is true at the quantum level, it is also incompatible with free will, as events whose outcomes are not determined are not in any meaningful sense controllable. Every physical event is either deterministic or indeterministic. Therefore, free will does not exist.

But if free will does not exist, then neither does moral culpability, as one cannot be held ethically responsible for involuntary acts. How then do we justify imprisonment of dangerous criminals? In Free Will, Agency, and Meaning in Life, philosopher Derk Pereboom proposes a system of benevolent quarantine where incarceration is not less pleasurable than freedom, but dangerous criminals are still imprisoned for the good of society.

However, Pereboom’s system is flawed. If moral culpability does not exist, we cannot justify punishment on retributivist grounds; instead, we must turn to utilitarian foundations. If all people are morally innocent, we should organize society to produce the greatest amount of social good overall, without regard to the desert of the beneficiaries.

Because pleasurable quarantine eliminates punishment, Pereboom’s system does not deter dangerous criminal activity. In contrast, our existing justice system preempts at least some crimes by threatening potential perpetrators with an array of undesirable penalties. We can assume the crimes prevented would have produced a larger amount of social harm than the amount currently generated through institutionalized punishment. Thus, pleasurable quarantine would decrease the total amount of social good in our society, making it an indefensible theory on ethical grounds. ■

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