In this segment, I ponder the interplay between blame and Causa Sui. I’ll discuss the implications for moral responsibility as well as legal responsibility, which are not as in sync as one might imagine they might be.
To the uninitiated, Western legal systems have no pretensions about being about morality or justice. Legal systems are designed to maintain power structures and the status quo. They are deontological machines, making them prime targets for automation by the machine learning associated with artificial intelligence. This would also diminish the power of rhetoric over facts to some extent. But, I am no legal scholar, and all of this will have to wait for another segment.
I recently shared a video on causa sui and the basics of blame and blameworthiness, so I want to intersect those topics here.
Peter Strawson suggested that for humans, blame is a reactive response. It’s reflexive like having your knee jerk when tapped. Essentially, his position is that if blame didn’t naturally exist, we’d have to invent it, mirroring Voltaire’s quip, ‘If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent Him’. Of course, this is because they serve the same power control purpose.
To be fair, blame is closer to real than God, but the point remains. Strawson’s point is also that humans are saddled with blame and it’s not going anywhere no matter how nebulous it becomes in execution. It’s natural.
To me, this starts to sound suspiciously like a naturalistic fallacy. Humans seem to selectively cherry-pick which so-called natural tendencies they choose to defend. One might use nature to argue that female sexual availability begins at menstruation, and yet we have decided to ignore this and defer this on the grounds of civility. It’s obvious that we could consider blame to be an animal instinct we want to domesticate away, but because it serves other purposes, per Strawson’s perspective, it’s a useful tool. But what’s the causa sui challenge. Let’s quickly recapitulate.
Causa sui argues that one cannot be the cause of oneself, ex nihilo. Being full products of nature and nurture to adopt the lay parlance, any blameworthiness lies with the sources or creators. Since we are concerned with moral responsibility, we can eliminate nature forthrightly. Nature may be responsible—by many estimations approximately 40 per cent responsible—, it possesses no moral agency. And if the individual is not responsible, then we are left with the environment and society, including the social environment. Of course, the environment gets off the hook in the same manner as the genetic and hereditary factors of nature.
Before we consider society, let’s regard the individual.
Albeit the brain-as-computer is a bit facile, it’s still good enough for illustrative purposes. When you are born, your cognitive hardware is installed, as are your edge peripherals and update protocols. Any of these can become damaged through some degenerative processes, or external environmental factors, but since my interest is in optimistic rather than pessimistic scenarios, I’ll ignore these instances. Given that blameworthiness is directly related to presumed cognitive processing, factors that diminish these faculties, mitigate blameworthiness and factors than increase it, ameliorate it.
As a—quote—’normal’ child becomes an adolescent and then an adult, the probability it will become blameworthy, increases with age, ceteris paribus. A person with cognitive deficits or conditions such as aphasia or dementia decreases the probability of blame assignment. Even temporary impairment mitigates judgment—oh, she was drunk.
So, following the brain-as-computer analogy, your brain is a CPU with a self-updating cognitive operating system and instruction set. Essentially, there is also short and long-term memory. In the case of cognitive deficits, one of these components might be effectively broken. The CPU might process too slowly; it might misinterpret what it receives; there may be issues with the sense organs or the nerves that transport signals.
I’ve got a mate who, due to medical malpractice at birth, experienced nerve damage. Although his eyes and brain are normal, his optic nerve cannot carry signals very well, effectively leaving him blind. Neither can he taste nor smell. So there’s that.
But assuming that this processing and storage hardware are intact, the causa sui constraint still applies, but let’s spend some time evaluating societal interactions.
All inputs come from society—cultures and subcultures. Apart from misinterpreted processing scenarios, if a person doesn’t receive a particular moral instruction set, that person should surely be considered to be exempt from moral blame. It may be difficult to assess whether an instruction has been input. This is a reason why children are categorically exempted: they may not have received all of the expected moral codes, they may not have been stored or effectively indexed, and their processing hardware is still in development—alpha code if you will. Brain plasticity is another attribute I won’t spend much time on, but the current state of science says that the brain is still not fully developed even by age 30, so this is certainly a mitigating factor, even if we allow leeway for the causa sui argument.
I mention subculture explicitly because the predominant culture is not the only signal source. A child raised by, I don’t know, say pirates, would have an amended moral code. I am sure we can all think of different subcultures that might undermine or come at cross odds with the dominant culture, whether hippies, religious cultists, militia groups, racial purist groups, and so on.
