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Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Why Determinism Doesn't Get Us Off The Hook

This post is about comparing the two seemingly contradictory concepts of determinism and moral responsibility. On one hand, if everything is determined by causality and physics, and this includes our brain activity, memories, thoughts, choices, and actions, then how can we be responsible for what we do?[1] On the other hand, it sure seems like we should be held responsible for what we do. If we weren't, couldn't we use that as an excuse to be even worse than we might be otherwise? Wouldn't all of ethics and morality fall away as being some sort of sham?

I believe these issues clear up considerably when we have clear definitions of things like: 'morality', 'responsibility', 'will', 'free', and so on. In my view, what is happening here when we perceive a conflict between these two concepts is that we are assigning meanings to one or the other which are inappropriate.

First, start with the premise that it's all "atoms and the void", interacting in a causal nexus according to the laws of physics. What will happen will happen.

Next, imagine there are various subsets of these atomic structures with various sorts of behaviors that emerge out of these complex interactions. We, as thinking beings, assign various names to clumps of these atoms, to various forms we find repeated throughout nature, and to various sorts of activities within and between these clumps.

One of the clumps of atoms we see repeated is what we've called 'human beings'[2]. We've also observed that these 'human beings' have various sorts of common behaviors. Among them is the tendency to coordinate on opinions regarding the acceptability or unacceptability of other behaviors - mostly those that deal with how they interact with one another. These notions tend to shift over time in the culture in response to environmental factors, conditions, and human nature. They are generally 'enforced' through social pressures, ranging from social discomfort to the use of force, depending on how important the behavioral rule is generally held to be. This is human morality[3]. Forming these social norms is a tendency toward which all humans seem to have an instinctive, inborn natural inclination. This is evidenced by the fact that all human cultures have formed these social norms, even if the specifics of those norms vary. It seems quite obvious the reason Homo Sapiens evolved this tendency is related to the fact that humans are social animals and there is some survival benefit to coordinated cooperation and society-building in general. Our numbers seem to indicate that it is a particularly potent survival trait at that[4].

So, when we talk about morality, we should remember that we are talking about a human-level phenomenon, with human-level functions and roles. Certain concepts simply don't apply on certain scales. For example, one cannot meaningfully discuss 'air pressure' with respect to one atom of oxygen because the concept of pressure is inherently about the relationship between several molecules.

We need to ask ourselves why it is important for human beings to be held accountable for their actions? Why is it important for them to feel pity, remorse, shame? Why is it important for us to shun those who do wrong?

If we understand the survival benefits of morality, and we further understand the benefits to ourselves as individuals, then we can see that ethics is important, morality is important - not only despite its inherently human origins and function - but specifically because of that. Since ethics is important, its maintenance is as well. This means teaching it to children, encouraging it in peers, developing it in ourselves, and applying those social and legal pressures to those who do not comply (including punishments).

But what of our notion that a person shouldn't be responsible for something if they 'couldn't help it'? Let's look at the sentence: "Tom isn't responsible for his actions because of determinism." What we have to remember is what exactly we mean by "Tom" in that sentence. "Tom" is the name we have given a certain clump of atoms. When we look deeper at what we mean by the word, that clump doesn't necessarily refer to the clump of atoms that is Tom's body. Rather, we're talking about a 'person'. In other words, we're talking about the pattern of interaction and data that is maintained through the ongoing activity of atoms making up regions of a brain. 'Tom' is a pattern of information that interacts within itself as a complex system. The ability of that system to make selections between data and initiate actions is Tom's "will". Tom's will has a 'normal function' to it and when it is functioning properly and unhindered we can define this as being 'free' - free of obstruction or intrusion from unusual phenomena not typical to its normal operation. Tom therefore has a 'free will'. Thus, in talking about 'free will' much is cleared up by precisely defining what we mean by 'will' and what it means for a will to be 'free'. These are pragmatic and practical means of defining these characteristics in a way that is meaningful and useful.

In a deterministic universe, a person will operate causally, according to its natural function in interaction with its environment. Therefore, if ethics is important to humanity and beneficial to individual human beings, we must attempt to build an environment in which that person will adapt to be more likely to operate in the manner needed. We have found this is accomplished through social pressures such as shunning, blame, praise, and in more extreme cases punishment, confinement, etc. There are more artful ways of accomplishing this than through brute force, which often include more creative 'carrots' than 'sticks', but the bottom line is the same - human beings must be held accountable for their actions, precisely because we live in a deterministic universe. Meanwhile, to the contrary, it remains somewhat of a mystery as to why we should punish people if they are so free from causality that our punishments will have no causal effect on their future actions.

