Personal Responsibility and Collective Action Problems

In a recent essay, ‘But My Brain Made Me Do It!‘, I argue that many attempts to evade or minimize personal responsibility for one’s actions are misguided. The concept of personal responsibility exists not only to impart personal and societal meaning to human behavior, but to assign accountability. After all, if human beings can not be required to fulfill responsibilities or make retribution for harms done, societies could not function and group living would be impossible. Many attempts to evade personal responsibility only consider the reasons why one might easily have acted one way or another, and ignore two other key factors which lend weight and force to it in the first place: whether the person could have acted otherwise, and whether the person was in fact the one who performed the action. Therefore, attempts to isolate only deliberate intention, and to disregard other factors in matters of personal responsibility, undermine the nature and utility of the whole concept.

In the United States, debates about the meaning and ramifications of personal responsibility surround not only crime and punishment issues, but also public policy dealing with collective action problems, such as pollution, overpopulation, gun control, defense, law enforcement, and access to health care. These types of problems result from individual choices en masse, so that personal responsibility may be difficult to assign to any one individual. Yet, these problems would not exist unless all of those individuals choose to act they way they do. Collective action problems affect so many people, are so complex, and are so expensive, that a solution to them requires mass participation: many individuals each required to take part in solving the problem.

Yet solutions are often difficult to find because of the personal responsibility problem: how do we hold particular people responsible for solving a collective action problem when their individual choice is merely a ‘drop in the bucket’, so to speak? If personal responsibility is so narrowly conceived that one is only held responsible when there is a clear and direct link from the act in question to the entirely of the consequence, and they that they must have (mostly) understood the consequence of their action beforehand, than we must allow that no-one can be held responsible for most collective actions problems. But if we take a more robust view, that people can be held responsible for what they do and the consequences that flow from it, even if the consequences cannot be foreseen or intended, then we do have the right to call on the community to do what they can to fix the problem, be it through contributions of money or effort, through reparations, through accepting (just) punishment, or through other means.

In my ‘Brain’ essay, many of my arguments supporting a robust view of personal responsibility are consistent with a typically American conservative viewpoint, though some of my conclusions relating to particular public policies may differ. (For example, when it comes to criminal justice, I favor a reparative/restorative system over a punitive one, and restraint over zeal in enforcement of all but the most serious crimes, but those are topics for other essays.) When I apply the same arguments to collective action problems, however, the result is more consistent with a progressive approach to public policy as well as to morality.

A robust view of personal responsibility, I find, entails that individuals are morally obligated to contribute, through taxes or otherwise, to programs that preserve and promote the health, protection, and basic well-being of society as a whole. I argue this for two reasons: one, it is individual choices, be it in the aggregate, that create collective action problems (I address this issue in a past essay, in my example of the Dust Bowl crisis in mid-century United States, where the individual decisions of farmers to ‘get rich quick’ created a crisis for everyone, including those others who decided to farm more prudently and responsibly.) Therefore, members of a society should contribute to solutions or to make reparations, for the harms to others that result, directly or indirectly, as a result of their choices, Secondly, individuals, as well as society as a whole, often enjoy wealth, comfort, improved health, and other benefits that are derived from the reduced circumstances of others. A robust view of personal responsibility would also require that those who enjoy these benefits should pay their fair share for them when they have not adequately contributed for them otherwise (for example, in the marketplace).

Consider the issue of health care, and the debate over whether it should be publicly subsidized.

A typically American conservative position on this issue is that health care should be a free market commodity, because it should be a reward for honest work and its contribution to society. If one is personally responsible for their own actions, then if they do their fair share and work hard, they earn the right to access health care. The market is the mechanism, therefore, that limits the access to health care only to those people who have contributed to society through work. People who do not do their fair share, on the other had, should not get health care as a freebie, coercively paid for via taxation, by wage earners. If people feel like freely donating health care to the poor, fine and good, but they should not be forced to do so.

