Both my books (Dead Lemons and Pancake Money) touch on these concepts (or try to at least), hence their inclusion here. That line “Self-Determination and Morality Meets Crime and Punishment” can more accurately be read as “Something-that-doesn’t-exist and Something-we-can’t-define Meets Something-we-don’t-understand and Something-that-doesn’t-work.”

When I think of it, it always makes me smile and helps me take life just that little bit less seriously. Because it reminds that the human brain is clearly unsuited for the job of thinking, and it’s probably best if we build more machines to do our reasoning for us.

As oxymorons go, this one has layers.

Self-determination, or the simple notion that there’s a “conscious you” thinking and making decisions; that “you” that’s basically in charge of you, is becoming harder and harder to believe, let alone prove. To appropriately creepify this concept, try to realize that the “you” choosing to read this sentence really isn’t choosing at all. In actuality, there are various sneaky parts of you that get together to make the calls and then trick the “real conscious you” into believing that you made that decision after the fact. Simply put: You are not in control. You are not really you. (Not a safe, warm feeling, huh?)

Various branches of science ranging from neuropsychology to quantum physics are steadily disproving our sense of self, agency, and free will. If you want to read more (assuming that the rest of you will allow you to think that you had the ability and inclination to choose it) you can start with these authors: Benjamin Libet, Itzhak Fried, Marcel Brass, Simone Kuhn, Amir Javadi, Angeliki Beyko, and Vincent Walsh.

It gets even worse when we try to define what morality is.

A couple of thousand years ago, the ideas of right and wrong and good and bad were mostly underpinned by religions—basically morality translated as “God tells us what to do.” Most religions, of course, were led by old men of various cultures.

In time, religions made room for philosophy (in some places) and this changed morality from the basic “God tells us what to do” approach to the more crafty “God told us what to do but if we don’t like the answer then we can get really smart people to tell us what God actually means instead.” (Which should make you wonder what the pope is really up to these days.)

Over the past millennia, the fields of philosophy have, again, overwhelmingly been led by old men.

In the last few centuries, both religions and their attached philosophies have also had to make increasing room for the average person. Enter politics. Whether it be by democracy or socialism, people have decided that they, too, should have a say in defining what’s right and wrong and good and bad.

Finally, all this has helped develop the general operational concept of morality into the honest (but probably stupid) “We mostly tell ourselves what to do but act like we don’t really.” Plausible deniability for us from us. You will, of course, notice that most politicians and lawmakers are still old men.

Now imagine morality as it exists within a given person.

That one brain (which may or may not be entirely sane—but don’t get me started on that) will have to contend with the competing and often shifting internal and external pressures of their personal experiences and understandings of religion, philosophy, and politics, and somehow make day-to-day decisions that are still “good” and “right.” (Without actually having self-determination to do it with anyway).

Now consider crime.

Or rather, let’s complicate the sometimes conflicting forces of right and wrong and good and bad by adding legal and illegal to the mix. Now that brain has to do what it thinks/feels/senses to be “right” and “good,” but also factor in whether it’s “legal.” If this still sounds easy to you it means you have money. Enter basic economics.

Before you protest, let me change that to “have enough money” not to have to face the really hard moral choices on a daily basis.

Go to parts of Africa, Asia, the Americas, and various bits in between, and put yourself in far too many people’s shoes (if they’re rich enough to have them): Would you kill someone to feed your starving child or watch her die? How about just hurt them then? And it’s not a watershed test. It’s a lifestyle. So keep in mind that you’re likely going to have to make the same decision in a few days’ time. Still sure you’re going to find the “right,” “good,” and “legal” way forward every day? Every time?

(Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it.)

And then, finally, there’s punishment.

Within the context of crime, this usually translates into some kind of consequence of hardship ranging from fines and restrictions all the way up to corporal punishment, prison, and death.

They are intended, once all the lofty rhetoric and pretentious jargon is removed, to hurt you (and scare everyone else).

The origin of the word “punish” in Latin literally means “to inflict pain upon.”

The pain is meant to impress upon you the simple message, “Don’t do that!”

The problem with pain is that it only seems to work as punishment when it is used within close relationships (like parents and kids), where punishment is balanced by reward and (hopefully) encapsulated in a loving relationship. (Even here there’s a fermenting miasma of confusing academic debate, so take the above as true at your own risk, as have I.) This loving relationship (happy thought) is a key factor in our integration of morality in the first place and also (as it turns out) helps build those bits of you that actually make the decisions the conscious you only thinks it does.

But when the human mind encounters pain from sources beyond these close relationships (like, say, random accidents and incidents, or the consequences of a legal system), it can have much more interesting results.

Enough pain won’t just change the behaviour the punishment intended. It can (and very frequently does) do a whole lot more (and by more I mean worse.)

Even a novice neuroscientist will tell you that enough pain can significantly change how the brain senses, prioritizes, stores, and uses information. Doctors, therapists, and counselors (and Secret Service interrogators) of various ilk will eagerly concur. Victims of all kinds of pain (accident, illness, war, abuse, etc.) will attest the same. Pain can change, almost entirely, your mind. The problem is, we don’t always know what to (although the balance of evidence-based research will tell you where crime and punishment is concerned, it’s going to be something bad).


Not only does that brain have to make “right,” “good,” and “legal” decisions based on the changing internalized models of the above that do not always agree, while using the free will it doesn’t really have, in balancing personal needs with external (potentially biased) laws and regulations buffeted by an uncertain socio-economic context defined by political agendas that may be far from fair (while also not necessarily being able to distinguish what it wants from what it needs, assuming of course that this outcome is contextually possible and the brain involved is also sane).

It needs to do it perfectly, forever.

Otherwise, the pain resulting from criminal punishment will likely make it even harder to get it right next time. Harder still the time after that. And so on. (Ever wonder why reformed criminals are so rare?)

So what, you may wonder, is my point?

(Difficult to say, I’m not really in control of me anyway.)

But I’d like it if my point was something along the lines of the following:

1.      Don’t judge people too fast. It’s a lot harder for some than for you.

2.     It’s probably time to bring back the death penalty. It’d be less cruel.

3.     When are we going to stop listening to old men? They’re clearly a  problem.