This is an explanation for passage 3 of LSAT Preptest 74, the December 2014 LSAT – the comparative passage. The passages are about neuroscience and free will. The first passage argues that our decisions are often influenced by our emotions even when we think otherwise. The second passage discusses the ideas of Alfred J. Ayer, an English philosopher who wrote about whether determinism and free will are compatible.
This section has paragraph summaries and an analysis of the passage, links to the explanations for the questions are below.
- Neuroscience says we may be acting emotionally even if we think we’re rational.
- So we should stop punishing people for crimes. Instead, we should only use jail time to try to deter crimes.
- Neuroscience shows our actions are determined in advance by the physics of our brains.
- Nonetheless, Alfred J. Ayer argues that free will is possible.
- Our actions are free if they’re the product of a healthy brain and we face no outside constraint.
The passages aren’t complex, but they have some concepts that are hard to understand.
The point of the first passage is that neuroscience shows that we are not rational. Brain scans show that our decisions are made by our emotions, even when we think we’re acting rationally. (lines 9-14)
Lines 15-24 show how this should affect our criminal sentencing. Currently, we have at least two reasons for sentencing people to jail:
Retribution: Retribution is punishment for acts that we think are wrong. If someone murders another person, we think that action is wrong. So we send the murdered to jail to punish them for doing a bad thing.
Deterrence: We don’t want murders to happen. If there’s a strong jail term for murder, then people will think twice before committing murder.
Passage A says we should no longer use retribution in criminal sentencing
We currently use both retribution and deterrence as justifications for sending people to jail. It’s important to think of them both separately. This makes the argument in the passage clearer. The author is not saying we should get rid of jail. They’re saying we should no longer use punishment as a reason for sending people to jail.
This is hard to think about, because in popular narratives, punishment is the main reason we think of when we consider criminal sentencing. People want criminals to suffer for the bad things they do.
Passage A is saying that this is not a good reason to send people to jail. Neuroscience shows that we are not responsible for our actions, and so we should not jail people in order to punish them. We should, therefore, only jail people in order to deter crimes.
I personally think this is a silly argument. It may philosophically be true that we have no free will. But we live our lives as if we do. So I don’t think we ought to do away with the concept of free will in practice merely because on an atomic level it doesn’t hold true.
But that’s beside the point. The main things you should take out of passage A are as follows:
- We don’t control our actions rationally.
- Retribution jails people to punish them.
- Deterrence jails people to prevent crimes.
- Since people don’t commit crimes rationally, we shouldn’t jail them for punishment. Only deterrence is a good motive.
Passage B: Ayer argues that determinism and free will are compatible
Passage B discusses the ideas of an English philosopher, Alfred J. Ayer. The author of passage B agrees that we don’t control our actions. This is referred to as determinism.
Yet Ayer argues free will is still a useful concept. He distinguishes between actions that have external constraints vs. those that don’t.
For example, suppose someone sticks a gun to your back and asks for your wallet. You hand it over. Your action was not free: you had a strong internal reason to give the robber your wallet.
Now suppose someone walks up to you and nicely asks for your wallet. You are free to decide (most people would decide “no”).
It is true that your answer in a “free” situation is already determined by the chemistry of your brain. But since the deciding factors were internal, we can fairly call this decision free.
Mental illness is a distinguishing factor. If you have a mental disease, then your actions may not be free. Lines 38-43 discuss mental disorders.
The author of passage B appears to agree with Ayers’ argument. In lines 53-56 the author extends Ayers’ argument to define when actions are free: When there is no external constraint, and the brain is healthy.
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