I sympathize with that position to a limited degree. I now work in the health care industry and see people who I have good reason to believe are gaming the system, quite often, in fact. (I address this issue in another recent essay.) If some people are cheating the system, I agree, they oftne are doing the wrong thing, but, I think, not necessarily. Consider this example: a pair of aging parents find their nest egg, carefully scrounged together through a lifetime of hard work, suddenly threatened by the wife’s recent diagnosis of breast cancer. These parents may be faced with this set of choices a) let the wife die without treatment, b) pay for the treatment, wiping out the life savings with which they would have paid for their retirement and the care of their children c) hide their assets to access free public health care assistance. These parents may feel justified making the third choice, since they feel that their primary moral duty is to save the life of their spouse and to care for their children, that their lifetime of hard work contributed enough to society to earn the moral right to this public assistance, and that they do little wrong gaming a system made corrupt and expensive by greed and political chicanery. I, for one, would find it difficult to condemn such a choice, and in some circumstances, may agree that it’s the most morally justifiable choice.

In my work in the medical office as well as in my years in the work force, I’ve seen far more examples of situations that bear a closer resemblance to the hypothetical situation I presented (closely inspired by a real life one) than to simple cheating out of greed or laziness. I work for a good doctor, who is the only local one in his specialty to see low-income patients on public health care assistance. (The reimbursement rates from many public health care assistance programs are very, very low, and physician’s offices have a hard time keeping their doors open at all if they accept many patients with that insurance.) Therefore, our office cares for many of the working poor as well as the suspected cheaters. Every day, I see elderly people who carry the signs of their past lifetime of hard work as well as people who currently work long, hard hours for little pay, whose health care is paid for through taxation because they can’t afford it otherwise. And I think: that’s how it should be.

That’s because all of us enjoy the benefits that come from the hard work of so many low-income people. We get to eat plentiful, cheap food because other people toil long hours with little pay in fields, restaurants, and factories. We get to wear comfortable, well-made clothing and stuff our wardrobes to a degree that no-one but the wealthiest of aristocrats used to enjoy, again, because others work in miserable, boring, depressing conditions working practically for nothing. I live in Oakland’s Chinatown, where I am surrounded by the hardest-working people I’ve seen in my life, other than the (largely immigrant and children of immigrant) people I worked with in the food industry, and these people, too, receive pitiful remuneration for the vast contributions they make to your life and mine.

When you and I pay a few cents for an apple, or a few bucks for a shirt, or a couple hundred for a computer, we do not pay our fair share, to my mind. The market may have driven prices and wages down, but when we’ve purchased those things, we’ve only fulfilled our part of the bargain between the buyer and the seller. We have not, however, fulfilled our personal responsibility towards all those other people who made our wealth possible. We have paid for our own life of comparative wealth and ease in an exchange that buys a life of privation for another.

So when you and I buy that cheap apple, that cheap shirt, that cheap computer, our decision to do so creates an economic situation in which many other people earn poor wages. And those poor wages, in turn, mean that people can’t afford to buy health care, or indeed, enjoy those benefits of society that their work makes possible in the first place. In the long run, it’s our fault, even if indirectly, that other people can’t buy health care, because this situation arises as a consequence of our own choices, our own actions. And this is only one example in which individual actions cause collective action problems. Other examples are pollution, overpopulation, natural resource depletion, systematic racism, traffic jams…. The list goes on and on.

So here’s a question with which I would challenge those who don’t like to feel responsible, or to hold other people responsible, for such collective action problems, including so many American conservatives: why is it that you should be personally responsible for your economic well-being by choosing to do your part and work hard, but you should not be held personally responsible for the consequences of your choices in the marketplace for others who work hard? As an example we’ve already considered shows, we can follow the chain of consequences readily from our own market choices to their collective impact on the lives of others. People, out of self-interest, choose to pay less for food if they can, usually without questioning why it’s cheap. But for food to be cheap, it’s generally because wages are low (in combination with improved technology, which can increase efficiency; but sometimes, new technology means workers have to compete with it, again lowering wages). Individual choices to buy cheaper produce cause wages to be low: they benefit from the reduced circumstances of others. And healthcare, even in more efficient, less corrupt systems than ours, tends to be expensive, because of the high cost of the education of doctors and of research and development, and because it’s labor intensive (each doctor’s visit often requires a significant input of time to be effective), so low wage earners usually cannot afford adequate health care. Therefore, our personal decision to buy cheap produce causes many others not to be able to afford health care. Why, then, would we not be held to any level of responsibility for the consequences of our actions when it comes to access to health care?