So, a commonly held moral in the subdominant group may counter that of the prevailing one. An example that comes to mind is some religious organisations that do not agree with human medical intervention. There have been cases where parents have allowed a child to die from an otherwise curable condition. Although in the United States, there is a claim of freedom of religion—a claim that is spotty at best—, parents or guardians in situations like these have been convicted and sentenced for following their own moral codes. But as with all people, these people are as susceptible to the limitations of causa sui as the rest of us. They are not responsible for creating themselves, but moral responsibility was asserted based on the beliefs of the prevailing culture. Even besides the legal context, persons in the larger society would likely blame the parents for their neglect—though they may be praised for being resolute in their righteousness by their in-group. This just underscores that morality is a collection of socially constructed conventions rather than something more objective.
Returning to causa sui, let’s say a person commits an act that society would typically assign blame. Rather than exercise some act of retributive justice—a concept with no foundation in a causa sui universe—the course of action was remediation. In this case, the desired moral instruction would be delivered thereby seemingly making the moral offender blameworthy. But would they be?
Presumably, (for what it’s worth) psychologists would evaluate the subject for competency in maintaining the programming. In the case of the aforementioned religious parents, they may be threatened with retribution for not abiding by the superseding rules of the prevailing power structure.
Although I might personally allow some leeway even with the causa sui in full force and effect, but I can’t say that I have much faith in the ability of humans to make a correct assessment. My impression is that any assessment would be one of convenience than something sounder.
Perhaps I’ll produce a more robust segment on retributive justice, but my feeling is that retributive justice is an area that legal systems should avoid altogether. If necessary, focus on restorative justice, rehabilitation (or ‘habilitation’ as the case might be) and quarantine models to ensure any bad actors are contained away from society. Again, this puts individuals at the mercy of cultures they find themselves a part of. I am not going to delve into this any further save to remind the listener of gang initiation schemes where a person needs to kill a member of a rival gang to become a trusted member. This is their moral code—quite at odds with the mainstream.
So there you have it. Owing to causa sui constraints, a person cannot be ultimately responsible for their actions. My primary thesis is—apart from metaphorical equipment failures—that any moral responsibility falls wholly on the society or culture. Full stop. And this isn’t as foreign as one might first feel. Although for most people blame is natural, in an individualistic society, people are interested in finding the culprit. In collectivist cultures, any culprit might do. Perhaps I’ll share some stories in a future segment. Meantime, what are your thoughts on moral responsibility? Can someone be ultimately responsible? Some have said the ‘ultimate responsibility’ is a philosophical red herring and that we can still hold someone responsible, even if not in the ultimate sense, which causa sui disallows. Are you more in this camp? Is this enough to mete out so-called retributive justice? For me, retributive justice is a euphemism for vengeance, and justice is a weasel word. But that’s just me, and perhaps a topic for another segment.
Are there any topics you’d like me to cover? Leave a comment below.
When I was writing my review of Elbow Room, this categorical syllogism came to mind:
P1: All agents are responsible
P2: I am an agent
C: Therefore, I am responsible
Now I want to unpack it.
The first premise is that all agents are responsible. Of course, this hinges on how one defines agent and responsibility. It also depends on the scope, especially of the agent but to some extent also the scope of responsibility.
Leveraging the Causa Sui argument, the agent is a social construct and can only be responsible to what extent s/he has been programmed as well as the ability to maintain and process the programming effectively—so without bugs to continue with the parlance.
If the agent is immature or defective, expectations of responsibility are diminished.
If certain inputs were not given, there is no reason to assume a related command would be executed. This is why so much time and energy is spent on programming and evaluating children.
This first premise is predicated on the pathological need to blame. Unwritten behind the responsibility claim is that I feel compelled to blame. Blame requires responsibility, so if I want to blame someone, they must be responsible. In any given circumstances, I may feel the urge to blame anyone, so all agents [eligible people] are worthy of blame. There is no particular reason to exclude myself, so I too am blameworthy. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander, eh?
As PF Strawson said, even if moral responsibility couldn’t possibly exist, it would be invented because people need to blame. This is in line with Voltaire’s commentary on God.
We can all look around and see how pervasive the god delusion is. Moral responsibility is even more insidious. In principle, moral gods were invented for just this purpose. An omnipresent judge was needed to keep the big house in check.
Where I Stand
From my perspective, I do feel that a person in the space of Dennett’s elbow room can have responsibility. Being a non-cognitivist, I have more difficulty accepting the arbitrary imposition of morality, but I understand the motivation behind it.
The problem I have is that mechanisms to ensure that the inputs and processes are all in order and there are no superseding instructions are not in place. Moreover, if the superseding instruction does not comport with the will of the power structure, it will be marginalised or ignored. This is a limitation of morality being a social construct, and none of this gets past the ex nihilo problem causa sui invokes, so we end up cursing the computer we’ve invented. O! monster of Frankenstein. O! Pygmalion.
