The Voices of War

33. Gregg D. Caruso - On The Illusion Of Free Will, Myth Of Meritocracy, And The Need To Rethink Our Justice Systems

VOW 33 | Free Will


My guest today is Gregg D. Caruso, a Professor of Philosophy at SUNY Corning. He’s also Visiting Fellow at the New College of the Humanities and an Honorary Professor of Philosophy at Macquarie University, Sydney. Gregg is also a Co-Director of the Justice Without Retribution Network housed at the University of Aberdeen School of Law.

His research focuses on free will, moral responsibility, punishment, philosophy of law, jurisprudence, social and political philosophy, moral philosophy, philosophy of mind, moral psychology, and neurolaw. He’s published numerous books, including Rejecting Retributivism: Free Will, Punishment, and Criminal Justice (2021); Just Deserts: Debating Free Will (w/Daniel C. Dennett) (2021); Free Will and Consciousness: A Determinist Account of the Illusion of Free Will (2012); Exploring the Illusion of Free Will and Moral Responsibility (2013); Science and Religion: 5 Questions (2014) and others.

He joins me today to talk about free will, free will scepticism, moral responsibility, and our collective views on punishment. Some of the topics we covered are:

  • Gregg’s journey into the philosophy of free will
  • Dominant positions in the free will debate
  • Explaining free will scepticism
  • Social Determinants and their impact on Outcomes
  • The mythology of meritocracy and the idea of being ‘self-made.’
  • The illusion of the ‘self.’
  • Free will scepticism, justice, and geopolitics
  • Impact of the situational factors, environment, and Context on Behaviour
  • The importance of understanding causes that lead to genocide, atrocities, and crimes
  • Gregg’s ‘Public Health Quarantine Model’ explained


This was a fascinating episode that will hopefully leave you with more questions than it answered. To find out more, you can visit Gregg’s website here.

Listen to the podcast here


Gregg D. Caruso – On The Illusion Of Free Will, Myth Of Meritocracy, And The Need To Rethink Our Justice Systems

My guest is Gregg D. Caruso, who’s a professor of philosophy at SUNY Corning. He’s also a visiting fellow at the New College of Humanities in London, and an Honorary Professor of Philosophy at Macquarie University, Sydney. Gregg is also a Co-Director of the Justice Without Retribution Network housed at the University of Aberdeen School of Law.

His research focuses on free will, moral responsibility, punishment, philosophy of law, jurisprudence, social and political philosophy, moral philosophy, philosophy of mind, moral psychology, and neurolaw. He’s published numerous books, including Rejecting Retributivism: Free Will, Punishment, and Criminal Justice and Just Deserts: Debating Free Will with Daniel Dennett, both books in 2021 publications. Free Will and Consciousness: A Determinist Account of the Illusion of Free Will, Exploring the Illusion of Free Will and Moral Responsibility, Science and Religion: 5 Questions, and others. He joins me to talk about free will, free will scepticism, moral responsibility, and our collective views on punishment. Gregg, it is a true pleasure to host you on the show. Welcome.

Thank you for having me. I’m looking forward to chatting.

I dare say a lot of my audience might be slightly perplexed by this episode, but I do think that it’s highly relevant to our discussions of conflict, war, and so on. I hope we’ll unpack it as we go through. Before we delve into the world of determinism and freewill, maybe we can start by hearing a little about your journey into philosophy and the philosophy of free will. How did you come into the field?

It’s always hard to analyse oneself and figure out how they end up where they do, but I started as a jazz major pursuing music and thought I was going to be an upright bass player. I went to a school in New Jersey that was well renowned for its jazz program, but I just happened to fall in with some philosophy students and started taking some philosophy classes along the way. By my third year, I had accrued enough credit to essentially get a Philosophy degree. I had this conflict as to which route I was going to go, and a lot of it was luck in terms of the people I met.

It turned out that the group I had formed as friends all went on to be professional philosophers. We started having reading groups and discussions outside of class. I always had that interest. I have always been interested in these big theoretical questions, and I do think there’s a connection between the creative part of music and the creative part of philosophy as well.

That’s an interesting point. How so?

There is a part of the brain, especially with jazz, this improvisational ability to have your ears open, listen to what the other people are doing to improvise as you go. Composing music on the spot. Philosophers are good at being able to learn skills, especially the conversational skills of being able to listen, the dialectical method of taking things as they come to you, but also responding in various ways and building arguments. Philosophy has a creative and critical component. When you analyse other arguments, it’s this very powerful critical dissection. There’s this creative part where you build and analyse arguments yourself. I found it very natural for some reason.

I decided to follow the people ahead of me and ended up going to graduate school. I thought I was going to work in philosophy of mind. That was my initial interest, cognitive science, philosophy of mind. For many years in graduate school, that’s what I focused on. Towards the end, I started to realise that there was a connection between what I was doing in philosophy of mind and these issues about free will. I have always been interested in the question of free will.

My dissertation was on consciousness and free will, and then that turned into my first book. As I have gotten further along, people started asking me more about the practical implications of my view. I’m sure we will explain that I doubt free will I deny the existence of free will. People started to worry. What does that mean for morality, our criminal justice system, and our interpersonal relationships? I thought maybe I’d do this for a couple of years and move on to some other topics, and yet I’d gone down the rabbit hole.

A large part of my career has been focused on cashing out these various consequences of free will scepticism for different domains of our lives, including criminal law, criminal justice, and public policy, but also how it affects our emotional, interpersonal relationships in terms of attitudes like moral anger and resentment, retributive impulses and punishment, and things like that.

These are all amazingly deep and complex topics, but bringing it down to freewill, it’s such a fundamental question about who we are as individuals and as a species. It is also quite a visceral subject. I subscribe to the same line of thinking, and I have just read your book, Just Deserts. I must admit I sided with you the whole way through. Perhaps I’m slightly biased, but I would consider myself a free-will sceptic.

A lot of my audience will know that I’m a long-term meditator. That’s something we will touch on later on about the ideal self. Before we unpack some of the questions that go with it, and why it’s such a touchy subject, maybe you can lay the land for us. What are the principal positions that exist in this debate? That will give us a nice launching platform to delve deeper into some of these questions.

I will try not to overwhelm people with terminology because it could get quite complicated. There are different possible ways that one could question or notions that could threaten the existence of free will. First, let me define what I mean by free will. For me, free will is the control and action that agents would have in a way that would make them morally responsible for their actions.

VOW 33 | Free Will
Free Will: Free will is the control and action that agents would have in a way that would make them morally responsible for their actions.


I keep free will and moral responsibility closely tied. I define free will in terms of the control and action that would make agents morally responsible in the way that we could be justified in blaming them for their actions, holding them morally responsible in a very specific sense, what I call a basic dessert sense. They would be truly deserving of things like blame, praise, punishment, and reward.

To put that into context, as a very banal example, somebody does exceptionally well in an exam. The natural inclination for us is to say, “Well done. Congratulations. You have worked hard. You deserve to get those marks.” Conversely, someone who flunks it and fails, “I could have told you that you are going to fail because you didn’t study. It’s your fault.” That’s the two basics of what we talk about or how you define free will.

The title of the book with Dennett is Just Deserts. I underestimated people’s familiarity with that phrase, but people thinking of desserts or what we have after dinner. Just Deserts is the punishment that one deserves or the praise that one deserves. Usually, it’s the idea that the person was free and morally responsible when they engaged in some wrongdoing, so they deserved to be punished or blamed.

