Happy Birthday, Hannah Arendt!

Hannah Arendt, born on October 14, 1906 in Hanover, Germany, was one of the twentieth century’s leading thinkers about political philosophy and the nature of evil. In the one and only filmed interview with her that survives, Arendt objected to being called a philosopher; she said she doesn’t feel like a philosopher, and that she thinks she has not been accepted in the philosophical community. We’re still hashing out what she meant by these statements to this day: some believe that she didn’t feel, as a woman, that the traditionally male-centric philosophical circle had room for her, so she did her work in another arena of thought; some believe since she emphasizes action and responsibility in her ethics and political thought, she felt this did not fit into the abstract nature of the accepted philosophical canon. However, her latter remark has proved no longer true, if it ever was: she is not only accepted into the philosophical circle, she has earned a prominent place in it.

Arendt completed her doctoral degree in philosophy in 1928. By 1940, she was forced to flee the Nazi’s persecution of intellectuals, first as a refugee to Paris, then to the United States, where she arrived in 1941. She settled in the U.S. for good, became a naturalized citizen, and taught at the University of Chicago and then at New York City’s New School for Social Research. Arendt established herself as a major political thinker with her 1951 book Origins of Totalitarianism, and a controversial one with her series of articles for The New Yorker about the Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann’s 1961 trial. She used this series as the basis for her 1963 book Eichmann in Jerusalem.

Among Arendt’s major themes is the idea that evil is not so much the result of an active malevolence but of thoughtless complacency. She distills this idea in her concept the banality of evil, which made people very uncomfortable at that time and ever since. Many hate this idea in part because they detect in it an element of victim-blaming, such as in Arendt’s including in her discussion the supposed cooperation of many Jewish community leaders in the massive and efficient deportation of the Jews to Nazi concentration camps and gas chambers. But I believe people hate Arendt’s concept more because of its implication that it’s so very easy for every single one of us to participate in great evil through our own carelessness and laziness.

Arendt’s philosophy of action and personal responsibility, problematic as it might be in some particulars, presents an important challenge even as it lays on all of us what might feel like an intolerable burden. She demands that we shake off complacency every moment of our lives, that we resist the temptation to thoughtlessly participate in harmful practices and ways of thinking. In an age where mass consumption has become the norm, even the source of meaning and impetus for most of our actions, regardless of its ravages on the beautiful world that gives us life, there are few ideas that are more timely or more important.

Learn about the life and thought of the courageous and brilliant Hannah Arendt:

Hannah Arendt ~ Interview with Gunter Gaus for Zur Person

Hannah Arendt ~ by Maurizio Passerin d’Entreves for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Hannah Arendt ~ Melvyn Bragg talks to Lyndsey Stonebridge, Frisbee Sheffield, and Robert Eaglestone for In Our Time

Hannah Arendt: American Political Scientist ~ by the editors for Encyclopædia Britannica

Hannah Arendt and the Hierarchy of Human Activity ~ by Finn Bowring for The Times Literary Supplement

Film Review: Hannah Arendt ~ Yasemin Sari for Philosophy Now

The Trials of Hannah Arendt ~ Corey Robin for The Nation, May 12, 2015

Why Do Hannah Arendt’s Ideas about Evil and the Holocaust Still Matter? ~ An interview with Michael Rosenthal for the Stroum Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Washington

Various articles ~ by Hannah Arendt for The New Yorker magazine

Various articles featuring Hannah Arendt ~ Maria Popova for Brain Pickings

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Should We Act on our Beliefs? The Vexing Nature of Responsibility, by Rik Peels

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

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

Some people think that voting for Donald Trump was a detestable thing to do, whereas others are convinced that we had an obligation to vote for him in order to get rid of the political elite. Of course, in explaining why they voted the way they did, people will appeal to their beliefs. Some of those will be factive: beliefs about such things as whether someone paid his taxes or whether someone gave full disclosure of certain emails. Other beliefs will be normative: beliefs about such things as whether America should pursue international political leadership or about whether it is permissible to use water-boarding techniques to extract information from prisoners.