When we choose whether or not to hold a human being accountable for a moral misbehavior, we should look at whether or not the will was operating freely in the manner described above. The reason for this is that it is the will which that accountability is designed to mold. Guilt, pride, contentment, peace, unhappiness, shame, are all experiences which shape the will such that it will more often make certain choices and avoid others.

However, if we determine that a moral outrage took place because of some unusual interference with the will, such as a mental illness or brain damage, this is another matter. Similarly, if we find that the action took place due to accident beyond control of the will, it is also another matter. In both of these cases, there is no functional purpose to holding the person morally accountable because (1) the event was not an indication of the nature of the person's will we seek to mold, but rather some other phenomena effecting it, and (2) accountability is not capable of molding the external forces that were acting on the person's will, nor is accountability capable of molding anything having to do with incidental accidents which could happen at any time. Thus, accountability should only apply to cases of a freely operating will. Only there can it have the molding effect it is designed to.

Meanwhile, to apply such accountability (and the discomfort or displeasure that often accompanies it) in a case where the will was not free, would be giving those negative experiences to a will that was already properly formed or did not have the defects the accountability is seeking to dissolve. In such a case, the accountability may have an adverse affect, molding the will in unpredictable or undesired fashion such that inappropriate behavior is actually increased. In addition, it is a violation of a social contract with which we have agreed that we will not do to others what we would not want done to us (namely, applying negative experiences when we have done nothing negative ourselves). Should that contract be weakened, we all experience less enjoyable events on average. Therefore violations of it should be avoided where possible.

As you can see, moral responsibility and free will are phenomena like 'air pressure' which only make sense on a certain scale (a human scale). Meanwhile, determinism is a much more fundamental property. In this regard, it is simultaneously possible (even mutually necessary) for determinism to be true, the will to be free, and people to be morally responsible - so long as we define these concepts precisely and pragmatically. At least, that's my take.

For a nice essay on how the Stoics reconciled moral responsibility and determinism, see Dr. Keith Seddon's article: Do the Stoics succeed in showing how people can be morally responsible for some of their actions within the framework of causal determinism? [LINK HERE].


Notes:

[1] In dealing with this conundrum, I'm going to go ahead and assume that determinism is true - that we do indeed live in a completely mechanistic and causally determined universe. I'm also going to ignore quantum mechanical considerations on the basis that, even if randomness plays a role at the most fundamental levels of the universe, it averages out on larger scales that even brain activity statistically behaves as though it were more or less determined. Some say there might be exceptions whereby quantum fluctuations in portions of the brain might create a chain reaction leading up to the larger scale in our neural networks, thereby possibly resulting in different thoughts and actions. However, I'm going to discount this as well for these purposes, since randomness presents the very same conundrums where moral responsibility is concerned, in that it is still a phenomenon which may result in our choices and actions which is something other than a completely sovereign 'will'.

[2] The fact that we are the human beings is incidental to the fact that we can still observe ourselves objectively from an 'outside perspective' as we would any other phenomenon.

[3] For a more complete explanation, please see: Natural-Objective Ethics on my philosophy site.

[4] That is, if it doesn't turn out that our intellects, growth rate, or other traits result in overpopulation and stripping of the planet's resources, or possibly devastating warfare, destroying ourselves in the process. The answers to these questions remain to be seen.

9 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

That's a good summary of something I've always believed about determinism and free-will. I wonder why so many people arrive at the conclusion that morality and determinism are mutually exclusive? I've tried to explain my POV, unsuccessfully so far.

Some try to point to quantum indeterminacy as letting them off the hook as far as resolving the conflict goes, but to me it's a bit of a dodge to ascribe the validity of human level phenomena as hinging on something that takes place at the level of electrons and subatomic particles.

After all, until the late 20th century, we had no reason to believe anything was indeterminant in the realm of physics, and it just propogated upwards from there. Yet morality was far from irrelevant. I don't know how how much moral (or logical) denial is still caused by this percieved conflict.

5:01 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

One of my pet one-liners in this case is "So you have dice in your head, that's what makes you morally responsible?"

After all, indeterminacy <--> randomness, to some degree in whatever function is indeterminant.

6:02 AM  
Blogger DT Strain said...

