Quarantine and Social Justice

Gregg Caruso is interested in the notion of Agency from the perspective of justice, desert, and sentencing. This is applied philosophy.

My main argument against the possibility of free will is Nietzsche-Strawson’s causa sui argument, which I’ve touched on a few times by now, but I haven’t yet fully articulated my position. I’ll get to that another day. I’d also like to create another video, as I would like to do for this as I explore in more detail.

Ostensibly, this is a compatibilist view that leaves a modicum of free will, even with causa sui in place. I hope this illustration will be helpful.

In the centre of the illustration is you, the self of some arbitrary person who shall act as our subject. Let’s assume a couple of basic premises:

  1. We either live in a relaxed causal, deterministic or indeterministic universe.
  2. Causa sui is in full force and effect: one cannot cause any aspect of one’s self.

I include the term relaxed in the first premise, so I don’t have to deal with a fully deterministic universe governed entirely by the notion captured by Schrödinger’s equation. The second premise is in place to serve as a limitation: even if consciousness is an emergent property, its emergence doesn’t grant some insuperable metaphysical powers. One cannot reach outside of one’s self.

The scenario plays out as follows. You have been apprehended for violating some statute. Let’s say that you’ve taken an item from a retail store. As you are leaving the store, the police stop you. When asked if you took the item, you answer in the affirmative. This is a very efficient municipality, so you are taken immediately to a magistrate to make a plea.

In this scenario, Caruso is your attorney at law. His argument is that, given causa sui, you cannot be responsible for who you are. We’ve been here before. Since you can’t be responsible for who you are, any sentence to punish you would be unethical, as you’ve done nothing to deserve it. This is the notion of desert in the realm of retributive justice.

The judge buys this argument, but s/he counters with three possible courses of action. You may not be responsible for who you are, but we are a community of laws. You are a victim of your circumstances, so we cannot look backwards. For whatever reason—and through no fault of your own, by definition—, you were broken relative to complying with community norms.

Social Justice

Firstly, we may wish to make an example of you, to signal the community that we will incarcerate people who break the laws. This is more a public service purpose than a punishment.

Secondly, if you had contracted a communicable disease—we’re looking at you Covid—, you can be quarantined under the consideration of the common good. Framed this way, it is not a punishment, we just don’t want it to happen again.

Lastly, we may also be justified on the grounds of rehabilitation. I highlight the ‘re‘ in rehabilitation because some people may not have been ‘habilitated’ in the first place. Perhaps think of them as feral. In any case, a computer programming analogy might make sense here.

So what’s this all about? Remember, causa sui says that you cannot be held responsible for creating yourself. The claim is that you are a product of your nature and nurture. Genetically speaking, perhaps there was some reason that you could not incorporate inputs into factors that allowed you to appropriately interpret this law—or any law, more generally. Or maybe, you were never exposed to this law or category of law before.

In the preventative vein, we could be signalling, ‘We caught You taking an item from a shop without paying. Now you know this, and we may make an example of you since you are caught as well’.

Quarantine may be a bit of a stretch in this scenario, so feel free to substitute a more serious offence if it helps you to remember this. Perhaps You killed someone. Even without punishment, we may want to get You off the streets before another killing is perpetrated. I’ll come back to this one.

Rehabilitation makes sense even if one is not responsible for one’s self. Presuming that you are a product of programming—family, culture, peers, and so on—, perhaps you just need to be rewired. Perhaps a particular subroutine was not implemented or activated correctly. This rationality could be used as a non-punitive justification.

Counterarguments

The public prevention case may be why offenders were pilloried in by-gone days. Display in a public square may inform some who may have missed the lesson the first time around, hence dissuading taking similar actions. But unless this ‘public service message’ reached enough people, it would probably not be the best rationale.

Quarantine may sound OK on the surface, but it’s actually rather specious. Firstly, that You knicked a trinket. What exactly is the risk of contagion? Petty theft is not known to be particularly communicable. Secondly, just because you’ve done something once is little measure of whether you’ll do it again. In fact, if this were true, then one might have assumed that you could never have committed the offence because of your history.

Rehabilitation may likely be the best option among these. If you missed that particular lesson or had forgotten or diminished the calculus, remediation may do just the trick. However, if your ‘operating system’ is not up to snuff, it’s not a matter of inputs. It’s a matter of processing capability.

Psychological intervention is in its infancy, so the probability of remediating this is low, if not a crap shoot. And not all such processes can be remediated. This could lead one to fall back on the quarantine option, but who is the competent assessor in this case?

It’s easy enough to assess if You is Hannibal Lecter or tells you straight out that s/he intends to repeat the offence. Some cognitive deficiencies are simple enough to recognise. But what about the grey areas—all of that space in between?

And who is making sure that the judges are not being punitive simply because they haven’t yet eaten lunch?

Enfin

Bringing this to a close, if we have no free will, it makes no sense to punish. Sadly, most justice systems promote retributive justice and punishment in sentencing. I’ll spare you my diatribe on how I believe most people attracted to jurisprudence, law, and law enforcement have been conditioned. And whilst Caruso feels justified in foreword action, I am more sceptical. This said, I’ll take what I can get.

This post is pretty much a stream of consciousness. I hope to give it better treatment in a future video.

Moral Responsibility

Can we be held morally responsible for our actions? Yes, says Daniel Dennett. No, says Gregg Caruso. Reader, you decide

Aeon Article, 4 October 2018

Caruso: [Dan,] you have famously argued that freedom evolves and that humans, alone among the animals, have evolved minds that give us free will and moral responsibility. I, on the other hand, have argued that what we do and the way we are is ultimately the result of factors beyond our control, and that because of this we are never morally responsible for our actions, in a particular but pervasive sense – the sense that would make us truly deserving of blame and praise, punishment and reward. While these two views appear to be at odds with each other, one of the things I would like to explore in this conversation is how far apart we actually are. I suspect that we may have more in common than some think – but I could be wrong. To begin, can you explain what you mean by ‘free will’ and why you think humans alone have it?

Gregg Caruso

Dennett: A key word in understanding our differences is ‘control’. [Gregg,] you say ‘the way we are is ultimately the result of factors beyond our control’ and that is true of only those unfortunates who have not been able to become autonomous agents during their childhood upbringing. There really are people, with mental disabilities, who are not able to control themselves, but normal people can manage under all but the most extreme circumstances, and this difference is both morally important and obvious, once you divorce the idea of control from the idea of causation. Your past does not control you; for it to control you, it would have to be able to monitor feedback about your behaviour and adjust its interventions – which is nonsense.

In fact, if your past is roughly normal, it contains the causal chains that turned you into an autonomous, self-controlling agent. Lucky you. You weren’t responsible for becoming an autonomous agent, but since you are one, it is entirely appropriate for the rest of us to hold you responsible for your deeds under all but the most dire circumstances. 

Daniel Dennett

if your past is roughly normal, it contains the causal chains that turned you into an autonomous, self-controlling agent

Dan Dennett

So commences this debate. The argument unfolds largely on semantic grounds. Even here, one can see the debate over the distinction between control and causation. I understand what Dennett is attempting to parse here, but I object on the grounds of causa sui.

