Why is Norway’s prison system so successful?

June 21, 2015 • 12:00 pm

A post from Business Insider brings up the recurrent questions of why the U.S. prison system is so dreadful, with its recidivism and large proportion of the population incarcerated; why European prion systems are so much better; and whether the difference has to do with the nature of the population with the nature of the “punishments,” or both.

First, the data:

In Norway, fewer than 4,000 of the country’s 5 million people were behind bars as of August 2014.

That makes Norway’s incarceration rate just 75 per 100,000 people, compared to 707 people for every 100,000 people in the US.

On top of that, when criminals in Norway leave prison, they stay out. It has one of the lowest recidivism rates in the world at 20%. The US has one of the highest: 76.6% of prisoners are re-arrested within five years.

The higher rate of recidivism in the U.S. of course means a higher level of crime. For example, for assaults in 2013, the UNDOC gives a rate of 226 per 100,000 people in the U.S., while the numbers in Norway are roughly one-fifth of that: 51 per 100,000. Another UNDOC report on homicide rates shows the U.S. at 53 per 100,000, about 24 times Norway’s rate of 2.2 per 100,000.

Why the difference? Well, of course, the countries harbor different populations—the U.S.’s is more diverse and has greater income inequality, which may breed crime. The U.S. also has much looser gun laws, though groups like the National Rifle Association claim that gun ownership doesn’t breed violence (I disagree).

Business Insider, however, floats the theory that at least one reason for the difference is Norway’s more humane prison and punishment system. Those systems aren’t based on the notion that solving the crime problem requires stringent punishment in horrible jails and long sentences, but instead on rehabilitation of the prisoner. (That, of course, will also weaken another motivation for punishment: sequestration from society, for if prisoners can be rehabilitated more readily, there’s less reason to keep them locked up. But it may strengthen another motivation for punishment—deterrence.)

Based on [the statistics given above], it’s safe to assume Norway’s criminal justice system is doing something right. Few citizens there go to prison, and those who do usually go only once. So how does Norway accomplish this feat? The country relies on a concept called “restorative justice,” which aims to repair the harm caused by crime rather than punish people. This system focuses on rehabilitating prisoners.

Take a look at Halden Prison, and you’ll see what we mean. [JAC: Take a virtual tour of the prison here.] The 75-acre facility maintains as much “normalcy” as possible. That means no bars on the windows, kitchens fully equipped with sharp objects, and friendships between guards and inmates. For Norway, removing people’s freedom is enough of a punishment.

Like many prisons, Halden seeks to prepare inmates for life on the outside with vocational programs: woodworking, assembly workshops, and even a recording studio.

Halden isn’t an anomaly either. Bastoy prison is also quite nice.

Here are two pictures of Halden prison, showing a “cell” and a common room. Such facilities are unimaginable in the U.S. except, perhaps, in the most comfortable federal prisons for white-collar criminals:



Clearly, the philosophy of punishment differs between the two countries:

All of these characteristics are starkly different from America’s system. When a retired warden from New York visited Halden, he could barely believe the accommodations. “This is prison utopia,” he said in a documentary about his trip. “I don’t think you can go any more liberal — other than giving the inmates the keys.”

In general, prison should have five goals, as described by criminologist Bob Cameron: retribution, incapacitation, deterrence, restoration, and rehabilitation. In his words though, “Americans want their prisoners punished first and rehabilitated second.”

Indeed, and “punishment” in the U.S. often involves retributive punishment based on the notion that the criminal simply made the wrong choice.  Retribution, in turn, rests on some notion that criminals have free will. We know that this philosophy is strong in the U.S. system, for when criminals are thought to have offended in circumstances when they couldn’t choose right from wrong (mental disability, for instance) or weren’t able to choose right from wrong (a brain tumor that makes one aggressive), they get lighter sentences, often involving more rehabilitation and hospitalization.

But to a determinist like me, no criminal has a choice about what to do, so all should be treated as victims of their circumstances. This would eliminate retributive punishment, and perhaps make our system more like Norway’s. Business Insider also notes the lighter sentences in Norway, sentences that still allow unrehabilitated offender a long stretch in prison:

The maximum life sentence in Norway shows just how serious the country is about its unique approach. With few exceptions (for genocide and war crimes mostly), judges can only sentence criminals to a maximum of 21 years. At the end of the initial term, however, five-year increments can be added onto to the prisoner’s sentence every five years, indefinitely, if the system determines he or she isn’t rehabilitated.That’s why Norwegian extremist Anders Behring Breivik, who killed 77 people in a bombing and mass shooting, was only sentenced to 21 years. Most of the outrage and incredulity over that sentence, however, came from the US.

Overall, Norwegians, even some parents who lost children in the attack, seemed satisfied with the sentence, The New York Times reported. Still, Breivik’s sentence, as is, put him behind bars for less than 100 days for every life he took, as The Atlantic noted. On the other hand, if the system doesn’t determine Breivik “rehabilitated,” he could stay in prison forever.

I emphasize again the difference between the U.S. and Norway involves not only their philosophy of incarceration, but also social arrangements, population diversity, and income inequality. But we also have a brutal prison system that breeds recidivism. As most people know, being put among hardened criminals in a soul-sapping prison simply makes people more likely to commit crimes after release, while rehabilitation, aimed at getting inmates jobs and adjusting their attitudes, will reduce both recidivism and the crime rate.

This, I think, is one way that fully grasping behavioral determinism can improve society. Retribution is based on the notion of dualistic free will, and though there are other reasons for punishment, eliminating that could produce a sea change in our attitude toward criminals. When we finally accept the truth (no thanks to wheel-spinning free-will compatibilists!): that no criminal had a choice in what he did, we’ll begin to really tackle how to deal with offenders in a way that that produces the most “well being.” I suspect that this would involve creating, in the U.S., a prison system substantially closer to Norway’s.

It’s time for philosophers—at least those who care whether their work actually makes a difference in society—to stop yammering about ways that free will is compatible with determinism, which accomplishes NOTHING, and instead start emphasizing the social consequences of determinism. We have nothing to lose but our chains.

h/t: Yonatan

237 thoughts on “Why is Norway’s prison system so successful?

  1. I suspect a typo.

    “The U.S. also has much stricter gun laws,”

    Either that or my prejudices are showing.

    1. What are the odds – I emailed Jerry re the same typo at exactly the same time as your post. Canadians, born editors? Or just a bit anal?

          1. Kreuzfeld spells his name wrong. Probably puts his toilet paper on backwards too.

          2. And yet Eric MacDonald thinks we never discuss pressing existential questions.

        1. I saw it in passing and then forgot about it in the end. Anal retentive with senior moments.

        2. why European prion systems are so much better

          I caught this too, but I see you have already reported it. Personally, i try to avoid all prions.

  2. And lest we forget, many prisons in the USA are privatized. More prisoners, and mistreatment of said prisoners, such as denial of medical care = big profits.

    And then you have law enforcement unions who depend on the entire system for their paycheck. Guards, cops, and the DEA. The drug war and prisons are an industry.

    1. We’ve started to use private prisons, but so we don’t mirror the US experience they’re being given strict KPIs around rehabilitation and recidivism etc. It’s in the prison’s financial interest to make sure people don’t re-offend. Healthcare in NZ is free for prisoners, so they gain nothing financially by denying care.

      An example – some guide d*gs are socialised and start their training in prisons by prisoners. It makes a huge difference to the attitude and behaviour of the prisoner to have that combination of love and responsibility in their life.

      1. Unfortunately however some of the right-wing lobbyists down here love the US system and get some rubbish such as a lesser version of 3 strikes written into law. We still have the 7th highest rate of imprisonment in the OECD at 155 although imprisonment for non-violent crime tends to be relatively restrained.

  3. There is an embarrassing typographical or hasty error towards the beginning of this article. That is: “The U.S. also has much stricter gun laws,…” How did this one get past the article’s editor and/or proofreader?

    BTW, the ridiculously lenient sentence for the mass murderer of those kids at the political summer camp renders Norway, in my estimation, the true human rights abuser as it disvalues the lives of innocent people in favor of that of their murderer. Norwegians are sick pups.

    1. A longer sentence would not bring any of those innocent people back to life.

      If you have evidence that a significantly longer sentence would better deter such acts, and thus help to save others in the future, please present it.

      1. If I have to explain to you what renders Norwegians sick pups for “being satisfied” that the price for killing kids (or anyone, for that matter) is about 100 days per victim, then to quite the pre-reconstructed Ebenezer Scrooge: “I shall retire to Bedlam.” Indeed, the inmates are running the asylum.

          1. Rickflick, there is no point in discussing quantum physics or Shakespeare with a headhunter from Borneo.

        1. I doubt the “price per murder” even featured in Breivik’s thinking. He didn’t have much of a chance of turning out mentally stable after the treatment his mother dished out. She was paranoid about him turning out violent when he was a baby, sexualised him at a very young age and expressed a desire to see him dead. If he can be rehabilitated then that would be a positive thing, although I think he’s too far gone. Nobody chooses to become a murderous outcast and live a miserable life because of it.Anyway, few people expect that Breivik will ever be released.

          Those Norwegians and their low recidivism and crime rates! Sick pups indeed. If they were truly righteous they’d go the US route and breed violent criminals like flies so they could get some good revenge in.

      2. Coel, why do you exclusively concentrate on results with so little thought to the concept of justice? It’s okay to murder kids just as long as afterwards you’re sorry and not a threat to anyone any longer? You’d might be singing a different tune if one of these kids had been yours.

        1. But then again he might not be singing a different tune if one of the kids had been his. As far as I know the actual families of the victims of Breivik’s crime have not protested at the leniency of the sentence but, on the contrary, have indicated approval of it (I don’t claim this is the unanimous view of them – I simply don’t know that).
          Clearly different people can have a different concept of what ‘justice’ requires and so your assertion that Coel gives ‘so little thought to the concept of justice’ is entirely unjustified.

          1. Jonathan, I’m glad I wasn’t born your child. At least that’s one thing we can presumably agree upon.

        2. Justice and revenge aren’t the same thing.

          Anders Breivik is not remorseful and has a mental health condition that makes safe reintegration into society unlikely, so when his 21 years is up, his sentence will likely be extended. And it will keep being extended as long as he remains a threat. In the meantime, he will receive appropriate mental health treatment and be treated humanely, as all people should be.

          In the US there would either be the ridiculous death row farce that carries on for years, or he would receive years of brutal, dehumanizing treatment then be let loose with little or no support.

          Imo, the Norwegian system is one the rest of us should aspire to.

          1. I’m a little embarrassed to recall that, in an earlier thread, I suggested that a suitable punishment for Breivik would be going slowly insane in solitary confinement. I know why this was. I was so appalled with the picture of Breivik methodically hunting down his helpless victims, the natural reaction is to want to increase the retribution proportionately – which is not feasible. However, thousands of others have suffered the sort of abuse Breivik suffered without going on a killing spree, so I don’t think he’s entitled to much consideration.

            But in a way, the sentence is not about judging Breivik, it’s a reflection on the society that imposes it. And I have to admit most of the commentariat here and, apparently, the Norwegian families, have shown themselves more civilised than me. I’d never call them ‘sick’ for not being vindictive enough – that’s sick.


          2. I’m the first one to admit that I have a strong impulse toward revenge. I think I might have that so-called warrior gene. However, I accept this is part of my brain physiology and I’m not ashamed of it. I just know that these decisions should not be left up to me because they are dastardly.

    2. Sick pups? As evidenced by what, precisely? Their much lower rate of violent crimes? If you think that killing people is awful, wouldn’t a culture that does it less be healthier? Or have you adopted the Christian ethic of blood sacrifice above all.

    3. Read what Jerry said. The sentence was the maximum possible, and it can be extended if he is not ready to go back out. I would gladly take Norways’ system over ours, given the facts on the effectiveness and societal cost of how we punish first and rehabilitate later.

      1. I agree. When we treat humans like animals or worse (and solitary confinement is worse), they become what we’ve made them, and it becomes our fault, no matter how bad off they might have been on entering the “justice” system.

    4. Are you seriously suggesting that Norwegians don’t love their kids because they didn’t punish that guy to the degree you think they should? Really? You have the gall to call those parents ‘sick pups’ because they feel they got justice and you don’t agree? That’s a breathtaking level of arrogance. Who died and made you the grand arbiter of justice?

      The level of punishment considered suitable by the families is none of your business. Your opinion is that he got off easy – fine, that’s your opinion, for whatever it’s worth (not much in my opinion). But how dare you insult and degrade those families like that.

      1. I’m sorry if it wasn’t clear from my post, but I was responding to Donald Schneider’s comments. I should have noted that in my reply.

        1. @ Dee
          I think Prof CC was replying to Donald Scneider’s comment, not to yours.

          It’s just the way WordPress does its indenting that sometimes obscures which comment is a reply to which. Ones reply can end up in an unexpected place.


    5. This may be one of the rudest comments I’ve ever read on WEIT, and the ones that follow do not bring confidence that it was a fluke.

      What should Norway have done instead of giving him the longest sentence they legally allow (which, if you’ve read the full post or other comments, you should know can be extended indefinitely)?

    6. Sick pups. All the evidence presented here shows the US system to be the sickest of all pups.
      You are are outdoing the Soviet gulags and if even half the anecdotal evidence of corruption and brutality is true you are outdoing everyone there too.

      You pick one example, don’t evaluate it properly, and let your revenge juices overwhelm any notion of rationality.

      The US hell holes are full of people serving unbelievably long sentence under terrible conditions for either, nothing, or any number of trivial offences that shouldn’t even be offences.

      Why is it that those advocating unreasonable extreme retributive type approaches often go to the “you would think the same if it was your loved one”?
      That is the point, many people are capable of thinking past there immediate knee-jerk emotion driven nastiness.
      And would not, do not share your retributive sentiment.

    7. Mr. Schneider, that nasty crack is uncalled for. You will apologize for your first paragraph or post here no longer. You don’t seem acquainted with the kind of civil discourse that usually prevails on this site.

    8. We have a mass murderer too. Martin Bryant.
      He killed 35 people and wounded 23 others.

      He was sentenced to 35 life sentences + 1035 years without parole.

      He was judged fit to stand trial. But was he?

