"What is the meaning of it, Watson?" said Holmes solemnly as he laid down the paper. "What object is served by this circle of misery and violence and fear? It must tend to some end, or else our universe is ruled by chance, which is unthinkable. But what end? There is the great standing perennial problem to which human reason is as far from an answer as ever."
Sherlock Holmes [Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, His Last Bow, "The Adventure of the Cardboard Box," 1917].
SOCRATES: Tell me then, my good sir, to the achievement of what aim does service to the gods tend? You obviously know since you say that you, of all men, have the best knowledge of the divine.
EUTHYPHRO: And I am telling the truth, Socrates.
SOCRATES: Tell me then, by Zeus, what is that excellent aim that the gods achieve using us as their servants?
EUTHYPHRO: Many fine things, Socrates.
Plato, Euthyphro, 13e, translated by G.M.A. Grube [Hackett Publishing Company, 1981, p.19].
In Aristotle, every event has four causes, in Greek αἰτίαι, aitíai -- causes, explanations, or becauses (singular αἰτία, aitía; Latin causa). Two of these, the formal and the material, match up to elements of Aristotle's metaphysics, form and matter, while the other two, the efficient and the final, concern what makes something happen and its purpose for happening. The efficient cause is now what is commonly meant when the word "cause" is used alone. The term "final cause" is now rarely heard, and purposes are expected to be epiphenomena of consciousness and intention. What is now the most peculiar about Aristotle's system is that natural events were expected to have both efficient and final causes, regardless of whether consciousness or intention were present at all. Part of this makes up for what is otherwise missing in Aristotle's physics. For instance, with Newtonian gravitation a couple thousand years in the future, the explanation of why things fall to the ground is that they are going where they belong -- a final cause instead of the law of gravity.
What we see over time, of course, is that final causes are taken less and less seriously. Not only do we get gravity as an efficient cause (the sort of invisible force that the Greeks, or Descartes, would have regarded as magical), but the theory of Natural Selection in biology finds a way to explain the most intricate physiological mechanisms without a single concession to purpose. This strips Nature of any final causes, as was indeed foreseen and endorsed already in the 17th century by Spinoza. As purpose and intention are relegated to being psychological entities and epiphenomena of consciousness, however, the sense must grow that they are imaginary and that the human mind, itself part of nature, is also ruled by efficient causes. The logical result of this was found in the behaviorist psychologist B.F. Skinner (1904-1990), for whom words like "mind," "thought," "purpose," "intention," etc. were "mentalistic language," from pre-scientific superstition, that referred to no real things in the world. They should therefore go the way of entities like "phlogiston," which once had a place in science but subsequently could be discarded. Skinner's world, then like Spinoza's, not only is ruled by efficient causes but has no place whatsoever for either final causes or conscious purposes. Determinism rules.
Such an extreme of reductionism is not agreeable to all, e.g. John Searle, but attempts at commonsense compromise are hampered by the logic of materialism, which is the metaphysical position that now tends to be accepted by default in establishment philosophy. The material brain cannot simply make exceptions to the laws of nature. The notion kicking around for years that quantum indeterminacy would make space for free will or purposes, doesn't help much, since free will and purpose are not merely random, which is what quantum mechanics requires (deterministically).
The result is a curious failure of theory. Certainly there are those comfortable in a blind and deterministic universe, even a blind and deterministic human mind, but the reductionism and paradox of this is going to be fairly evident to most people. It is one thing to deny that the stone falls because it goes where it belongs, another to deny that human thought and intentions are any more than an illusion and a mediaeval superstition. But what can possibly be done about it? What credible metaphysics exists now for purpose?
