Monday, March 7, 2011
Morality and Determinism
I think we should start any discussion of free will with an agreement upon terms..
Let me say that "making choices" can mean different things:
A)I think about different options, and choose one
B)I was not determined/caused to choose a particular option over another
I think some will agree with both, while I will agree with the former but deny the latter. I'll add that I think we can be completely oblivious to the extent to which we are being caused to act; we simply see our options and then pick the one that seems best. Neither can we know what it would have been like to either not have some piece of knowledge, or to have some extra piece of knowledge. (I find it fascinating that this presents a profound cognitive deficiency in our ability to imagine the thought processes or "mentality" of others. At best, we can use our knowledge of others to predict what they might be thinking. But we cannot actually experience their deficit or gain.)
Let me also say that "determined" can mean different things:
A) A choice was made in response to a specific genetic or environmental condition
B) Unconscious processes in the brain have responded to a genetic (internal) or environmental (external) condition, or have been created within a feedback loop of the two, and by their interaction are now making a choice that the mind is at most partially conscious of.
Some may agree with the former, but not the latter, while I agree with both.
Anyway, so I think we are perfectly capable of making moral decisions. I just find this in the same category as to where we'd like to go for lunch, or TV program to watch, in the sense that we are presented with a cognitive challenge, and compulsions to one or another choice. The extent of these compulsions is anyone's guess. Much of it will be skill-based, in the sense that specific, coherent models are being applied. For instance, when deciding when to cross the street, knowledge of traffic patterns would be handy. This would be a very discreet memory. But skills could also be more broadly thought of as encompassing such things as impulse control, so that the desire to get across the street takes a backseat to traffic memories.
Ultimately, one's skill set could really encompass the entire gamut of human capital one possesses: that which allows one agency to interact in the environment. This would be everything from walking to talking, to holding one's bladder, to synthesizing and making hierarchies of informational importance, to applying previously learned skills to new concepts, to formulating workable hypotheses and testing them, to reading, writing, recalling, etc.
I think when you draw this dynamic and fluid development process out over lifespans, over cultures and genders, you get humanity in all its complexity. Yet it deceptively provides cover for what is at root an entirely deterministic process.
I continue to be fascinated by the many liberals I meet who seem appalled at the notion that free will does not exist. They'll rightly point to attacks from the right that decry liberalism as rooted in a cold, authoritarian fascism in which people are automatons better served by government mandate. I might go so far as to say that most liberals believe in free will... consciously! But I think the liberal impulse towards rehabilitation, towards relativism, towards compassion and selflessness is unconsciously rooted in an intuition of determinism. I think the slander is indeed accurate, but not just of deterministic liberals like me, but of liberalism (well, and of reality, but I won't push it!).
Liberals want to rehabilitate because they recognize that people who have done wrong were made that way - either by genes or society. They embrace a relativism (not in the "moral relativist" sense, which I've yet to meet anyone who identifies with), but in the sense of culture, morality, ethics, etc. being rooted in human desires, as created (determined) by humans, and not handed down by God - or, at least in the sense that even if there exist such absolutes, we as humans are fallible (determined) and must be open to new thoughts, new ideas and new ways of looking at the world. Liberals are compassionate because they, by way of their determinist intuition, are more willing to do the sort of emotional and cognitive geometry required to to try and understand what might be going on "in the mind of their enemy", and because of this are able to find more forgiveness, which in turn allows them to more better empathize.
I think here we can raise the subject of the "femininity of liberalism", in that as a philosophy it in many ways mimics the nurturing response of mothers toward their children. This would be set against the "masculinity of conservatism", in that it is built around the opposite, "tough love" response, where instead of rehabilitation, relativism and compassion, there is retribution, dogmatism, and emotional distance.
Continuing this exploration a bit further, I think it important to add that both tendencies have their strengths and weaknesses. Babies do need to be punished, rules need to be laid down, and distance can be important. I think anyone familiar with traditional family dynamics will agree that these two poles are important counter-weights to a child's development. I think it fair to say that this is true at the social level. To the degree that the reality of determinism leads one to overly rationalize and make excuses for others, it is more difficult to be "tough" and strict - against our nurturing natures.
It is surely more a complicated form, but the general rules of behavioralism apply to the idea that while we can learn to choose, we are determined. (Here I think an acute critique of my Skinnerian tendencies would be in order. But I won't do my interlocutor's work for them! j/k - I shrug it off as a category error, although there are are some root similarities). Just that, as with a child, learning mechanism are learning mechanisms, whether coming from Jesus, Mom, or the ballot box.
And so, how is there no ethics, morality or justice? I think the implications for justice are quite fascinating. Actually, if determinism is correct, than our current course is entirely immoral and unjust! I work with young men everyday who will no doubt wind up in prison. And don't tell me they have a choice! Why is it that certain environmental conditions just happen to create criminals? Of course they don't just happen to. There is a very clear chain of causality. Or, more of a mobius strip. Teen males get teen girls pregnant, the kids get raised screwed up, then make more babies, repeat.
Of course there is hope - we know how to give them choice! We pay people like me to work with them in small groups and help get them back on track, help the mommies graduate, etc. Then they can "choose" to succeed! (And go to college and become teachers so that they can help more young kids who will end up on internet forums like this one debate who caused it all). Of course, when you give people choice, you imply that they didn't already have it. And you imply that those that do, were given it. So it came from somewhere. It certainly didn't come from them.