Thursday, June 15, 2006

Catching up to naturalism

Eventually, it will be a commonplace that most things, including human behavior, can be understood as resulting from a sufficient set of causes, that is, most things are determined. Although people commonsensically invoke causation in all sorts of ways, they generally don't go all the way in admitting they and their actions can be understood as consequences of antecedent conditions that ultimately they didn't have control over. Indeed, understanding things at the macro level above quantum phenomena requires citing causes and being deterministic, there's just no way around it. (Gary Drescher in his new book Good and Real says determinism goes right down into the quantum level.)

The New York Times published an article today by Amy Harmon, That Wild Streak? Maybe It Runs in the Family, which gets well into one half of the causal story behind human behavior - genetics (lots of links to actual studies in the online version). What's striking is the extent to which she covers the implications of genetic causation for our notions of praise and blame, stigma, responsibility, control, willpower and excuses. She cites many instances in which individuals feel relief that what might otherwise be considered a self-chosen character flaw, or failure to exert willpower, is now properly seen as at least partially a matter of genetic vulnerability, for instance to obesity, addiction, risk-taking and attention deficit disorder. Of course, others are upset that telling the genetic side of the story of their good behavior robs them of credit. Bottom line: the realm of responsibility for which the agent takes credit and blame shrinks as we learn of the genetic contribution to their vices and virtues. As Harmon suggests, the "power of the human spirit" (that is, willpower) is under siege.

But of course genetics is only half the story. The other 50% (more or less, depending on what traits or behavior we're talking about) is environmental, and as BF Skinner demonstrated years ago, the environment is just as determining, just as causal, as genetics. Harmon could do the same story over again, but simply look at the environmental contributions to the same behaviors: the role of food advertising and availability in obesity, the effect of peer groups in promoting or reducing criminality, the rise of video games in lowering the threshold for real violence, the marketing of extreme sports in encouraging risk-taking, etc., etc.

Once we get both the genetic and environmental stories told, what's happened to the person who takes credit and blame? The person is still there, of course, but now she's pretty much explained (never fully of course, given the practical gaps in our understanding). Explanations reveal the self-caused, bootstrapping, radically individualist self for the Western myth that it is, which leads to a more compassionate and effective stance in dealing with human faults and frailties, and less uncritical awe of the successful. The winners in the game of life we understand as ultimately just lucky in their endowments, genetic and environmental.

Even though explanations explain where people's virtues come from, what they don't do is "trivialize their skills and accomplishments" as Harmon suggests they might near the end of her piece. Getting good at something like ballet still requires hard work and effort, for which we can justly praise someone: we mightily appreciate such skill, after all, and we want to encourage it. But exerting effort doesn't involve anything magical that transcends causality. The desire to work hard comes from some place after all, for instance genetically acquired gumption or luckily encountered role models, not out of the blue or from self-chosen willpower.

So, once Harmon writes the story about environmental determinism, and draws the implications of causal explanations for our notions of self, free will, credit and blame, the Times will be fully caught up to naturalism, and it will seem dead obvious. Then there's the rest of the country, but all in due course...

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Unmasking retribution

Michael Shermer's 6/1/06 E-Skeptic published a review by Kenneth Krause of Laurence R. Tancredi’s book, Hardwired Behavior: What Neuroscience Reveals About Morality (Cambridge University Press, 2005. ISBN 0521860016). Below are some comments on a passage from the review and a related New York Times article on insanity and the death penalty:

“This would suggest,” Tancredi argues, “that murderers are strongly affected by prefrontal deficits even without the ‘social push’ from environment” (153). The author stops short, however, of professing that criminals are never morally responsible for their actions. Rather, he writes, “those who have full control are likely to represent a very small percentage of those we now label as bad,” and “the relationship between ‘mad’ and ‘bad’ is growing ever closer” (143, 160).

Thus, Tancredi alleges, the M’Naughten standard and other modern legal insanity tests are deficient, at least insofar as they consider only a defendant’s ability to distinguish or appreciate the difference between society’s definitions of right and wrong but not a defendant’s ability to control his or her behavior, or, in other words, to exercise free will. The same reasoning should apply, the author reasons, when individuals judge other individuals’ “badness.”
This is interesting since it demarcates two classes of murderers: those who have full control capacities and thus are morally responsible (a small minority, according to Tancredi), and those who don’t (the majority). If so, then we’re punishing lots of people who aren’t morally responsible, instead of treating them or at least keeping them safely and humanely segregated from society.

This fits with a recent New York Times article, “Judging whether a killer is sane enough to die” which shows that people are far more interested in exacting punishment, even of the demonstrably insane, than in providing treatment or humane segregation. Why, one wonders? The Mr. Panetti mentioned below is a convicted killer facing execution who has a long history of mental illness:

Robert Blecker, a law professor at the New York Law School and a cautious supporter of the death penalty, said Mr. Panetti's execution could serve the goal of retribution. "He knows what he did," Professor Blecker said. "He knows what the state is about to do to him, and why. For the retributivist, the past counts. It counts for us, and for us to be retributively satisfied, it must also count for him."
We see here the stark disconnect between achieving backwards-looking retributive satisfaction (“the past counts”) and any forward-looking social good that might be served by killing Panetti. All that’s necessary to justify retribution, says Blecker, is the offender’s bare understanding that what he did was wrong, however impaired he might be in his ability to control behavior. Because the goal of punishment here is retribution, not reform, rehabilitation, public safety or deterrence, the person’s mental health (beyond possessing a rudimentary moral sense) is not a consideration. This shows just how much the demand for retribution has, over the last 30 years or so, come to trump the functional role of punishment in facilitating rehabilitation and public safety. Even if Mr. Panetti had full control capacities and thus on Tancredi’s compatibilist account had free will and was morally responsible, we could ask the question: why is it morally better to kill him as opposed to humanely segregating him? Why does he just deserve to die? The answer isn’t at all obvious, as explored at

What’s ironic is that our retaliatory, punitive impulses were originally functional (deterring aggressors, keeping free riders in check, etc.) but now, thanks to Kant and other deontologists, they’ve been given a justification that floats free of any consequentialist rationale: we’re obligated to inflict suffering or (in this case) death, whether or not any benefit results; it’s our duty if the offender has the capacity to know right from wrong. It’s the past that counts, not the future. But as neurophilosopher and psychologist Joshua Greene points out, what’s really going on is that the hard-wired emotional disposition to retaliate bequeathed us by evolution has been enshrined as an abstract deontological moral principle. This allows its expression even in cases where no enlightened social good is achieved, but only the emotional satisfaction of inflicting suffering or death, dressed up as retributive justice. Seeing this, we can pose the question of whether retribution should really have such a claim on us. When retributive justice is unmasked for what it is, do we any longer want to be part of it? Here’s an example of how a naturalistic understanding of ethics and our moral intuitions might have far-reaching policy implications for criminal justice.