Russell Standish writes:

Since this topic of legal responsibility regularly comes up in
discussions of free, it needs to be squashed from a great height.

The notion of legal responsibility has nothing whatsoever to do with
free will.

Legal responsibility is used for different purposes, depending on
whether the case is civil or criminal. In civil cases, legal
responsibility who pays cost and damages. In criminal cases, it used
to decide whether an agent should be punished. An agent here may be a
person, or a company, or any other legal entitity that that legal
tradition recognises.

The purpose of punishment is to prevent that occurrence from happening
again. Human society depends on punishment to ensure altruism
(reference to recent work by that Swiss guy here...). If the agent is
a learning system, then applying punishment to the agent can cause the
agent to learn - the stick of carrot & a stick. Alternatively, the
punishment is used to deter others from committing the same crime.

The notion of diminished responsibility is an interesting case. Here,
an agent may be found to be under the influence of another agent, so
one can attribute some of the responsibility to another
agent. However, as the Nuernberg trials showed, this is a very shaky
defence. It cannot be applied to the sources of randomness within your
brain - those sources of randomness are still part of the legal entity
that is you.

Pleading the defence of insanity can really only alter the
punishment. Punishing an insane person to make them learn will
probably not work - different sort of treatment, such as medical
intervention might be appropriate.

Religions have a notion of responsibility rather similar to the legal
one, however theological doctrine seems to have more to say about free
will. However, being essentially atheist, and unlikely to ever meet a
god face to face, this line of argumentation doesn't impress me much.

So I leave it at that - responsibility has nothing whatsoever to do
with free will.


I agree that "the purpose of punishment is to prevent that occurrence from happening again"; at least, this is what the purpose of punishment ought to be. But note that this *does* imply an assumption about the reasons people decide to act in a particular way, which is that it is not completely random or indeterminate. If it were, then punishment or the fear of punishment would not have any effect on future behaviour, would it?

Putting aside the pragmatics of the legal system, one's philosophical beliefs about free will can influence attitudes towards criminals. A criminal behaves as he does due to (a) his biology, (b) his past life experiences, (c) random physical processes in the brain, or some combination of the three. It is tempting to add (d) free choice, but how can this possibly be anything different to (a), (b) and (c)? It certainly feels like one can "overcome" (a), (b) and (c) by force of will, but the existence of this subjective experience has no more bearing on reality than, for example, the strong feeling that the Earth is flat, and that there is an absolute up/down in the universe.

--Stathis Papaioannou

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