VOW 33 | Free Will
Just Deserts: Debating Free Will

They could have done otherwise.

Also, sometimes the idea is that since the agent is the source of their actions and it’s a reflection of their true self, they deserve some reaction. Historically there have been a number of threats to this idea. I won’t go through one of them but theologically, there was a concern about God’s foreknowledge. If he knows everything that’s going to happen, how can agents be free and morally responsible?

A more scientific concern arose with Newtonian physics and the development of modern physics with the idea of determinism. Determinism is the thesis that facts about the remote past in combination with the laws of nature entail only one fixed future. What happens is the only thing that could have happened.

You are boiling the water. The idea is that if you knew all the laws of nature and all the antecedent conditions, the metal content of the kettle, the amount of heat that’s being implied, the water is determined to boil and not only determined to boil but determined to boil that precisely the moment it boiled, it couldn’t have boiled at any other moment. The fear was that if determinism is true, how could agents be free and morally responsible?

Three views have emerged. One view is the hard determinism, which says determinism is true. Everything that happens is causally determined to happen and because of that, agents are not free and morally responsible. The argument was largely that determinism rules out free will because it rules out either the ability to do otherwise, you couldn’t have done anything different than what you did, or it rules out the possibility that the agent was the ultimate source of their actions because the source of their actions drained back to factors.

VOW 33 | Free Will
Free Will: That determinism is incompatible with free will. But so is determinism because agents would be no more in control of indeterminate events than they’d be in control of determinate events.


To some causes, upstream causes.

Upbringing brain chemistry, how they were raised, and the circumstances.

The weather they slept and had they had their coffee, all of these conditional factors that have brought us to now. Sorry to interrupt you, just so I can contextualise it but so I don’t miss the point. In a perfectly deterministic world, if I had the ability to calculate all the forces at play, I could tell the future theoretically. If I had the ability to calculate all the forces acting upon me, I could predict exactly what I’m going to say three minutes from now.

In reality, unfortunately, the factors are too broad and too diverse.

It could never happen.

There was a view called libertarianism. Not to be confused with the political view, but this is a metaphysical view about free will. This idea came before the political view. It’s the idea that if determinism is true, we also lack free will. This view rejects determinism and tries to preserve what you might call indeterminate free will. There are different ways libertarians try to do this. Nowadays, some of them will point to quantum mechanics as evidence that maybe there’s some fundamental indeterminacy at the lowest level of the universe and somehow it could rise or percolate up to the level of human agency.

A randomness, everything that’s come beforehand to now.

Something that things could have different types of outcomes could follow. Keeping everything the same. However, some libertarians introduce other notions like notions of the self that are quite mysterious where the agent could somehow cause their actions, but not caused by anything. Some people posit even notions of substances, and selves that are different than their physical brains and physical makeup.

There’s this one last view called compatibilism. The view that Dan Dennett defends in the book. This is a view that says you can accept determinism and still hold agents free and morally responsible because what’s required for free will is not the falsity of determinism, but that agents are causes of their actions in some appropriate way. They are free from coercion, from external agents coercing them, and they are free from any internal coercion due to a mental disability. As long as agents act voluntarily, as long as they act on their reasons or something, as long as they approve of their motivational states, then they are free and we can hold them responsible.

You can accept determinism and still hold agents free and morally responsible because what’s really required for free will is not the falsity of determinism. Click To Tweet

Let me say that my view is neutral on determinism. I’m a modern free will sceptic, and my view is it doesn’t matter whether determinism or indeterminism is true, we would lack free will either way. Determinism is incompatible with free will but so too is indeterminism because agents would be no more in control of indeterminate events than they’d be in control of determinate events. The indeterminacy that the most plausible kinds of accounts of free will would posit, I don’t think are able to preserve the control required for agents to be free and more responsible in this sense.

I can’t control randomness. Even though it might be indeterminate in the libertarian sense for me as the agent, I still have zero. There is no free will there because I don’t control in any way I decide what randomly may or may not occur.

That’s true. That would be the concern with at least one type of libertarianism, the other type of libertarianism, I would say doesn’t fit with our best scientific theories about the world. It runs into other problems. Not to bog things down, but I reject that notion too. In the end, I say there are problems with all these different ways of trying to preserve free will and as a result, the only rational position left to adopt is scepticism.

Sceptics either doubt or deny the existence of free will. The global sceptic says that who we are and what we do is ultimately the result of factors beyond our control. Whether those be determinism, indeterminacy, or luck, which I might mention in a moment. By that, we are never more responsible in this relevant sense.

Let me throw in there, because I mentioned luck. Your audience already might be like, “That’s a lot of information.” You can almost forget some of the issues about determinism and indeterminism. Another independent concern people have is simply the problem of luck. I present two distinct arguments against free will, but the luck argument follows a philosopher named Neil Levy, who lives in Australia at least half of the year, the other half at Oxford.

I know two types of luck. There’s what’s called constitutive luck, which is the luck that makes you the person you are. Constitutive luck is the luck that shapes you as an agent, your psychological state, your predispositions, and your likes and dislikes. Constitutive luck could be a byproduct of who you were born to, who your parents were, and what society you were raised in. Whether you were rich or poor, genetics. All these factors that you ultimately have no control over.

There’s what’s called present luck, which is luck around the time of action. That could be the luck of what thoughts come to me in that particular moment, whether my mind wanders or doesn’t wander. What reasons become most salient, or what reasons weigh most heavily when I’m making a choice or deliberating? Whether the colour of the wall could somehow be affecting me in a way that I’m unaware of, or whether situational factors could be influencing me in ways that I’m not aware of. That would be present luck.

The argument is that constitutive luck in present luck swallows all. Our actions are the result of either constitutive luck, present luck, or both. Luck undermines free will and moral responsibility because it’s the result of factors beyond the control of the agent. Whether the threat is determinism, everything that happens is determined by antecedent conditions and the laws of nature, or whether the threat is luck, I argue that we have a good reason for denying that agents are free and morally responsible in this fundamental sense.

Luck undermines free will and moral responsibility because it's the result of factors beyond the agent's control. Click To Tweet

I have been nodding along as you were saying because that speaks a lot to me about the way I have come to think about things. I was first introduced to this idea of the environment having an impact. It was Kurt Lewin, that behaviour is a function of the environment and the personality. It’s an interplay of the person and the environment. That’s what’s going to determine behaviour. For most people, that’s quite acceptable. Most of us, when we start having these discussions, can comfortably agree that the environment has an impact. If I haven’t slept for 48 hours, I’m legally drunk. Everybody who hasn’t slept the night knows what that feels like.

It could affect your deliberations, choices, and actions.

Everything. This is why Dan Dennett’s position is probably the most palatable to people. It’s the one that allows you to, I don’t want to say sit on the fence, because he doesn’t sit on the fence. He’s quite precise about what he means. It allows you to accept determinism up to now that everything that I am right now is because of everything that’s happened before. We can all trace our lineage and our lives back to why we are the way we are. This is why we go to psychologists to explore how our childhood has impacted the person we are now. People are very sensitive to this idea of, “The future I have the power to decide I have free will.”

I have seen visceral reactions when I have had these debates with people who in some way would try to walk them down the path of trying to agree with me that free will is an illusion. There’s oftentimes a visceral response and a physical response as though I have somehow threatened them. Why do you think that is?