Daniel Dennet is quite the prolific writer. He first published Elbow Room back in 1984. He published an updated version in 2015. I like Dan. He is a master storyteller and has a mind like a trap, archiving decades (and centuries) of information. The approach he takes is thoughtful and methodical, and I tend to agree with most of his positions. This isn’t one of them. Interestingly, I recently reviewed John Martin Fischer’s contribution to Four Views on Free Will, which is sympathetic to his position.
Dennett is a compatibilist. I am an incompatibilist—an impossibility, really—, but I wanted to understand his line of argumentation. Like Fischer, Dennett wants to claim that an agent does possess enough elbow room—wiggle room—to be able to be granted free will or moral responsibility, depending on where you prefer to draw the line.
Dennett tends to agree with my position that free will is a semantic pseudo-problem, but he doesn’t mind calling enough ‘good enough’. Given a situation and circumstances, we have enough latitude to consider any actions to be free—with the usual exemptions for non compos mentis situations, cognitive deficits, and duress. He minimises the impact of genetics and upbringing as insignificant.
Basically, he argues that what latitude we do have is sufficient and what more could one want? Anything more would be unnecessary and excessive. Of course, this is just him drawing an arbitrary line at a point he feels comfortable, claiming that anyone asking for more is being unrealistically unreasonable. This feels a bit like a preemptive ad hominem defence. If you want this, then you are just foolish and selfish.
Dennett does agree with the notion that the world might be deterministic, but even so, we are proximately special. He also leans on the observation that people seem hardwired for blame, so there must be something behind this—instead of considering that humans seem hardwired for many things, not all of which are socially beneficial.
We want to hold people responsible, so by extension, we need to consider ourselves to be responsible.
P1: All agents are responsible
P2: I am an agent
C: Therefore, I am responsible
But the problem is in the definition of agency (as well as the scope and meaning of responsibility and the assignment of responsibility to agents.
In the end, I remain unconvinced, primarily that he fails to overcome the Causa Sui argument.
This Causa Sui video has been a month in the making. To be fair, I took holiday for a week and a half, but it was still a lot of work. After some editorial commentary, the transcript is available below.
The cows are back. Making videos on a budget is hard enough. With no budget, it’s harder still.
This started with a written transcript that was fed into Amazon’s Polly AI text-to-speech engine that’s seen many improvements lately. The results were output and saved as MP3 files that were imported into Movie Studio, a video editing application. I still use version 17, as I have been unhappy with the functionality of the newer versions. Even though they have been adding features and streamlining the interfaces, they seem to retire as many features as they add new ones, and the net result has not worked in my favour.
With an audio foundation in place, I scour the internet (and my hard drives) for visual content. Although I have purchased content in the past, this project contains all free assets. Admittedly, it would look better with paid-for assets as I forwent many nice visuals, it’s hard to justify on an unmonetised site.
Taking this approach, it’s a bit like patchwork with found objects. Having no creative team and possessing limited creative skills of my own, the original content is somewhat primitive. Even this could be improved, but that takes time.
I use a Bitmoji avatar to represent myself. This provides me with a quick way to capture poses and clothing options. When I feel like it, I’ll make small animations like eye blinks, but even this takes time.
For this Causa Sui video, I feel it goes long in some areas and short in others. There are several points that I don;t resolve the way I expected, as I was distracted by other life events, and as I was compositing the final video, I noticed that I had started narrative treads and not closed them. In other cases, I had intended to focus intently on a point, and I just didn’t. But after all of the time—and this distracts from everything else I am trying to accomplish—, I just wanted to get this over the finish line. Perhaps I’ll create some shorter content to resolve these points.
In the end, I feel it still conveys the points I want to make, even if not as sharply. Give it a gander, and let me know what you think.
In this segment of free will scepticism, we’ll discuss the causa sui argument of why a person cannot have the human agency necessary to be held ultimately responsible for their actions. We’ll also touch on counterarguments and possible social responses to persons exhibiting behaviours not in line with socially acceptable norms.
This is part of a series shining a light on the plausible scepticism if not impossibility of free will. If you are not already familiar with this space, I suggest you review some of the foundational content discussing Determinism, Indeterminism, and Luck; would-be agency and luck, and no-self, self, and selves. Of course, feel free to watch this and review the supporting content if you want to learn more details. Let’s get started.
Before we define causa sui and the argument underlying it, it’s important to note that it is agnostic as to whether the universe is deterministic or indeterministic. My position is that the universe is at least weakly deterministic, even if we do not and cannot determine what the mechanism is. Any perceived indeterminism is simply an absence of knowledge. Were we to gain this knowledge, the indeterminate intermediate process would become determinate.