I recommend reading the Aeon article as there is much more than this distinction, but it does remain a semantic issue. I started a post on backwards- and forward-looking perspectives, that better articulate Caruso’s perspective, but I am also working on other things. This was quicker to post and I wanted to keep a bookmark anyway, so it’s a win-win.

No Escape from Moral Responsibility

Harvard’s Bob Doyle submits that people have free will in an indeterministic universe (read: agency) because if in the face of some random event an agent can make a choice, then s/he is responsible for that choice. I believe he is mischaracterising or misinterpreting the situation. I’ve composited an illustration to show where he and I interpret the random event differently. I’ve linked and cued the video to where he makes the statement I am reacting to.

The illustration depicts three event chains. My interpretation of Bob’s case is at the top followed by that of a Deterministic universe, followed by that of an indeterministic universe. At the bottom of the illustration is an index running from t-2 to t2, representing time, where t0 represents now, a decision point.

Determinism

Let’s set the table with the simplest narrative—Determinism. Here, every event that occurs was known since the beginning of time. Every state is the result of past events in a causal chain. Nothing can happen that isn’t caused by a prior event. This is the motion picture we just haven’t seen yet. But anyone who has already seen it can spoil the ending because it’s already known without a doubt.

Regarding the illustration, event t-2 causes t-1 that causes t0 all the way to t2 and beyond.

No Escape from Moral Responsibiliy Chart

Bob Doyle, an Interpretation

Although Bob’s case is an interpretation of Indeterminism, let’s consider his position first. Then I’ll suggest where he’s gone astray.

As with the other cases, Bob’s transition from t-2 to t-1 is Deterministic and uncontested. The difference starts where t-1 transitions to t0. In Bob’s world, a random or perhaps a probabilistic event occurs given the agent to make a choice not having been previously determined. Referring to the illustration, because of this event, the agent chooses yes and embarks on the top chosen path, even if the subsequent path is again determined. Bob argues that at t0, the agent has free will, or if we focus our language, is responsible for the decision. By definition, this means that whatever path might be embarked had our agent chosen the lower path will never be known. And that has made all the difference.

Indeterminism

Herein lies the rub. As with the prior two event chains, we arrive at t0, as with Bob’s scenario, we encounter a probabilistic (random, stochastic, aleatory, indeterministic) event. It does not follow that this event confers agential responsibility.

For example—not a moral consideration—, the random event involves the outcome of a match by their favourite sports team—or perhaps s/he’s won at Lotto—, our agent had no say in the outcome of the event. From the agent’s perspective—considering the illustration—s/he remains on a path. S/he can wish s/he rooted for the other team or had chosen a different number or ticket, but she had no choice.

To anticipate Bob’s response, perhaps she had won and now chooses to quit her job or take holiday. This should have been predictable knowing our agent’s disposition, character, and propensities. At no point did the agent actually possess even a modicum of agency.

Freedom & Creativity

I don’t know much about Bob or his work, but earlier in the video clip he discusses freedom and creativity. My sense is that he interprets creativity as a sort of emergent property that manifests at the moment. I fundamentally disagree with this assertion. The notion reminds me of Hume’s position that unicorns are simply the mental merger of horses and horns. This is not creation so much as a remix.

Later in the video, Bob clarifies that if something randomly pops into our heads and we make a different decision because of it, this is free will. My counterargument is that he is misusing the term random. An unknown origin does not necessarily mean randomly manifest.

Video

Life Debt

Abortion rights and a woman’s right to choose are on quick repeat in the latest news cycles as the SCOTUS has signalled that it wished to remove a woman’s right to choose. For most of us, it’s plainly obvious that this is codifying religious moral doctrine into law—Judeo-Christian beliefs to be more precise. This Christian belief is predicated on the notion that life is sacred.

In the West or at least in the United States citizens are inundated with this religious tripe, literally from infancy. It’s presented as sacrosanct, but this is not a universal belief.

One of my favourite stories in David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years was the recounting of French philosopher Lucien Levy-Bruhl’s anecdotal observation that a man saved from drowning proceeded to ask his rescuer for remuneration for having saved his life.

As Graeber puts it, a man saved from drowning who proceeded to ask his rescuer to give him some nice clothes to wear, or another who, on being nursed back to health after having been savaged by a tiger, demanded a knife. One French missionary working in Central Africa insisted that such things happened to him on a regular basis:

You save a person’s life, and you must expect to receive a visit from him before long; you are now under an obligation to him, and you will not get rid of him except by giving him presents.

In the early decades of the twentieth century, the French philosopher Lucien Levy-Bruhl, in an attempt to prove that “natives” operated with an entirely different form of logic, compiled a list of similar stories: for instance, of a man saved from drowning who proceeded to ask his rescuer to give him some nice clothes to wear, or another who, on being nursed back to health after having been savaged by a tiger, demanded a knife. 

The interesting thing for me is the way this flips the sanctity of life narrative on its head. As Westerners, it is not only beat into our heads—whether secular or sectarian—, and this sanctity becomes the crux of the pro-life [sic] anti-abortion argument. But this sanctity is just another human construct. Part of the ‘be fruitful, go forth and multiply’ logic. This is arguably just more human hubris.

Of course, this is a slippery slope. Start undermining this narrative, and you start to see eugenic apologists coming out of the woodwork. In fact, we aren’t really that far removed from this notion. Whenever we encounter common enemies, one of the first tactics is to vilify and dehumanise them, so as to soothe the psyche, making it justify killing these subhuman species. In the end, the human mind is very facile.

Defence of Abortion

Judith Thomson published an essay named ‘A Defense of Abortion‘ in 1971 where she uses a house and invaders as an analogy to defend the right to abortion. Her defence resonates with David Guignion, and David’s approach to summarising philosophy resonates with me.

Disclaimer: I listen to most of David’s work, which should be a testament to the interest I have in the material he covers as well as the accord I have for his positions—content and vehicle. In this case, he feels that Thomson employs a solid argument in defence of abortion, but I’m not sure I agree. I also freely admit that—given I feel that all morality is socially constructed—I am not likely among the intended cohort for this nuanced argument.

Firstly, I’m no misanthrope, but I don’t feel humans deserve some privileged position over other lifeforms simply because they have some limited sense of awareness.

Secondly, I’m not a strong anti-natalist, I feel this is a defensible position to adopt, so I could rely on this position to defend abortion.

Thirdly, I don’t believe that bodily autonomy is anything more than a social construct. Foreshadowing David’s line of argumentation, It’s not a matter of Liberal autonomy over dictatorial oppression. I feel that this is first a false dichotomy and second a competition between social constructs.

Whilst I do understand that Thomson’s position is intended to counter Americans who do subscribe to the myths of autonomy, sovereignty, agency, rights, and property, this is also why I feel the entire argument depends on rhetoric and emotion. Perhaps, the rest of us aren’t going to be anti-abortion in the first place, so why expend energy trying to formulate a deeper argument to convince us.

I had previously heard of the model Thomson employed that drew an analogy between an accomplished violinist and a fetus. I hadn’t read the source essay and didn’t know that Thomson had authored it. I wasn’t familiar with her extended arguments either.

I had originally planned to regard each proposed scenario separately, but I’m going to exercise the principle of least effort and just share some general observations, leaving the door open to revisit these when time and interest align. In general, I don’t feel that Thomson makes a strong logical argument. Her approach relies on emotion and rhetorical tactics.

