Friday, August 8, 2008

Acting just like a vicious human (some notes on Free Will)

A peculiarity of our language—or of our thinking—is that, when we find someone’s behavior to be especially heinous, we often call him or her an animal. “He’s no more than an animal,” we’ll say. Or he’s a “beast” or a “brute”—more words meaning “animal.”

Usually, the “beastly” behavior we are condemning cannot be found among animals—i.e., among nonhuman animals, for, obviously, humans are animals too. Isn’t it clear that human beings do terrible things that are never done by animals? Think of torture, genocide, parking one's car on the lawn.

How come we don’t accuse Dick Cheney of behaving like some kind of goddam human?

Another peculiarity is our tendency to speak of “vicious” animal attacks. Well, the one thing that an animal attack cannot be is vicious. My Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “vicious” as “having the nature or quality of vice or immorality….” The word “vicious,” of course, comes from the word “vice.”

Consider the case of a cougar attacking a hiker. In the cougar’s mind, the hiker invaded her territory. So she attacked the invader. Was the cougar behaving immorally? Did the cougar exhibit vice?

Of course not. She did not do these things because cougars are not (as we say in philosophy) moral agents. That is, they are not beings who are capable of moral or immoral behavior. For one thing, they have no understanding of right and wrong.

Human infants are not moral agents either. They matter morally—it would be murder to kill an infant. But they are not moral agents, for they are incapable of right or wrong actions.

I know a man who routinely attributes moral agency to nonhuman animals. For thirty years, he has carried on a war with gophers on his land. He hates the little buggers. Sometimes, he’ll explain how a gopher could have dug in direction A, but instead he dug in direction B, evidently for the sole purpose of antagonizing him. He oozes contempt for these gophers. Do you know such people?

Sometimes I kid him. I say, "Well, those gophers were here before you were. If an all-out war breaks out here, I'm sorry, but I've gotta take the gophers' side."

There seem to be many TV programs devoted to describing animal attacks on humans. Invariably, the victim of the attack will at some point explain, “I don’t blame the bear (or weasel or jackalope). She was just protecting her young.”

But what if the bear was just hungry? I guess they’d condemn the bear in that case. “Goddam bear.”

But to do so is to engage in anthropomorphism, “the attribution of human characteristics or behavior to a god, animal, or object” (according to my Mac’s dictionary). Bears know no morality. They are not the kinds of beings who can be immoral or blameworthy. If a bear eats someone because she’s hungry, she isn’t vicious. She’s just doing what bears do because they’re built that way.

I recall an episode of a TV legal drama in which a gentle man becomes violent and starts to hurt people. He’s arrested. Eventually, doctors discover that he has a brain tumor that has somehow altered his personality and caused him to be violent and erratic. I thought, “yes, I get it. This tumor changed the guy into someone who could not help having uncontrollable violent impulses.” And so he was violent.

I figured, “great, they’ll just remove the tumor and send him home.” But no. In this drama, the case became a real puzzler. People debated the man’s responsibility for his attacks. In the end, a judge decided to convict the man of his crimes and send him to prison. As I recall, she said something like, “if we don’t hold this man responsible for his actions, how can we hold others responsible for theirs?”

To me, this just seems confused. In the story, we were led to believe that anyone who had such a tumor would be caused to do what this man did. Suppose that’s true. Then it wasn’t the man but the tumor that accounted for his violent behavior. Indeed, in the story, the man had a long history of being moral and nonviolent. So, if we need to subtract the tumor from the man, we can do that, and when we do, we have a man, a moral agent, who is not violent or immoral.

It seems to me that many people refuse to reflect about when people are or are not responsible for their actions. Often, they seem to gravitate to a very simple picture: you have a man and you have his action. He is responsible for his action. End of story.

I’m amazed that such people don’t regard gophers and bears and infants in the same light.

Maybe they do. Good Lord.

"Goddam brat!"

• • • •

I have never understood the concept of free will. I want to understand it. I want to believe in it. But what sort of thing is it supposed to be?

Among those who believe that we humans are "free agents" and that we possess a will that is free, some will insist that their conscious decisions are the occasion and the phenomena of freedom.

If so, then a recent study should give them something to fret about. Several months ago, the journal Nature Neuroscience published a German study that involved people performing actions while hooked up to some kind of MRI. The study seems to show that, several seconds before subjects make a conscious decision, the "brain" has already made one.

