Freedom and Judgment, Part 2, by Sean Agius

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

Within the conclusion of a previous article titled ‘Freedom and Judgement,’ I implied that certain factors such as mental health, culture, and family, knowledge, and so on play a decisive role in determining the actions that one chooses to perform. In this article (which will be very creatively titled ‘Freedom and Judgement Part II’), I shall further expand upon this notion – concluding that the said factors, though singularly acting only as behavioural influences, in unison act as determiners – ultimately rendering one’s actions equally as determined as those of a rabies sufferer, consequentially demanding a rethink of the manner in which we judge other people’s moral value.

(Please note that since this article shall be utilising a case study described within the first article, it is highly recommended that one reads the said article before this one; otherwise, you may expend the majority of your mental energy trying to figure out who this ‘Paul’ character is.)

The first and most obvious factor in this regard, besides physical illness, is mental illness. Returning to the case study, let Paul suffer from schizophrenia instead of rabies. Having neglected to take his medication, he became convinced that everyone was prepared to murder him and thus acted in what was, in his mind, self-defense. Guessing again, I would say that, based on this information, our judgment of Paul has again become significantly more lenient since, due to his mental illness, he is not deemed fully responsible for his actions.

The mental illness variable also, however, begs a re-analysis of the sociopathic version of Paul. At face value, the cases may seem distinct, but the concept is at its core identical – how brain chemistry (which one usually bears little control over) influences actions. In essence, Paul did not choose to suffer from either schizophrenia or sociopathy. In the case of the latter, Paul has no choice but to suffer from brain dysfunctions that force him to thirst for blood.

Now one may still criticise this version of Paul, arguing that in spite of his lack of freedom from his desire, his actions were still his own. The vast majority of those people, though, probably never suffered from mental illness. As those who have or do suffer could tell you that the abstract possibility of doing or not doing something does not necessarily translate to an actual ability to do so. An illness (both physical and mental) by definition implies the lack of freedom from that which one suffers from, whether that be due to cholesterol in the case of somebody who suffers from heart disease or brain functions for somebody who suffers from mental illnesses. This is why someone with depression cannot just get out of the bed, or an OCD-sufferer just stop washing their hands. They suffer from a disease, caused by external forces outside of their realm of control, which compels them to act in the manner that they do. Sociopathy is similarly classified as a mental illness within the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) and therefore like OCD or depression equally influential in compelling the sufferer (in this case Paul) to act in the manner that he does.

(Important note: the inclusion of mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, depression and OCD is in no way meant to liken sufferers from such disorders to murderers, but only to highlight the role that brain chemistry plays in determining actions.)

The point, however, still stands that such dispositions are not alone sufficient to render an action as determined. Not all sociopaths, after all, go on violent rampages. Furthermore, even if we do concede that certain actions are influenced by brain function, what about the first scenario – Paul the gangster? The case is seemingly rather clear-cut. Surely his action were not determined as he held full control over both his mental and physical capacities! There may however be one determining aspect which Paul (or anybody else for that matter) holds no control over – his circumstances, which though alone acting simply as influencers, in unison morph into determiners.

The first factors that come into play in this regard are cultural and familial backgrounds. That is how culture and family play a role in influencing aspects of an individual. For example, South Americans are significantly more likely to be football fans than North Americans for whom the sport is not as ingrained within the culture. The same can be said about individuals whose family either love or hate
the sport. It is somewhat absurd to conceive of the majority of North and South Americans choosing such disparate tastes independent of influential factors such as familial and cultural sensibilities which affect joys and annoyances.

If there are any North American football fan readers right now they are probably clutching on their LA Galaxy shirts screaming I’m North American and I’m a football fan! I don’t even call it soccer!’ The angry North American fan makes a salient point, not about the football/soccer argument, that I remain agnostic upon. The point here is that although culture and family could influence behaviour, they are not strict determinants.

Prior to tackling said issue however, I would like to highlight a few more influencing factors, the first of which being one’s life experiences. Life experience plays a significant influential role in our decision-making process – a dog-attack victim is for example significantly less likely to choose to enter a dog park than a non-victim.

