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Free Will

Why Do Free Will Beliefs Matter?

Recognizing the limits of free will affects how we treat moral and criminal offenders.

Key points

  • Blame and retribution require a belief that offenders have free will and could have behaved differently.
  • The criminal justice recognizes degrees of free will and personal responsibility.
  • Punishing offenders feels good and may deter bad behavior, but compassion increases overall well-being.

I ended a previous post on free will by suggesting that assumptions about free will have "profound implications on practical matters such as moral and criminal responsibility, blaming and praising people, and appropriate consequences for misbehavior." The current post explores these implications.

What Kind of Free Will is Required to Blame a Person?

In the aforementioned post on free will and in a follow-up post, I emphasized how two people can disagree about the existence of free will because they define free will differently. But when we blame someone for harmful behaviors, there is only one conception of free will that makes logical sense, which is that a person acted intentionally and could have behaved differently under those circumstances.

Belief that (1) someone's harmful behavior was intentional, and (2) that the person could have behaved differently is the basis for attributing moral responsibility in everyday life and criminal responsibility in the justice system (Guidry, 2024). Our intuitions tell us that if someone's behavior was purely accidental instead of intentional, or if they were not free to behave differently, then we are less justified in blaming them.

Implications of Limited Free Will for the Criminal Justice System

Our modern criminal justice system recognizes that obvious brain malfunctioning can reduce a defendant's free will. For example, people with schizophrenia sometimes hallucinate voices that tell them to harm people (Docherty, et al., 2015). Or someone with a brain tumor can have an irresistible urge to kill (Johnson, 2018). Neuroparasites can disrupt brain functioning (McAuliffe, 2017). When people with obvious brain abnormalities commit crimes, the court system is likely to recommend therapeutic intervention rather than punishment.

In addition to physical and mental illness, the criminal justice system similarly recognizes other so-called "mitigating factors" that reduce a person's free will. The prefrontal cortex (PFC) of the brain, which plays a central role in making plans and regulating our emotional impulses, does not fully mature until the mid-20s and declines in old age. Most juvenile offenders are not charged as adults because the court system recognizes their immaturity in emotional regulation.

Hormones, drugs and alcohol also adversely affect the PFC. Premenstrual syndrome is recognized as a mitigating factor in Canada and England, but not the United States. Although drug addiction and alcoholism are regarded as diseases by the medical establishment, the criminal justice system in the United States has mixed views on chemical intoxication and criminal culpability. Alcohol and drug use are generally seen as voluntary, free-will choices that do not excuse criminal behavior. At the same time, courts may require treatment in a rehabilitation center rather than imprisonment, depending on other details of the case.

In short, the criminal justice system (a) recognizes reduced or even absent free will in the clearest cases of brain immaturity or malfunction, (b) is ambivalent about free will when hormones or ingested chemical substances affect behavior, and (c) assumes that everyone else has enough free will to be held fully responsible for their behavior.

Robert Sapolsky's Call to Recognize Absence of Free Will for All Criminal Behaviors

Robert Sapolsky (2023) would like the criminal justice system to recognize that nobody is completely responsible for his or her behavior, so that there is no justification for punishing people for even the most destructive criminal behavior. Just as the public eventually came to understand that persons with epilepsy were not responsible for seizures (before the advent of modern medicine, people believed that persons with epilepsy were making free choices to consort with The Devil and were consequently burned at the stake) and people with certain brain tumors were not responsible for their impulsive behaviors, we should realize, says Sapolsky, that something has gone wrong with the brain of every single person who commits a crime, even if we cannot locate the problem in a specific brain structure. Instead of punishment for crimes, Sapolsky says that we should (1) focus on protecting the public from future crimes by the offender by isolating them, (2) where possible, find ways for the offender to make reparations, and (3) where possible, rehabilitate the offender.

A Place for Punishment and a Place for Compassion

Sapolsky argues that it is wrong to punish criminals for their misbehavior because they can't help but behave the way they do. He believes that the main reason that we punish criminals is that human beings enjoy watching wrongdoers suffer. We enjoy revenge and retribution. While understandable from an evolutionary perspective, the desire for revenge is a barbaric emotion that Sapolsky thinks we should not give in to.

There is, however, a rationale for punishing criminals, which is that punishment can be a deterrent (Winegard, 2024). It can make offenders less likely to repeat a crime and also serves as an example to others of what can happen if they commit the same crime. Evidence for the deterring effect of punishment is mixed; sometimes it works, sometimes it does not. The same is true for punishing children who misbehave. The same is also true for blaming normal adults for their mistakes and scolding them.

We should keep in mind that there are many kinds of punishment and different lessons learned with different kinds of punishments. A child who is physically beaten for breaking parental rules may learn to be sneakier about breaking rules. He or she may also learn that violence is an acceptable way to control other people. There are more civilized, compassionate alternatives to physical punishment that can reduce misbehavior while teaching offenders other, more socially acceptable options for living a fulfilling life (Clark, 2010). In your personal relationships, you might also find that compassion is more effective than blame, moral indignation, and retribution for cultivating psychological well-being.


Clark, T. (2010, February 23). Freedom from free will [Radio broadcast transcript]. NPR.

Docherty, N. M., Dinzeo, T. J., McCleery, A., Bell, E. K., Shakeel, M. K., & Moe. A. (2015). Internal versus external auditory hallucinations in schizophrenia: Symptom and course correlates. Cognitive Neuropsychiatry, 20(3), 187-97.

Guidry, J. (2024). Free will, determinism, and the criminal justice system.

Johnson, M. (2018, January 30). How responsible are killers with brain damage? Scientific American.

McAuliffe, K. (2016). This is your brain on parasites: How tiny creatures manipulate our behavior and shape society. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Sapolsky, R. M. (2023). Determined: A science of life without free will. New York, NY: Penguin.

Winegard, B. (2024, February 13). In defense of free will and punishment. Aporia Magazine,

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