Thursday, September 09, 2010

you are the owner of your actions

In an online discussion about free will and determinism, someone wrote he didn't much care about whether people are to blame for their actions, because "I'm not much of a blamer, myself."

He also wrote "You are the 'owner,' of your actions, even if they are predetermined. (Even if you were determined to do them, you still did them. No one else did.) So why aren't you the moral owner as well?"

My reply:

I am curious about a couple of things you wrote:

1. "I'm not much of a blamer myself."

I understand the sentiment. I'm don't consider myself a judgmental person. I certainly don't walk around thinking (or saying) "he's a bad person ... that's all her fault ..." constantly. And I have surrounded myself, for many years, with friends who are generally kind, loving people, so it's not like I have tons of opportunities or reasons to blame.

But that's just luck. If I saw someone stab a child, I would have no problem blaming him. Isn't that true for you? Or are you really saying, "If I saw someone stab a child or push his brother off a bridge, I wouldn't blame him. I'd have neutral feelings about his actions"?

Unless that's the way you feel, I'd say you -- like me -- are just lucky that you haven't run into many extreme situations lately. You and I also avoid having to think about such things, because we aren't employed as cops, judges or lawmakers.

2. "You are the 'owner,' of your actions, even if they are predetermined. (Even if you were determined to do them, you still did them. No one else did.) So why aren't you the moral owner as well?"

Let's imagine some form of free will exists in the world, at least for the following thought experiment. Now, imaging these two guys, Bill and Mike:

Bill sees some money on his friend's coffee table -- a big stack of bills. His friend is in the bathroom. He is tempted to pull a $20 bill out of the stack and pocket it. His friend won't realize it's missing for a long time, and by the time he notices, he won't be able to link the theft to Bill. Bill knows it's wrong to steal, but he really wants the money. He considers the wrongness of it vs. his desire. In the end, he thinks, "Why not? I haven't done anything selfish in a while. And it IS my birthday next week!" And so he chooses to take the money.

Mike is in the same situation as Bill. He sees a pile of bills on his friend's coffee table, and his friend is in the bathroom. He is tempted to steal a $20. He is unable to feel that doing so is wrong, because when he was a baby, he had a small brain tumor, and it destroyed the part of his brain that halts such impulses. Without even thinking about it -- or being able to think about it -- he reaches out, grabs a $20 and pockets it. He doesn't even remember doing it afterwards, because it's such a reflex action. Later, he finds an extra $20 in his pocket, but he doesn't remember where it came from.

Now, imagine Jane. She somehow knows what the two guys have done. She says to the same thing to both of them: "You fucking thief! You stole from your friend! Your FRIEND! That's a horrible thing to do to anyone, but it's worse to do it to someone who trusts you. You should be ashamed of yourself! You are a bad, bad person!"

Now, do you have any sense, as I do, that Jane was somehow unfair to Mike -- moreso than she was to Bill (if she was unfair to him at all)? I really want to say to her, "I understand why you're angry, but he couldn't help taking the money..."

It's not that I feel Mike should just get a free pass. There may be murderers who can't help murdering, and that sucks for them, but we still need to lock them up -- just to protect the rest of us. But I don't feel like they're on par with someone who cold-bloodedly chooses to kill his child. I at least feel some sympathy for the guy who can't help killing -- but none for the guy who CAN help it but chooses to kill anyway.

This is where things get complicated if free will doesn't exist. In a universe without free will, there really isn't much difference between Bill and Mike. Though it seems like Bill had a choice, he didn't. He is just as trapped as Mike, even though he didn't have a brain tumor. He is just trapped by some other internal phenomenon. There is no possible way he could have not stolen in that moment, just as there's no possible way Mike could not have stolen. If I really come to grips with that, it seems just as unfair to chastise Bill as it does Mike.

Hopefully, we don't blame people for being gay or black. That's beyond their control. Why do we blame people for choices? Because we (a) tend to believe in a mind-body separation (we don't think of the mind as physical, like skin color) and (b) we think that choices ARE under people's control. But if free will is an illusion, they're not.

Now, this whole conundrum is odd in a way, because it assumes that the blamer (e.g. Jane or us) HAS free will. Most discussions of free will and ethics make this mistake. And many people have a really hard time even seeing the mistake or realizing they're making it.

When I ask someone "If free will doesn't exist, do you think it's okay to blame people?" I suspect he models my question this way:

Imagine that we have free will, but we discover an alternate universe where the inhabitants are fully determined. We have a magical telescope that allows us to view that universe, though we can't touch it or talk to it. We can just watch.

In that universe, we see "clockwork" citizen Bleep killing "clockwork" citizen Bloop. Should we blame Bleep for killing Bloop, even though we can clearly see that he was manipulated to do so by the "cogs and gears" of his universe and that he couldn't possibly have chosen otherwise?

[b]Should we CHOOSE to blame Bloop?[/b] Should we exercise our free will by choosing to blame him? Should Jane have chosen to blame Bill and Mike? Should we choose to blame thieves and murderers? All these questions assume we have free will, and that the free-will/determinism debate is about OTHER people -- not us. (We don't ask "Should rain fall?" because we know it has no choice BUT to fall.)

Even when it's about me, I tend to split myself into two people. "Since there's no free will, is it really my fault that I stole that money?" What I really mean is, "Since there's no free will, should I really CHOOSE to blame myself for stealing?" Which we can simplify to "Since there's no free will, should I make a choice?" Which is absurd. It's a contradiction. If there's no free will, then I won't make a choice. Or at least I won't FREELY make a choice.

If there's no free will, it's silly to ask if we should or should not blame criminals -- or if we should or should not punish them. (Again, that implicitly posits a universe in which criminals don't have free will but we do.) If there's no free will, we will or we won't blame or punish criminals depending on whatever we're determined to do.

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