Furthermore, since one attains knowledge predominantly through their life experiences (nobody is after all born knowing how to walk, talk, calculate complex sums or philosophise the concept of determinism), life experience plays an additional influencing role in this regard. Let us consider weight loss as an example, though weight-loss requires a large amount of will power from the loser’s end, it is nonetheless influenced by circumstances outside of one’s realm of control. Perhaps one was influenced to lose weight after learning about a new type of diet that motivated their interest, or by a personal trainer who proved the utility of exercise, or even by one’s knowledge of the simplest dietary concept of diets in/out, which though obvious to most is not an innately knowable concept. This, therefore, highlights the influential role that knowledge attained through life experience plays in influencing behaviour (as well as providing some half-decent dietary advice).

Another factor that was already touched upon but deserves further discussion is the role that neural chemistry plays in influencing decisions. Science has already proven what a major influential role the brain in general plays. Baba Shiv, a neural researcher, has shown that neuromodulators such as dopamine, serotonin, cortisol and so on have a significant effect upon who we are and the choices we make, even to the extent that one may be bound by said neuromodulators to make alternative decision in the morning and evening of the same day. The famous case of Phineas Gage further sustains this idea. After suffering a devastating head injury, Gage, a previously polite and respectful individual, began to display personality shifts – exhibiting animalistic behaviours such as irritability, impatience and so on. This was, it was hypothesised, due to the said brain injury which mainly affected his prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain associated with behavioural control).

Though the neurobiological link between the brain/neuromodulators and decision making seems concrete, there remain two apparent flaws to the deterministic argument: firstly, the fact that the discussed factors are influencers, not determinants; and secondly, the presence of choice. I shall begin by tackling the latter; the choice-based counterargument to determinism is a particularly pertinent one because it proves the theoretical possibility of a series of alternative end results occurring due to choices made by the agent, the term choice being the supposed checkmate. Whilst I accept this concept, I nonetheless sustain that one may bare the capacity for choice and yet conversely still not be free, even though it may initially sound like an oxymoron.

The theoretical capacity to choose to perform an action does not necessarily equate to free will. Whilst it is true that we make conscious decisions every day, we are often unaware of the forces that negate our freedom to act alternatively, thus producing alternative results.

To properly explain this distinction an analogy would be appropriate; if Tim makes a conscious choice to walk right rather than left, he may initially seem like a free being. Imagine, however, that unbeknownst to Tim, a stealthy sniper stalked him from a rooftop with strict orders to shoot on sight as he began to walk left. In this scenario, whilst it is true that Tim does possess the capacity to choose, he is in no way free. The sniper’s presence relegates alternative actions strictly within the abstract realm – although Tim theoretically bore the ability to choose to walk left instead of right, concretely he was never truly free to do so, only to choose to try and do so. Freedom, therefore, equates to not only the presence of choice but simultaneously the concrete possibility of an alternative result being possible.

Dominoes waiting to fall… by Enoch Lai at the English language Wikipedia, free to share under Creative Commons Licence CC BY-SA 3.0

This smoothly brings us back to the first objection to the deterministic world view, that the aforementioned factors (culture, family, knowledge, neuromodulators and so on) influence rather than determine our choices. Choice and freedom do not, however, equate to one another; whilst it is therefore true that one’s capacity to make choices is not eliminated, said factors do nonetheless serve to inhibit alternative results strictly within the realm of the abstract in the same manner (albeit less overt) as the sniper. The choices one makes are ultimately attributable to an intricate causal chain consisting of factors which, in their singularity, serve simply as influencers but in their aggregate bare a similar deterministic effect to that of a domino push.

