This post was prepared for my ethics course.
This section is devoted to two topics: One is freedom and determinism, and the other is criminal punishment. Although the issues seem to be very separate, I have put them together for a reason. One significant motivation for criminal punishment has been the issue of desert. That is pronounced like dessert, but it comes from the same root word as the word deserve. Now there are other reasons, perhaps, for criminal punishment (deterrence, protection of society, etc.), but some people think criminal punishment is first and foremost about giving people what they deserve.
On the other hand, we might ask why one person is virtuous and the other vicious? How did Mother Teresa end up the way she did, and how did Jeffrey Dahmer end up the way he did? Are they both simply the inevitable products of heredity, environment, or even (if you believe in God), God's predestination, or fore-ordination of all events before the foundation of the world (a belief held by Calvinists even today). Is it possible that if Jeffrey had had Teresa's heredity and environment, he (she?) would have been virtuous, and if Teresa had had Jeffrey's heredity and environment, she would have been a serial killer? This is the thesis of determinism, and some people have the inclination to withdraw claims of desert when they start thinking things through from a deterministic perspective. The line of thought leads us to think that the very idea of one person deserving one outcome, and another deserving another outcome, doesn't make sense. But this is a difficult conclusion to accept, it is the idea that in the last analysis, nothing is really anyone's fault, since their actions are the inevitable result of what came before.
There are a couple of ways of responding to this. The first approach, taken by philosophers such as Moritz Schlick and J. J. C. Smart, suggests that what moral responsiblity is all about it finding the right behavior to modify. They maintain that the very idea of deserving punishment is a barbaric notion we need to just get over.
The second approach is to say that looking all the way up the causal chain and seeing someone's actions as the result of past causes obscures the most important fact, and that is the fact that the person not only performed the act, but wanted to perform the act. It wasn't as if Jeffrey Dahmer wanted to be virtuous, but some alien power forced him to commit murder against his will. No, these crimes were willed actions, however inevitably they might have followed from past events.
The third option is the option of libertarian free will. When we act, we can do otherwise. Perhaps this kind of free will is a gift from God. Even the physical world, if we accept what modern physicists tell us, isn't strictly determined. So, perhaps, our actions aren't strictly determined either.
So, I would ask two questions: Can we talk about what people deserve? To do so, do we have to reject determinism? If we can deserve something good for doing something good, and deserve something bad for doing something bad, should that be the primary basis on which we determine how criminals should be punished? And does it provide a basis for the traditional doctrine of eternal hell?