People act on their beliefs. Obviously, that, as such, does not get them off the hook for the ensuing actions. Those who voted for Clinton believe that adherents of Trump should know better and vice versa—when it comes to the facts, when it comes to certain moral norms, or, more likely, both. Or, to give a few examples on which most Westerners agree: we believe that ISIS fighters also act on their beliefs, but that they should know better, and we believe that climate skeptics act on their beliefs, but that they should know better. If people were not responsible for their beliefs, it would seem improper to blame them for the actions they perform on the basis of those beliefs.

However, the idea of responsibility for our beliefs faces two big challenges. First, how can we be responsible for our beliefs at all? I am responsible for whether I treat my neighbor kindly or rudely, because I can choose or decide to treat her kindly or rudely. But I do not choose or decide to hold a belief. Nobody ever wakes up in the morning and thinks: “Today, let me form this or that belief.” Beliefs are things that are not under the control of our will. How, then, are we responsible for them? This is a controversial issue in contemporary analytic philosophy. One way to think of it is this: we are responsible for our beliefs, because they are the consequences of things over which we do have control, such as whether we gather more evidence, whether we are humble and pay attention to our prejudices and biases, and whether we try to become more open-minded.

Second, assuming that the first challenge can be met and that we are indeed responsible for our beliefs, we still face a deep puzzle about responsibility. As I said, people normally act in accordance with their beliefs. And that, it seems, is the right thing to do. One should not act contrary to what one believes to be the facts or contrary to what one believes one ought to do. Philosophers have even come up with a name for situations in which one succumbs and acts against one’s better judgment. Ever since Aristotle, they call it akrasia. One is akratic, for instance, if one believes that eating an entire bag of chips is bad, but one still does it. We don’t want people to be akratic. Rather, they should act in accordance with their beliefs.

Now, here’s the problem. If we are to hold people responsible for their beliefs, then, given that belief is not under the control of the will, it must issue from an earlier culpable act: one neglected evidence, one failed to enter into conversation with certain people, one was not open-minded, or some such thing. But, presumably, at that earlier time, one believed it was alright to neglect that evidence, fail to enter into conversation, or not be open-minded on that occasion. Thus, how can we ever hold people responsible for their beliefs and the actions performed on the basis of those beliefs? We are unwilling to give up holding people accountable for their beliefs. But it seems we are equally unwilling to give up the principle that people should not act contrary to their beliefs.

I am not entirely sure how this challenge can be met. But here are at least a few things we ought to note that can help in solving the problem.

First, it seems that if people act on their beliefs and there was no way they could have changed those beliefs – for instance, because they have been thoroughly indoctrinated or they suffer from a psychosis – we cannot blame them for holding those beliefs and for the actions based on those beliefs. Maybe we should take protective measures and perhaps even incarcerate them, but they are not morally responsible for what they believe or what they do.

Second, intellectual virtues or, as philosopher Linda Zagzebski calls them, ‘virtues of the mind’, steadily grow over long periods of time: open-mindedness, curiosity, thoroughness. And so do intellectual vices, such as dogmatism, conformity, and sloppiness. They gradually arise out of choices we make on particular occasions, such as whether we listen to someone and try to understand what things would look like from their point of view. These intellectual virtues and vices heavily influence our beliefs and, consequently, our actions. Thus, the more evidence we have that someone has had enough opportunity to develop these virtues, the more we can hold them responsible for their beliefs.

Third, the flat-out principle that we should act on our beliefs might be too simplistic: it may need substantial qualification by taking into account serious doubts that one might have, whether or not one’s belief matches one’s emotions and desires, and whether or not there is substantial disagreement with others about the belief in question. This, as such, will not solve the problem, but such qualifications seem needed to do full justice to our intuitions about the plausibility of the akrasia principle.

The responsibility we bear for our beliefs is crucial for individual well-being and the flourishing of our societies. And yet, like so many things that are crucial in our lives, it is vexing and raises deep philosophical questions. We will need joint work by ethicists, epistemologists, psychologists, and sociologists to find satisfactory answers.

