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The free will problem inherent in the acts of blaming and punishing is age-old and well-known. It has largely to do with the notion of just desserts. Conventionally, most of us tend to believe that the attribution of guilt and the imposition of punishment are deserved only if it may fairly be said that the actor exercised some degree of free choice, or – as it is often put – could have chosen not to do what he or she did. Yet most of us also believe there are limits to freedom of choice in particular circumstances, and some question whether it can be said that such freedom ever exists. That is, most of us engage in at least some degree of deterministic thinking: we believe free choice may be limited (or entirely precluded) by an individual’s age, upbringing, or environmental influences; by mental illness and other psychological, genetic, or biological factors, or (as some would have it) by the inevitable hand of God or fate. We tend to conclude, consciously or otherwise, that at least some acts or choices are determined by forces outside the individual’s control. Disagreements abound over the degree to which particular factors limit or preclude freedom, the meaning of free choice, and the question of whether the philosophical debate about the free will/determinism problem creates a false dichotomy – or identifies a real problem at all.


Copyright © 2014 Cambridge University Press. All rights reserved; reprinted with permission. Published as: Green, Thomas Andrew. “Introduction.” In Freedom and Criminal Responsibility in American Legal Thought, 1–20. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014. DOI: