Saturday, November 14, 2009

Causation and Culpability

At Why Evolution is True, Jerry Coyne, stout defender of science against anti-evolutionists and accomodationists, describes attending a conference with psychologist Philip Zimbardo, known for his situational analysis of why good people end up doing bad things. Coyne writes (my bolding in the second paragraph):
…Zimbardo said, “There are no bad apples, just bad barrels.” Do have a look at Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment webpage: that work, done in the ’70s, is still a sine qua non in psychology texts as it raised disturbing questions about how nice people can become evil very quickly.

I was not completely convinced by this extreme environmentalism. For one thing, it’s an easy way to exculpate people who commit antisocial or criminal acts; for another, there do seem to be some people who are of inherently good
character and prone to do heroic things in circumstances where others are
apathetic. On the other hand, I keep thinking of Daniel Goldhagen’s book, Hitler’s Willing Executioners, which showed how everyday Germans, most of whom we’d consider nice, well-meaning people, became avid supporters of the Holocaust.
I want to nit pick the bolded phrase since it encapsulates what I think is a widespread misunderstanding about causation and culpability. Coyne is of course right that there are dispositional (characterological) as well as environmental (situational) factors that determine behavior, but whatever the balance is between them, a full causal explanation of behavior is not exculpating. To suppose that we can hold people responsible only if they are uncaused in some respect sets an impossible standard for responsibility. After all, there’s no reason to think people are uncaused in some respect or ultimately self-caused, a logical impossibility. And even if Zimbardo were right that people’s dispositions and characters count for very little, we would still have to hold individuals accountable as a means to deter wrongful acts, such as the torture at Abu Ghraib (about which see Zimbardo’s book The Lucifer Effect and his interview with philosopher Tamler Sommers in Sommer’s new book A Very Bad Wizard: Morality Behind the Curtain, highly recommended).

What Zimbardo’s analysis does, crucially, is to broaden the scope of accountability to include not just individuals and their traits, but the systemic, institutional and policy factors that bring out the worst in human nature. Understanding how those factors cause individuals to act badly gives us that much more potential power to prevent wrong-doing, so it’s important not to let a narrow, dispositionist and perhaps even contra-causal conception of culpability block our appreciation of situational influences. Hence my nit-picking of Coyne’s comment.

Curiously enough, however, I’m not sure that Zimbardo himself is completely consistent in the application of his thesis. At a talk he gave in Cambridge, I asked him if his analysis of the Abu Ghraib situation didn’t also apply to George W. Bush and then vice-president Dick Cheney. Weren’t they too the product of a situation, of political parties, ideologies and the lure of power, not self-created monsters? He hemmed and hawed, clearly unwilling to endorse such an apparently exculpating explanation of people he considered evil incarnate. But again, such an explanation wouldn’t be exculpating since we can, and must, still hold Bush and Cheney responsible despite the fact that they were fully caused, by their situation and innate endowments, to be who they are, and act as they did. In his interview with Tamler Sommers, Zimbardo agrees with Sommers that contra-causal free will is an illusion, but he also says the higher-ups like Bush and Cheney bear greater responsibility since they create the systems that corrupt the underlings. But of course neither Bush nor Cheney created the system that created them, a crucial point Zimbardo seems unwilling to acknowledge, or at least vacillates on (read the interview, see what you think). The buck stops nowhere, which means interventions are appropriate everywhere they will do some good, including the reform of systems that create and enable nefarious leaders.

If Zimbardo, one of the major proponents of situationism (and more broadly the causal explanation of behavior) can’t fully accept that causation applies to all of us, even presidents and vice-presidents, this just illustrates the power of contra-causal thinking. Indeed, Zimbardo says in the interview, "I don't really believe in free will, but I can't live without it" (p. 50). Nonsense! Please try harder. As long as we suppose the wrongs that people do are not the fully determined outcome of a host of social, environmental and biological factors, including an electorate that can put the likes of Bush and Cheney in power and an administrative system that allowed them to pursue a needless war in Iraq, then we’re at a serious disadvantage in our attempts to make the world a better place. By pinning blame on the bad apple alone, we’ll be blind to, and lose control over, the causes of bad apples.

Is Naturalism Nihilistic?

This is an invited response to Alex Rosenberg’s essay at On the Human, The disenchanted naturalist's guide to reality, in which he suggests that naturalism leads to scientism and thence to nihilism. Nothing remotely like this is true, and seeing why not is a good opportunity to make some observations about naturalism and normativity – about where standards of right and wrong, and true and false come from if nature is all there is. I’m happy to report that most of the other commentators declined Rosenberg’s gambit, so they rightly remain un-disenchanted naturalists. The supposed relationship between naturalism and nihilism has been debunked previously at Memeing Naturalism, see here.

Scientism as Rosenberg describes it isn’t equivalent to or implied by naturalism, a worldview that takes science as its guide to reality. He says “Science has to be nihilistic about ethics and morality.” But science alone isn’t in a position to be nihilistic. Science arguably provides the best answers to factual questions about what exists, but doesn’t itself have the resources or competence to answer (in the negative, as Rosenberg would have it) the “persistent questions” of human meaning, purpose and morality. To suppose science alone can answer such questions is indeed to be scientistic in the original and rightly pejorative sense. After all, when considering the big questions, we ordinarily avail ourselves of all the philosophical and practical resources outside science, such as ethical and political theory, religious and secular traditions, maxims, rules of thumb, and other sources of wisdom on how best to live and find meaning.

