Nathan Leopold Richard Loeb
Nathan Leopold (1904 – 1971) was born in Chicago to a wealthy immigrant family and was a child prodigy who reportedly scored an intelligence quotient of 210. By the age of twenty Leopold had already completed an undergraduate degree at the University of Chicago with Phi Beta Kappa honors and planned to begin studies at Harvard Law School after a trip to Europe. He reportedly had studied 15 languages and spoke at least five fluently, and had achieved a measure of national recognition as an ornithologist.
Richard Loeb (1905 – 1936) was also born in Chicago to a wealthy family. Like Leopold, Loeb was exceptionally intelligent. Though he skipped several grades in school and became the University of Michigan‘s youngest graduate at age 17, he was described as “lazy”, “unmotivated”, and “obsessed with crime,” and spent most of his time reading detective novels.
In 1924 Leopold and Loeb kidnapped and murdered 14-year-old Robert Franks in Chicago. They committed the murder—at the time called “the crime of the century”—as a demonstration of their perceived intellectual superiority, which they thought rendered them capable of carrying out a “perfect crime,” and absolved them of responsibility for their actions.
Clarence Darrow, probably the most famous trial attorney of all time, defended the young boys against the death penalty, arguing that the environment and biology had conspired against the boys, causing them to commit the crime. “Intelligent people now know that every human being is the product of the endless heredity back of him and the infinite environment around him.” Arguing to save the boy’s lives, he spoke for more than 12 hours, saying:
I do not know what it was that made these boys do this mad act, but I do know there is a reason for it. I know they did not beget themselves. I know that any one of an infinite number of causes reaching back to the beginning might be working out in these boys’ minds, whom you are asked to hang in malice and in hatred and injustice, because someone in the past sinned against them.
Leopold and Loeb’s lives were spared. Twelve years later, Loeb was attacked and killed by another prisoner, while Leopold spent 34 years behind bars, during which time he taught other prisoners, volunteered for malaria testing, ran the prison library, worked in the prison hospital, and ultimately learned to speak 27 languages! After his release, he moved to Puerto Rico where he earned a master’s degree, taught university classes, worked for urban renewal, did research in leprosy, was active in the Natural History Society, and published a book on birds.
But was Darrow correct that the boys didn’t commit their crimes freely? Here are a number of theories and ideas to support this claim.
Fatalism is the view that whatever will happen must happen because logic entails that the future is determined. Theologians have worried about the same problem regarding God’s foreknowledge and human free will. If the gods know the future, then we can’t be free. While fatalism isn’t particularly popular with professional philosophers, some have defended it vigorously.
Determinism is the view that every event has a cause. It says that effects are the results of prior causes such that, given the cause, the effect will follow. The entire universe seems governed by cause and effect, and the universe includes our brains whose activity is caused by electrical signals, which are caused by prior electrical activity, ad infinitum. The immediate causes of our behaviors are events in the brain, and we know that stimulating the brain in various places can make someone experience different things.
We can also make people act in certain ways by stimulating their brains, and they will experience the subsequent physical movements as natural. Moreover, when human brains are stimulated, people offer reasons why they subsequently moved their bodies. So it seems our decisions are determined too. And someone watching your brain scan sees the pattern that will result in your action, not only before you perform the action, but before you decide to perform the act. This is evidence that your decisions are determined.
Not only do findings from the physical sciences count against our belief in free will, but so too does ordinary experience. Consider how much of what you do and believe is easily predictable by the conditions of your upbringing, culture, socio-economic group, genome, gender, etc. This suggests that you didn’t choose any of your behaviors and beliefs, but that they were largely determined for you by your genes and environment.
Moreover, the science of psychology has little use for the concept of free will when explaining human actions. For example, behaviorism posits that humans are easily conditioned by positive and negative reinforcement—rules of classical and operant conditioning are well-known to work with humans. Furthermore, experiments continually show that the conditions in which we find ourselves largely determine what we do. For example, in the Stanford prison experiment, we found that people can easily be turned into torturers. (Since this post was published questions have been raised about the experiment.) And the experiments of Milgram found that many people will administer a fatal electric shock to another because an authority figure asked them to.
So far we have placed the emphasis on the environment as the main factor that determines behavior. But there are also genes; there is biology. For example, we have found that identical twins are remarkably similar even if raised in completely different environments. Twins reared together are most alike; then twins reared apart; then siblings reared together, then siblings reared apart, then non-related kids reared together, then non-related kids reared apart. This is exactly what we should expect if genes and environment (plus random factors like genetic noise) determine behavior.
Moreover, we now know the connection between genes and: violence, alcoholism, impulsivity, OCD, depression, and more. When you combine genes and environment together it is hard to see how one is free. And even if we could resist the pull of biology and environment, the place for free will seems vanishingly small. Genes and environment seem to be an exhaustive explanation for human behavior. The more science learns about people, the less likely it seems that they have free will, at least in ways we usually imagine.