We already accept the idea of personal responsibility for individual contributions to collective action problems in many other areas of life. In order to enjoy the legal right to drive, for example, we’re required to purchase driver’s insurance. That’s because our own decision to drive can have debilitating and fatal consequences for others, even if they are entirely accidental. Almost no-one intends to maim or kill another when getting behind the wheel, yet we accept that when we choose to drive, we are still personally responsible, in one way or another, for what happens as a consequence. We also accept that since we desire and enjoy such benefits and freedoms as the right to go our way unmolested by other people, to vote, to travel on public roads and bridges, and so on and so forth, we are responsible for contributing to those institutions that solve collective action problems, and contribute to the maintenance of the military, the police, infrastructure, legal system, and so forth, thorough our tax contributions and otherwise.

As intelligent social creatures, human beings have conceived and developed societies organized according to and supported by robust conceptions of personal responsibility, demonstrated by such human products as morality and law. Instead of operating primarily from a ‘me and mine’ outlook, the most successful and long-lasting, and I argue, the happiest persons and societies operate from a predominantly ‘us and ours’ mentality, with the ‘me and mine’ enjoying even greater benefits than pure self-interest could produce. (The earliest Christian communities adopted this influential philosophy and practice, with great success and to their great credit; consider the tale of Ananias, who, out of greed, did not contribute the same percentage as others towards the welfare of all. Contrast this with the later incarnations of the Church, which retained the rhetoric and abandoned the practice of equal personal responsibility for, and equals enjoyment of, the public good.)

In sum, a robust view of personal responsibility leads us to act more responsibly in our day to day actions and, in turn, to generally behave in such a way that has the best outcomes. We come to act as Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative would have us do, to ‘Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law’. When each of us realizes that our day to day actions often have not only immediate and personal but wide-reaching consequences, our behavior changes. And when we wish that the consequences of our actions are beneficial or at the least not harmful, our behavior changes for the better, our imagination expands, and the world becomes a richer and safer place for us all.

Review: Farley’s East

I love to write essays, and I also have the tendency to be easily distracted by having all the comforts and hobbies of home surrounding me, as well as the tendency to justify laziness after a day at work. Therefore, to avoid stopping off at home, I’m often on the hunt to find a workspace, a great coffee-shop / cafe that’s more or less on my way from work to the hills for my early evening hike, a place that’s homey, friendly, reasonably priced, has tasty small meals and snacks, and has wi-fi. 

Farley’s East has just joined the list of my favorite such places. 
Who, What, Why, How:
Where: 33 Grand Ave, Oakland, CA 94612
When: Mon – Fri 7:00 am – 9:00 pm Sat – Sun 8:00 am – 9:00 pm
Perhaps I’ll see you there!

Stop Pretending ‘The Law’ is Not Racist!

Victims of convict leasing, from an earlier era of selective law enforcement

Everybody’s talking these days about the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. And the protests following the shooting. And the host of other recent killings and use of force against black people by police officers.

I’ve also heard many pundits, commentators, and counter-protesters (in support of the officer who shot Brown) say that all this controversy is pointless, unfounded, just plain wrong. The laws are not racist, they say. Neither are officers expressly told (most of the time) to target minorities. They also say that they themselves never have trouble with police officers as long as they cooperate and just do what the officer says, as they’re supposed to, which just goes to show that as long as you behave yourself, you have nothing to worry about.

As a generally ‘well-behaved’ (mostly so, but then again, I rarely got caught when I wasn’t) white woman who has never felt unfairly targeted by law enforcement, I say to this second group of people, if you are an adult yet you think the law is ‘color-blind’, either you systematically let your biases filter out too much of the available information out there, you live under a rock, or you’re lying. Or something like one of these.

Because I had never been unfairly targeted by police, I was mostly, blissfully unaware, until my very early adulthood, that such things were still going on. I thought this sort of behavior on the part of the police largely a relic of the past, of the Jim Crow and Civil Rights era that I became so fascinated by in my schoolgirl years (and remain so to this day). We all love hero stories, and I thought of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King (and my favorite fictional hero, Atticus Finch) as among the greatest, ordinary people who stood up for the oppressed and the outcast, who triumphed against the tyrannical and the cruel, and most of all, the unjust: I always have been rather obsessed with issues of justice. I thought police had mostly changed their racist ways like most of us, and now usually did the right thing, especially because, of course, they make it their mission to stop those who don’t do the right thing.

