Puppets Without Puppeteers


This opinion piece in the NYT by John Monterosso and Barry Schwartz doesn’t support the conclusions that the authors want us to reach:

It is crucial that as a society, we learn how to think more clearly about causes and personal responsibility — not only for extraordinary actions like crime but also for ordinary ones, like maintaining exercise regimens, eating sensibly and saving for retirement [an exhortation “to think more clearly” is unlikely to draw any objection]. As science advances, there will be more and more “causal” alternatives to intentional explanations [recent history suggests that this is true], and we will be faced with more decisions about when to hold people responsible for their behavior [likely]. It’s important that we don’t succumb to the allure of neuroscientific explanations and let everyone off the hook.

There is nothing in the op-ed that leads to that last conclusion. It’s non sequitur, sitting right where a logical conclusion rightfully belongs. It’s also a repetition of the same non sequitur from earlier in the piece:

If we view every new scientific finding about brain involvement in human behavior as a sign that the behavior was not under the individual’s control, the very notion of responsibility will be threatened. So it is imperative that we think clearly about when brain science frees someone from blame — and when it doesn’t.

I don’t see the notion of responsibility being threatened by the fact that our conduct is caused by electrochemical reactions in our brains which are formed entirely by our genes and experiences, and nothing more. The person (the complex of genes and experience, and nothing more) has peformed the act; the person is responsible for it. If it is necessary to prevent further harm through incapacitation, then it is the person who must be incapacitated; if it is possible to preven further harm through rehabilitation, then it is the person who should be rehabilitated; if deterrence is called for, than the person may be deterred, or others may be deterred, by demonstrating to them the punishment of the person (adding an experience to the catalog of experiences that, along with their genes, forms them).

The person is responsible, and this responsibility justifies punishment under almost any penological theory. Any theory but retribution.

Monterosso and Schwartz don’t discuss what they mean by responsibility—maybe they see it as beyond the scope of the short op-ed, and maybe they assume that their readers will take their meaning. It appears that by responsibility they mean not only the sort of responsibility that would justify the incapacitation of the person to prevent further bad acts, but also the blameworthiness that would justify retribution.

This is the moral blameworthiness question that we sometimes ask juries to answer: if you were the defendant, would you do the same thing? The truthful answer, always, has to be “yes,” but a lack of moral blameworthiness often doesn’t let the accused off the hook. There are other considerations than blameworthiness.

Recognizing that we are our brains, and every step we take is dictated by our genes and experiences, does not “let everyone off the hook,” but it damages the notion that wrongdoers are evil. If everything I do is dictated by nature and nurture, then if you had the same nature and nurture as me (in other words, if you were I), you would do as I do. If you would do as I do, then I’m not morally blameworthy for my bad acts (nor—not for nothing—morally praiseworthy for my good acts). You might say that I needed to be punished or that society needed to punish me, but you probably wouldn’t say that I “deserved” punishment.

The authors decry the “naïve dualism” of people who see “biological” causes as relieving a person of responsibility, but “psychological” causes as not.

“Was the cause psychological or biological?” is the wrong question when assigning responsibility for an action. All psychological states are also biological ones.        

They go on to engage in some naïve dualism of their own:

If, hypothetically, only 1 percent of people with a brain malfunction (or a history of being abused) commit violence, ordinary considerations about blame would still seem relevant. But if 99 percent of them do, you might start to wonder how responsible they really are.

(My emphasis.) Monterosso and Schwartz seem to think that there must be something outside of biological causes—and therefore justifying blame—that led the one percent to commit violence.

It’s a ludicrous suggestion. One experience can’t be separated out from all of the others. If, hypothetically, only one percent of people with a given brain malfunction commit violence, the only thing that we can say is that we don’t have enough information. We don’t know whether that malfunction contributed to the violence at all, much less what other factors drove those people’s behavior.

Every year neuroscience makes it clearer that we’re living in a deterministic world.The philosophers are still fighting over whether this determinism might somehow be compatible with free will. Whether we can be held “responsible” for our actions, whether we are “blameworthy,” whether we have “free will,” and what we “deserve” are not questions for psychologists—the deterministic train left the station long ago—but rather for semanticists. The question of blameworthiness is no longer whether anyone else in the same situation would have done the same thing (they would); it’s now whether there’s a way to define “blame” so that it doesn’t matter that anyone else in the same situation would have done the same thing.

(H/T Nathan Burney, via Twitter.)


2 responses to “Puppets Without Puppeteers”

  1. What’s missing here is the common sense understanding that being a person equals being a moral agent.

    Let’s assume for the sake of argument that a good scientific case can be made that abused people are more likely than other people to commit assaults. That information shouldn’t be thrown away; there are valid ways in which it can be used to try to prevent assaults or to protect against them when they happen.

    But the time to apply that reasoning is before an individual commits the crime. It has no place at trial or sentencing. The bottom line is that either you understand and are responsible for what you do, or you are incapable and therefore not morally human.

    Either way, the bad guy (once we prove it’s he) must lose so that the rest of us can be safe.

    • That’s because the common sense understanding is often—and in this instance probably—not correct.

      We humans have long thought that we have free will only because a) it appears to each of us that he has free will; and b) others relate the same experience. (Also because the belief helps us solve some tricky problems, such as why retribution feels so damn good.)

      But our brains play tricks on themselves.

      Corn flakes or Wheaties? It appears to you that you can freely choose. You can even play games with yourself, pretending to choose and then changing your mind—”I’m going to have Wheaties—no, corn flakes—no, Wheaties! Ha!”

      Come breakfast time you’re going to eat one or the other (or neither, or both) and recognize it (or like it) or not, that action was predetermined. You eat what you “choose” to eat, you “choose” to eat what you prefer to eat, but you don’t get to choose what you prefer.

      We do what we “choose” to do, we “choose” to do what we prefer to do, but we don’t choose what we prefer. Our preferences were set for us at the moment of the big bang.

      “The bad guy must lose so that the rest of us can be safe” is fine, but it has nothing to do with morality. It’s a rule that applies as well to the broken machine as it would to the (hypothetical) freewilled bad guy.

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