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.

Monopoly on Reparations

Many places have histories of exploiting a group or groups to the advantage of others. Although this scenario applies to these people in a similar manner, I am thinking specifically of the exploitation and reparations due to the black and indigenous people of colour, BIPOC, in the United States.

I believe that many people are familiar with Monopoly, the board game where, among other things, one accumulates properties and extracts rents from the other players. My intent is to illustrate with Monopoly the need for reparations, to illustrate why reparations are necessary to restore justice. This is a twist on John Rawls’ veil of ignorance thought experiment.

Slave auction advertisement

I have heard some people say that the past is the past, or if there were injustices in the past, that was ages ago, and now everyone has an equal chance. No special accommodations or affirmative actions are necessary. I don’t agree that this is true, but let’s just say for the sake of this exposition that opportunities are equal for everyone in a given society.

There are parallels between a game of Monopoly and the way we are thrown into this world. No one differs in this regard. We are all subject to a loin lottery.

Imagine that I already own all of the properties. You own none. Irrespective of how the game came to this condition, your chances of winning are nil to none. Now imagine that the reason for the disparate ownership was the result of a system of injustice perpetrated by the player I inherited my position from on the player you inherited yours.

No matter how fairly the game is from now until the end, if your starting place leaves me with all of the property and you without, your chances of winning are slim to none. Favouring tradition and inheritance already benefits some people over others, but when the benefit is the result of a pattern of injustices, it feels more egregious. Worse yet, even if I ‘give’ you Whitechapel Road, Baltic Avenue, or Rue Lecourbe and keep the rest, your chances have only slightly improved.

With the end of US Civil War and the emancipation proclamation, affected blacks were promised 40 acres and a mule. For most, this never happened. This remains an outstanding debt. And whilst 40 acres in some places would be a boon, not many today really need a mule, so descendants of slaves need to be made whole. Reparations are a way to accomplish this.

Reparations are payments in arrears to attempt to compensate for the centuries of an unbalanced playing field. And reparations should allow you to recover more than Whitechapel, Baltic, or Rue Lecourbe properties. At least get Bond Street, Pennsylvania Avenue, or Boulevard des Capucines. If you’ve played Monopoly, you’ll understand that this is still not enough.


Justice Prevails

If anything showcases how nonsensical the concept of justice is, just look at the Rittenhouse trial in the United States. Ultimately, justice is about perception. In a textbook, a bad person does something bad, and a process ritual is performed by judges and juries to divine the otherwise obvious badness, and the bad person is brought to justice. In the extended version, they learn the error of their ways and reintegrate into society and live happily ever after.

In reality, this is all bollox. Good and bad are subjective and contextual. But this post isn’t about that. It’s about the charade of justice. In the case of the Rittenhouse trial-slash-debacle, Kyle Rittenhouse shot some people and killed them. Whilst he is being charged with murder, some people view him as a hero—the good man with a gun rather than a vigilante.

Given these perspectives, whether justice is served is a matter of your starting perspective. People in the United States are generally divided on some fundamental political stands, and this predictably colours individual perspectives.

In the Bible, Christians are taught the story of King Solomon, wherein two women each claim a child as their own. Solomon suggests that they cut the child in half and by doing so, he reveals the true mother by judging their responses.

Spoiler Alert: I am only pretty sure that Solomon wouldn’t have followed through on his twisted joke.

This Bible story is part of the Western legal canon and teaches the impartiality of judges and some practical wisdom, but then we remember that it’s just a story.

Returning to Rittenhouse, irrespective of whether justice ends up being served is basically a coin toss. If you have been following the proceedings, you’ll notice that the pack is being stacked in his favour and the dice are weighted and the coin is biased.

Personally, I think the guy is an ass-hat. I feel that anyone who carries a weapon has anger and compensation issues. And if he wasn’t there in the first place, none of this would have unfolded as it did. I am a conscientious objector and believe this is precisely why the Second Amendment of the US Constitution relates to a well-regulated militia and not some pizza-faced wanker.

If he is judged not guilty, people like me will viscerally feel that justice is a sham. Obviously, I already maintain that opinion, but other people still believe in justice and Santa Claus. If he is judged guilty and gets a suitable sentence—another subjective constituent of justice—, then the other cohort feels that justice was not served.

One could argue, as Christians do, that God is the final arbiter of justice. Someone has to be, right? It also reminds us not to judge—probably because we’re not very good at it—, so there’s that, too.

I hold my original stance: justice is just another vapid weasel word.

