There are several ideas on hard determinism, but the core seems to be that in an interconnected existence, there can be no "actions" (free will), but only "reactions" (determinism). An action of free will would have to be a separate entity outside of existence, so we'd say it can't occur.

Now fast forward to Joe Schmo the robbing/murdering/rapist. Joe wasn't born in some infinite bliss utopia, then decided one day to invent the concept of scumbaggery. He's a product of an incomprehensible number of variables - maybe some are apparent like his dad was a violent alcoholic or whatever, but most likely it's far more complicated than that.

So that's fine - I get all that - but if that's the case, then how can you ethically deal with people like that? You can't hardly let them do what they please at the expense of society, but then how can you get medieval on them when they're basically riding a wave?

I think that's a big reason why people fight concepts of determinism that mitigate or eradicate the concept of free will - now everyone has a license to do what they want and how can you punish them, it's not their fault!

How would/could/should you consolidate hard determinism with responding to criminal acts?

  • This is one of the reasons we have penal systems. If you are 'riding the wave' of actions pushing you to do crime, fear of punishment might 'kill the wave' you are riding, as fear of being hanged will be a factor in your subsequent actions. Commented Jun 6, 2014 at 17:00
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    As the answers point out, hard determinism leaves open the option of punishment and moral responsibility in the "forward-looking" sense. Free-will skeptics (e.g. Derk Pereboom) and those who reject free will entirely often endorse such forward-looking models as effective and desirable. In short, we would punish those who could not have done otherwise so that in the future they will not do the same. Note that this is often accompanied by a rejection of retributivism.
    – commando
    Commented Jun 6, 2014 at 17:48
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    The idea that determinism is in conflict with the idea of free will, is incorrect. But that's a larger discussion, not easy to fit into a comment. The idea that lack of free will would be in conflict with suppressing criminal behavior (by whatever means), is also incorrect, and this is trivial to address even in a comment. Assume it's true that there's no free will, then you're not responsible whatever you do, and there's no conflict with ethics. Assume instead that it's wrong that there's no free will, then you're free to deal with things, ideally in an ethical way. Commented Jun 6, 2015 at 12:54

14 Answers 14


I found one writer (page 183) who seems to describe the Hard Determinist point-of-view in a way that allows for some response to criminal acts:

Can we say of an [ethically disabled] indvidual - Robert Harris, for example - that he ought not have killed the two young men? Certainly. Could we say that he was morally wrong to commit such murders? Of course. Even though he could not have done otherwise, what he did was horrifically wrong... It makes perfect sense to recognize that Harris is severely morally disabled, and that given who he is at this mature stage of life, he could not have resisted committing the murders.. Robert Harris is not a tornado, but a person with rational powers... who makes choices (though not super "ultimate" choices") and who might be capable of reform.

So, a couple points I take away from this:

  1. Hard Determinists believe you don't ignore criminal acts at least because the person can be changed in the future
  2. To say that someone had no ultimate choice in the matter does not mean that the thing that was done was morally ok.
  3. It is ok to even go so far as make judgements about whether an individual is capable of moral reasoning.

I suppose that a hard determinist just thinks that all of these choice are deterministically made.

What I could not find any references for though, is how hard determinists reason about things like legislation. I would imagine that legislation is a decision much the way to steal or commit murder is, and it is a deterministic decision, meaning it is based on the inputs of the situation, and you don't have any ultimate choice in the matter of how to punish people for their bad choices.

  • This seems to be about an individual's point of view, or rather their invidivual & unique history: "ought [Robert Harris] not to have killed those two men? Certainly" <- Robert Harris certainly thought he should kill at the time, or at least his circumstances were such that this was his action. It's the rest of society (or.. the world, a collection of other points of view) that will have decided he ought not. At a later moment, a reconciliation of points of view (either after RH has reflected on things, or in court etc) perhaps result in remorse in Robert Harris, or punishment Commented Oct 5, 2018 at 9:04
  • My thought is that this joining of points of view (reconcilliation, i guess) which allows for individuality and punishment, with hardish determinism when dealing with criminality. I'm no expert though.. how did I do? lol Commented Oct 5, 2018 at 9:04

Dave's and James Kingsbery's answers are the best so far in the fewest words that gets at the crux of why a hard determinist would still punish criminals, but I wanted to flesh out some ideas a bit and explain why they make sense. I may go a bit overboard in explaining concepts but I want to make sure there is no confusion; having been a philosophy tutor and an assistant to a professor in a philosophy class, I know this topic in particular can be very difficult for people to understand, so a little extra meticulousness can go a long way.