  4. Anyone who hasn’t watched Stevie Van Zandt’s wildly entertaining series “Lilyhammer” on Netflix can use this subject as an excuse. There are quite a few subplots in the series that are set in the prison system. I suspect that one of the goals of the producers was to introduce the American audience to some progressive social concepts in the relatively palatable guise of a Sopranos Reloaded format.

  5. In the US, I don’t think much analysis has gone into what works and what doesn’t.

    Without knowledge of the actual results, most would guess a state like Texas that has executed 524 since the death penalty reinstatement would have a lower murder rate than a state like Mass. without that penalty. One guesses the biggest punishment, the biggest deterrent. Looking at the actual stats,
    Texas rate 1,139
    Mass. rate 137

    I would love to see Steven Pinker write an article about this very subject.

    1. Of course there are many other factors like population size, wage disparity, and the number of guns per person.

    2. Those stats alone aren’t that useful. Texans could always argue that the murder rate would be higher if there were no death penalty.

    3. A year or two ago, a Texas judge made headlines when the beating he gave his daughter went viral on video. If that’s the judge’s mentality, and he’s voted into office, it reflects the mentality of the voters, as well. Too many want retribution amplified.

      One cannot even call it “an eye for an eye.” It’s not like that daughter ever hit the judge.

      I can’t recall whether he remained on the bench or not. I only recall that he very well might, and at that, I didn’t have the heart to continue following the story.

  6. Our (centre-right) finance minister called prisons a “moral and fiscal failure” in the first term of their current tenure, and have been trying to improve conditions, increase focus on rehabilitation, and increase the use of restorative justice. They have to go carefully though, because they’ve always been the law and order party, and there are some pretty loud voices that are all about revenge. For example, when a new prison was built with underfloor heating, the general consensus was prisoners didn’t deserve to keep warm.

    I think the Norway system is excellent. There’s a short documentary about it that I think is worth watching, but I can’t find the link right now. I’ll look again later when I’m on a better device for searching.

  7. What they don’t tell you is that they make the prisoners put together their own furniture, and there’s always one part missing.

    It actually falls under the Geneva Convention definition for “cruel and unusual punishment.”

  8. A broad view of animal behavior would suggest income inequality is a major factor. When individuals perceive limited prospects for security, food, reproductive output (family security?), they are much more likely to engage in risk-prone behaviors, even toward the same species.

  9. “…“punishment” in the U.S. often involves retributive punishment…”

    I have recently come to the conclusion that people who are into revenge get an enormous amount of pleasure from their vengeance. While they may rationalize the use of revenge as preventative, which it clearly isn’t, what is really going on is an opportunity to indulge their meanness, without having to face the fact that they are mean and enjoying that meanness immensely.

    Watch them. Watch them smile when they talk about punishment. Watch them indulge their anger.

    Like any addiction, it’s going to be hard to break. L

    1. Linda, the state preempts the right of a victim or his or her survivors to exact justice (which you choose to term revenge) saying that it will punish the perpetrator. It doesn’t and if one does so on his or her own, then he or she is prosecuted. There is a word for this: tyranny.

      Your ilk started out saying capital punishment is immoral. Now you say life in prison even for murder also is. Now the Norwegians say any sentence over twenty-one years is. Like all fanatics, on any side of whatever issue, you lack the concept of restraint. There is no such thing as going too far for you. This is a psychological illness that endangers others.

      1. Donald – you have no grounds whatsoever to describe Linda as a fanatic or to suggest she suffers from a psychological illness or lacks the concept of restraint. Your contributions so far to this thread have been remarkable for their lack of civility and I suggest that it may pay for you to read the rules in the side bar before you weigh in with any other broadsides about the moral sickness of anyone who happens to disagree with your (rather old testament) views about justice.

        1. Jonathan, I have no grounds? Eighty-five people dead, most of them kids. Do many of you here know that Breivik is a right wing extremist who killed these kids who were attending a camp run by a left wing political party? Yet, despite my pleas for justice for his victims, doubtlessly many here have me pegged as a right wing extremist. So be it. In my sense of morality truth trumps civility. One hundred days in a gilded cage per victim. That’s how Norway truly values human life, as apparently many here do.

          Good day, sir.

          1. They could always try 1000 lashes. Or crucifixion. You seem to be seeking some kind of visceral release by making sure the criminal suffers. Sounds like Islam and Christianity.

          2. Like I said above, I would much rather have a system which accidentally spawns a Brevik only every 60 years rather than one that actively and knowingly breeds their equivalent on an industrial scale just so that some of us can feel some short-term Biblical-style satisfaction. I would gladly choose a system that includes not having a monster spend their final years on death row if that same system actually saves thousands of innocent lives.

            I am sorry that you do not see that prevention is better than punishment.

          3. You fail entirely to make clear why valuing the life of the children requires Norwegians (including the parents of those children) to impose a more draconian punishment on Breivik. It is extraordinarily arrogant of you to suggest that those parents didn’t/don’t value the lives of their children.

          4. “Do many of you here know that Breivik is a right wing extremist who killed these kids who were attending a camp run by a left wing political party?”

            Yes. We have the news where I live too. But what possible difference would that make? Or are you assuming that some sort of political tribalism should be a factor in analyzing the effectiveness of a justice system? Interesting how much your assumptions about others reveal.

            “Yet, despite my pleas for justice…” Not exactly. Your pleas are for justice *as you define it*, and your defense of that definition has been somewhat lackluster, to put it mildly.

            “Good day, sir.”

            Should that be imagined as a flounce or a curtsey?

          5. Anders Breivik is a human being too, one who was failed by the system which knew about his mother’s abuse of him and let it happen.

      2. Donald is providing a perfect example of what it looks like when arguing from emotion vs reason.

        (That is, actually producing no argument, only emotions).

      3. “the state preempts the right of a victim or his or her survivors to exact justice (which you choose to term revenge) saying that it will punish the perpetrator. It doesn’t and if one does so on his or her own, then he or she is prosecuted. There is a word for this: tyranny.”

        So “justice”, to your mind, does not mean an impartial entity (the state) judging what events have transpired and punishing involved parties according to the laws a democratic society has agreed upon? This constitutes tyranny to you? Rather, you would prefer that anyone who believes themselves wronged is allowed to punish the other according to their own desires? That is freedom and due process?

        That, sir, is nonsense. Power to arbitrate being held by the state (or another mutually agreed upon impartial body) is a foundational pillar of civilization. It may be imperfect, but it prevents the cycle of violence from escalating because you killed my friend, so I killed you, so your brother killed me, and on and on it goes because we all think we’ve been more wronged than the other guy. Vigilantism being illegal is precisely designed to prevent that from happening.

        And as has been stated multiple times, including in the OP, Norwegian law allows for far longer sentences; you simply can’t START your prison term with a longer one, but instead must be evaluated and only further detained if deemed necessary. It’s a mirror image of the US allowing early parole, simply with the burden of proof being reversed.

      4. Tyranny eh.
        Are you aware of the never ending cycles of revenge killings in places like Papua New Guinea.
        Do you want that?
        It is not tyranny it civilisation.

  10. Jerry says:

    “But to a determinist like me, no criminal has a choice about what to do, so all should be treated as victims of their circumstances.”

    I have asked this before and I will ask again: how is it possible for somebody to be a determinist and consequentially think that criminals do not have choice what to do, and then immediately proceed to suggest a CHOICE other people SHOULD make about how to treat them? I would naively expect a consistent determinist to conclude that the US prison system, Norwegian prison system, the differences between the two and the different motivations between the two to be just as deterministic as the criminals’ crimes. Just like a criminal can say “it was not my choice” for the crime committed, a lawmaker can say “it was not my choice” for any decision in the design of the penal system.

    1. But evidence of what works can change what decision your brain comes to about what is the bedt system. You don’t make a decision in a vacuum. In the US, you make a decision about the appropriate way to treat an offender in a different environment to someone in another country. If you see evidence of a different regime, it will have an influence on your opinion.

      For some, because it’s done a particular way in the US, that must be the best way. Others will think the results aren’t great and look for evidence of something better.

    2. The difference is simply one of past vs. future. Nobody had any choice about what they did in the past, but everyone may alter their future behavior based on things you do or say to them in the present.

      So criminals had no choice to commit their crimes and officials had no choice but to set up a nasty prison system, but by writing the article he hopes to change things in the future.

      1. That makes no sense. Just before a criminal committed his crime, the crime was in the future for him, which according to your distinction means that he had the choice to commit it or not. Just because you cannot change the past, it doesn’t mean that the choice didn’t exist in the past – especially if you think it exists for actions that are in the future (and Jerry apparently doesn’t believe the latter anyway).

        1. I’m not implying that people have free will to choose future actions.

          Yes, the differences between the US and Norwegian prison systems are determined. But writing an article imploring people to do things differently isn’t pointless because it can affect their behavior. But yes, the writing of the article, its effects on others, and what others ultimately do are also determined. A person’s beliefs may be “changed” by reading the article, but they were determined to be changed.

          I don’t know exactly where the disagreement is.

          Perhaps you dislike the specific words used (since they imply free will), in which case I’d say we simply don’t have better ones. If you want affect people’s behavior through English you have to use such words.

          Perhaps you object to attempts at persuasion by a determinist, but I’m sure Jerry’d say he had no choice in the matter!

          1. (Here we go again…)


            First, when you say “The difference is simply one of past vs. future” that gets the whole determinism issue wrong. The point of determinism is that the future is DETERMINED and thus is FIXED in the same way as the past. If you point to a past decision, it can not be changed. A decision making process occurred, it was part of the chain of causation, but the decision “could not be otherwise.” The SAME logic of determinism applies to future choice, being fixed by determined processes, a choice “can not be otherwise than it is determined to be.”

            That’s the WHOLE POINT that is supposed to follow from determinism, which is why Jerry and other incompatibilists talk about “not being able to do otherwise.” (Compatibilists agree that *in that sense* we could not do otherwise given determinism).

            So this distinction you wish to draw between a decision in the past vs the future misses the point.

            You then followed up with “But writing an article imploring people to do things differently isn’t pointless because it can affect their behavior.”

            Which is the reply incompatibilists give over and over here, and which always misses the actual problem. The question isn’t whether and argument can affect other people’s behavior – we know they can, but BAD, illogical and unsound arguments – like creationism or other religious claims – clearly affect people’s behavior too. The question you have to answer is “Is the particular argument you are making coherent?
            Or does it contain contradictions?”

            And Axolotl is bang on in spotting the contradiction. If on one hand the premise is “we can not do otherwise” then in the next breath you can’t coherently say “THEREFORE we ought to do otherwise” (change our attitude toward treating criminals).
            You can’t say “Criminals can’t choose to do otherwise…but WE CAN do otherwise.”

            If you don’t allow that we can do otherwise (in some substantive manner) then it makes no sense to prescribe we do otherwise. But if you DO allow we have the ability to do otherwise in some substantive sense, then you have to allow that same ability to criminals.

            This incoherence has never been untangled here by an incompatibilist, that I have seen.

    3. It might be puzzling if you didn’t equivocate the word “choice” so obviously. There is no ultimate, black box “choice” that separates us fundamentally from regular matter – which is what we mean when we say criminals don’t have a choice to do wrong – but the common phenomenon of information exchange and mental rearrangement which we informally call “choice” doesn’t vanish in a puff of logic as a result. You switch between the two when you switch from talking about criminal choice to everyday judiciary choice on how to treat criminals, and so sow your own confusion.

      1. reasonshark,

        Axolotl hasn’t sewn his own confusion; I believe he has rightly spotted the inconsistency in the incompatibilist argument espoused by Jerry.

        If on one hand, from the premise all human action is determined, you say: “criminals couldn’t have chosen otherwise” – which IS what Jerry is saying and says often – and then in the next breath say but “WE ought to choose otherwise” then you’ve got a contradiction, plain and simple.

        1. All right, I admit I botched the first attempt to explain. Let me try again.

          You’ve got two calculators, two lions, and two people. All six operate under the standard rules of physics, i.e. they don’t have a “choice” about the physical laws they can or cannot operate by and are effectively all robots as far as causation et al are concerned. “Choice” here is basically whatever is supposed to go above and beyond regular physics to justify, say, retribution, which otherwise cannot be justified without at least muddying the waters.

          One calculator works fine. The other develops a kink in its programming that results in it claiming that 1+1=1000.

          One lion normally attacks people who get too close. The other has been drugged and genetically modified to act like a gentle tabby.

          One person lives an ordinary, unremarkable life. The other – whether through genetics, upbringing, or a virus – kills somebody.

          Every last one of these things is determined, so has no “choice”. Only one of them has sound moral judgement, and recommends, discusses, updates, and acts on policies on what to do about the other five. This we may call rational decision-making, or choosing of a sort, in an everyday sense distinct from the “choice” that defies physical law. This choice does not have “choice” either, because it is determined by standard physics.

          The person that killed somebody lacks this capacity for rational decision-making – even if only for the space and time required to commit the deed – just as much as the broken calculator lacks the capacity to do correct maths, and the untreated lion lacks the capacity for peaceableness. They have neither “choice” nor choice. A policy-maker or someone seeking to influence said policy-maker has no “choice” either, but in theory has choice.

          Does that make it any clearer?

          1. No, I don’t think that makes it much clearer.

            Cops who kill in the line of duty, or citizens who kill in self-defense, are not ipso facto irrational. Even cold-blood hitmen do it out of a sense of rational self-interest (it’s their job) combined with indifference to the fate of their victims. Society may consider such indifference morally repugnant, but that doesn’t render the killers incapable of rational decision-making.

          2. Cops who kill in the line of duty, or citizens who kill in self-defense, are not ipso facto irrational.

            That depends entirely on your meta-ethical theory. One could argue that such actions are a necessary evil demanded by sheer practicality rather than a positive argument.

            Even cold-blood hitmen do it out of a sense of rational self-interest (it’s their job) combined with indifference to the fate of their victims.

            Rational self-interest is behaviour consistent with the meta-ethical theory of egotism. It only really works if you draw the moral circle much smaller than can be rationally justified given the faculties of individuals. As for indifference to victims, that’s basically the same problem. Behaviour operating on an (admittedly implicit) theory that contains dubious premises.

            Society may consider such indifference morally repugnant, but that doesn’t render the killers incapable of rational decision-making.

            It does as far as ethics is concerned. It may have the caveats I outlined above, but it’s really no different from any other cognitive shortcoming or environmental compromise. In any case, a typical criminal has no such justifications.

