Thursday, July 8, 2010

Lines Drawn in Battle Between Free Will and Determinism

NPR has a philosophically fascinating special series called "Inside the Criminal Brain."  The whole series is worth a look, but I want to focus on a specific case:
"When the police arrived at Bradley Waldroup's trailer home in the mountains of Tennessee, they found a war zone. There was blood on the walls, blood on the carpet, blood on the truck outside, even blood on the Bible that Waldroup had been reading before all hell broke loose.

"Assistant District Attorney Drew Robinson says that on Oct. 16, 2006, Waldroup was waiting for his estranged wife to arrive with their four kids for the weekend. He had been drinking, and when his wife said she was leaving with her friend, Leslie Bradshaw, they began to fight. Soon, Waldroup had shot Bradshaw eight times and sliced her head open with a sharp object. When Waldroup was finished with her, he chased after his wife, Penny, with a machete, chopping off her finger and cutting her over and over."
So what makes this gruesome murder a front line in the battle between free will and determinism?  Join me below the fold...

A fundamental tenant of traditional criminal law is that people have free will and should be punished when they exercise their free will in a criminal manner.  That's why criminals get punished by going to prison, losing their right to vote if they are a felon, receiving the death penalty for murder, and so forth.

If free will did not exist, punitive measures like these would seem barbaric and difficult to justify.  Instead, our criminal justice system would refocus on treatment, rehabilitation, and non-punitive detention for people who pose a threat to society.  So how does this tie into the Waldroup murder case?

Waldroup confessed to killing his wife's friend and attempting to kill his wife with a machete.  This seems like an open and shut murder case with a strong possibility for the death penalty.  However, Waldroup was only convicted of voluntary manslaughter and given a substantial but relatively lenient sentence of 32 years in prison.

(Voluntary manslaughter differs from murder because it is a "heat of the moment" killing in a situation where a reasonable person would be upset; the classic example is a husband who catches his wife in an act of infidelity.  By contrast, murder is an intentional, premeditated killing.)

Waldroup's lawyer convinced the jury to convict him of manslaughter instead of murder because his actions were not a product of his free will, they were a product of his genetics and childhood abuse.  Waldroup's genes were analyzed and a so-called "warrior" gene varriation was found.  People with this "warrior" gene are four times as likely as the population at large to commit a violent crime.  Thus, the jury found, Waldroup did not "choose" to kill the woman and batter his wife.  Rather, his actions stemmed from an innate, uncontrolled reflex.  

This genetic argument is a new element in criminal law, and will only become more controversial and entrenched as time progresses.  The first human genome was mapped in 2003 at a price tag of $3 billion.  By today, hundreds of genomes have been mapped and the cost is about $10,000 per genome.  Thus, genetic analysis has only recently been feasible on an individual scale like the Waldroup case.

And thus the first shots against free will are fired by determinism in the age of genetics.  I suspect that the more we learn about genetics and genetic expression, the more predictable (and deterministic) people's behavior will become.  Free will is probably on the start of a long fall from grace.  Even the uncertainty principle --  a fatal wound to determinism if applicable to genetic expression -- is unlikely to save free will since it simply introduces chaos as an element as opposed to the intelligent order inherent in the idea of free will.

Since I lean towards determinism myself (I'm not fully committed or persuaded), I think the manslaughter verdict was probably appropriate.  32 years is a very substantial sentence, and I genuinely believe that it probably reflects the proper proportion between the harm he caused and his diminished responsibility for causing the harm.  I also think that when he gets out of prison in 32 years as an old man that he is highly unlikely to pose a threat to society.

My only criticism of the case is not with the principle of determinism but with its application in the particular case.  As I mentioned, the first human genome was mapped in 2003.  We have barely scratched the tip of the iceberg of understanding the role that genetics, genetic expression, and our environment plays in our decisions.  I think it may be dubious to point at a single "warrior" gene and make a genetic argument without complete knowledge; perhaps Waldroup also has a "saint" gene that sets off the "warrior" one.

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