Thomson frames a Consequentialist argument and colours it with a dash of Virtue ethics. By establishing the accomplished musician, she establishes a frame that taps into elitism. She takes a high art versus low art approach, an approach often adopted by virtue ethicists. For me, this always triggers a red flag.

Next, she triggers the home invasion reflex for people who believe in private property as an extension of bodily autonomy, so she is relying on fear as legerdemain, even if unintentionally.

In each case, the autonomous actor is given a privileged position in the story. In the first case, the tethered musician is unconscious and has no voice—like a fetus or a pet. She is generous enough to afford the musician full human status and bodily autonomy, yet without agency.

Thomson creates a false dichotomy that she expects one to adopt uncritically. Is she a reliable narrator? Are there no intermediate options available? Let’s ignore this, as she hopes one does. It’s you or the musician in a zero-sum game of life and death. In a scenario where the musician or fetus has no agency, it’s easy to take the self-righteous high road and claim decision authority.

Allow me to take a detour for a moment. Let’s say that you and the musician were both tethered without consent and that each of you came to and your inextricable plights were conveyed to you. In this case, each of you may wish to exercise autonomy and in this deathmatch, only one would prevail; the other would die. Given this elitist setup, you are the underdog—some shlub versus Paganini in his prime. Even a fetus might have this privilege. Perhaps you are carrying the proto-progeny of Einstein or a king with no heirs? Handmaid’s Tale, yes. But I digress.

The next sleight of hand is introducing an emotional self-defence trope. The setup is that given the choice of the other person being an existential threat, who wouldn’t agree that you have a right to defend yourself?—not delving into the fiction of rights.

David jumps right onto Thomson’s bandwagon, which was her intent, but it is not obvious that self-defence is some inalienable right. In practice, the right is abridged by the state often. This is true in the United States as well as Canada. I’m imagining David overloading the meter on a connected galvanic skin testing device. Pure emotion.

I fully sympathise with David’s position, but this doesn’t change the fact whether a person has autonomy or not is an arbitrary decision. Many cultures now and even Western cultures in the past had little notion of personal autonomy. Trepidation aside, there is little reason to presume this will continue to persist.

EDITORIAL NOTE: I was writing this near the end of April 2022 when I got distracted by my anti-agency interest. This was left unfinished, but I feel it’s complete enough to post. I am not sure where my mind was headed at the time.

Flavours of Free Will and Compatibilism

Reading Four Views on Free Will. In the introduction are some guiding definitions as well as this chart to help one to understand various views (row-wise) based on some questions (column-wise).

According to this chart, I’m a hard incompatibilist, As it reads,

  1. I don’t subscribe to notions of free will or moral responsibility.
  2. Free will and determinism cannot coexist in the same domain. (And the domain is the universe.)
  3. Moral responsibility cannot be assigned in a deterministic environment.
  4. Humans have no free will. (And neither can anything else.)

I’ve only read Robert Kane’s chapter so far. He’s a defender of Libertarianism.

John Martin Fischer is next. He’s known as a semi-compatibilist. We’ll find out what that means.

This is the end of a very short post, but I felt that the chart would be helpful for some.

Identity and Responsibility

Self and identity are cognitive heuristic constructions that allow us to make sense of the world and provide continuity in the same way we create constellations from the situation of stars, imagining Ursa Major, the little dipper, or something else. The self and identity are essentially expressions of apophenia.

Consider this thought experiment about responsibility. Rob decides to rob a bank. He spends weeks casing the target location. He makes elaborate plans, drawing maps. and noting routines and schedules. He gets a gun, and one day he follows through on his plans, and he successfully robs the bank, escaping with a large sum of money in a box with the name of the bank printed on it. Rob is not a seasoned criminal, and so he leaves much incriminating evidence at the scene. To make it even more obvious, he drops his wallet at the scene of the crime containing his driver’s licence with fingerprints and DNA on the licence and other contents of his wallet. He leaves prints and DNA on the counter where he waited for the money. This wallet even contains a handwritten checklist of steps to take to rob this bank—the address of the bank, the time and date. All of this left no doubt about who robbed the bank.

The self and identity are essentially expressions of apophenia.

Using this evidence, the police show up at Rob’s apartment to arrest him. They knock on the door and identify themselves as law enforcement officers. Rob opens the door and invites them in. All of the purloined money is still in the box with the name of the bank printed on it. It’s on a table in plain sight next to the gun he used. All of his maps, plans and, surveillance notes are in the room, too. They read him his rights and arrest him. Things aren’t looking good for Rob.

Before I continue this narrative, ask yourself is Rob responsible for robbing the bank? Let’s ignore the question of whether Rob has agency. For this example, I am willing to ignore my contention that no one has or can have agency. Besides, the court will continue to presume agency long after it’s been determined that it is impossible because agency is a necessary ingredient to law and jurisprudence.

Is Rob responsible? Should he be convicted of armed robbery and sentenced to incarceration? Let’s make it even easier. This isn’t Rob’s first offence. In fact, he’s been in prison before for some other crimes he committed. He’s no first-time offender. Why do you think that he’s responsible? More importantly, why should he be convicted and sentenced? What should his sentence be?

Consider that the money has been recovered, no one was injured, and Rob didn’t resist arrest. At first glance, we might consider both restorative and retributive justice. I’ve purposely made it easy to ignore restorative justice as all the money was recovered. This leaves us with retributive justice. What should happen to Rob? What would you do if you were the judge? Why? Hold that thought.

Let’s continue the narrative. All of the above happened, but I left out some details. Because of course I did. After the heist, Rob returned home and he lost his balance and hit his head rendering him an amnesiac—diagnosed with permanent retrograde and dissociative amnesia. Because of the retrograde amnesia, Rob can’t remember anything prior to hitting his head. Because of the dissociation, Rob has no recollection of anything about himself, not even his name. In fact, he now only responds to the name Ash. (This is where I debate whether to have Rob experience a gender-identity swap, but I convince myself to slow my roll and focus on one thought experiment at a time.)

Because of the retrograde amnesia, Rob can’t remember anything prior to hitting his head. Because of the dissociation, Rob has no recollection of anything about himself

To make this as obvious as I can consider, Ash has no recollection of Rob, robbing the bank, or anything about Rob. Ash doesn’t know Rob’s friends or family. Ostensibly Ash is a different person inhabiting former-Rob’s body. To make it even easier, Ash is not feigning this condition. So, let’s not try to use that as an out when I ask you to reconsider responsibility.

If my experience serves as a guide, if I asked you about your response to whether Rob was responsible and what his sentence should be, you would be committed to your same response and for the same reasons, so I won’t ask again.

What I ask now is if Ash is responsible and what his sentence should be. Keep in mind that we should be able to ignore the restorative element and focus on the retributive aspect. What should happen to Ash? What would you do if you were the judge? Whether your response has changed or remained the same, why would you judge Ash this way?