As the question of determinacy or indeterminacy is irrelevant, so is the question of compatibility or incompatibility. In an incompatible deterministic model, luck might be an interesting side trip, but my position isn’t concerned with luck and would fold it into determinism with the rest of indeterminacy.
Full disclosure: Humans are susceptible to pareidolia, and my contention is that free will is an illusion in this vein. I have adopted the position of Daniel Dennett that consciousness is an emergent property of the brain in a similar manner that wet is an emergent property of water. Water itself being an emergent property of the admixture of hydrogen and oxygen. This is not to argue that consciousness is somehow not real, but I do argue that consciousness has no mystical metaphysical properties that the discipline of psychology seems to subscribe to it. Consciousness is real. Free will is a figment.
So, what is causa sui, and what’s the big deal.
Spinosa may have been the philosopher to have introduced or at least elevated the notion of causa sui to us in its current context. Galen Strawson’s perspective is heavily influenced by Nietzsche. We’ll come back to both of these blokes presently.
Causa sui is Latin. It means self-caused.
Causa means cause. Sui means self. Most of us are aware of the notion of suicide—slaying one’s self. Let’s assume there is no etymological connexion to its homophone in chop suey, though I’m taking dibs on an erudite punk rock band name, Chop Sui.
Now that we’ve defined causa sui as self-caused—, or at least translated it from Latin to English, sa cause, en français—we can look at how this is problematic.
The causa sui argument against human agency and free will is not new. In his book Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche writes,
The CAUSA SUI is the best self-contradiction that has yet been conceived, it is a sort of logical violation and unnaturalness; but the extravagant pride of man has managed to entangle itself profoundly and frightfully with this very folly. The desire for “freedom of will” in the superlative, metaphysical sense, such as still holds sway, unfortunately, in the minds of the half-educated, the desire to bear the entire and ultimate responsibility for one’s actions oneself, and to absolve God, the world, ancestors, chance, and society therefrom, involves nothing less than to be precisely this CAUSA SUI, and, with more than Munchausen daring, to pull oneself up into existence by the hair, out of the slough of nothingness.
Freidrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil
Note that Nietzsche invokes God. Keep in mind that even if you believe in gods and divine intervention, that doesn’t yield human agency; that would be divine will.
Quickly reviewing the backstory, a self—or sui in this parlance—is the product of nature and nurture. Nature manifests in the form of heredity, genetics, and epigenetics; nurture is parents, peers, society, and authority.
As people like Steven Pinker and Jonathan Haidt tell us, we come into this world with the operating system installed and a basic bootstrap programme. After this, we are autodidactic automatons. Of course, Pinker and Haidt would posit that humans are more than mere meat puppets, but that’s part and parcel of the causa sui point.
Elaborating further on this, at time-zero, the moment we take our first breath, we have not yet taken in any direct experiences from which to expand our base genetics. For the sake of illustration, let’s divide our universe into self and not-self. At the start our self has been given to us through no effort of our own. We’re the result of generations on generations of chromosomal exchange from some initial single-celled organism.
Then there’s nurture. One may argue that we have some experiences in utero, but these are substantially filtered. Once we see the light of the world, it’s showtime for real.
All that you touch
All that you see
All that you taste
All you feel.
Humans are input acquisition and storage machines. The brain is at once a difference and synthesis engine. Any outputs are a result of this process. Ostensibly, we are functions.
What humans are not are creation machines. Any so-called creation is just more synthesis. Even as we procreate to generate more humans, our dimorphism facilitates the progenerative blending of ova and spermatozoa. No creation, per se. In An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Hume suggested that the idea of a unicorn was just a recomposition of the idea of a horse with that of a horn. That’s as far as human creativity goes.
The challenge with causa sui is that we cannot cause our ‘self’. Let’s explore some examples.
Let’s take as an example a successful physician. This physician was raised by someone, attended school, progressing to medical school, passed any necessary praxis, exams, and certifications, fulfilled whatever internships and residencies, and acquired some office space. Some years later, this physician bought a home, got a dog, and had some kids. I’ll stop here. You render your own mental picture.
Perhaps, instead, we look at a music virtuoso. A child prodigy, s/he attends Berklee and graduates before reaching 10 years of age. S/he starts YouTube, Insta, and TikTok channels with millions of followers, and earns millions. You take it from here. One more.
This last person is raised by a good family, but she ends up on the wrong side of the law and in prison. All friends say she’s kind, caring, and generous, but she was in the wrong place at the wrong time. At 20 she’s got a 20-year sentence to think it through. You can work this one through as well.
Let’s look into these scenarios and unpack these self-made individuals—or self-unmade if that’s how you’d prefer to characterise the last one.
