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.

Criminal Conservatism

A few years ago, I shared with a colleague that I had noticed that my high school classmates who seemed to be the most non-conformist (or perhaps the most anti-authoritarian), the ones most likely to have abused drugs and alcohol and most likely to criticise the Man, have by and large become extremely conservative on the political spectrum. Most are card-carrying Republicans, and dreaded low-information voters, continuing the trend of low-information acquisition and processing. He said that he had noticed a similar trend.

I still keep in contact with some some old mates who are Conservative Republicans, but who were high-information consumers then and still, so I am not saying that all Conservatives are low-information people.

A man who is not a Liberal at sixteen has no heart; a man who is not a Conservative at sixty has no head.

—Benjamin Disraeli (Misattributed)

The past couple of years, in a sort of nod to Bukowski, I’ve been researching or circulating among the underbelly of the United States, the veritable dalit-class comprised of drug dealers and users, pimps, prostitutes, and thieves. And I’ve noticed the same trend. These people might fear or hate the police and the system, and they may not vote or even be high-information seekers, but they seem to have a marked propensity to Conservatism. I admit that this is anecdotal and rife with confirmation bias, but this is my observation.

To broad brush any group into some monolith is always a fools errand and missing dimensional nuance, but the general direction holds. In my observation, these people are very black & white, and they want to see law & order (as much as they want to avoid its glance). They are interested in fairness, and call out being beat, as in being shorted in a drug deal or overpay at the grocery store–the same grocery store from which they just shoplifted.

When they see a news story, ‘That bank robber deserved to get caught’ would not be an unexpected response. Even if they got caught, they might voice that they deserved it. The received sentence might be a different story.

I am not sure why this shift from anti-establishment to hyper establishment happens. I’ve also noticed that even if they dislike the particular people serving government roles, they still feel that the abstract concepts of government, democracy, capitalism, and market systems make sense, if only the particular instance is not great.

One reaction I had is that some of these people feel that the transgressions of their youth might have been avoided only if there were more discipline, and so they support this construct for the benefit of future generations, who, as embodied in Millennials, are soft and lack respect for authority.

I’d recently re-discovered a Bill Moyers interview with moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt, and there is some relationship. And whilst I could critique some of Haidt’s accepted metanarrative relative to society, his points are valid within the constraints of this narrative.

The video is almost an hour long and was produced in 2012, it is a worthwhile endeavour to watch.

I am wondering if anyone else has seen this trend or who has experienced a contrary trend. Extra points for an explanation or supporting research.

Cover image: Sean Penn, excerpt from Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and Brett Cavanaugh, SCOTUS and posterboy Conservative hack