Well, Kantian metaphysics exists for purpose, where the world of phenomenal objects is, indeed, deterministic, but where the phenomenal world is itself a mental content, allowing that purpose can exist among things-in-themselves. Kant allows nothing like equality between cause and purpose, however, since his consideration of purpose is postponed all the way to the Third Critique, the Critique of Judgment, where it is not even clear that we are talking about things-in-themselves but only, as in judgments of beauty, about epiphenomena of consciousness. Considering that consciousness itself is a fundamental given, this delay in the consideration of purpose is both a little paradoxical and perhaps an important clue. In its own way, purpose appears in phenomenal reality just as much as empirical objects do. The difference is that we would tend to think that purpose is in phenomena as contents of consciousness, while phenomena as independent objects are free of purposes. Thus, the subjectivity of purpose can be accepted, even while denying that subjectivity itself is a mere epiphenomenon of material objects. Neither subjectivity and objectivity, as considered in Ontological Undecidability, are ontologically ultimate.
The fusion of subject and object is conspicuous in the earliest attested forms of human understanding. In the world of the Egyptians or Babylonians, it isn't just that natural objects have final causes, as Aristotle saw it, but that natural events are all the result of conscious intentions, i.e. the actions of the gods. The idea that natural objects are simply dead and inert, and governed by blind and impersonal forces, is the result of considerable philosophical sophistication -- a level of understanding that may come no sooner than the Greek Atomists. Even in earlier Greek philosophy, e.g. Thales, there are still "spirits in all things." While now it is common to imagine that these personifications of the world were simply illusions, which science has now dispelled, leaving, as the Atomists indeed said, "atoms and the void," another interpretation is also possible. It isn't that there is no consciousness intrinsic to phenomena. It is just that there are two aspects of phenomena, one of phenomena as objects, in which cause is the principle of change, and another of phenomena as subject (i.e. represented by the subject of consciousness), in which purpose is the principle of change. Cause and purpose, subject and object, are thus abstractly separated, but neither is ontologically ultimate.
The world revealed by cause and purpose, each in its own terms, is radically different. In many ways it seems appropriate to say that it is as though the world is turned inside out. In the world of causes, things happen blindly. What the causes of things are is usually hidden: cause is the unseen world behind us, pushing. We didn't know what causes the sun to shine until the theory of nuclear fusion in the 1930's; but even this theory has defects, since the sun doesn't produce as many neutrinos as expected. There are theories about that, but we are not at the point where it could be said that we know the cause of that deficiency. Causes are determined by events in the past, and since the past is immediately lost to inspection, the causes of things can be completely lost. There may be someone who knows, besides the perpetrator, who took the table out of my classroom; but if not, and if there is no evidence of the perpetrator (and perhaps the perpetrator even forgets, or dies), then it may be an event whose origin remains unknown and even unknowable. Most of what happens in the world is like this. The inquiry into causes is continuous and often unsuccessful, even in our own minds, where it has become common since Freud to explain our behavior and feelings as the result of hidden motives and past events that are now forgotten. But it is not precisely the past that is the basis of causality, since objects in the past no longer exist, and to postulate causation from objects that have ceased to exist would make the situation even worse than it is. No, causality depends on the perfect aspect, which is the aspect of fixity and completedness, not just for things that have ceased to exist, but for things in the present, for things which have happened. In the present we may actually see a cause in operation, though even then we may not know that it is the cause of the attendant event. As Hume said, we see conjunction, not causation -- and frequently it is simply conjunction (like whether President Reagan was shot simply because he was elected in a year evenly divisible by 20).
The world of purpose is very different. Things happen because they are supposed to. They are intended by us or by someone, or they happen because the outcome is worthy or meant to be. In a world of blind causation alone, no outcome is more worthy or meant to be. There is an important difference in conceptions of final causes here. People can have intentions whose ends are thought to be valuable or meaningful, but these evaluations can turn out to be mistaken. There are even sayings about it, like "The grass is always greener," or "Be careful what you want, you might get it," which address the problem that things may be prefered just because they are different and that when such things are obtained they may turn out to be worse than what was abandoned for them. On the other hand, in Aristotle's conception of final causes, the impersonal "entelechy" of things, their inner purpose, will always produce something more valuable and more meaningful, if natural development proceeds unobstructed. Looking at natural objects or events, it may not, indeed, be possible to know what the entelechy is; but then we have an advantage: all you have to do is wait around to see what happens -- as when you may wait to see what is going to grow out of an unknown seed.