Is our physician self-made? If so, how so? Let’s ignore the genetics and focus on the rest of the story. This person was sent to school. Local laws and parental concern all but ensured this. A certain teacher or teachers sparked an interest in medicine. Or perhaps it was from a book or television programme.
Perhaps a relative was ill and s/he became determined to help others.
This person was blessed with the appropriate cognitive abilities and their interest was fostered. The desire to succeed was instilled as was the drive and motivation. Nothing about this situation suggests causa sui action. Instead, everything is causa alii—caused by others, if I may misappropriate some Latin.
Any motivation was either genetically and physiologically inherent or acculturated or both. As the saying goes, you can’t get blood from a stone (or a turnip).
Of course, the second scenario plays out the same. Born with some natural ability. Could the parents not have nurtured this talent? Imagine this person was born with the propensity to be a virtuoso pianist yet never had come in contact with a piano? If a tree falls in the woods and no one was there to hear? How many people are in an analogous position?
Let’s turn to the dilemma of the prisoner. This person was instilled with whatever social cues she got. Perhaps they were exposed to bad influences. Perhaps their ‘processing unit’ is defective. Neither of these constitute causa sui events. As the saying goes, ‘she didn’t raise herself’.
Even if she did raise herself, she’d be excused as well. Some person raised by wolves in Avignon—or Tarzan of the Apes—is not expected to have acquired the rules of society.
Here’s an illustration:
First, there’s ‘sui’. That’s you.
But before you, there are the reagents. Ingredients.
The building blocks that make your physical ‘you’. And perhaps there are pre-natal environmental factors such as nutrition.
Once you are born, you begin to become a product of your environment as you absorb external forces. These might be the influence of your parents or siblings or other kit and kin.
Then you are exposed to teachers and peers. And society at large. And then there are perspectives formed by authority relationships.
We don’t even need to discuss the possible complexities and interactions between nature and nurture. These are interactive.
Perhaps you were genetically predisposed to grow no more than 168 centimetres, but you had poor nourishment, so this limit was never fully realised. Perhaps you have a blemish that makes you self-conscious. Perhaps, you’ve got a lisp or a limp. Perhaps you were in hospital due to an accident, and you lost a year at primary school. Perhaps a parent abandoned you and you were raised in a single-parent household. Perhaps as an infant both of your parents were killed by gunfire whilst watching an Independence Day parade in Highland Park Illinois in the United States of America.
Any of this might be true. But something that cannot be true is that you had any say in any of this. Causa sui. You cannot be a cause of yourself.
How did you become a virtuoso pianist?
Were you genetically predispositioned to have this talent? Probably. What if you weren’t driven to play? Again, what if you had never been introduced to piano but has this otherwise latent talent? Let’s say you are faced with a food choice for dinner. You’ve got pork chops, dog, or monkey brains. Personally, I’d forego all of these. If I were from some Asian countries, I may have a tough time deciding but only because they all seem delicious.
In economics, we discuss diminishing marginal utility for preferences. Faced with a choice, my preferences may differ depending on the situation. But given a situation where one has to make a choice repeatedly, each subsequent choice yields less utility or ‘happiness’.
You’re at a pub, and you mention that you’re a bit peckish. Your mate orders a pizza and offers you some slices. You haven’t eaten pizza in a while, so perhaps you eat a slice and are offered another when it’s gone. Your utility diminishes with each slice. The first one really hit the spot. The second one was pretty good too. You think twice about eating a third piece. And you forego the fourth piece altogether. Later in the evening, your mate with the hollow legs orders another pizza and offers to split it. You’re ever so slightly hungry, but you opt for pudding instead. This is your choice. But it’s not. It’s just that you’ve just eaten your fill of pizza and want something different.
Now the question is can you go against a craving? You are on a diet and are offered some dessert. You are craving it, but you exercise your free will and decline. Surely, this is free will, right? Not really. If you go for the dessert, your body is willing your action. But if you decline, it’s only because you have information that counters your craving. You need to look thin in a swimming suit at the weekend. Your choice will be guided by your assessment of prior and prospective considerations. You cannot make a choice absent these. Even if you decide to pick randomly or flip a coin. Firstly, the choice to flip is based on prior information. Secondly, the resultant choice is due to the coin rather than your free will.
Let’s summon Schopenhauer for a moment. He reminds us that whilst we can want what we will, we can’t will what we will.
This craving is not us. We aren’t in control. We only have control over whether we submit to the urge or not.
But that’s not correct either.
Picture this. You are at an ice cream vendor.
Chocolate or Vanilla
You always get chocolate, so you order chocolate. This is habit, not choice.
The vendor remembers they just got a shipment of passionfruit ice cream. Would you prefer that? It depends, but it doesn’t depend on you, save to say it depends on your experiences until now. If you’ve never had it before, it depends on your palate and whether you are open to new experiences. This is not something you have control over.
