Freedom of Choice?
Bill Cottringer

“Life is like a game of cards. The hand you are dealt is determinism; the way you play it is free will.” ~Jawaharlal Nehru

A perennial philosophical debate that started with the early philosophers and gave birth to all the earlier theories of criminality, penology and mental health has resurfaced again because of inconclusive evidenced-based research results on the treatment effects of undesirable criminal behavior of prison inmates. This has brought the rehabilitation purpose of incarceration into serious question and resulted in the current climate of being tough on crime, with fear of continued risk driving fewer early releases from prison, all counterproductive to the escalating costs of rising prison populations.

One the one side of this debate, many say we all have opportunities to make free choices as to what to think, feel, say or do at any given moment, separate from past conditioning. This perspective comes from the earlier optimistic human potential and existential philosophy movements. On the other side of the argument, many say all behavior is predetermined, through the perpetual conditioning of its consequences. Unfortunately, the particular perspective you take on this question strongly influences the degree of success or failure you experience in trying to change undesirable behavior, such as criminality.

And if the latter is true, then even the perspective you “choose” on this issue has been pre-determined with your particular conditioning and is not really a choice. Being of the first group, I just can’t seem to let go of my sense of hope of a free will to make responsible choices, despite a history of adverse consequences that would normally lead someone in the opposite direction. Besides, if my freedom of choice is entirely an illusion or worse yet, delusional and already determined, then what is the purpose of even having such an idea in the first place—just for self-torture as a bad cosmic joke?

Perspectives, paradigms, viewpoints or whatever you call them, are perhaps the most important things to understand and get right. This is because we think and act on what we believe is true and it is a perspective that tells us what is true or not. Now the trouble with the exclusive free will vs. determinism perspective dilemma is that both were conditioned and if that is the case, both have to be true.

Something tells me that both sides to this diverse perspective on human nature are at the same time a little right and a little wrong. After all, isn’t that the way of extremes in life? Creativity is often the combining the good parts of two opposite things and making something different that can do more than either half can alone. The greatest egg omelets in the world are based on this principle and you can’t argue with good taste! That is what computers do as well as legendary sports teams.

Our dilemma here has a great deal of applicability to our society’s response to crime and other serious social problems keeping society from reaching its potential in self-actualization. If we don’t actively consider joining both possibilities in our approach with a middle perspective to changing behavior, then rehabilitation is just a 14-letter word empty of any meaning. And, without the real hope of eventually being able to “un-condition” irresponsible behavior by increased awareness of why this is essential and how to do it, nothing changes for the better.

One way I have learned to test the validity of a theory, is to see if that is the way life actually seems to work. Behavior modification theory is true to life in that our behavior is conditioned with learning behaviors that get rewarded. The mistake we continue to make in prisons and even in parenting, is in thinking that punishment can change undesirable negative behavior into desirable positive behavior, when it gets everything but that the majority of the time. However, if we can be conditioned to learn new behavior than we can likewise be un-conditioned to unlearn previously learned behavior.

There have been great advances in brain research to “free” our choices from the adverse effects of wrong conditioning. And, it won’t be long before we can go to the library or neighborhood clinic to get virtual experiences download or chemical doses of the one thing that can change behavior more than anything. This is empathy and includes both psychological and physiological integration of others’ good and bad consequences as experienced by them, being life’s most powerful conditioning medium.

But in the meantime, what can be done now to put more credence in rehabilitation programs trying to change behavior? The answer is a change in two major perspectives: (a) from free will vs. determinism to free will and determinism, and (b) from rehabilitation not working and so scrap it, to so what, it is still the fair and right thing to do until we can find something better. Incarceration alone is enough punishment, retribution and justice; continued rehabilitation efforts are a must to keep things in healthy balance for the best outcomes.

“The intuition of free will gives us the truth.” ~Corliss Lamont.

Author's Bio: 

William Cottringer, Ph.D. is Executive Vice-President of Employee Relations for Puget Sound Security Patrol, Inc. in Bellevue, WA., along with being a Sport Psychologist, Business Success Coach, Photographer and Writer living in the mountains of North Bend. He is author of several recent business and self-development books, including, You Can Have Your Cheese & Eat It Too (Executive Excellence), The Bow-Wow Secrets (Wisdom Tree), and Do What Matters Most and “P” Point Management (Atlantic Book Publishers) Reality Repair Rx (PublishAmerica), and Reality Repair (Global Vision Press) Bill can be reached for comments or questions at (425) 652-8067, 425-454-5011 or or