~ Originally published at OUP Blog: Oxford University Press’s Academic Insights for the Thinking World, on November 19th, 2016

~ Rik Peels is Assistant Professor in Ethics and Epistemology at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, the Netherlands. He is the author of Responsible Belief: A Theory in Ethics and Epistemology (OUP, 2016), editor of Perspectives on Ignorance from Moral and Social Philosophy (Routledge, 2016), and co-editor of The Epistemic Dimensions of Ignorance (CUP, 2016). You can read more on his personal website www.rikpeels.nl. (Bio credit: OUP Blog)

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Josh Duggar and Public Hysteria Over the ‘Sex Crimes’ of Children

Sick of hearing about Josh Duggar yet?

I sure am. But it’s not the volume of reporting and public gossip on the story that’s making me sick. It’s the way we simultaneously fear and drool over stories that reveal that children have sexual instincts too. It’s the way our laws and the media punish children, often for the rest of their lives, for this very fact. And it’s the way that far too many of my fellow freethinkers, supposedly enlightened and sex-positive, have jumped on the bandwagon in their zeal to ‘get at’ the Duggars.

In case you haven’t heard, Josh is the 27 year old son of celebrity parents Michelle and Jim Bob Duggar, a conservative Christian couple whose practice of rampant childbearing (19 at this point) made them the subject of a popular reality television show.

It turns out that Josh was a kid like many other kids: as a young teen, he touched other children, some far younger than himself, in a sexual manner. Most of it was light petting, or touching of the genital area through clothing. I couldn’t find evidence that there was any violence or physical coercion involved. At some point Josh went to his parents and confessed, and over time, law enforcement was called in, and all those involved received counseling.

It started out with gossip, then somehow, someone got Arkansas authorities to release the police report, which was splashed all over the news by trashy celebrity-gossip publication InTouch Weekly. While names and pronouns were redacted, it became clear that the report was about Josh, and he and his family ‘fessed up. At the request of one of the recipients of the unwelcome touching, the record was destroyed.

Even my fellow freethinkers and sex-positivists have joined in the fray. While giving half-hearted disclaimers to their spreading Josh Duggar ‘molestation’ tales (a strong term for the type of non-violent, secret petting described) even though he was a child at the time, they’re so eager to get at Michelle and Jim Bob that their scruples have fled them.

Deeply disappointing. While it’s right that children taught to respect the bodily integrity of others and the importance of consent, it’s also true that children are insatiably curious, with immature brains that lack the structures adults rely on for self-control. C’mon, people. Don’t you have any memory at all of what it’s like to be a little bag of hormones lacking a developed prefrontal cortex? Don’t you remember the storms of emotion and urges, which we could hardly make sense of or control, that raged through us and seemed to take over our minds and bodies? Yes, children have bodies with parts, and sometimes they explore their budding sexuality by touching each other on these parts. We need to get over it and grow up, if we are to be the wise and just helpers children need as they grow up.

Whether or not their intentions were protective or self-serving, the Duggar parents did the right thing by shielding their child from the media circus. They probably did the right thing by privately turning to law enforcement to help teach their recalcitrant young son that actions have consequences and that there are personal boundaries that must be respected. They definitely did the right thing by seeking counseling, even if the counseling could have been of better quality. This is not a story, as many are portraying it, that echoes the clergy child abuse scandals of the last few decades. Those were real sexual crimes perpetuated on children by adults who are far more capable of self-control, and who wield a sort of power that children, as Josh was at the time, do not possess.

Correct children for their mistakes, punish them appropriately to discourage unacceptable behavior, but do not pillory them in the media and do not punish them for the rest of their lives for their childhood wrongdoing. This is true even if the person is now an adult. We do not hold adults to account for what they did as children because we believe in accountability and personal responsibility. To gossip about the mistakes and misdemeanors of children now grown is disgusting and morally reprehensible, because it teaches people that it’s no use to try and become a better person if society will always punish you no matter how you better yourself in the future. Shame on you, Rachel Ford of Friendly Atheist, usually such a good forum for critical thinking. Shame on you, Ana Kasparian and company on the Young Turks, for waiting till near the end of your video commentary to make a halfhearted disclaimer that kids’ disciplinary records shouldn’t be made public, after you passed along this gossip in such an unbalanced and salacious manner. And shame on all of you who joined in this witch hunt.

