Capital Punishment, Feudalism, and Free Will

Blog 20150429

I sent Bill Westmiller a link to Jerry Coyne’s blog on capital punishment for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, which now has appeared in the New Republic.

This was Bill’s response:

“The author doesn't seem to realize that his argument goes both ways.

If the accused had no choice, then the prosecutors and executioners have no choice. He can't consistently argue that there are moral (or even pragmatic) reasons NOT to kill the murderer.

The premise of "hard determinism" is that there are no morals at all, so laws are superfluous: we have to kill or be killed, so there's no distinction that laws can make.”

No matter what the jury decides in the Tsarnaev case, it is obvious that capital punishment is waning in civilized society. In semi-civilized societies, attempts to bring it back have been miserable, costly failures mostly exercised against the powerless. Still, retribution is one of our baser instincts carried out most successfully under feudalism, the bloody remnants of which are still with us. The “feud” in feudalism, as commanded in the Old Testament, involved the taking of an “eye for an eye” in which one was to kill members of another clan whose members had killed members of your clan. Mathematically, of course, the end result would be the annihilation of both clans. But because no two microcosms are of equal strength, one or the other of the clans would get the upper hand, forcing the other clan to surrender its weapons of revenge. As commanded in the New Testament, they would be asked to “turn the other cheek,” perhaps to seek “justice” in some nonviolent way. Despite well-publicized lapses in the still-feudal portions of the globe, this civilizing tendency is becoming mercifully dominant. Like capital punishment, homicide also is on the wane (Pinker, 2011).

What appears to have stimulated Bill to make his outlandish claims is this statement by Jerry:

But there is no good reason to execute people for retribution, or on the grounds that they made a free choice, with sound mind, to kill someone else. That would imply that we have real libertarian choices. But if you have no such choices, while you might be responsible for a crime, you are not morally responsible. Moral responsibility implies the ability to have done otherwise.

Now, I have argued elsewhere that morals and ethics simply are maps to proper social behavior (Borchardt, 2007). They define proper responses to various actions occurring within the macrocosm. To break it down in simple terms: If A happens, then the response should be B. I write “should” here because the “proper” response is socially determined. For instance, when we have a child, it is our “responsibility” to nurse that child. But to do so, we must have the ability to respond. The isolated, comatose mother cannot respond, for she does not have the ability to do so. We would not consider her “responsible” for the infant’s eventual death.

The addition of the word “moral” to responsibility is an indeterministic trick. Adding the adjective “moral” to responsibility does not make one any more or less responsible. Society judges each response by comparing it with what it judges to be right or wrong. After all, in some societies, the “moral” response to the birth of certain children might be infanticide. I suspect that Jerry’s objection to the “moral” appellation involves the claims by indeterminists like Bill that there are moral absolutes. That belief goes hand-in-hand with the belief in free will. It is an attempt to give more umph to responsibility, to raise it to a higher, supposedly spiritual level. But moral absolutes, like other absolutes, cannot exist. All morals are road maps that have evolved from previous morals. All morals are relative, because they all are produced as the results of univironmental interactions between people and their environments. Solipsists who claim to have the holy grail of moral absolutivity are merely exercising their dominance of those less powerful. Like the equally hypothetical free will, these absolutes pop out of nowhere. They supposedly are not natural, but supernatural and not subject to cause and effect.

Univironmental determinism is as “hard” as any determinism, because, like any determinism worth the name, it claims that there are causes for all effects. Therefore, free will must be an illusion. Of course, it does not follow that “there are no morals at all” and that “laws are superfluous.” Just the opposite. As Tsarnaeve and ISIS demonstrate, even the most blood-thirsty folks have morals and laws they get from their sacred texts—they just are not the morals and laws we would prefer. We need to understand that those morals and laws were devised for a much earlier society that is now moribund. Modern society will dispose of them, just as it will dispose of other remnants of feudalism such as capital punishment.


Borchardt, Glenn, 2007, The Scientific Worldview: Beyond Newton and Einstein: Lincoln, NE, iUniverse, 411 p.

Pinker, Steven, 2011, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined: New York, Viking.

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