Freedom and Judgment, Part 1, by Sean Agius

Brain illustration from The Principles and Practice of Medicine…’ by W Osler, 1904, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

“Man being held by authorities after mass murder spree”

Imagine that the above was to be today’s primary news headline. Had this been the case, what would you assume your reaction to be? Presumably – shock, terror, sorrow and everything in between (or at least I hope so). Now if I were to ask you what your thoughts on the perpetrator would be, for the sake of the example let us call him Paul, how would you answer? This may seem like a stupid question (an adjective that I’ve become highly accustomed to over the years), the answer of which I suppose will be quite unitary. If you are in fact like most people you consider Paul to be an evil, malicious, repugnant, sinister, vile (insert other negative labels here) individual who should be locked away in prison for the rest of his life or worse.

Let us, however, merge this hypothetical with a few other hypotheticals, creating a nice little hypothetical soup. If I were to inform you that the attack was crime-related and that Paul is a gangster holding a series of affiliations with multiple criminal groups, would it alter your opinion? I assume not – you most likely still hold Paul in passionate detestment, wishing the law to cross the proverbial knockout blow upon his freedom or perhaps even life. Now imagine I informed you that Paul was a psychopath, the type who thirsts for blood in the same manner as the villain in a horror movie; does this in any manner alter your frame of mind? Perhaps for some, in a sense; if I were to imitate the role of the mind-reader however, I would presume that most people still hold little sympathy for our hypothetical man, irrespective of this new information.

Let me provide you with one final hypothetical though (this will be the last, I promise). Paul has recently just returned from a trip outside the continent in which he lived out his dream of trekking through a rainforest for an extended period of time. The journey was a fulfilling one, the peak moment arriving during the last week of the trip. As Paul was stumbling through the rainforest, searing in the potent sun and carefully navigating to avoid the snakes and tarantulas, he stumbled upon a cave, a cave so beautiful that Paul was left awe-struck.

It stood at something like twelve feet tall and a mile wide; its shapely limestone enough to render the most hard-bitten cynic into a nature lover’s blissfulness. The mass of the limestone dispersed in a unique yet symmetrical manner which could not be replicated by the most skilled of sculptors. Its color palate was mesmerizing, the traditionally withering effects of Time substituted with Mother Nature’s divine hand – gifting the stone with a rainbow-like pattern; some parts of it yellow, others red, others green, others a glorious mixture of the lot.

Paul was captivated! He had hoped to see something that would spark his interest but he did not expect this. He just had to take a closer look! With every step that he took the colors turned brighter, the pattern more pronounced, the stone more shapely; leaving him in a quasi-trance until he arrived at the cave’s entrance. His aesthetic palate still not satisfied, he entered the cave; instantly the darkness engulfed him leaving him as blind as a bat, yet still he wondered what image the unwrapped darkness would provide. Were the colors as radiant? The form as ideal?

A cave in the Lewis and Clark Caverns, Montana, USA, photo 2017 by Amy Cools

Defeated by his curiosity he reached into his pocket – pulling out his flashlight and aiming it at the ceiling. The picture the light uncurtained was not, however, a pleasant one. Clearly annoyed by the light, the bats hanging upon the rooftop begun to disperse in panic. Paul was not generally a fearful man but this would leave anybody shook. Out of pure instinct, he flailed his arms, unintentionally swatting a fleeing bat. It too acted on instinct, sinking its tiny, sharp teeth into Paul’s flesh before disappearing back into the darkness alongside the rest of the flurry of critters. Then as Paul’s adrenaline begun to dwindle he too fled the cave, having lost all interest in his exploratory quest. The bite burnt, but only minimally, it was barely even bleeding. He wiped away the blood and sighed.

“Maybe I’m better served admiring the cave from afar,” he thought to himself.

The final week passed as rapidly as the bats, the encounter nothing more than a distant memory. On his departure, Paul cursed himself for indulging in airport food as he felt tired, nauseated and dizzy during the plane ride. To his surprise, he woke up the next day feeling worse in spite of waking up in his bed for the first time in months.

“Still nothing to worry about,” he thought to himself, ascribing his illness to the jet-lag. Yet as the days passed, his condition worsened significantly. He should have gone to a hospital, a doctor, a nurse, anything! Yet he did nothing!

Finally, the day of the attack arrived. Paul was feeling violently ill that day, enough to finally recognize that he was in urgent need of medical care. His final mistake was to opt to walk towards the hospital rather than call an ambulance. The short walk strained him a hundred times harder than any of his multiple mile-long treks and gradually he began to lose control of his senses; his sanity slipping away like a leaf in a waterfall, until finally his conscious awareness fully disintegrated and his whole being was consumed with red.

You might be wondering a few things at the moment – what happened to Paul? What was the point of the story? Which continent did Paul go to? Is he Batman? Who is this wannabe Charles Dickens writer and why is he so keen on wasting my time? Unfortunately, however, I can only provide an answer to the first question.

Needless to say that in the aftermath of the tragedy the general public was in shock. Though mass murder sprees are not unfortunately unheard of, the events of this one truly were – Paul committing the attack not with weapons but his bare hands and teeth instead, his behavior comparable only to that of a wild beast – the foaming of the mouth, the ear-piercing roars, the mindless aggression. It was only after the investigation that the confused public finally attained some much-needed clarity to the situation. As it turns out the bat bite which Paul shrugged off as a small meaningless sting turned out to be anything but. The gradual deterioration of Paul’s health was the result of the rabies virus, contracted through the bat’s bite, gradually invading his nervous system until it finally attained full control of his body, hijacking even his brain – on the day of the attack, causing him to strike with the ferocity that only a rabid beast could muster, tragically causing the deaths of multiple innocents.

In light of this new information, has your opinion of Paul changed? Venturing a guess, I would say that it has. The prevailing opinion regarding Paul has shifted from that of an aggressor deserving of our spite to that of a victim deserving of our pity. This perspective shift is an interesting one as it highlights that even an action as radical as killing others may be morally excused within certain circumstances. Yet what is it that truly distinguishes the latter circumstance from the former two?

French scholar Pierre-Simon de Laplace (1749-1827), public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The key element to keep in mind here is the concept of determinism (as coined by the philosopher Pierre-Simon Marquis de Laplace) referring to the lack of ability to freely perform an action. In essence, many people morally excuse Paul for the mass murder spree as he is perceived not free to act otherwise. In this specific case, the physical illness caused by the rabies stripped him of any free will thus relieving him of any form of moral agency or responsibility for his actions that he may have previously possessed. But is it exclusively physical illness that may render one’s actions to be determined and thus morally excusable or may similar non-physical factors also play a role? This question strikes at the heart of one of the most pertinent philosophical debates within the entire history of philosophy – the free will/determinism debate.

The philosophical context of this debate is unsurprisingly significantly further wide-ranging than simply the physical health aspect. It involves a series of determining factors such as mental health, culture, family, knowledge and more. Factors which, according to the advocates of determinism, in unison determine each individual to act in the manner they do, thus rendering the first two versions of Paul no less determined than the third rabid one. These factors each merit a significant portion of attention in themselves – attention which would indubitably render this article too lengthy. I shall, therefore, be concluding this article with a philosophical cliff-hanger of sorts – promising to further expand upon such concepts within a succeeding article.

To be continued….

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!

*All views and opinions expressed by guest writers are their own and do not necessarily reflect those of Ordinary Philosophy’s editors and publishers

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.

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, entirely supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

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