Archive for the ‘ Philosophy ’ Category


I have a slight suspicion that I am being plagiarised. Every so often I get a spike of people looking at my posts about free will and the criminal justice system, often from America. I have wondered if that is related to people getting set an essay question that makes them google for info, and that brings up that post somewhere near the top.

A couple of days ago I noticed that one of the referrals came from a plagiarism checking site.

So, for people tempted to plagiarise, here is some advice:

  • Plagiarise from somewhere better. Seriously, the stuff here is brain-drippings, and while I got a First at uni, it wasn’t through producing stuff like that.
  • Plagiarise better. Don’t plagiarise directly from anything that is findable by google. Much of the web is unindexed, and while a lot of this is spam and porn, there are some great nuggets. For example, has lots of interesting discussion and is not googleable.

I am famous for once saying:

Let no one else’s work evade your eyes!
Remember why the good Lord made your eyes!
So don’t shade your eyes,
But plagiarize, plagiarize, plagiarize –
Only be sure always to call it please ‘research’.


Free will and the criminal justice system

I have recently argued that free will as we tend to think of it doesn’t exist. So where does this leave our relationship with the concept free will? It is an assumption in most normative ethical theories, and particularly the criminal justice system, that not only does free will exist, but that it really matters. It is intuitively true that a crime commited intentionally is worse than something that happens by accident, and that the punishment should be greater.

However, if actions are a direct result of a complex series of chemical and electrical interactions in the brain, which is in turn shaped by a combination of genetics, development and environment, it seems there is no independant moral agent against which to act. It is arbitrary, and arguably cruel, to inflict punishment on someone that is not meaningfully responsible for a crime, whether or not they committed it.

If I take something that does not belong to me, the statement ‘pixie359 committed a crime’ is true. However, we can see that this does not mean there is an independant being, pixie359, that can make moral decisions and direct actions – I am the culmination of a set of interactions over which I have no control. The statement ‘pixie359’s brain did it’ is more meaningfully true, but of course my brain cannot be meaningfully held responsible for a mechanistic set of responses to specific stimuli. It becomes clear that if our actions are the product of mechanistic responses to external stimuli, the term ‘responsibility’ loses some meaning.

I think this problem fundamentally undermines the punishment model of ethics and criminal justice. Whether a particular person commited a crime is largely inconsequential when the universe is such that their action was unavoidable – the problem then is with the universe and all the factors in it that made the crime occur. To punish a particular individual for the sake of punishment is an arbitrary decision.

We should consider the purpose of a criminal justice system. In one formulation, it is intended to punish those that commit crimes. I have argued that this is not appropriate based on our current understanding of free will and responsibility, however emotively appealing it is. In other formulations, systems are intended to rehabilitate criminals, prevent them endangering society, and deterring other criminals from similar actions.

I would argue that the primary aim of the justice system should be to protect, serve and ultimately improve the society that the system serves. This should be the organising principle for every public organisation or system, for broadly utilitarian reasons. This leads to the adoption of those practices that can be best shown to improve the outcomes for the individual and society in favour of those that fit best with a particular set of principles.

Given the improvement of society and not punishment of criminals as a primary aim, what should a criminal justice system look like? If we are losing the idea of direct personal responsibility, do we need to lose all forms of punishment?

There is a clear and justifiable role for punishment for several reasons – what it should not be is aend in itself. It arguably plays a key role in both rehabilitation and deterrence (for at least some forms of crime, although less so for emotive or need driven crimes), but more than that, it is what society wants. The fact that people are programmed to desire retribution means that to remove punishment entirely would directly cause suffering. Therefore, while punishment continues to be a consideration when dealing with crime, it is no longer a justification in itself – it must serve the purpose of improving outcomes.

One implication of a shift toward an outcome based system would be a change in sentencing procedure – there would be no hard rules for the appropriate sentences for particular crimes, and the length of a sentence could not be meaningfully determined at the beginning of that sentence. Where someone is detained, the primary considerations should be a) the prevention of crime in the period they are detained, and b) the prevention of crime after they are released. This means that the criteria for detaining and releasing people is primarily based on the threat they pose, rather than a punishment for any misdeeds. This would need ongoing assessment, and people released when it is considered they no longer pose a significant threat.

