Sunday, November 28, 2010


Some philosophers think prepunishment makes compatibilism philosophically hard to swallow. If we know someone will commit a crime beyond a reasonable doubt, why shouldn't we be able to punish them before they commit it? A compatibilist seems to have no principled way of avoiding implementing prepunishment despite its unattractiveness to our moral sensibilities.

I once argued in a paper that it's not the fact that we have a Kantian respect someone's decision making faculties to make the choice their own (that is, until the time they actually make it) that makes prepunishing them so distastful to our moral sensibilities but our hardwired Strawsonian psychological constitution which can't help but input moral demands and capacities on them and when they violate such demands, produce the reactive attitudes on our behalf. Our hardwired reaction prevents us from assessing the thought experiments involving prepunishment the way they are intended.

But now I think there may be some other reason as well also set apart from Kantian respect for people's decision to commit the crime "up to the last moment".

Consider two people, A and B. Both are equally good at shooting a gun and have equal evil motivations at killing a rival.

A points a gun at his rival and shoots. He hits his rival and kills him.

B points and shoots in exactly the same way and for the same reasons and motivations as A and by some turn of chance, a strong wind blows his bullet a fraction of an inch off target thereby just barely missing B's rival.

Both are caught by authorities and charged with crimes. A with 1st degree murder which carries a 25 year sentence and B with attempted murder which only carries a 5 year sentence.

Both did the same thing but in A's case, he kills his rival. Why should the law and our moral sentiments treat the two cases differently when the difference (wind) was out of the control of both? A seem to deserve harsher punishment and is guilty of worse but has done nothing that was in his control worse than B. If a certain theory of action is correct, then A did the exact same thing as B but receives far harsher punishment and moral judgment. Notice that we only know what to charge the defendant after the crime takes place, not after when he has completed the action he has control over.

I'm not sure why we intuitively judge this to be the case and if such a judgment is sound.

This seems to be where the very same intuitions come into cases of prepunishment. We are hesitant to judge because we doubt that someone could so be determined or destined to commit a crime. We don't know if a crime will be commited (or what kind it will be) till after it has been. This is a bias and prejudice against the existence of determinism or perhaps our predictive abilities rather than a bias against compatibilism per se. This bias prevents us from accessing the scenarios of prepunishment as they were intended to be, I think.


  1. I think part of the reason that attempted murder is less harshly punished than successful murder is that you don't want to motivate someone to think "might as well finish the job now that I've started." If we gave both A and B the death penalty for their actions, then B would have no reason not to shoot a second time, since the punishment is already as great as it can be.

  2. That's a possibility. In which case my example would be relegated to the apparent asymmetry in moral, as opposed to legal, judgment of retributive desert. Legal punishment sometimes contain pragmatic and thus non retributive considerations such as giving people motivation to not finish off his rival if so he should miss.