There are a couple of reasons. People fear the implications of this. It’s partly due to a misunderstanding of what the implications would be. People think it would lead to nihilism or despair or we were just like criminals weren’t free. Dan Dennett in the book to my annoyance repeatedly says, “We end up in a state, in a hop state of nature, life would be solitary poor, nasty, produce in short.” My experience has been people don’t reject free will scepticism as much based on the arguments. They see the arguments, they reject them more based on the consequences. They just don’t like the consequences of the view. Instinctively want to reject it.

The other thing that plays a big role is phenomenology, which is the way we experience our actions. People just don’t feel like they are determined. They don’t feel like their actions are the result of factors beyond their control. It’s a poor inference, but it’s like, “I feel myself free, therefore I am free. How could you deny how I experienced my actions in this way?”

I have argued in the past that phenomenology is misleading and that we could explain why we feel that way, despite the fact it’s an illusion. I do think that that plays a role. The two things that play the biggest role are how we experience our actions and the fear that we need more responsibility for civil society to function properly.

I have tried to argue against both of those views saying not only can we live without the belief and free will that it would be beneficial. I consider myself what’s called an optimistic sceptic. Optimistic about the implications of free will scepticism on our lives. I argue that living without the beliefs in free will and moral responsibility in particular Just Deserts, getting rid of the notion of just deserts, and with the notion of retribution we would be better off.

Not only can we live without the belief in free will, but it would be beneficial. Click To Tweet

We could adopt even more humane and effective practices and policies if we begin to view people as embedded in social systems, as affected by social constructs, social conditioning, and socialisation. Once we begin to realise that given up this belief in free will and Just Deserts, we could look more deeply into the causes that shape individuals and their behaviours. This could lead to more effective and humane practices and policies.

I couldn’t agree more because I made the point that we go to psychologists to try and resolve our issues by doing that very thing yet when we are at a micro level. When we try to apply that at a macro level we seem to be somehow resistant that even society functions in this way. We know through decades of research that where you are born, and what socioeconomic class you are born, we know that it might not determine it from birth, but it will increase the probability of certain outcomes in your life. Whether you are born in poverty, you will end up in poverty.

One of the things I do in my other new book, Rejecting Retributivism is I lay out my arguments for free will. I lay out an alternative approach to criminal justice, but there’s a whole chapter on what I call The Social Determinants of Criminal Behaviour and The Social Determinants of Violence. This is well supported by a wealth of data. I cite hundreds of thousands of studies in this chapter that seem to indicate that the social determinants of violence are very similar to the social determinants of health. Things like poverty, low socioeconomic status, things like poor nutrition, things like environmental health, mental health, and homelessness, all of these are factors. Abuse, being exposed to violence yourself.

There’s a wealth of social determinants, and we know intuitively, for example, that these affect health outcomes. We know people who are born into low socioeconomic groups, or poverty have higher rates of type 2 diabetes, morbidity, and heart disease, but there’s no greater correlation with incarceration rates than socioeconomic status. We know that if you are born into poverty, this is going to negatively affect one’s life outcomes and could potentially have ramifications. It’s not the only determinant, there are all kinds of other factors.

One example, if you look at women who were incarcerated, there was a study that found that 85% to 90% of them had been victims of violence before their incarceration. They have either experienced domestic violence, rape, sexual assault, child abuse, or some type of violence. We have this idea of black and white, good and bad. The cowboy in the white hat is the good guy, and the person in the black hat is the bad guy, the criminal is the perpetrator, and the victim has been victimised. The line is not that clear when you look at the lives of those who are incarcerated, and you often find that they live lives of hardship. Almost all of them, the vast majority of them, have been victims themselves in the past.

85% to 90% of incarcerated women have been abused, and that abuse has affected them psychologically, and that psychological effect has had a big impact on their lives. There are multiple reasons that you might engage in criminal acts, but one of these is they might engage in a criminal act against their abuser. Most of these are in co-addictive relationships, so there’s violence, but there’s also a co-addiction. They might end up being addicted, resorting to petty crimes to get by, but often they are the ones that are forced to commit the petty crimes.

The other big cause is essentially that domestic violence, rape, or sexual assault has a psychological effect on women and unemployment rates are higher. They are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and other kinds of psychological effects of the abuse. They can’t hold steady jobs, and because of that their incomes are negatively affected, which then they resort the petty crimes to get by. If you want to prevent criminal behaviour and if you want to effectively prevent violence, the best way to do it is to address the social determinants of the actions to address the systemic causes.

The same is true across the board. For example, there’s a study done on men who committed violent acts in a prison in Boston. What they found was 50% of them had been beaten as children and 40% had seen someone killed in front of them. Think about that, 40% of those people incarcerated, committing violent crimes have themselves seen someone killed. That’s because if you grow up in a community of violence. If you grow up in an inner city where there’s gang violence all around you all the time, that’s going to have an effect on your life. We also know that high-stress environments have an effect on people.

It has a direct effect on brain development. The grey matter of the brain is thinner in people who grow up in poverty than people who grow up in wealth. We know that neurological development is affected by the circumstances, neurological development affects behavioural and moral development, which affects the outcomes and their behaviours.

The more and more we learn about how these social determinants affect outcomes the more we should begin to view individuals more holistically and see them as embedded in these systems. It also should tell us that one of the things we need to do to successfully prevent these poor outcomes is to shift the focus to prevention and social justice, to address the systemic inequalities that cause these outcomes in the first place.

The way I explain it in my mind is we go through life and every interaction with every person, every circumstance, every moment we hit a bumper. That bumper, it’s almost like a never-ending pinball machine. I’m the ball that’s hitting various bumpers as I’m going along. Every bumper is a person or a circumstance, and that changes me in whatever minute way or major way. Something might change me significantly and dramatically.

For somebody born into abject poverty, while it’s easy for us to sit on our high horse and say they have the chance if they wanted to, they could. Also, we used that small percentage of people who managed to get out to escape the trap. “They can do it.” When we peeled it back and realised they managed to hit different bumpers. There were different people along the way that bumped them in a different direction.

It’s a matter of luck. It could be a matter of meaning a supportive teacher who introduces them to a hobby that turns into their passion.

Someone who helps you fill out a scholarship application.

The luck of just meeting a friend who diverts them in a different direction. It’s sad, especially in the United States, that we have this idea the person who could lift themselves from the bootstraps and overcome all their circumstances, that they are purely self-made. It’s built into the mythology of America, this mythology of meritocracy in the American dream. It’s also wrapped up in the idea and it’s very much associated with the political right in the United States. This idea that “I’m truly self-made, I deserve all the praise for my accomplishments.” Equally, those that fail are somehow deserving of condemnation. If you are in poverty, it’s due to your lack of effort, your laziness, and your free will.

This mythology has reigned for a long time. I got Daniel Dennett to agree to a quote by Ronald Reagan in the book, which was interesting. A quote that Ronald Reagan made way before he was president. “We have to get beyond the idea that every time a crime is committed, it’s society’s fault. We have to return to the notion of individual responsibility.” Ronald Reagan was also one of the main drivers of mass incarceration in the United States. The idea is that if you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. If you view everything through the lens of individual responsibility the right response to wrongdoing is punitive, is punished.

To punish the woman who’s already been victimised. Having the negative effects of that victimisation seems like double jeopardy. You got screwed in the initial lottery, and now you are being penalised the second time for having not overcome those poor effects on you. I have an argument that we are not going to let people run free. We are not going to let violent criminals walk the streets, but we have to view them differently. This purely reactive approach is based on the idea that all wrongdoing and all moral behaviour deserve praise and rewards.