Just as the past, but not really the past, is the basis of causality, so is the future, but not really the future, the basis of purpose. As the objects of the past no longer exist, the objects of the future suffer from the disability of not existing yet. Future objects do not cause events in the present -- if they did, it would make for a world very different from what we know. It is not the future, then, upon which purpose rests but, as the metaphysical opposite of causality, the imperfect aspect, which is the aspect of present events that is incomplete, ongoing, and changeable. Purpose is power, but only a power that is either conscious or progressive. Causality does not produce progress, just difference. This can create some awkwardness in Darwinism, since the theory of evolution by natural selection might imply that the selections, the adaptations of organisms to their environment, are progressive. If adapations over time are better, some kind of teleology starts creeping back in, as in the 19th century version of Darwinism now called "orthogenesis," the idea that modern organisms, like horses or humans, were the goals of evolutionary change. Recent Darwinists, like Stephen Jay Gould, have been at some pains to emphasize that evolutionary changes are not necessarily "better" than the alternatives, but are always products of the random and arbitrary.
The causal world turned inside out as purpose suffers from the typical judgment that it is an epiphenomenon, an illusion, or a superstition. The causal world is what is real. There turn out to be two cracks, at least, in the scientific armor of a purely causal world. In standard quantum mechanics the consciousness of an observer transforms the world from a place of waves into a place of particles. There are physical effects that depend on this difference, but no good explanation why the mere existence of an observation should make reality behave so different. The paradox of "Schrödinger's Cat" exposes how peculiar quantum effects would be in the macroscopic world: the cat which is both dead and alive at the same time. The question is then whether the cat counts as an observer. Is it sufficiently aware, i.e. conscious, to know whether it is dead or alive? Fortunately, this kind of question doesn't interfere with the practice of much physics, but it does leave physicists wishing that the dualism, Bohr's "Complementarity" of wave and particle, would somehow go away, with all reduced to waves or all reduced to particles. If quantum mechanics is stuck with observers as metaphysical elements in physics, then phenomena of consciousness, like intention, have a foothold in what is otherwise regarded as physical reality.
Another foothold for purpose comes from the aforementioned paradox of Darwinian adaptation. If some organisms do better than others in the competition for survival, it is hard to see how they are not, in fact, better, despite the fear of the ghosts of teleology and orthogenesis this conjures. They represent, we would say, a more sophisticated order. And that is the problem: order. Order, as Spinoza understood, does not belong in a purely causal, deterministic universe. But order is a factor in the physical universe, ironically through the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which states that disorder increases over time in a closed physical system. Entropy reduces a system to featureless chaos, which is what is suggested by the image of "atoms and the void." The universe we see, however, is not just a featureless chaos, and we happen to be in a place, the earth, which contains very orderly systems indeed. Entropy decreases on earth, resulting in life itself and, as time goes on, increasingly sophisticated orders of life, like us. The only explanation of this I have ever seen comes from Roger Penrose, who points out that the energy coming into the earth from the sun, a point source in the sky, is much more orderly, has much lower entropy, than the energy that radiates away from the earth chaotically in all directions. This phenomenon can even be observed in the human body, where what goes in (hamburgers, etc.) is much more orderly than what comes out (a largely undifferentiated mess). The human body, indeed, must maintain an entropy balance or it will quite literally decay. Penrose also points out that Black Holes are objects of very high entropy, while the Big Bang had to be a very low entropy event -- a radically different kind of object, a White Hole.
The mystery of life, and of conscious life, thus has an affinity with the mystery of the universe itself. At the very least the orderliness of the universe, which is largely a mathematical orderliness, is described by mathematicians and physicists as "beautiful." If life is the product of circumstances that reduce entropy, then, apart from the mere basic working of the laws of nature, life is the most beautiful product, an emergent order, of all the orderliness of all those laws. Almost sounds teleological. In any case, with the quantum observer at the microscopic level and with order a factor at the macroscopic, even cosmic, level, features of intention and final causes are presently indispensible to science itself in an understanding of the physical universe. They are not just a dispensible, epiphenomenal, or illusory consequence of merely human consciousness -- or if so, then the universe itself, as Kantian phenomena, is essentially an empirical reality in human consciousness. Which is a bit more like it.
