The Freedom of Susan Smith

This focuses on free will, responsibility and punishment from a naturalistic perspective, using the example of Susan Smith, who was found guilty of drowning her two children in a South Carolina lake.  A central point is that plausible explanations of a crime rule out the existence of a freely willing agent that could have done otherwise in a given situation.  This means that retributive justifications for punishment can't find a footing in free will, therefore the retaliatory motive for the death penalty is likely to diminish.  Nevertheless, a full causal explanation of Susan Smith's act does not constitute an "abuse excuse", since we must enforce sanctions to ensure a civil, safe society.   This paper originally appeared as a cover story for the Humanist and has been reprinted in The Critical Reader, Thinker, and Writer, Mayfield Publishing, 1997.


Most of us strongly object to the idea, raised from time to time, that we don't have free will. Such a suggestion seems almost unthinkable, or needlessly pessimistic, and we ordinarily reject it out of hand. After all, not having free will seems to threaten the very foundations of moral judgment, and contradicts the undeniable feeling that our future is open to us. Most of us suppose, rather, that if the tape of history were replayed we could have done otherwise in virtually all situations. Even if every factor coming to bear at a given time - even our own motives and desires - were the same, we could have made a different choice. The essential "I" rules, shaping behavior in a way that can't be fully accounted for by our genetic inheritance, our life history, or our immediate circumstances. We want to believe that in some essential respect the self stands outside of nature and culture, bearing originative responsibility for its acts. Morality is secured by the existence of this blame- or credit-worthy self.

On the other hand, we very much like to explain things - in particular, what makes us tick. We want to know how the human body works, what causes mental illness, what lies behind crime and deviance, what determines sexual preference, what accounts for addiction, obesity, poverty, creativity, religious fanaticism, etc., etc. In short, there is nothing in human behavior that isn't, in this scientific age, being exhaustively scrutinized from a causal perspective. The interacting effects of biology and society on the individual are enumerated, classified, built into theories and useful rules of thumb, and generally we congratulate ourselves at our success in discovering the springs of action.

Could there be, perhaps, just the slightest tension between these two predilections? We really can't have it both ways, after all. We can't, for instance, conduct a serious investigation of what caused Susan Smith to let her car slide down the ramp into a South Carolina lake, two children strapped inside, while also believing that the act must be finally attributable to her own free will. To believe the latter is to render a causal explanation of her crime superfluous, since no matter what the physical and psychological conditions were at the time, she could have done otherwise. On the other hand, to believe that Susan Smith did not have free will seems to undercut the requirements of justice. If she was not raving mad (and it seems likely she was not) then a complete explanation of her act that omits mention of free will seems to exonerate her. No wonder, then, that the conflict between scientific explanation and our cherished exemption from natural causality is so rarely made explicit, and no wonder it so often the subtext of our debates about responsibility.

It is also the source of a good deal of political disagreement. Liberals are fond of pointing to the social and economic causes of crime, addiction, and poverty, while conservatives are more likely to hold, as Justice Clarence Thomas put it recently, that these factors are merely the "modern excuses" for failings that derive essentially from free personal choices. The liberal interest in rehabilitation and the conservative penchant for punishment are closely linked to these opposing stances, one of which understands the individual as the potentially malleable product of outside factors, while the other insists that persons, at bottom, are self-made, hence deserving of just rewards and punishments.

Of course this distinction is not quite so clean. For example, many liberals wince at the biological determinism of The Bell Curve, and conservatives often justify welfare reform on the grounds that behavior is indeed responsive to external, government controlled incentives. Hardly anyone - yet - is the sort of pure, hard determinist that gladly bites the bullet of causal explanation, and no one, however insistent about the existence of free will, denies the obvious, that behavior is at least partially a function of social and biological conditions. Nevertheless, in our debates about human nature and behavior the opposition between causality and freedom is often the forensic fulcrum. Attitudes towards welfare recipients, drug addicts, the homeless, the mentally ill, homosexuals, the obese, as well as criminals, are frequently conditioned by the underlying supposition that the ultimate cause of someone's problem or status lies in their choice, finally, to be that way. It is time to begin the public, explicit questioning of this assumption, however uncomfortable it may occasionally make us. Only by doing so are we likely to come to grips with the basic structure of our disagreements.