My rather childish ignorance was first revealed to me when I witnessed my then boyfriend, a young Mexican man, pulled over by a police officer for no good reason at all.  Usually, if we were driving, we were driving together unmolested, but that day, I was following his car in mine because we had met up after work. A police car passed me after a stoplight and to my surprise, I found that his flashing lights and siren were intended for my boyfriend! We were not speeding, and it was daytime so car lights were not an issue… I could not think of a reason he would be pulled over. After the questioning ended and the cop had left, I asked my boyfriend what had happened. He admitted, embarrassed, that this happened to him all the time, it was just a regular part of his life. A young Mexican man in an old car must, necessarily, be up to no good, or if he wasn’t now, he must recently have been or was about to.

I was angry and shocked at the injustice of it all, and tried to imagine what it would feel like, and the effect it would have on my character, if I were regularly treated as a criminal, or a potential criminal, based entirely on what I look like, from the time I was young. I don’t think I could imagine, fully, what it would truly be like, but it seems a reasonable expectation that many people’s moral characters could be damaged from an early age, if many of the adults around them, especially those who set themselves up as authorities and moral leaders, act so unjustly. These young people are taught that ‘the law’ is used to protect others but punish them, that the police are not there to protect them, and that justice has a different meaning depending on what color you are, or worse, that it doesn’t really exist.

As I’ve gone through life, as I’ve had friends, co-workers, and fellow students of many races and ethnicities, as I have followed the news, and have done some study and research on matters of criminal justice, I’ve encountered countless instances of minorities unfairly and systematically targeted by law enforcement. I have a dear friend who used to travel though Colorado and Utah to go visit her family, who had to allow time for the inevitable police stop or two on each trip, no matter how carefully she drove. Yes, as you may have guessed, my friend is black. (My brother regularly travels a route in more or less the same geographical region, and has never had that problem).

These related issues, of racial profiling and selective law enforcement, has bothered me so long that when I had the opportunity a few years ago to take a criminal justice class, I jumped at the chance. I chose this subject  as the topic of my final paper, and my research uncovered a wealth of information on the subject. Study after study, public record after public record, revealed that minorities are pulled over, stopped and frisked, or arrested even for incredibly minor infractions that I had no idea that were ever enforced, at disproportionately high rates, commonly double or more than the rate of white people, in jurisdiction after jurisdiction, all over the United States. And even when minorities and whites are charged with the same or similar crimes, they get very different treatment: whites are shown leniency far, far more often than anyone else: they are, on average, sentenced to fewer years in prison or are routed to treatment instead; they are sent to state courts instead of federal courts. Minorities generally get the book thrown at them.

And in case you’re one of those who think that the law is color-blind, no, the objection you might make, that minorities commit more of the crimes so of course they’re targeted and go to jail more, is not valid. This vast accumulation of evidence that minorities are disproportionately targeted holds true for all kinds of crimes, the ones that whites commit at the same or higher rates, as well as ones that different minority groups commit at higher rates. Especially drug crimes: while whites commit most drug crimes at the same or higher rates than other groups, they are arrested far less, and if caught, don’t tend to be punished nearly as often.

Much of this information, many of these stories, have been featured in news story after news story over the years. This includes the seemingly ever-increasing recent stories in which black people are shot and/or killed for trying to get into their own house they locked themselves out of, or for being mentally ill and having a breakdown in public, or for selling single cigarettes on a street corner, or for having a fight with a bullying wannabe self-appointed ‘lawman’ on his way home. Have these pundits and ‘color-blind’ pollyannas been sticking their fingers in their ears and shouting ‘nah-nah-nah-nah-nah, it’s not happening!’ as black and brown people are being shot, beaten, and arrested, by the score, for the kinds of mistakes and indiscretions that most of us have engaged in at one time or another without permanent repercussion, while minorities are being caged at a rate that puts those old Jim Crow regions to shame?

I would say to these people, especially parents: imagine what would have happened to you, and what the life chances would be for your kids, if you and they were stopped and frisked, pulled over and your car searched, constantly throughout your life. If all those times you were a little naughty and had a drink while underage or too soon before you drove, or you or your friends had a little weed or coke in your car or pocket, or had sassed a cop when you were immature and raging with hormones and gleeful with youthful irresponsibility, or committed a petty theft…. Imagine that instead of getting away with it at the time, as most of us have, you would almost surely be caught and suffer permanent consequences (jail time, a criminal record, or worse) because everywhere you go, you are likely to be followed around by someone who assumes you probably belong in jail because of what you look like, has the power to throw you in there, and in extreme cases, even beat, choke, or shoot you, with impunity.

