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

O.P. Recommends: Richard Wilkinson on How Inequality is Bad

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

Dear readers,

I’m still hard at work on my master’s dissertation and therefore still have little time to write or read much of anything outside of its scope. One way I can readily catch up on what’s going on in the world, though, is by listening to podcasts while I take my daily breaks, usually consisting of a good brisk hill walk up Arthur’s Seat and around the hills and crags of Holyrood Park. So let me share another one with you that especially struck me.

In this podcast episode, social epidemiologist Richard Wilkinson discusses the evidence he and his partner Kate Pickett gleaned from thirty years of research, with host David Edmonds. Their research reveals a wide range of ill effects from very high levels of income inequality: higher rates of imprisonment, obesity, drug abuse, mental illness, and homicide to name a few, as well as lack of social cohesion and trust in other people, lower life expectancy, and so on. The poor and wealthy alike suffer these effects, but the poorer are hit hardest. Since we humans have a strong instinct to compare our status with others’, we tend to resent those who do much better. We’re therefore driven to signal that we, too, have worth. For example, we buy expensive things whether or not we can afford them, especially in a place where wealth and its trappings are considered markers of proper work ethic, intelligence, ability, and good character while having less is considered evidence of laziness and general lack of intelligence, ability, and good character. These stereotypes hold true whether the wealthy or the less wealthy work or not.

Recognize this situation anywhere?

~ 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!

O.P. Recommends: The Supreme Court Ruling That Led To 70,000 Forced Sterilizations

Buck v Bell Virginia Historical Marker Q 28, Courtesy of Historical Collections, Claude Moore Health Sciences Library, University of VirginiaFresh Air’s Terry Gross interviews author Adam Cohen about his book Imbeciles, which tells the story of eugenics in the United States and how the Supreme Court upheld many laws which arose from that once influential pseudoscience. Among these laws were those which forced the sterilization and incarceration into ‘colonies’, of the ‘feebleminded’ and ‘unfit’. Cohen makes the story of Carrie Buck central to his discussion in this podcast and to the book. She was a young woman who suffered about as greatly as one could from these policies and was eventually betrayed even by the Supreme Court, supposed to be the last bastion against legislative and democratic excess.

It’s a shocking story, and as Cohen and Gross point out, it’s not discussed nearly often enough today. Not only did such laws and practices harm thousands of American citizens, they influenced the Nazis, who based many of their own policies and tactics on American eugenics programs.

Less directly but important nonetheless, the backlash against that old eugenicist-brand forced confinement of mentally ill, disabled, and so-called unfit helped garner support for the release of huge numbers of people from mental hospitals in the late 1900’s. Intentions may have been good in many circumstances, since overcrowding, understaffing, and ineffective modes of treatment were at times serious problems. However, deinstitutionalization did little to solve them; the problematic institutions were not replaced with sufficient or viable options for patients and their families to continue receiving the treatment and care they needed. To this day, thousands of mentally ill people are arrested every year, incarcerated, and treated, often against their will, in prisons and other correctional facilities instead of hospitals, and only after they’ve committed crimes, victimizing yet more innocent people. And these correctional facilities, like the mental hospitals they’ve ended up replacing, are often overcrowded and ill-equipped to deal with those who should be patients rather than inmates.

Why link this podcast discussion about the failures of eugenics to the modern movement to deinstitutionalize the mentally ill? Because it’s important to remember that since it’s not always clear what the full ramifications of an idea are, we need to look at them more carefully and critically, beyond the obvious, considering the long-term and indirect effects of its influence as well. In the example of eugenics, its failures were so egregious, its lack of regard for the humanity of those it declared ‘unfit’ so ugly, that it became too easy to undermine all sorts of other things, many of them good, simply by finding a way to link them together. In this case, as the same century that saw the rise of eugenics was drawing to a close, all institutionalization of mentally ill people, all requirements that certain people receive treatment, became painted with the same broad eugenicist brush. But here’s the thing with deinstitutionalization: it turns out that a similar lack of regard for the suffering humanity of the mentally ill had more to do with those policies than anything else. This seems clear when we observe that the public debate ended up being about funding more than anything else, and not nearly enough of the savings from shutting down institutions were redirected to help the people who continued to need it. The mentally ill were too often simply abandoned by the state to survive on their own or with the help of their un-equipped families, in a world unnavigable and inhospitable to them, and their plight remains largely unaddressed by legislatures.

This one example shows how lessons to be learned from Carrie Buck’s sad story and from the eugenicist movement, then, are much more far-reaching than just the obvious ‘look how it inspired the Nazis!’ The 20th century was too often characterized by an obsession with progress and economic growth at all cost; all things and persons not seen as contributors were dismissed as superfluous and a drain on the rest of society. Let’s make the 21st century one that values humanity for its own sake, and deem scientific progress, economic policies, and public institutions successful only if they serve and promote humanitarian values, not the other way around.

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Sources and inspiration

Frontline: The New Asylums May 2005 and The Released April 2009 (documentaries)

Lyons, Richard. ‘How Release of Mental Patients Began.’, New York Times, Oct. 30, 1984

‘The Supreme Court Ruling That Led To 70,000 Forced Sterilizations’, Fresh Air interview
Mar 7 2016.