Video: Blame and Causa Sui

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.

Video: Blame & Causa Sui

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.

If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent Him

Voltaire

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.

Evolution of Free Will

The more I read about free will the more I feel that it is a modern invention. I don’t mean to claim that this is cut and dry, but as the image accompanying this post suggests, Sophocles’ story of Œdipus Rex is precisely about a man attempting to escape his fate. Without getting mired in a discussion about the distinction between fate and determinism, we understand that the plight of Œdipus is set in stone.

As I said, I am simplifying as I know there are authors debating free will before this, but it is also known that many people simply believed that their lives were governed. I suspect that in certain slave societies this might be a source of comfort. If Buddhist thought that life is suffering holds true, what better consolation than it was just meant to be, I might as well just make the best of it.

Enter Christianity and Aquinus. Their god may have set things up, but there can be no notion of growth or responsibility without free will, so we’d better create a narrative around this. How an omniscient creator can not know every possible plotline and twist remains a question, though rationale akin to retrograde motion has been suggested to accommodate it. Now, it seems that we’ve got a little less determined and a little freer if I think of it as a zero-sum game.

Si Dieu n’existait pas, il faudrait l’inventer

Voltaire, Épître à l’Auteur du Livre des Trois Imposteurs (1769)

By the time Kant enters the picture, he rather spills the beans on the whole narrative. Perhaps riffing on Voltaire’s quip, ‘If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent Him‘. Kant tells us that if we need to blame people and presume responsibility, then we need to assume free will. And so we did.

In this day and age, most people have been marinated in this worldview, so it’s difficult to see outside of this frame. The rhetoric of free will has been particularly effective. Though we have evidence of free will not being dominant in some cultural conversations, we have little idea in preliterate societies. I’d be interested to gain additional perspective from historians or anthropologists. Some may have already been published. I’ve already been so overwhelmed with the deluge of information and opinions to date. I’ve learned much and have been introduced to many new scholars. As I wrote the other day, this is somewhat daunting. I wish I were a grad student and could justify spending so much time trying to justify my position.

The Appointment in Samarra*

There was a merchant in Bagdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, Master, just now when I was in the marketplace I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture, now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me. The merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went. Then the merchant went down to the marketplace and he saw me standing in the crowd and he came to me and said, why did you make a threatening gesture to my servant when you saw him this morning? That was not a threatening gesture, I said, it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Bagdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.

I was astonished to see him in Bagdad,
for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.

Death

I love this story of fatalism. Originally from the Babylonian Talmud, Sukkah 53a, it’s a story about one attempting to alter their determined fate. An interesting side-comment on the original version. The last line attributes fate to the servant’s feet.

A man’s feet are responsible for him; they lead him to the place where he is wanted

Babylonian Talmud, Sukkah 53a

This interpretation would allow for the feet to be determined but in conflict with the intellect and reason of the head, much as is said about the conflict between the head and the heart. It could be argued that the only fate this accounts for is that of death, but that’s well beyond my scope of inquiry.

Final Note

Some people seem to not quite grasp the distinction between constructed and unreal. Many things are human social constructs, from money to states and countries, to nations, to governments, to ethnicities, and to gender. Even sex. All of my favourite weasel words are constructs.

But there’s a difference between money and unicorns. No amount of money can buy you a unicorn. This is the difference between fiction and figment. We can say that money is ‘real’ insomuch as it affects our everyday lives. We transact. We buy things. We sell things. It’s an agreed-upon medium of exchange. Without going into details, long before cryptocurrency, most money is in the form of computer bits and bytes—rather it has no form. The currency and coins we can touch are a small fraction of the money that exists. The money behind your credit card or debit card is not banknotes—and it’s not gold. When a central bank wants to create money, it simply has to type a number in a computer register and press enter, and it exists.

So whilst each of these is pretend, some things are manifest in our ‘real’ world and have real-world implications. Not so much for unicorns and fairies.


* The Appointment in Samarra as retold by W Somerset Maugham (1933)

Under the Influence

Galen Strawson is my latest male crush. With almost everything I read or hear from him, I say, ‘that’s what I think’, over and over and over again. So I thought I’d share some of my journey to now. I made a post about female influences not too long ago. This is a bit different.

My first obsession, let’s say was the Beatles. I can’t pinpoint precisely when, but when I was a child, it’s been said that I would sing ‘she’s got a chicken to ride’ when it came on to AM radio. I asked for or bought all of their albums, and read everything about them that a kid could get his hands on back in the day. This obsession lasted for years and overlaps some of my next interests. My interests were in John Lennon’s political interests and George Harrison’s spiritual interests. I didn’t really find Paul McCartney or Ringo Starr very interesting beyond their musical abilities. And to be honest, I also got all of the Stones, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and so on. At my peak, I had over a thousand vinyl records—all lost in a house fire because vinyl and heat are generally incompatible. Paper didn’t fare much better, as I lost hundreds of books, too. A lesson in impermanence.

