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.


Blogger Vidoqo said...

I'm always amazed at how difficult it is for many people to grasp the concept of non-retributive justice. We do this everyday with our children (or so we try!). Of course this is because we know full well - it is plainly obvious - that they are not the cause of their actions.

Imagine how tiresome it would be to have to summon for children the same sort of anger and vengefulness that we so easily dish out upon adults.

Our greatest human achievement, the golden rule, is predicated upon our ability to create a model of conscious being in others. It is the source of our greatest courage, our greatest humility, and our greatest compassion. By looking at our own lives, and realizing that we could only ever have made the choice that we indeed made - even if in the future we choose differently, we can thus realize in others the same model. We are them and they are us.

Like children, we are all learning to be human. If at times this means we must be rewarded handsome salaries, then so be it. If at other times it means we must be locked away in prison, then so be it. But neither will be because we have deserved anything at all. It will be so that we may learn, and others may learn by us, and nothing more.

Nov 28, 2009, 11:25:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very interesting piece.

Mr. Clark can you help clarify one thing? You often bring up that the non-existence of free will shouldn't imply that people shouldn't be held responsible for there actions. I'm wondering if you're arguing against a strawman here or if someone has actually claimed that lack of free will should have that consequence. I mean, the idea that we can have a rational discussion about whether someone should be held accountable or not depends on our ability to look at the world from the outside-in, with a free will to make that decision. But we wouldn't have that free will either would we?

Mar 20, 2010, 2:49:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

To put it differently, the fact that I don't have a free will should not change anything in the nature-nurture debate, or in the science of beahvioral genetics if you will. When researchers through twin-studies find out that, say, IQ is 80% genetically determined and 20% environmental those numbers are not going to change as a function of philosophers' realizing that free will is an illusion.

Therefore I'm wondering, why is the free-will discussion relevant to discussions about personal responsibility at all? I can see it may be important to drive flawed ideas out of the human mind perhaps just to raise the mental health of the population, but I'm not sure I see the relevance to debates about justice and such.


Mar 20, 2010, 2:55:00 AM  
Blogger Jay said...

I know this isn't directly about your post, but Tom when is the site or blog going to be updated again? It's been almost 4 months, which is uncharacteristic for this site.

Mar 31, 2010, 7:23:00 PM  
Anonymous Greg Binns said...

Tom, I love how your analysis leads us to the interesting understanding that the causal chain doesn't start anywhere, or at least not in any one place. You also make it very clear how thinking about giving some responsibility to the system guides us to look for patterns in the system that suggest ways of acting on the system to make it better serve the wellbeing of those affected by it.G

Feb 14, 2015, 3:48:00 AM  

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