A Slight Misunderstanding

From your question body, it seems you may misunderstand hard determinism slightly. Hard determinism does not give everyone "a license to do what they want", it can only explain why someone did what they did. It does not address the morality of acts — whether any act was "good" or "bad" (in layman's terms, it does not say that what they did was "ok"). Such a determination (whether an act is good or bad) comes from one's view of morality, which is — while perhaps later influenced by a belief in hard determinism — is not shaped by nature of determinism itself. That is, how we are raised, how we grow up, and what we end up believing in terms of "right" and "wrong" (our "morality")... while all those things are causally determined, the process of causal determination does not affect our views, it goes unnoticed by us. We in fact feel as if we have total free will, even at this very moment I feel as I have complete control of my body and will.

The only way hard determinism affects ones moral views is when someone gains an understanding of it (say, in school) and then applies it to their own life. But for example as a baby we are of course under the effects of determinism at all times, but such effects obviously have no influence on our beliefs one way or another. Only the outcomes, the byproducts of determinism affect us: that we ended up being raised by our parents or abandoned or taught to be kind to others or simply neglected — of course one's life circumstances (as occurred in this deterministic framework) greatly (wholly, in fact) determine how moral a person is in the end. The point is that you have to understand that the existence of a deterministic framework is separate from the notion of morality. In other words, if hard determinism is true, there are still (of course) people who are kind, people who are mean, good people, bad people, etc. Morality still exists in a deterministic universe. This is the first critical point to understand.

Hard Determinism and the Absence of Moral Responsibility

In a deterministic universe, the outcome of any events is causally determined by an unbroken chain of prior occurrences. We can explain anything, even human behavior, under this model. Why (for example) did little Johnny kill the cat? Well, he never had a cat growing up, his macho friends pressured him, he thought it would be cool, etc etc. He never made a "choice" per se, it was determined for him by a sum of influences. Can we then blame Johnny for his actions, if it was not in fact in his control whether to kill the cat or not? In a deterministic framework, no, we cannot morally blame him, as it was outside his control. However, in the end Johnny still was conduit for the final outcome determining the cats fate. We can blame it on his parents who raised him poorly, and further still on his parent's parents for not teaching them how to raise a child properly, and further back ad infinitum until we are blaming the big bang for starting it all. Clearly this gets us no where, and we are back where we started where we still think that even though it's not Johnny's fault, it was a bad thing that cat being killed (again, our moral judgement of an act is separate from the deterministic explanation why).

The simple truth of the matter is that although the dominoes did not fall in Johnny's favor (the ultimate cause was a chain of prior occurrences that led to him killing the cat outside of his ultimate control), he was the proximate cause (see an explanation of proximate and ultimate causes here). The reason why we have to punish the proximate cause is two-fold:

  1. If we didn't punish Johnny, he would never be taught that such actions are morally wrong. He may then simply continue killing cats, and we don't want that. Hard determinists still want serial killers behind bars because while we don't morally blame the killer, we would like people to stop getting murdered.
  2. If Johnny isn't punished, other people who see/hear about the event (the cat being killed) may then do it themselves if they see they can do it without punishment. In other words, it ends up being a contributing cause to future actions which lead to more undesirable outcomes (more killed cats). We don't want other people to think they can get away with killing cats, so punishment acts as a deterrent and helps prevent future cat killings.

This makes sense because people act under the presumption they have free will, that they control over their actions. Determinism then only changes the nature of the punishment in that a determinist should never feel vengeful; there should be no negative "emotion" (hatred, anger) in the punishment because as determinists we know it ultimately wasn't their fault. If any emotion is present, it should be sympathy; a feeling of pity and sorrow for someone else's misfortune that the dominoes happened to turn out this way for them.