          3. “Necessary evil demanded by sheer practicality” sounds like a rational justification to me.

            And I’m not buying the argument that anyone who dissents from consensus morality is by definition cognitively impaired. That seems to me to be a frighteningly Orwellian basis on which to build a system of justice.

          4. “Necessary evil demanded by sheer practicality” sounds like a rational justification to me.

            Right up until the effort to prevent the need for such “necessary evil” is sidelined, which is what’s happening here. The US philosophy of punish, punish, punish the devil is indulged at the expense of, say, a philosophy that would reduce the incidence of crime to begin with.

            And I’m not buying the argument that anyone who dissents from consensus morality is by definition cognitively impaired. That seems to me to be a frighteningly Orwellian basis on which to build a system of justice.

            Who said anything about consensus morality? Millions of people are perfectly capable of being wrong, of criminalizing what should not be criminalized, etc. But, assuming for the moment you agree that there’s such a thing as a real right and wrong, at some point you have to conclude that there’s something that causes some people to lead normal lives, and something that causes a few others to stick a knife in someone’s head.

            Barring examples such as “I stole a loaf of bread to avoid starving”, criminals at the very least must have something in their heads that distinguishes them from Joe Bloggs. When that is likely to cause them to give others grief and possibly death, then it needs to be addressed just as one would address a sickness that causes the host and others discomfort.

            I can see how that can be twisted for “Orwellian” purposes, but then so can the idea that criminals are acting on rational grounds.

          5. Why this obsession with punishment? In my experience punishment is a wonderful breeder of resentment. I certainly resented getting beaten, or being made to write lines or to do the various other things that were thought to be salutary at school, and it certainly had small, if any, efficacy in my case: it brought home to me the sheer stupidity and small-mindedness of the punishers. Punishment ‘deters’, we are told (by, among others, C.S.Lewis, who had an unpleasant side and who talked approvingly in one of his science-fiction novels, I think – it was over fifty years ago I read it, of the ‘desolate’ – I think that was the word he used – lessons learnt in the nursery or schoolroom). But does it? You might read David Constantine’s good novel ‘Davies’, which is based on the career, if you could call it that, of an incorrigible petty criminal of that name who even drew the attention of Winston Churchill when he was Home Secretary. This belief in the wonderful virtue of punishment (as deterrence, of course, not as – save us – retribution) seems to fit all too nicely with the belief that if we only give people ‘incentives’ they will work well. Look at the corporate circus, and the disgusting banalities that drive it. It doesn’t seem to occur to people who think along these lines that one might want to do something for its own reward. What does ‘deter’ – if we have to use that word – is an atmosphere of mutual respect and trust, an atmosphere that fosters integrity.

          6. I agree punishment can be motivated by unpleasant personality. It seems to me to overlap partially with sadism, though a unique brand of sadism that is or can be socially accepted in moderation. I would not be surprised if outrage, for instance, was addictively pleasurable for some people because it grants them a socially acceptable excuse to do things they normally wouldn’t do, hence the popularity of violent vigilantes. However, I don’t know if this is a general trend or just particular of a few individuals. Most people I see just think of a criminal in a similar way to how they think of someone reneging on an explicit contract. To them, criminals forfeit at least some of their privileges and human rights, rather than open themselves up to harsh punishment.

            I think there is some justification for deterrence, though it strikes me very much as a method of last resort – like performing surgery without anaesthetic – rather than as a strong moral imperative, and the best argument I can think of for it is “the alternatives are all worse”. This is why I’m leery when people assume it’s an automatic standard to be upheld.

        2. No, it’s not a contradiction at all.

          By pointing out other ways to do things, you affect peoples’ brains, and then that environmental intervention can determine behaviors seen as better by those who importune. And yes, people like me who make these arguments are determined to do so, but of course that determinism involves filtering inputs through experience and evolved rationality.

          I really don’t know what you’re saying. That we can’t improve anything because we’re determinists? Or that we do have dualistic free will? Are you not a determinist? If you’re not, are you a dualist? If you are, do you think that arguments to change things are futile? If so, why?

          1. “but of course that determinism involves filtering inputs through experience and evolved rationality.”

            Perhaps there lies the difficulty in understanding.

            Is there any choice, at any level, in the filtering?
            And what exactly is evolved rationality and is there any choice of any kind here.

            It is an important question to get right.
            It is tricky to understand.
            I am a determinist too, but still struggle to formulate a coherent explanation, for myself or others.

          2. Jerry: “And yes, people like me who make these arguments are determined to do so, but of course that determinism involves filtering inputs through experience and evolved rationality.”

            OK, but if your determinism involves filtering inputs through experience and evolved rationality, why shouldn’t that be expected from the criminals’ determinism, too? You seem to be making distinction between the criminals and the legislators that in a consistent system simply shouldn’t exist, or at least should have nothing to do with philosophical free will. In reality, since you don’t like the idea of the existence of free will, you are inventing the concept of “filtering” to take its role of making choices in a deterministic world. One could also say that in a consistently deterministic world the filtering and its outcome should also be deterministic.

            “I really don’t know what you’re saying.”

            I am just saying that, when it comes to free will, you should apply the same standard to criminals and to legislators. Either both can choose their actions (and be responsible and/or punishable for it) or neither can. Either both can filter inputs through experience the same way, or neither can.

          3. Either both can choose their actions (and be responsible and/or punishable for it)

            Jerry, I think we have our answer: Axolotl is a free will advocate.

            What do you think responsibility and punishment are? Very rough and very flawed ideas that really just boil down to causes and solutions. Responsibility and blame are basically about finding the most salient human-shaped cause of an event. Punishment is basically a solution that, despite being psychologically compelling, is basically one evolved manifestation of the logic of deterrence, and not a particularly consistent one at that. And how does either make sense in the absence of a doctrine that mental-stuff requires a completely different approach from physical stuff, especially when it comes to decision-making, or free will? Which, conveniently, is a doctrine that means real world rules need not apply?

            Of course, interventions such as deterrence and catching and rehabilitating a potential criminal ahead of time trade on some degree of cooperation with a criminal, so in that sense you could argue that Jerry really should say (some) criminals have a choice. Given the context, though, I find it hard to see how this could mean he was contradictory. As far as cause and effect are concerned, these measures aren’t any different from catching and removing a tumour before it can kill someone, so it doesn’t contradict determinism either.

          4. “Jerry, I think we have our answer: Axolotl is a free will advocate.”

            Wrong. I am trying to show you that the free will argument has nothing to do with how we should treat criminals and should not be used in such contexts. Regardless of whether philosophical free will exists or not, whichever side you take _consistently_, the arguments in favour of one type of penal system or another would look the same. It is all based on different actions leading to different outcomes with different probabilities – both the criminals’ actions and the actions of those who penalise them. The type of choice (or determinism) is philosophically the same for both kinds of actions.

          5. I disagree strongly. The nature of human decision-making – including one’s position on free will – has large implications for how one would argue for and against certain penal systems. Retribution, when looked at square-on rather than taken as a non-negotiable part of the moral reasoning, makes no sense whatsoever. The closest to a rational case one can make for the sheer punitiveness of an action is deterrence, and even then it’s basically stopping a fire by using a fire, and a method of last resort as a result.

            The only way people can justify retribution, therefore, is the same as how they can justify pointless religious rituals and prayers; either by invoking a secular reason, which drags in a whole host of thorns, or by weak doctrines, gut assumptions, and an associated unquestioned baggage protected by strong moral passions and deflected or spurious scrutiny.

            If, for instance, punishment is a social construction that depends for its effectiveness on the logic of deterrence, then why not just push for deterrence (presumably via the logic of operant conditioning) directly and ignore the stuff that doesn’t fit with that argument, like the obsession over making someone pay big time? And why make this deterrence-punishment the prime motive in the penal system when it itself is a necessary evil that should be superseded whenever possible? When a motive to reduce crime requires attention to results and consequences, it isn’t helped by a persistent co-pilot of a belief system demanding blame and blood while shielding itself from rational scrutiny. With such means as believing human minds and societal arrangements just run on a completely different logic – like free will – that transcends this kind of ordinary, worldly logic.

            OK, you’re not an explicit free will advocate, but the language creeps in nonetheless.

          6. Then forget the free will argument. What about determinism? If you are a non dualist you probably accept determinism. So, the fact that we are influenced by our environment and genetics and that we are constrained by the laws of physics, can this not show that providing certain inputs to brains may result in a certain outcome (of course depending on the physiology and experiences of the brain)?

          7. reasonshark: You keep arguing like you do not know what the philosophical problem of free will is. The reason Jerry is contradictory is that he employs the absence of free will selectively rather than universally – and if he is talking about philosophical free will, he simply cannot do that. Philosophical free will or the absence thereof is a universal principle. Ability to decade on one actions the way the two of you argue is impaired in criminals (and not in legislators). This is NOT, and cannot be due to philosophical free will (or absence thereof) but it operates at the level of the psychology of the individual. The latter has nothing to do with the free will problem. Please stop confusing the two.

      2. I am sorry, but if you claim that I am equivocating two meanings of the word “choice”, it would be nice of you to spell out what those two different meanings are. You have failed to do so clearly in your dismissive comment above. In the process, please pay attention to Jerry’s version of philosophical determinism. In what way is the choice in front of a criminal before committing a crime not an instance of “the common phenomenon of information exchange and mental rearrangement”, while the choice in front of people legislating the penal system is? On one level processes on which there is “no ultimate, black box “choice” that separates us fundamentally from regular matter”. If however it is possible to direct one via “the common phenomenon of information exchange and mental rearrangement”, why should the other be exempt from it, or why should the ability for that common phenomenon to occur not be used as a basis for punishing the individual?

        1. You have failed to do so clearly in your dismissive comment above.

          I thought I had made it clear, but if not, then see my reply to Vaal here:


          In the process, please pay attention to Jerry’s version of philosophical determinism.

          I have. I’ll grant, his use of words is sloppy, but I see his point otherwise.

          In what way is the choice in front of a criminal before committing a crime not an instance of “the common phenomenon of information exchange and mental rearrangement”, while the choice in front of people legislating the penal system is?

          Only the difference between a well-constructed argument and a fallacy. If a criminal was a rational human being, they wouldn’t be killing people to begin with. The ability to decide to kill people is as coherent as the ability of a calculator to decide that 1+1=1000. The point is that this is a problem to fix. A policy-maker who argues back that he’s determined to punish regardless is not making a cogent counterargument. He is also a problem to fix, because there is no justification for his continued presence there.

          If however it is possible to direct one via “the common phenomenon of information exchange and mental rearrangement”, why should the other be exempt from it, or why should the ability for that common phenomenon to occur not be used as a basis for punishing the individual?

          Because not everything a human does is “choice”. Most obviously, a human cannot choose to get cancer, but cancer happens or doesn’t happen anyway. More cognitively, a mental wire might get tripped that causes a human to, say, go around killing rather than sit at home and quietly watch TV. If you are interested in reducing such incidents, you want to find such causes at the source for optimum efficiency. Holding on to a “punish whoever does wrong” scenario, regardless even of deterrence, is not a rational course of action that fits the facts.

          Whether you want to call any particular scenario “choice” or not, the phenomenon is the same. My point is this; imagining that Jerry is somehow contradicting himself here is no more sensible than saying he contradicts himself every time he points out that a dyslexic can’t read a normal page and so should be catered to with specialist literature, or that a flu sufferer should be given the appropriate medicine.

          1. “If a criminal was a rational human being, they wouldn’t be killing people to begin with.”

            Not at all true. Sorry to derail your discussion somewhat with this, but I hate seeing this concept tossed around unchallenged. All a rational person needs to convince them to kill is reasoning that seems correct – and the reasoning can even be valid, completely lacking in fallacies, if the premises making up one’s arguments are not accurate. Ignorance, lack of education, lack of exposure to others, and ideological indoctrination can all contribute to beliefs that lead a rational being into doing horrible things. Humans do not need to be crazy to commit atrocities – being ignorant or simply wrong can easily suffice.

          2. So what you’re saying is that a rational person can kill when their argument for doing so is unsound.

            Barring the qualifications I made to Gregory Kusnick above (such as the “stealing a loaf of bread because you’re starving” argument), doesn’t that prove my point? Something has to go wrong for such a deed to happen. There is, presumably, a reason why Joe Bloggs doesn’t go around knifing people. From a medical standpoint, approaching this should be no different from approaching an asymptomatic carrier of an infectious disease; even if the host suffers no ill-effects, somebody around them might. And prevention is better than cure (or deterrence, as the case may be).

          3. Killing is an extreme crime and it may well be true that most people committing murder have some kind of cognitive defect but if we drop down to less serious crimes it is quite easy to see how a rational person might decide to commit them. Consider a financial fraud: a perfectly rational person may reason that (a) they can get away with it (b) they will significantly enrich themselves by doing it. Most of us are held back from committing such a crime by a variety of factors including the notion that society works best for us all if we abide by a set of agreed ‘rules’ as well as various ethical codes (which in the case of a great many people are themselves based on non rational foundations such as religion), but there is no reason to suggest that the fraudster is being irrational. I’d suggest that the same kind of reasoning could even be apply to a murder in at least some cases.

          4. But then this raises the question of why something should be deemed a crime in the first place. If taking money fraudulently held no averse consequences – or at least, no more than other neutral behaviours like driving on the right or queuing to get a service – then that would be a case for decriminalizing it.

            In any case, I suspect you’re still assuming that “rational”=”self-interested”, which leads to the problems with acting as if the meta-ethical theory of egoism is true. Even if the harm only comes if such activities are indulged in the aggregate, you would still have to provide a rational argument for and against criminalization. Which is exactly my point. If a crime is committed, then either the criminal acted contrary to the best arguments, or the law has been set up in error contrary to the best arguments. Either way, someone screwed up.

            Most of us are held back from committing such a crime by a variety of factors including the notion that society works best for us all if we abide by a set of agreed ‘rules’ as well as various ethical codes (which in the case of a great many people are themselves based on non rational foundations such as religion)

            Not so fast! On what basis are those rules agreed upon? If nothing in the real world makes a difference to those “non rational foundations”, then why are they foundations? Either there’s good reason for them being there, in which case they’re not non-rational, or there aren’t, in which case there’s no genuine justification for kicking up a fuss because they are completely arbitrary.

