Mercy for misfortune: Beyond free will & determinism

“His father was a drinker

And his mother cried in bed

Folding John Wayne’s T-Shirt

When the swing-set hit his head”

John Wayne Gacy Jr, Sufjan Stevens

I’m still working on analysing the survey on justice & mercy. In the meantime I want to give some of my own thoughts on the topic.

Regarding the serial paedophile, torturer and murderer John Wayne Gacy jr, “His father was a drinker” is an understatement. Gacy’s father beat him, sometimes to unconsciousness. He suffered several severe head injuries as a child. These caused him to experience periodic blackouts throughout his adult life.

There is evidence of an association between both child abuse and head injuries and serial killing.

This study on sexually motivated serial killers finds that while 68% of them survived child abuse, only 30% of controls did. Serial killers were also six times more likely to have been physically abused -like Gacy was- than controls.

This study: reports on widespread head injury among serial killers. It is far from the first to do so. A link between head trauma and other forms of brain injury and serial killing seems to be folk wisdom in the field.

Two studies alone isn’t definitive. But there is at least a prima-facie case for an association between serial murder, and misfortunes like these. Serial killers are a difficult population to study due to their rarity. One imaging study of violent offenders found they were five times more likely to have sustained a brain injury than non-prisoner controls.

One objection is that because the majority of abuse and head injury survivors don’t perform horrific acts, we can’t attribute Gacy’s actions to these conditions. This argument confuses different kinds of enabling conditions. You couldn’t take any random person, add these elements and have a killer- no one is claiming these are sufficient conditions. Rather, there is a very good chance they were part of what set Gacy on his specific path. Different people react to different stressors differently.

So Gacy was quite probably murderous due to misfortunes he suffered. In me this evokes a sense of sympathy for Gacy, even as I remain appalled at what he did, and, to be honest, disgusted by him. Such arguments are well trodden ground. They are a favourite of everyone from philosophers to opinion column writers. They are often made in the context of arguments about free will.

Here’s the (semi) novel point I want to make. I don’t think you need to talk about free will at all to think these factors should affect how we see Gacy. In fact I think centring the debate on free-will muddies the waters, making it unnecessarily metaphysically sectarian. The bare fact that Gacy could have been someone different moves me to pity- no metaphysics needed. A lot of people I’ve talked to hold similar intuitions. This is important because debates over free-will are intractable. If we judge a certain class of people deserve clemency, then it’s best if we can articulate this without appeals to our metaphysical views. Views on controversial questions in metaphysics like free will v determinism are hard to unite the public around.

I suspect that the underlying intuition is something like this:

Conversation of moral status under misfortune. Consider the portion of the population who have blamelessly suffered some misfortune X. Call these people Xers and the people who have not suffered X, call them NXers. X hurts you and may cause you to behave badly. An omniscient, rational and morally good observer would regard NXers and Xers as overall morally equal, proportionally adjusting the praise and blame due to Xers accordingly.

This seems to me to be a principle of justice. It holds because we should not, in general, blame the unfortunate more than the fortunate, or praise them less. We should accordingly adjust the “moral standing” of each Xer upwards. In some cases, like that of John Wayne Gacy Jr, this is still not going to be enough to get them out of the “bad” region, but it does make them less blameworthy.

We have at no point referred to determinism vs free-will. The principle is workable- and attractive- even if you believe in the most demanding concepts of free will. This is so long as you accept the empirical premise people who suffer certain kinds of misfortune are more likely to do certain bad things. Of course the principle of the conservation of moral status under misfortune as I outlined it is far from complete and perfect- what if there were a kind of misfortune the suffering of which happened to correlate with already being a bad person? Or how should we handle misfortunes for which people are partly- but only partly- to blame? However, it seems to me a reasonable starting point.

One thought on “Mercy for misfortune: Beyond free will & determinism

  1. This is a decently convincing argument against retribution and even possible deterrence. But it leaves us with the unanswered question of what we can reasonably do to safeguard potential victims.


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