A very interesting read on this very same topic is the story of Leopold and Loeb, and their criminal trial and defense by Clarence Darrow. See the wikipedia article, it is long but you might hone your understanding of this topic if you read the whole thing, and (I would say) it is very interesting in itself.

Update in response to OP's comments:

I never spoke to rehabilitation specifically, only empathy for criminals. So I agree with your statement "The heinousness of a crime shouldn't factor in" in principle, except insofar as we still have to punish people differently based on the severity of their crimes to send a stronger message that some crimes are worse than others. If you steal a candy bar from a store or download music (illegally), we obviously don't care about that as much as if you are a serial killer. We want to deter candy-bar thieves and music downloaders, but we want to deter serial killers MUCH more. While we could have one punishment for all crimes, we know from experience that people who commit what we would consider "minor crimes" can usually continue to lead ordinary productive lives as citizens if we punish them only a little and release them. If all criminals regardless of crime got life sentences, that would simply be an inefficient and wasteful system in which the goal is to keep the worst people (people who commit "major crimes") off the street and discourage certain behaviors in the rest of the population to keep them in line.

Don't get me wrong, I agree that a "one punishment for all crimes"-type system would make the most sense in theory, esp. if that punishment was rehabilitation rather than merely incarceration. However, another reason why a "one punishment for all" system would not work in practice is that our laws are imperfect and our enforcement of them is even less so. A lot of our laws were made by corporations and special interest groups and are in fact quite unfair to certain populations or just to everyone in general. The fact that gays cannot get married in many states is quite simply preposterous. Jailing someone for getting married to their gay partner in a "one punishment for all" system would be a terrible loss of justice, so different tiers of punishment at least ensure that there is less abuse there. Also, law enforcement in the USA is notorious for forging evidence and altering "facts" in order to convict people of crimes. There are dozens of well-known cases of this (for example, people getting out of prison after being charged with murder that DNA evidence later proves they did not commit) and probably hundreds of thousands of cases where evidence was tampered with by the police. A system where of only one punishment for all, presuming it was even remotely considered "just" for true killers and rapists, would grossly exacerbate this injustice.

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    Your point #1 is basis of my disconnect. If somebody truly believes in hard determinism - not just acknowledges it's conceptual validity, but truly believes it is the way things are and accepts it - then why would the concept of "punishment" even exist? Criminals and non-criminals are separated only by their differing environmental variables. If a boy was discovered in Yellowstone National Park that had been raised by mountain lions, he wouldn't be arraigned on federal charges for poaching and vagrancy in a national park, they would attempt to rehabilitate him back into the societal norm.
    – coburne
    Commented Jun 9, 2014 at 15:41
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    ...cont...Shouldn't the same apply to criminals? Both are victims of circumstance. The heinousness of a crime shouldn't factor in. Now if the idea is that they're too far gone to be rehabilitated, so lock 'em up so they'll be out of our way, or just end the lives, I can understand that, but punishment to make the rest of us feel better doesn't seem valid to me. Maybe the only difference is the use of the word "punish".
    – coburne
    Commented Jun 9, 2014 at 15:41
  • @coburne I updated my post with a response to your comments because it was too long to write here. :)
    – stoicfury
    Commented Jun 10, 2014 at 3:08
  • Another consequentialist (in the causal, not moral sense) argument for "proportional justice" is that it does not produce escalation of crimes: if I'm always subject to the death penalty there is no additional cost (in terms of the punishment I will receive) to me for killing the police officer trying to apprehend me after stealing a candy bar.
    – Dave
    Commented Jun 10, 2014 at 16:24
  • @Dave - Very true, good point. :)
    – stoicfury
    Commented Jun 11, 2014 at 2:52

Short answer: It doesn't matter, because there is no "should" in determinism.

Long answer: If you believe in hard determinism, then all of this - crime, society's handling of crime, our discussion about crime, etc - is happening as it was preordained. So whatever you end up doing is exactly what you were destined to do, since the beginning of time. Hard determinism's absolute claim that "free will (aka choice) does not exist" automatically implies "all choices are equal (to zero)".