Let’s say your mates invite you to go skydiving. Again, you may seemingly be faced with a choice between declining the invitation and disappointing your mates. Whichever emotional response is stronger will guide your decision. This is based on experience. And this is important: even if you overrule your initial consideration, it’s because of the way you are that you are able to do that, but you had no say in the way you are. Each experience either leads you to a new experience or you experience something new and either like or dislike it.
Perhaps reading a certain book led you to enjoy reading. Given the decision to watch television or read, you may prefer to read. Some people do not enjoy reading, so given the choice, they’ll switch on the telly.
Galen Strawson formalised this by relating his so-called basic argument.
You do what you do, in any given situation, because of the way you are.
So in order to be ultimately responsible for what you do, you have to be ultimately responsible for the way you are—at least in certain crucial mental respects.
But you cannot be ultimately responsible for the way you are in any respect at all.
So you cannot be ultimately responsible for what you do.
What this is saying is that anything about you already influences what you do next and your choices. So, you as an entity may do something, engage in an activity, but it’s only because you’ve been programmed to do so on hardware you had no say in receiving.
To equate humans to computers is a little facile, but for our purposes, we can think of humans as analogous to processors or a mathematical function.
We are hardware with an onboard self-updating operating system. And we have software routines, all processed in our brains. In addition to capturing, processing, and storing data, this operating system and some of its software are also updated with experience, so we are getting updates and upgrades. Each of these might affect our next decision.
Sometimes input devices are faulty. Perhaps we are blind or colourblind. Perhaps we can’t hear or taste or smell. Each of these will affect in some manner what information we have to process.
In some cases, the processing unit itself is broken. With synaesthesia, we may see sounds, or smell colours.
But we may also just not process things correctly. Perhaps we can’t interpret social cues. Perhaps we can’t remember things. Or we have some other cognitive deficits. In these cases, we may have actually been exposed to socially accepted behaviours—don’t steal; don’t harm; obey traffic regulations, or whatever—, but we have difficulty processing these when the time comes. Or maybe our induction and deduction skills are diminished.
But my intent is not to make this about mental illness. The point is that persons considered to have full mental capacity and competency still have no ability to get outside of themselves to influence themselves. Full stop.
You may want to check out the video on agency that addresses what options society has in light of this situation. Keep in mind that I am not saying that you are stuck on a fateful path. We are not Oedipus. If you had not been exposed to the rules, then rehabilitation may be in order. If you may be a danger to yourself or the public, you may be sequestered or quarantined until such time you are no longer a risk. This introduces its own quandaries relating to retributive justice and challenges in policing the watchers, but these are beyond the scope of this segment.
The only escape from the idea of each human being the result of a closed system of nature and nurture is the notion of emergence that would say that the admixture of these ingredients would result in something new, that perhaps consciousness contains a sui somehow transcendent of the source elements, and this is where your human agency resides—sort of an emergent soul if you will. In the world of chemistry, the combination of sodium and chloride brings about table salt, having different emergent properties than the base ingredients, yet none of these properties is consciousness nor agency. Does this emergence work differently in the brain? This doesn’t sound plausible, but it is an idea to explore if you really feel compelled to argue agency exists in some form or fashion.
So, there you have it. You are you, but you don’t have any inherent agency. Or do you? Do you think there is any place for ‘sui’ to exist autonomously from your genetic and environmental makeup? If so, where is it, and how does it gain its independence.
The causa sui cows. I had intended to work the cows into the video. In fact, I spend a decent amount of time trying to clean them up, but as I left on holiday and returned, I realised near the end that they got left on the cutting room floor—even though they are still used as cover art. Perhaps I’ll consider a feature-length production for these characters in future.
This quote was made by Owen Jones in an article published in 2012. I share it because I feel the author is not only being cavalier but wrongly so. According to the bio at the end of the article, Owen D. Jones is a professor of law and biological sciences at Vanderbilt University. As I see it, the problem is not some theoretical—What is the sound of one hand clapping?—pseudo-problem. Human agency is the basis of our legal and jurisprudence systems.
Like good magicians, people like Owen want to redirect your focus to neuroscience and consciousness rather than have to explain how the causal engine that is the brain manifests itself ex nihilo.
Doubling down on my causa sui position, humans may be able to make constrained solutions, and yet they never have control over the constrained system they inherit. I discuss this at length elsewhere, but I wanted to address this comment forthright.
I’ll leave with a quote I tend to trot out a lot.
It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.
— Upton Sinclair, prepared speech, I, Candidate for Governor (1935)
Free will is a necessary illusion for power structures to propagate or they will lose a cornerstone of their control mechanisms. And since humans want to feel they are in control, they are willing to accept the downside for the illusion of an upside.
