Predetermination and Legal Responsibility

Responsibility is one of the most debated aspects of legal philosophy, and rightly so.  It is one of the most vague social concepts but also is at the basis of how we view the world and the decisions we make.  Everyone wants to assign some sort of responsibility to things that happen in their lives, but it is almost impossible to perfectly assign responsibility for any one given event.  In any circumstance there are multiple reasons an event could have taken place and multiple people that could be blamed.  But the way our society and legal systems are structured necessitate that we ultimately assign blame for these actions on one person or group.  But should our laws be changed to accommodate the idea that true responsibility is impossible to assign?

In my opinion, Strawson makes a very legitimate claim in saying that responsibility as we have described it in our legal system does not truly exist.  Any action someone takes, he says, is a function of how one is as a person.  And the person had to at some point choose to become that way.  There is an infinite regress in this logic to the point that that person was a child and had no responsibility in the choices being made in his life.  Therefore, Strawson concludes, no one is truly responsible for any actions they take. 

To put his theory in terms of a hard example, let us take the instance of a child being kidnapped.  Almost any person you ask would have no trouble blaming the kidnapper for this horrible crime.  But according to Strawson, the kidnapper is not truly culpable because he never was in control of choosing to become a kidnapper.  His kidnapping of that child was a course of events set in motion since he was a child, possibly affected by his own upbringing, his environment, traumatic events in his past, or any other number of societal influences. 

So why then do we come down so harshly on this person in a court of law?  Why do we not simply chalk this event up to one of many predetermined events that happen everyday, this one just happening to be much more tragic than most?  In other words, why don’t we follow Strawson’s theory in practice if it appears to have no logical holes?  Many people will try to explain this by saying that Strawson is logically correct but that people still need to be held accountable for their actions, or that Strawson’s idea is flawed at its basis; that we all have freedom of choice in all of our decisions and actions. 

My personal theory, though, falls perfectly in line with Strawson’s theory I think, and still allows us to place legal responsibility onto those causing crimes to occur. According to Strawson’s theory, the choices in our lives and our reactions to events in our lives are basically predetermined.  This should be the same not only when speaking of crimes being committed but also of laws being made.  The first laws or societal constructs that placed blame on criminals for their actions were simply reactionary to the crimes already being committed.  The lawmaker was reacting to the crimes being committed in the way that he thought to respond, a way informed by his environment.  Therefore the creation of these laws is as much the responsibility of the lawmakers as crimes are the responsibility of criminals (which according to Strawson is not at all).  Lawmaking is simply a more global example of Strawson’s theory, and society has evolved over time to apply legal responsibility to many different kinds of legal cases.  Therefore if Strawson is taken to be correct, there is almost no use in arguing that his theory should have been put into legal practice, because in reality his theory is telling us we have never had any say or choice in the way laws are applied anyway. 

This is a very deterministic idea that is somewhat hard to wrap our minds around; that we have no say in what is happening in the world and never have.  Just because one believes in this theory though does not mean that we should advocate for letting criminals go because we do not have free will, or that we should not care about the application of the law.  I think that there is a medium between realizing that it is quite possible our choices are predetermined, and still fighting for the best outcome for society and what we believe is right.  Allowing everyone a free pass for their actions due to those actions being out of their own control does not lead to a productive society and for this reason I believe that while Strawson’s theory is plausible and likely true, we should not apply it in the sense that we take away all legal responsibilities. 

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One thought on “Predetermination and Legal Responsibility

  1. Although Strawson’s theory is really not my cup of tea, I like the way you approached it as something that can work in both directions. I agree that whether or not criminals are morally responsible for their actions, steps must be taken legally to punish them for the security of society. The law is, it seems to me, separate from morality in many ways and this is another example of that separation. Moral responsibility does not determine legal responsibility, even with the full application of Strawson’s theory.

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