But if cause and purpose are then equally real and ultimate, what can be known about ultimate things, the supreme question, Life, the Universe, and Everything? What we might want, indeed, to answer that question would be some purpose. But I have already examined how purposes are not the most satisfying things. Most concerns of life are instrumental goods, which are the means to some end. When we come to the ends, however, like beauty, pleasure, happiness, etc., we then experience an urge to ask for the end that they serve. Even with happiness and the good life, we can ask, "What is it for?" When an end is not sufficiently satisfying or meaningful, we evidently assume that there is some further end served by all of it. So the idea of purpose itself can just put us into an infinite regress of one end serving another, and another, and another... So the ultimate question is not about purpose at all, but about intrinsic good of some end that would make it satisfying or meaningful enough to end the regress. That leads to separate considerations about faith and about meaning, which are examined elsewhere.
Philosophy of Religion
Paradigmatic acts of free will are the lîbêra arbitria voluntâtis, the "free" (lîber) "judgments/decisions" (sing. arbitrium) of "will" (voluntas). We get the word "arbitrary" from arbitrium because of the sense that a free will can make a decision between indistinguishable alternatives, for which no preference, or no reason for preference, can be discerned. This is illustrated, and free will contrasted, with the story of the mule that starved to death because it was standing between identical stacks of hay and could not decide which one to choose. With free will, we can just make a choice.
A major problem with theories of free will is that arbitrary choices are simply random. If the will is fundamentally a randomizer, it is not clear how will is different from some kind of mathematical function. We might as well be using the successive digits of pi, whose sequence cannot be predicted. And if it is not different, then there would seem to be no reason not to assimilate "will" to naturalistic theories about indeterminacy and randomness in physical systems. Free will, consequently, would provide no basis for denying a materialistic and naturalistic interpretation of the self.
When we realize that most choices are not between indistinguishable alternatives, and that there are usually reasons for preferences, we might come to understand that (1) arbitrary decisions are actually irrational, and (2) that rational decisions depend on, an are limited by, our beliefs and knowledge. Because of the latter, Leibniz believed that acts of will are actually completely predetermined by God, but that they are "free" just because the determination is through consciousness and purpose, rather than through hidden causes. If that is free will, it is a disappointment. On the other hand, Existentialism, perhaps taking this seriously, holds the former take on free will, as irrational decisions, to be paradigmatic: to be free, it is necessary to be irrational. We are "condemned to be free," according to Sartre, and this means that we cannot rely on crutches like tradition, religion, authority, or reason (as the deconstructionist Richard Rorty also agrees). We just have to decide. This makes us authentic. Unfortunately, it might also make us criminals. Oddly enough, it made Sartre a Marxist, the kind of Marxist who regreted Nikita Khrushchev's exposure of Stalin's crimes in 1956, because this might discourage the working class. And then, to the extent that he can be construed as an Existentialist, it made Heidegger a Nazi. Marxism, Naziism, democracy, what's the difference? Any identifiable, rational difference, indeed, is irrelevant to acts of free will.
The greatest challenge for a theory of free will, consequently, is how a rational freedom is possible. If decisions are based on preferences that are the result of genetics, development, and experience, limited by what is available to knowledge, and expressing beliefs about values that are themselves the result of genetics, development, and experience, then the determinist will have no complaint. The determinist can even adhere to his own definition of "free will" -- a "soft" determinism in which freedom is allowed once decisions have been made. This may be what the political debate about freedom is about, but it is not what the metaphysical debate about freedom is about. The "soft" determinist (Hobbes, Hume, and multiple moderns, like Daniel Dennett) is simply a determinist.