Meta answer: if you genuinely believed in hard determinism, it's difficult to imagine why you would even bother asking philosophical questions of any kind. The answer is always the same: what happens is what was supposed to happen. Therefore, by contrapositive, asking such questions implies that you probably don't believe in hard determinism. Or at least, the universe is unfolding to seem as if you don't. (Edit: if this part of my answer is out of bounds, I apologize.)

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    I don't understand why this has upvotes. It does not answer the question ("How should you respond to criminal behavior if you believe in hard determinism?"). It is simply a re-affirmation of the questions premise...
    – stoicfury
    Commented Jun 7, 2014 at 19:53
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    Even if you agree with hard determinism, you could still ask philosophical questions. This just means, according to you, that you are pre-ordained to ask these questions ;).
    – trysis
    Commented Jun 8, 2014 at 3:10
  • It's irrelevant what does the asker believe.
    – BartoszKP
    Commented Jun 8, 2014 at 14:53
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    @BartoszKP No, it isn't. If you believe in determinism and no free will then the whole idea of morality and how you "should" behave is pretty pointless. Because it is out of your control and effectively pre ordained. Commented Jun 8, 2014 at 15:06
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    @MartinSmith You can believe in determinism and still be interested in answer to whatever question you want. Especially if you believe that you were ought to ask such a question.
    – BartoszKP
    Commented Jun 8, 2014 at 15:23

Punishment for immoral actions can prevent additional harm, e.g. incarcerating the criminal prevent him/her from harming society at large.

The threat of punishment can serve to prevent some kinds of immoral actions; the threat must be carried through for this to be effective.

Thus there can be instrumental utilitarian justifications for punishing criminals.

[Note: this is probably not the only way...]

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    How can they prevent harm for hard determinists? Considering the future actions are already decided in advanced and don't involve the negotiation of a will against determined elements.
    – virmaior
    Commented Jun 7, 2014 at 5:02
  • @virmaior: Just like you wouldn't have a choice in punishing them or not. Commented Jun 7, 2014 at 11:49
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    @DaveMulder that doesn't actually address this answer. This answer claims punishment can prevent future harm... The idea that they do wrong and we punish anyway is s separate answer.
    – virmaior
    Commented Jun 7, 2014 at 12:00
  • The existence of punishment and/or the threat thereof is one of the conditioning factors that deterministically affects agents' future behaviour, e.g. locking up a serial killer will (causally/deterministically) prevent him/her from murdering anyone outside of the detention facility. For people where there is a more rational deterministic relationship between knowledge states and future actions, the expectation of future punishment is one of the causal factors in their decision process.
    – Dave
    Commented Jun 7, 2014 at 13:47
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    I think you're confusing determinism simpliciter / soft determinism / compatibalism with hard determinism. In hard determinism, the course of the universe is merely unfolding. There's no genuine responses to stimulus. In soft determinism, what you are saying makes sense as there are rational agents responding to stimuli even if they are not free in those responses.
    – virmaior
    Commented Jun 8, 2014 at 1:53

Hard determinism does not necessarily invalidate the idea that punishment is moral (or immoral). It would imply that all our ideas about what make something moral or immoral are explainable. For example, some people may find "an eye for an eye" to be moral, and this would be part of an explanation for why they think it is moral to kill someone who has killed. You would then be able to trace back and figure out why they agree with "an eye for an eye". In fact, they could not have believed anything else if the world was deterministic.

We are then left with two possibilities:

1) Morality is real outside of human psychology, and we can observe it in the same way that we observe light or touch. Thus, we now have a question of what each of us observes to be moral, and discussing it is probably unnecessary. This situation seems very unlikely given how often people disagree about morality. Either we're a bunch of liars, or almost everyone needs the equivalent of very powerful moral eyeglasses.

2) Morality is a psychological phenomenon, and trying to figure out what should and should not be considered moral is rooted in the morality you already have (as evidenced by the word "should" earlier in this sentence). If you can change your morality, then there is no way to know whether your original moral reasoning skills were correct, and therefore you have nothing stable to base future changes on. Or, if you cannot change your morality, then this entire question of whether punishment is moral becomes moot. Either way, the only thing you can do reliably is discover your most deeply held morals and follow them to their logical conclusions. We can use that to find what is moral to you or to me separately, but not what is ultimately moral. This then becomes a psychological question rather than a philosophical one.