The same thing is economic policy in the United States is largely based upon this mythology as well. The reward for those who succeed. Those who succeed often have a number of advantages and matters of luck that give them these advantages. There aren’t equal starting points for all people. There are more hurdles that have to be overcome than people who have disadvantages and certain kinds of poor outcomes due to luck. Nothing that’s due to their circumstances.

This is a difficult thing for people because meritocracy is so deeply embedded in the Australian dream. If you work hard, you will make it. I read Michael Sandel’s The Tyranny of Merit. It’s a fantastic book because it peels back everything you have said particularly in the US about the success rates and in the land of the free home of the brave, how many generations it takes. He says 6 generations on average to get from the bottom 10% to the top 10%. It takes six generations, which is not part of the American dream. The American dream is that you can be a migrant and work hard, and within your lifetime, you can go from rags to riches.

That’s broadly speaking, that’s also the Australian dream in many ways. In the house with a white picket fence and 2.2 children, everybody can have that dream. Maybe not taking it away, but threatening that through this idea that free will doesn’t exist. In other words, what I have earned is not my doing. That’s a significant pressure on one’s identity because we identify with our professional achievements, we identify with who we are with our peer groups, and our social standing. That’s part of the idea of success, you need to find the social hierarchy.

I want to make sure that people don’t misunderstand the sceptical view because although I deny that agents are morally responsible in this basic sense. There are other notions of responsibility that remain in place. One of them in philosophical terms is called attributability or attributable responsibility. That means you could attribute various accomplishments to individuals. You could attribute various personality traits and achievements. I don’t deny those.

There’s a great example, I don’t know if I use it in that book or elsewhere, but there’s a quote I used from Albert Einstein. He was interviewed in a newspaper, and he was a free-will sceptic. He was a determinist, and he denied free will. They asked him about his accomplishments in general relativity and his scientific theories, and he said he deserves no praise for them, which is a radical idea. He acknowledges that you know who he is and the byproduct of his achievements is due to factors ultimately beyond his control.

You could say that, but you could also attribute it to Einstein’s creativity, originality, and thought. You could do that by basically relational kinds of assessments of his peers. You could say that compared to other physicists, he was more original. Miles Davis was more original than other trumpet players at the time. You could attribute creativity, personality traits like his work ethic and his stick to it-ness or whatever virtue he had. You could say they belong to him. You could say all of that without saying that he self-made them and he somehow deserves praise for them.

The idea is that we could still say that these achievements are yours. They belong to you as a person. We could attribute various traits to individuals. We could also say that individuals are causally responsible for various outcomes. We could say all of that again without thinking that they were self-made and that they are deserving of the ultimate basic desert for those traits, both when those traits are good and when they are bad. Einstein was able to see that, it’s a very hard thing for people to see. People see it sometimes.

For example, when one turns out well as a moral person, sometimes upon reflection, you even hear them say things like, “That was because thanks to mom and dad. I was raised well.” That might even be a common retort someone says, when you say, “You are such a good person.” You could say, “Thank my parents for that.” That’s an acknowledgement that my moral character was shaped by how I was raised and the moral education and moral direction that was given to me by these outside forces, particularly your family and your parents. That’s an acknowledgement that sometimes we could see. We tend to want to forget it when it comes to other types of achievements or character traits.

When you reflect upon those character traits, I use a weird example with my students. I say, “I’m not wearing a black shirt today, but I tend to wear a lot of black shirts.” One day a student asked me like why do you always wear black shirts? I was like, “That’s a great question. Let’s think about it.” I’m in the store. I wore a black shirt because my closet is full of black shirts but let’s go back to when I purchased the black shirt. I’m standing there in the dressing room, and my wife might hand me a yellow shirt. She says like, “You need to diversify your wardrobe.”

Let’s take that moment when I put the shirt on and look in the mirror. I’m looking in the mirror and I put on the yellow shirt and I react. We don’t control that reaction. We have no ultimate control over our likes and dislikes. We are reacting to our likes and dislikes and our preferences. I put on the black shirt, and I’m like, “That’s cool. I’m going to buy the black shirt.” I’m making my choice based on my habitual likes and dislikes, but that have been shaped by factors that go back my whole life. The climate in which I was raised. If I was raised in Hawaii where it was sunny all the time, maybe I wouldn’t like black. Some of it might have to do with my personality.

I grew up in New York City and came to maturity in New York City. The fashion sense and the pure influence of other people those things all influence your likes and your dislikes. If you don’t control your likes and your dislikes, if you don’t control your reactions, and your choices are a byproduct of those likes, dislikes, and reactions, then you are not ultimately controlling the choice.

It might feel voluntary. That’s where we can also ascribe to a voluntary reaction because it feels like I’m making a decision.

It’s a decision that ultimately is beyond my control. My wife doesn’t like mushrooms, and I say like mushrooms that piss her off more. You can just flip a switch and like something that you are habitually or maybe her texture issue or something. You can recondition yourself, but the causes for those reconditioning would itself be the byproduct of factors.

What drove you to do it?

Let’s say I eat chocolate all the time, and I believe there’s chocolate in the kitchen, and I desire chocolate. I always seem to be eating the chocolate. One day I go join Chocoholics Anonymous to try to get control of my chocolate cravings. The question would be, what would be the cause of the desire to stop desiring chocolate? Where did that come from? That itself would be causally determined by factors beyond my control. It might be my wife commenting about my weight, or my doctor mentioning my high cholesterol. It might be something I read in a newspaper, but something shifted the scales that my desire for chocolate weakened, or if it didn’t weaken my desire to stop eating chocolate got stronger.

Now I make different choices, and then I take steps to recondition myself or help myself behaviourally overcome it. That’s not the overcoming of free will. As you put it, I hit a few different bumpers and those bumpers redirected my beliefs and my desires and shifted my psychological weights such that my actions drove me in a different direction. People tend to point to those as examples of free will, but those are just further examples of how our actions are shaped by conditions beyond our control.

The conditions beyond our control shape our actions. Click To Tweet

That’s a great example. I used to be a heavy smoker many years ago, and I knew smoking was bad. I couldn’t deny it. I also wanted to keep smoking. There was this cognitive dissonance. We know that when there’s a cognitive dissonance, we will try to suppress one of those. Subconsciously or whatever, I suppressed the knowledge that smoking is bad until such time that bumper kept getting hit until such time when I realised I was struggling to walk up a set of stairs and this is having a serious impact on my life. There are a bunch of things that have driven my ultimate behaviour to quit smoking for good.

I can easily say my strength of character was my free will. I don’t think so. It was just that life has led me to the point where I have hit enough bumpers to push me in this direction. This takes me to another important point and one that is perhaps where this zeroes in. This is the idea of thought or the self, and this is maybe where my meditative practice or deep practice has made me realise how reliant we are on this idea of the self in the mind.

When I speak about this to people, I say, “If you have free will, if you are in control of the mind or the self, just stop thinking for one minute. That’s all.” That’s not going to happen because the chattering mind will awaken in a matter of seconds if you are lucky. What’s your thought? How do you define the mind, especially since you have done so much work on the theory of your mind, but then the self as well because those two are so closely intertwined?

Going back to the phenomenology of free will, the feeling we have. We have this feeling of a self that stands behind our actions and is the cause of our actions. There are various ways that we could see that that’s an illusion. There’s the personal experiential route, which you and Sam Harris and probably others have gone through meditation and seeing through and diminishing the ego and the self.