Here are some considerations:

  • Retributive justice might serve as a lesson to other would-be offenders.
  • The public may not believe the amnesia excuse—even though you, as judge, are convinced thoroughly.
  • Ash does not believe he committed the crime and does not comprehend the charges.
  • Ash was surprised to discover the money and gun and was pondering how it got there and what to do with it when the police arrived at his apartment.
  • If released, Ash would not commit a crime in the future. (My thought experiment, my rules; the point being that Ash was no threat to society.)
  • From my perspective, Ash is a different person. Sentencing Ash is ostensibly the same as sentencing any person arbitrarily.

The purpose of this experiment is to exaggerate the concept of multiple selves. Some have argued that there is no self; there is just a constructed narrative stitching discrete selves together to create a continuous flow of self-ness.

Is Ash responsible for Rob’s action?

I’m interested in hearing what you think. Is Ash responsible for Rob’s action, and why or why not? Let me know.

Raising Kane

Robert Kane’s chapter in Four Views on Free Will is titled Libertarianism, and I’ve just finished it. I’ve been writing in the margins, and I’ll summarise my thoughts here.

TL;DR

As I wrote in my last post, I don’t find the Libertarian position on free will and agency compelling. Kane made some interesting points, but none persuaded me to buy what he was selling. The biggest challenge I had was to maintain focus because I think he was chasing red herrings—at least given my focus on agency. He spent a lot of time tearing down determinism and indeterminism instead of building up his own position. I feel the debate centres around agency. I waited for him to explain how this agency operated, but he just assumes agency—or at least a self to possess agency—from the start. I am not convinced. If you are interested, my more detailed commentary follows.

The Rest of the Story

My intent at the start is to approach this chronologically as I retrace my marginalia, hoping to recall whatever prompted my notes in the first place. I’ll be quoting or paraphrasing Kane’s positions to serve as a reference in the event you don’t have access to the book.

1, Determinism and the Garden of Forking Paths

Kane starts off by mentioning that determinism implies that ‘given the past and the laws of nature at any given time, there is only one possible future‘. Within this unvarying environment, he writes, ‘We believe we have free will when we view ourselves as agents‘. I don’t disagree with either of these points, and, as agents, we are ‘capable of influencing the world in various ways‘.

Kane introduces a garden of forking paths illustration, which I’ve recreated here.

Garden of Forking Paths

He uses this as a visual decision tree, where an actor traverses the branches and makes decisions at the various vertices. To breathe life into this tree, he gives us one of several forthcoming examples. He introduces us to Jane.

In his scenario, Jane is faced with a decision with one of two possible outcomes, and ‘she believes there is more than one possible path into the future available to her and it is “up to her” which of these paths will be taken‘. He continues, ‘This picture of different possible paths into the future is also essential, I believe, to what it means to be a person and to live a human life‘.

And herein lies the rub. Jane is not making these decisions in a vacuum. She is a puppet to forces beyond her control. I shouldn’t be so hard on psychology and Freud, but as Luke 23:34 of the Christian Bible relates, ‘Forgive them, for they know not what they do’.

Then Kane reinforces that if determinism were true that Jane would not have free will before bringing up the idea of responsibility, that ‘free will is … intimately related to notions of accountability, blameworthiness, and praiseworthiness for actions‘. I agree with Kane here.

Next, he invokes an emotional appeal-to-nature argument, asking us to imagine a ‘young man [who] is on trial for an assault and robbery in which his victim was beaten to death.’ He suggests that our tendency to blame this man is natural, but that we might search for mitigating circumstances that might account for his actions. He leaves us with a question, Did these influences entirely determine his actions, or did they “leave anything over” for him to be responsible for?

I have this question, too, but as I said, this is an appeal to emotion in the way Westerners have been conditioned to believe. There is little reason to accept this as some sort of universal law or principle.

2. Modern Challenges to Libertarian Free Will

He starts this section as follows, ‘I will be defending the libertarian view of free will in this volume. We libertarians typically believe that a free will that is incompatible with determinism is required for us to be truly morally responsible for our actions, so that genuine moral responsibility, as well as free will, is incompatible with determinism.’

He continues his setup, ‘A goal of this essay is therefore to consider this modern attack on the traditional libertarian view of free will and to ask how, and whether, it can be answered. Much is at stake, it seems to me, in knowing whether we do or do not have a freedom of the will of the ultimate kind that libertarians defend. The modern attack on it has two parts‘.

Part 1: The first prong of the modern attack on libertarian free will comes from compatibilists, who argue that, despite appearances to the contrary, determinism does not really conflict with free will at all.

[A]ccording to compatibilists, esoteric questions about whether determinism is true or not – in the physical or psychological sciences – are irrelevant to the freedoms we really care about in everyday life. All the varieties of free will “worth wanting” (as a modern compatibilist, Daniel Dennett, has put it) do not require the falsity of determinism for us to possess them, as the traditional libertarian view of free will suggests.

He informs the reader, ‘Influential philosophers of the modern era, such as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, David Hume and John Stuart Mill, were all compatibilists‘.

Kane ends part 1 with, ‘If compatibilists are right, we can have both free will and determinism; and we need not worry that increasing scientific knowledge about nature and human beings will somehow undermine our ordinary convictions that we are free and responsible agents.’

I agree with this statement. It’s also why I consider agency to be the pivotal target, not determinism.

In part 2, he writes ‘The second prong goes further, arguing that libertarian free will itself is impossible or unintelligible and has no place in the modern scientific picture of the world.

He conveys that ‘modern defenders of libertarianism, such as Immanuel Kant, have argued that we need to believe in libertarian free will to make sense of morality and genuine responsibility, but we can never completely understand such a free will in theoretical and scientific terms.’

This is a good point, and Kant is correct. As a moral non-cognitivist, I feel that morality is a non-sensical human social construct. Inventing free will to make sense of another invention doesn’t get much sympathy from me. Kant finishes with an appeal to noumenism, yet another concept I’ve got no time for.

Next, Kane introduces us to another foe of free will, indeterminism. ‘Events that are undetermined, such as quantum jumps in atoms, happen merely by chance. So if free actions were undetermined, as libertarians claim, it seems that they too would happen by chance.’

He ends this section with two issues a libertarian must address:

  • The Compatibility Problem: free will really is incompatible with determinism
  • The Intelligibility Problem: indeterminism can be made intelligible and how, if at all, such a free will can be reconciled with modern scientific views

3. Is Free Will Incompatible with Determinism?: The Consequence Argument

Kane opens with a plea, ‘[L]ibertarians who believe free will is incompatible with determinism can no longer merely rely on intuitions about “forking paths” into the future to support their view that determinism conflicts with free will. These intuitions must be backed up with arguments that show why free will must be incompatible with determinism.

If determinism is true, then our acts are the consequences of the laws of nature and events in the remote past. But it is not up to us what went on before we were born; and neither is it up to us what the laws of nature are. Therefore the consequences of these things (including our own acts) are not up to us.

Peter van Inwagen, An Essay on Free Will, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983, p. 16

Then he sets up The Consequence Argument:

  1. There is nothing we can now do to change the past.
  2. There is nothing we can now do to change the laws of nature.
  3. There is nothing we can now do to change the past and the laws of nature.
  4. If determinism is true, our present actions are necessary consequences of the past and the laws of nature.
  5. Therefore, there is nothing we can now do to change the fact that our present actions occur.

In other words, we cannot now do otherwise than we actually do.