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:
We either live in a relaxed causal, deterministic or indeterministic universe.
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.
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.
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?
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.
The CAUSA SUI is the best self-contradiction that has yet been conceived, it is a sort of logical violation and unnaturalness; but the extravagant pride of man has managed to entangle itself profoundly and frightfully with this very folly. The desire for “freedom of will” in the superlative, metaphysical sense, such as still holds sway, unfortunately, in the minds of the half-educated, the desire to bear the entire and ultimate responsibility for one’s actions oneself, and to absolve God, the world, ancestors, chance, and society therefrom, involves nothing less than to be precisely this CAUSA SUI, and, with more than Munchausen daring, to pull oneself up into existence by the hair, out of the slough of nothingness. If anyone should find out in this manner the crass stupidity of the celebrated conception of “free will” and put it out of his head altogether, I beg of him to carry his “enlightenment” a step further, and also put out of his head the contrary of this monstrous conception of “free will”: I mean “non-free will,” which is tantamount to a misuse of cause and effect. One should not wrongly MATERIALISE “cause” and “effect,” as the natural philosophers do (and whoever like them naturalise in thinking at present), according to the prevailing mechanical doltishness which makes the cause press and push until it “effects” its end; one should use “cause” and “effect” only as pure CONCEPTIONS, that is to say, as conventional fictions for the purpose of designation and mutual understanding,—NOT for explanation. In “being-in-itself” there is nothing of “casual- connection,” of “necessity,” or of “psychological non-freedom”; there the effect does NOT follow the cause, there “law” does not obtain. It is WE alone who have devised cause, sequence, reciprocity, relativity, constraint, number, law, freedom, motive, and purpose; and when we interpret and intermix this symbol-world, as “being-in-itself,” with things, we act once more as we have always acted—MYTHOLOGICALLY. The “non-free will” is mythology; in real life, it is only a question of STRONG and WEAK wills.—It is almost always a symptom of what is lacking in himself, when a thinker, in every “causal-connection” and “psychological necessity,” manifests something of compulsion, indigence, obsequiousness, oppression, and non-freedom; it is suspicious to have such feelings–the person betrays himself. And in general, if I have observed correctly, the “non-freedom of the will” is regarded as a problem from two entirely opposite standpoints, but always in a profoundly PERSONAL manner: some will not give up their “responsibility,” their belief in THEMSELVES, the personal right to THEIR merits, at any price (the vain races belong to this class); others on the contrary, do not wish to be answerable for anything, or blamed for anything, and owing to an inward self-contempt, seek to GET OUT OF THE BUSINESS, no matter how. The latter, when they write books, are in the habit at present of taking the side of criminals; a sort of socialistic sympathy is their favourite disguise. And as a matter of fact, the fatalism of the weak-willed embellishes itself surprisingly when it can pose as “la religion de la souffrance humaine“; that is ITS “good taste.”
— Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil
Just a quote and an image germane to that absurdity of causa sui.
As I research the agency/free will quandary, I am finding a lot of common minds, as it were. On the free will versus determinism spectrum, I can’t say without reservation that I accept determinism or indeterminism, for that matter, but I can say that free will is weak tea. Causa Sui comes into play, but I’ll get to that.
As an aside, similar to the theism versus atheism debate, keep in mind that this debate hinges on free will taking the privileged position occupied by theism. When discussing compatibility versus incompatibilism, it’s whether determinism is compatible or incompatible with free will. I feel that the privilege of free will in this debate is telling insomuch as it reveals a bias on preferred perspective.
If you’ve been reading, I like what Derk Pereboom has to say, but I feel we have a bit of a gap in our accord. But I’m very partial to Galen Strawson’s line of argumentation that doesn’t rely on determinism to declare the free will argument pointless. I believe that there is space to fill in some gaps in his position regarding social responsibility, and maybe there are no gaps; I just am not yet familiar enough with his position. From a strictly deterministic position, I find Robert Sapolsky’s position appealing, but it still ends up being a pissing match. To be fair, I think any position will be a pissing match. I’ll elaborate on this next before I touch on causa sui.
Losing My Religion
In my book, free will is an anachronistic vestige of religion. Not to go too far down a Foucauldian path, religion is a power play. As religion constructs gods, it also constructs notions of free will. Power structures like to leverage these concepts for their own ends.
Interestingly, religion first gave us determinism—at least the Abrahamic monotheistic varieties—, but it needed to construct free will or it would have undermined its ability to cast blame and guilt. When science matured, it said, ‘Hey, hold on there. There’s no room for gods in physics. Everything has a cause and was determined at the start. Your intuition was right at the start. Free will is bollocks.’