The other is cognitive science, which tells us about the mind and how the mind works. A lot of times what I like to see is that there is no robust self, and there is no unified self that stands behind our actions and the uncaused cause of what we do. A good way to get at it is also to look at how the notion and experience of the self could break down in various disorders.

There are all kinds of different ways our sense of self can go wrong. Here’s what I might call the sense of ownership. I have ownership over my actions and they belong to me and then there’s a sense of authorship. I author these actions, I author these thoughts, and I control my movements and my limbs. There are disorders where each of those can go awry and they could go wrong. They help show us how fragile the notion of the self is.

For example, schizophrenic thought insertion. Not all people with schizophrenia have this experience, but there are people who feel like the thoughts that are in their head, the thoughts that are going through their stream of consciousness do not belong to them. They are friends’ thoughts. That’s a sense of where ownership goes wrong. There are thoughts in my consciousness, in my mind and my stream, but they don’t belong to me. I don’t them in any way. When that happens, people don’t feel agency over those thoughts.

The same happens when there’s a breakdown in the sense of authorship. Many people have seen Dr. Strangelove, the classic movie, where the guy can’t control his limb. There, he’s trying to strangle himself. There are people with what’s called anarchic hand syndrome who have a limb that acts according to its volition as they describe it. They don’t feel any authorship over it. They know it’s their limb, they know it’s on their body, and it belongs to them, so they feel ownership, but no authorship. There are all kinds of these ways where the self could easily fall apart. By looking at those, you could start to reconstruct, why we have this sense of self.

In my first book, I give an account based on cognitive science and based on a particular theory of consciousness that I tend to lean towards called The Higher Art of Thought theory. I won’t get into the details, but there are various ways you could account for how that self gets created over time. It’s such a fragile thing and there’s no unity to it.

David Hume is a precursor of this Buddhist idea. He says, “Every time I reflect upon my actions, every time I reflect on this inner stream of consciousness, I never perceive itself. I only perceive a particular belief, desire, or a particular willingness. I only perceive particulars. No self, no robust thing that you would call or associate with the self.”

It gets built up over time that we collect all of these unified individual events and ascribe them to a consistent self. We start to see that self as the agent for our actions. There are various ways that could go awry and it could break down. It shows you just how fleeting and how tendential that feeling of self is. How lucky in a way we are, that we experience it. I’m not saying that it’d be better off without it. There are very important evolutionary reasons why we probably have this sense of self, but it’s unique.

One thing that always struck me is that we feel agency over certain types of mental events, but not others. We feel agency and free will over sometimes our thoughts or sometimes our actions, but we don’t have the same feeling about what I would call sensory states. When I look out my window and I see the tree in the backyard, I don’t feel like I have any free will over that perception. It’s a combination of my functioning vision and a tree that causes in me the perception of a tree. I didn’t freely bring about. We have that feeling about most sensory experiences, the pain and the mosquito bite. I didn’t freely cause those things. They are my perception of what’s happening to me.

VOW 33 | Free Will
Free Will: We feel agency over certain types of mental events but not others.


We don’t feel that way, or we feel more agency over my political beliefs, my musical tastes, my desires for certain artists, my desire for black or my preference for black. I feel like I choose that and I control that. My argument would be that both of them are the byproduct of causes, and both of them are a byproduct of factors that are triggering various things and we experience them differently because of the way we represent them to ourselves. We represent sensory states as caused by some external thing, and it’s usually because it’s present. When I experience a tree other than illusions, it’s because there’s a tree there and it’s the cause of my perception of a tree.

You can attribute that easily.

We can’t necessarily easily see the causes of our beliefs, our desires, and our preferences. They are usually diffused. They are not just one cause. The cause from my political belief is not going to be one singular event. It’s going to be a host of different events. It’s harder for us to identify them. We don’t represent them to ourselves in the same way.

Evolutionarily speaking, it would require too much cognitive energy to represent those states along with their causes. There would be no benefit. There is a benefit, evolutionarily speaking to represent not only the pain but the cause of the pain. I want to make sure I remove myself from the circumstances that are causing the pain. There’s an evolutionary benefit that we evolve so that we represent certain states along with their causes, but we don’t do so for others.

For some are just simpler because they are so self-evident. There’s a lion. I don’t need to think about this much. I know exactly where this is going to go. For my thoughts, my thinking patterns, or even my “choices” if we had various dials for all the various forces that might have impacted life. It’s just a matter of turning these dials ever so minutely differently for different people as they inevitably would have through the different bumpers that we have hit in our lives. To calculate that, it’s impossible because you can never know all the forces that were at play that turned my dials one way or another which brings us down to the absolute inevitability that things have caused what I am now and things going forward will also be caused by what’s happening around me now.

This is such a fascinating discussion. I do want to pivot to what this show is ultimately about, and that is war and conflict and maybe launch us into some slightly murkier waters, and then lead us down to the idea of your quarantining model. I want to try and figure out how this applies to geopolitics as one. It applies at a micro level, but it applies at a societal level and the global level and interplay between nations. If free will is not a thing, then it’s not a thing for civilisation, geopolitics, or relationships between China and the US. For every war that we have had, there are causes upstream that have led us to every interaction that exists. How do you view that bigger macro-level picture?

It’s complicated. How are we going to link up these issues with public policy? The connection is most apparent to me in terms of moral responsibility in conditions of conflict. This is not my area of specialty, but one area that I have thought about a little bit is sometimes what’s called transitional justice. The processes that occur after a genocide. We have to go back and figure out how best to proceed or, in South Africa, the most classic cases after apartheid, the process of reconciliation.

One way you can go is you go back, and you try to hold everyone accountable. You go back, and you hold everyone responsible for their actions. That’s one process, and that’s retributive. We go back, and we want to give all of those people their just deserts by punishing all the war criminals and punishing all the individual actors who committed wrongdoing during this war, conflict, or genocide. The other approach that they employed in South Africa, and this is more consistent with free will scepticism, is that you could first engage in a fact-finding mission. There’s nothing in free will scepticism that doesn’t allow us to acknowledge wrongs.

For example, what I call axiological judgments of right and wrong and good and bad, remain in place even if we reject the idea that individuals are deserving in some basic sense of punishment or blame. The idea is that even if say the criminal with a certain neurological disorder or a brain tumour goes on a shooting spree and kills a bunch of people. We would not attribute freedom to that individual because it was a byproduct of this tumour. Yet we could still say that what he did was bad. What happened to those people was wrong. There’s nothing preventing us from saying that. There’s nothing that requires free will for us to say that. We can still make those axiological judgments.

We wouldn’t hold him morally accountable.

We could do the same in cases where we could say that what Hitler did was wrong. We could say that the actions could be judged. We could have a fact-finding process. This is what they did in South Africa, acknowledging the wrongs done. Instead of seeking retribution and payback, they decided to move forward, engage in a process of reconciliation to reconstruct and do the best they could to affect things moving forward.

On the geopolitical level, there are different ways one could go. Different circumstances have to be discussed differently, but on one level, one thing we often do is spend too much time looking backward and too much time seeking blame. What would be most beneficial would be to consider forward-looking factors like reconciliation, forward-looking safety, “What would make us most safe and what would provide the best outcomes?” On an interpersonal level, you might also say moral formation. “I care about you as an individual. I want to do what would be more effective in shaping you as a moral being.”

If you think about it on the interpersonal level, like me parenting my daughter, for example, she does something wrong. I could be retributive. I could resort to moral anger or backward-looking blame. On the other hand, I could ask her to reflect upon her choice, and ask her to see if there was something in herself that was the cause for that choice. Ask her what she could do differently moving forward to make different choices.