I am a bit of a nonconformist, a contrarian, and a polemicist

In grades 5 to 8, National Socialism and World War II were fascinating to me. Not Hitler, per se, though I do recall reading Mein Kampf at the time. There was just something about the sense of unity. Upon reflection, I realised that this meant me conforming to some other trend, and that was no longer interesting, as I am a bit of a nonconformist, a contrarian, and a polemicist, so there was that.

At some point, I came across Voltaire’s Candide and it just struck me. This may have commenced me on my path to becoming somewhat of a francophile. I extended my interest into the language and culture. My WWII phase has already primed that pump. I remember reading Dumas, Hugo, and some Descartes.

After I graduated, I was a recording engineer and musician. I remember reading Schoenberg’s Structural Function of Harmony and being enamoured with Dvořák and Stravinsky. I was influenced by many musicians, engineers, and producers, but there was just something about Schoenberg.

I went through a Kafka phase—that eventually included Donald Barthelme. His Absurdism was a nice foundation for my subsequent interest in Camus. It was something that just resonated with me. After Kafka, I discovered Dostoyevsky and consumed everything of his I could get my hands on.

I took from Jung and Campbell the importance of metaphor

In the 1990s, I discovered Carl Jung and eventually Joseph Campbell and a few years I spent reading Jung’s Complete Works and peripheral material related to Archetypal and Depth Psychology. I absorbed the material. I took from Jung and Campbell the importance of metaphor, but it never really resonnated beyond this.

Somehow, this experience led me to the Existentialism of Sartre (and Camus and Beauvoir). At the same time something clicked with me, I was always put off by the teleological imperative these guys seemed to insist upon—Sartre’s political involvement and Camus’ insistence on Art. These were their paths—and I certainly had an interest in Art and Politics—, but I felt this was too prescriptive.

For a brief time, I really liked Hume (and Spinoza), but then I discovered Nietzche and felt compelled to read his major works. It all made sense to me. It still does. Nietsche set me up for Foucault with his power relationships and the sense that morality, good, and evil are all socially constructed and contextual.

And Nietzsche brought me to Foucault and his lens of Power. These two still resonate with me. I investigated a lot of postmodern thinkers after this.

Nietzsche brought me to Foucault and his lens of Power

Daniel Dennett came next. He seems brilliant, and I tend to agree with most of what he says. I was still absorbing. Where biologist Robert Sapolsky gets philosophical, it’s about the same.

But Galen Strawson is different. And I have a lot of catching up to do in my reading of his direct work. The difference is that with these prior influences, I was absorbing and synthesising—creating my own perspectives and worldview. By the time I am finding Strawson, with every encounter, I am ticking off boxes.

  • That’s what I think
  • That’s what I think
  • That’s what I think
  • That’s what I think

Only, he started publishing in the 1960s. I could have been reading his work all along. Since I agree with 99.999 per cent of what I get from him and he is such a deep thinker, I am looking for two things:

  1. Something that expands rather than confirms
  2. Some spaces to operate that he has missed or ignored

As I continue on my Anti-Agency project and gather more inputs and perspectives, I’ll be considering a lot of Strawson. Here’s a clip I really enjoyed. I am thinking of doing a sort of reaction piece, but whether or not that happens, here’s the source.

[Video] Galen Strawson — Is Free Will a Necessary Illusion?

Spoiler Alert: I believe that free will is a cognitive bias related to apophenia. It’s a Gestalt heuristic.

Best Ever

I’m not sure I need to ask why people over-value things familiar to them. Is there such a thing and a Pangloss Syndrome: We all live in the best of all possible worlds? For most people, it seems, their nation is the best nation, the best county, province, or state, the best city, town, or village. Perhaps I’m over reaching, but we do tend to value these things as remarkably better than average, and isn’t it nice that we weren’t born somewhere else?

I’m not sure if this affinity runs stronger in different political mindsets, Liberals versus Conservatives or such. Anecdotally, I could see Conservatives hanging on the memory of the good old days, if only it weren’t for X, Y, or Z, this would truly be a great [insert geolocational reference]. Liberals, instead, hang on to the prospect of tweaking a nice foundation and progressively shaping it.

Our village is better than the adjacent ones—except for the ones out of financial reach, but those are populated with those wealthier people, and who could tolerate them; our team is the best team—better luck next year; our schools are the best schools—they try harder.

Behavioural economics demonstrates that people value things they own— endowment effect: even if they didn’t choose the item; even if they had valued it less just moments before they took possession of it. This might likely be explained as an product of evolution, but it feels to have gotten out of hand.