Je m’accuse

I’ve been an absent owner. I’ve not been fertilising this blog as I’ve been attending to my professional blog and many other things IRL. But my brain doesn’t stop thinking, and I don’t stop reading just because my fingers stop typing contributions here. Today, I type.

No Free Will

The topic is the absence of free will debate. To be fair, I believe the notion of free will is a holdover from religious belief. And, like religion, it is used to control people and to formulate social cohesion and serve as the basis of legal systems. Free will and agency are core to any justice system. There is a system of laws. Conforming is good. Nonconformance is bad. People have agency to decide whether to conform. Relative to the system, a person is either conformant or not. Justice prevails. Nonconformance is punished, as it were. Society wins.

But let’s say there is no free will. I’m going to skip the entire argument and present this piece as a hypothetical. There is no free will. The universe is entirely deterministic. Now what?

Does anything happen? Does anyone notice?

If there is no free will, the universe already has embedded ‘code’ that will either reveal or conceal this information. If we are destined to know this, we’ll know it. If not, our future will unfold all the same.

If people have no real agency, can we punish them? Sure. We do it already. We inadvertently punish the innocent. We even punish those known to be innocent. But if history is pre-written and you are destined to be punished, the script has not only been written, but it’s already been recorded indelibly on film. We’re just waiting for the scene to come into view.

Given this, the so-called knowledge that there is no free will is useless. What’s the goal—to break the fourth wall and and liberate ourselves from the script? Wouldn’t that have already been scripted? What do you get—a director’s cut?

No Agency

What if it’s not so strict but that people don’t have agency? If people are all automatons, is it still ethical to punish them? Can rehabilitation be a goal if people are ostensibly wind-up dolls? If a person is a wind-up doll run amok, are we justified for separating them from the population at large?

I can see an argument for removing axe-wielding automatons from the public. And I’m sorry if they have no agency over their actions—like zombies. We all know what happens to zombies—and unmanaged zombies.

This scenario is different to that of a person who robs a store for food to eat—think Valjean in Les Misérables. This is an indictment of the system. If something needs fixing in this situation, it’s the system not the thief. But that’s not what generally happens. It’s easier to scapegoat a person than a system—even if that system is comprised of other people.

Conceptual Abstraction

Shared Concept Image

I tend to go on about weasel words and the insufficiency of language, but I tend to get a lot of resistance by people who insist the chasm isn’t as expansive as I make it out to be. This makes me wonder how one might create a test to determine how much is similar and how much doesn’t.

To summarise my position, abstract concepts of this type are specious archetypes that cannot exist in the real world: truth, justice, freedom, fairness, and so on. The common thread here is almost always that they exist in the realm of morality, another false concept.

It seems to me that one could construct a sort of word cloud intersecting with a Venn diagramme. I’d assume that more articulate people would have more descriptors, thereby creating landscape with more details and nuance for any given concept.

Additionally, I could see a third dimension which would capture diametric meanings. There is also the issue of diverse contexts, e.g. in the case of justice, we have distributive, retributive, restorative, and procedural flavours, so one would need to be taken into account.

In everyday existence, I notice that these terms are good enough and have enough substance to trick people into believing not only that it’s real but that the are operating with a shared concept. My point is that it’s more apples and oranges. We could employ dimensions that make these appear to be similar.

  • Approximate spheroids
  • Fruits
  • Contain fruits
  • Have skin

Additional scrutiny would illustrate the differences.

  • Colour
  • Taste
  • Consistency

This difference between this concrete case is that we can observe the objects to compare and contrast, but with abstractions, we have a sort of survivorship bias in play. We remember what we agree on and forget or diminish the parts we don’t agree on. And we don’t necessarily even know the complete inventory of descriptors of our counterparts.

The image at the top of the page is not to scale. I don’t know what the percent breakdowns are, but I wouldn’t be surprised if in a situation where there were 10 possible descriptors, that only 4 would be commonly shared—so 40 per cent—, leaving 6 not in common—60 per cent.

In any case, I wonder if anyone has attempted this sort of inventory comparison. I haven’t even looked, do there could be tome upon tome published, but I don’t suppose so.

Death of the Metanarrative

Until I recently read Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge I never quite understood why Moderns accused Post-moderns of being anti-science. I’d heard Jordan Peterson complaining, and I’d read forum and blog posts with the same attacks.

As it happens, postmodernism eschews the meta-narrative or is leery of it. This includes the meta-narratives underlying science and the Enlightenment more generally. If you’ve read my posts over the years, you’ll see that this is a common complaint of mine, that everything is a human construct. Although Lyotard published The Postmodern Condition, I only read it this week.

