Sunday, August 9, 2015

Segregation and Responsibility

In the New York Times today a very interesting article and commentary.  I found myself largely in agreement with the thrust of the commentary: that the article places the function of its subjects' struggles in racial discrimination, when it is much more a matter of personal "choices".

Again, we see the conflict of narratives: poor minorities are helpless victims of discrimination vs. poor minorities are not making the choices that would bring them out of poverty.

Our political discourse is mired in the intransigent byproducts of this binary: one side is callous and, the other side is unwilling to deal with the truth.

To my mind, both are true.  But the key goes back to the problematic word "choice".  What does it mean?  Most people have only the vaguest notion that they are in control of their lives; an odd "sense" that they are autonomous creatures that "do what they want to do".

However, decades of experimental science tells us otherwise.  Our sense of "choice" is merely a form of labeling events and activities within ourselves and in the outer environment.  Things happen, and we label them; we "understand" them as things that have happened.  We can also label things that will happen in the future.  But in both cases, we are never doing more than describing - first to ourselves, then to others, behaviors that are beyond our control.  That is, they are subject to our history of having been reinforced for engaging in similar behaviors.  We are either following a rule of what the consequences are likely to be based on logical relationships, or on the actual contingencies involved (i.e. I've tried new foods before and they were gross so I'm not going to try them now, or that knife is sharp and I know I'll cut myself on it).

The greatest evidence of this is what is often called the "subconscious" - the behaviors we engage in without being aware of them - without labeling them.  So being "conscious" is merely being able to label one's behavior.  Most of our daily behaviors are in fact unconscious.

So why be conscious at all?  Because the behavior of labeling behaviors is itself subject to a history of reinforcement.  One can "become more aware" by receiving greater levels of reinforcement for specific labeling behaviors.  This isn't easy.  It has been said that we are awash in a "sea of reinforcement"; at each moment our mind is subject to an incalculable amount of past histories of interaction between our environment and our genetic make-up that controls our every thought and behavior.  This is the function of action.  This is the function of "choice".

So when we talk about poor minorities making problematic "choices", what are we really talking about?  History.  That history is filled with everything you might imagine.  In the article and comments, it is pointed out that a 25 year old woman is unmarried and has 3 children, and is not cleaning the mold off of her baseboard.  Why?  Sure she has "chosen" these behaviors.  Yet did "she" really "choose" them.  In the same sense, does a middle class 25 year old woman "choose" to postpone children, marriage and go to college?  But did she "choose" them?

In both cases, the behaviors were a function of the sea of reinforcement contingencies in both women's lives.  Neither woman is "free".  No one is "free".  No one is "responsible".  "Blame" does not exist.  No more so than clouds are to "blame" for rain, instead of climate.  No more so than a falling tree for a crushed house, instead of a windstorm.  There is no freedom, only causes and effects.

So, the real question is: how do we as a society design our systems so that each of us gets what we want? If there is no freedom, how is this even possible?  Just as evolution occurs in nature by natural selection, our culture evolves by selection.  We will do what is most reinforcing.  MLK talked about "the moral arc of the universe" bending towards justice.  I'm not sure if that is true or not.  But humans will select ideas, and some ideas will provide access to reinforcement, and so on.  Just as the shark millions of years ago evolved into a phenotype so perfectly adapted to its environment no offspring could evolve into anything much better, maybe human culture will finally select ("bend") towards a set of behaviors that in totum result in no more perfect system of thought being more capable of delivering what we want: safety, comfort, love, opportunity to explore our world and be fascinated.

I don't know how to deliver more opportunities for reinforcement to poor minorities.  I have ideas.  But many are merely hunches.  I do know however, that any ideas need to take into account the fundamental laws of human behavior if they are to be successful.  We do some of this already without even knowing it.  But mostly we don't, especially when we use the language of "choice", "blame", "responsibility" and "freedom".  These are backwards, antiquated notions inherited from ignorance, and in the end are responsible for vast levels of human suffering.  The sooner we dispense with them the better.


  1. Welcome back!! Will you be writing every week now?

  2. Thank you! Probably not. I ended up changing careers ( now working in Applied Behavioral Analysis) and have been very busy with that. Plus, I realized the slings and arrows of internet politics was having negative effects on my mental health! But the world of ABA, rooted in a radical behaviorist perspective is incredibly deep and fascinating. So hopefully I'll have more to say as I become more confident in my ability to apply it to issues I've always been interested in. With blog posts subsequent.