This questioning, in fact, is well underway, but not yet very public or explicit. The academic philosophical debate about freedom of the will has, of course, continued on in articles and books too technical for most readers. And most would suppose that such hermetic discourse has little to offer the wider world in all its messy practicalities. But it is not that philosophical investigations into the concept of free will are inapplicable to everyday life (many such investigations have explored real world consequences), but that the conclusions reached, for the most part, are inimical to the standard lay belief in free will - the belief that we are in some important sense the uncaused originators of our acts. The vast majority of modern philosophers dismiss this notion as incoherent, and take the position that free will consists simply in being able to act, without hindrance, on one's desires and motives. And desires and motives, like everything else in the world, have causes.

This so-called "compatibilist" view - in which free will is compatible with determinism - is a far cry from the idea of our being uncaused originators. It is not, to put it mildly, what most people suppose they possess, or what they suppose we must possess in order to be moral agents, deserving of praise and blame. We do not want to be told that our free will is just a matter of negative freedom, the freedom from constraint. We like to believe, rather, in the radical, positive, libertarian freedom that permits the self to determine behavior without the self being completely determined. Only such freedom, after all, confers the status normally thought necessary to deserve approval and censure, reward and punishment. It is no surprise, therefore, that philosophers find their investigations and conclusions widely ignored. The compatibilist version of free will is simply not the sort of free will most of imagine we have, and we don't much appreciate having our cherished notion of human causal privilege denied. Most of us outside the academy are incompatibilists, seeing a basic contradiction between determinism and moral responsibility.

This no doubt explains as well why explicit challenges to free will in the popular media are few and far between. Since so much seems to depend on having it, why rock the boat? Yet some challenges have been mounted, most recently and notably by Robert Wright in his book The Moral Animal. In a chapter entitled "Blaming the Victim" Wright pulls no punches, showing how the increasing success of scientific explanation must shrink the domain of libertarian freedom to the point where we might as well admit that "we are all machines, pushed and pulled by forces that we can't discern but that science can." Paul Cotton, writing about free will in the Journal of the American Medical Association (3/93), also worries that "Science may be on a collision course with one of society's most cherished beliefs." Leaving aside the question of whether, if determinism is true, it is useful or apt to describe ourselves as machines, Wright's conclusion about free will - that it is simply a delusion without intelligible foundation - is not a little disquieting, and perhaps for this reason has been passed over in reviews of his book.

After all, isn't it simply crazy to suppose that first, we really don't have free will, and second, that society could get along without it? Isn't our intuition that usually we could have done otherwise indisputable, and wouldn't it obviously invite havoc into our lives if it were shown that people, in fact, are not originatively responsible for their behavior? Given the apparently dire consequences of challenging the existence of free will, it seems the height of journalistic irresponsibility even to raise the issue. But, in fact it isn't crazy to suppose we don't have the libertarian sort of freedom. Indeed, most academic philosophers believe precisely that, our intuitions notwithstanding. Nor is it unimaginable that society could function successfully in the absence of this assumption, since these same philosophers, along with Wright, have argued that our personal and social goods can emerge unscathed in a fully deterministic world. Given that this ground has been broken, but not yet made particularly visible, the next step is to legitimize a vigorous public debate on free will. Those who question it are not totally off their rockers, nor do they threaten everything we hold near and dear. They may, in fact, offer the best hope for achieving a less punitive society - if we can suppress the affront to our dignity long enough to give them a fair hearing.


The Susan Smith case is a good place to start reconsidering free will, since the commission of the crime was never in question, only why it was committed. If the scene were replayed, could Susan Smith have done other than what she did that night, or was her act simply part of an ineluctable train of events? The case illustrates the tension between the desire to blame and the desire to explain, and shows how the retributive impulse, always linked to the assumption of free will, fades when a causal explanation of a crime is forthcoming. A Times report on the trial by Rick Bragg captured the polarity nicely in the first two sentences:

Her lawyers are expected to argue that Susan Smith has been the victim of destructive relationships and influences since she was born, swept helplessly through life like a cork down a quick-moving creek.

