Jul 232015
 

quarantine-no-free-willIf a dangerous contagious disease that we don’t yet have a cure for starts to find its way into the population, we have to quarantine people who have it. But why do we do this? The answer is simple, it prevents the ability for the disease to spread. But what if a person with the contagious disease doesn’t want to be quarantined? Would quarantining them be something we shouldn’t then do? Should we just let them spread the disease they have as much as they want? Of course not.

So we are blaming the person with the contagious disease for having it, right? After-all quarantining them may feel like a punishment to them. They are stuck confined, their freedom limited. They are taken away from their family and friends who don’t have the disease. Obviously you can’t quarantine someone unless they are being punished or blamed, right?

Sounds pretty absurd, doesn’t it. It should! Obviously no one is being blamed or punished in the quarantining process. It’s being done to prevent the harms that will befall others if we don’t quarantine the contagious person. It’s not their fault that they fell victim to the contagious disease, yet there are still processes that happen to control the outbreak of the disease. One of those processes is to force a person into quarantine even against their own “will”.

So what does this have to do with the free will debate? It helps answer some criticisms and concerns that people tend to have when addressing moral responsibility and the criminal system. Keep in mind that words such as “responsibility” and even “blame” are ambiguous, and there is a certain sense that is being referred to for this debate. Read here fore more information on some of the differing usages:

The free will skeptic such as myself explains how people (e.g. criminals and anyone else) aren’t truly “blameworthy”. At least they are no more blameworthy as the person is for accidentally contracting a contagious disease. Some reactive responses go something like this:

“You want to let all of the criminals go free.”

“We can’t incarcerate or stop people if they aren’t to blame.”

…or a number of other points that are too quick and poorly thought-out. People who make these assessments haven’t given much thought about the differences between retributive justice, rehabilitation, deterrence, and incarceration for the protection of others, and how they relate to a lack of free will. The quarantine analogy addresses some concerns on the incarceration or incapacitation front, that being the poor idea that we cannot incarcerate or incapacitate people who are not “to blame”.

This quarantine analogy was brought up by Derk Pereboom (a free will skeptic and fellow hard incompatibilist) in both Living Without Free Will (Pereboom 2001)” and The Future of Punishment (Nadelhoffer 2013)”. Here is Pereboom in The Future of Punishment:

There is an intuitively legitimate theory for prevention of dangerous crime that is undercut neither by free will skepticism nor by moral considerations. This theory draws an analogy between treatment of dangerous criminals and treatment of carriers of dangerous diseases (Shoeman 1979). The free will skeptic claims that criminals are not morally responsible for their actions in the basic desert sense. Plainly, many carriers of dangerous diseases are not responsible in this or in any sense for having contracted these diseases. We generally agree that it is sometimes permissible to quarantine them nevertheless. But then, even if a dangerous criminal is not morally responsible for his crimes in the basic desert sense (say, because no one is ever in this way morally responsible) it could be as legitimate to detain him as to quarantine the non-responsible carrier of a serious communicable disease.

Pereboom goes on to address how this changes the treatment of an inmate:

Furthermore, just as less dangerous diseases may justify only preventative measures less restrictive than quarantine, so less dangerous criminal tendencies justify only more moderate restraints. In addition, the account based on this analogy would demands a degree of concern for the rehabilitation and well-being of the criminal that would alter much of current practice. For just as fairness recommends that we seek to cure the diseased we quarantine, so fairness would counsel that we attempt to rehabilitate the criminals we detain. And if a criminal cannot be rehabilitated, and our safety requires his indefinite confinement, this account provides no justification for making his life more miserable than would be required to guard against the danger he poses. Finally, there are measures for preventing crime more generally, such as providing for adequate education and mental health care, which the free will skeptic can readily endorse. (pg.56, The Future of Punishment )

In the absence of free will the “quarantine” model of  justice makes perfect sense. We can recognize that someone doesn’t really deserve to be in prison, but at the same time use this model to remove a danger from society without the notion of “blame”. And as Pereboom puts it, even if the criminal cannot be rehabilitated: “this account provides no justification for making his life more miserable than would be required to guard against the danger he poses”.

In other words, without free will and moral responsibility (which is different that there being moral understandings or a drive to be moral), we don’t need to free all of the criminals and let them run rampant! We need to quarantine dangers just as we would the person who inadvertently contracted a contagious disease that posed a threat.

What it does change is how we think about and treat these criminals. We can understand that they had the causal unluckiness to be who they are and do what they do, just as we can understand that the person who contracts the disease was a victim of circumstances. Once we admit that people couldn’t have, of their own accord, done otherwise, these changes in how we think about criminal justice needs to adjust accordingly.

If you don’t know why people don’t have such a free will ability, I make the logical case for such in my book Breaking the Free Will Illusion for the Betterment of Humankind.


Nadelhoffer, Thomas. 2013. The Future of Punishment. Oxford University Press. (Free Will Skepticism and Criminal Punishment – Derk Pereboom)
Pereboom, Derk. 2001. Living without free will. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Update: If anyone is into  card games, I just recently put up a freebie on this website titled “Determinism: The Card Game”, a card game I made a while back using a normal deck of playing cards. If you are so inclined, try it out and let me know what works and what doesn’t. :-)

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'Trick Slattery

'Trick Slattery is the author of Breaking the Free Will Illusion for the Betterment of Humankind. He's an author, philosopher, artist, content creator, and entrepreneur. He has loved and immersed himself in philosophy since he was teenager. It is his first and strongest passion. Throughout the years he has built a philosophy based on analytic logic and critical thinking. Some of the topics he is most interested in are of a controversial variety, but his passion for the topics and their importance drives him to want to express these ideas to others. His other passions include pen and ink line art and digital artwork.

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  2 Responses to “Quarantine Analogy and Free Will Skepticism”

  1. This is an excellent post! It will help clarify the myth that we require blame to quarantine criminals. When you view crime as a disease rather than a choice, it makes perfect sense.

  2. And yet often times “Who is a criminal?” is determined by the various societies we live in.
    POTUS spoke out against Kenya’s incarceration of homosexuals. The Kenyan President replied to the effect that it was a “…non issue.”
    However, speaking from a western society’s point of view, you hit the nail on the head IMHO.

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