Indeed, I agree in principle with the logic, but I’ll reiterate that I feel that the entire determinism angle is a red herring. Next, Kane goes into a discussion about the Transfer of Powerlessness Principle.

In essence, TP ‘says in effect that if you are powerless to change something X, and something else Y is necessarily going to occur if X does, then you are also powerless to change Y.

As I don’t think it’s’ important to my ends and I agree with Kane’s critique of this tailing logic, if you are powerless to change something X, and something else Y is necessarily going to occur if X does, then you are also powerless to change Y.

Finally, he argues that there is a likely insurmountable semantic challenge that accepting one meaning of ‘can’ and ‘power’ (and some other terms) will determine [pun intended] if one is a compatibilist or not.

4. Ultimate Responsibility

Carrying over from the previous section, Kane reminds us that ‘as a result of this impasse, philosophical debates have multiplied about just what “can” and “power” (and related expressions, such as “could have done otherwise”) really mean‘. But he also concedes that ‘The problem is that focusing on “alternative possibilities” (or “forking paths” into the future) or the “power to do otherwise” alone, as the Consequence Argument does, is too thin a basis on which to rest the case for the incompatibility of free will and determinism.’

He sets up his position.

  1. Free will seems to require that open alternatives or alternative possibilities [AP] lie before us – a garden of forking paths – and it is “up to us” which of these alternatives we choose.
  2. Free will also seems to require that the sources or origins of our actions lie “in us” rather than in something else.

This second point he terms ultimate responsibility [UR].

The basic idea of UR is this: To be ultimately responsible for an action, an agent must be responsible for anything that is a sufficient cause or motive for the action’s occurring.

To be ultimately responsible for the choice, the agent must be at least in part responsible by virtue of choices or actions voluntarily performed in the past for having the character and motives he or she now has.

This is what I am waiting for him to resolve. A red flag that has me on alert is the term character. This is on my list of weasel words. He also cites Aristotle as a reference—also relative to character—, so that’s a double red flag in my book.

He returns to his post that free will ‘does require that we could have done otherwise with respect to some acts in our past life histories by which we formed our present characters. I call these earlier acts by which we formed our present characters “self-forming actions,” or SFAs‘.

My causa sui post already illustrates that Kane doesn’t actually answer the question of how the self forms the so-called self-forming actions. He just invents the term, appeals to idiomatic notions of self and declares victory. I recent post discussed the challenges with self.

In the sense that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, he name-drops Daniel Dennett and a story Dennett had cited involving Martin Luther initiation of the Protestant Reformation. Luther said, “Here I stand, I can do no other.”

Kane then argues that Dennett’s deterministic interpretation is incorrect, but given that Dennett is a compatibilist, he doesn’t care if Luther was free or determined in a deterministic universe.

So the ability to do otherwise (“could have done otherwise”) or AP, says Dennett, is not required for moral responsibility or free will.

In the end, we are back into a language game—a semantic pissing match.

Continuing with Luther, Kane concedes, ‘We can grant that Luther could have been responsible for this act, even though he could not have done otherwise then and there and even if his act was determined. But this would be so, if UR is required, only to the extent that Luther was responsible for his present motives and character by virtue of some earlier struggles and self-forming actions.

I’m still left wondering how and when Kane is going to prove this argument.

Kane provides more context by telling us that an agent requires sufficient cause of motive, but he never does define sufficient. He is also aware that a causal chain can lead us back to the dawn of time, so he’s devised an angle:

‘The only way to stop this regress is to suppose that some acts in our life histories must lack sufficient causes altogether.’

Perfect. Let’s see how this works.

Now he’s bringing in his SFAs and character. No thank you, please.

‘UR makes explicit something that is often hidden in free will debates, namely that free will – as opposed to mere freedom of action – is about the forming and shaping of character and motives which are the sources or origins of praiseworthy or blameworthy, virtuous or vicious, actions.’

This is where the psychobabble word salad comes in full force. It feels that Kane is employing circular reasoning and claiming that free will is necessary to shape the character necessary to have free will. Perhaps I am missing something.

‘If persons are responsible for the wicked (or noble, shameful, heroic, generous, treacherous, kind or cruel) acts that flow from their wills (characters and motives), they must at some point be responsible for forming the wills from which these acts flow

This ‘forming’ argument feels like a non-sequitur. Let’s keep going.

5. Ultimate Responsibility and Alternative Possibilities

‘When one argues about the incompatibility of free will and determinism from alternative possibilities or AP (as in the Consequence Argument), the focus is on notions of “necessity,” “possibility,” “power,” “ability,” “can,” and “could have done otherwise.” By contrast, the argument from UR focuses on a different set of concerns about the “sources,” “grounds,” “reasons,” and “explanations” of our wills, characters, and purposes. Where did our motives and purposes come from, who produced them, who is responsible for them?’

These are my questions as well. He provides his answers to his own question:

‘To understand the connection between AP and UR, alternative possibilities and ultimate responsibility, we must first note that having alternative possibilities for one’s action – though it may be necessary for free will – is not sufficient for free will, even if the alternative possibilities should also be un-determined. This can be shown by noting that there are examples in which agents may have alternative possibilities and their actions are undetermined, and yet the agents lack free will.’

I can’t wait.

Next, he witters on about God and determinism and leaves us with the conclusion that ‘persons in such a world lack free will‘. Whew! Good thing.

I haven’t really addressed the issue here, but the very concept of will doesn’t sit right with me. It feels a bit magical, but let’s just leave that here.

This assertion relies on volition, cause, and motive—volition and motive feeling pretty weaselly.

Around here, he conveys a story about an assassin that I feel totally misses the mark. Pun intended because in this story, the assassin intent on shooting the Prime Minister gets an involuntary twitch and kills the aide instead.

‘UR captures this additional requirement of being the ultimate source of one’s will that is lacking in this imagined world. For UR says that we must be responsible by virtue of our voluntary actions for anything that is a sufficient cause or a sufficient motive (or reason) for our acting as we do.’

Kane says that the will of the assassin is sufficient motive and reason. I disagree. I’ll circle back to this in a moment with a robot assassin analogy. Kane goes on to say ‘Anything else he might do (miss the prime minister, kill the aide) would be done only by accident or mistake, unintentionally or unwillingly‘.

This second part is particularly interesting to me. If his intent was to kill the Prime Minister and failed but killed the aide without intention, does this mean he’s not culpable?

Kane tells us that ‘we are interested in whether they could have acted in more than one way voluntarily, intentionally, and rationally, rather than only in one way voluntarily, intentionally, and rationally and in other ways merely by accident or mistake, unintentionally or irrationally.

Kane revisits UR: If (i) free will requires (ii) ultimate responsibility for our wills as well as for our actions, then it requires (iii) will-setting actions at some points in our lives; and will-setting actions require (iv) the plurality conditions, the ability to act in more than one way voluntarily, intentionally and rationally.

I’m feeling strongly that a person agreeing with this line of argumentation has to already agree with the underlying conditions. In fact, one cannot will oneself to believe in free will if one doesn’t and vice versa. I’m not inclined to agree.

Kane injects pangs of conscience into the equation. I’ll ignore it, as conscience in this context is wholly constructed. I understand that Kane wants to say that conscience is an impetus for free. I’ll disagree and level it at that.

