Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Determinism and Social Justice

Julian Sanchez had a great post on free will on his on his blog last year, in which he generally argues from a compatibilist perspective, while making the point that referring to free will as an "illusion" misses the point:
But to call these things an “illusion of free will” just seems like a mistake.  It is as if someone had told me for the first time about subatomic theory, and I mused that I nevertheless have this illusion of a solid desk chair, when after all, it is really these clouds of quarks and whatnot. And this would be silly: The parameters of “solid” and “desk chair” are given by ordinary life, and within those bounds the chair is exactly as solid as it ever was.
I think this is right.  How could an illusion be an illusion?  But I think we generally have a realistic believe that something like free will exists, and then make decisions as if it does, which we would not have made otherwise.  This is not the case with the "illusion" of solid objects.  Whether or not I understand the molecular forces at wok in my apple has no bearing on whether or not I eat it.  Although I am reminded of the story of the woman who, upon witnessing for the first time the bacteria inhabiting her mouth via an early microscope, promptly had her teeth removed.

What seems important to me to emphasize is the disconnect from how we approach retribution emotionally, and how we should instead understand it from a utilitarian perspective.

I think the problem is in degrees.  An angry man outside an execution calling for blood highlights the broad spectrum of human emotional response to "justice".  Should the convict be killed (or possibly tortured - you could argue our current prison system is quite tortuous), or should he be locked away, yet with compassion?  Or in the case of positive behaviors, if the goals are ostensibly the same (appealing to him and others), how many riches should the well-behaved, successful man be allowed?

I think these questions go to the core of the schism between modern liberalism & conservatism.  Most conservatives will emphasize the man's role in determining his life, "Who cares how bad his childhood was?!!!"  While liberals will emphasize the role of society, "Look at the demographic disparities in life success!!!"

There is still a basic human desire for justice.  When we stub our toe on a misplaced chair we will still want to kick it.  But was it responsible, or whomever moved it?  Certainly not to the degree that we feel momentarily driven to punish it.  We must chasten our responses in order to find a justice that promotes both social prosperity and fairness.  If most people cannot simply "choose" to be rich and successful, how fair is it to reward those who do, even as a sort of "carrot" for the rest of us to emulate similar - assumedly dignified -  behavior?.  Likewise if most of us cannot simply "choose" to rape, murder, cheat or steal, how fair is it to punish those who do, even as a "stick" for the rest of us to fear.

So as a matter of degree, we can both be responsible for our actions, and ultimately not responsible.  We can live in the micro-, yet structure law and order around the macro-.  We can create prisons that are uncomfortable enough that no one should ever want to be sent to one, but are not torturous hells.  And we can progressively tax individuals who have demonstrated good behaviors so that they enjoy a comfortable enough lifestyle that should entice us all to be our best, yet not so much that while there are common goods that need to be provided for by a government.

1 comment:

  1. Let me clarify a little. I meant that our direct, everyday experience of deciding things does not involve an "illusion of free will": We put a theoretical GLOSS on that experience that may involve (mistakenly) positing free will, and we may make any number of further problematic inferences from that belief. But the experience itself is not somehow misleading in the same way we can reasonably call an optical illusion misleading.

    Semi-related, I think the link claimed between retributive justice and free will is a bit like the supposed link between morality and God, and the right response is a Euthyphro sort of answer: If you look at it closely, the argument either stands or falls independently of the premise. IOW, if the argument for retributive justice is wrong, then it's wrong with or without free will. Some day I should probably get around to elaborating that.