The result of a domino-effect is fully attributable to circumstance – the positioning of the dominoes, the velocity of the push, the angle of contact and so on. Said factors alone only influence the push’s result but when added together form a causal pattern which absolutely and infinitely determines its results. Identically, an action is equally as causally determined by context, this context being the sum total of one’s circumstance – culture, family, life experience, neuromodulators and so on which together form the same type of deterministic chain of causality as that of the domino push. Whilst it was therefore theoretically possible for Paul to have gone on a peaceful stroll rather than a mass murder spree, said possibility is a strictly abstract one. No less relevant than the abstract possibility of an alternative domino push result. If one were to somehow accurately replicate Paul’s circumstances it would, like the domino push, produce the identical determined results in infinitum.

The two remaining masochistically-inclined readers may at this point be wondering what the point of this article is. Is it to claim that terrorists, murderers, and the like should be left to roam the streets uninterrupted, spreading their destruction in any manner they see fit? To any concerned citizen, I assure you that this is not the case. The rejection of freedom does not equate to the rejection of consequence. Take the multiple faces of Paul as an example – regardless of the determining factors behind the violent outbreak, Paul’s consequential physical detainment serves an obvious and practical function, whether that be to prevent further harm upon others or to deter similar actions. Though the rejection of freedom does not equate to a consequence-free world it should equate to a judgment-free one.

Justice et Inégalité – Les Plateaux de la Balance, by Frachet, 2010, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

To be clear, what I refer to as a judgement-free world does not translate to a nihilistic one in which everybody is trapped in a prison of meaninglessness, unable to judge something as good, or bad or anything else for that matter. Indeed judging the world around us is as natural as breathing, impossible not to do. The ability to judge murder as bad and charity as good is, for example, an integral facet of a healthy outlook which should be maintained for the benefit of society as a whole. Whilst determinism does not render judging the action of murder as fruitless it does render the judgment of the person performing the action to be.

If we are to adopt a deterministic worldview – postulating that actions are determined by a context outside of one’s scope of control, the line of difference that we draw between the rabid version of Paul and its alternatives is a false one. Due to the aforementioned factors which determine one’s choices, the sociopathic or gangster versions of Paul are no less victims of circumstance than the rabid one or anybody else for that matter. Whilst it is therefore proper to condemn the act of killing, one holds no basis for judging the person performing the action (or any other action for that matter). If there is one effect that I hope this article has upon the readers it would be to compel them to think twice before passing judgment upon others, as all other factors being equal they themselves would be determined to act identically. In many ways, everybody is simply a victim of circumstance, determined by context. Who knows perhaps this shift in mentality may even produce some positive effects – forming a more accepting and just society in which one is not defined by their mistakes or punished for them eternally.

– Sean Agius

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

What I Learned About Disability and Infanticide from Peter Singer, by Katie Booth

Illustration from A System of Midwifery, Including the Diseases of Pregnancy and the Puerperal State, 1875 by Leishman & Parry, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

In the 1970s, the Australian moral philosopher Peter Singer, perhaps best-known for his book Animal Liberation (1975), began to argue that it is ethical to give parents the option (in consultation with doctors) to euthanise infants with disabilities. He mostly, but not exclusively, discussed severe forms of disabilities such as spina bifida or anencephaly. In Practical Ethics (1979), Singer explains that the value of a life should be based on traits such as rationality, autonomy and self-consciousness. ‘Defective infants lack these characteristics,’ he wrote. ‘Killing them, therefore, cannot be equated with killing normal human beings, or any other self-conscious beings.’

The thought of killing disabled babies is especially dangerous because the concept of disability often functions as a mere cloak, thrown over much uglier hatreds. In ‘Disability and the Justification of Inequality in American History’ (2001), the historian Douglas Baynton points out that African-American enslavement was justified through disability models: there was a supposition that African Americans suffered from a number of medical conditions that were understood to make them unable to care for themselves. Until 1973, homosexuality was a psychological disorder justified in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders; the current edition, the DSM-5, still considers transgender people disabled.

Singer generally frames severe physical disabilities through a medical lens. His ideas chafe against models of the disabled as a minority group. To Singer, severe disability is more a problem to be solved than a difference to be embraced and accommodated.

