Hello to all great philosophers here!

I've recently finished an essay and a few readings on determinism vs compatibilism. I actually have a few questions but my question is this : can a determinist support capital punishment in any way, given that he believes humanity has no free will?.

It seems to me that a determinist would believe that capital punishment can't be justifiable as a lack of free will would mean that humans are not responsible for their actions. Punishing someone for actions that they have no control over seems absurd to me.

I understand that some people would argue that concepts like "good" and "evil" would not dissapear even though we have no free will. But if your "goodness" and "evilness" were predetermined from the Laws of Nature, it would then mean that you had no responsibility in the first place. Does it make sense to punish "evil" behavior when that person had no free will?

Another perspective that I came across was from Bertrand Russell. It seems that he would argue that "evil" people need to be punished so that we can fix them. He would likely argue that people are responsible for what they do if there are no excusing conditions (Eg: An Illness or Coercion). Although his ideas seem intuitive to me, it seems that his stand pales in comparison to the determinist's viewpoint that we ultimately have no free will over our actions.

Sorry if this entire thing seems incoherent, I just had a lot to think about and I would greatly appreciate any clarity to my question(s). Thank you!

  • A determinist does not need to justify it. Executions or lack thereof are predetermined, just as whether or not they or others support them, and just as everything else. It does not make sense to discuss whether it makes sense to punish or not punish, except it will get discussed anyway because again, that too is predetermined. The point of deliberations and justifications is making decisions when choices are available, but Chrysippus's dog tied to a cart need not deliberate whether to follow because it will be dragged along anyway.
    – Conifold
    Sep 11, 2021 at 8:44
  • Determinism is not something you can believe in, support or use as a philosophical guideline. Therefore it is unclear what you mean by "determinist". You seem to refer to people who believe that they are externally controlled and therefore not responsible for their actions. Nothing can be justified by such an irrational belief. Sep 19, 2021 at 5:31

1 Answer 1


The notion that determinism means people are not responsible for their actions arises from a confused notion of "responsibility."

Suppose a car engine is broken. To get it working again, you have to find out which part is responsible for the problem, and repair or replace that part.

We don't say: "Because the engine works deterministically, no part truly bears responsibility, and so it is unjust to remove any part."

Instead, we say that each part is responsible for carrying out a certain function within the engine, and if it fails to carry out that function, it is broken and needs repair or replacement. If all parts of the engine carry out their assigned functions, then the engine works properly.

This is related to the credit assignment problem in artificial intelligence. You have a complex system that sometimes succeeds at its task, and sometimes fails. The credit assignment problem is the problem of working out which parts of the complex system were most responsible for each success or failure; how did the performance of each part contribute to the performance of the whole?

In a just society, credit is appropriately assigned to each person based on how they contribute to overall societal welfare. Someone who does good for society overall ought to receive reward, and someone who hurts society overall ought to be punished. That gives everyone an incentive to perform actions beneficial to society. (What constitutes "societal welfare" is debatable - perhaps involving measures of average health and happiness in the society, among other things.)

Capital punishment could, in some poor societies, be justifiable under this basis. If there are criminals who must be severely punished to disincentivize their criminal behavior and keep them out of society, but there are not enough resources to imprison those criminals for long periods of time, then it could be necessary to execute them. This argument holds less weight in modern societies, where we can afford to imprison criminals for life. In modern societies, executing a criminal is usually more expensive than simply imprisoning them.

  • 1
    First, we do not apply "justice" and "responsibility" to car parts, they are not moral agents. And second, even using them metaphorically only makes sense because we take ourselves to be agents, free to remove the part or leave it. If that too is predetermined even this derived shadow of "responsibility" vanishes. Indeed, there is no point to "oughts" and decision making they motivate, that empty talk is just there because it too is predetermined. As Wittgenstein pointed out, "do this" only makes sense when one can ask "and what if I don't?"
    – Conifold
    Sep 11, 2021 at 10:41
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    @Conifold we might not talk about justice with car parts, but we definitely talk about responsibility. A dead battery may be responsible for the car failing to start for instance.
    – Ryan_L
    Sep 11, 2021 at 16:30
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    @Conifold I didn't say we applied justice to car parts, only responsibility. Justice makes sense only when we can reward or punish the parts to make them work better, as we can do with humans; justice is when humans get what they "deserve," and what they deserve is based on how much harm or benefit they caused for society. Secondly, in this I take as a premise that we want to maximize societal welfare - the "big ought." Little oughts, like "you shouldn't commit arson," are useful in service to the big one. Solving the credit assignment problem is of practical use.
    – causative
    Sep 11, 2021 at 17:36
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    The responsibility in OP is moral responsibility, you replace it with causal responsibility by equivocation. Even then, causal responsibility is grounded in token causation, but under determinism there is only one lump "cause", the initial state + evolution laws, and the malfunctioning car part is as much a "cause" as the rest of the universe. Only its relation to indeterministic actions of the mechanic single it out. The same goes for your "big ought" premise, it too presupposes agents exempt from determinism. A consistent determinist should reject the justification task, not fall for it.
    – Conifold
    Sep 13, 2021 at 3:45
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    Nope. Causal responsibility is neither necessary nor sufficient for moral responsibility, and certainly not its type, see e.g. Sartorio. And you do not need to say agents are exempt, they are for this argument to make sense, including the "formal decomposition". Any individuating aspect must be introduced from outside, for determinism provides none. A determinist should indeed describe how people talk about "choices" and "justifications" and explain why they can instead of redefining words to imitate what isn't there by his own lights.
    – Conifold
    Sep 13, 2021 at 4:56

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