There’s yet another story that I recently heard about a man who was put on a sex offender registry because he, as a child, had sexual contact with another child. The young man in the story did wrong, but he reformed. Yet he and his family are still suffering the consequences, as are thousands just like him (often for offenses as minor as showing a photo of a body part to another minor, consensually or not), and may be suffering for the rest of his life. There’s nothing so cruel as a simultaneously sex-obsessed and sex-fearing society toward a registered ‘sex offender’, regardless of how they got the label. Think of that young man, of Josh, and of how every single one of our lives could be destroyed if our childhood mistakes were held over our heads in perpetuity.

If people want to criticize the Duggar parents for making a circus of their family and exposing their small children to the stress and danger of life in the limelight (think of the Jackson family and how celebrity affected those kids), well and good. But LEAVE THE KIDS OUT OF IT.

Sources:

Bryan, Miles. For Juvenile Sex Offenders, State Registries Create Lifetime of Problems’. All Things Considered, NPR. May 28th, 2015. http://www.npr.org/2015/05/28/410251735/for-juvenile-sex…

Ember, Sydney. ‘Josh Duggar Molested Four of His Sisters, His Parents Tell Fox News’, New York Times, June 4th 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/04/business/media/josh-duggar-molested…

Ford, Rachel. ‘What the Rush to Defend Josh Duggar Tells Us About Conservative Christian Morality’, Friendly Atheist blog. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/2015/05/27/what-…

‘Josh Duggar Chilling Molestation Confession In New Police Report’, InTouch Weekly, June 3 2015
http://www.intouchweekly.com/posts/josh-duggar-chilling-molestation-confession-in-new-police…

‘Josh Duggar’s Child Molestation History Revealed’, The Young Turks, May 22nd 2015.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_MEjjV_jcCc

How the Brain Works (and Doesn’t) vs Our Justice System

We’re learning new and surprising things about our brains all the time. Psychologists, behavioral economists, and other scientists have sophisticated new tricks to reveal what’s going on inside our skulls, and their findings are publicized more widely than ever before. We reveal what we think we’re thinking through polls and quizzes, we’re ‘tricked’ into revealing what we’re really thinking through rigged puzzles and tests (exposing our biases, misconceptions, etc), we have easy access to massive databases of recorded human thought, and most amazingly, neuroscientists can now peer inside our brains while we’re thinking. And some of what we’re learning shows us that we’ve been wrong about ourselves in some really important ways.

So: do changes in our understanding of how the brain works mean we have to change, even to overhaul, how our justice system works too?

Our justice system! WHAT?!? Why would we want to change something so equitable, so honorable, it’s defined by the word ‘justice’?

Seriously, though: to many, this question is almost too scary to ask. 

Won’t we send the signal that we’re no longer tough on crime by even proposing such a project? Isn’t our justice system pretty good as it is? Occasional ‘bad apple’ cops, perjuring witnesses, and corrupt prosecutors aside, our justice system is founded on the wholesome principle of personal responsibility: if we do wrong, we pay the price. A central feature of our justice system, after all, is the right to a fair trial by a jury of our peers. And as a society, we’ve taken great pains to ensure that everyone charged with a crime can get a fair trial. Our standards of evidence are pretty high: there must be eyewitness testimony and plenty of it. Forensic evidence is carefully collected and thoroughly analyzed, from blood to fingerprints to DNA to the tiniest of hairs and fibers. Everyone is entitled to legal counsel, even if the taxpayers have to foot the bill. Children and the mentally disabled are, properly, not tried as if they have the same level of responsibility as fully capable adults. The convicted have a right to appeal if they present evidence that their trial was unfair or if they can demonstrate innocence. And so on.
Even granting all of these and setting them aside for now, a common objection to the current justice system in general is that the underlying concept of personal responsibility is a myth. We’re not responsible since everything we think and do is determined by laws of cause and effect. So, we have no free will, and if we have no free will, the whole concept of moral accountability, of responsibility for our actions, doesn’t make sense. The justice system ends up, then, having nothing to rightfully judge or punish. Let’s explore this for a moment.

