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.

Do We Lack Character?

Larry More writes:

Dear Tom,

I want to bring to your attention I book that I think you will find useful and interesting. It is entitled Lack of Character by John Doris, 2002. The author is a philosopher of ethics, and main theme of the book is that character (in what we speak of as "moral character") does not exist in the way that we tend to believe, and therefore character ethics is a rather different enterprise than we usually assume, which he goes on to discuss.

Doris thoroughly reviews and discusses the social psychology research which has repeatedly evidenced that there is little empirical justification for our assuming any internal, temporal, or cross-situational consistency to behavior (as is implied, if not required, by our usual notions of moral character).

As a psychologist, I remember well the furor that was created in 1968 when persistent findings of low trait-behavior correlations and negligible cross-situational consistency resulted in suggestions that there was no central personality structure. The urgency around this issue lasted over 10 years, and was never really resolved; the field just passed it by. It seems to me that this response was in some sense the same one that is now arising around naturalism, determinism, retribution, will-power, responsibility, and so on. Doris does no more than touch in passing on the philosophical issue of determinism vs. free will (a page on compatibilism) and talks about supernaturalism not at all. Nevertheless, I am thinking that his emphasis on situational influences on (determinants of) behavior mark this book as naturalistic in orientation.

Although he doesn't seem to realize the importance of this direction, Doris' text actually touches on where we get our assumptions of a powerful single, coherent central self determining our actions. He points to substantial research regarding how children develop their conceptions of persons through their life-span; and even contrasts conceptions developed in other (less individualistic) cultures. Surely our notions of contra-causal free-will, the primacy of person over situation and the focus on individual responsibility raised to the level of metaphysical principle, our readiness to justify reflexive emotional reactions with judgmental cognitive categorizations, and to unwittingly engage in punitive retributive practices, -- etc -- all of these have such a developmental history. It strikes me that this is a sort of Foucauldian genealogical project, but there is a good bit of child-development research that bears on it. Showing how these concepts are embedded in a culturally-local developmental history that we (around here) share in common, does not of course directly challenge the "objective truth" of these points, but it surely would undermine and soften our reflexive attachment to them by offering (like I think Foucault's work did in its field) another direction of understanding.

Anyway, Doris' book is written in a thoughtful and somewhat informal, personable style even though it is fairly heavily annotated and referenced. Although it doesn’t take sides in the freedom-determinism wars, it seems to me that it straddles both psychology and philosophy in a way similar to materials on Naturalism.Org, so I figured you would find it of interest.


About the contributor: Larry More is psychotherapist in the Philadelphia area with a masters in counseling from the University of Georgia. He has worked over 15 years in the substance abuse area with a family-therapy orientation, and has conducted a more generalized practice in the last 15. Since the 70's, his main intellectual interest has been in the topic of "the self," with a masters thesis focused on the notion that no such self exists. If so, what, then, is therapy ?