Secondly, the understanding that any crime is committed as the result of a complex set of circumstances, rather than an independent decision by a separate moral agent, requires that the justice system is allowed to act more widely than simply against the individual that commits a crime. Where a crime is committed directly because of an unfulfilled need, that need should be addressed as the primary problem. This could include a number of processes and powers, potentially right up to compelling parliament to address particular concerns.

Finally, if we do not consider punishment a goal in itself, the need for jail use can be decreased. Detention would be reserved for circumstances where there would be a demonstrable benefit. Where a crime is committed in circumstances that strongly suggest the person committing it does not pose a threat generally, punishment is not appropriate, and so can be spared jail time. There are a significant number of cases where education, community involvement or opportunities for employment will have better outcomes than incarceration, both for society and the criminal. This results not only in improved outcomes for the party that commits the crime, but also the wider society, gaining at least some involved and productive citizens.

Although I don’t understand the relevant politics well enough to see all the implications and barriers, I think that a move toward outcome based justice can only be of benefit. It removes the ethical concerns raised by the complexity of causal relationships in the lead up to crimes, and the arbitrary punishment of the person that commits a crime. It allows punishment, which is widely seen as a good, however irrationally, as long as that punishment is appropriate to the severity of the crime and the circumstances around it, and is justified by the outcomes it achieves. It would also decrease the amount of crime in total, as those practices that best reduce crime are favoured over those that best fit an imposed morality.

While I started out looking at the justice system from the perspective of a lack of free will and determinism, I believe that the system outlined above doesn’t rely on that basis. You can believe that there is free will, and still agree that the organising principle of the justice system should be the improvement of outcomes for the individuals and society, rather than punishing people that contravene a set of laws. This will be a better system because it values the outcomes above the process, where the outcomes are the quality of life of individuals and the levels of crime in our societies.

Sorry for writing all this nonsense, but I genuinely believe I had no choice.

Free will

Modern neuroscience and psychology seem to be moving toward a conclusion on the old philosophical questions of free will. This is a basic version of that discussion, given that it is being written largely from memory on a long train journey with no internet – please feel free to correct anywhere I have ballsed up the science.

In simple dualist terms, probably the more immediately appealing explanation of human experience, there is the physical body and a separate mind. This dualist mind operates independently of the body, in a different realm, and instructs the body. This gives the purest form of free will, where each and every interaction is chosen from the range of possible actions in advance and freely by the actor.

However, this dualist explanation is significantly undermined by neuroscience, whereby it is clear that certain brain areas have direct and mappable effects on experience, abilities, and decision making processes. We see this most clearly when the brain is damaged, and the experiences of the person change significantly. This means straight dualism is wrong, with the mind, or world of experience, directly mapped to the brain, rather than independent.

So, if the mind is directly linked to the brain, can we say anything abut the causal relationship? To allow free will, we would hope to see the mind directing the brain, and the brain directing the body. Therefore, for example, we would hope that in an experiment, people would say they were going to do something before the mechanism for doing started. This would mean, for example, a test subject say ‘I will move my arm’ then we see the mechanism, such as brain activity, nerve messages and muscle twitches, then the activity of the arm moving. This would demonstrate at least that the relationship goes from decision in the mind to action in the brain.

However, in the tests originally run by Libet and built on over the more recent years, we can see that the relationship described above doesn’t happen. The body is starting the activity before the declaration of intent, which suggests that the decision is not consciously taken by the mind before the brain and body kick into action.

This suggests that we cannot say that the mind directs the brain, but rather is directed by it. Taking any psychoactive drug, recreationaly or medically, shows quite clearly that the physical state of the brain leads the experiences of the mind to some degree. This is supported in more detail as the understanding of the brain develops, with very strong links demonstrated between certain areas and functions of the brain and certain behaviours.

So it appears that the brain directs the mind, strongly and inherently predictably, even if we could probably never hope to actually predict it due to the complexity involved. What does this mean for free will? The sense in which I would naturally interpret it, free will does not appear to exist. There is no independent moral agent that has the freedom to act or to make decisions – your brain and body have made the decision for you, and the you that experiences the decision is deluded into thinking it made it.