          5. Well, of course, they have got away with it, haven’t they? I don’t recall any long sentences or fines after the last bank debacle, only complaints that if high salaries and stupendous bonuses weren’t paid, the fraudsters couldn’t get on with their business properly; and nothing done in response. They’ve got their heads screwed on all right!

          6. ‘I’d suggest that the same kind of reasoning could even be apply to a murder in at least some cases.’

            Killing is thought to be ‘rational’ in war, and also if it is done in self-defence, or by a policeman or security guard in particular circumstances, or, according to Sean Hannity, by George Zimmerman. It may also be rational in other circumstances: gang warfare, say, or terrorism, if terror seems likely to bring about a desired political result (that, of course, was what the massacre at My Lai was: terrorism, intended to terrorise the native population – one might also thinking of the Allied bombing of Hamburg & Dresden, not to mention Hiroshima & Nagasaki); or in the circumstances which Charles Doughty describes in ‘Arabia Deserta’, in which a humane man who disliked violence, placed by circumstances in the position of tribal leader as a result of the assassination of his brother or some close relative, as I recall, found himself obliged to kill rivals and opponents who would otherwise have assassinated him; or one might read a few Icelandic sagas. We are very good at killing one another and finding reasons, good and bad, to do so.

            I must say that I read many of these terribly well educated, closely argued and splendidly ‘ethical’ comments, written by people who clearly pride themselves on their reasoning abilities and wish to display them, in a sort of wonder – as to what world the commenters think they live in.

          7. “Something has to go wrong for such a deed to happen. ”

            Yes, but that wasn’t what you said – you said that the criminal has to be irrational. I fully agree that something has to go wrong somewhere along the line, but that something isn’t always internal to the criminal.

          8. As I’ve said before, I’m uneasy with the incompatibilist urge to medicalize crime. Should conscientious objectors and non-violent protesters willing to go to jail for their beliefs be sent instead to a mental institution to have their beliefs modified?

            Dissent from social norms is not automatically a sign of mental illness. Respect for individual autonomy demands that we treat people as responsible agents, even when they do bad things, unless we have compelling independent evidence that their competence is somehow impaired.

          9. “If a criminal was a rational human being, they wouldn’t be killing people to begin with.”

            This just shows that you are completely missing the point of Jerry’s philosophical stance and my question. Whether somebody is a rational or an irrational human being has nothing to do with the philosophical question of free will. It has nothing to do with differences between individuals, or with rationality for that matter. Please educate yourself on the basics before discussing further.

          10. Whether somebody is a rational or an irrational human being has nothing to do with the philosophical question of free will.

            It has everything to do with it if you want to know why a criminal can’t “choose” to act any differently but a policy legislator can choose to alter policy in response. It’s no harder to grasp than pointing out that a lion can’t choose to follow Rawlsian ethics, but a human can. It doesn’t require upending either determinism or normal everyday decision-making. It does put the idea of retributive justice under the spotlight, though, because that position is based on a combination of unquestioned faith (say, in one’s urge for revenge) and dogma of the black box kind (that a criminal who could have chosen otherwise deserves punishment for choosing wrongly).

            Of course, there are those happy occasions where an intervention stops the cause at the source – deterrence, rehabilitation, psychological profiles throwing up warning flags, etc – but this isn’t much different from fixing a broken calculator or designing a tame lion. The logic is no different when applied to humans who go around knifing people, but since it has no use for retribution (even deterrence requires different logic, such as punishing more harshly the more prominent or well-known a crime is), it flies in the face of most people’s home ideas about “justice”, and so forth, which in turn are at least partially based or buoyed up on the fixation of free will. That’s how it’s relevant to your question.

          11. ‘Making a tame lion’ etc: you might read Robert Lowell’s account of how, when he was imprisoned for his pacifism, of the effects of a pre-frontal lobotomy on (naturally) a black prisoner…

          12. “Please educate yourself on the basics before discussing further.” This is a snarky and uncivil comment, and I don’t want to see something like this posted again. Seriously, “educate yourself so you’re worthy to discuss this here”???

          13. Jerry wrote: “Please educate yourself on the basics before discussing further.”

            I agree that the comment referred to was snarky and uncivil, and yet it seemed to be directed–justifiably–at me, and I’m sure that there are many others who also felt out of their depth when the discussion evolved (some might prefer “was hijacked” from one about the relative merits of the Norwegian and U.S. prison systems (which I will write about separately) to one on determinism v. free will. As to which I don’t even know where to begin. So:

            Can anyone recommend a primer on the subject? At a REALLY basic level, not assuming any prior knowledge? One that doesn’t just explain the arguments for the positions, but begins by DEFINING them? What is determinism? What is free will? What is “compatibilism”? What is “dualism”? It’s not just that I don’t have an opinion about these things; it’s that I don’t what these things even ARE.

            I’m stuck at the intuitive stumbling block–and I suspect that I’m not alone–that it IS contradictory to deny any sort of choice, and at the same time use words like “could” and moreover, “should.” But that could well be because I’m not understanding the concepts. Help, please.

          14. Oh, no, Brujo Feo, you are far from alone. I didn’t even know how to phrase the question you did, just to ask for help to learn enough to follow the discussion. Thank you for being the one to ask.

          15. I hope this comment comes out in the right place:

            There is ‘How Free are You?: The Determinism Problem’ by Ted Honderich (Oxford UP paperback), which is intended, partly at least, for a lay audience. It is scrupulously, I think, and subtly argued (sometimes so subtly that I can’t really see the distinction he asserts is there.) Otherwise, the Encylopaedia of Philosophy (Edwards, 1967) has, Honderich says, some good articles on the problem.

            ‘The Mind’s I’, a splendid anthology of pieces by scientists, philosophers and writers like Borges, edited by Dennett & Hoftstader, has quite a bit of relevance to the discussion, I think.

          16. Daniel Dennett’s Elbow Room is a pretty accessible place to start. It’s not neutral; he’s definitely advocating a particular position; but he lays out the fundamentals fairly clearly.

            He explores the same ideas at greater depth in Freedom Evolves. Dennett is arguably the foremost living advocate of compatibilism, so his books are pretty much required reading for anyone who wants to seriously challenge that view.

          17. I should have said “Jerry QUOTED.” My post, starting with “Jerry WROTE,” made it seem as if Jerry had written the quoted sentence. Mea culpa.

          18. If a criminal was a rational human being, they wouldn’t be killing people to begin with.

            I think that might be begging the question.

    1. …I think I’ve posted more on this thread than I have all combined in the last week or so. Small case of SIWOTI syndrome after a few cocktails, it would seem. 😉

  11. Your proposal is un-American! (I guess that’s the point.) But how will we sustain the exponential growth in the profits of our private prison corporations?!

    1. Imagine all the prison guards and personnel who’d lose their jobs! Then, the unemployment rate would go up. And all those private colleges selling online degrees in how to be a prison guard? They’d lose all that tuition income. And the teachers would get fired. And the unemployment rate would go higher!

      Oh, dear!

      But, if the newly unemployed got desperate enough, they could break a law, go to prison, get retrained to work in some — oh, I don’t know — productive field of work.

      And then, our nation could move forward.

      I see a light at the end of the tunnel, there.

  12. Twenty one years for slaughtering 77 people isn’t justice, “restorative” or otherwise. Some people commit acts that are so heinous, no matter how determinist their motive, that they permanently and irrevocably forfeit all rights to live among us. IMO, of course. Still, despite cases like that, Norway is on to what looks a good approach.

    But I do not see a way out of our (USA) horrific penal system apart from bankruptsy forcing changes. But even then I believe it won’t change in the Norwegian way. We are incapable of reasoned debate on several topics. Abortion, guns, crime, race. Despite all the evidence that our penal system and gun laws are deeply, tragically flawed and that others are able to deal with these issues effectively (more or less) the discussion here, if it ever happens at all, will not be about that evidence. Nor will it be about outcomes. It will, like all debates here on race, guns and abortion be nothing more than acrimony, fear mongering, anger & spite. And all that hooting and hollering will be used as an excuse to do nothing as that is what Americans think “debate” is.

    It is the American way (US, I mean) is to pretend that arguing about something is doing something about it. In a country where the massacre of more than twenty first graders by a lunatic with a machine gun that is easier to obtain than adopting a kitten produces exactly nothing to address the obscenity that is our gun culture, there is no hope whatsoever that this (somewhat related) issue can be addressed until we are forced by calamity.

    1. I am with you most of the way. I see that it seems impossible that a large and politically powerful core of ‘Mericuns will always stifle efforts to reform gun laws and to reform our social support system and prison system.
      But we have changed over the centuries, and it is possible that we will evolve in that more enlightened direction. The status quo is not sustainable, after all.
      Have hope.

    2. I think it’s because every one of those debates has become politicized and subject to distortion, propaganda and information manipulation, especially by the right wing conservative side.

      Every one of those issues has become subject to fact revisionism in the same way tobacco was by the tobacco industry.
      Indeed it seems more and more every possible subject is becoming part and parcel of the highly polarized American political system, and turned into a black and white issue without nuance, fodder for a certain news station.

    3. Yeah I see your point and it is hard to see where things will go with the U.S. but I’m hopeful.

    4. Once we have solved the problem of economic security in the U.S., folks will be willing to listen to reason. Vote for Bernie Sanders if you dare.

          1. Hope and hope that the American public would never elect Ted Cruz, no matter what, I guess. Go after his place of birth? See whether he was considered an American citizen from the time of birth or changed his status later? (Getting desperate, here, as you can see.)

          2. Not sure if you’re joking, but Sanders is running as a Democrat, not an independent, which means there’s zero chance that he’ll siphon votes away from Clinton in the general election.

            A vote for Sanders in the primary is about as risk-free as a protest vote can possibly get.

          3. I joined the Libertarian Party in 1973, when I turned 18. Stayed there until 2008, when I switched to the GOP to vote for Ron Paul in the primaries. Never went back, because that was the year that the LP decided to whore itself out to mass-murderer Bob Barr as its candidate.

            This year, I will probably switch to the Dems just to vote for Bernie Sanders in the primary. I still have hopes for Rand Paul as the best of a VERY bad bunch (in spite of his inexcusable statements about vaccinations, and other gaffes), but against any other GOP candidate, I’ll take Sanders hands-down. And absolutely over a war-mongering, drug-warrior, corporatist tool like Hillary.

            Think about that for a moment–just exactly how fucked up does the GOP have to be for a life-long libertarian (at one time I was the titular NGC of the RLC, although I don’t recall them ever asking me to actually do anything) to be ready to support a socialist like Sanders (even with HIS anti-science stances on GMOs and other things) for President? Referring to the GOP pack as a “clown car” is an unwarranted slur on clowns everywhere. And that was BEFORE Trump jumped in with a statement calling Mexicans rapists. Brilliant!

    5. “Some people commit acts that are so heinous, no matter how determinist their motive, that they permanently and irrevocably forfeit all rights to live among us.”

      Yeah, can’t agree with that.

      Let me put it this way – I am, at this moment, a fairly different person than I was ten years ago. I made decisions then that I never would now, I believed things then that I now hold to be false, and a significantly different set of social and biological pressures were acting upon my thinking. Indeed, most of the matter making up my body then is no longer present in my current body. So, if I were to be punished now for something I did then, is the person who committed the crime actually being punished? To a large degree, I’d say no – and people can change far more drastically than I have.

      I tend to think this is an aspect of dualist thinking that even most materialists retain – the idea that there is something unchangeable at the core of who a person is, that is forever indistinct from that person’s identity and character. We’re socialized to accept the idea that adults should not be held accountable for their behavior as children because they hadn’t finished their development… but it’s not like we hit 18 and suddenly that development stops. It may, for the most part, slow down a fair bit, but we are constantly evolving individuals, and the endgame individual can be as different as two people can possibly be from who they were when younger.

      Now, in the case of punishment for bad behavior, I absolutely think that this change needs to be great and demonstrable to be taken into account. But I cannot support the notion of locking someone up and throwing away the key, no matter their crime.

    6. Not 21 years, 21 to life. Which in this case means life. You’d think that would have sunk in by now.

      Charles Manson got 7 years to life.

    7. mecwordpress wrote: “In a country where the massacre of more than twenty first graders by a lunatic with a machine gun that is easier to obtain than adopting a kitten produces exactly nothing to address the obscenity that is our gun culture, there is no hope whatsoever that this (somewhat related) issue can be addressed until we are forced by calamity.”

      Um, mecwordpress…hyperbole much? Please correct me if I’m wrong, but you seem to be referring to the Sandy Hook incident. What “machine gun” was used in that attack? My understanding is that Lanza used a Bushmaster AR-15, which does not have a selective-fire switch, so by definition it’s not a machine gun. (I would argue that that also means that it’s not an assault rifle, but addressing that level of misuse of terminology would require a separate essay.)

      And…”easier to obtain than adopting a kitten”? What is your factual basis for this claim?

  13. I would say that criminals DO choose- just like everyone else, other animals, robots, etc. However, our choices are determined (as the nervous system is largely a deterministic machine). Alternatively, if our choices are not determined, then they are random. Either way, there is no free will. The implications for the idea of retributive justice are the same.

  14. Other that conditions within the prison system, conditions post-release may increase the rate of recidivism. Once you’ve got a felony on your record, finding work after being removed from society for a number of years can be extremely difficult, placing a financial burden that needs to be fulfilled. When your skill-set centers on the very activities that put you in prison to begin with, re-engaging in those activities is the easiest option in lessening the financial burden.

    Now, this isn’t to say that efforts to combat this don’t exist, but they are not endemic to the institution. I have a client that works directly with the Az Dept of Justice in hiring call center workers, but this is hardly a skilled profession.

    1. My hunch is this is seen as part of the deserved punishment. Also, felons are not allowed to vote. A further stigma. I think vengeance runs deep in the heart of America. The puritan ethic, and all that. Scarlet letter.

    2. I was thinking along the same lines. Many people return to the communities they are from, and continue hanging out with the same people, who are often into the behaviors that landed them in prison.

  15. I have worked in a secure unit for young offenders in the UK where we fall between the two stools of punishment and rehabilitation. Conditions are not quite as homelike as the Norwegian jails shown, but they aren’t as grim as an adult jail either – our inmates were aged 12-16 and we aren’t such bastards as to subject kids to that kind of regime.

