Chalk outline of human body
Two Italian courts reduced a convicted criminal’s sentence because they decreed that his genes predisposed him to murder. The decision is based not on science but on a hardline adherence to a philosophy called determinism, S. T. Karnick writes.

The biggest dividing line in politics and indeed within Western civilization in the past century, in my view, has been over the issue of personal responsibility. The best way to predict someone’s position on the various political, cultural, and even scientific issues of the day is to know their position on the issue of personal responsibility versus philosophical determinism.

Briefly stated, there is a continuum of beliefs about how much autonomy human beings really have. On one end are those who believe in basic free will (which they acknowledge will always be inherently constrained by circumstances), and on the other are those who strongly believe that pretty much all human choices are largely determined by factors such as economic circumstances, genetics, upbringing, and the like.

Note that I don’t say people’s decisions are determined by their position on the issue of personal responsibility versus determinism, though I could do so while remaining consistent with a freewill position. The free choice to believe in determinism could indeed determine subsequent decisions.

As this brief outline suggests, the issue of which position most closely accords with the truth is a complex question, and a person’s position on it can indeed be seen as at the very least extremely influential in deciding how he or she will judge others’ actions. And it is a question that can’t be answered definitively through science but is in fact a philosophical one.

As a result, one’s answer will most likely be arrived at culturally (including one’s religious beliefs, of course), not scientifically.

Most readers of this publication will have discerned that I take a position on the freewill side of the spectrum. The consequences of a strongly deterministic approach conflict greatly with common sense. A recent case in an Italian court illustrates this, showing the disturbed consequences of taking a strongly deterministic position regarding human behavior.

A news story in Nature magazine summarizes the issues well:

An Italian court has cut the sentence given to a convicted murderer by a year because he has genes linked to violent behaviour—the first time that behavioural genetics has affected a sentence passed by a European court. But researchers contacted by Nature have questioned whether the decision was based on sound science.

Abdelmalek Bayout, an Algerian citizen who has lived in Italy since 1993, admitted in 2007 to stabbing and killing Walter Felipe Novoa Perez on 10 March. Perez, a Colombian living in Italy, had, according to Bayout’s testimony, insulted him over the kohl eye make-up the Algerian was wearing. Bayout, a Muslim, claims he wore the make-up for religious reasons.

Simple enough, right? Bayout was convicted of killing someone in a burst of anger. If the law is for anything, it’s to stop just this sort of hamful behavior.

But that’s not what the Italian appeals court found, as the judges’ adherence to hard determinism overcame common sense and intelligent reasoning:

During the trial, Bayout’s lawyer, Tania Cattarossi, asked the court to take into account that her client may have been mentally ill at the time of the murder. After considering three psychiatric reports, the judge, Paolo Alessio Vernì, partially agreed that Bayout’s psychiatric illness was a mitigating factor and sentenced him to 9 years and 2 months in prison—around three years less than Bayout would have received had he been deemed to be of sound mind.

But at an appeal hearing in May this year, Pier Valerio Reinotti, a judge of the Court of Appeal in Trieste, asked forensic scientists for a new independent psychiatric report to decide whether he should commute the sentence further. . . .

On the basis of the genetic tests, Judge Reinotti docked a further year off the defendant’s sentence, arguing that the defendant’s genes "would make him particularly aggressive in stressful situations". Giving his verdict, Reinotti said he had found the [genetic] evidence particularly compelling.

The Nature story clearly describes this line of thinking as extremely hazardous:

Some fear that such cases could lead to the acceptance of genetic determinism—the idea that genes determine the behaviour of an organism—in criminal cases.

As the Nature story makes clear, the Italian court’s decision was not based on science, and certainly not on any scientifically tested and proven propositions:

But forensic scientists and geneticists contacted by Nature question whether the scientific evidence supports the conclusions reached in the psychiatric report presented to Judge Reinotti.

"We don’t know how the whole genome functions and the [possible] protective effects of other genes," says Giuseppe Novelli, a forensic scientist and geneticist at the University Tor Vergata in Rome. Tests for single genes such as MAOA are "useless and expensive", he adds. . . .

Other genes, such as those that encode the serotonin transporter, have also been linked to different reactions to stress. But these also show a large degree of dependence on environmental factors. "The point is that behavioural genetics is not there yet, we cannot explain individual behaviour, only large population statistics," says Nita Farahany of Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, who specializes in the legal and ethical issues arising from behavioural genetics and neuroscience.

But of course the decision was not based on science. Determinism is a philosophical position, not a provable, scientific proposition. Thus the judges will pick and choose which facts are to be considered relevant based on their presupposition that individuals are largely driven by a variety of forces that are at the very least highly difficult to resist, if not indeed impossible to overcome.

Thus a cultural tendency to undermine people’s sense of moral/ethical responsibility and spreads belief in philosophicall determinism has enormous consequences for a society.

Consider this: if the determinists are wrong and people do have some choice in things, then cutting prison sentences in the deluded belief that the individuals in question deserve pity, not punishment, means that you will necessarily reduce both the actual and perceived costs of behavior that harms other people. And you will necessarily get much more of it.

That’s why culture is so important. It drives politics and personal and public actions, not the other way around.

–S. T. Karnick