It may sound unsatisfying to leave it at that, but I believe it is the only philosophical answer. Everything else becomes more of a survey or a psychological explanation of why people believe this or that is moral and what they are likely to think in this scenario given various starting positions.

  • Looking back at my answer I can see how I could make it clearer, but also I can see a similar but very differently written answer that might be better. Should I edit this one? Should I add a new answer? One or the other or both or neither?
    – cesoid
    Commented Nov 7, 2014 at 17:11

On a deterministic world, there is no responsibility, no voluntary act, hence no crime. Our acts are mere consequences of physics (or divine) laws.

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    This is a great description for the precursor to the problem, but what's the resolution - do you watch maniacs in their SUV's mowing down pedestrians and throw you hands up and say "it is what it is!" and go about your business?
    – coburne
    Commented Jun 12, 2014 at 18:17
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    The fact is, you need to redefine crime under determinism. In your note you are mixing determinism and some "free will" on these maniacs.
    – Juan Chô
    Commented Jun 15, 2014 at 8:22

By the same argument that Joe would always commit these crimes given his circumstances/constitution, we will always punish him given ours.

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    Or we won't punish him. Whatever. Once you take the view that determinism has ruled out moral choice, there's no point worrying about what our actions should be. Other than the fact that we're causally determined to worry about it... Commented Jun 7, 2014 at 10:52
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    And the fact that we're causally determined to worry about the fact that we're worrying about it... and the fact that we're causally determined to worry about the fact that we're worrying about it...
    – trysis
    Commented Jun 8, 2014 at 3:16

The problem with determinism is that everything is necessarily the way it is. There is no possibility it could have been otherwise.

Morality is the notion that things "should" be different. However, things only "should" be different if they could "possibly" be different. If they cannot possibly be different, there is no rational basis to say they should be different.

As such, morality makes no sense in a deterministic universe, and neither do crime and punishment.

This does not mean such things do not exist. It means that determinism and morality are mutually exclusive. If you are more convinced that determinism is true, then discard morality. If you are more convinced that morality is true, then discard determinism. At any rate, you cannot have both.

So, to answer your question, it is a category error. There is no such thing as "criminal behavior" if determinism is true. You respond to such behavior as you would any other.


You are asking "How should you respond to criminal behavior if you believe in hard determinism?" The answer is simple: "You feel angry and put perpetrator to jail". Some people already said so here, but based on your follow up comments you have hard time accepting it. Why is feeling of anger and subsequent jail so hard for you to digest? You said yourself in determinism there is no free will, there is no action, there only reaction. Actually there is no crime either as all actions are equal.

So let's follow this example: somebody breaks into somebody else house and steals rare coin collection. She was predetermined to do that. Therefore it is not even a crime. But likewise the owner of collection is predetermined to feel angry about it. The rest of us are predetermined to call it a crime, well, we are ignorant, so give us a break. Actually we are predetermined to be ignorant. And so twelve of us on a jury, out of their predetermined ignorance find her guilty of "crime" and she goes to jail, where she was predetermined to end up anyway. What problem can any determinist have with this?


Every time i read discussions on hard determinism i can see a big logic flaw in the speech. This post is no exception. If determinism is true, it would reside in the most elementary processes of reality (see Gerard Hooft for a physics' point of view on the subject), which would shape everything, even the electrical signals of our brain that give rise to thoughts and what we call morality (there already exist biological studies on this matter). That being said, it is clear that we could not change the way we see criminals and even if we change it, would not be our choice. If you consider a tipe of block universe determinism, from a mathematical vantage point of view, everything is happening at the same time, including the way we treat murderers for their crimes. Our moral judgment is a slave to the same determinism that drives them to kill and therefore questions like this make no sense at all.


If someone is predetermined to commit a heinous crime, they are equally predetermined to hang for it. If they are unable to determine if their heinous actions are morally wrong, then their hanging is simply a tragic misfortune on a par with that of the victims of their crime.