    But we were still underfunded. We didn’t address the causes of the crimes, we did very little in the way of rehabilitative work – yet these were young kids, far less hard-boiled and far more open to change had we been able to apply it. As a result our reoffending rate was ridiculous, we would see the same kids over and over as they came for a short stint then get released straight back into the same environment that the offending behaviour occurred in in the first place.

    We need to work out what the hell we are doing with UK prisons, we could easily move towards the US model – privatisation is happening here too – but the Norwegian model is still open to us if the political will is there. I have a feeling that the social conditions outside prison are as much to do with their success as anything, life is OK there if you just toe the line, here in the UK with the poverty and inequality it was going to be crap for our secure unit alumni whatever they did.

  16. The American system of criminal jurisprudence was best described by a former justice of the Michigan Supreme court, John Voelker, author of the novel (under his pseudonym, Robert Traver)Anatomy of a Murder, which was made into a movie starring James Stewart. It’s called the mad dog theory. Lock ’em up like a mad dog and keep ’em locked up.

  17. Lots of unnecessary hostility in some of the comments above and I’m pretty sure that WEIT would say – not very productive. It is perfectly okay to disagree with what most of the readers here think about this issue but after you say it, know when to quit.

    You can look at that one very bad crime in Norway and get all wound about the lack of “your” justice in the case but then — step back and compare Norway’s system to the U.S. and tell me who’s system is better? Who warehouses millions of people in prison and accomplishes nothing but runs out of beds? How can you not look at other countries success to solve your failures?

    1. In my comment @ #16, I mentioned the former Michigan Supreme Court justice John Voelker. His appraisal of the US criminal justice system was decidedly negative, calling it a massive waste of money and ineffective at preventing recidivism.

  18. It’s not just Norway, either. Sweden and even Japan have a similar philosophy towards prisoners, as recounted in The Spirit Level. There, though, the authors correlated it with income inequality.

  19. I know I say something like this every time, but the Norway-USA comparison simply underscores to me that the free will question is a red herring.

    The fact is that Norway is buying more crime prevention at a lower cost (lower in terms of both money and suffering). That should be the end of the story: this result, all by itself and regardless of anything else that may or not be true, shows that Norway’s system is preferable. It doesn’t matter whether or not anyone has free will – however free will is defined.

    1. This is my reaction as well. The arguments in favor of the Norwegian system are not metaphysical but empirical and consequentialist: brutal punishment breeds recidivism; humane treatment promotes rehabilitation. It seems counterproductive to insist that before we can recognize these practical advantages, we must first persuade everyone to renounce free will and embrace determinism.

      1. I agree entirely. The supposition that accepting incompatibilist determinism is a kind of cure-all that will somehow magically transform attitudes to the punishment of criminals, and to homosexuality, etc seems to me to be, in all honesty, questionable. The Norwegian way of doing things hasn’t come about because Norwegians have all become metaphysical determinists but because, unlike the fellow preaching in a rather revolting way about ‘justice’ and ‘sick pups’ above, they are sensible people and have noticed that there are social and psychological causes of crime and that such methods as America uses to deal with crime are foolish and counter-productive, and also because they have retained their basically social-democratic polity and have not espoused the sort of neo-liberal economic principles that are playing havoc with many societies.

        1. I’m not so sure. Why are people hostile to consequentialist ethics? I would argue that resual religion and theism is part. (I would have to do more work, of course, to support this, but it was my impression in ethics classes years ago.)

          1. Even granting that conservative religion is part of the problem, it’s still a big leap from there to the idea that hard determinism is the solution.

            In my view, 100 hours of community service in a prison hospital or a public defender’s office is far more likely to change people’s attitudes about crime and punishment than a lecture on Libet experiments.

    2. Henry Fitzgerald nails it–many commentators (and I don’t mean only, or even primarily, here) seem to forget the simple dictum that an ounce of history is worth a pound of theory.

      It would seem that the inescapable conclusion is that the Norwegian system WORKS; ours doesn’t. One should either agree with that statement or disagree with it before getting bogged down in discussions of free will.

  20. A different view on the situation in Norway:

    “Statistics from the late 2000s indicate that crime in the city [Oslo] is rising… Some media have reported that there are four times as many thefts and robberies in Oslo than in New York City… Since 2012, the German travel guide Dumont now describes the city as being unsafe for female tourists. The guide also named Oslo “The Crime capital of Scandinavia”…

    According to the Oslo Police, they receive more than 15,000 reports of petty thefts annually. The rate is more than seven times the number per-capita of Berlin. Approximately 0.8% of those cases get solved… However in more recently the number of petty thefts has fallen… Oslo has witnessed annual spikes in sexual assault cases in recent years.

    A large proportion of the crime that is carried out in Norway is committed by criminals from overseas, with 34 percent of the prison population being foreigners… In his autobiography Undesirables, British criminal Colin Blaney has claimed that gangs of English thieves target the nation on account of the perception that its prisons are relatively comfortable compared to those of other countries… Studies also indicate that this is one of the reasons that criminals from other parts of the world commit crime in Norway.”


    1. That article has many problems as far as I can see.

      It is an article about Norway in the english Wikipedia, curated by 2 persons (norwegians by name) who relies on a few sources, repeat them and use them tendentiously. E.g. the norwegian text clearly states that the “thefts and robberies” numbers are based on statistics of claims, not investigated cases. The figure on foreigners is taken from a clearing house for opinion pieces, in turn claiming to describe how a norwegian television channel has “received” the figure. From where? It doesn’t say. Et cetera.

      If I look up crimes in the norwegian Wikipedia, it claims that the crime rate for the whole nation has been stable the last 25 years (with a big decrease in precisely “theft and robberies” since 2000), and the murder rate is lower than in the 80/90 span. [ https://no.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kriminalitet ]

      1. I had no idea there was more than one version of Wikipedia! I thought the one version was translated into different languages, and that was that. How did you know? Also, good work on following up the sources for verification of material.

        And, finally, if non-Norwegians are moving there to commit crimes, they very likely come from places with poor criminal justice systems and cultures breeding criminals, not unlike the USA. If Norway could capture and rehabilitate even them, that would very strongly back up the validity of their style of justice, putting it far, far above the American style.

  21. @18:
    While I believe Japan does have an expectation that most prisoners will return to society, from what I have read their prisons are decidedly more strict and less comfortable than Scandinavian prisons seem to be. Prison conditions are tough and regimented, food is reputedly poor, almost everyone works, punishments for breaches of nitpicking regulations are severe, and instances of guard brutality have been documented (there were several prisoner deaths at Nagoya Prison in the early 2000s that caused a scandal and partial rethink of the system). Japan also retains the death penalty, though the total death row population across the country is said to be only around 150 and executions are rare (7, 8, and 3 in 2012, 2013, and 2014, respectively – none so far this year). Death row inmates are held in solitary confinement (some have been on death row for 30+ years) and only notified of their execution date an hour or so before the execution. Police interrogation of suspects used to be fairly notorious (suspects can be held at police stations for up to 22 days, and used to be subject to long interrogation, but the length of interrogations was reduced a few years ago; and they do not necessarily have access to a lawyer immediately – no Miranda rights). Incarceration rates, however, are low: around 50 per 100,000.
    It’s odd to me that in a highly homogeneous society like Japan that the handling of criminal suspects and prisoners is as punitive as it undoubtedly was and still seems somewhat to be.

    1. “It’s odd to me that in a highly homogeneous society like Japan that the handling of criminal suspects and prisoners is as punitive as it undoubtedly was and still seems somewhat to be.”

      Japanese proverb:
      The nail that sticks up gets hammered down.

      In Japan nonconformity is frowned on.
      Antisocial behavior is for many unthinkable.
      It doesn’t surprise me at all that prisoners would be treated harshly.

      1. Japan’s society is very much less homogeneous than people who haven’t lived there suppose. Of course, the Japanese right would like to believe that it is homogeneous… but they are not really to be trusted.

    2. How peculiar. The authors of The Spirit Level give a completely different impression. Although they do note that discipline is strict, they also report that sentences can be more lenient in the face of confessions and remorse, that prisons tend to be more comfortable, and that prisoners have access to training and recreational activities, among other things.

    3. Indefinite, potentially decades long solitary confinement, followed by one hour’s notice before execution, sounds terribly inhumane to me. Imagine living for hours, days, weeks, months, years, decades, knowing that any minute you could be given that one hour of notice. What do you say to your family, when you are able? What do you say to yourself, to sustain your own humanity?

  22. Jerry,

    I think this was a very interesting (and for me educational regarding Norway’s prison system) post, thank you very much.

    I find it fascinating to be in complete agreement with you throughout almost the entire piece, insofar as the Norway model looks much more sensible on a variety of levels. I just don’t see any added value, or impetus, brought in the the incompatibilist stance.

    IF Norway’s system works better for the reasons it *seems* to work better, then all the impetus is there for moving to such a system. Adding “we have no free will” doesn’t IMO do anything more (and actually confuses things more).

    On strategic, ethical grounds, to the degree we want a society with less crime and incarceration, if Norway’s model IS a better way toward that goal, that in of itself recommends the model. Has Norway needed some sort of referendum on free will in order to have moved to their system, such that the majority have decided “we have no free will?” justifying their system? No, as far as I know Norway is not a society of incompatibilists. It seems they’ve reasoned this thing through – that this seems to be the right move to get a better outcome.

    I agree that the urge for retribution, the urge to see a criminal SUFFER for his crime is one that is ultimately pernicious. But this can be argued against on the basis that promulgating that urge-for-revenge ultimately undercuts our wider ethical/societal goals for a peaceable society – Norway offering some empirical support for that argument.

    I understand you would say that belief in free will is part of what drives the desire
    for retribution “Because he had free will he deserves terrible punishment for his crime!”
    But first of all, I believe in free will and don’t believe that. And even lots of Christians who believe in free will actually think forgiveness is the better attitude – see the Charleston Church families forgiving the shooter. So even the belief in free will does not necessarily or logically lead to “the best way to treat criminals is to visit punishment upon them.”

    And incompatibilism does not logically entail more humane treatment of criminals. It could be the case that harsher treatment of criminals, treating them as fully responsible, has a better outcome for society. But if you can show that treating criminals more humanely gets a better outcome, then THERE is your argument for doing so, without requiring incompatibilism to make the case.

    The problem I see is not only does pushing incompatibilism seem unnecessary if not utterly beside the point for arguments on how to treat criminals, I have yet to see a version of incompatibilism promulgated that did not seem to imply fatalism, which would seem to be risky for a society to believe.
    That is, to REALLY get a criminal fully off the hook such that “she really couldn’t have done otherwise” and “isn’t responsible” for the crime, you really start implying fatalism to get there. But then that same fatalism aims right into our future choices and you are telling people THEIR future choices are just as fatalistic. Which undercuts the prescriptions you want to make in the first place.

    I understand that the incompatibilist would say “no, I’m not arguing for fatalism,” but the project seems so tricky that I haven’t seen it done yet, and fatalism seems hitching along for the ride. Which is why I don’t think it helps to bring it into an argument (for criminal justice) in which it isn’t required in the first place.

    1. I concur. I really found the shot at compatibilists to be gratuitous and, frankly, irrelevant. I would add that I find appeals such as those of Johan just below to be far more effective than those involving free will.

      1. Thank you, Mr. Hughbanks for telling me how to write. Read Vaal’s comment above yours (and also the rules) and learn how to disagree civilly without the snark. I don’t think my comment is at all gratuitous or irrelevant given that much of the criminal justice system in this country is based on the notion that humans have a free choice to act or to refrain from acting.

        As for Vaal saying that you can undercut the urge for revenge because it’s pernicious and non-efficacious, well, it’s easier to undercut it based on showing that it’s based on a misconception about peoples’ actions than to do a bunch of tests to show that retributive punishment based on the notion of free will is based on false assumptions. Period. As far as I can see, Vaal is either a dualist, which has no empirical support, or he/she is a compatibilist, and defines free will in a non-dualistic way. Which is it? And seriously, you think that determinism carries NO implications for how we treat malefactors?

        1. Jerry, I really don’t think there was snark there. I disagree with you – that’s all. You seem annoyed that you have a number of compatibilists who comment here that you have been unable to bring around to your point of view and I think you stick it to them without really addressing their points. BTW, I can’t speak with certainty regarding Vaal’s views, but my understanding of his/her previous comments here is that s/he isn’t a dualist.

          As I have noted many times, you and your readers who agree with you seem – in contexts that free will is not being explicitly discussed – to behave very much like compatibilists. You praise and criticise music, art, intellectual efforts, etc. all without needing to qualify your critiques with reminders that the people you’re praising or criticising couldn’t have acted, performed, or thought any differently than they did. Vaal said, “I have yet to see a version of incompatibilism promulgated that did not seem to imply fatalism,” and I would add that is an epistimological problem: you seem to think that an invocation of determinism explains everything: We believe we made choices, but we really don’t, it’s an illusion because of “brain chemistry”. You think you had an idea, but your idea is just brain chemistry. I am not a being a dualist – certainly people don’t make choices or have ideas without the requisite chemical reactions occurring, but I don’t think it follows that knowing that chemical reactions are happening relegates people’s choices or ideas to the category of illusions.

          We would probably agree that Donald Schneider above typifies the problem we have in unseating retributive justice – he can’t see thst anything other exacting revenge will serve his idea of “justice”, irrespective of whether the overall of his approach leads to more children being killed senselessly. He is a believer in using the state’s power for revenge. You and I disagree about what is going to be more a more effective way to make him (or his descendents) realize that revenge will not solve their problem: the loss of people they care about. I think it is more effective to convince him that his view just makes him more like the people who took his loved ones away.

          1. And the compatibilists like yourself are annoyed that you can’t bring me around to YOUR point of view. As for the fact that we ACT like we have a choice (and hence “behave like compatibilists”), I have said many times that our sense of agency is so strong that we FEEL that we have free will, and hence behave and talk in that way. But that doesn’t mean that on an intellectual level we can’t grasp determinism and make laws recognizing it. I’m sorry, but the criticism that we should be fatalists of we accept determinism doesn’t wash at all, because we have evolved to think we have choices and thus are not fatalists.

