Sunday, May 11, 2008

The Collective Rationality of Responsibility

Everett Young writes:

A thought occurred to me regarding the ongoing discussions of morality and ethics and the lack of free will. There's actually a very neat point that is hidden in your take on "holding people responsible" which I don't think is explicitly made, but could be made explicit. I'm borrowing here from some of the basics of political economy and game theory.

It is certainly the case that by holding people responsible, their behavior is caused to be more pro-social. But there are two points I'd like to add here.

The first is that I not only want to hold others responsible for their actions, but it's actually advantageous to me to be held responsible for my own actions! Why is this? It's not because I want to harm others wantonly--evolution has mostly made it so that most animals don't want to do that to conspecifics, even without the benefits of conscious, deliberative thought. No, actually, the reason I want to be held responsible for my actions is that if I'm not, then in a competitive world, others may be forced to defensively assume that, not being held responsible, I will outcompete them. They are then forced to "defect" in game-theoretical terms, or behave anti-socially toward me. I, in turn, knowing that they know that I'm not held responsible for my actions, know that they will anticipate this and will try to outcompete me, so when I'm not held responsible, I'm not just "free" to behave anti-socially, I'm forced to. Indeed, since everyone knows that everyone else is not held responsible for their actions, even the presence of a few anti-social people forces everyone in the population to behave anti-socially, producing a Hobbesian state. Ultimately, then, the absence of laws holding me responsible could, in many if not most populations (in particular, populations that are seeded with even a tiny number of defectors), cause me to behave anti-socially. This would be rational behavior as well as fully caused, at the macro level (i.e., I'm not talking about the neuronal level).

The second point is that being held responsible not only benefits beings with no free will, it also benefits beings that aren't even conscious, entities that could not possibly experience any "want."

There is an example I can think of, of a non-conscious entity which is designed for a certain purpose, and so it's clear what is "good" and what is "not good" for this entity. I'm speaking of a corporation. A corporation has no thoughts or feelings, certainly no free will of its own. But it does have a purpose: to make money for its investors. Now, a corporation is subject to the same causes and forces as an individual in a political economy sense. A good example would be a logging company. A logging company does not benefit from clear-cutting the forest. That might lead to short-term profit, but it also leads directly to the death of the corporation, because there are no more trees.

However, the existence of a population of several logging companies logging the same forest leads almost certainly to the companies racing to clear-cut the forest as fast as possible, because each company "knows" that if it does not cut as many trees as possible, the competition will. How do they know the competition will? Because they know that the competition knows this same thing about them. Everyone knows that everyone knows that everyone knows, so every corporation must race to clear-cut the forest as fast as possible. This requires no free will and no consciousness. A non-conscious computer could run the corporation based on purely logical, rational principles, and would come up with the same strategy without a need for "evil" uncaused intent. There is only one solution, of course, to this tragedy of the commons: every corporation must be held responsible for over-cutting the forest--including disincentives, such as financial penalties. The corporations can only fulfill their chartered purpose if they are held responsible. This, without their even being conscious beings, let alone entertaining illusions of being free.

I think this conclusively illustrates that "holding responsible" members of a society, whether those members are conscious or not, is not only good, but necessary for the common good. And rational organisms, even non-conscious ones, would not only elect to have "others" held responsible, but themselves too, because if they themselves are not held responsible, others will be caused to defy the law and defect, lest they be outcompeted. That is, if you and I are in competition, holding you responsible for what you do doesn't help me unless you know that I am also held responsible for what I do.

Laws then are a rational solution to a collective action problem, not a moral concoction invented by beings who need to stop each other from making too much use of their freedom.


About the contributor: Everett Young is a political science instructor and Ph.D. candidate specializing in political psychology at Stony Brook University. His research currently focuses on individual differences in cognitive process variables that may produce opinion formation along the left- right ideological dimension.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post... I used a quote from it for Earth's Tree News... I like the concept of your website... If you have any writings on tree and forest issues please share it with me!

Be well, Deane

May 12, 2008, 7:33:00 PM  
Blogger Elentar said...

Very nice argument! It relates to something I've been thinking about a problem with big L libertarianism; constraints on unethical behavior actually increase freedom by allowing those involved in business to make an ethical decision and justify it by reference to the penalties of violating those constraints. This might very well be the decision that the person wanted to make, but which would not have been available as a viable choice given the zero sum game of business competition. Of course, the choice still remains to break the law and hope to not get caught--but at least it is now a choice, not a necessity.

May 25, 2008, 4:49:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think this is brilliant, very smart.
Thanks a lot.

Jul 6, 2010, 2:11:00 PM  

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