If we are to be ultimately responsible for our own wills, some of our actions must be such that we could have done otherwise, because some of them must have been such that we could have done otherwise voluntarily, intentionally, and rationally.

We are still in agreement. Now what?

He closes with a dual regress of free will. We need to be ultimate sources of our actions and ultimate sources of our actions wills.

6. The Intelligibility Problem: Is Libertarian Free Will Possible?

Can we make sense of a free will that requires Ultimate Responsibility of the kind described in the previous section? Can we really be the ultimate designers of our own ends and purposes? There are many skeptics about free will who think not. They argue that being the ultimate source of one’s will and actions is an incoherent and impossible ideal…

Please. Are we there yet?

The “Intelligibility Problem” says that incompatibilist free will requires that ultimate responsibility is intelligible or possible and can be reconciled with modern scientific views of human beings.

Kane articulates how indeterminism and probability might affect free will and how, given the ‘exactly same past’, can possibly arrive at different outcomes on our forking paths. He provides an example. I’ll relate it, but mostly to critique his narrative.

Recalling the forking paths we have two scenarios. The premise is that, in the first scenario, John has to decide whether to travel to Hawaii or Colorado. Based on the state of his person, he chose Hawaii.

This can be illustrated about be following the green line from point T0 to T4b. At decision point T3a, John had to choose between Hawaii and Colorado. T4a represents his Hawaii preference.

Still looking at the same chart (above), under the second scenario, something ever so slightly changed and John could have chosen the top branch rather than the lower branch, thus choosing Colorado instead.

‘“If the past had been just a tiny bit different, then John might have sensibly and rationally chosen differently (chosen Colorado instead).” Determinists and compatibilists can say this.’

The problem (referring to the chart below) is that a different choice at T2, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant, would have put him on a different path, choosing T3b on the lower branch over T3a on the upper branch. Therefore, the T4b option stemming from the upper T3a branch is not the same T4c option on the lower branch. Instead of a choice of travelling to Hawaii or Colorado, the choice may have between chicken or steak for dinner.

Whilst it is conceivable that the Colorado versus Hawaii decision might still occur, the person at T3 is not the same person.

Kane reintroduces Kant’s noumenal self by name, but he quickly discounts it on the grounds of obscurantism or mystery or “panicky metaphysics”. He’s right in doing so.

As Kane also admits creating the external actors tend to render supporters of these notions as nutters. Besides, if the external actor is the agent, it’s no different than a god doing it.

Before we move to the next section, I want to return to the assassin. My argument is that anyone, including the assassin, is a product of their environment. Full stop. Therefore, one cannot be responsible for anything. To illustrate this, let’s replace the human assassin with a robot assassin. We want to be sure the robot doesn’t twitch and miss.

The robot gets into place and does the assassination task as designed without a hitch (or a twitch). Is the robot in any way responsible for its actions? Not many would argue that it was. It was a victim of its own circumstances. Here, one might argue that the robot has no conscience, and so has no ability to do otherwise. The robot has been programmed. Even if this robot could acquire new information, it could only interpret it relative to the information and processes it already had. The human is no different. The human cannot transcend itself to invoke a different outcome. And any new input would. by definition, be an external influence.

7. Indeterminism and Responsibility

Kane wants to set the stage, so he conveys that ‘The first step in this rethinking about the Intelligibility Problem is to note that indeterminism does not have to be involved in all acts done “of our own free wills” for which we are ultimately responsibleonly those acts by which we made ourselves into the kinds of persons we are, namely the “will-setting” or “self-forming actions” (SFAs) that are required for ultimate responsibility.’

Kane believes that ‘believe these undetermined self-forming actions or SFAs occur at those difficult times of life when we are torn between competing visions of what we should do or become.’ Thus, he reintroduces character.

Next, he makes an assertion that I disagree with: ‘The uncertainty and inner tension we feel at such soul-searching moments of self-formation is thus reflected in the indeterminacy of our neural processes themselves.’ It should be obvious that I object to the notion of soul-searching from the start.

Kane advances another assertion: ‘Just as indeterminism need not undermine rationality and voluntariness of choices, so indeterminism in and of itself need not undermine control and responsibility.’ I suppose it may ‘need not’, but let’s see if it does.

Then he introduces an example from communications theory, suggesting that a person can willfully concentrate on the signal to overcome noise: ‘Whether you are going to succeed in solving the problem is uncertain and undetermined because of the distracting neural noise. Yet, if you concentrate and solve the problem nonetheless, we have reason to say you did it and are responsible for it, even though it was undetermined whether you would succeed. The indeterministic noise would have been an obstacle that you overcame by your effort’. My margin note reads ‘silly’. I’ll just leave it at that.

8. Parallel Processing

I’ll admit at the start, that this section was just an annoyance, adding little to Kane’s position. My commentary will be brief.

Kane brings in his SFAs and suggests that if we are at a decision point with two (or multiple) options, each option is processed on its own thread. Reflecting on a woman faced with a decision, he tells us that ‘the choice the woman might make either way will not be “inadvertent,” “accidental,” “capricious,” or “merely random” (as critics of indeterminism say) because the choice will be willed by the woman either way when it is made, and it will be done for reasons either way – reasons that she then and there endorses.

NB: Underlined words in the paragraph above represent Kane’s italicised words in the chapter text.

Here, Kane continues down a rabbit hole wintering on about SFAs. I’m not convinced. It’s getting late. I’m getting cranky. I’ll will myself to continue. [Yes, that’s a joke.]

9. Responsibility, Luck, and Chance

Kane now wants to remind us that although one might ‘still find it hard to shake the intuition that if choices are undetermined, they must happen merely by chance – and so must be “random,” “capricious,” “uncontrolled,” “irrational,” and all the other things usually charged‘, and that ‘such intuitions are deeply ingrained‘.

Fair enough. Also interesting is how ingrained the sense of self and soul is, but never mind that for now.

Kane continues to unwind the bias he notes. His punchline is this:

‘(Imagine the assassin’s lawyer arguing in the courtroom that his client is not guilty because his killing the prime minister was undetermined and might therefore have failed by chance. Would such a defense succeed?)’

The ‘law’ is not seeking this truth. it is seeking blame and will go to great lengths to do so. Law is about closure. This feels like a strawman on a non-sequitur. Nothing to see here. Let’s keep on.

Kane’s final blow is that if ‘they endorsed the outcomes as something they were trying and wanting to do all along, knowingly and purposefully, not by mistake or accident‘, then they are responsible.

This reminds me of something that may or may not have been uttered by the Dalai Lama explaining the mechanics or scoring system that karma operates by. There are effectively three dimensions of karma:

  • Intent
  • Action
  • Reaction

Intent is the desire to do something, whether to give a gift or assassinate a Prime Minister.

Action is the activity itself: giving a gift or killing a Prime Minister.

Reaction is your emotional response: giving a gift or killing a Prime Minister.

Exploring this, say a person gains or loses a karmic point for each good or bad thing and receives no point where an event did not happen.

Let’s start with the assassin.

If your intent is to kill someone, you lose a karma point. Sort of a thought crime, I guess. [-1]

If you do kill the Prime Minister, you’ve lost another point. [-1]

Now, if you feel good about your success in this case, you lose yet another point [-1], netting you with minus 3 [-3] all tolled. However, if you feel remorse, you gain a point [+1], netting you with a minus 2 [-2].

