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

Communitarianism, Writ Large

I listened to Bill Moyers’ discussion with Michelle Alexander recently, about her book The New Jim Crow and her activism against the over-incarceration of black people here in the US. Something she said really struck me, as it relates to a problem I’ve been mulling over for some time. She said:

I realize that as well-intentioned as all that work was, it was leading me to a place of relatively narrow thinking… If I care about a young man serving, you know, 25 years to life for a minor drug crime… If I care about him and care about his humanity, ought I not also care equally about a young woman who’s facing deportation back to a country she hardly knows and had lived in only as a child and can barely speak the language? And ought I not be as equally concerned about her fate as well? Ought I not be equally concerned about a family whose loved ones were just killed by drones in Afghanistan? Ought I not care equally for all? And that really was Dr. King’s insistence at the end of his life. That we ought to care about the Vietnamese as much as we care and love our people at home.’

Alexander’s reflection on her own work illustrates our need not only to grow more expansive in our thinking in order to achieve a more just society not just locally, but globally: we need to witness and internalize the sufferings faced by other human beings who are not like us in appearance and culture, so that our instincts for empathy and for justice expand as well. 

The problems associated with the organization and implementation of an ordered society is the central topic of political philosophy; the problems associated with making societies just is the concern of ethical philosophy. Two philosophers whose work I especially admire in these fields are John Rawls and Michael Sandel. They are both concerned with justice, how to recognize a just society, and how we select the criteria for ethical decision-making. (I’m also a fan of Sandel’s because he’s engaged in a cause that’s dear to my heart: the great project of philosophy is not, and should not be, confined to academia. With his freely accessible lectures and discussions, and his popular philosophy books, he is among those reintroducing philosophy to the public square. Philosophy originated in the public square, after all, and as it addresses the concerns of the whole of humanity, then it should be a concern of, and the conversation should be accessible to, the whole of humanity as well.)

Yet Rawls and Sandel are at odds in some key ways. Among other things, Rawls’ theory of justice is classically liberal, in the tradition of John Locke, and focused on universalizability: a just system is one that must be applicable to all human societies, in all times and places. Sandel focuses more on the importance of community and tradition in matters of justice, and the answers are found more in solutions to ethical dilemmas based on particular society’s evolved norms. Rawl’s famous ‘veil of ignorance’ is his method for discerning whether or not a society is just: if each and every person were to be randomly assigned a role in society and had no way to know ahead of time who they would be (woman, man, CEO, employee, black, white, rich, poor, etc), and knowing this, they had to design a social arrangement, what would they all agree on? Then, we can look at how that veil-of-ignorance social design compares with an actual society to help us assess how just it is, and in turn, help us create s social system that will benefit everyone as much as possible. Seems a method that should obtain pretty fair, democratic results, right? But for Sandel, the veil of ignorance seems incoherent even as a mere thought experiment, since morals originate in, or emerge from, particular societies. Therefore, what is just is derived from how actual societies work, how they’ve grown and evolved to solve their own sets of problems, and cannot be derived from hypotheticals. So Rawls’ and Sandel’s ideas seem, on the face of it, irreconcilable. Who’s right?

Sandel’s views are generally described as communitarian, though he’s not entirely comfortable that characterization in that it can go too far in allowing community to trump the individual in all things moral. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ‘…communitarians argued that the standards of justice must be found in forms of life and traditions of particular societies and hence can vary from context to context’. In other words, communitarianism is the philosophy that ethics have more to do with particular societal morals and traditions, so the claim that there can be a universal definition of justice, such as Rawls’, is dubious at best.

When it comes to explaining how cultural traditions evolve to make a society more just, communitarianism has something to offer. For example, it’s among America’s most self-identifiable traditional ideals that individual liberty is of highest value and should be promoted as long as the freely chosen actions of one person don’t infringe on the freedom of another. The ideal of individual liberty has long roots in American society, and evolved and expanded over time through political upheavals, case law, and interpersonal disputes. But when we consider the traditional American ideal of individual liberty (by no means unique to America, of course) and compare it to our social history, it’s clear that it’s not no simple: it’s also been a tradition in the US to enslave other people. When that particular tradition was slowly, painfully overturned, there were many other ways that people, legally or illegally but commonly practiced, infringed on the freedoms of others: by denying women the vote, imposing Black Codes and Jim Crow laws, segregating the military, preventing workers from forming unions, and so on.