To be fair, I sought it out. I have been attempting to find some other philosophers who have asserted that Truth (and other notions like Justice and Progress) are nothing more than the result of a rhetorical victory. And although Lyotard does not come out and say this (at least not in this book), I feel that he would not disagree with the notion. I may have to read some more of his work.

The least one can do is find the underlying narrative. Feel free to operate day to day as per usual, but be aware. The inscription at Delphi was not exactly right. There is no self to know, and narratives change, but to ‘know’ the prevailing narrative of the day seems it might at least allow one to better assess what’s happening above ground. The Matrix trope may be overplayed, but it’s a fitting metaphor for seeing what underlies. There is no Truth, but for what it’s worth, there’s another data point.

We live on the map, but the terrain is inaccessible. The postmodern doesn’t hate science or progress. We merely question the veracity. One cannot assess progress without a vector, without velocity and direction, so we contrive stories to serve as a foundation.

The founding of these stories don’t need to be sinister or nefarious. They can grow organically. But the ones who understand the rules, Wittgenstein’s language game, can wrest power, and s/he who can bend the rules through convincing rhetoric, perhaps as Locke and Rousseau, can change to course of history. But this course can be changed again. When Marx tried to change the narrative, it threatened the status quo, so they try to delegitimatise it at every turn—primarily through the dissemination of disinformation in a sort of corrupt meme machine. Marx tried to embrace and then co-opt Capitalism, but the Capitalists were not ready to cede power. One hundred and fifty-odd years later, they still aren’t. And it might be that a different narrative is adopted before Marx’s vision is even able to take root.

I was a bit confused by Lyotard’s quip about utility being the arbiter under modern Capitalism in lieu of Truth, as I am not sure how many postmodernists embrace the notion of some objective Truth. To be clear, I don’t.

Lego Blocks

In the end, I feel it is better to deconstruct the concept of a knowable reality. The trick is not to try to reconstruct something from the pieces. It’s like deconstructing a Lego model and rebuilding a different model from the pieces whilst making the claim that this reconstitution is the true manifestation when in fact any construct is as ‘good’ as the next, but good cannot be determined until you’ve defined a context. Such is the role of the metanarrative. Once you define an end, you can then evaluate utility in light of it, but there is nothing to assess the choice of one end versus some other ends save by preference. And of course preference can be manipulated by rhetoric.

What John Stuart Mill Got Wrong About Freedom

Graham Tomlin wrote a piece for Prospect, upon which I comment and whence comes the title of this post. Always the deconstructivist curmudgeon, it seems, I agree with Tomlin’s assertion that Mill was wrong, but so is Tomlin.

In a nutshell, Tomlin makes the argument that the Ancients had it right, and the Enlightenment derailed it. Tomlin wants to return to the days of yore when the artifice of character and virtue ruled the day, a time when men were men and women were women. A return to the good ole days.

Tomlin waxes poetic, nostalgiac to a time that never was, a time that the prescription was to chase windmills of virtue and amass the currency of character. But character as currency is more unstable than Bitcoin.

Don Quixote Tilting Windmills

Is there anything more capricious than the held perception of character? Is there anything more futile than chasing the vicious cycle of virtue, always searching for that deserving true Scotsman?

Character is a term especially bandied about by political Conservatives, although Progressives tend to play the #MeToo game because it’s a game of appearances. It doesn’t matter what you do; it only matters what it looks like you do.

And even this is a game. Time and again politicians ‘slip’ (read: get caught), they apologise for the temporary lapse, and ask for forgiveness. Whether or not they keep their position, they are still forgiven and may return to their position learning their lesson (read: don’t get caught again). Let’s just dispense with the formalities.

Perception is reality

In Plato’s day, he holds out four moral virtues to pursue: courage, temperance, justice, and prudence.

Courage: the resolve to act virtuously, especially when it is most difficult

Temperance: moderation in all things; the middle path

Justice: to render every man what’s due

Prudence: application of practical wisdom

Courage seems to be caught in an infinite loop, as it essentially says to exercise temperance, justice, and prudence in the face of danger. Typically, courage is associated with heroic acts, though I fail to see the connection to rescuing a baby from a burning building with any of these other virtues. Perhaps the definition has morphed over the years. Everyone needs a hero. Only Zeus needs a Hera.