I and most of the white people that I, and I expect that you, know would all have been arrested or jailed at least once if the laws were enforced equally for everyone. But those of us lucky enough to go through life untargeted probably have forgotten most of the stupid things we’ve done because we haven’t had to suffer permanent harm for it; instead, we grew up, and had the chance to live a decent life, get an education and good housing, and get a decent job because we don’t have a criminal record. I fear for my nephew when I remember that he has to grow up as a young black man in this society, that he has far less wiggle room to make the mistakes that most of us make as we grow up and struggle through life. I got away, and still do, with my indiscretions and mistakes, easily, because I’m not targeted. That is not likely to be the case for my nephew.

Give that a ponder, put yourself in other’s shoes. If you are honest, I think you’ll admit that we still live in a racist, unjust, and all to much un-free society, especially for those of us with darker skin. Stop pretending now, if you are doing so, that racism is over just because the letter of the law is no longer racist. As long as law enforcement is racist, the reforms of the Civil Rights era have very limited practical meaning, and the struggles of our great social reformers continue to be, largely, in vain.

But My Brain Made Me Do It!

Brain illustration from The Principles and Practice of Medicine...' by W Osler, 1904, public domain via Wikimedia CommonsThere’s a common idea which leads many people (myself included) to instinctively excuse our own or others’ less-than-desirable behavior because we were under the sway, so to speak, of one or another mental state at the time. This is illustrated especially clearly in our justice system, where people are routinely given more lenient sentences, given the influence of strong emotion or of compromised mental health at the time the crime was committed. “The Twinkie Defense” is a(n) (in)famous example of the exculpatory power we give such mental states, where Dan White claimed that his responsibility for the murder of two people was mitigated by his depression, which in turn was manifested in and worsened by his addiction to junk food. We routinely consider ourselves and others less responsible for our wrong actions if we’ve suffered abuse suffered as children, or because we were drunk or high at the time, or we were ‘overcome’ with anger or jealousy, and so on.

But when we think about it more carefully, there’s something a little strange about excusing ourselves and others in this way for doing wrong. What we’re saying is, in a nutshell, “But my brain made me do it!”

It’s strange because no matter what we do, our brains always ‘made me do it’.

Perhaps these kinds of excuses are a relic of the ‘ghost in the machine’ variety of traditional belief, in which we are a kind of meat-machine body ‘possessed’ by a soul. In that view, the strong emotion or mental illness, then, could be yet another kind of possession which overrides the rational and moral soul.

Yet, even if one believes that sort of explanation, that’s not a very satisfying justification of why we would accept some mental states as exculpatory and not others. Why does extreme anger, such as that of a wronged lover or a frustrated driver, excuse or partially excuse an attack, but lust does not? Both are powerful emotions that all too often promote the worst behavior. Why is jealousy so often considered an acceptable excuse, but greed is not? And the ramifications of this view go beyond relieving ourselves from the burden of responsibility: it means we can’t take or give credit for our good actions, for the most part. Emotions and states of mental health inspire and make us capable of doing those things, too, in just the same way. But we generally don’t tend to have the same sort of intuitions or apply the same sort of reasoning to credit as we do to blame.

So whatever theory or philosophy of mind we ascribe to, we need to explain why we are so inconsistent on this issue. Of course, much of it is explained in cultural terms: in an honor-driven culture, for example, anger and jealousy result as an affront to one’s honor, so to feel those emotions is just and right for an honorable person. A crime committed under the sway of these emotions, then, is mitigated by the justness and rightness of the feelings, even if they inspired wrong action. On the other hand, greed and lust are not considered a just or right emotional reaction in any case in a culture underpinned by fairness, equality, and individual rights; therefore, any crime committed under their influence would, of course, be contrary to those values and not be mitigated

Yet culturally-derived explanations, of course, aren’t the same as a justification. They just explain why people in different times and places happen to react and feel the way they do; they don’t offer a justification of why anyone should accept one emotional state and not another as mitigating factors, nor do they explain why we should think some emotions somehow make one less responsible or able to control their actions than other emotions do.

