Less belief in free will lessens support for criminal punishment

Harold Mandel's picture
Belief in free will

The concepts of law and order, morality, justice, and ethics become painfully blurred when considerations of an understanding and acceptance of various aspects of neuroscientific research come into play. These considerations become even more baffling from both a criminal and civil justice perspective when we realize it is more than possible people behave in negative manners which they are capable of intellectually understanding may be undesirable and even illegal due to both genetic factors and environmental factors which may actually beyond their control.

Such non-genetic considerations could be drugs, which includes illicit drugs, over-the counter drugs, and prescribed drugs, which may negatively effect the brains biochemical make-up, toxins in various food products and the environment which cause chaos in the mind, and even intentional outside interference in the normal functioning of the human brain with satellite drone laser technology. If in such instances a nice, peaceful, intelligent person is turned into a reckless, disorderly person or even a suicidal or homicidal maniac than hard questions must be asked about who is actually responsible for this.

A belief in free-will supports attributions of moral responsibility

While a belief in free-will supports attributions of moral responsibility, then lessening these beliefs should make people less retributive in regard to their attitudes about punishment reports the journal Psychological Science. Various studies have tested this prediction via measurements and manipulations of free-will beliefs.

It has been observed that people with free-will beliefs which are weaker endorsed less retributive, but not consequentialist, attitudes in dealing with punishment of criminals. Studies have also showed that learning about the neural bases of human behavior, via either lab-based manipulations or attendance at a neuroscience course, lessened people’s support for retributive punishment. It is illustrated by these results that exposure to debates dealing with free will and to scientific research on the neural basis of behavior may very well have consequences in dealing with considerations of attributions of moral responsibility.

Minimizing belief in free will may lessen support for criminal punishment


Therefore it has become clear that minimizing belief in free will may lessen support for criminal punishment reports the Association for Psychological Science. People who are exposed to information that lessens a belief in free will, including brain-based accounts of behavior, appear to show less support for retributive punishment.

People who learned about neuroscientific research by simply reading a magazine article or by taking undergraduate coursework have been found to often propose less severe punishment for a hypothetical criminal than did their peers. The findings have suggested that they did so because they perceived of the criminal as being less blameworthy.

Most people believe in free will

Research has suggested that most people believe in free will. Psychological scientist and study author Azim Shariff of the University of Oregon and colleagues wondered whether increasing exposure to information dealing with the brain, which suggests a more mechanistic account of human behavior, might lead to consequences for how we reason about morality and make moral attributions. It was their hypothesis that exposing people to information which diminishes belief in free will would lead to diminished perceptions of moral responsibility. This dramatic shift was anticipated to influence how people think about crime and punishment.

An analysis of their findings revealed that a decrease in blameworthiness actually accounted for the association between diminished belief in free will and support of lighter sentences for crimes. These findings show that students of neuroscience are absorbing much of what is being taught to them. The findings are also helping us to see the implications of these new understandings on attitudes about things as fundamental as morality and responsibility. Shariff and his colleagues have taken the position that their findings may have broad implications, particularly in the domains of criminal justice and law.

These considerations of free will versus a deterministic perspective of human behavior in regard to morality and the law can be disturbing. It appears the general trend in the courts and among the psychiatrists is to take the position that if for neuroscientific reasons a person is not actually responsible for criminal behavior than that person must be mentally ill. A fair appraisal of a scientific perspective on this perplexing problem should generally leave us with the same morale questions about labelling someone as mentally ill in such instances.

Of course there will also remain a search for when we can back up and accept people as having more free will in their lives. It is clear that to enjoy more free will in our lives we have to strive for an existence in this world which seeks less acceptance of interference in the normal functioning of the human brain. We should also be trying harder to nurture healthy brains with good nutrition, meditation, exercise, and adequate sleep. We must nurture a healthy environment and healthy minds to nurture free will and an acceptance of free will.

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