Problems with knowledge and free will go all the back to Socrates. "Do you not think, my good man, that all men desire good things?" Socrates asks Meno [Meno 77b/c, G.M.A. Grube, Hackett, 1981, p.77b/c]. To Socrates, no one does anything without some benefit in mind, some good, and he therefore thinks that no one knowingly does wrong. As Jeff Goldblum says in The Big Chill , everyone thinks what they are doing is best, even if it is just best for them, because what is best for them is, by definition, best. Socrates isn't entirely consistent about this. In the Apology Socrates tries to get Meletus to admit that he would not knowingly corrupt the young, but he ends by saying that his accusers "thought they were hurting me, and for this they deserve blame" [41d, Grube, 1981, p.44]. Socrates cannot avoid the commonsense view that his accusers know they are doing wrong and are blameworthy. If our choices are indeed limited by our knowledge, however, and no one acts but for what appears good to them, Socrates would have done better to have anticipated Jesus, who said, "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do" [Luke 23:34]. The determinist, hard or soft, cannot blame anyone for anything, although, like Hume, he may recommend punishment as a way of changing behavior. [note]
If will is limited and, in effect, determined by knowledge, then whether there is truly free will is going to depend on whether knowledge, and especially knowledge about the good, is subject to natural and causal conditions. Is it the case that natural and causal conditions can account for the knowledge gained by humans? Well, no. In human history, belief and knowledge change. If experience simply bestowed knowledge, as the Empricists seemed to think, that would be one thing, but even scientific knowledge about nature comes from difficult, indirect, and unobvious inferences. As is fairly obvious now, scientific knowledge, from a process that Karl Popper calls "conjunctures and refutations," requires imagination. From imagination comes, not just science, but all the other novelties of human life: art, literature, technology, architecture, democracy, etc. etc. How does that come from atoms and the void? Indeed, we do not know.
Although the Second Law of Thermodynamics is that disorder (entropy) increases, there are natural processes where order increases: atoms, minerals, crystals, life, language, etc. This is "emergent order." Where do those structures come from? One might like to think that, given the fundamental forces and particles of physics, it might be predictable that atoms and molecules, chemistry and biology, stars and planets, dinosaurs and symphonies would result. This is the equivalent of Laplace's claim that given intitial positions and velocities, he could predict the subsequent states of the entire universe. With quantum mechanics, however, where intitial positions and velocities (or subsequent ones) are indeterminate, calculations and predictions such as Laplace anticipated cannot be done. On the other hand, it is a different kind of prediction to derive more complex structures of nature from the general and elementary ones. Can chemistry simply be logically or mathematically derived from physics? Not with current knowledge. The day that a physicist can derive on a blackboard the yellow of gold or the red of copper will be a remarkable day. That day may or may not be possible. The day that a physicist can derive on a blackboard the general phenomena of living organisms would be ever more remarkable, and also seems less likely.
There are those in science and even in ethics who are uncomfortable with human beings being "higher" than animals, yet the advent of humans has not only resulted in carpeting the planet with orderly structures that never existed before -- there is a difference between beaver dams and Hoover Dam -- but human language and culture have given rise to cultural artifacts different in kind from anything previous, like science itself. It is already a certain kind of challenge for determinism exactly how all of this is generated or predictable from the sort of basic physical processes that materialists will allow. Since it all seems to come out of nowhere, the determinist and materialist might just dismiss it all as random (or random variations, perhaps, operated upon by natural selection). Negative entropy, however, is a physical process, and what it is that decreasing entropy reveals, rather like the seabed that a withdrawing ocean reveals, the reefs and marine organisms lying exposed, calls for some explanation (natural selection is that what survives, survives; but the ability of a complex organism to cohere in the first place, and be able to function at all, is the problem). We are not likely to get the explanation, except from the confident faith of the determinist that there will be a causal explanation that will eventually turn up. Turn up, indeed, from the imagination of some future Newton or Einstein. It will not be found by the roadside. But that is the question. Atoms and the void do not predict Newton or Einstein.