It isn’t surprising that Rosenberg’s hyper-reductive scientism ends up in nihilism, since of course we don’t find values or purpose or meaning at the level of what he thinks science shows to be the only reality: fermions and bosons. But such austere physicalism isn’t forced on the naturalist, who can countenance higher-level ontologies, including mental states, so long as they play useful roles in our best (most predictive, transparent and unifying) explanations and theories. So far as science can tell, human beings (physical organisms) and their projects (their behavior) are just as real as their sub-atomic constituents, which after all are not directly observed but theoretical posits par excellence. Naturalism still leaves plenty of room for purpose, meaning and morality so long as these are understood as what they actually are under naturalism: human, creaturely concerns that need no cosmic or sub-atomic backup. To see this is to naturalize purpose, meaning and morality, to relativize them to naturally occurring needs and interests; it isn’t to annihilate them.

Rosenberg underestimates the extent to which scientific explanations can be understood and found inspirational by non-scientists, for instance the grand stories of cosmic and biological evolution. To discover ourselves full participants in nature, historically and in the present moment, need not be demoralizing as Carl Sagan so wonderfully demonstrated. Crucially, scientific explanations don’t entail that human existential and ethical concerns are unreal or unfulfillable, only that they are situated in a natural world that, logically enough, has no capacity to validate them. Only the assumption that addressing such concerns requires an appeal to supernatural or extra-human standards would lead us to suppose that naturalized meaning and morality aren’t the real thing. But there’s no good reason to make that assumption.

Rosenberg says that “If the physical facts fix all the facts…then in doing so, it rules out purposes altogether, in biology, in human affairs, and in human thought-processes.” But the physical level of description doesn’t compete with, or supplant, higher level descriptions of human behavior involving purposes and other intentional states, conscious and unconscious. There’s no making sense of behavior at our level without them. True, science reveals no purpose in evolution or nature, but that doesn’t show that our purposes are illusions, that we don’t really believe, desire, plan, etc. Purposes and intentional states are real-ized in physical organisms such as ourselves.

He makes the same sort of claim about morality: “There is no room in a world where all the facts are fixed by physical facts for a set of free floating independently existing norms or values (or facts about them) that humans are uniquely equipped to discern and act upon.” Agreed: for the naturalist norms aren’t free floating, but are rooted in our evolved needs and desires for flourishing in community with others (hence ethical norms of fairness and reciprocity) and for making accurate predictions about the world (hence cognitive norms of rationality, evidence and inference). But even though we don’t find anything intrinsically normative in nature taken as a whole, or at the level of physical facts about fermions and bosons, these norms are just as real as the human beings that depend on them for getting by in the world. From a naturalistic standpoint, the normative force attached to our moral core – our judgment that it’s correct – can only be a function of the fact that it serves basic human needs as shaped by evolution: if you want to get along with others (and you likely do) then you should in general behave morally. That this explanation shows our moral core to be an adaptation, along with much else about us, doesn’t debunk normativity as unreal, only naturalizes it.

Rosenberg’s reductive stripping away of higher level human perspectives continues down the line, for meaning, history, consciousness, the self, free will, and even knowledge (a perilously self-undermining tack to take). But the mistake in all this is to suppose that physicalist, mechanistic, sub-personal and selectionist explanations leave no room in naturalism for the higher level ontologies and explanations that comprise the need-driven normative realms of cognition, meaning and morality. That the brain doesn’t traffic in propositions, and that consciousness isn’t a direct mirroring of the world, doesn’t mean that language-using persons don’t have propositional knowledge or entertain accurate beliefs. That semantic meaning isn’t a “fact about reality” considered at the sub-atomic level doesn’t render unreal our linguistic referential capacities, or our ability to tell truthful and instructive stories about historical events. No original intentionality is needed, only the constructed intentionality made possible by being creatures whose brains instantiate mental models that track the world. Seeing that the consciously experienced self is naturalistically not a soul, but a neurally realized pattern (a “real pattern” Dennett would say) is to explain selves and self-concern, not to explain them away. That we aren’t contra-causally free doesn’t mean we cease being moral agents responsive to the prospect of rewards and sanctions, although it might entail that we rethink some of our more punitive responsibility practices.

The processes of naturalization spurred by science may indeed upset some cherished supernatural and theistic conceptions of the self, freedom, consciousness, morality, meaning and knowledge, which may in turn prompt changes in mainstream concepts and practices. But naturalism does not entail the scientistic elimination and debunking of all that matters to human beings; it simply places this mattering within nature as a set of creaturely concerns that other sentient beings might conceivably share with us. That nature, taken as a whole, or understood sub-atomically, does not validate our naturally occurring concerns and capacities isn’t a reason to give up on them, and indeed we’re pretty much constitutionally unable to do so. So naturalists need not be, shouldn’t be, and in the end can’t be, scientistic eliminativists or nihilists.