However, there are alternative explanations of free will – you can argue that an action is free if it is one of a set of possible actions, barring strong coercion and so on. In this formulation, actions that are unconstrained, or more realistically minimally constrained, are considered to exhibit free will.

I agree that there are situations where actions could appear free, and it is largely using these criteria that I would judge wether an action appears free. However, I am concerned that this approach dodges the question a little – if the action is taken by the brain in direct response to electrical and chemical signals with no influence from a moral agent, to what extent could the outcome have been otherwise? There has been no decision making, but rather a complex but inherently predictable set of responses to particular stimuli. Given this predictability, you have not chosen one of a possible range of actions, as the other actions were not possible outcomes given the circumstances.

I have argued here that the nature of the brain, and the leading role it has in action formation means that free will is a delusion of experience. This is a difficult conclusion to come to, as it is so counter-intuitive, and somewhat discomfiting. Questions about ethics arise as many ethical theories are based largely on agency, and this leads into political questions around crime and punishment, and personal responsibility. However, those are for another post. Worry not, I think I’ll probably write about those next time I’ve got a couple of hours and no internet.

Big ethics post

This was my dissertation. It goes over some of the same ground as the previous ethics posts, but expands somewhat too.


In this essay, I will give a review of normative ethical theories. Although this has been the subject of previous work of mine, I felt I had done insufficient justice to some of the arguments surrounding the general forms of the ethical theories. I also wish to use this opportunity to explore certain theories that I have not covered significantly in my time as a philosophy undergraduate. There will be a degree of overlap in what I take to be the spine of the assignment, namely in the discussions about the generalised forms of the ethical systems, although the focus here is in greater depth and more extended. There will also be a small amount of similarity when discussing the particular forms of consequentialism, as I find there to be only two major theories in the consequential framework. I will attempt, where it will not damage the overall structure of the work, to use different examples and theories as case studies. This explains the omission approaches such as the standard Kantian school and W. D. Ross’ view of prima facie duties among others. Continue reading

Ethical theories

This is yet another university essay, this time looking at normative ethical theories.

Outline the key features of the three main approaches to normative ethics (i.e., virtue ethics, deontological/duty/principle ethics, and consequentialism) and evaluate the relative strengths and weaknesses of these approaches.

In this essay I will outline the main differences between the various approaches to normative ethics. These are virtue ethics, deontology, and consequentialism. I will first discuss the main features of virtue ethics, then an argument against it that I find it unable to counter. I will then look at the deontological position, again presenting an argument I feel undermines it. I will then discuss my normative preference, consequentialism, defending it against three of the more common criticisms. First, however, I will show how the normative theories are related. Continue reading


This essay in meta-ethics discusses what is of value in the world, and forms the basis for most of the rest of my ethical thought.

What is valuable in the world, why and in what sense, and what follows from this?

In this essay I will discuss which things can be found valuable, outline some reasons why these things may be said to be valuable, and address some of the consequences of my favoured approach. I will do this by explaining and evaluating several common viewpoints. I will start with the holistic, deep ecological, approach of Arna Ness. We will then encounter the individualistic biocentric, or life based, approach as argued by Harley Cahen. Next I will review the pathocentric views of Peter Singer, centred on the capacity for subjective experience such as pain. Then I will discuss the forms of value implicit within Warwick Fox’s distinctions of types of harm. Finally I will look at the value Don Marquis’ puts on a ‘Future Like Ours’. I will then outline my own views. First I will define the sense in which I am using the term ‘value’. Continue reading


Again, this was originally a university essay which I’ve not read for years. I remember not liking phenomonolgy much, as it didn’t seem to follow the same analytic rules.

Husserl’s transcendental phenomenological method is designed to enable us to isolate universal essences, on the basis of experience. Explain and critically assess this method, with particular reference to Locke’s discussion of abstraction in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Book iii chapter 3.

In this essay I will outline Husserl’s method of transcendental phenomenology. To do this I will break the method down into the three major stages. The first stage of the method is known as the phenomenological epoche, or transcendental reduction. The second stage will be that of intentional analysis. The third and final stage is that of free imaginative variation. Then I will compare this method with that of abstraction put forward by Locke. I will conclude with a discussion of the relative strengths of Husserl’s and Locke’s positions. First, however, a brief discussion of what Husserl was trying to achieve with the phenomenological method. Continue reading