The Corner

Ninth Circuit Judge Resolves Ancient Philosophical Debate over Free Will

Last week the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals announced that there is no rational basis for classifying a “habitual drunkard” as someone who lacks good moral character. The case arose when one such drunkard, an illegal immigrant named Salomon Ledezma-Cosino, sought to have his deportation canceled. The government denied his request by citing a statute that allows deportation relief only for people of “good moral character.” The statute specifically lists a “habitual drunkard” as someone who does not meet that standard. The Ninth Circuit declared the statute unconstitutional because “a person’s medical disability [alcoholism] lacks any rational relation to his classification as a person with bad moral character.”

Leave aside the question of why judges are better qualified than Congress to determine whether a law is rational. What’s most disturbing about the opinion is the philosophizing placed under the banner of science. “The theory that alcoholics are blameworthy because they could simply try harder to recover is an old trope not supported by the medical literature,” according to Judge Stephen Reinhardt. “Rather, the inability to stop drinking is a function of the underlying ailment.”

Who knew that the problem of free will could be resolved so decisively? Although it should go without saying, the degree to which people with certain biological predilections should be held morally accountable for their behavior is a political-philosophical question. It’s not one that can be answered by empirical science alone, and certainly not by the musings of an appeals-court judge.

Reinhardt’s claim that addicts are blameless is intellectually comforting to those who worry about stigmatizing illnesses, but the claim is not — and cannot be — a statement of scientific fact. That a federal judge would use such an argument to overturn an act of Congress indicates how far the judicial branch has sunk into the morass of politics.

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