Last week, we began to discuss the fictitious case of G. Petto, my client who is accused of murder because the android he built, Pinocchio, killed a human being. Even though Dr. Petto insists his android was programmed to act freely, the District Attorney’s Office maintains that Pinocchio’s actions are the product of its brain structure and ability to interact with its environment, both of which Dr. Petto designed. Therefore, they are convinced that he is responsible for Pinocchio’s actions.
The District Attorney’s arguments and my responses in defense of my client loosely mirror the parameters of the longstanding debate between the advocates of freewill and determinism. From time immemorial, humans have struggled over this thorny issue. Even today, our society is rather scatterbrained in its approach to the problem.
The prosecutor’s point of view is that Pinocchio is not free. My counterpoint is that the android’s situation is analogous to ours. If he is not free, then neither are we. As I searched for references to support my defense of freedom, I realized that my task was not so easy. Historically, the notion that our actions are products of forces beyond our control has always been quite popular. You may remember the Doris Day song entitled, “Que Sera, Sera” (what will be, will be); or you may have heard people comment to you about someone who narrowly escaped a fatal experience, “It just wasn’t his time.” These sentiments are modern-day remnants of a rather popular point of view called fatalism. The idea, here, is that the future is fixed and there is absolutely nothing we can do to change it. This perspective should be distinguished from the causal determinism we discussed last week. Causal determinism proposes that every event has a cause and that future events occur as a result of preceding ones. If we change what we do, we can change the results. Fatalism, by contrast, says that it doesn’t matter what we do.
This almost-mystical concept of Fate existed in ancient times and remains prevalent today. It is not a totally unattractive concept. In an age of chaos and confusion, it is comforting to hold on to the belief that there is a master plan, a rigid order that prevails over all of us. Even so, the idea that there is a predestined pattern which has existed since the beginning of time has its downside. While it can console us in times of sorrow (like the oft-repeated slogan, “everything happens for a reason”), its accompanying sense of resignation can easily become an excuse for not trying to improve a bad situation.
Continuing my search for valid arguments in support of Dr. Petto’s defense, I next turned to religion. To my chagrin, I found mixed messages, at best. In his famous work, Summa Theologica, Thomas Aquinas states, “it is fitting that God should predestine men. For all things are subject to his Providence.” In the same manuscript, he later writes that “man has free choice.” Aquinas’ seemingly contradictory propositions are illustrative of the very dicey problem theologies encounter when they try to reconcile the concept of an all-knowing, omniscient God with the idea that we need to have choice in order to have moral responsibility. The dilemma can be expressed in a simple question: How can I be free if the future is already known? Protestant reformer and founder of the Presbyterian Church, John Calvin, goes even further by asserting that predestination is the eternal decree of God. He believed that it was precisely because God exists outside time that no one can change their destiny. According to him, some of us are destined to go to heaven and others to hell and there is nothing we can do about it.
Not finding support for my defense in either history or religion, I finally turned to modern-day institutions. When it comes to our institutions, I was happy to discover that we’ve adopted a classic libertarian view of freedom, for the most part. For example, the bedrock of our criminal justice system is the belief that our actions are, with few exceptions, the product of freewill. While an accused may have been “insane” when he committed a crime, and therefore, not responsible, this presupposes that we must have at least a modicum of “sanity” in order to act freely and be held responsible.
Yet even this commitment to a rather black and white view of freewill is now being questioned. With recent advances in our scientific understanding of behavior, a new, more nuanced appreciation of the nature of responsibility is emerging. These new claims, which have been advanced as justifications, mitigations or excuses for an accused’s behavior, support the theory that “freewill” is not as simple as we had previously thought.
Here is a sample of some of the more interesting ones:
1) Attention deficit disorder, also including hyperactivity. Utilized, unsuccessfully, in the famous Michael Fay case.
2) Fetal alcohol syndrome. It is the product of the mother consuming large amounts of alcohol during pregnancy.
3) Multiple personality disorder. It is a form of an insanity plea.
4) Parental abuse disorder. The failed Mendez defense.
5) Posttraumatic stress disorder. This defense has been employed as a justification, mitigation and an excuse for a defendant’s actions. It has had its most success in getting charges reduced.
6) Premenstrual stress syndrome. Hormonal changes which drive a woman to do what she would otherwise never consider. Successfully employed in the Geraldine Richter case in 1991.
7) Rape trauma syndrome. Used effectively to counter defendants’ claims that the victim consented.
8) Repressed memory syndrome. A highly controversial claim that old memories have now somehow been released.
9) Twinkie defense. Defendant Dan White’s defense team asserted, unsuccessfully, that their client’s consumption of junk food drove him to murder.
Finally, there are other ways in which our freedom may be impeded. You may remember the movie, The Manchurian Candidate. Where the victim (Frank Sinatra or Denzel Washington, depending on which version you watched) was brainwashed and responded unconsciously to a voice heard over the telephone. None of us would claim that a person acting on that type of command is responsible for their actions.
So, returning to our case, I clearly have my work cut out for me as I write my summation in defense of G. Petto and, by extension, in support of the classic notion of freedom. Stay tuned until next week, when I’ll deliver my closing argument.