The Turpins, polyamory, and a deterministic legal system

Jerry Coyne is once again mocking other atheist leaders for not being vocal enough in support of determinism. He is befuddled as to why Dawkins and others won’t come out and champion his old school determinism, mocking them as Scholars of Repute, Big Thinkers, and  Brainy Ones.  Okay, so we’re starting to see splinters among the Gnus just as we’re seeing them among the social justice crowd.  But I’d rather focus on his naive arguments.

To his credit, Coyne brings up some recent news that illustrates the absurdity of the determinist position:

For instance, suppose someone said—discussing the recent case of David Allen Turpin and Louise Anna Turpin, who held their 13 children captive under horrendous circumstances in their California home (chaining them to beds, starving them, etc.—”Yes, the Turpins people did a bad thing, but they had no choice. They were simply acting on the behavioral imperatives dictated by their genes and environment, and they couldn’t have done otherwise.”

Indeed.  The parents tortured and harmed their children for decades, and their genes and environment made them do it each and every day.  And then when they concocted ways to hide their abuse from the world, their genes and environment made them do that too.  And when the 17 year old escaped to call 911, no one should credit her for bravery because, well, her genes and environment made her do that too.  You see, it’s nothing but shear LUCK that prevents the rest of us from chaining our starving kids to a bed, right?

Coyne writes:

If you said that, most people would think you a monster—a person without morals who was intent on excusing their behavior. But that statement about the Turpins is true!

Yes, Coyne does come across as someone trying to excuse their behavior.  He casts them as the victims, being more concerned about how they are treated by the legal system than what they did to their children.  Yes, Coyne objects to this perception, but his objections are weak and mealy-mouthed.  And yes, we know Coyne thinks that statement about the Turpins is true, but that is merely his opinion rooted firmly in his materialistic worldview.

But let’s turn to the more interesting part:

Now how the Turpins are treated by the law is different from saying that they had no choice in their behavior: causes and social consequences are not the same issue. As I’ve argued many times, saying that people had no choice in committing a crime is a statement about “is”s, not “oughts”, and there are very good reasons to incarcerate criminals, though in a way different from what we do now. But grasping determinism, as I, Sam, and people like Robert Sapolsky believe, would lead to recommending a complete overhaul of our justice system.

Okay, so let’s think through the deterministic overhaul of the legal system and how determinists would react to the Turpin crimes.

In the determinist mindset, there are only three reason to incarcerate someone: 1) To deter others from doing the same crime; 2) To protect society from the criminal; and 3) to provide an opportunity for rehabilitation.

So in the determinist world, the prosecutor would have to make the case for at least one of these in order to lock the Turpins up.

So let’s all play the role of the Defense in the determinist world.  How might Turpins’ lawyers argue?

First, is there any evidence that locking up the Turpins would deter others from doing the same crime?  Here the lawyers could pull out the statistics, arguing the incarceration has a minimal effect on deterrence.  They could even get more specific – the vast majority of people don’t chain their kids to beds and starve , neglect, and torture them.  They don’t need some courtroom “message” about deterrence.  It’s unnecessary.  They are naturally repulsed and appalled by such parenting.  As for the minority that are not, they are already so screwed up that any message about deterrence is unlikely to get through. So it would seem any prosecutor would have a hard time making the case that the Turpins need to be locked up because it would help deter such behavior in the future.   That’s quite the leap of faith.

Second, the defense could easily argue that the Turpins pose no threat to society.  Yes, they harmed their own children, but there is no evidence they ever harmed anyone outside their immediate family.  Locking up the Turpins to keep people like you and me safe is silly nonsense.

Third, the defense could argue that rehabilitation is required, but there is no need for it to occur in jail.  That is, since the Turpins don’t pose a threat to others, and there is no evidence to indicate jail time would act as a deterrence, why not simply put them on parole and mandate that they receive therapy?

You could even go for it all and argue there is no evidence that the type of long term behavior displayed by the Turpins can be rehabilitated.   It’s too late; the brain is deeply hardwired.   So why not simply release them with the instructions they are not to contact their children again?

It would seem to me that in a deterministic legal system, the Judge would have to give in to the defense’s request.  Being a hardliner, the Judge is unwilling to waive rehab, and the Turpins are released, instructed to have no contact with their children, and attend mandatory rehab sessions.

So let’s add a plausible twist.  Given the Turpin’s polyamorous ways, they might actually view this sentence favorably, being freed of their children so they can go out and explore the thrills of the polyamorous lifestyle.  However, they leave the state and drop out of rehab.  They couldn’t do otherwise, as their genes and environment made them do it.

So what do we do now?  Put them in jail for not attending rehab?  On what basis?  Should they now be required to attend rehab designed to teach them the importance of rehab?  And what if they then skip out on that rehab?  One might argue that they should be jailed to send the message that that if you skip out on rehab,  you go to jail.  But what if that message is already very widely known?