For years, I thought Singer was morally bankrupt. I grew up in a family with hereditary deafness, and though deafness is far from the type of disability that Singer was focusing on (with some arguing that it’s not a disability at all), I still recognised an idea that the disability community has faced for centuries: that people with disabilities are fundamentally less entitled to their rights – even their lives. Singer’s ideas stood in opposition to my core belief that the disabled body is created largely through a lack of accommodation, and that people with disabilities are different perhaps, but not less.

While most of Singer’s other writings seemed so thoughtful, so compassionate, his writings on disabled children seemed to be approaching the slippery slope toward ethnocide – the intentional and systematic destruction of cultures, like the Deaf culture that my own family embraced. I had never been able to shake what he was saying about the disabled – and I wanted to know more: what he thought today; if his ideas had ever shifted; and, mostly, how he could believe so strongly in something that seemed so out of sync with his reverence for life.

This past winter, I reached out to Singer to learn more.

I was nervous to talk with him, even over the blurry, jumpy distance of Skype, but I had no reason to be. Though his ideas felt abrasive, even violent, to me, he took opposition with thoughtful consideration. And as we talked, I began to wonder if I hated his ideas because they poked at sore spots in my worldview, exposing its vulnerabilities.

Singer resists the idea that disability is mere difference; there is suffering involved, he says, and not only of the social variety. ‘I don’t think the idea that it’s better to be able rather than disabled is in itself a prejudice,’ he told me. ‘To see that as akin to racism or sexism is a mistake.’ He argues that if it weren’t preferable to be able-bodied, we wouldn’t have a problem with pregnant women taking drugs or drinking heavily, that avoiding disability would have to also be seen as prejudicial. It isn’t, and Singer maintains that it shouldn’t be.

Instead, Singer maintains that disability, unlike race or gender, comes with intrinsic suffering – sometimes great enough that it is more compassionate to end the lives of infants than to force them to live in pain. Over the years since he first began discussing this proposal, Singer has had to contend with studies showing that quality-of-life assessments of people with disabilities are not that different from those of able-bodied people – a fact that could grossly undermine his argument of alleviating suffering. While he has found those studies compelling, he maintains that it’s not fair to allow them to speak for those too severely disabled to respond to such a survey. (In general, he doesn’t buy the idea that people with vastly different disabilities ought to be speaking to each other’s experiences.)

Disturbingly, though he focuses mostly on severe disabilities, he also resists putting strict parameters around which disabilities would qualify for infanticide. ‘Look,’ he told me, ‘I don’t think it’s for me to tell parents [that] if your child is like this you are to end the child’s life, and if the child is like that you ought not to.’ Instead, he considers how class, family, community, not to mention regional and national support, shape the potential life of the child.

Particularly surprising was how Singer’s responses often revealed under-investigated issues in the disability movement’s rhetoric: the idea that class and location could have tremendous impact on a parent’s ability to raise a child with a disability, for instance, or that some are so disabled that they have no ability to speak to their own quality of life. The way that Singer’s ideas are often engaged with exhibits an intellectual laziness that tosses these issues dangerously aside.

Singer has not focused on infanticide for decades, but his ideas still ache in the disability world, like a wound that won’t heal. Singer is still deeply entrenched in questions about the hierarchy of lives, and his ideas about the inferiority of many people with disabilities – and the dangers that those ideas imply – are as pertinent today as they’ve ever been. The epidemic of spina bifida that spurred his arguments has now passed, but the larger questions he poses are still central to questions of prejudice and equality in the disability community. This makes it hard to sort through Singer. His arguments are built intricately and beautifully, like a perfect mathematics equation, but at their core beats a single assertion, one that is still too difficult to concede: that this group of human beings aren’t really people. That’s the pain that obscures the rest.Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

~ Katie Booth is a freelance writer and a 2017-18 John W Kluge fellow at the Library of Congress. She has written for the Indiana Review, Mid-American Review, The Fourth River and Vela. Her first book, The Performance of Miracles: Language, Power, and Alexander Graham Bell’s Quest to Cure Deafness, will be published by Simon & Schuster. She lives in Washington, DC. (Bio credit: Aeon)

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