The prosecution is expected to paint her as a scheming monster who lied to her hometown and the entire world for nine days, blaming a phantom carjacker for the disappearance of her sons before confessing that she had drowned the two little boys in a dark lake. (N.Y. Times, 7/9/95, p. 16)

After her confession, sentiment in the town swung dramatically between these positions. The "scheming monster" view of Susan Smith held sway immediately following the revelation that she had concocted, out of whole cloth, the story of her children's abduction by a black carjacker. What could be a better sign of a deliberate, freely willed crime than the fabrication of an alibi, maintained as a bare-faced lie for nine days under intense national attention? If anyone deserved the death penalty sought by the prosecution, it seemed Susan Smith did. But as time went on, and details of her life became public, perceptions changed. It turned out that the "monster" had an early history of depression and mental instability, well hidden behind a facade of cheerful normality. Her biological father had committed suicide shortly after her sixth birthday and she later suffered sexual abuse at the hands of her stepfather. Onlookers began to consider that perhaps Susan Smith had not created herself out of whole cloth, that perhaps her state of mind at the time of the murders was the fatal culmination of a life history and recent events which she neither planned nor controlled.

Such considerations, not unexpectedly, began to soften support for the death penalty. After all, when we start to understand the causal history of a person's behavior, we ordinarily tend to blame them less and our desire for retribution abates. This is so because one sort of explanation, the explanation involving an autonomous, freely willing agent deserving of retributive justice, is supplanted by another - that of antecedent causes and influences. Retributive rage is fueled by our belief that an autonomous agent-self is in control, and when the existence or capacities of the agent are called into question, as they were in Susan Smith's case (and in other "abuse excuse" cases such as the Bobbitt and Menendez trials) the rage diminishes.

The defense could not argue that no such agent existed in Susan Smith, for that would have gone far beyond the pale of judicial precedent, even though science supports such a view. Rather, they had to play by the current rules of the game, and try to show that the agent was substantially incapacitated by mental disease or defect, an argument made marginally plausible by her history of abuse. The bone of contention between defense and prosecution was thus the status of the presumptively autonomous self. Was the potential for freely willed choice present or not? Did Susan Smith have, in legal parlance, the "capacity to conform her conduct to the law," or, even though she undoubtedly appreciated the wrongfulness of her act, was she in the grip of an "irresistible impulse"? The outcome of the trial would hinge on the extent to which the jury bought the defense's argument that the forces of her remote and recent history overrode the assumed ability to freely choose right over wrong.

Under the rules of the game - that is, under the presumption of free will - the prosecution's case looked far stronger, since unless the defense could prove a substantial mental defect (which a history of depression and abuse does not necessitate) the jury might well have imposed the ultimate penalty. The prosecution had merely to make it plausible that Susan Smith was in control that night, that she freely selected her actions in the service of depraved motives. Since she chose to kill, she deserved to die.

But why, some pesky philosophers and scientists (or any inquiring mind) might have asked, did the freely willing Susan Smith choose to kill? If she was not compelled by circumstances to this heinous deed, why didn't she choose otherwise? Had the prosecution been forced to answer such questions it could not, of course, have cited any influences on her (that is the defense's tactic after all, since it tends to exonerate), it could only have cited her motives, for instance the self-aggrandizing desire to promote an affair with her wealthy employer's son. But even then, the assumption about free will is that even a motive or impulse is not sufficient cause for an act, since the agent could have chosen to ignore its prompting. So again, the question repeats, why didn't Susan Smith decide to ignore the selfish desire to better her lot in life, especially considering the means she hit upon?

At this point the prosecution would have had little to say, except that Susan Smith, out of her own free will, simply chose not to ignore it. (Again, the prosecution couldn't say the desire was overpowering, since that would suggest she was incapacitated by an irresistible impulse.) Finally, it turns out, there is no plausible explanation of what she did in terms of influences, factors, motives, or desires that is consistent with free will and thus with our traditional notion of responsibility.

A related, equally vacuous reply the prosecution might have offered is that Susan Smith was simply a monster, someone who decided naturally and dispassionately to sacrifice her children. Since, under a corollary of the free will assumption, we are all responsible for our characters, Susan Smith could have chosen (years ago, perhaps) to become a very different sort of person, someone who would have resisted the impulse to kill. Since she didn't thus choose she deserves to die. Tediously but legitimately we ask again, what led her to choose to become such a distasteful character? Well, she just chose to become that person, comes the answer. And on such an answer rests the traditional determination of criminal and moral responsibility.


It is embarrassing, to say the least, that proof of criminal guilt depends on blocking plausible explanations of both behavior and character, but in fact this is what the law requires. For, it is widely supposed, once we allow that a person's acts or essence are explicable in terms of cause and effect, the primary basis for responsibility - the freely willed choice - evaporates. Unless the agent somehow acted on its own (or created itself) in some important respect independently of influences and circumstances, we forfeit the fundamental retributive justification for punishment. The prosecution therefore wanted the jury to believe that the essential Susan Smith, the self-agent-controller pulling her own strings, deserved capital punishment for an act that she alone originated.

