an autodidact meets a dilettante…

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

on free will and libertarianism 2: character and punishment

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I hope I have dispelled two fallacies that have allowed the sciences of human nature to sow unnecessary fear. The first fallacy is that biological explanations corrode responsibility in a way that environmental explanations do not. The second fallacy is that causal explanations (both biological and environmental) corrode responsibility in a way that a belief in an uncaused will or soul does not.

Steven Pinker, ‘the fear of determinism’, from The blank slate

Canto: I’m currently reading Jane Goodall’s book Through a window, about the chimp communities in Tanzania observed and monitored by herself and her team over twenty-odd years – the hierarchies, the friendships, the brutalities, the shifting allegiances and the tragedies. It’s all very recognisable to me, a fellow primate – enough to bring tears to my eyes on occasion.

Jacinta: So we were talking about free will and all that.

Canto: Precisely. We don’t get to choose our species, or our parents, or in the case of chimps, our mothers in particular. Nor do we choose to get crippled by polio, pushed from a high tree-branch, or killed in infancy, for no apparent reason, by an enraged or jealous, or perhaps insane, adult female. Are these environmental or biological events? Does it really matter?

Jacinta: And if we survive them, they shape our character, is that your point?

Canto: Well, I’ve just reread a section of Steven Pinker’s The blank slate, which deals with what he considers our ‘unreasonable fear of determinism’, and it reminds me of what I found so unpalatable about certain academics’ disdain for the idea that determinism diminishes personal responsibility. Pinker, in this essay, reminds me of those typical sons of privilege who mock the ‘his genes/environment made him do it’ legal defence that lawyers sometimes use to get their clients off. I should remind Pinker and his ilk that most individuals who find themselves in legal trouble due to the environment they didn’t choose to grow up in can’t afford lawyers, so they usually don’t get a chance to make those arguments let alone win them. They have to throw themselves on the mercilessness of the court, whose bewigged officers make it clear which class they belong to and and are there to uphold.

Jacinta: So I take it that the above Pinker quote isn’t entirely kosher to you.

Canto: Yes, it’s bullshit. Pinker gives himself away with the examples he chooses to use. He mocks the environmental determinist ‘defence’ without coming remotely close to examining environmental determinism itself (which cannot, by the way, be disentangled from biological determinism, and I don’t find the distinction a particularly valid one). Instead he smugly recites a list of lawyerly tropes – ‘the abuse excuse, the Twinkie defence, black rage, pornography poisoning, societal sickness, media violence, rock lyrics’, etc, without showing a moment’s insight into the kinds of lives I saw around me while growing up, and which have been recounted by those lucky enough to survive, or by those who stood witness to the misery of others.

Jacinta: So your point is that the fallacies Pinker ‘identifies’ in the quote at the top of this post are not fallacies at all?

Canto: Well, my point is that Pinker oversimplifies the issue to a risible degree. Or rather, he doesn’t even address it. For example, he mocks ‘the abuse excuse’, as if abuse is an ‘excuse’ for something rather than a trauma with lifelong effects, depending on its intensity, its type, its duration and other variables including the enormously complex background against which it occurs. These events shape the very being of that person, pig, rat or butterfly. And yet Pinker has the chutzpah to claim that he and his white horse have ridden into view to dispel for us the ‘fallacy’ that such abuse corrodes any responsibility we have for our actions. Yeah, but… nah.

Jacinta: So what about this concept of responsibility? And how we relate it to crime and punishment. Can we really say that we’re not, or never, responsible for our actions?

Canto: I think we’re tricked into thinking we’re responsible by the felt complexity of our own thoughts. When we look at less complex animals – dogs, for example, or birds, we’re much less liable to attribute responsibility to their actions. So what’s the difference between those creatures and ourselves? Surely it’s only complexity.

Jacinta: And the fact that we can speak for ourselves – which is part of our complexity – and other creatures can’t. We can voice the claim that we were free to do otherwise, as no other creature can, as far as we know. But what does all this mean for apportioning blame and punishment? Is our court and justice system obsolete?

Canto: Well the justice system is, I suppose, designed to keep us safe from each other. You see this, again in a less complex way, with wild animals. I recall watching a video of pack animals, I can’t recall, maybe hyenas or wolves, in which the pack leader for some reason started behaving dysfunctionally – that’s to say, to the detriment of the pack. He was biting and wounding other pack members for no apparent reason. Eventually, it got too much, and the pack rose up against him, hurting him badly, and sending him to the back of the pack. From then on he behaved more like the runt of the litter, living off the scraps of the others. You see this sort of thing too, in gorilla and chimp groups. The group deals with the alpha male turned miscreant But if we can only agree on the evidence that free will is a myth, then we should be able to develop a far better justice system than the one we have.

Jacinta: How so?

Canto: Well, take one very toxic issue. Paedophilia. There’s at least one person I know well who has a kind of zero tolerance, ‘worst of the worst’ attitude to serial paedophiles, and simply doesn’t want to hear any kind of free will argument that might ‘exonerate’ them. It’s easy to understand this attitude being held by a victim whose life has been seriously damaged by a paedophile, and as we know, they’re a favourite tabloid newspaper villain. But, as has been pointed out by Sam Harris among others, arguments that paedophiles are the worst of the worst and are incorrigible, ‘never to be released’, are essentially arguments for a lack of free will. If they can never be ‘corrected’, how can they be held responsible for their ‘incorrectness’ in the first place? It follows that ‘punishment’ for such people not only doesn’t work, but is unfair. A justice system should of course be about protecting people from the malpractices of the minority, but surely it needs to be accompanied or tied up with an understanding of how these malpractices arise, and how to fix them.

Jacinta: Do you think serial paedophilia is fixable?

Canto: I have no idea, but I’m saying that should be the aim. To take a simpler example, I don’t know if a broken diff in a car is fixable (I don’t even know what that is), but I don’t see why it wouldn’t be, and if it can be fixed obviously it should be. As Robert Sapolsky points out, we’ve fixed schizophrenia largely with medications, and knowing more than one schizophrenic as I do, that has improved their lives massively.

Jacinta: Okay, so maybe that’s enough about free will for now. There’s another kind of freedom that’s been in the air for decades, and that’s political freedom – freedom from the tyranny of Big Government. It has generally gone by the name ‘libertarianism’. I suppose that if there’s no free will, that kind of freedom doesn’t even get out of the starting gate?

Canto: Well political libertarianism brings up a whole different set of issues, though clearly it’s dependent on and assumes free will. But we’ll leave all that for next time.

Written by stewart henderson

February 10, 2022 at 7:51 pm

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