That moral conversation that moral exchange would be justified not on what’s called desert grounds, not because she deserves it, but on what are considered forward-looking grounds, in particular concern for moral development. I want, as a parent, to develop a moral child to make better choices. Reconciliation and future safety. Those would be the justifications for these moral exchanges.

You could even express moral disapproval and you could even have a moral protest where you say that what they did was wrong. You could ask people to reflect upon the choices to see what we could do differently. One thing I find hard, judging people in these contexts of war and judging people in the context of conflict. Partly, it’s because of my thoughts on luck.

If you are a child born into a region and your choices are to jump on that pickup truck, grab a machine gun and start killing this group, or join the other group and jump on that pickup truck and start killing the other. Also, say, “I’m going to try to stay out of it,” but by doing so, see your sister raped and mutilated and sold into slavery, your mother slaughtered, or maybe your hands cut off as a consequence, would you be capable of murder in the right context?

What we often forget, we tend to think of ourselves as having such moral fibre and moral strength that we wouldn’t engage in certain types of acts. I could never engage in any atrocities. The sad fact is that almost anyone is capable of anything in the right circumstances. Therefore, the grace of luck goes lie. That if I were unlucky enough to be thrown into those circumstances if I were unlucky enough to be put in exactly that same situation, I might have engaged in exactly those same acts. I was just lucky enough not to be morally tested in that particular way.

No one wants to acknowledge this about themselves, but if you were a sixteen-year-old growing up in Nazi Germany and you were socialised to have those beliefs about Jews, disabled people, gipsies, and other groups. If you were socialised to have these kinds of attitudes, if you were raised in this political and economic situation, if you were put to the test of being, having authority figures tell you to engage in certain acts, would you have the strength to pass that test? The only thing we could say is we were lucky not to have been tested in that way. That unfortunate person was unlucky to have been tested in that way.

That’s a moral test that is a byproduct of luck. We just don’t know what we would do. It’s very hard for me to morally judge individuals in those kinds of contexts. That’s not to say that what they did was right, good, excusable, or that some people should just be let to go run free and say, “That was just the context of war and so we will wash it all clean and there are no consequences.” I do think we have to think about it differently.

The more we learn from psychology, the more we learn from things like the Milgram shock experiments where the person just says, “Turn it up,” and most people turn it up. You would say, “I would never do that,” to an innocent person. Shock them to the point on the metre where it says fatal. People will do it because someone in the lab told them to do it.

The more we learn about situationalism and how context can drive individual actions, the more we realise that people don’t have the strong moral character that we tend to think we have, that it’s much more situational, and there can be things that situationally can affect our behaviour in ways that necessarily aren’t because of some deep-seated values we have. Some authorities told us to do it because of peer pressure or because of the context of war or conflict. It can affect our geopolitical policies and our attitudes if we begin to think more about the circumstances.

People don't have the strong moral character we tend to think we have. There can be things that situationally affect our behaviour. Click To Tweet

That’s one of the things that I’m trying to wrestle with because notwithstanding the point you made about genocide. I come from a country Bosnia where genocide was a real thing. Also in the Australian military, we have had some of our soldiers accused of war crimes and there’s a bunch of investigations. I don’t want to question anything or even call the investigation and question. Let the court do what they need to do. One of the things that I’m trying to draw attention to is that things have probably happened, but we have to realise the context and what led to them. I try to argue against this idea of a few bad apples that have gone and done these bad deeds.

It’s broader than that. It’s the circumstance, it’s the bumpers that have ultimately led these things to occur. Where we start superimposing things over the top that we know, for example, what fatigue does to our moral and ethical decision-making. We know that if you don’t sleep enough, your ethical decision-making will degrade. If peer pressure has an impact, we know that if you have seen your peers or friends die, that will impact how you make a decision. We know that loss of a sense of purpose will impact how you make. There are all these conditions.

For example, I have done a little work on white-collar crime. We know how the culture of the unit or the particular leadership could affect it. People who commit white-collar crimes often are, let’s say you are a financial group where greed is the norm and competitiveness drives decisions. People see the opportunity for shortcuts and they take them. If there’s a culture that fosters cheating, that type of gaming system, people are more likely to succumb to the context of the culture. If you create a different culture, you could get different outcomes and you can nudge people in the right direction.

VOW 33 | Free Will
Free Will: People see the opportunity for shortcuts, and they take them. But if a culture fosters that kind of cheating, gaming the system, people are more likely to succumb to the context of the culture.


We also want to understand the causes not simply so we can forgive people or not hold them accountable, but we want to understand the condition, and the causes because we want to prevent them from happening again in the future. That’s one of the main reasons why we want to understand the contextual causes, because if you think it’s all about individual responsibility, then you don’t need to change the culture. I failed and we got the best of them. It’s not anyone else’s fault. It’s not the culture of the bank’s fault. It’s not the context of training that’s the fault, it’s the individual.

If you understand that lots of people fall into poor choices because of contextual factors, and it could be the culture of the particular business they work for, or it could be these other situational factors like fatigue and conflict. I also want the audience to know that doesn’t mean, we are excusing what they do. What we are saying is that we have to rethink our notion of dessert in this basic sense.

I have an example and I have never shared it in this context before, but my father was in the Korean War. There was a book written by a colleague of his, and my father played a big role in the book. My father very rarely talked about the war to me. He’s passed and I wish I had talked to him more, but there’s a story in the book about my father where one day he was walking down to a riverbed to get water, wash their clothes, or whatever it was. Halfway down the hill, he realised he didn’t have his gun with him. There was a woman, and every day they would have people surrendering. What they sometimes would do, and you are more familiar with this than I, but they might have a grenade with a pin pulled under their arm and when they go to raise their arm, they sacrifice themselves and blow you up.

My father halfway down the hill didn’t know what to do, and he started picking up stones and throwing them at this woman, stoning her. It’s easy for me to judge that and be like, “That’s such a wrong thing to do.” You have to think about the context of uncertainty. The context of the morality of conflict is different from the morality of everyday life. It’s very hard for people to realise that when they come back from conflict, they have been in a context where morality functions differently than everyday life, and now they are told to go back to the social norms of everyday life. That’s a very hard thing to transition to.

VOW 33 | Free Will
Free Will: The context of the morality of conflict is different from the morality of everyday life.


I can’t think of what I would do in that situation, but I also can’t blame him for doing what he did in that situation. Even if it turns out to be an innocent person, you don’t know the epistemic uncertainty of the case. The fear that gets the best of you when you are eighteen years old and you are at war or in conflict. The maturity of youth in conflict.

You also have to remember these are 18 and 19-year-old minds operating in life-or-death situations. In a context where we don’t even trust these people to drink and drive or to be able to drink legally. It’s such a bizarre concept that we give them guns and expect them to engage in high-level decision-making of life and death in the context of uncertainty and stress.

This is not to excuse the decision-making but to understand that it could be a byproduct of the culture of the leadership. Like what happened in Vietnam, a lot of it came from the top down, probably a lot of what happened in Abu Ghraib and the atrocities that happened there. We hold the individual privates accountable for what they did but it’s probably the culture of the leadership that allowed for that to happen, and they don’t get held accountable.