So a communitarian could argue that while the moral ideal of freedom is traditional in the US, it’s the broader implementation of it that took a long time as traditional practices caught up.

But how about societies that don’t have traditions of individual freedom, who believe there are some classes of people that should have all the power and wealth, and that it’s proper and right that others live in impoverishment and misery, lacking rights of citizenship, for their entire lives? Such is the caste system of India, for example, or the traditionally influential political philosophy of Aristotle which holds that there ‘natural’ slaves. Are we, then, not to be concerned that people of those cultures are suffering from injustice, if they belong to a community with different traditional views of justice? After all, according to the caste system, and to Aristotle and those communities that hold like views, it is just that certain people are slaves and certain people are not, that some people have power and some do not, that some live in wealth and comfort and others in misery, because all of this is justified by their society’s traditional concept of human nature.

Many people, myself included, have the same problem with communitarianism as I am sure Michelle Alexander does, given her quote which opens this essay: why should our sense of empathy, of moral obligation, be limited to the concerns and traditions of our own communities? That may have been prudent, even necessary, for our ancient ancestors, when human groups became large enough to need to compete for resources, but didn’t have the sophistication or technology to facilitate cooperation on such a large scale.

But now, our situation is very different: people’s ideas and actions, thanks to advanced technologies in communication, production, and travel, can have worldwide consequences, for ill and for good. We have access to centuries of the best products of human thought from disparate traditions all over the world, which are gradually coming to a consensus on some key issues in ethics and politics: the value of individual liberty, the benefits of equality, the necessity of having and fulfilling civic duties, and how to recognize a just society, for example.We have access to centuries of historical evidence which demonstrate the benefits of ever-more widespread cooperation, and the ineffectiveness of violent conflict, so that the immense suffering caused by war ends up wasted and unnecessary. And finally, now that people spend a lot of time ‘face-to-face’ with others from all over the world via computer, we feel a sense of real global community. Familiarity with people of different habits, different appearances, and different interests removes our sense of discomfort, and breeds not contempt, but empathy, compassion, and friendliness.

So perhaps the conflict between communitarian and modern liberal accounts of what constitutes a just society will lessen over time. After all, communitarianism must contain within it the idea that traditions change, grow, and evolve, since there have always been so many different traditions with mutually exclusive ethical codes. (I, too, think that morality is not fixed and eternal; rather, it’s a product of evolving, social, cooperative creatures.) And if the world’s communities are merging into one moral community, than the basic ideas of communitarianism will harmonize ever more with the universalizable ethical goals of liberal thought. While communitarians and liberals might still argue over the origins(s) of morals (tradition? reason? emotions?), our conception of justice, our ethical systems and the political institutions with which we realize them (governments, laws, and so on) will look more and more alike all over the world.

Listen to the podcast version here or subscribe on iTunes

~ Also published at Darrow, forum for ideas and creative commons webzine

~ Re-edited slightly in Feb/Mar 2016

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Sources and inspiration:

Alexander, Michelle. ‘Incarceration Nation’. Interview with Bill Moyers, December 20, 2013. http://billmoyers.com/episode/incarceration-nation/

Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow. 2012. New York: New Press Books.

Anderson, Elizabeth. ‘Tom Paine and the Ironies of Social Democracy‘, University of Chicago Law School Dewey Lecture 2012

Bell, Daniel. ‘Communitarianism‘, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971.

Sandel, Michael. Various works and lectures, including his books What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets and Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?

Schneider, Greig and Egon Zehnder, Boston, and Ulrike Krause. ‘Interview with political philosopher Michael J. Sandel’, The Focus magazine. http://www.egonzehnder.com/the-focus-magazine/topics/the-focus-on-family/parallel-worlds/interview-with-political-philosopher-michael-j-sandel.html

Is the Market Really The Most Democratic Way to Determine Wages?

When it comes to just compensation for labor, people disagree on how wages should be determined.

Some say that wages should be allocated according to the value of the work itself, and that this value is based on how beneficial the work is to society. For example, a nurse or a doctor saving lives should be paid much more than a financial speculator or a star athlete. In that sense, pay rates in the US and indeed, almost everywhere, are often grossly unjust.

