Naturalism and Punishment: Real World Implications for Criminal Justice

Recently I corresponded with Issac Bailey, a thoughtful journalist in South Carolina, about criminal justice, responsibility and the death penalty. Our dialog eventually appeared in the Sun News of Myrtle Beach, SC as part of a series about faith and ethics. Below is an amended version which includes portions of my original response that were edited out of the newspaper version for reasons of space and simplicity. Issues raised include the capacity for self-control and its exercise, whether there’s something beyond environment and heredity that explains human behavior, and the implications of all this for the aims and functioning of the criminal justice system. If we accept a scientific understanding of human behavior, we should end retributive punishment, including the death penalty, and reform criminal justice to focus on crime reduction, community restoration, victim restitution and offender rehabilitation.

Available in the archives of Myrtle Beach Online are Bailey’s original article about convicted killer Stephen Stanko, our published dialog, and others' comments, mostly to the effect that Stanko should die. Sad but not surprising, given widespread beliefs in libertarian free will.

The Sun News, Myrtle Beach, SC

September 18, 2006, page C1


Sun News editor's note: This weekly series of dialogues moderated by columnist Issac Bailey is designed to help provide depth and bring a variety of views on faith and ethics topics to a public forum.

Bailey: People such as Stephen Stanko, who was convicted of murder and sexual assault, don't deserve the death penalty because they are a product of their environment and genetic makeup.

That's essentially what Tom Clark of the Center for Naturalism in Somerville, Mass., told me through e-mail after reading about Stanko's trial and the local reaction to it. It's more nuanced than that, though, which is why I wanted to provide him space to explain a belief he says is grounded in solid scientific reasoning and research.

According to the center's Web site, it is a nonprofit "devoted to increasing public awareness of naturalism and its implications for social and personal well-being.'' 

I asked Clark: Why do you believe Stanko had no control over his actions?  

Clark: Stanko had no control over his genetic endowment and his upbringing, the combination of which gradually created his character and propensities for criminal behavior. But I think it's incorrect to say Stanko had no control over what he did. After all, he wasn't completely insane. Had a police officer been present, he wouldn't have committed his crimes. Rather, it's that his capacity for conforming his conduct to the law - what we mean by self-control in this context - was severely compromised by various causal factors having to do with his genetics and upbringing. He lacked enough impulse control, plus had other dysfunctional, antisocial characteristics, for this horrific behavior to occur.

Bailey: I believe things such as genetics and the environment influence behavior but doesn't cause them, meaning it might be harder for someone like Stanko to resist the urge to commit violence but he can choose to resist nonetheless.  

Clark: It's important to see that the extent of one’s capacity to resist violent urges can only be judged by one's actual behavior. It's not a matter of having this capacity and just choosing not to exercise it out of one's own uncaused free will. To say that it's harder for Stanko to exercise control is just to say that his capacity for control is severely compromised, compared to our (normal) capacity; so he behaved criminally, while we do not.  All this could be fully explained if we knew enough about his genetics and life history.

If you believe that “things such as genetics and the environment influence behavior but doesn't cause them,” then you believe, as do most people, that there is this third thing, this uncaused free will independent of genetics and environment, that does cause behavior. But then you have to explain where that will comes from, and why it chooses the way it does. If you can't answer those questions, you're appealing to a mystery, and if you do answer those questions, you'll see that it all ultimately boils down to environment and heredity as they create the person. There's nothing besides these that figure in causal explanations, according to science.

The significance of all this for the death penalty, of course, is that if you suppose Stanko has free will, and just chose not to refrain from killing, then he deserves to die since he's a self-made monster in some sense. But if we take the causal story of his character and behavior seriously, we can't suppose that he could have done otherwise.  

Bailey: Given that view, what, exactly, should be done with the Stankos of the world, given the crimes they commit?

Clark: If, as I believe, we should be creating a less punitive, less dangerous society, then we want to reinforce nonviolent models of behavior and make inmates better, not worse. Right now, the death penalty and many prisons model the worst sort of behavior imaginable - killings, rape, isolation, degradation - and thus further damage inmates, many of whom will eventually be released, helping to perpetuate the sort of society that's causing crime in the first place. Once we drop the free-will-based, retributive justification for punishment, there are still valid objectives of criminal justice, including public safety, deterrence, rehabilitation, community restoration, and victim restitution. My recommendation for what we do with (and for) Stanko:  

  • To ensure public safety, Stanko should be securely segregated from society.

  • To help deter others contemplating similar horrific crimes, his sentence should be a minimum of 20 years.

  • To help rehabilitate him to the extent possible, the facility housing him should provide effective, evidence-based programs that teach him social and job skills of the sort he should have had in the first place. Treatment for addiction, mental illness and other behavioral health problems should be provided as well.

  • For community restoration, his work requirement should be designed to produce some tangible benefit to the communities he terrorized, such as participating in a supervised crew doing clean-up, construction and other necessary work he's capable of doing.

  • For victim restitution, Stanko should, with proper counseling and guidance, be led to understand just how badly he's damaged his victims' lives and those of the victims' families. He can then be required to apologize directly to his victims and their families, and provide continuing restitution to them in the form of work done on their behalf. All this takes the victims' needs into account, a very important aspect of criminal justice.

  • Conditions of release: Stanko's release from segregation should be contingent on the determination that he no longer presents a risk to society and that he has fulfilled the obligations of his sentence related to community restoration and victim restitution.

Clark concludes: Focusing on Stanko is just part of the solution, assuming we're interested in reducing crime and not merely in meting out just deserts. You could challenge your readers to reconsider their retributive instincts by visiting the Criminal Justice page, and suggest they address the vital questions of what social conditions create Stanko and others like him, and what can we do to prevent other such human horrors. The basic issue is, what sort of a society do we want to be? A society that executes those unfortunate individuals who are caused to become murderers or a society that addresses those causes?

Comment from Nils Rauhut, chairman of the Department of Religion and Philosophy at Coastal Carolina University: Thomas Clark raises some interesting questions about causality and freedom. I agree with him that we do not fully understand the relationship between causality and freedom. It is a mystery how we can be free, although all events are caused by the past. The honest conclusion to draw from this is that we do not quite know to what degree we can act differently than we indeed do act. However, this does not mean that we have to abolish any system of punishment. Although we do not exactly know how free we really are, it is a matter of fact that we treat each other as if we are responsible. We cannot avoid that.