Unlike the law, science declares that such an agent - exerting an influence but itself in some essential respect uninfluenced - is an impossibility. The causal continuum, whether physical, biological, psychological, or social, leaves no gaps in which such agents can reside. Locating a distinct entity in space and time guarantees that it will be causally connected to the world around it. The motto for science might be "No one gets to cause without being caused in turn," or perhaps "You can't have your causal cake and eat it too." On the other hand, if science proved that some of our behavior was essentially indeterminately or randomly generated, it's hard to see how that could serve as the basis for ascribing such behavior to an intentional agent. Neither causality nor a-causality, therefore, support the commonsense notion of free will.

So much the worse for science, some might say. If the traditional concept of responsibility, both moral and criminal, requires free will, then science is obviously out of order in its critique of the law. But it is not just science that thwarts the demands of our moral concept, but our commonsense notion of explanation itself. When we ask the "why" question, as applied to human behavior, we aren't necessarily asking for anything terribly technical. We just want to place the act in a context which makes it understandable and perhaps predictable next time around. To have put the prosecution on the spot by asking "why" about Susan Smith wouldn't have been scientism, only healthy inquisitiveness. The answers, "because she simply chose to do it out of her own free will," or "because she's a monster," seem patent evasions since we can still reasonably want more of an explanation. On the other hand, the defense's answer - that a history of depression and abuse led to a tortured and confused mental state - may or may not be true, but at least this attempts to actually account for her behavior. If we believe Susan Smith acted coldly and rationally out of selfish motives, so be it; but we need not, indeed cannot (if we are being reasonable) buy the notion that she chose to act out of some mysterious, uncaused capacity called free will.

All this does not mean, however, that Susan Smith (or Lorena Bobbitt or the Menendez brothers) should have been acquitted. Even if a plausible explanation of her crime rules out the freely willing agent, and so undercuts the justification for retributive punishment, there are nevertheless other very good reasons to detain her. Had she been judged insane (always unlikely given her calculated lies) then treatment in a secure facility would have been appropriate. Since she was judged sane it is obviously important to protect ourselves, as well as deter others harboring similar motives, by imprisoning her. Time spent in the right sort of facility, with the right sort of interventions, might even work to ameliorate a flawed character. But the primary rationale for imposing capital punishment, that Susan Smith deserved to die, has no force if we dispense with free will. That the sentiment shifted against the death penalty in Union, South Carolina bears this out. The good citizens of that town (and the jurors who decided her fate) quite properly sensed - perhaps unconsciously - that you can't put Susan Smith's crime in a causal, explanatory context and still justify retributive punishment.

But are feelings of rage against a murderer and the wish for retribution never justified? If Susan Smith killed her children simply in order to advance an affair, are we wrong to condemn her? Obviously we are not wrong to condemn the act, whatever its causes, and it's hard to resist the initial, angry surge of desire to impose comparable suffering upon the perpetrator. As Robert Wright points out in The Moral Animal, such feelings are simply the naturally evolved response to a horrific violation of a central human value. They serve to ensure that such transgressions are swiftly attended to, for if reliable sanctions were not imposed no ordered society could last for long. But whether or not we should freely indulge the retributive impulse, given what we now know about the springs of human action, is very much an open question.

That impulse, science has shown us, is emphatically not justified by the existence of a freely willing agent who deserves condemnation for having autonomously originated the act. No such agents exist anywhere, or ever have, or ever could, since humans are as much part of the causal continuum as molecules and machines. And even if human behavior were partially attributable to some random element, that would do nothing to endow us with originative agenthood. Therefore we must, as Wright suggests, learn to accommodate ourselves to the fact that our rage at the "scheming monster" has no metaphysical justification in free will. The desire for retribution points us in the right direction, perhaps, but we need not follow that bitter path to the end.

Our concept of moral responsibility need not rest on the myth of originative agency, but only on the necessity for social order. We must assign credit and blame, and impose legal and moral sanctions, not because freely willing agents exist but in order to channel behavior within acceptable limits. As this realization sinks in, the desire to inflict comparable suffering on those proven guilty may lessen, and our attention might shift from punishment to prevention, and from retribution to rehabilitation. To explain is not necessarily to excuse, but explanations can help considerably in moving us away from anger toward a more constructive response to crime and deviance.

 ©  Thomas W. Clark 1996

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