What do we mean by personal responsibility? We mean that it’s we that did the thing, it’s we who understand that there are alternatives available to us, and it’s we that could, at least conceivably, have done otherwise. This is true even if our personalities, past experiences, and current circumstances make it unlikely we would have chosen otherwise. It’s reasonable to assign responsibility for actions, since it deters us from making bad choices, and motivates us to inculcate better habits in ourselves. Assigning responsibility does not mean we must ruthlessly punish all who do wrong; it means that we can make reasonable demands of one another as the circumstances warrant, be it punishment, recompense, an apology, or an acknowledgement of responsibility.


Who’s responsible for our actions, then? We all are, so long as we are capable of understanding what we should do and why (whether or not we understood at the time), and so long as we could have chosen to do otherwise. Unless immaturity, injury, or illness makes it impossible, or nearly impossible, to control our actions, all persons who are free to make their own choices can and should be held responsible for those choices. (I argue for this more fully in ‘But My Brain Made Me Do It!’)

By the way, that’s why I disagree with many who think that psychopaths shouldn’t be held responsible for their actions. Although it may be more difficult for the psychopath to do the right thing, to respect the rights of others, it’s still in their power to do so, so long as they are capable of reason. We don’t let other people off the hook just because they don’t feel like doing the right thing; and all people, psychopaths or not, often find the wrong thing to do irresistibly attractive, and the right thing difficult. As long as anyone demonstrates sufficient intelligence to understand that the rules apply to them, it doesn’t matter that they wish it didn’t, or feel like it shouldn’t. After all, psychopathy is characterized by lack of empathy, not intelligence. The impartiality that underlies all morality, as in A owes a moral or legal duty to B, so B owes an equal moral or legal duty to A, is a simple and logical equation that any minimally intelligent adult person can grasp, psychopath or not.

So if the concept of personal responsibility, or moral accountability, is generally a good one, and our society is so committed to creating a fair justice system, what’s the problem with it?Here’s one of the main problems: many of our laws and practices are based on a poor understanding of how memory works, and an underestimation of how often it doesn’t work. For example, many of our law enforcement tactics are virtually guaranteed to result in unacceptably high rates of false convictions through their tendency to influence or convince suspects and eyewitnesses to remember details and events that never happened. Police interrogators can and do legally lie to their subjects in the attempt to ‘get them to talk’, under the assumption that false information has little to no effect on the person being interrogated other than to coax or scare the truth out of them. Until very recently, we didn’t understand how malleable memory really is, how easy it is in many circumstances to get others to form false memories by feeding them information. Courts all over the United States, even the Supreme Court, have upheld such deceptive techniques as lawful, yet we have mounting evidence to show these techniques have the opposite of their intended effect – unless, of course, the intended effect is any conviction for crime, not just the true one.

The fact that human memory is as undependable as it it seems counterintuitive, to say the least. It’s true that we can be forgetful, that we trip up on unimportant details such as the color of a thing, or the make of a car, or someone’s height. But surely, we can’t forget the really important things, like what the person who robbed or raped us looks like, or whether a crime happened at all, especially if we’ve committed it ourselves. Yet sometimes it’s the accumulation of small, relatively ‘unimportant’ misremembered details that leads us to ultimately convict the wrong people, and the evidence piling up also reveals that we do, in fact, misremember important things all the time. And people are losing their reputations, their liberty, their homes and money, even their lives, because of it.
 
Before we look at this evidence, let’s explore, briefly, how we think about memory, and what we are learning about it.