Okay, so let’s put them in jail in the first place to force them to receive therapy.  But how would you ever know if the rehab was a success?  After all, we would not want to keep rehabilitated people locked up, would we?  I suppose you could bring back some of the children and have them stay with their parents for a few months to observe if they are good parents now, but since the Turpins would know they are being observed, we couldn’t rule out they were just play acting to get out of jail.

What a mess!  What rational, sane person could possibly believe this convoluted, bizzaro deterministic legal system is supposed to be significantly better than what we have?

Look, if you are a determinist, practice what you preach.  Human beings lock other human beings up because of the genes and environment make them do it.  Live with it.

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7 Responses to The Turpins, polyamory, and a deterministic legal system

  1. TFBW says:

    In the determinist mindset, there are only three reason to incarcerate someone …

    Any determinist who thinks that has already failed to be a proper determinist. In the determinist mindset, there is only one reason to incarcerate someone: one incarcerates someone because one is acting on the behavioural imperatives dictated by one’s genes and environment, being unable to do otherwise. No sane and consistent determinist thinks that anything “needs to be changed,” because reality is already following the only possible pattern it can: the one determined by the laws of physics. If one changes anything, it’s not for any principled reasons, but simply because such change is compelled by behavioural imperatives dictated by one’s genes and environment. Any principled reasons which accompany the action are mere spandrels: decorative embellishments with no true causal impetus.

    I give Jerry Coyne an F grade for his muddle-headed attempt at applied determinism.

  2. Julian says:

    Jerry and his ilk claim that teaching a child about Christianity in one’s family life is child abuse, except when the ACTUAL CHILD ABUSERS are committing acts they’d normally have no problem with. Then, they are the victims.

  3. stcordova says:

    So what would Coyne say to those carrying out vigilante justice on those evil parents? Should the vigilantes be excused, like say permanently. Well if he says, “yes”, then no need to overhaul the legal system since it is a collective representation of all the “deterministic” entities out there. He’s a buffoon of a logician.

  4. Dhay says:

    As Michael points out, Jerry Coyne’s views (and Sam Harris’, Robert Sapolsky’s, Raoul Martinez’s, and a few others) on determinism and crime get very silly very quickly.

    For instance, suppose someone said—discussing the recent case of David Allen Turpin and Louise Anna Turpin, who held their 13 children captive under horrendous circumstances in their California home (chaining them to beds, starving them, etc.—”Yes, the Turpins people did a bad thing, but they had no choice. They were simply acting on the behavioral imperatives dictated by their genes and environment, and they couldn’t have done otherwise.”

    If you said that, most people would think you a monster—a person without morals who was intent on excusing their behavior. But that statement about the Turpins is true!

    If you said that …”? But Coyne has declared that statement is true! Coyne, unambiguously and emphatically — the exclamation mark is original — has said that.

    So what does Coyne tell us “most people” would think about people (Coyne’s “you”) who might say that or actually do say that? What does Coyne tell us most people would think about Coyne himself?

    Ah yes, that Coyne is a monster, a person without morals.

    *

    Sam Harris, Robert Sapolsky, Raoul Martinez, Jerry Coyne, old Uncle Tom Cobleigh and all. Coyne tells us most people recognise these as monsters, people without morals: would you leave them in charge of an old grey mare?

  5. Dhay says:

    Here’s another possible reason why the Brainy Ones avoid determinism. They may think—as Dennett has said explicitly several times—that if people believe they’re puppets controlled by the strings of their genes and environments (which they are), it will rip society asunder, for our feeling of agency, which we need to somehow confirm as real, is a potent social glue.

    But for decades people said the same thing about religion: “We can’t disabuse people of their belief in God, for society would fall apart.” As we know from Scandinavia, that’s simply not true. And I really do believe that if people intellectually grasped determinism, society wouldn’t fall apart, either. For one thing, our feeling of agency is so strong that grasping determinism wouldn’t turn us into do-nothing nihilists. Although it’s an illusion, so is the notion of the “I” in our brain. Life will go on when we believe in determinism but still have our evolved feeling of agency.

    The first thing to note is, “Although [agency is] an illusion, so is the notion of the “I” in our brain.” That “agency is an illusion” entails “so is the notion of the “I” in our brain” — ie the self is an illusion — (and vice versa, that if the self is an illusion, so is agency) is pretty obvious to me. So how much of a gap is there between Sam Harris and Coyne on these essentially Buddhist teachings, this essentially Buddhist philosophy; not a lot.