The idea that the morally destitute are free to pursue morally destitute actions with impunity and are protected from the severe consequences of such actions is erroneous. The alternative is to give a license to kill to those who are morally destitute; not a good idea. All arguments about mental incapacity, etc. as a legal defence are cheap lawyer tricks unique to our age.

  • First, off welcome to philosophy.se. I've split your answer into two paragraphs. I think the former is a good answer on a basic level. Regarding the latter, I'm not sure why the alternative would matter much in a world with hard determinism (meaning it's not much of a help to argue that). The last sentence also just seems completely off topic.
    – virmaior
    Commented Jun 7, 2014 at 15:43

Just like one responds to a car malfunction.

In Bertrand Russell's words:

"No man treats a motor car as foolishly as he treats another human being. When the car will not go, he does not attribute its annoying behavior to sin, he does not say, "You are a wicked motorcar, and I shall not give you any more petrol until you go." He attempts to find out what is wrong and set it right."

Source: Bertrand Russell. Why I Am Not a Christian

Another example:

The same sort of thing applies to men who are exhibitionists; they are sent to prison over and over again, but as soon as they come out they repeat the offense. A medical man who specialized in such ailments assured me that the exhibitionist can be cured by the simple device of having trousers that button up the back instead of the front. But this method is not tried because it does not satisfy people's vindictive impulses.

Source: Bertrand Russell, An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish

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    Of course, if giving a car no more petrol were known to often fix the car, I'm sure it would be a quite common behaviour to give a car no petrol until it works again whenever it breaks down.
    – celtschk
    Commented Aug 17, 2014 at 15:31
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    This answer is simple and right, with the one addendum that because people have psychology, sometimes the key to fixing to their behavior IS social pressure, punishment, etc., in a pragmatic, non-vindictive, way. Commented Jun 10, 2015 at 17:22

If someone kills another person intentionally they shouldn't be punished because they had no control over it. On the other hand we have to protect the rest of society from it possibly happening again and again. Look at incarceration as not a punishment but as a way of protecting others. Even if we can't hold them responsible for that action we have a duty to the greater good to remove them from society.


Fundamentally, there are two choices, live or die.

We choose to live from the instinct of 'Self-Preservation'. Not by a rational choice.

We derive principles of action required to implement our choices through Rationality.

Morality / Ethics are based on these principles of action towards Self-Preservation [Preservation of every aspect of life, not just the body].

When one's instinct of 'Self-Preservation' has not evolved to include that of others in the society, conflict of interest arises.

We devised the system of punishments to work on our 'fear' instinct to suppress these conflict of interests.

So, there is no question of whether punishments are rationally or ethically correct. Punishments exist becouse Ethics exist. And ethics are based on instincts of the majority.

We make fundamental choices by instinct. We depend on rationality only for the implementation of those choices.

Punishments will disappear when human beings evolve to have a self-awareness which is in harmony with the society.

Edit: Hard Determinism is a pure rational idea. But our responses to criminal behaviors are instinctive (As i explained above). So, punishment for criminals is independent of our belief in Hard Determinism.

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    What does this have to do with the question's focus on determinism?
    – virmaior
    Commented Jun 8, 2014 at 13:43
  • "How would/could/should you consolidate hard determinism with responding to criminal acts?"
    – inke
    Commented Jun 8, 2014 at 13:56
  • and your answer mentions determinism where?
    – virmaior
    Commented Jun 8, 2014 at 14:00
  • This answer tries to clarify that, There is no point in doing a rational analysis on criminal acts or punishments with respect to Hard Determinism, because criminal acts or punishments have no rational base. They just came from the instincts of the majority.
    – inke
    Commented Jun 8, 2014 at 14:15
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    "...criminal acts or punishments have no rational base. They just came from the instincts of the majority." Can you explain that a bit more? I don't really understand what that means. Also, in your post: "We choose to live from the instinct of 'Self-Preservation'. Not by a rational choice." This is also unclear, and seems contradictory. Can you also define "instinct"? You use that a lot and I'm not sure people know what you mean. Your philosophy here is rather interesting, I would be curious if you had any basis for this (reading, etc.) for it or you just thought it up on your own.
    – stoicfury
    Commented Jun 10, 2014 at 3:09

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