I found it interesting that Philip Zimbardo, who ran the Stanford Prisoner’s Dilemma very much deals with this. He was the chief expert defence witness for the sergeant that ran the centre in Abu Ghraib which is amazing because he’s after Stanford Prisoner’s Dilemma. As most of our audience will know, that’s a social context that drove certain behaviours. He recognised that if this is the recipe you have got, you can’t be surprised with the product you get at the end. Realising that the recipe you have will give you a very small finite number of outcomes. If you don’t understand what the recipe is, then don’t be surprised if you don’t understand the outcome. This discussion ultimately is to land exactly on this point that circumstances will dictate behaviour ultimately beyond the control of the individual.

Circumstances will dictate behaviour beyond the control of the individual. Click To Tweet

I don’t think people realise how expensive that is. In my first book, I spent a lot of time on literature and social psychology. I have to acknowledge some of it has been thrown into doubt with this crisis of replication. Some of the findings are now not as clear as they used to be. There is at least a wealth of information on how situational factors can influence choices. Some starling ones. For example, when you go to a liquor store, they find that if you are playing classical music, people will spend 10% more on a bottle of wine than if you are playing the Top 40.

The amazing thing about this situational effect is that when people asked, “Do you think the music had an impact on your purchase?” They deny it. Not only are they not aware of the situational effect of their choice, but they also deny that there was any sexual effect on their choice. Yet we could see over and over again how easy it is for these factors to influence our choices.

For example, the colours of the wall can influence mood. I can almost guarantee you that if you go to any psych ward in the country, you are not going to find the walls painted fire engine red. That’s because they are painted with soothing, calming colours, and so are schools because they know certain colours could have certain effects on one’s emotional states, and those emotional states could affect behaviour.

There’s an example that goes back, it’s the birth of this literature when they had payphones around cities. They placed the dime in the return. A lot of people check the return to see if there’s any cash in there before they make a phone call. They had someone, an actor, essentially walked by and dropped papers, and the effects couldn’t be any greater. What they found was that 90% of the people who found a dime in the return stopped and helped the person. Only 10% of the people who did not find a dime stopped and helped.

If you ask a person, why did you help or why did you not help? You are going to say something about your moral character, or you are going to say, “The person was in need, and so I helped them.” You might think, I’m the person that would help someone in need. These findings show it’s not about character, it’s about circumstances. The general explanation is that finding a dime, even though it’s inconsequential, puts one in a good mood. When one’s in a good mood, they are more likely to help others.

The power of framing. Like Robert Cialdini’s persuasion.

There are thousands of these kinds of findings that show us how very small, crazy, and inconsequential things could nudge us in various directions to make various decisions. Amazingly, we know this. When we think about consumerism and advertising, people spend millions of dollars in picking the logos and the colours and paying for placement on various shelves. We know if a product is placed at eye level, it’s more likely to be purchased than if it’s at a higher or lower level.

Look at social media now. These algorithms know us better than we know ourselves. We know this to be true. “I need shoes because six months ago I bought a pair of shoes,” and the algorithms were calculated to know how much I have tracked my running. It’s going to be time for new shoes. All of a sudden, the ad pops up on my Facebook. These algorithms know us better than we know ourselves. We know this to be true, but we deny how programmable we truly are, which I find fascinating.

I want to acknowledge the fact that you are spot on. When I talked about genocides and war crimes and so on, this is by no means to suggest that they are excusable in the sense that they are okay. They are wrong. We need to invest the time to understand what has led to these things as opposed to merely blaming the individuals.

I want to touch on your quarantining model because that’s a critical question. If we do accept free will scepticism, or if we deny that freewill exists, one of the inevitable responses that I experienced with most people is, “So what? You just let every criminal do what they want.” What’s going to stop me from becoming a murderer? How do we deal with a crime if we, on a societal level, accept that conditions do create behaviour, and therefore we can’t just blame the individual as we have in the traditional sense?

My book, Rejecting Retributivism: Free Will, Punishment, and Criminal Justice, is my attempt to spell out this account in its fullest form. I have been developing it for a number of years, and it builds off work done by Derk Pereboom as well. It’s called the Public Health Quarantine Model, and it has the public health part and the quarantine part. The quarantine part is pretty straightforward.

The idea of something like this, while free will scepticism is true, then no one is morally responsible in this basic dessert sense. Therefore, criminals wouldn’t be morally responsible in this basic dessert sense, but neither are people with communicable diseases. Let’s say I travelled to Australia to have a drink with you in person or something, and along the way, I contracted Ebola, so I tested positive when I arrived in Australia.

Everyone would agree that the state would be justified in quarantining me and limiting my liberty. It has nothing to do with the fact that I have free will or am morally responsible for having contracted Ebola. Retribution and punishment don’t even seem fitting in this context but the justification for limiting liberty and quarantining the individual would be the right of self-defence and preventional harm to others. As we all now know with the COVID situation, we could justify restricting liberty and quarantining individuals on the grounds of public health and safety.

The argument for the analogy would be that we could develop an incapacitation account for seriously dangerous criminals. When you have a serial killer child molester or repeat violent offender, we could justify incapacitating them, meaning holding them, restricting their liberty on the grounds of the right of self-defence and preventional harm to others, analogous to the justification we have for quarantining people with communicable diseases. We could say that serial killer needs to be incapacitated because they pose a forward-looking threat to society, and we could restrict their liberty to protect public health and safety. The re-justification is the right of self-defence.

You could do that without appealing to free will or assuming moral responsibility, retribution, payback, or giving them their just deserts. I want to make a couple of things clear when you do that, a number of important reforms follow and are important for how we would implement this in the criminal justice system. For one, not only do I view it as non-retributive, I view it as non-punitive. Meaning no punishment at all. An alternative to punishment. You don’t punish the Ebola patient, but by no intuitive definition as a punishment, yet you are restricting their liberty.

What I would argue is we are justified in restricting the liberty of these individuals, but we are not justified in dehumanising them, disenfranchising them, or stripping them of all their other basic rights. For me, you could justify quarantining me at the airport because I have Ebola. You can’t justify taking away my voting rights or telling me I can’t apply for public housing. All of those disenfranchisements and all those issues that we see, like voter disenfranchisement and housing disenfranchisement associated with the criminal justice system, especially in the United States.

VOW 33 | Free Will
Free Will: We’re justified in restricting the liberty of these individuals, but we’re not justified in dehumanising, disenfranchising, or stripping them of all their other basic rights.


The other thing would be when you quarantine the individual, the story doesn’t end there, you have a moral duty to treat that Ebola patient and then release them the minute they are no longer communicable that they could spread the disease. What I would argue is that the criminal justice system would have to reorient itself to rehabilitation and reintegration. The goal should be to re-rehabilitate and reintegrate people as quickly as possible, and you lack any justification for continuing to hold them the minute they are no longer a threat.

It’s not about giving them just deserts for what they have done. It’s about protecting society. The right of self-defence allows me to limit their freedom, but only to the extent that is necessary. I embrace what I call the principle of least infringement. You have to adopt the least restrictive measure possible, consistent with we are protecting public health. This means many of the things we incarcerate people for are better dealt with by alternatives to incarceration. If I sneeze on you and you get sick, I have caused you some harm. We don’t quarantine people for the common cold. We restrict quarantine to very rare, very extreme, and very precise limited cases.

I would say the same thing for incapacitation. We shouldn’t use it as a default for all criminal wrongdoing. It should be restricted to only very extreme sorts of violent crimes. When you look at the statistics, going back to what I suggested, this is at least true in the United States, and it’s true in lots of places like Australia and England. The vast majority of people in the United States who are imprisoned have a diagnosable mental illness over 50%.

