I recently visited Yale University to see some friends and watch the Harvard vs. Yale football game. Two days after I had returned home, I found out that there had been reports of an armed man roaming the Yale campus the day after I had left. Initially, I felt lucky to have avoided the scare so narrowly. But then I began to wonder what would have happened if the man had actually shot and killed a student.
I had just completed an essay for a University Writing class in which I argued that the nonexistence of free will makes all punishment unjustified. I had labored for several weeks to show how justifying punishment relies entirely on the assumption of moral culpability, which is undermined by the admission that free will does not exist. My conclusion was bold: Punishment can never be justified once we admit that free will is merely a convenient social fabrication.
But this was one of those rare moments where class work actually became relevant. I began to look at the stance I took in my essay in light of my response to the news. My essay was sharp and directed. I offered and countered philosophical arguments and perspectives in a logical and linear manner. My conclusion made sense. It was well thought-out—even reasonable—but entirely misled.
I now realize the problem with my essay: It wasn’t human. Rather than dealing with the emotional and psychological underpinnings of our actions, I represented them as circumstantial, cost-benefit analyses. Rather than dealing with the underlying concerns regarding how we punish murderers, I used statistics. Rather than dealing with humanity, I dealt with cold, hard concepts. I subscribed so fervently to reason that I didn’t consider the reality of the situation.
The sturdy philosophy of my essay was thrown out the window when I considered the possibility of a murder and my proximity to it. In retrospect, I realize that even if we can reach a rational conclusion, we shouldn’t necessarily follow that path. Reason is a tool used to reach the most appropriate conclusion on a matter, but it shouldn’t stand alone. What I had missed was the emotional voice in the dialogue. If that gunman at Yale had killed a student, I now believe it would have been in the best interest of society—and perhaps even the man himself—to punish him.
How we go about this punishment is a different topic, one that I now realize must be considered with a less detached attitude than I had in my essay, for cold words can only make cold laws. The justice system—and every regulated system in society—is very much like a piece of clay that an artist desires to shape. Scrutinizing it from afar only lets it harden, while actually working with the piece of clay directly and frequently renders it easier to mold.
For the record, I still hold that the conclusion I reached in my essay through logical analysis and careful deliberation of the argument was reasonable. But I now believe that even if free will does not exist, it is best to pretend it does. I recognize the circularity: Punishment should be maintained because free will does exist because punishment should be maintained. But that’s fine—I’d rather be a human than an algorithm. And I’d rather subscribe to a system that engages with our irrational responses and real emotions than to one that follows reason so dogmatically that it forfeits our humanity.
I know I’m not the only culprit of overintellectualizing what I see in the world to the point that the conclusion becomes horribly disconnected from the actual event. Being surrounded by the intellectual vibrancy of the great thinkers featured in our Core classes, we can easily fall into the trap of believing that reason is the be-all and end-all, while emotional engagement only blurs our thought processes and inhibits this higher level of reasoning. But what use is a method of reasoning that remains so abstract it can never be grounded?
This isn’t to say we should abandon the processes of logical thinking and disciplined theorizing we’ve spent so long cultivating. Rather, we must ensure that as we reason, we maintain realism and relevance. Simply looking at the real world is a start.
The author is a Columbia College first-year with prospective majors in classics and philosophy.
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