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955), the extraordinary Jesuit who believed in evolution, thought that part of the emergent order of nature was the "noosphere," the level of "mind" (Greek nóos/noûs) which rises above insentient matter. Mind is certainly an extraordinary level of order. Out of it comes all the complexity of human culture and the remarkable human achievement of understanding nature itself. Either the laws of physics must predict biology, language, music, and science, OR mind creates its own artifacts, its knowledge and behaviors, free of causal determination. Mind can do this, freely, if there is a side to reality other than what is causal and determined, i.e. if there are free purposes. There is a point of transition. Much of human culture, including language itself, arises without deliberate human intention. Australopithecines did not intend to create language. Cro-Magnons did not intend to eventually create civilization. And certainly the likes of Tutankhamon did not intend to create science, engineering, television, etc. Newton, however, did intend to work out the laws of nature. That he was able to do so, and others, with the same intention, were less successful, means that intention alone is not enough. What is enough, which the ancients might have explained with the favor of the gods, is completely mysterious.
The closest to a naturalistic explaination available is that entropy accidentally and randomly ends up somewhat lower in Newton's brain than elsewhere. The sea retreats some more, and a greater degree of order is revealed. But determinism and naturalism cannot say, not only where that order comes from, but what it means. There is, indeed, no meaning in atoms and the void. That is the point. We cannot explain creativity and imagination in the human mind, but individuals know what it is like to create and imagine.
Freedom, therefore, is not absolutely limited by the limitations of knowledge, because knowledge can be created, virtually ex nihilo. The imagination is the vanguard of the will. Does this mean that only geniuses, the Newtons, are free? Possibly, but there is something else we can use. Plato made a distinction between opinion and knowledge, as Kant made a distinction between autonomy and heteronomy. To Plato, a person who is "good out of habit," is in danger of making mistakes, and is likely to be virtuous only as "a gift from the gods." This is Kantian heteronomy, and it is where persons are trapped by the accidents of experience. For genuine virtue, Plato thought that Recollection was necessary. Plato puts this nicely in the Meno [81d]: "Nothing prevents a man, after recalling one thing only -- a process men call learning -- discovering everything else for himself, if he is brave and does not tire of the search..." [Grube, p.70]. Now, this may only be the achievement of a philosophical genius, if we require that it produce the clear exposition of moral priniciples, or it may be the more implicit awareness of the ordinary morally mature person, as Kant would have thought. Kantian moral autonomy is simply to make moral understanding one's own, after reflection on moral precepts that may have been given heteronomously and accepted as belief. One then becomes relatively free as this process advances, and it might then be reasonable to say that the Socrates, indeed, is freer than others -- which actually seems reasonable and likely. Everyone, however, is actually in possession of the same resources and so potentially in possession of the same knowledge.
The paradox of Leibniz's conception of freedom was that the knowledge that is presented to our will has been "preestablished" by God from eternity. If our knowledge emerges independently and spontaneously, however, there will be no such pre-determination. But the remaining questions are still "Whence?" and "How?" Since our new knowledge first comes from the imagination, not from experience, then "Whence?" is answered by "From within," and we are self-determined. But what is really "within"? Do we just have the brain, as a natural and material object? But then we are right back to the mystery of "emergent order" in Nature, where the forms of greater order seem unpredictable. In Kantian terms, however, "within" is not ultimately empirical and natural. It is transcendent, and I am a thing-in-myself, with characteristics that go beyond empirical and phenomenal conditions. Friesian metaphysics of transcendence, undecidability, and purpose addresses this issue.
"How?" is another question. How do we come up with new ideas? It is not just by an act of will, since people try every day to create things that are original and groundbreaking, but they usually fail. In a mythic tradition, accepted even by Socrates and Plato, one awaits the pleasure of the gods. For all the brilliance of modern philosophy and science, where no such explanation is likely to be entertained, we are left with no explanation whatsoever. You try and think of something new, or understand something that you cannot understand, and sometimes its comes, sometimes (more often) it doesn't. The history of philosophy provides few clues about this. Kant's conception of reason is actually abstract and impoverished. Hegel offers something more elaborate, but it is literally incoherent and farcical. Descartes allows that there are "innate ideas," but it is hard to see how the vistas of the imagination are going to be encompased in God's box lunch of concepts for the soul. Only Plato has anything adequate to the challenge, where the World of Forms encompasses everything possible in all its detail. But then, this means that nothing is really new. We are just remembering. The World of Forms as possibility, rather than actuality, is more like it. But then we need a metaphysics of possibility. This is suggested and summarized elsewhere. The experience, however, is familiar to anyone who has thought of anything different, or even who has understood anything they had not, thereby making the knowledge their own. That is an experience of the greatest freedom, by which windows are opened, stars are glimpsed, and we lift our faces from the mud of our birth.