            And if determinism is the case, which you seem to accept (though you seem very cagey about it, and call it “requisite chemical reactions; why don’t you just admit that all of our actions are determined by the laws of physics, and we could NOT have done otherwise), then yes, our feeling of agency is indeed an illusion–in the sense that it’s not what we think. We could not have done otherwise, though we think we could have done otherwise. In other words, our feeling of agency is not what we think it is. THAT is an illusion, by definition.

            If we feel we could have done otherwise but, as you admit, could not have, what is that feeling but an illusion? But that is a very strong illusion, one we can’t overcome, perhaps because the SENSE of agency is an evolved one. Because of that, we are not fatalists, and therefore although Vaal thinks that, on an intellectual level, determinism implies fatalism, as far as the way we behave because of our evolved brains, it does not. We go on acting as if we have free will, even if, when we think about it, we don’t. That’s the answer to Vaal’s repeated criticisms. If I aseem annoyed that I can’t get some people to accept this situation, well, readers like yourself seem even more annoyed that I accept determinism scientifically but use the argot of, and behave like, we had real choice. That is why your comment came across and snark. In the end, I find it a cheap shot to claim that if I were really a determinist I would be a fatalist. I can’t help being otherwise because of my sense of agency. There is no logical contradiction here: only the conclusion that our sense of agency is both powerful and illusory.

            And we disagree about tactics as well: clearly telling people who want retributive justice that they are as bad as the murderers simply hasn’t work in this country. The argument that those who favor execution as as bad as those who murder has been made for decade: without effect. We haven’t tried my alternative tactic yet.

          2. Jerry wrote:Because of that, we are not fatalists, and therefore although Vaal thinks that, on an intellectual level, determinism implies fatalism, as far as the way we behave because of our evolved brains, it does not.

            Just to clear up that misunderstanding: I’ve never said determinism implies fatalism. A major premise of compatibilism is that determinism DOESN’T imply fatalism. So insofar as you believe determinism doesn’t imply fatalism, we are in total agreement.

            What I’ve questioned, rather, is the argument making the leap from “determinism” to “therefore we ought to change our attitudes toward criminals.” It is in that leap that I spot a creeping fatalism – that is fatalism seems to creep in to give the argument any force.

          3. And just to expand on that:

            Let’s take the human impulse of retribution and moral blame as given for the moment. You want to alter these impulses, in this specific case toward criminals and their punishment, by first impressing upon the audience “the criminals could not have done/chosen otherwise.”

            What this clearly is meant to tap in to is the sentiment that if someone had no real choice, they do not deserve blame and recrimination. Tapping in to this thinking on first glance makes sense: This is a concept already operating, doing work, in our moral calculous. People will (or often do) have a different attitude toward a person’s actions if that person is perceived to have “not had a choice.”

            Jane, a bank teller, hands over a huge sum of the bank’s money to a stranger.
            But given this is during a robbery and she has a gun being held to her head, we absolve her of blame as she effectively “had no choice.”

            Bob and Ted are both at the edge of a swimming pool when a toddler drowns.
            Both were aware of the child drowning, but neither saved the child. Bob was healthy and a strong swimmer, Ted is a paraplegic. We reserve our moral opprobrium for Bob who “had a choice/could have” saved the child but didn’t, and not for Ted who we see as having “had no such choice.”

            So, yes, there is already the idea to tap into that if you can convince people “X had no real choice/could not have done otherwise” then “it makes sense” to withhold recrimination, moral blame, retribution etc. But note that the very nature of how we normally apply this thinking (e.g. above examples)
            is in identifying DIFFERENT states of affairs people find themselves in, in terms of their being able to act. If I’m a bank teller I would EXPECT to be held blameworthy if I just randomly handed over other people’s money to a stranger. But I would not apply that blame toward the teller who had a gun held to her head. These are very important differences between “the situation I’m in” vs “the situation another person faced when making a choice” that bear upon our moral appraisal.

            Whereas you wish to induce a similar “strong sense” attitude change toward criminal behaviour by appeal to some broad concept of “determinism” in which EVERYONE’S ACTION is ALWAYS implicated at ALL TIMES. (Because you aren’t arguing from the premise “give criminals a break because ONLY THEIR choices are determined,” but from the premise “ALL our choices are determined.”)

            I am skeptical that you can leverage essentially the same sentiment and attitude changes via a premise that erases the very differences that usually promote our changes in attitude. And when you try to do so, it seems to be on one hand inducing a fatalistically strong sense of determinism when discussing criminals “withhold recrimination because they really had no choice” – which must to have any force tap into our existing notions of why we withhold recrimination in some situations – on one hand, and then soft-peddling determinism somewhat to the audience “but we really can change our behaviour, so you should do so on this topic of criminal justice.”

            Now, I know you would say you don’t soft peddle determinism in regards to our choices, but to the extent you DO start to try to produce the same sentiment about OUR choices as the criminals, it does start giving a fatalistic
            impression of our choices as well, which undercuts the project. But then to the extent you will want to argue “no you really CAN choose otherwise” to your audience (choose a different course on the justice system) it turns right around and undoes the strength of the case you wished to make for the criminal’s choices. By implicating ALL our choices you are telling someone the equivalent of “when the criminal made his choice to steal the money, he was in exactly the same deterministic situation YOU are in when making your choices.” In which case, you’ve got a problem because people apprehend themselves as really HAVING options and making choices. “Well, hold on, if the criminal and I are in the same deterministic position and he is making bad choices but I can make good choices…then why WOULDN’T I blame the criminal for making a bad choice?” To counter this and be consistent you have to make the audience’s choices look as “inevitable” as the criminals…inducing a fatalistic sensation…..which, again, undercuts the message that we “have” a “real” choice in treating criminals differently than we do.

            It’s this constant tension back and forth – having to induce a sense of determinism strong enough for the audience to think the criminal couldn’t have done otherwise and isn’t blameworthy, while AT THE SAME TIME
            NOT suggesting determinism so strong as to remove OUR ability to “really choose” to treat criminals differently, that I see as unresolved in the approach you have been taking. I am skeptical about the argument both on the grounds of conceptual coherency, and on the grounds of being efficacious in changing people’s attitudes due to this uneasy connection that I think many people will pick up on.

          4. As I have noted many times, you and your readers who agree with you seem – in contexts that free will is not being explicitly discussed – to behave very much like compatibilists. You praise and criticise music, art, intellectual efforts, etc. all without needing to qualify your critiques with reminders that the people you’re praising or criticising couldn’t have acted, performed, or thought any differently than they did.

            It’s called feedback. As far as I’m aware, even pigeons respond to feedback. And the logic of feedback – operant conditioning comes to mind – is perfectly compatible with determinism without invoking free will. In fact, it’s probably clearer and more accurate than invoking free will itself.

            That said, if you can convince me we’ve been hypocrites all these years, then I’ll definitely take that on board. I might just take it on board, anyway, come to that.

          5. Ironically, just yesterday I encountered this line in Faith vs. Fact (p. 242):

            “Parents who refuse to vaccinate their sons and daughters for HPV are making a conscious decision to let their children risk death if they have premarital sex.”

            I happen to agree with this. But it seems that incompatibilists, to be consistent, must disagree, since in their view there’s no such thing as a conscious decision. At the very least, I think it’s going to take a lot of hand-waving and clumsy circumlocution to express that same clear sentiment in language that somehow avoids any implication of conscious agency or blameworthiness.

            Let me be clear that “hypocrites” is a much stronger word than I would care to apply in this case. But I do think we can all benefit from having apparent inconsistencies in our arguments pointed out in a civil manner.

        2. Jerry,

          I’m not confident I’ve understood your reply
          to my post. But I think I’d want to reply: doesn’t the Norway example itself show that
          promulgating incompatibilism wasn’t necessary in order to justify a non-retributive system and have people adopt it? It seems a direct empirical challenge to the idea we have to undercut free will first in order to get there.

          As for determinism having no implications for how we treat malefactors, no I don’t see how “determinism” in the wide sense – in the sense of recognizing that “everything in the universe is determined” – is very helpful at all. To the degree determinism applies to EVERYTHING – people, stars, water, fish, rocks, the can of diet coke on my desk – it just doesn’t help us negotiate or delineate the specific differences we have to recognize between people and non-agential entities, and the different situations and abilities that occur among human beings.

          Of course determinism in specific instances is important; we want to know what explains or determines various behaviors. But once you start categorizing the *specific* differences you have to recognize things like when someone is *capable* of some level of responsibility (e.g. driving a car safely) and not capable in others (e.g. drunk, blind, having an epileptic seizure, or all manner of mental/physical issues). At the level we actually have to negotiate these things recognizing “determinism” on a grand scale is just too coarse to do any real work. And as some of us have argued here: once you get into the nitty gritty, categorizing different determining factors and how they impose different types of limitations – e.g. identifying specific factors the determine limits on whether someone can act on their desires, or act with civic responsibility etc – it’s hard to avoid what becomes essentially compatibilist lines o.f thought.

          As for my views, I’m still a garden variety non-dualist compatibilist (so far).

          With respect. 🙂

          1. Jerry takes a smack at philosophers as well as compatibilists, but there are incompatibilist philosophers who deal with precisely the things that Jerry is exhorting them to do, and have done so for years. ‘How Free Are You? The Determinism Problem'(1993) by Ted Honderich, who was Grote Professor of Mind and Logic at University College, London, and author of ‘A Theory of Determinism’ (1988), strikes me as a subtly and scrupulously argued book in favour of (incompatibilist) determinism (Anthony Grayling is one of the people he thanks for suggestions for improvement). He remarks on the way philosophers who are concerned with the consequences of determinism have given attention to the question of punishment and goes on to say: (But these philosophers) ‘have not attended to other social facts. But… determinism does have consequences for more social facts than punishment. It has consequences for what we can as well call the social actions that enter into the rewarding of law-abiders, distributions of income and wealth, distribution of power and rank, and official praising and blaming.’ There are further remarks regarding political institutions, and social and political philosophies, and how they might be improved in consequence of an acceptance of determinism. So that I think it is wrong to suggest that philosophers have not been doing their job. And I agree with Honderich that the focus on punishment alone is insufficient.

          2. I made a mistake in writing about Honderich: he thinks that both incompatibilism & compatibilism are wrong, and seeks to produce theory of determinism that avoids the Scylla of one & Charybdis of the other. A rather good idea, I think.

    2. I disagree. Incompatibilism and determinism do NOT imply fatalism. Fatalism means that no matter what you do, the outcome will be the same. On the contrary, in a deterministic universe what we decide to do very much affects the outcome.

      For more on this issue, see Tom Clark’s book, Encountering Naturalism.

      1. I agree that determinism does not imply fatalism. But in order to say that our choices really do matter, you first have to concede that choice is a real thing, even in a deterministic world. That would seem to be at odds with the brand of incompatibilism often put forward here, which holds that determinism precludes choice.

        I think that’s the inconsistency Vaal is saying incompatibilists have not adequately addressed.

        1. I think this is only because our language reflects the illusion of dualistic free will. It is difficult to express inputs influencing our outputs without using the word “choice”.

          1. Sorry, but I reject the claim that “choice” necessarily implies dualism. Choice is the process of selecting and implementing a particular behavior from a repertoire of available behaviors. Nothing spooky about that; a chess-playing computer can do it. To claim that choice doesn’t exist, and it’s all just a matter of inputs and outputs, is to deny the very process that transforms inputs into outputs.

          2. Sorry, but I reject the claim that “choice” necessarily implies dualism.

            Maybe so, but what’s more to the point than matching word to phenomenon is the phenomenon that follow. It’s all very well saying that, when one uses a word like choice, one doesn’t mean anything spooky. To be fair, a pedant would have to concede that that’s not a problem.

            What is a problem is when a load of baggage – let’s suppose accidentally – gets smuggled in. Axolotl does something like this above, wherein he assumes that making choices automatically suggests responsibility and punishability. The problem is that these aren’t synonyms for causation and deterrence, and they ride at least partially on the system that involves spooky free will.

            It’s like when someone redefines God as a synonym for the universe one minute – which isn’t technically wrong, as one can redefine a word if one wants – and then starts talking about a loving presence that makes them want to be a good person.

            Call it paranoia, but I think making clear the distinction between fatalism and determinism should be a higher priority than assuming people will just get it if we use the secular sense without qualification.

          3. You are rejecting the finding in psychological studies (e.g. Sarkisian et al.) that most people think of “choice” as “I could have done otherwise”. Most people do NOT think that their “choices” we determined, and that we live in a universe where free will is possible AND dualistic. That is what THEY mean by choice. It’s time for us to address this majority view. You can define “choice” to mean what you say above, but most people ar dualists. And so I reject your claim that choice doesn’t imply dualism as a matter of fact for most people. It needn’t if you redefine “choice.” Likewise, if you redefine “God” as “the universe and its laws,” then yes, God exists. But that’s not what most people mean by God, and so I reject that definition.

            Will you at least admit that in the study of Sarkisian et al, which I’ve written about before, most people are dualists about choice, and feel that we live in a universe of libertarian free will? If you admit that, and that is what the study shows, then we need to address that erroneous feeling, not quibble about what the word “choice” means.

          4. Prof CC,

            I think there are various issues to untangle in what you’ve proposed, but skipping that….for instance I don’t agree that “choice” is automatically associated with dualism. But going along with the premise that to most people “choice” is generally understood to entail dualistic powers…

            Incomptabilists such as yourself do not call for the elimination of the word “choice.” Rather it seems you still allow for retaining that word so long as it is re-interpreted within a deterministic understanding and devoid of it’s common assumption of dualism. On incompatibilism, “choice” exists, it’s just a fully deterministic process without dualism.

            But then when you infer that compatibilists are taking the same approach with “free will,” you criticize them for the move.

            So, if compatibilists are to be criticized for retaining a concept typically associated with dualism, but re-enterpreting it to be consistent with non-dualist determinism, why doesn’t that same criticism apply to your retaining and re-interpreting the concept of “choice?”

            (Unless I’ve missed it somewhere that you refute the use of the word “choice” and prumulgate it’s removal as you do “free will.”)

            BTW, I don’t know about other compatibilists here, but I’m far from annoyed that you haven’t been converted to compatibilism. I welcome and enjoy your point of view, which challenge my own position, and keeps me pondering if I it is justified, as I should be doing.

