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Should Karadzic be Punished?

Yesterday the world celebrated the arrest of Radovan Karadzic, the ex-Bosnian Serb leader who has twice been indicted by the UN War Crimes Tribunal in the Hague, and is charged with – among other atrocities — ordering his forces to kill at least 7,500 Muslim men and boys in Srebenica in July 1995 as part of a campaign to terrorize and demoralize the population.

There are few – apart from his remaining Serb nationalist supporters – who are not pleased by the prospect of justice’s being done in this terrible case. Most people believe that, if anyone can be said to deserve punishment, it will be Karadzic, once found guilty. But this belief rests, of course, on the assumption that punishment can be deserved, and there are serious philosophical doubts about that.

If punishment can be deserved, then it must be the case that events in the world are not causally determined in such a way as to make free will and moral responsibility impossible. But so-called ‘hard determinists’ make a powerful case for such causation. Science appears to support the view that – above the quantum level at least – the world operates according to laws of nature, and all of us, including Karadzic, are part of that world. If our actions are the result of blind forces over which we have no control, how can be held responsible for them?

Against the hard determinists are ranged the soft determinists, who accept the causal story but believe that it doesn’t rule out freedom and responsibility, and the libertarians who tend to put a lot of weight on the ‘experience’ all of us appear to have of freedom. Isn’t it just obvious that it’s *up to me* whether to go to the fridge now for a cool drink or to stay here and finish this blog?

These arguments about freedom and responsibility have been going on for thousands of years, and the problems they raise are among the hardest in philosophy. But there is one argument that even those who think that hard determinism is clearly wrong ought to consider, since it rests upon a principle of justice they themselves are likely to accept: that a person is not guilty until proven guilty, and should be given the benefit of the doubt. Since the philosophical jury is still out on whether hard determinism is true or not, we should for the time being suspend judgement on whether anyone, including even Radovan Karadzic, deserves punishment.

Does that mean that we shouldn’t punish people at all? Far from it. Punishment is part of a set of practices, including blaming, shaming, and praising, without which human society would almost certainly descend into chaos. One strong reason for punishing Karadzic if he is found guilty will be to send a message to others in similar positions to him now and in future that they cannot expect to avoid justice purely because of their political status. Sometimes that reason itself can be overridden, as it has been in Chile, South Africa, and several other countries, by the need for reconciliation. But that need seems largely absent from the Karadzic case. The general welcome of his capture suggests that his trial and subsequent punishment will itself be part of the healing process in Serbia.

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