Some studies put it at about 64% of jail patients have a mental illness. It’s much higher among women, 75% of women incarcerated have a diagnosable mental illness. Many of them would be better dealt with by mental health services that our jails have become de facto mental health institutions, which they are not suited for.

Many people incarcerated in the United States are incarcerated for low-level drug possession or underlying addiction problems that cause them to commit other criminal acts. Many of them would be better dealt with by drug treatment. My model is also consistent with the decriminalisation of many things we incarcerate people for. The legalisation of marijuana, for example. We have to re-evaluate why we incarcerate people, how long we incarcerate people for, and whether the offences that we incarcerate them for reach the level of threat to public safety that we deem that we should. In many cases, you will see that better alternatives exist.

The public health part, which is the innovative part, is to reorient the focus to prevention and social justice. We already have a well-established public health framework for addressing health outcomes. When you look at infant mortality rates around the world, let’s look at India, and why are children dying in childbirth at higher rates. What you will often find is that these poor health outcomes are the byproduct of underlying social injustices.

VOW 33 | Free Will
Free Will: Reorient the focus to prevention and social justice.


In this case, largely sexism. Women don’t have reproductive control over their bodies. They don’t have access to birth control. They often have no say in how many children they have. They often lack literacy so they can’t leave their husbands if they want to or work for themselves. If you address the underlying inequalities, often infant mortality rates equal out, they drop.

What you often find is type two diabetes, that’s higher in poorer Black and Brown communities and heart disease, and it’s often due to structural injustices. They don’t have access to persistent, consistent healthcare. If you had universal healthcare, access to healthcare, preventative care, or these poor health outcomes go away or equalise.

What we want to do then is if you see violent or criminal behaviour as a byproduct of social determinants, the public health framework says that what we should do is identify the social determinants, prioritise them, and then figure out best practices for how to address them and how to address the social underlying structures that caused the behaviour in the first place.

What I want to do in my work is move us away from the reactive approach where we simply react to crime with punitive measures to a preventative approach where we see individuals holistically as embedded in social systems and adopt practices and policies that are aimed at prevention and addressing racism, sexism, structural inequality, educational inequity, unequal access to healthcare, and homelessness.

What you will figure out is that this is going to produce better outcomes. It’s more effective than traditional punishment, it keeps us safer and it’s better for all of society. You have a self-interest in it because, in the end, you are better protected, and you are less accepting of violence. It’s a win-win and it’s more humane.

The preventative approach is more effective than traditional punishment, and it keeps us safer and better for all of society. Click To Tweet

I owe you a story of, I’m a free will sceptic, what do I do with the serial killer? I could justify incapacitating them but I also want to acknowledge that there will be dangerous people and there will be a need for quarantine and incapacitation for the foreseeable future. That’s not to say that we should view everyone as responsible and therefore give them their just dessert. We need to incapacitate them for our safety. On the other hand, we also need to fix the circumstances and change them so that other people don’t end up in the same place.

That’s right. The guardrails that we have enough evidence to support this. I and my partner lived in Sweden for years. It is a different relationship between the citizen to the state and the state to the citizen, and how you are viewed. The guardrails that exist to allow you not necessarily equal outcomes but equal opportunity, at least from what I could see the most well-meaning way. It’s not utopia, and there isn’t utopia, but it certainly has many characters that I would like to see in Australian society as well.

The way the state is viewed and the way the state views the citizens is vastly different from what we are used to. Also, it’s far more empathetic, and this is what you are suggesting, as well as the idea of free will scepticism, it would immediately make us more empathetic to other people’s suffering, as opposed to allowing us as it does now to get on our high horse and say, “It’s their fault.”

Especially when you realise, given the wealth of data, that crime is the byproduct of circumstances that the people and the lives of the individuals, if you go into a prison and you look at the lives of those people who are incarcerated, they are filled with hardship, abuse, and injustice. We have this idea that, “Would you want to be judged by your worst act?” What we do is take the worst deed that someone has done. We tag them with that. We label them like scarlet letters for the rest of their lives. Which excludes the possibility of redemption and rehabilitation. It tags you as a criminal or a felon, and therefore you are a felon for life.

Not to forgive people or to just excuse people, but to say that we know that there are byproducts that drive these things. We want to change those. We also want to rehabilitate people both for their well-being and for my well-being. We all have a stake. You mentioned the Scandinavian countries, they are not fully there, but they are closer. They have a system that is focused on rehabilitation and reintegration. Far less punitive, far less retributive. They understand the investment part of it, and they get better outcomes.

Less recidivism, far lower rates.

If you think about the United States makes up only about 4.5% of the world’s population. It’s a small segment of the overall population, but we house 25% of the world’s prisoners. That is the highest rate of incarceration known to any civilisation. We incarcerate 700 people for every 100,000 people. In Norway, Denmark, and Sweden, there are about 60 people for every 100,000. Australia is 170 for every 100,000. We are incarcerating ten times as many people. 1 out of every 31 Americans is somewhere in the criminal justice system. Parole, probation, prison, and jail, somewhere in that net, 1 out of 31. It’s a highly criminalised society.

The United States makes up only about 4.5% of the world's population, but we house 25% of the world's prisoners. Click To Tweet

We have poor outcomes. We have one of the worst rates of recidivism, which is repeat crime. It’s nearly 76% of prisoners will be rearrested within the first 5 years of release. Norway, and countries like that, have one of the lowest rates of recidivism. Somewhere around 20%. They incarcerate such a smaller population, and for a much shorter period of time, 90% of people sentenced in Norway will serve less than a year. Only about 10% of people serve more than a year. Whereas the vast majority of people in the United States are serving lengthy sentences. Many are serving either life sentences or virtual life sentences means they are going to die ageing out in their sentence. We are not better off for this.

One of the reasons is we take a punitive approach. We take the person, and we strip them naked when they arrive. We cage them, we house them in humane environments, and we control every aspect of their lives when they eat and when they wake up. We deny them educational opportunities and work training, and then we release them and expect them to be model citizens. It intuitively doesn’t make any sense. What we find is that prison educational programs alone reduce recidivism by 40%. It saves money. Every dollar we spend saves us $5.

VOW 33 | Free Will
Free Will: Prison educational programs alone reduce recidivism by 40%.


That figure alone is a 40% reduction purely through education. I’m sure the researchers sound and repeatable, and that should drive policy.

People have this strong individualistic streak. They have beliefs. “I can’t even afford to send my kid to college. Why should taxpayers pay and send prisoners to college?” Part of the reason is it’s in your self-interest, and the other part of it is it saves your taxpayer dollars. If you don’t, every $1 we spend, saves us $5 because of the property damage that creates the cost of society. The legal fees, the court fees, and the fees that it costs to house individuals in prison. All of us are paying for that. We are paying more than if we were to simply provide them with training, and opportunity and give them the skills necessary to succeed.

You are spot on. Why would I pay for prisoners and criminals to get an education when my children can’t? It comes down to this idea that in our capitalist societies of individualism and meritocracy, everybody gets their just deserts whatever they fund. I’m blown away. I knew I would enjoy this conversation, but I have enjoyed it far more than I thought I would. Thank you so much. I know we touched on many different subjects, but is there anything that you find is important that we haven’t touched on that springs to mind?

There’s so much more, but this is a good place to leave it. I have enjoyed our conversation. It’s great that people yourself included, are seeing connections even beyond the areas that I have worked in. Thank you for the work that you do as well.

I’m fascinated and looking forward to getting your book in the mail in the coming days that I look forward to reading. Thank you very much for your time. I hope you have a wonderful day.

Thank you.


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