Thursday, November 12, 2020

Compatibilism, the devil, and Jeffrey Dahmer


Free will, along with the existence of God and perhaps the mind-body problem, is one of the philosophical issues that is of great interest to a lot of people. One idea that offends many of us would be the idea that someone should be treated differently, or even punished, because of the color of their skin. Martin Luther King’s dream was that his children would one day be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. Judging someone by the content of their character is not arbitrary in the way that judging someone by the color of their skin is. But why?

            Well, because arguably, our character is, to a large extent, a product of the choices we make. We do not choose our race, but we do choose our actions. Thus, we treat bank robbers differently than we treat non-bank robbers, and that’s not discrimination, because people chose to rob a bank, but did not choose to be white or black.

            Or did we? A well-known African-American comic from my youth, Flip Wilson, used to have a character who frequently used a punch line, “The devil made me do it.” A country song entitled “Speak of the Devil” includes the following lyrics:

Speak of the devil
He took me out again last night
He got me drunk and he got me in a fight

He was chasing women
I was just there for the ride
Speak of the devil
He took me out again last night

            I won’t here attempt to adjudicate the question of whether or not there is a devil. But I would ask why this might be perceived by its intended audience as a lame excuse, even if people in the audience believe that the devil is real. Those who believe in the devil normally think that while the devil can tempt you to do something, he ordinarily does not make you do it. You could, and should, have chosen to resist. The devil may highlight in your mind the attractiveness of wrongdoing, but he cannot by his temptations guarantee that you will do the wrong thing.

            But we can imagine the devil doing a great deal more than just tempt. Suppose the devil were to literally cause your body to engage in numerous acts that you believe to be evil, while your mind watched helplessly in horror, unable to prevent your body from committing a series of horrible crimes. If that were true, then surely you would not be responsible for those crimes, it would really be the devil.

            But now suppose that what the devil does is something different. He finds an eight year old boy, Little Jeff, and alters his brain chemistry in such a way that it guarantees that  he will grow up to be notorious serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer. Jeffrey forms the desire to commit the horrible murders he committed, and those desires cause him to commit those murders. The devil made him do it, in that the devil’s actions guaranteed that he form the desires and commit the murders. But there was not Real Jeffery inside thinking that he was being driven against his will to commit crimes. So if this is true, who is responsible for the crimes of Jeffrey Dahmer? The devil, Jeffrey, or both?


Starhopper said...

Ever since the trial of John Hinkley (who attempted to assassinate Ronald Reagan), I've thought that our court system needed to include a possible verdict of "Guilty by reason of insanity" in addition to "Not guilty by reason of insanity".

oozzielionel said...

The theological version is guilty by reason of depravity both by nature and choice.

Victor Reppert said...

But what if the reason someone is so depraved is that some powerful malevolent being fiddled with their brain at a young age? Are they still responsible for their actions, in particular if they could not have done otherwise from what they did once they were fiddled with?

One Brow said...

As someone who feels punishment is not a good motivation for prison, and isn't worried about an eternal damnation, it's moot to me how much responsibility this person has. They are a danger, and the community needs to be protected. Perhaps at one point, such a person can be cured, perhaps not.

oozzielionel said...

How would you know that someone could not have done otherwise? How do you measure the influence of the malevolent being? What degree of influence would remove responsibility? Who determines if responsibility is removed? How do you differentiate between someone who feels they have been influenced beyond their ability to resist and someone who is only seeking an excuse? If 99% influenced, is 1% enough to make responsible?

Victor Reppert said...

If determinism is true, then given the past, you could not have done otherwise from what you did. Some (but not all) versions of Calvinism hold to divine determinism, and physical determinism is true according to many versions of secular philosophy. Adherents of deterministic Calvinism hold that God can rightfully condemn you for sinning even though, given what God decreed before the foundation of the world, you could not have done otherwise from commit that particular sin at that particular time. Soft determinists hold that even though you were determined to do what you did, it isn't as if you were an unwilling partner in so doing. You did what you wanted to do, so you're responsible.

Now "the devil made me do it" is a classic example of a lame excuse. But why is it lame? It is lame on the assumption that the devil is a tempter, and that you can resist temptation and make him flee from you But does the lameness of this as an excuse hold only if determinism is false? What if the devil, or someone else, can perform actions that guarantee that you do what you do? Are you still responisble?

Kevin said...

"Why does he still find fault? For who has resisted his will?"

Paul seems to find such excuses insufficient.

oozzielionel said...

I am more interested in a conversation about the Calvinist view of determinism than the secular view. I wonder if your caricature of Calvinism is accurate? It may be true that someone holds the view you describe, but it may be better to site a specific thoughtful proponent. Your description of soft determinism is likely closer to that of Calvinists with an emphasis on "what you wanted todo" driven by the person's nature as well as other influences. See Wayne Grudem Systematic Theology, p 680 and note 14.