    Coyne emphasises his claim (and Harris’ etc’s) that people are “puppets controlled by the strings of their genes and environments (which they are)” — it’s something else which “is true!” The import of which is that instead of controlling yourself (or in other words, instead of exercising self-control) you — or what you think you are, that “I” — you are a helpless puppet dangling on the strings of genes and environment. And as Raoul Martinez points out, to Coyne’s obvious approval and agreement, you don’t choose your genes, you don’t choose your environment. Which means we are the helpless puppets of impersonal forces over which we have no control — in the view of Coyne & Co.

    Let’s be more explicit about what this means: instead of being conscious deliberative agents choosing our actions, we are like a flag blowing in the wind of whatever happens to happen, we are ourselves just happening to happen. We cannot choose to be evil, we cannot choose not to commit murder or other major and minor crimes, we cannot choose to be better than evil people or criminals, we cannot choose to be better people than we are. The Coynian zombie puppet is beyond good and evil.

    Well, that’s the Determinist narrative, the one which seems to follow from both the mechanically material universe of Coyne and the child-like ‘consciousness is primary’ ** ‘don’t see it, it doesn’t exist’ thoughtless meditational naivety of Harris.

    ( ** “Consciousness is the one thing in this universe which cannot be an illusion.” — See Harris’ Meme #4 and many other places, he really takes it seriously.)

    If you don’t accept the Materialist Determinist and Buddhist Determinist narratives, you won’t accept Coyne & Co’s conclusions.

  6. TFBW says:

    Jerry Coyne says:

    As I’ve argued many times, saying that people had no choice in committing a crime is a statement about “is”s, not “oughts”, and there are very good reasons to incarcerate criminals, though in a way different from what we do now.

    I’ve already stated that Coyne is lousy at applying his determinism. I’d like to add a little more detail to that from a slightly different angle.

    Note here how he says that the lack of choice in committing a crime is a statement about what is, not what ought to be. In contrast, his prescriptions for the justice system are about what ought to be — what we ought to choose — even though the same system consists entirely of people and their judgements. If it is a matter of fact that people have no choice in committing a crime, then it should follow that people also have no choice in their handling of the judicial side of the equation. How could determinism apply to one but not the other? And if determinism applies to both, then the suggestion that we “ought” to do anything in terms of judicial reform suffers from the exact inconsistency it was intended to address.

    He implicitly assumes that justice is not subject to determinism. Epic fail.

  7. Dhay says:

    Let’s assume that all criminal justice systems need reform; let’s assume that in the US and UK an instance of what needs reform is the disproportionate stop-and-searching, arrest and incarceration of Black people. Scene set.

    Assuming, as I think Jerry Coyne does, that this is a problem needing of a solution, you’d have thought he would be advocating for a change in the powers and practices of stop-and-search, diversity and equality training for police officers, a free legal aid system which supports alleged offenders by providing the funds and advice to prevent innocent people pleading guilty merely to get a shorter sentence when pleading not guilty in a railroaded system — another reform Coyne might reasonably seek, there — will result in a much longer sentence, re-education of offenders, treatment for the mentally ill; or there’s the more general strategy of reducing crime by reducing poverty and improving social conditions: in short, there’s lots of practical measures Coyne could be advocating for.

    But what Coyne repeated advocates for seems to be to send the public on a philosophy course to learn the brand of no-free-will deterministic materialism Coyne favours. Even if it were not a pie in the sky idea, what practical use is that?

    I’m a cynic: although it might appear that Coyne is using no-free-will determinism to argue for reform (or major changes, anyway) for the US criminal justice system — he’s oddly silent about the civil law branch of the justice system, why’s that — I wonder whether it’s the other way around, that Coyne is using the issue of criminal justice reform, which he knows will appeal to the political views of many in his fanbase, to push his no-free-will determinism.

    The OP-linked Coyne blog post indicates it’s no-free-will determinism which is primary for Coyne, the criminal justice system (with the civil justice system not worth so much as a mention) presumably secondary:

    What I want to know is why many intellectuals avoid discussing determinism, which I see as one of the most important issues of our time.

    *

    This quote jumped out at me in passing; it’s from a blog article by former Editor Andrew Potter on competition between newspapers, it’s entitled “The news is not about information (or, why everyone hates the media)”:

    The best analogy I can think of is with the adversarial legal system. Neither the prosecution nor the defense are interested in “justice” — they are interested in portraying their case in the starkest possible terms. The accused is a violent sadist who should be locked away for years. No, he’s an innocent victim of circumstance. The outcome of this process is what we call justice.

    http://induecourse.ca/the-news-is-not-about-information-or-why-everyone-hates-the-media/

    Two things: the quote nicely describes the strongly polarised views of PZ Myers and Coyne respectively on criminal justice:
    https://shadowtolight.wordpress.com/2018/01/12/myers-vs-coyne/#comment-22274

    And Coyne is portraying his case in the starkest possible terms, as an adversarial advocate. Like the prosecution and defence advocates in the quote, is Coyne actually interested in criminal justice? At all?

    *

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