Not so long ago, working theories of human memory rather resembled descriptions of filing systems or of modern computers; many still think of it that way. We thought of the brain as something like a fairly efficient librarian or personal secretary neatly and efficiently storing important bits of information, such as memories of things that

happened to us, images of the people and places we know or encounter in significant moments in our lives, and so on, in a systematic way that would facilitate later retrieval, and most importantly, retrieval of reliable information. ‘Unimportant’ memories, or the less significant details of memorable events, were thrown away by forgetting, so that brain power wouldn’t be wasted on useless information. Sometimes we’d find old memories stuffed away in the back of the file or pushed off to a corner somewhere, a little difficult to retrieve after much time had passed, but still accessible with some effort. But important memories were stored more or less intact and discrete from one another, so if we remembered something at all, we’d remember it fairly correctly, or at least, the most important details of it. After all, it wouldn’t make sense for our internal secretary to rip up the memory file into little pieces and stash it all over the place helter-skelter, or to cross out random bits or even doctor the files from time to time, would it? And we certainly couldn’t remember things as if they actually happened to us if they didn’t. It seems all wrong, that evolution (or an intelligent designer, if that’s your thing) would give us an inefficient, inaccurate, dishonest, or mischievous keeper of that most cherished, most self-defining component of ourselves, our life’s memories.

But now we know that memory works differently in many ways than we thought. How do we know this? For one, we’re now looking inside the brain as we think, and brain scans show that the process of recalling looks different in practice than we might have expected if some of our old theories were true. But more revealingly, we’re taking a closer look at our cognitive blunders. Like many other discoveries in science, we find out more and more about how something works, honing in on it so to speak, by examining instances where it doesn’t work as it should if our theories, or common sense, were correct.

As we’re finding out that memory doesn’t work as we thought, we’re also realizing how heavily our justice system relies on memory and on first-person accounts of what happened. We place a very high value on eyewitness testimony and confessions in pursuing criminal convictions, again, based on faulty old assumptions about how memory works, and how accurately people interpret the evidence of their senses. Yet as we’ll see, people have been falsely convicted because of these, even when other evidence available at the time contradicted these personal accounts of what happened. As our justice system places undue faith in memory and perception, despite their flaws, in what other ways is it built on wrong ideas about how the mind works?

Neuroscience, the quest to understand the brain and how it works, was founded on case studies of how the mind to appeared to change when the brain was injured. Traditionally, the mind was thought of as a unified thing that inhabits or suffuses our brain somewhat as a ghost haunts an old house. If part of the house burns down, the ghost is the same: it can just move to another rooms. But careful observers, early scientists, noticed that an injury to a part of the brain affects the mind itself. When particular parts of the brain were injured, patients lost specific capabilities (to form new memories, for example, or to recognize faces, or to keep their temper). Sometimes, the personality itself would change, like from friendly to unfriendly or vice-versa. Or in the case of split-brain patients, they would simultaneously like and dislike, believe and not believe, or be able and not able to do certain things, depending on how you ask, or sometimes just depending on what side of the body you address them from! Gradually, we came to understand that the mind is something that emerges from a physical brain, from the way the brain’s parts work together, and is entirely dependent on the brain itself for its qualities and for its very existence. 


And as we discussed, it’s not only neuroscientists with their fMRIs that are revealing how the brain works. The criminal justice system has amassed mountains of evidence that shows us how often the human brain does its job and helps us ‘get the right guy’, and how often it fails. With advances in technology, such as DNA testing, more sophisticated firearms testing, expanded access to files and records, and many other newly available forensic tools, we’re discovering an alarming number of false convictions, not only of people currently imprisoned, but sadly, of those we’re too late to help. Most of these are the direct result of basic errors of our own faulty brains. 

(I’ve more briefly discussed the issue of false convictions for crime in an earlier piece, stressing the importance of knowing the ways our criminal justice system fails, and one of the most effective ways society can keep itself informed.)

Two of the main culprits in false convictions are false memory and misperception, the one resulting from errors in recall, the other resulting from bias or the misinterpretation of sense evidence.

For example, let’s consider the case of a rape victim and the man she falsely accused, who went on to work together for reform in certain law enforcement practices. For years, Jennifer Thompson-Cannino was absolutely sure that Ronald Cotton had raped her, and her identification of him led to his conviction for the crime. After all, as she said, and as the court agreed, one couldn’t forget the face of someone who had done this to you, committed such an intimate crime inches away from one’s own eyes, could they? Eleven years later, the real rapist was identified when the original rape kit sample was re-tested to confirm a DNA match. Over time, Thompson-Cannino had convinced herself, honestly by all accounts, that Cotton’s face was the one she originally saw, and each time she looked at it, the more she ‘recognized’ it as that of her rapist, and the more strongly she associated this recognition with the rest of her memories of the crime. Fortunately, she’s one of those rare people who are able to fully admit such an egregious mistake, and she has joined with Cotton to call on police jurisdictions to change the way suspect lineup identifications are conducted. Thompson-Cannino and Cotton learned a hard lesson about the fallibility of memory, and how preconceived notions (in this case, that the police must be right) can withstand the rigors of the courtroom and still lead to very wrong conclusions.