Temperance is to find the middle ground: eat but not too much; drink but not too much; rape but not too much; kill but not too much. Is there really a middle ground for all things? In traversing a canyon, shouldn’t one stay close to the edge—or what about sidewalks? Is it temperance that led US President Donald Trump to declare that Nazis and white supremacists. are ‘some very fine people‘, or does he just lack prudence?

Justice is the constant and perpetual will to render to every man his due.

Justinian — Institutes 1.1

Justice I’ve written about at some length so I won’t spend any additional time here.

Common sense is not so common.

Voltaire

Prudence, which advises one to use common sense, relies on a rare jewel. As Voltaire wrote, « le sens commun est fort rare ».

Perhaps I’m just too hard on people, but I find that most people are pretty dimwitted outside of some small area of focus, and I have to agree with Voltaire’s position on common sense. This is why as an economist, I find it so difficult to accept the homo economicus assertion so key for modern microeconomic theory and why behavioural economics has become a bigger deal in the past 30 years as more and more social scientists realise that people are predictably irrational.

Thanks but no thanks. There’s got to be a better way.

Is it a gift?

This is a continuation of my previous post—with a touch of TMI…

I was divorced some time ago, and I was ‘accused’ of giving gifts to another woman—a woman a met after I was served papers for the divorce. After her attorney asked if I had ever given any gifts to anyone, the judge scoffed when I asked for a definition of gift so that I could respond honestly. The judge actually rolled her eyes and made a comment that my approach was not going to work. So without an established definition, I replied, ‘No. I never gave any gifts to anyone.’ She was fine with the response. In fact, she already had made up here mind in the same manner when a person pleading the Fifth in the US is automatically seen as having something to hide and therefore guilty of something. It’s a fanciful notion that taking the Fifth somehow eliminates the concern in question, but the entire jurisprudence system is arbitrary and virtually capricious—despite supposedly being a deontological endeavour. In practice, the goal of organised Law is to elevate process over justice so as to at least give the appearance that it is fair and otherwise meaningful.

Lady Justice

So, is it possible to give a gift? Is it possible to know this? Is it possible to know the intent of anything?


Gift (n): a thing given willingly to someone without payment

https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/gift

If gift is defined as a something given willingly and without payment, what is the scope of without payment, and what constitutes payment? Is altruism even possible? Is this possible to know? Again, can anyone know the intent of another? Can anyone truly know the intent of their own actions? Does the unconscious or past experience obviate intent?

In my case, I gave a woman some—what might colloquially be called—gifts. There were no strings explicitly attached? Does this mean there were no strings attached? I had a romantic interest in this woman. Clearly, this courting game involved gift-given in return for some expected payoff at some time in the future.

What if I had given one of these gifts to a stranger on the street—perhaps a homeless person? Would that now be a gift? What if I was in a foreign place with a nil probability of encountering this person ever again and nobody witnessed the transaction and I would never tell another soul about it? Would this be a gift?

I suppose if I had no notion of karma, whether the Eastern variety or the Western Heaven-oriented variety, and it gave me no hormonal benefits relative to dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin, I’d buy it.

So, accuse me of being pedantic, and you’ve made my point. We only want to employ language until the point it complies with our notion of our sense of truth. But it’s nothing more than this.

…and Justice for All

I’ve been out of sorts as of late, too busy to be contributing to this blog. Abstract philosophy, as Geuss notes, is a field for the comfortably idle. I’ve been in the midst of a divorce, and it’s not that I don’t think about the abstract, but my focus is pulled toward the mundane. The US court system comes to mind. I’ve already served on several juries, so I understand how pathetically that side is structured; I’ve been of the claimant/petitioner side and the defence side, and now I am a respondent. I’ve never been an attorney or barrister, nor have I been a judge, but I’ve known some of each, and it’s really a blind faith they have in the system—as well as a paycheque (let’s be honest here)—that keeps them going. As Upton Sinclair once noted, ‘It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it’. Between this and escalating commitment, this poor excuse for a system is going nowhere fast.

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” — Upton Sinclair

I don’t even believe there is such thing as Justice, let alone some ability to systematise it. As I mentioned in my last post, the system is constructed to prioritise consistency over outcome and favour deontology over consequentialism with just a smidgen of virtue ethics for good measure, but it’s all still just smoke…… and mirrors. It’s theatre—procedure for procedure’s sake. I guess that Foucault may have been right about the Power bit, but there’s more nuance than that.

Meantime, I am trapped in this flawed system trying to navigate between Scylla and Charybdis. If I’m not out by the end of the month, come in to rescue me.

—Decidedly not a fan.