Why Do People Do Bad (and Good) Things? That’s the fall focus of the Sinai and Synapses Discussion Forum. Each week, we’ll gather some of the most interesting articles on the topic from across the online world. We hope they make you think—and share your thoughts with us in the comment section below.

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s Crimes Were Terrible, But Morality Has Nothing to Do With It

Jerry A. Coyne: Determinists like me argue that criminals don’t have any choice in what they do, and therefore excusing people from death because they were “cognitively impaired,” “didn’t know right from wrong,” or had other extenuating circumstances is no more valid than excusing people “because they have a brain that obeys the laws of physics.” In other words, if you exculpate one person from execution on any grounds of cognitive impairment, then you must exculpate all of them, for nobody can ever make a free choice between killing or refraining from it. In some sense all criminals are cognitively impaired, for, like the rest of us, their actions were determined completely by their genes and environment; at no time, were the tape of life rewound, could they have behaved differently. (New Republic)

The Death Penalty’s Destructive Morality Exposed: “We Must Overcome the Impulse for Vengeance”

Jonathan Zimmerman: If we listened more closely, we would see that the victims themselves—like Americans overall—are deeply divided on the issue. And we’d question why one victim’s wish for a killer to die should take precedence over another’s desire to see him live. (Salon)

How ‘Star Wars’ Answers Our Biggest Religious Questions

The story centers on the battle between the evil Empire and virtuous Rebellion, which appeals for its action as well as the injustice that is being fought. But the narrative moves beyond a conventional political and military fight to deeper considerations of character, friendship, technology, transcendence and redemption. A viewer can enjoy the story on two levels, then: as an action-adventure of good versus evil, or as a reflection on the deepest human themes. Literary critic and philosopher René Girard argues that the most enduring stories function on these two levels by simultaneously appealing to different audiences, with the deeper level effectively subverting and deepening the most superficial level over time. (Joel Hodge, The Washington Post)

The Moral Challenge of Invisibility

 Notions of personal invisibility feature in many of our legends and stories—where it has other, moral connotations. Plato’s Republic tells of the myth of a magic invisibility ring, which a Lydian shepherd called Gyges uses to seduce the queen and murder the king. H. G. Wells’s novel The Invisible Man updated the Gyges story, demonstrating the corrupting temptations of invisibility and the way it can sever our sense of personal responsibility for our actions. Would invisibility confuse our morals? (Philip Ball, Nature)

America Will Never Move Beyond the Culture Wars

 The culture wars “are history,” Andrew Hartman emphatically declares in the conclusion to his lively new book, A War for the Soul of America. “The logic of the culture wars has been exhausted. The metaphor has run its course.” Hartman’s conclusion is especially jarring given that he does such a fine job demonstrating that the culture wars were much more than “one angry shouting match after another.” There were “real and compelling” issues behind the incendiary debates about hot button issues such as abortion, affirmative action, and homosexuality as well as evolution, censorship, and the Western canon. Indeed culture wars debates, as Hartman writes, were ultimately about the very “idea of America” itself. (Jeffrey Aron Snyder, New Republic)