Free Will Theories Explained—the Paedophile Who May Not Be Responsible for His Crimes

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Some free will theories have drastic implications for personal responsibility

If a man molests a child because of a tumour in his brain, can we say that he freely chose to do so? Is he responsible for his actions?

This is a true case from the American state of Virginia back in 2000, in which a tumour in a man’s orbitofrontal cortex—an area that regulates social behaviour—created strong paedophilic urges, causing him to molest his stepdaughter. When the tumour was removed after being discovered by doctors, the desires vanished. Some years later the tumour returned, along with his sexual urges towards children. Its removal once again caused the paedophilia to disappear.

This dark situation is a question of free will—should he be held accountable for his actions, given that they were caused by his brain tumour? Was he free to decide not to molest his stepdaughter?

Wikipedia defines free will as “the ability to choose between different possible courses of action unimpeded.” Philosophers have been musing about the existence of free will for centuries, with three major free will theories emerging from their perceptive brains. We’ll consider this situation from each unique philosophical stance.

Hard determinists

“Life calls the tune, we dance.”

John Galsworthy

Hard determinists believe that the tumour, and the man’s crimes, are a result of natural cause and effect for which the man had no control over. The existence of his tumour, and the uncountable number of causal events that happened prior to the point of his misconduct, were not decided by him. In the world of hard determinists, everything is determined—it was his fate to be the host of a disastrous brain tumour, and to subsequently molest his stepdaughter.

Determinists believe that all events are caused by past events, and nothing other than what does occur, can occur. There’s nothing that could have been done to change the man’s path to paedophilia—free will is an illusion and does not exist. We’re nought but puppets of fate.

“There is an unbroken chain of prior occurrences stretching back to the origin of the universe”

Wikipedia on causal determinism
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Photo by Bryan Minear on Unsplash

This position has deeply troubling consequences for personal responsibility—if there’s no free will, are we really responsible for anything? How could a legal system function under such circumstances? Determinism is one of the most concerning of free will theories.

It’s impossible for us to examine every single causal event that occurred up until this moment, and given that we didn’t choose those events, to what degree can we claim to be free? We almost certainly feel free to make decisions, but at the same time, we had no control over the events that led up to the decision.

From this philosophical standpoint, the man who molested his stepdaughter cannot be held accountable for his actions. The tumour doesn’t change anything, because even tumourless paedophiles aren’t in control of their own decisions.

“We are all just cogs in a machine, doing what we were always meant to do, with no actual volition.”

Baron d’Holbach

Libertarianism

“Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.”

Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

Libertarians believe that while the tumour was clearly not chosen as a growth in the man’s brain, he did have the free will to choose whether to molest the child. In this sense, determinism is false to the libertarians—we have the freedom to choose different courses of action, and not giving in to peadophilic urges is one of them.

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Photo by Vladislav Babienko on Unsplash

Libertarians believe in agent causationour powerful ability to affect the causal chain of the universe, though it’s unclear where those decisions actually come from. Claiming that they come from our brains is accurate, but the causal nature of the universe, and all of the classical mechanics science that supports it, would state that something must have caused our brains to make the decision. Libertarians seem to believe that it simply comes from the ether, that the decisions-making brains of humans are somehow exterior to the concept of cause and effect, as though in a vacuum.

Quantum mechanics supports the libertarian argument, with evidence to suggest that the tiniest, quantum-level elements of our universe are not necessarily subject to classical cause and effect. They can even be in two places at the same time. According to scientists, the measurable properties of a sub-atomic particles simply cannot be predicted based on what happened previously. If the tiniest elements in our brains sit outside the rigid realm of cause and effect, then free will can be said to exist.

Compatibilism (soft determinism)

“Man can do what he wills but he cannot will what he wills.”

Arthur Schopenhauer

Compatibilists would agree with the libertarians, as they’re also staunch believers in free will. Unlike the libertarians though, they do believe that everything is determined, which seems contradictory—if everything is pre-determined, how can we possibly be free to choose? If the growth of the tumour was determined by forces outside of the man’s control, was he free to decide not to molest his stepdaughter?

This contradiction is reconciled by the compatibilists belief that, even though the man’s actions were caused by the tumour, it was still him who made the decision. He wasn’t coerced by an outside force, and acted according to his own motivation; the tumour, though unwanted, was still a part of him. As such, and in spite of his tragic misfortune, he should be accountable and punished for his actions. In this particular situation, this position might be considered the harshest of the free will theories.

Degree of control – a new approach

Canadian-American philosopher Patricia Churchland believes that free will should be considered from a different angle. The existence of free will doesn’t matter in this situation—whether consciously decided or not, the child was still molested. Instead, Churchland thinks that we should consider how much control we have in any given situation. The greater the control, the greater the responsibility.

In the case of our tumour-driven paedophile, we would have to understand the man’s ability to resist the sexual impulses in his brain. There’s probably many paedophiles alive today who choose not to commit crimes, because their sense of morality dictates that it’s the wrong thing to do.

To what degree is the man’s tumour affecting his ability to resist his urges? For Churchland, reframing the question in this way helps us to understand how responsible the man is for his crimes, and while it’s an undoubtedly difficult thing to measure, regarding the situation from a philosophical position is even fuzzier.