The latter, of course, is an empirical question: a neuroscientist may be able to detect that the processes that produce some emotions make it impossible or at least highly unlikely that a person can engage in rational thought, or ‘put on the brakes’, so to speak, when certain provocations occur. But until we find out otherwise, it appears evident, from the fact that most people are generally cooperative and don’t purposefully harm one another, that adult people above a certain basic intelligence level are generally capable of forming good and responsible habits, which makes it unlikely that they would react wrongly or criminally when provoked or titillated. This is especially true when the people involved in their upbringing, and the society in which they live, expect good behavior from all, and hold people responsible for bad behavior.

This is true whether or not behaving in the right way is easy. Many of the excuses offered in defense of people who do wrong sound, to me, simply as evidence that it was harder for the person to behave well than to behave badly at the time. Yet mores and laws don’t exist because it’s always easy for people to get along, respect one another, to help one another and avoid harm. They exist because it’s often hard to be a good person and a good citizen. So many of these excuses, then, do much to illustrate why mores and laws need to exist, and not so much to demonstrate why the offender was less responsible for their own behavior at the time.

The reasons that we can hold people responsible for their own actions, whether or not they occurred in an emotionally stormy moment, are the same reasons that people can be admired and given credit for them. The acts and thoughts which we judge praiseworthy as well as blameworthy are those which the person could conceivably have chosen to do otherwise, even if we grant it’s unlikely that they would have chosen otherwise, and that the person did in the capacity of themself. Personal responsibility is a burden, but even more so, it’s an honor. It means that what you do is you, in a very important sense, since the mind is the author and seat of consciousness, and all of its activity is a form of doing. We, in the sense of being a person, a self, are what our brain does.

The brain is not like a pre-determined computer program; within certain parameters, it can be molded and formed, by influences from others but even more so by our own choices, which over time form habits. So it’s up to each one of us to use our judgments, surround ourselves with good influences, and to form good habits: in any given day, in any given life, each person is faced with myriad options in thought and behavior. For those important matters, we stop and reflect, though there are simply too many to judge carefully for each one; most of the time, it’s best to purposely form good habits so that in those countless reactions we have and choices we make, we’ll tend, more easily, to go for the better rather than the worse.

There are, of course, special circumstances to consider in matters of wrongdoing or crime committed by the young, or by a person with a debilitating mental illness, or a person mature in age with undeveloped mental capacities. All of these involve some diminished or absent capacity for exercising judgment in making a choice, and the degree of consciousness the person possesses. Young people, for example, lack the structures of the physically mature brain which makes it capable of making considered decisions and of putting the brakes on powerful-emotion-driven impulses. The prefrontal cortex, where much of the capacity to exercise self-control resides, doesn’t fully develop until after puberty. It seems, then, to make sense that we generally don’t hold the young as responsible for their actions in the way we do adults. Yet, with all we know about how the brain works, I find it astonishing and often horrifying that in the United States we often try the young as adults, teens and even pre-teens, when they commit particularly heinous crimes. I’d argue not only are they incapable of controlling their emotions and of reasoning as fully as adults are and therefore shouldn’t be considered responsible in the same way, but the very heinousness of the crime is evidence of the lack of maturity, of the ability to make rational judgments, which forms the basis of any coherent concept of personal responsibility. The trying of youths as adults in the courts reveal that all too many people haven’t given enough thought to what personal responsibility really means, and don’t have the proper respect for it.

Since it’s always your brain that makes you do anything, culpability should be assessed according to whether or not your brain is capable of making a different choice, again, even if it’s unlikely you might have done so. That even holds true even in many cases of so-called ‘temporary insanity’ or ‘acting under the influence’. Generally, the brain of an adult person who maintains their own survival and enjoys the liberty of an independent adult is also functioning at a level of responsibility. For example, if you run someone down in your car while drunk or texting on your phone, you are probably also a person capable of arranging for a taxi to take you home from the bar or refusing that last drink, or are aware of the huge amount of very widely published evidence we now have that texting is strongly correlated with auto accidents.

In sum: the issue of personal responsibility should not hinge on whether or not it was easy for us to make one choice, to behave one way instead of another, but on whether we ourselves, always the product of a living brain, are capable of doing otherwise.

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*This piece, originally published Aug. 6, 2014, was edited lightly on Aug. 5, 2016 for clarity and flow