Others say that people who work the hardest deserve the most pay. This is perhaps an even more popular view here the the US, where a strong work ethic is a traditional, highly prized virtue. Yet it’s easy to find countless examples of people who work equally hard yet earn vastly different salaries (a day laborer versus a high-powered attorney, for example), so even on this view, too many people’s wages are unjust.

And many others say that the market is the fairest mechanism. This is an especially popular view in the liberty-loving US. After after all, it’s people’s free choices that determine prices, since a price is simply how much people are willing to pay for a thing; and where the prices are high, the wages for its creators are high too. So, for example, if lots of people decide to pay high ticket prices to see a live sports event, then people are voting with their dollars and therefore, it’s democratic and fair that star athletes earn sky-high wages. And if people are only willing to pay a little money for a cheaply made product, well, then it’s fair that people who make it should earn less, at least per unit made. An unfettered market, then, is the most democratic, fair way to determine wages.

For the most part, I think that people tend to hold some kind of combination of these views, even as they lean a little more towards one, and they will consider each job and the justness of the wages it pays on a case-by-case basis. And there are related considerations as well, such as whether the job indirectly creates
societal benefits, whether it’s innovative, whether it’s aesthetically valuable, and so on.

But I’d like to challenge one of these views because it’s based on a false assumption. Can you guess what it is, before you scroll down?………………………………………………………..

………………………………… If you think it’s the assumption that since wages are based on prices, and prices are based on free choices, therefore the market is a democratic way to allocate wages, you’re right. So now why do you think I think this assumption is false?………………………………………………………..

………………………………… So here’s why I think it’s false. I don’t think prices actually reflect people’s democratic choice regarding what people should be paid for their work; prices reflect what people are willing to pay for a particular good or service, and that’s it. When people pay a certain price for a sports game ticket, for example, they’re just indicating how much they’re willing to pay to see the game itself. It’s anybody’s guess what they would vote to pay an athlete if they could write the figure on a piece of paper and slip it in a ballot box. Same goes for a grocery shopper voting on the pay of crop pickers. Do you really think that, just because a person happily pays only $.80 a pound for oranges on special, that they think the people who picked those crops should make very little money? I’m willing to bet that just about anyone, when they think about how hard the labor of the average crop picker is, how invaluable their labor is for sustaining life, and how much a living wage is, just about anyone would write down at least that figure on the slip of paper. In fact, I bet they’d vote for quite a comfortable salary. And I bet they’d lower the wage for most athletes substantially, especially if that meant the money saved there could go to someone doing a more ‘important’ or ‘worthy’ job, whatever we think that is.

I’m not sure myself exactly how we should determine wages, I’m sure I’m like most people and think there should be some sort of multifaceted approach. When I think of a more ideal world, I’d like to see wages have more to do with social utility when it comes to providing necessary goods and services (food production, the medical field, infrastructure), education, law enforcement, public arts, and so on. The market could have more to do with determining wages and prices for ordinary luxury goods and entertainment, within limits, of course.

Anyway, when we debate  wages and wealth distribution, don’t let’s kid ourselves that wages are set by a process that’s at all democratic. If that were the case, ultra wealthy financiers and many CEOs wouldn’t enjoy such vast wages even though they enjoy abysmal approval ratings, and it wouldn’t be so hard to get the minimum wage raised even though most Americans poll in favor of it.

Now in fact, most wages, most of the time, are actually based on how hard it is to replace the worker, more than on any other consideration. Crop pickers, though they do valuable work to society, are easy to replace; brain surgeons are not. So in this way, we see that the market does set the wages, but we also see there’s nothing choice-driven, nothing democratic about it. It all has to do with what it takes to do the job: brute facts abut the world. Some tasks are, by nature, complicated and take incredible skill and learning to perform. Others do not. All, however, are necessary, and all suit people of different personalities and capabilities. So given that this is how wages end up being what they are, do we think that this is how wages should be set?

What do you think?

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Inspiration for this little essay is drawn most immediately from ‘Should a Banker Be Paid More Than a Nurse?’, episode 3, from Michael Sandel’s ‘The Public Philosopher’ discussion and debate series, though it’s also based on many other things I’ve read, such as Joseph Heath’s Economics Without Illusions, talks I’ve heard, and many other discussions I’ve engaged in