          5. Here’s what I take from the Sarkissian paper.

            First, there was no explicit finding that “most people think of ‘choice’ as ‘I could have done otherwise'”. The questions they asked were (1) whether human decisions are deterministic, and (2) whether moral responsibility is compatible with determinism. To the extent that choice is mentioned in the survey questions, it’s treated as compatible with determinism (“one day John decided to have French fries”, “it had to happen that John would decide to have French fries”), but respondents weren’t asked their opinion on this.

            (I have some reservations about the determinism question, since the alternatives offered are (A) classical Laplacean determinism, which doesn’t comport with quantum mechanics, and (B) libertarianism, which doesn’t comport with naturalism. So which of two bad options should a respondent select as “most like our universe”?)

            You’re correct that what they did find is that most respondents were libertarians (78%) and incompatibilists (70%). So while most of them do think they could have done otherwise, it’s not clear from these data that they think choice requires the ability to have done otherwise.

            Another interesting result is that those who responded as determinists were mostly compatibilists (61%). This might suggest that your campaign to convert the public to determinism will have the unintended effect of converting them to compatibilism as well. Which is fine with me.

            I’m happy to stop quibbling about the word “choice”, if incompatibilists will agree to stop attacking compatibilists for using it to describe cognitive processes that we all agree exist.

          6. But Jerry’s more subtle point is a good one – are we, as determinists, going to spend our time and energy arguing about what the word “choice” means and about “free will” or are we going to spend it educating the majority of the population about determinism and the lack of dualism?

            I honestly think our energies are best served promoting determinism and ridding the world of the misguided and dangerous idea of dualism.

          7. You may not like it, but when we developed language and came up with “choice” no one was sitting around and asking if there was or wasn’t a ghost in the machine. The word choice comes out of our dualistic past.

          8. Diana,

            “You may not like it, but when we developed language and came up with “choice” no one was sitting around and asking if there was or wasn’t a ghost in the machine. The word choice comes out of our dualistic past.”

            That seems a non-sequitur that actually supports what I’ve been saying. If “choice” wasn’t formed with respect to whether there was ghost in the machines or not…then it doesn’t follow that “the word choice comes out of our dualistic past.”

            There’s no actual connection there.

            And still, today, look up the definition of “choice.” E.g.:


            There is nothing explicitly contra-causal or dualistic at all in those definitions. Which is why all of those can fit comfortably within a deterministic framework, and why even as a determinist you will find them fruitful to employ.

          9. And my point is that if you look at the origin in that link it says:

            Middle English chois, from Anglo-French, from choisir to choose, of Germanic origin; akin to Old High German kiosan to choose — more at choose
            First Known Use: 13th century

            So, and I know this isn’t definitive proof (I need a linguist), but do you really think that in 13th C Christian Europe, people were non-dualists and thought, “hey, I bet when I say “choice” I really mean the compatibilist view of choice since I know we aren’t ghosts in the machine since determinism is true”?

            But I do find this argument tedious. I feel like Joshua had good advice to Dr. Falken: the only way to win is not to play. We should focus on promoting determinism and ridding the world of dualistic ideas, not quibbling over free will and linguistics.

          10. Diana,

            In the interest of your sanity I won’t draw out the tedium beyond this last reply 🙂

            “do you really think that in 13th C Christian Europe, people were non-dualists and thought, “hey, I bet when I say “choice” I really mean the compatibilist view of choice…”

            Of course not. I’m saying the ghost in the machine stuff is *beside the point* in terms of how we think about “choice” in every-day-relevant terms. The word choice arose to describe situations in which we can select from among various options. Whether the world is deterministic or not, we find ourselves in such situations all day long – physical situations – and required a word to describe it. So it arises out of requirements that are independent of “ghost in the machine” stuff.

            There have been incompatibilists, compatibilists for thousands of years and they all used the concept of “choice,” and it’s why today you and I and Jerry and people on all sides of these issues will continue to use the term.

            (And this only tends to arise because Jerry so often chides compatibilists for re-defining words to suit themselves).

          11. I guess what I’m trying to explain is jumping on an incompatibilist with a “j’accuse!” Exclamation because said incompatibilist used the word “choice” isn’t the “j’accuse” moment you think it is. It would take a paragraph to say “influences the inputs and potentially the outputs of he brain and Hereford the organism” when “choice” suffices.

            I get the compatibilist position. I just don’t think either position is worth arguing over anymore after you explained it all to me in another post. Determinism is worth fighting over (and we are on the same side of that fight).

          12. A response to Diana’s etymology: but if course we go back further than 13th-century Christian Europe (parts of it certainly weren’t Christian even then) and move from Middle English to Old English, then the word ‘choose’ may be seen to derive from Old English ‘ceosan’, which derives in turn from the Indo-European base ‘geus’ (can’t get all the requisite marks in here) that meant something like ‘relish’ or ‘enjoy by tasting’. Eastern Britain was almost certainly (see Stephen Oppenheimer’s research into British people’s genetic provenance) Old-English- or proto-Old English-speaking in Roman times (ie at the time the Romans were in Britain, and long before Xtianity arrived). So that I do not think that some sort of Xtian dualism necessarily, and somewhat magically, resides in the word ‘choice’. The Japanese word for ‘choice’ is ‘senbatsu’, the verbs being ‘sentaku suru’ or ‘erabu’. The Japanese are of course in the main a polytheistic and partly Buddhist people, and the concept of ‘choice’ in Japanese religion has very little importance. ‘Senbatsu’ and ‘sentaku’ are anyway Japanised pronunciations of the Chinese voicing of the characters used; ‘erabu’ is a native Japanese word. But the point of the comment is to suggest that etymological arguments need to treated with caution.

            That said, I agree to a point with Diana’s saying ‘Why don’t we sink our differences and get on with improving the world.’ But Vaal is raising important points, which have to do with the comparative status of doing something for thoroughly bad reasons or merely on impulse and doing something for good reasons. I confess I am slightly reminded of the internecine squabbles between Bolsheviks and Memsheviks, say, or between religious sects whose beliefs differ in very minor ways, or between Lilliput and Blefuscu.

          13. Diana,

            I still disagree with that analysis.

            Look at virtually every use of the word “free” (outside of free will) and note that it never has to do with metaphysics or dualism. It always denotes one empirical state of affairs vs another (e.g. the horse is free, the press is free, the slaves were freed, the concert is free, I’m free for dinner, she has more freedom in her work than I do, etc).

            “Free” in most uses does not carry metaphysical connotations.

            Now look at how we normally apply the term “choice” and you’ll not the same thing; it virtually NEVER is used to denote, or even connote, metaphysics or dualism. It’s always applied to distinguish between different physical states of affairs. If there were many free seats in the restaurant you had a “choice” of where to sit. If there was only one seat available, you would not say you had a “choice” of where to sit. In our country women have a “choice” to drive a car; in Saudi Arabia, most women don’t have that “choice.” If “John” were physically able to walk out of a house but “Ed” was chained up in the basement, we’d say John had a choice to leave, but Ed did not.

            The word “choice” here is always used to describe differences in physical states of affairs, limitations on actions. They just aren’t even describing or commenting on metaphysics or dualism.

            They boil down to appraisals of “what someone is capable of.” Exactly the mode of thinking we need to navigate the world. It’s exactly the mode of thinking we’d need to navigate a DETERMINED world. If you are making plans for the day, or a job change, or a lifestyle change, or a vacation, you have to think in terms of “what am I CAPABLE of doing?” and those imply the options for action you will decide between. “Choice” is generally our short term concept for “actions we believe we are capable of taking” and you have to actually know your capabilities in order to make a “choice.”

            This is why metaphysics and dualism just aren’t on your, or my, or pretty much anyone’s mind when actually making choices.
            We are just thinking “what am I capable of doing, and do I need to contemplate external limitations on what I can do?”

            I don’t think dualism is inherent either in the language or in our normal thought processes. Where it becomes prominent is when people start trying to think through metaphysics and come up with explanations “Well IF everything physical is determined and YET I still think I had options, then for it to be true I had options, then for my options to be ‘real’ my decisions must be excepted from physics.”

            It’s not so much people think dualistically throughout the day in choice-making; it’s that people come up with bad theories when they try to *think* about their choices and determinism. Just like many people have bad theories about where their morality comes from and it’s foundation.

            IMO. 🙂

          14. “It’s not so much people think dualistically throughout the day in choice-making”

            What’s your evidence?

            “it’s that people come up with bad theories when they try to *think* about their choices and determinism”

            So we just shouldn’t think about these things? You are thinking the right way, I guess?

            I don’t think that’s sound argumentation. Look at at the article, you will see an opinion backed up with evidence.

          15. peepuk,

            “What’s your evidence?”

            You can see what I mean simply by taking a look at a deliberate choice you have made – e.g. in buying a car, a house, where you shopped, whatever, and then answering the question: Why did you choose to do that?

            Will you appeal to metaphysics? Like “The reasoning behind my choice was that I am a dualistic entity?” Of course not. Even if that were TRUE it wouldn’t be an answer to WHY you made the choice in question. And that is precisely why it does not figure into our chain of reasoning in most everyday
            choice-making. When making choices we are normally thinking about what we desire, and what steps we can take to fulfill that desire, deciding which steps are plausible or best taken, based on what we think we are capable of. “Should I enter that bike race?” will be predicated not on “am I a dualistic entity whose choices are excepted from physics” but on “do I want to enter it, am I physically capable of riding the race, is this likely to lead to an outcome I desire? etc”

            (Go ahead and refute this if you wish, but it’s going to look very bizarre if you try to deny it and impute some other manner of reasoning).

            If you ask a Christian, surely a dualist, “why did you choose to by X particular car” tell me, do you expect him to reply “well, I bought it on the basis I was thinking I had a dualistic choice!” I’ve never heard such a thing from anyone. No, instead he will describe his thought processes like anyone else, relating a set of desires he had and how the car best fulfilled that set of desires.

            If your everyday experience of this is not enough to make the point, and you want more “evidence” then perhaps Google “Why did you choose…?” and look at how people talk when answering the question. Are they talking metaphysical/dualistic motivations, or are they describing choice-making in terms of their desires, their abilities to fulfill the desire, how they figured the act would fulfill their desire, etc?

            But, you already know the answer to that, before Googling it, right?

            Again: my argument is not that no one associates dualism with free will or choice.
            Some significant portion of humanity DOES make this association. But it’s HOW they make the association that I’m arguing. It’s my position people aren’t thinking metaphysics/dualism WHILE making choices as part of the inherent logic of why they make choices. Because it would in fact be a USELESS premise in choice-making – it doesn’t tell anyone what choice to make.
            Rather, dualism only gets associated with
            free will/choice insofar as people start to
            think about the subject and come up with a theory of free will/choice. “Well, I’m making choices, but just physical things wouldn’t really have a choice, so something about my choice-making apparatus isn’t physical.”

            It’s just a bad theory about choice making but it isn’t INHERENT to what they are actually trying to explain: the act of making choices.

        2. Yes, choice is a real thing. But it’s an entirely mechanical operation of the nervous system- there is nothing magical about it. Animals, insects, and robots can legitimately choose. However, choices are never ‘free’ in the libertarian sense.

          1. Of course. It should go without saying that
            the compatibilists here understand that; that’s why they’re compatibilists and not libertarians.

      2. YF,

        Totally agree, determinism does not imply fatalism.

        However, the arguments *from determinism* that some incompatibilists seem to make about how determinism “ought to” change our attitude DOES start to imply fatalism. At least to do the type of attitude changing they seek.

        That’s because the incompatibilist is not simply pointing out that all our actions are ultimately determined – that’s just too broad a “fact” to do any work. The incompatilist is arguing this is so consequential in any particular instance of human behavior this SHOULD CHANGE our attitude towards one another. We should not see ourselves as “responsible” or “blameworthy” people. (You can’t make exceptions just for criminals).

        Let’s say I take your car at night, and crash it into a wall. You want to blame me
        for it but I respond “But, it was determined by a historical sequence of causes ultimately out of my control. I couldn’t have done otherwise. I therefore do not blame or recriminate myself, or hold myself responsible for what I’ve done, nor should you.”

        Now, WOULD you accept that line of defense? I highly doubt it, nor would anyone I know. SHOULD we accept this line of defense? Can you not see the problem in doing so?

        For most people to think “that person really SHOULDN’T be blamed” they’d have to take a more fatalistic approach, insofar as the person “really couldn’t have done otherwise no matter how he chose.” If you are just going to say that “the guy who stole your car
        was determined to do so…but ALL our actions are determined anyway” then you haven’t left a distinction of any worth that is going to change most people’s attitude.
        If some law abiding person gets up in the morning and unavoidably reasons based on presuming options for her behavior, and uses her moral conscience as a guide, and the criminal is in exactly the same situation, then just saying “we are all in the same situation of determinism” DOESN’T draw a distinction strong enough to change the attitude toward the criminal. In order for a true attitude change I think you’d have to get the person to really FEEL and THINK that the criminal didn’t have a choice in a deeper more fatalistic way.

        I can’t help but note that whenever folks like Jerry want to impress upon the audience why we ought to change our attitude toward criminals, the language becomes more fatalistic-sounding “They didn’t have a choice!” But if you start poking for nuance, well, yes they do make “choices”…which starts to water down the force of the argument…and then it’s back to “we have to realize they didn’t have a choice, no one has a *real* choice.”
        (Except, we should choose a different type of penal system…)

        1. I agree that determinism does not imply fatalism. As far as we know the future isn’t fixed (maybe the heat-death of the universe is unavoidable). The choices we make really matter.

          Where I disagree:

          If you blame someone it is a statement about yourself, your own feelings. It cannot be valid evidence for the blameworthiness of other people.

          “SHOULD we accept this line of defense”

          yes, why not? If someone is ill we try to cure him. Why not treat bad behavior in the same way? Blame isn’t necessary for that.

        2. Yes, but ultimately what matters is pragmatism: how to deter future undesirable actions, encourage future desirable ones, and to protect society at large. The notion of ‘blame’ is (or should be) irrelevant, and should be dropped, along with the notions of ‘free will’ and ‘moral responsibility’. We are just machines made of meat- and carrots and sticks will only work in a largely deterministic universe (at least at the level of actions).