From the Boston Globe (Free will? Not as much as you think):

"It seems that your brain starts to trigger your decision before you make up your mind," said the study's lead author, John-Dylan Haynes of the Max Planck Institute ... in Germany. "We can't rule out free will, but I think it's very implausible. The question is, can we still decide against the decision our brain has made?"
Employing both functional magnetic resonance imaging and pattern recognition statistical techniques, the researchers were able to predict which button people would choose before they made their conscious decisions—as much as 10 seconds early, "an eternity," Haynes said.

Haynes believes that delay suggests the absence of free will as most people define it.

The physical brain apparently starts shaping the decision long before the conscious mind does. He speculated that the frontopolar cortex encodes the decision, while a section of the parietal cortex stores it and coordinates the decision's timing.

The study does not settle the issue of whether there is free will. But, for those who suppose that their conscious decisions are the captain of their ship, things aren't looking very good right now.

• • • •

If Haynes is right, then conscious decisions are epiphenomena—that is, each is "a secondary effect or byproduct that arises from but does not causally influence a process" (as my Mac dictionary would have it).

Think of a futuristic robot (Ralph) that seems and behaves exactly like a human being. Ralph is a deterministic mechanism—that is, like my Mac (more or less), Ralph is a system in which nothing happens by chance; everything is programed and caused.

Ralph is not, however, sentient (i.e., he has no mental life).

Suppose that a clever engineer finds a way to modify Ralph so that he does have a mental life. Thus, now, he no longer only seems to think and feel; he really does think and feel.

But Ralph's new feature amounts to a series of epiphenomena. That is, the thoughts and feelings and decisions of Ralph's "mind" do not cause anything. In fact, the older mechanism within Ralph causes his thoughts. And so Ralph imagines that his decision to lift his hand caused him to lift his hand, when, in fact, his mechanism caused both the lifting of his hand and his "decision" to do so.

Does Ralph have a free will?

Blade Runner: "I've seen things"

Aristotle argued that we are responsible for our character because our character forms through habit. A young person who continually "does as the courageous person does" will grow accustomed to behaving in that way; he will develop a firm disposition to stand his ground. But it works for vice, too. A young person who is allowed to (and allows himself to) run away whenever something fearful arises will form a disposition to run away. His cowardice—his disposition to run away—will be of his own making.

As far as it goes, this makes a great deal of sense and is, I think, insightful.

For those who are inclined to press the question of how it is that a person is responsible for his actions, this account promises some answers. If John runs away like a coward, we can attribute that to his cowardice (his disposition to run away), and since he chose the actions that, repeatedly performed (owing to his choices), led to the formation of that disposition, he is responsible for his cowardice.

But this does seem to raise a puzzle. We have asked, why is John responsible for his cowardice? The answer: he chose the actions that led to his cowardly character.

OK. But what is the nature of the "self"—the John—who chose those actions that are now at the bottom of our explanatory scheme? We cannot refer to character, since we've already appealed to these actions to explain character.

So just what is this self then? Isn't it something that reveals character by its choices (of actions)? How could it be otherwise? But now we're just going in circles, for we are appealing to character to explain actions that explain character.

Suppose that one ends one's efforts to explain moral responsibility there. If so, then I suppose that one must regards the "self" that makes the choices (that develop the character that issue in actions for which one is responsible) as a kind of "character" that just comes into being: a given, a brute fact. The self is not responsible for the "character" of this original self. It just is what it is.

Does it make sense to view responsibility in this stark way? If someone is born bad, does it make sense to hold him responsible for being bad? (Surely not, unless we have an account of how this entity that is born is the way it is because of some process that occurred previously [now we're getting metaphysical!] that includes some way that the self is responsible for how he ends up being. We seem to be in an infinite regress here.)

We do seem to think in that stark way sometimes. We are told that child molesters are almost always the product of child molestation. When I hear this, a part of me thinks: it is not at all clear to me that we can hold someone responsible for their pedophilia if that aspect of their personality is virtually guaranteed by their having been molested as a child.

And yet we seem not in the slightest bit reserved about condemning and loathing pedophiles.

Same goes for sociopaths. If they are born that way (as we seem to be told), how are they responsible for their sociopathic ways? How does this work exactly?

And if we are willing to hold Dexter responsible for just arriving in this world a sociopath, why not hold animals responsible for what they are and what they do? And infants?

(Compare with G. Strawson: Living without ultimate moral responsibility.)

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