Until our scientific knowledge advances to a point where we can answer these questions confidently, the paedophile’s ultimate responsibility will continue to be debated by philosophers. The tumour caused his nefarious actions, and according to the libertarians and compatibilists, he should be held accountable. This seems terribly unfair, and yet, the mercilessness of hard determinism is equally as cruel—the outcome is the same, after all.

The seemingly contradictory nature of compatibilism, the freedom-certainty of the libertarians, or the rigid idea of determinism offers little guidance for personal responsibility. From a practical perspective, Churchland’s reframing of free will from a position of control allows us to measure responsibility, determine accountability, and decide the consequences for an immoral action.

While it doesn’t answer the intriguing question of whether free will exists, it does fulfill an important concern—the ability to measure how responsible we are for our actions.

The perils of social media

1_P2ly9bSClopyi9qqDAkkYAPhoto by Marc Schäfer on Unsplash

Social media has received some devastating blows recently. Cambridge Analytica – the data firm who helped to position the clownish imbecile Donald Trump atop the American Empire – were caught red-handed stealing data for 50 million Facebook users. An associate boasted that the data enabled them to predict a person’s neuroticism, agreeableness, political views, and much more. Without this information, Trump may have lost the election, going so far as to casually boast about it. It’s the tip of a colossal data-collection iceberg that is destroying our trust in social networks, with their blatant and appalling disregard for operating within ethical boundaries.

This was likely a big factor in the recent #DeleteFacebook movement, which encourages users to quit permanently. For the first time since its inception, Facebook reported a decline in U.S users in 2017, though other apps such as Instagram and Twitter are steadily rising. In addition to quitting entirely, roughly 40% of Facebook users are starting to take extended breaks, often deleting the app from their phones.

Fighting against shady data-usage is important, but what’s more insidious are the effects that social networks have on our mental health, particularly for young people. One report showed that symptoms of ill mental health are increased by 15% for children using social media. Facebook and Instagram’s terms of reference state that you shouldn’t be using their services if under the age of 13, but do absolutely nothing to enforce the rules. Why would they? Even pro-capitalist media powerhouses such as the Financial Times and the Economist are calling for more regulation against these alarmingly immoral organisations.

Addiction is a fundamental goal for many social networks, and they’re designed with this in mind. Our primal desire to be liked results in positive chemical rushes whenever somebody validates our post, so we develop a habit in which our eyes compulsively return to the little red circle. The concept of a endless feed utilises the variable ratio schedule, which shows that people become more obsessed with something when rewarded irregularly, rather than steadily. Being presented with the occasional entertaining post is what hooks you.

We don’t sign our children up to pre-credited gambling accounts, hand them a gram of cocaine and suggest that they let loose for the weekend. Yet these things exploit the exact same dopamine-based reward system as social media, with addiction as a dreadful consequence. It effortlessly pulls on our attention, distracting us from vital problems such as climate change, poverty, or Trump’s totalitarianism. The precious hours of our lives are being consumed and vomited into the coffers of Mark Zuckerberg and his ilk, who “apologise for their mistakes” but not their repulsive business practices.

Even former leaders of tech companies are rallying for change. The Center for Humane Technology is a non-profit organisation founded by such folk, with the intention to spread the idea of compassionate design starting from a foundation of vulnerable human instincts, as opposed to attention theft at any cost.

“What began as a race to monetize our attention is now eroding the pillars of our society: mental health, democracy, social relationships, and our children.” – The Center for Humane Technology

In addition to being attention whores, social media has a devastating effect on our self-esteem. It enables us to compare ourselves to other people on an unprecedented scale, creating pressure to be as allegedly perfect as everyone else, and leaving us in a cesspool of self-loathing. Life isn’t how Facebook and Instagram portrays it; disappointment, rejection, and pain are nowhere to be seen. When such impending things do happen, you can be forgiven for shaking a fist at a God who undeniably hates you.

Any intention to better your life is made more difficult by social media’s blissfully sedative effects. Why bother trying to learn something that you’re passionate about when you can spend hours scrolling through insipid content? Nobody likes discomfort, so social media sucks us in like a prostitute desperate for a fix. The exceptional is cast aside in favour of dull mediocrity.

Clambering over the proverbial fence for a moment, social media does have some positive uses. It’s an effective way to stay in touch with old friends, even if only contacting them once in a blue moon. Many businesses rely on social media for its powerful ability to reach customers, and would struggle desperately without it; movements such as #DeleteFacebook would do well to remember this. Promoting anything (e.g. this blog) would be infinitely harder. A research agency found that Facebook users have more close ties with the people within their network than other internet users. In addition, they noted moderate associations between social media use and trust, plentiful close friends, greater amounts of social support, and higher civic support. It’s easy to be dogmatic about such an immoral industry, but important to realise that it’s not all bad.

Despite the positives, the evidence for the ills of social media are overwhelming. If you’d rather not take the drastic plunge and quit cold turkey, you might want to consider restricting your usage – Chrome extensions such as BlockSite allow you to easily do so. With less use, it’s likely that your life will improve. Just be prepared for the fact that by continuing to use the apps, your data probably will be illegally mined in order to influence your opinions, and to persuade you that you’ll be undeniably happier if you purchase those fetching shoes. The whole structure is completely vulnerable to manipulation, and no amount of new regulation is likely to change that. Greed always finds a way to exploit, and with two billion connected people, social media companies have the power to influence an unfathomable number of people with terrifying precision. Is it a risk worth taking?

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