It remains a good question how to evaluate, morally, people with mistaken beliefs. If someone commits a crime, knowing that it is regarded as a crime by others and by the authorities, yet sincerely believing that what they are doing is not really a crime but perhaps even a moral duty, how do we regard and treat them? Strictly speaking, they cannot be morally blamed, since they mean well, are of good will, and cannot be condemned merely for being wrong about whether their actions are wrongful. Condemning someone in that way commits a fallacy of judicial moralism -- it attributes ill will just because of different good faith beliefs. At the most, we could condemn someone for intellectual negligence if we suppose that they could have known better. But this is not always a realistic or fair expectation.
In such a case, the question is what must be done about such persons, since, strictly speaking, punishment is improper but, at the same time, the innocent must be protected from someone who may be expected, and who may even admit to be ready, to continue commiting crimes that they regard as duties. A good recent example of this would be with respect to those who murder physicians who perform abortions. Since anti-abortion activists regard abortions as murder (indeed, about half of Americans regard them as murders), and they see abortionists as being allowed to commit one murder after another, resulting in a holocaust-like slaughter of the innocents, it is not unreasonble, from their point of view, to think that such murders must be stopped by any means necessary.
Since killing abortionists is going to be regarded by influential feminists, and others, as a political crime, it is not surprising that it is widely regarded as deserving of punishment commensurate with the worst forms of murder. Other murders, however, regarded as deserving of greater political sympathy, draw less ire and vengeance. This kind of thing is a bad sign. Crime cannot be fairly judged by its political significance or popularity. As it happens, the ideal recourse where wrongful actions are motivated by mistaken beliefs would be exile. A country where abortion is still illegal (e.g. Ireland) would be ideal for those who regard abortion as murder. On the other hand, while exile has at times, as among the Greeks, been a common provision, it now is really never considered, except for those already foreign nationals (and then not as a substitute for punishment); and even countries that might agree with the values of the perpetrator might nevertheless be unwilling to take in someone who has resorted to violence. We are then left with confinement, not as punishment, but as self-protection for the public, as though the perpetrators were dangerously insane. Such confinement should be comfortable and non-punitive, definitely not "hard time," allowing, for instance, cohabitation with family, but it would have to be troublingly indeterminate in length, like, indeed, the treatment of the criminally insane. If an anti-abortion killer were simply convicted for first degree murder, it would be no worse than this, with life in prison or the death penalty; and so the moral difference could only be reflected in the conditions of the confinement.
At the same time, it is hard to resist the suspicion that some such people, even if they seem to be genuine believers, do not mean well. The anti-aborition sniper who shoots a doctor and then goes into hiding, the true believer Nazi or Communist who relishes the mass murder of race or class enemies -- they very easily leave an impession of evil, not of sincerity. In Japan, there was long a sense that assassination was understandable or even admirable, as long as the assassin committed suicide or otherwise acted to forfeit their lives, e.g. by promptly surrendering and confessing. These goings on did not contribute to the sensible conduct of Japanese affairs before World War II. Instead, indeed, the impression is again of evil. This is not an easy issue. People who are fools for their principles seem admirable from one perspective, but their actions may appear as brutal and vicious as any low life slasher. The limitations of our knowledge, to be sure, can all too easily put the earnest and the dedicated on the path by which, with the best of intentions, only Hell is the destination. With that in mind, the believer who contemplates violence, might be well advised to consider non-violence first. Gandhi crafted that approach so that the activist, not innocent victims, would suffer from mistakes of judgment.
Determinists, of course, see punishment simply as a way of changing behavior, in which case the person of sincere belief can be punished just like the person of ill will, in both cases just as the means of controlling their actions. If they have mistaken knowledge, we just inform them otherwise, and beat it into them, one way or another.
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