Evolution News and Views (ENV) provides original reporting and analysis about the debate over intelligent design and evolution, including breaking news about scientific research.

Evolution News and Views
Culture and Ethics NEWS

Jerry Coyne and Clarence Darrow on Free Will

At Why Evolution Is True, Jerry Coyne continues his defense of the view that hard determinism is true and that we have no free will, now with a paean to Clarence Darrow.

Clarence Darrow (1857-1938), a Chicago attorney who lived only two blocks from where I now reside, is one of my heroes. You'll surely remember him as the defense attorney in the Scopes "Monkey Trial" in 1925, the man who conducted a brutal cross-examination of William Jennings Bryan about the veracity of the Bible. 

But the Scopes trial was only one case in a long and distinguished career, one in which Darrow fought relentlessly for the underdog, whether that be socialists, laborers, or blacks. He took on many unpopular causes, and was one of the founders of the American Civil Liberties Union. 

I don't have the space here to recount his many achievements, or explain why I admire him...

Coyne provides some video highlights of his hero, and continues.

[Coyne] Reading Darrow's writings, and his closing argument in the Leopold and Loeb case, I was struck by how often Darrow brought up his view that criminals have no choice about their actions... Darrow's philosophy is evident in his moving speech for Leopold and Loeb:

[Darrow] Why did they kill little Bobby Franks? Not for money, not for spite; not for hate. They killed him as they might kill a spider or a fly, for the experience. They killed him because they were made that way. Because somewhere in the infinite processes that go to the making up of the boy or the man something slipped, and those unfortunate lads sit here hated, despised, outcasts, with the community shouting for their blood. . . I know, Your Honor, that every atom of life in all this universe is bound up together. I know that a pebble cannot be thrown into the ocean without disturbing every drop of water in the sea. I know that every life is inextricably mixed and woven with every other life. I know that every influence, conscious and unconscious, acts and reacts on every living organism, and that no one can fix the blame. I know that all life is a series of infinite chances, which sometimes result one way and sometimes another. I have not the infinite wisdom that can fathom it, neither has any other human brain. But I do know that if back of it is a power that made it, that power alone can tell, and if there is no power then it is an infinite chance which man cannot solve.

[Coyne] That was not a rhetorical strategy: Darrow really did believe that. 
Here's another quote from Darrow on the "delusional" nature of free will:

[Darrow] "There are a lot of myths which make the human race cruel and barbarous and unkind. Good and Evil, Sin and Crime, Free Will and the like delusions made to excuse God for damning men and to excuse men for crucifying each other." 

Coyne provides Darrow's money quote:

[Darrow] The reason I talk to you on the question of crime, its cause and cure, is because I really do not in the least believe in crime. There is no such thing as a crime as the word is generally understood. I do not believe there is any sort of distinction between the real moral condition of the people in and out of jail. One is just as good as the other. The people here can no more help being here than the people outside can avoid being outside. I do not believe that people are in jail because they deserve to be. They are in jail simply because they cannot avoid it on account of circumstances which are entirely beyond their control and for which they are in no way responsible. [emphasis mine]


Darrow was prescient in realizing that the lack of free will had serious implications for the criminal justice system. If you want to read more about his views on free will, see Tamler Sommers' short essay, "Darrow and determinism: giving up ultimate responsibility."

Coyne is right about this. Darrow was indeed prescient in his insistence that the assertion that we lack free will would have profound implications, on the criminal justice system and on our civilization. 

Deterministic denial of free will, and the denial of the relevance of actual guilt and innocence in the conduct of human affairs, would shortly assert itself with force in several of Darrow's socialist utopias, both of the German national socialist and the Soviet international socialist types. Hannah Arendt, in Origins of Totalitarianism, noted the essence of totalitarian rule: 

Totalitarian rule confronts us with a totally different kind of government. It defies... all positive laws... but it operates neither without guidance of law or is it arbitrary, for it claims to obey strictly and unequivocally those laws of Nature or of History from which all positive laws always have been supposed to spring... Its defiance of positive laws claims to be a higher form of legitimacy... [and] can do away with petty legality. Totalitarian lawlessness pretends to have found a way to establish the rule of justice on earth, something which the legality of positive law admittedly could never attain.

Arendt concludes:

Totalitarian lawfulness, defying legality and pretending to establish the direct reign of justice on earth, executes the law of History or of Nature without translating it into standards of right and wrong for individual behavior.

Arendt understands that it is precisely the concept of guilt under law that totalitarians extinguish. In the totalitarian state, positive law (actual laws as enacted) are not the standards of state action against the individual. The totalitarian state is uninterested in whether an individual has broken statutory law-- uninterested in actual legal guilt for having committed a statutory crime. The totalitarian state is interested in Natural and Historical Law, which is not statutory but rather ideological. 

Clarence_Darrow_detail.jpgIn a totalitarian state, a cold-blooded murderer is not guilty if his act is in accordance with Natural Law. His victim is not innocent if his life in a violation of Natural Law. Positive law -- actual guilt according to written laws -- is irrelevant to totalitarianism. The state treats individuals in accordance with "higher" laws of Nature and History. 

Darrow's (and Coyne's) embrace of hard determinism and denial of free will is not merely the denial of guilt under the law. It is the cornerstone of totalitarianism. It is the denial of innocence. If no one is guilty under the law, then no one is innocent under the law. The state, in the Darrow/Coyne utopia, is not an agent of retribution under the law, but an agent of sequestration, rehabilitation, and deterrence (to use Coyne's chilling words).

In Darrow's and Coyne's deterministic utopia, actual guilt for having committed an actual crime is no longer the sole justification for legal intervention. Without law based on actual guilt or innocence, it is the responsibility of the criminal justice system ("justice"?) to sequestrate and deter -- that is, to stop deviance before it occurs.

Darrow again:

I do not believe there is any sort of distinction between the real moral condition of the people in and out of jail.

Why do Darrow and Coyne believe that the failure to distinguish between the people in jail who committed actual crimes and the people out of jail who did not commit crimes would necessarily lead to fewer people in jail? If there is no moral distinction between people who break the law and people who abide by the law -- if it does not matter to the criminal justice system whether an actual crime has been committed -- then there's nothing to stop the state from incarcerating people for the purpose of sequestration, rehabilitation, and deterrence ("Arbeit macht frei"), regardless of whether they have broken any law.

In Darrow's and Coyne's determinist utopia, one suspects that prisons would fill up briskly. But why speculate? Suspects generally outnumber perpetrators. Were the gulags and concentration camps ever lacking for rehabilitatees? 

Retribution, for all its distasteful connotations, respects man's dignity. It pays a man back for what he has done -- no more, no less. It is the only moral basis for criminal justice. It should of course be tempered with mercy (an old Judeo-Christian idea), but the concept that the criminal justice system should only intervene against an individual when that individual has actually committed a crime and been judged guilty thereof is a cornerstone of human liberty. 

Sequestration and deterrence without adjudication of legal and moral guilt are methods appropriately limited to livestock management. 

Human liberty depends on recognition of free will. The deterministic denial of free will, which eschews retribution and replaces it with sequestration, rehabilitation and deterrence, leads not to utopia but to Dachau.

Photo credit: Clarence Darrow/Wikicommons.