Let’s say you have no intent to kill the Prime Minister, yet you lose control of your vehicle and smash into them. S/he dies instantly.

You get no intent point—positive or negative. [0]

You lose a point for the action. Sorry, Charlie. [-1]

Now, if you feel remorse about this event, you gain another point [+1], netting you with zero [0] all tolled. However, if you didn’t really like the Prime Minister and start singing—even in your head—Ding, Dong, the witch is dead, you lose another point [-1], netting you with a minus 2 [-2].

Let’s try gift-giving.

If you want to give a gift, you gain a karma point. [+1]

If you don’t follow through, you lose a karma point [-1], leaving you with zero [0]. There is no cause for reaction, so you remain at zero.

Let’s up the game a bit and instead of just wanting to buy a gift, you promise to buy one.

If you promise to give a gift, you gain a karma point. [+1]

If you don’t follow through, you lose a point [-1], leaving you with zero [0].

If you feel good about the ensuing disappointment, you lose another point. [-1]

If you feel bad about it, you regain a karma point [+1], so you are ahead of the game. And this, boys and girls, is how you game karma. But karma is ahead of your sorry ass, and it takes back the point. And then it takes away a penalty point if you don’t feel sorry about being a jerk.

But I digress. What were we talking about? Oh yeah, I do not endorse Kane’s endorsement idea.

10. Choice, Agency, Efforts, and Causes: Further Objections Considered

If indeterminism is involved in a process (such as the woman’s deliberation) so that its outcome is undetermined, one might argue that the outcome must merely happen and therefore cannot be somebody’s choice. But there is no reason to assume such a claim is true‘, Kane relates. More subterfuge.

Self-forming choices are undetermined, but not uncaused‘, Kane says. Tell me more.

They are caused by the agent’s efforts.’ Them’s fighting words.

He continues, ‘Perhaps indeterminism does not undermine the idea that something is a choice simply, but rather that it is the agent’s choice. This objection raises important questions about agency. What makes the woman’s choice her own on the above account is that it results from her efforts and deliberation, which in turn are causally influenced by her reasons and her intentions (for example, her intention to resolve indecision in one way or another). And what makes these efforts, deliberation, reasons, and intentions hers is that they are embedded in a larger motivational system realized in her brain

A choice is the agent’s when it is produced intentionally by efforts, by deliberation and by reasons that are part of this self-defining motivational system and when, in addition, the agent endorses the new intention or purpose created by the choice into that motivational system as a further purpose to guide future practical reasoning and action.’

My reaction is that this so-called agent is just an invention.

Since those causally relevant features of the agent, which can be counted among the causes of the woman’s choice, are her reasons or motives, her conscious awareness and her deliberative efforts, we can also say that she is the cause of the choice by virtue of making the efforts for the reasons and succeeding.’

Just no.

Next, Kane conveys a situation where a guy smashes a glass table and blames it on chance events, ending with this argument.

We tend to reason that if an outcome (breaking a table or making a choice) depends on whether certain neurons fire or not (in the arm or in the brain), then the agent must be able to make those neurons fire or not, if the agent is to be responsible for the outcome.’

Let’s see if he comes up from this rabbit hole in the next section.

11. Responsibility and Control: Three Assassins

Watch out. Kane is doubling down—nay, tripling down—on the assassins. His primary argument appeals to emotion and indoctrination—the social programming of the reader.

‘Is the assassin less guilty of killing the prime minister, if he did not have complete control over whether he would succeed because of the indeterminism in his neural processes?’

Robert Kane, Four views on Free Will

Kane recalls the dilemma that I discussed in my Citizen Kane post of a woman to continue to the office or to help someone being mugged, and asserts (without evidence) that this is volitional and ‘is coming from her own will‘.

There must be hindrances and obstacles to our choices and resistance in our own wills to be overcome, if we are to be capable of genuine self-formation and free will. Compare Evodius’s question to St Augustine (in Augustine’s classic work On the Free Choice of the Will).

This seems like plausible logic, I suppose. But it doesn’t follow from this definition that self-formation—genuine or otherwise—or free will exists.

I tuned out at the God talk.

12 Conclusion: Complexity and “Being an Author of One’s Own Story”

Finally. The last section of this chapter before I turn to John Martin Fischer’s chapter on Compatibilism.

Kane introduces the complexity of chaotic systems next.

Agents, according to this modern conception with ancient roots, are to be conceived as information-responsive complex dynamical systems. Complex dynamical systems are the subject of “dynamical systems theory” and also of what is sometimes popularly called “complexity theory.” They are systems (which are now known to be ubiquitous in nature) in which new emergent capacities arise as a result of greater complexity or as the result of movement away from thermodynamic equilibrium toward the edge of chaos.’

Only when creatures attain the kind of inner complexity capable of giving rise to conflicts in their wills, or motivational systems, between incommensurable values does the capacity for self-formation characteristic of free will arise.’

Supposing a reaction by critics, he asks himself, ‘Even if one granted that persons, such as the businesswoman, could make genuine self-forming choices that were undetermined, isn’t there something to the charge that such choices would be arbitrary?

His response is that we can’t really answer this question and tries to redirect the reader’s attention to the semantics of the word arbitrary. In the end, his final position is that this is the right approach because he can feel it in his bones.

I’m not buying what he’s selling.

I’m not buying what he’s selling.

Intuition and Reason

I’ve been cycling through The Righteous Mind and Moral Tribes, respectively by Jonathan Haidt and Joshua Greene. These blokes are social psychologists and moral philosophers. I started each of these books with the conception that I would neither like nor agree with the content. As for like, I suppose that’s a silly preconception better captured by whether or not I agree; that with which I don’t agree, I don’t like.

This said, I like the style of both of the authors, and I am finding the material to be less contentious than I first thought. I can already envisage myself agreeing with much of the substance but waiting to disagree with the conclusions.

Although I committed myself to document The Righteous Mind in situ, I am finding that I am listening to the audiobook whilst driving and so getting ahead of myself, so I’ll have to rewind and retread in order to do this. In fact, the reason I switched back to Greene’s Moral Tribes is so I wouldn’t progress even further in Haidt’s work.

I am writing this post to acknowledge this. I’d also like to document that I don’t believe that humans are good reasoners, a situation both Haidt and Greene cite to be generally true. Humans are post hoc rationalisers, which is to say that they make up their minds and then create a narrative to justify that position. Haidt uses an analogy of an elephant and a rider, and he asserts that humans might more accurately be described as groupish than selfish. Certainly not shellfish. Greene notes that people have been shown to concede self-interest to political party interest, which helps to explain how people continually and predictably vote against their own self-interests. This also supports my position that democracy is a horrible form of government. Of course, Haidt would argue that this proves his point that people tend to adopt facts that support their perspective and diminish or disregard those that don’t.

it doesn’t follow that intuition is (1) better, (2) significantly better, or (3) good enough for (a) long term viability or (b) grasping complexity.

Haidt suggests that reason is overvalued, but then he proposes intuition as a better alternative. I agree with him that reason is overvalued and for the same reasons (no pun intended) that he does. But it doesn’t follow that intuition is (1) better, (2) significantly better, or (3) good enough for (a) long term viability or (b) grasping complexity.