Thanks to you both for the comments. In my notes [#1] on that post, I address quantum mechanical concerns (or state why I don't address them at least), which are in agreement with what you both have said - good points :)

10:53 AM  
Blogger Ken B. said...

I know you're somewhat familiar with Tom Clark's views on this. He's not arguing against moral accountability, only against that accountability which is based on the false belief (given determinism) that one could have done otherwise. Retribution loses it's justification under determinism. Deterrence, behavior modification, public safety, rehabilitation are other justifications for punishment which remain.

Determinism changes our subjective view of each other. Anger and hatred are affected when one recognizes the fact that we are always doing the best we can. Levels of punishment are somewhat subjective, based on how outraged we are by a crime and an offender, not simply how harmful it was. Our subjective rating of harmful behavior is affected by our worldview. Morality is unaffected by belief in determinism, but the correct response to criminal behavior is affected (not eliminated).

So I think you're partially right, determinism doesn't get us off all hooks, but it gets us off one hook, which, I'd argue is a bad one, since it's based on the false belief in contra-causal free will.

Ken

2:13 PM  
Blogger DT Strain said...

Hi Ken,

Thanks for reading and for your comments. Well said. I'd agree that retribution doesn't make much sense under the model I've discussed. I have seriously reconsidered many of my previous thoughts on justice in the past few years, due in no small part to these concepts. :)

7:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting post. I have recently written on similar issues of ethics, determinism and the social sciences. I argue that there are many consequentialist theories of ethics that are consistent with hard determinism, and that this should be more recognized in the strongly (metaphysically) libertarian-leaning social sciences. (http://philsci-archive.pitt.edu/archive/00004152/
in case anyone wants more detail).
Clint

9:26 PM  
Blogger DT Strain said...

Thanks Clint - it looks very interesting and I'll take a deeper look asap. However, I can say at the outset I'd have a problem even addressing those who propose "a facile rejection of determinism on moral grounds". The very notion of rejecting a hypothesis as to the objective state of something on 'moral grounds' is nonsensical. Objective states are as they are, and hypotheses about them should be rejected or accepted based on supporting evidence for or against. The consequences to our preferences in morality are incidental to that first stage of seeking truth. We *then* have the scientist hand the data over to the philosopher to find for us a way to live with it (the 2nd stage). Anyone rejecting factual possibilities because of moral preference already has a fundamental logical and epistemological problem more profound than the issue at hand.

Thus, debating the veracity of x by trying to show that 'x isn't immoral after all' in some ways only encourages that corrupt system of thought. Like the problems with that thinking itself, it attempts to support 'stage 1' matters, using argument that belong in 'stage 2'. Nevertheless, since I am a philosopher at heart, and interested in stage 2, it is still intriguing to hear/read argumentation concerning the morality of deterministic models for those reasons :)

5:04 AM  
Blogger BobH said...

I think Free Will (as it's commonly understood)is an Illusion. Arriving at a decision is a bit like arriving at the end of a calculation. The 'will', like everything else that happens, is a function of the conditions. We are not god-like, miniature first causes but are causally interconnected with the rest of the universe. Given all the circumstances that affect you (physical and emotional) you can't make any other decision than the one you will make. But if you want to become a responsible person, (and this is only possible if it lies within your capabilities at this point in your life), your 'wanting to act in a responsible way' will be one of the factors that influences your decisions. You learn from your lessons, and this affects future decisions. So decision making is just part of a process. So we're not really responsible in the way that's commonly understood.
So should people be held accountable for their actions? Absolutely! If nothing else, the effect of the punishment (or reward) will hopefully become a factor that influences their actions in the future.

5:08 AM  
Blogger BobH said...

I think Free Will (as it's commonly understood)is an Illusion. Arriving at a decision is a bit like arriving at the end of a calculation. The 'will', like everything else that happens, is a function of the conditions. We are not god-like, miniature first causes but are causally interconnected with the rest of the universe. Given all the circumstances that affect you (physical and emotional) you can't make any other decision than the one you will make. But if you want to become a responsible person, (and this is only possible if it lies within your capabilities at this point in your life), your 'wanting to act in a responsible way' will be one of the factors that influences your decisions. You learn from your lessons, and this affects future decisions. So decision making is just part of a process. So we're not really responsible in the way that's commonly understood.
So should people be held accountable for their actions? Absolutely! If nothing else, the effect of the punishment (or reward) will hopefully become a factor that influences their actions in the future.

5:09 AM  

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