Finally. Causa Sui is the Latin name for a self-caused cause, one that is not the result of prior events. Here is where I really like Galen Strawson’s account. His argument is premised on 4 factors, the first of which is what you do flows from the way you are.
In essence, you’ve somehow got to get to be responsible for being the way you are, but you can’t you can’t get back behind yourself in such a way as to be responsible for the kind of person you are. You’ve got to somehow have chosen it, but you can’t choose it unless you already exist as a creature who has preferences.
You’d somehow have to get to be the cause of yourself to take fundamental ultimate responsibility for yourself and therefore for your actions that flow from the way you are and therefore free will—indeed more responsibility and free will, and therefore we do not have free will.
In the diagramme, we see you, and the influence of external forces, but at no point are you ever responsible for your own actions. Even if you did make a so-called conscious effort to do something else, it would still be the result of one of these other sources.
Perhaps an inapt example would be for a homosexual person to ‘decide‘ to be a heterosexual person. This is not to say just to act like a heterosexual person, but to actually be attracted to the opposite sex. It should be obvious that this can’t be done, but if you are having difficulty, imagine the mirror example where you are a heterosexual person and you ‘decide‘ to be attracted to people of your own sex. Of course, this is akin to deciding that you like cilantro when you don’t, deciding you like Justin Beiber when you don’t, or deciding that you don’t actually enjoy chateaubriand when you do. Even if you manage to act the opposite of your sexual orientation, it is still not you who is responsible for the apparent change. It’s a response to social forces and external conditioning. You are the way you are because of the way you are. You’ve had absolutely no say in the matter.
So what’s the big deal? you might still be asking yourself. If you’ve just done something morally or legally “wrong” —emphasised by big bold scare quotes, you need to be punished or at least blamed irrespective of how you became you, right? Let’s ignore that I am a moral non-cognitivist at the start and pretend that this moral indignation is otherwise meaningful.
Quarantine Justification Theory
Let’s say that someone has done something outside the bounds of social acceptance in some milieu. To make it even easier to consider, let’s imagine for a moment, instead, an autonomous robot that was designed to seek glass and smash it. This robot has no conscience and no free will. It is just a robot programmed to break windows.
This robot has been unleashed on our community. In one sense, some might blame the robot for breaking the windows, but we know that whoever programmed this robot is to blame. But we don’t know who programmed it. What we do know is that we want to stop the robot from breaking more windows.
So we track down the robot and we disable it—or perhaps it’s designed in such a way that it can’t be turned off. Even though the robot is not to blame, it is a menace and we’ve collectively decided to disarm it or quarantine it. We build a glassless room and sequester it away so it can do no more damage.
Some people find this scenario a reasonable justification to quarantine the actor, but I think that this has at least one problem, I’ll mention two considerations I have.
Not a Robot
So, let’s revisit quarantine justification theory with a human actor, and let’s presume no causa sui. As we can’t blame the robot actor, neither can we blame the person actor. As with the robot, the goal is not to punish but to quarantine.
Not to Blame
Now let’s add a dose of reality. This human is not on a window-breaking rampage. Instead, s/he vandalised the window of a shop for some reason; let’s say that s/he was short-changed and wanted to exact damage equal to the shorted change. A police officer witnesses the act and takes the perpetrator into custody. What should the judge do? Remember, the person did not create themself, but s/he did the act s/he was accused of.
The image below shows two scenarios. In scenario A, you are integrated with society; in scenario B, you are quarantined. The question is what is the justification for quarantining you.
It’s difficult to argue that this person should be quarantined because this was a tit-for-tat response, not a rampage. It’s unlikely to happen again. One might try to argue that this person should be fined or, in line with quarantine, incarcerated to be made an example, thus acting as a scapegoat to serve as an external social pressure mechanism to disincentivise this retributive action. But this would ostensibly be punishing this person for something beyond their control.
We can even loosen the scenario to consider a person who has robbed a liquor store or kidnapped a child. These events are all too common, but there is nothing to suggest that a person will repeat this activity, so quarantine cum incarceration is hard to justify.
I can envision someone reading this thinking that we need to do something. We can’t let this person get away with it, but if you find yourself drifting in this direction, it’s your programming. You can’t help yourself. You don’t even have this degree of agency.
I haven’t given it enough thought, but it feels like this is similar to the dissonance when one grasps something intellectually, but instinctually or emotionally something just doesn’t sit right. Whilst you try to get outside of yourself, your programming doesn’t allow it.
* If you haven’t sussed it out quite yet, ‘cows are suey’ is how Google’s auto-generated transcript heard causa sui in an interview with Galen Strawson on this topic, and the rest is history.