Whilst I am not immune to this any more than someone else. I recall Kahneman writing in Thinking Fast and Slow that even though he is well aware of cognitive biases and fallacies, he himself can’t escape them either. When I used to teach undergraduate economics, I’d give some sort of policy assignment. As a preamble, I’d instruct the students that without exception, all policy decisions have pros and cons. In their submissions, they’d need to gather both supporting and detracting arguments and then articulate why one should be adopted over another. Minimally, I’d expect at least three pros and cons.

The students would almost invariably complain about how difficult it was to imagine a counter-position. Even when they’d include some, they were usually weak tea fodder. Oftentimes, the students already shared the same perspective, so they couldn’t usually even get the opposing side until we debriefed after the assignments had been graded. Although I do recall instances where students would admit that they hadn’t considered this or that opposing view, I can’t recall a case where a position was flipped after hearing new evidence—not that this was my intention. People do engage in escalating commitment, doubling down on existing beliefs and generating defensive—sometimes tortuous—arguments to support their positions.

Righteous Mind

Preamble

All too often, I’ll read or listen to a book and place bookmarks with the best of intents to revisit and comment. yet either never to return or to return and not recall the context and not wanting to reread to regain it. I am going to attempt to document my reaction to Jonathan Haidt’s book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. If you’ve read some posts here, you’ll understand that I am not a moralist, so I don’t expect to like the book or agree with it. I’ve already ready the forward materials, so I’ll return to comment on that before I get too far ahead. I have done this before at university, and it is decidedly slow progress and can chase one down rabbit holes—this one, anyway.

I have a habit of abandoning books in favour of others including dropping them outright. This is one of 16 I have in progress at the moment, some commenced as many as 5 years ago. To be fair to myself, many of those books are substantially completed. I feel I got the intended message—or at least got what I wanted out of them—, and I just haven’t read the final few chapters. In some cases, the book is an anthology, and I have been slogging my way through it. A few books I’ve read before and am reabsorbing the material, so I may decide not to re-read cover to cover. I just pulled a second reading book off the list to get to 16 from 17.

I have striven not to laugh at human actions, not to weep at them, not to hate them, but to
understand them.

— Baruch Spinoza, Tractatus Politicus, 1676

Introduction

“Can we all get along?” — Rodney King

“Please, we can get along here. We all can get along. I mean, we’re all stuck here for a while. Let’s try to work it out.”

Born to be Righteous

I could have titled this book The Moral Mind to convey the sense that the human mind is designed to “do” morality, just as it’s designed to do language, sexuality, music, and many other things described in popular books reporting the latest scientific findings.

Empasis mine

Straight away, I have a contention. The human mind is not designed to do anything. It has evolved and performs functions. Perhaps, this is just a matter of semantics, but it puts me on guard. Moreover, that it does morality doesn’t evaluate the relative benefit or if it should even be done. Without going down the aforementioned rabbit hole, language is a perfect example. We use language to communicate, but language as a social mechanism may be a secondary or tertiary function. As I’ve argued—even quite recently—, this is a reason I feel that language is insufficient for the purpose of conveying abstract concepts, like for example, morals and morality.

But I chose the title The Righteous Mind to convey the sense that human nature is not just intrinsically moral, it’s also intrinsically moralistic, critical, and judgmental.

A primary function of the brain is as a difference engine. This is what allows us to discern friend from foe, edible versus poison, and so on. Reflecting on Kahneman and Tversky, most (if not ostensibly all) of this is a heuristic system I process, which is good enough but only at a distance. Morals allow us to create in-group and out-group distinctions.

I want to show you that an obsession with righteousness (leading inevitably to self-righteousness) is the normal human condition. It is a feature of our evolutionary design, not a bug or error that crept into minds that would otherwise be objective and rational.

To my first point—not only his insistence on a design metaphor, but doubling down and declaring it as not a bug or an error—, this is disconcerting. And it may be a normal human condition, but so is cancer. The appeal to nature isn’t winning me over.

Our righteous minds made it possible for human beings—but no other animals—to produce large cooperative groups, tribes, and nations without the glue of kinship.

Agreed.

What Lies Ahead

Part I is about the first principle: Intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second.

If you think that moral reasoning is something we do to figure out the truth, you’ll be constantly frustrated by how foolish, biased, and illogical people become when they disagree with you. But if you think about moral reasoning as a skill we humans evolved to further our social agendas—to justify our own actions and to defend the teams we belong to—then things will make a lot more sense.

Haidt and I are much aligned on these points.

Keep your eye on the intuitions, and don’t take people’s moral arguments at face value. They’re mostly post hoc constructions made up on the fly, crafted to advance one or more strategic objectives.

Not buying the ‘go with your intuitions‘ advice. Moving on.

…the mind is divided, like a rider on an elephant, and the rider’s job is to serve the elephant … I developed this metaphor in my last book, The Happiness Hypothesis.

I’m not sure I am going to like this dualism, and I haven’t read The Happiness Hypothesis, so I’ll just have to see where he takes it. It seems like Haidt is a hardcore Traditionalist.

Part II is about the second principle of moral psychology, which is that there’s more to morality than harm and fairness.

This feels about right.

The central metaphor of these four chapters is that the righteous mind is like a tongue with six taste receptors.

OK. Let’s see where this goes.

Part III is about the third principle: Morality binds and blinds.

I like this pair.

…human beings are 90 percent chimp and 10 percent bee.

Did he say bee? I agree with the chimp reference. Maybe this won’t be as bad as I thought.

A note on terminology: In the United States, the word liberal refers to progressive or left-wing politics, and I will use the word in this sense. But in Europe and elsewhere, the word liberal is truer to its original meaning—valuing liberty above all else, including in economic activities. When Europeans use the word liberal, they often mean something more like the American term libertarian, which cannot be placed easily on the left-right spectrum.10 Readers from outside the United States may want to swap in the words progressive or left-wing whenever I say liberal.)

Decent advice.

Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? … You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.

— MATTHEW 7:3–5

I do find myself, probably too often, parroting this paragraph.

PART I

Intuitions Come First, Strategic Reasoning Second

Central Metaphor: The mind is divided, like a rider on an elephant, and the rider’s job is to serve the elephant.

Where Does Morality Come From?

A family’s dog was killed by a car in front of their house. They had heard that dog meat was delicious, so they cut up the dog’s body and cooked it and ate it for dinner. Nobody saw them do this.

A man goes to the supermarket once a week and buys a chicken. But before cooking the chicken, he has sexual intercourse with it. Then he cooks it and eats it.

TBD

The Origin of Morality

Quick reaction for now. Details to follow…

I’m not quite buying into Haidt’s attempt to parse the nature versus nature argument into three segments: nativism and empiricism whilst adding rationalism insomuch as rationalism is seen by many as ambiguous and not a mutually exclusive option. It feels as though he’s throwing up a rationalist strawman to take down. We’ll see where it leads

Nativism
the theory that concepts, mental capacities, and mental structures are innate rather than acquired by learning.

Empiricism
the theory that all knowledge is derived from sense-experience.

Rationalism
the theory that reason rather than experience is the foundation of certainty in knowledge.

Let’s pick up on this later. I knew this would take a lot longer.