          If someone commits a crime, we often say they had a ‘free choice’ in doing so or that they are ‘morally responsible’ and therefore ‘deserve’ to be punished. But these emotionally-laden terms serve no purpose other than to ‘justify’ retributive punishment. What ultimately matters is what the rest of society should do with criminals in order to deter future crimes and protect society. This understanding seems to underlie the enlightened approach of the Norwegian judicial system.

  23. Alert readers know that I post regularly about the Norwegian prison system. The main motivation for treating prisoners humanely—at least in Norway—is not for the benefit of the prisoners but for the benefit of the jailers, i.e. us. If we behave brutally, we become brutal. You’ll note we have a basically more brutal society than does Norway. It’s a question of whether or not you’re interested in a well-functioning society or are interested in capital accumulation.

    1. Exactly, Johan.

      And that is how I think about the Death Penalty. What is more likely to reduce the desire to kill – promulgating the attitude that killing must be met with more killing?
      Or that killing is so bad that we won’t even kill murderers once we catch them?

      It seems to me the latter. And it seems at least on the face of it, the Norway model offers some support for this approach.

    2. This argument also applies to why torture is abhorrent. It’s inhumane and while that obviously comes at a cost to those who are tortured, it also comes at a huge cost to those who commit, order, and even condone torture. A torturer who isn’t horrified to be a torturer is just a sadist who has been allowed, even encouraged to indulge his or her monstrous predilection. A torturer who is horrified to be a torturer is being dehumanized in a terrible way.

      1. Not to mention those near and dear to the torturer. As xe is personally affected, xe can’t help but affect others — unless xe is such a closeted psychopath no one sees.

  24. That means no bars on the windows, kitchens fully equipped with sharp objects

    I think having “fully equipped” kitchens would lead to a substantial decrease of our prison population here in the US…but not for the same reason.

  25. Mr. Jerry Coyne, as a citizen of Norway, i think that they attitude of the police here is very different also.

    I myself is from an minority (My parents imigrated here, but i am born here), and the way police have dealth with me, and everyone else is very different.

    Some years ago i was playing soccer with my friends, when i fight started between the two teams. The police came, but instead of arresting anyone, they just splitted us in two parts and talked to us. After that they left.

    Similiarly, my friend was taken for smoking marijuana a few days ago (which is illegal here), but instead of arresting him, the police just asked him to drop it, and gave him some advice.

    I have talked with some friends from Texas about this, and for me it seems like the difference between norwegian police and american, is that the norwegian police have much longer training (3-4 years), and that people here dont have weapons, so police dont approach people with their hands on their holster.

    Here is a video which i think shows the normal norwegian police.

    1. I love that the Norwegian police officers’ responses to the out of control drunkard was to laugh, and to block and prevent his kicks, without hitting, hurting, or apparently even handcuffing the man.

      Here, it too often seems police feel a right to dispense justice — through restraints, violence, pepper spray, tear gas, etc. — though it is not their proper role.

      Justice is supposed to be decided and dispensed through the courts.

  26. In your copious free time, you should read the book Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman. She says essentially the same thing as this post.

    A day wifowt kittehs iz a day wifowt sunshine. — Dr Jerry Coyne, translated into LOLCat by Ginger K. Eben teh smallest kitteh iz a masterpeece. — Leonardo da Vinci, translated into LOLCat by Ginger K.

    Date: Sun, 21 Jun 2015 17:00:58 +0000 To: gvicious@hotmail.com

  27. I do not think any country puts people in jail and prison like the United States. Maybe North Korea but probably not. The system of bail and plea bargain are American examples of non justice and you can take that along with your bill of rights to the bank. Thousands of people in jail because they cannot make bail and therefore plead out just to get out of jail and this is all without trial. I think the plead out rate in many states is something like 90 percent. Time served is a very popular term

    1. One might always be leery of Wiki as a primary source, but these figures are generally accepted by any nymber of other commentators: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_incarceration_rate#United_States

      We’re far and way No. 1, unless one counts the Seychelles…is that even a country? But how far down do we have to go down the list from the U.S. at No. 2 and 707/100K before we get to another Western democracy? That would be England and Wales at No. 99, 148/100K.

      Figures for the DPRK are hard to come by, but even if they are roughly equivalent to the U.S., is THAT what we are aspiring to? Especially since the Wiki listings give a very chilling aside about the U.S….

      “United States. Rate is for inmates held in adult facilities. For juvenile detention numbers see Youth incarceration in the United States. See notes at the bottom of the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) source table used by the World Prison Brief to calculate the rate in the above list: “Total includes all inmates held in local jails, state or federal prisons, or privately operated facilities. Excludes inmates held in U.S. Territories (appendix tables 2 and 3), military facilities (appendix tables 2 and 4), U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement [ICE] facilities, facilities contracted by the U.S. Marshals Service, jails in Indian country, or juvenile facilities.”[6] BJS has numbers for U.S. Territories, military facilities, ICE, and for jails in Indian country.[7][8][9][10]”

      In short, that 707/100K figure is VERY understated. And you want a real horrorshow, as Alex DeLargemight put it, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Youth_incarceration_in_the_United_States.

      So, what do we get for having an incarceration rate five times or more than that of our nearest kin? I mean, besides the wholesale corruption of the police and judiciary, the militarization of civil society, the police-prison complex, the complete destruction of minority communities…need I go on?

  28. Looks to me as if Norway considers IKEA stores the optimum prisons for rehabilitation and punishment.
    In all seriousness, contrast those pics to the PBS Frontline documentary “Solitary Nation” if you haven’t caught it yet. Fair warning, it is grim and disturbing. It also shows that we are creating problems rather than solving them and that we really are about vengeance and punishment rather than justice or rehabilitation.

    1. I must admit: on the rare occasions I am persuaded to go, I do regard a visit to an Ikea store as something of a sentence to be endured! (To be fair the same applies to other stores and shopping malls). 😉

  29. So here is another bit of evidence showing secular atheist countries are more humane than religious ones.

    I think the large religious prevalence in the US is one reason for the retributive unkind, unsympathetic approach.

    1. I’d heard that Israel doesn’t apply a death penalty, so I googled it and found two instances, one in 1948 for treason (and posthumously exonerated), the other in 1962 of a major Nazi war criminal.

      So, all those Arab/Palestinian terrorists who don’t blow themselves to smithereens and do get caught go to jail, not to death row.

      Israel inherited its early law from the British, then abolished the death penalty for murder cases.

      Perhaps, had Israel applied the death penalty to murderous terrorists, it would have caused the terrorists to be regarded as martyrs and their deaths to be avenged by further attacks on Israeli civilians, escalating war in the region. And, perhaps letting the terrorists live allows some, maybe even just one, to recognize that there is real life to be had, accepting and even living inside the State of Israel.

      It is a unique situation. They live with war, everyday, and still…

  30. My guess is that Norwegian society is very different from the US–more cohesive, more small-town, more socially constrained.
    There is one other point that hasn’t been mentioned, and that is a waiting list for prisons. Fifteen or 20 years ago a Norwegian friend told me about a case that she found very disturbing: an outwardly respectable colleague of hers had been found guilty of sexual assaults against young boys. He was sentenced to a prison term but was not serving it yet because he had to wait until a prison vacancy came up. As I recall he was free until that time, but perhaps he had to report to the police every day or something like that. He didn’t lose his teaching job.

    1. You could say that about Canada but our police are almost as bad as in the US (I don’t think they are yet as armed to the teeth) and our prisons aren’t anything to write home about either.

      I think it has to be a cultural thing and maybe we just aren’t at the same point as the Scandinavians. I wonder if dualism and the belief in god is something to do with all this.

  31. An interesting sidelight, however: I find it difficult to read some Scandinavian crime fiction. I was attracted to the author Jo Nesbo after seeing the excellent (Norwegian) movie ‘Headhunters’, but I find I couldn’t read Nesbo’s ‘Nemesis’ because the crimes described are so unspeakable. Are there actually crimes this revolting in Norway, or is Nesbo struggling to find a crime that will galvanize a sense of justice/retribution in blase Norwegians.

    1. Nesbøs writing reflects life in Norway in much the same way as “Game of Thrones” is a realistic portrayal of life in the United States.

  32. “While the United States represents about 4.4 percent of the world’s population, it houses around 22 percent of the world’s prisoners”


    Why is the U.S. such an outlier? Do really all these people deserved to be imprisoned? Does it help to prevent crime? And are they treated humanely?

    Without a firm belief in moral responsibility this wouldn’t be possible.
    These extremely high incarnation rates show the bad consequences for a large portion of the population.

  33. I find threads like this very heartening.
    When Jerry writes about the the justice system and how we ought to re-evaluate the current depressing and counterproductive approach to punishment, I feel like cheering.

    And to see so many others here who feel the same way is cause for optimism.

    1. Now, if we could only “sell” the idea to corporations whose only focus is greed, so they could “sell” it to the politicians, whose only focus is to stay in office or get rich after leaving office.

  34. The murder rate in Norway is not 2.2 per 100 000, it is 0,6 per 100 000. The “2.2” number only applies to the year of the Breivik killings.

    1. In other words Anders Breivik, all by himself, tripled the murder rate.

      That is about 10 times better (worse?) than Al Quaeda managed with the World Trade Center attacks.



  35. OK…I’ve finally read, or at least skimmed, all of the comments, including all of those discussing determinism/ free will/ compatibilism/ dualism/ fatalism…none of which I understood. But I would like to offer a perspective about the comparison between the Norwegian and U.S. systems of incarceration that I haven’t seen written yet.

    Jerry wrote: “The U.S. also has much looser gun laws.”

    This would be significant…if people in the U.S. were incarcerated for gun crimes. And they are, but not in numbers NEARLY high enough to explain the discrepancy. See http://bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/fuo.pdf. Less than 20% of the incarcerated were even in possession of a firearm at the time of their arrests, and most of those (if I read the stats correctly) didn’t USE the gun in the commission of the crime. And in fact, roughly 86% of federal prisoners are there for “crimes” in which there WAS NO VICTIM, PERIOD.

    This would seem to make the gun argument inapposite. (And I welcome evidence that I’m wrong about this.) And in fact, 14% (100-86) of 707 is 99. This would put us BELOW mid-pack, down with Austria and Italy.

    The simple fact that no one has mentioned (or at least I didn’t see it) is that in the U.S., just too much shit is illegal. From the beginning, we over-prohibit, over-arrest, over-prosecute, over-charge, over-convict, over-sentence, over-incarcerate, and under-parole. And we do this overwhelmingly to the black and other minorities, and to the poor. We (and I don’t mean just the Faux Snooze drones–I mean every one of us who pays taxes, which makes us complicit in murder and kidnapping for hire) criticize minority communities for their rates of fatherless families, at the same time that we rip those fathers out of the hearts of their communities.

    The answer is the same and always has been. Up until about 40 years ago, U.S. incarceration rates were on a par with the rest of the civilized world. Yup–loose gun laws and all. And then we began to seriously ramp up the insane, idiotic War on Some Drugs. Forget about the wholesale corruption of the police and judiciary, the militarization of civil society, and the complete destruction of minority communities. Forget about the fact that we are evolving and enabling the most brutal criminals by “unnatural selection.” (Every capo that is arrested is replaced, necessarily, by one that is a more highly evolved predator. The ones who fell were, by definition, insufficiently murderous.) Forget about the fact that since the beginning of the Calderón presidency alone, U.S. policies have led directly to the murder of over 100,000 Mexican citizens. (Far more than we lost in our entire criminal misadventure in Viet Nam–see http://www.amazon.com/Die-Mexico-Dispatches-Inside-Lights/dp/0872865177.)

    And THAT is why the Norwegian system is working, and ours isn’t. Before we discuss the nature of the incarceration, we need to do what the Norwegians do BEFORE they incarcerate their citizens…which is not to incarcerate them in the first place. The Wiki numbers don’t lie–every single other Western democracy has figured this out.

      1. You mean it all starts with tobacco, cotton and the Civil War? Those crops don’t grow well in Scandinavia.

        1. No, I mean effectively shackling African Americans, men in particular, by creating excuses to through them in jail during the very years they should be most productively forming families of their own, turning jobs into careers, and helping to build community. When they come out of the penitentiary, they’re often more criminal-minded from the experience, and the criminal record can make it impossible for them to earn a living, leaving to many to go homeless and hungry or resort to criminal activity just to stay alive. Then, they go back to jail, for even longer, because they were already on probation — not really free — without any of the tools they need to survive, back in the poor, underprivileged, undereducated, and deliberately segregated communities in which they previously “got into trouble with the law.” Their main crime is being born Black.

          1. Sounds horrible. And that’s our criminal justice system? I guess it is.
            I’m hoping maybe the issue is just now getting some public exposure and will somehow be addressed. The problem it seems, fundamentally, is racism which has deep roots in human nature and in American history. The president, I think, attempted to provide some encouragement in his eulogy for Clementa Pinckney. Not a final answer, but perhaps there may be some movement.

          2. You can read more about it here: newjimcrow.com. This fairly new historically researched book made headlines when it came out. I haven’t read it, yet, but I’ve recognized its major points just living through the last half century. Even so, though, I am ashamed to say I didn’t pull it all together and fully understand the situation until the book’s author gave a few interviews. I think one was on The Daily Show.

          3. Michelle Alexander’s book looks fascinating & salutary. It certainly seems to make, indirectly, the very good point that the extraordinary emphasis on punishment in discussions of determinism is unwarranted (In ‘How Free Are You? The Determinism Problem’, the philosopher Ted Honderich remarks on how ‘philosophers concerned with the problem of the consequences of determinism have usually given some attention to punishment’; his next sentence reads: ‘They have not attended to other social facts.’) What surely this book shows is that punishment is being used in the US not so much for religious and retributive ends (though religion and its retributive sentiments provide convenient excuses and justifications, as does libertarian ideology and neo-liberal economic theory) as for political ends that are contemptibly racist, and are designed to enforce a caste system ‘in the Age of Color-Blindness’ (Alexander’s sub-title is clearly designed to draw attention to the way the emphasis on the individual, independent or race or class, works as a ploy to draw attention from what is actually happening). If we are going to talk about determinism, then we surely need to address the questions of political power, political ideologies, and political policies: these are surely far more important than the question of punishment of individual wrong-doers in such a way that the punishment is both condign and a deterrent – and I really find the faith in punishment as a deterrent unjustified: the punishments meted out on, in particular, black people in America are, despite their severity, obviously useless as deterrents in the present social and political circumstances.

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