But we can imagine that such a mistake must happen from time to time, as in Cotton’s case, when the supposed criminal looks quite a bit like the real one, and the array of circumstances that led to the whole mix-up were so unusually convoluted. But, surely, a lot of people couldn’t all remember the same crime, or series of crimes, wrongly, and describe it mostly the same way when questioned separately? Well, that happens too
. The McMartin case of the early 1980’s was just the first of a string of cases which resulted in hundreds of people being convicted for the rape and torture of small children, usually entirely based on the purported evidence of the ‘victims’ ‘ own memories, or those of their family members. The ‘victims’, mostly young children, told detailed, lurid, horrific stories of events that most people would consider beyond the imaginative scope of innocent children. Over time, as those convicted of the crimes were pardoned, exonerated, or usually just had the charges dropped without apology (some still languish in prison, or are confined to house arrest, or are barred from being with children, including those of their own family), videos and transcripts of ‘expert’ interviews with these children found them leading their interviewees on. Professional psychologists and interrogators were found to be influencing children to form their own false memories, even planting them whole-cloth, rather than drawing them out as most people thought they were doing. This includes the professionals themselves! Some of these children, now grown, still ‘remember’ these events to this day, even those who now know they never happened.

Okay, now we’re talking about children, and we all know children are impressionable. But usually it’s adults who give evidence in such important cases, and though they might be fuzzy on the details when it comes to what other people did, they know what they themselves did, right? Well, here again, no, not necessarily. In Norfolk, Virginia, eight people were convicted of crimes relating to the rape and murder of one woman, based on the first-person confessions and testimony of four military men. These men, who had tested sound enough of mind and body to join the Navy, were convinced by police interrogators, one by one, to ‘reveal’ that they and several others had, by a series of coincidences, formed an impromptu gang-rape party that managed to conduct a violent crime that lasted for hours, while leaving little destruction or evidence behind. Although these confessions didn’t match the evidence found in the crime scene, didn’t match the other confessions, or were contradicted by alibis, all were found guilty on the common-sense and legal assumptions that sane, capable people don’t falsely accuse themselves.Yet as in the Norfolk case, the case history of our criminal justice system reveals that with the right combination of pressure, threats, assertion of authority, and personality type, just about anyone can be pushed to confess to committing even a terrible crime, and worse yet, become convinced that they did it (as one of the men did in the Norfolk case). The Central Park Five, as they are often called, were five teenage boys, aged 14 to 16, who were convicted of the rape, torture, and attempted murder of a woman in Central Park in New York City. The justifiably horrified public outrage at this crime, combined with frustration over a rash of other crimes throughout the city, put a lot of pressure on law enforcement to solve the crime in a hurry. These five boys had already been picked up by police officers in suspicion of committing other crimes that night, of robbery and assault, among other things, and when the unconscious, severely beaten woman was found, the police hoped they had her attackers in custody already. After hours of intensive untaped interrogation, all five eventually confessed, implicating themselves and each other. They were convicted, despite the fact that the blood evidence matched none of them, and their confessions contradicted each other in important details. 

False memories and false confessions are only two of the ways our fallible brains can lead us astray in the search for truth. Human psychology, so effective at so many things, is also short-sighted, self-serving, and wedded to satisfying and convenient narratives, to a fault. Law enforcement officials in all of these cases were convinced that their theories of effective interrogation were right, and that their perceptions of the suspects were right. The prosecutors were convinced that the police officers had delivered the right suspects for trial. The legislators that made the laws, and the courts that upheld them, were convinced they were acting in the best interest of justice. And as we’ve seen, all of these were wrong.

As just about everyone was who were involved in bringing Todd Willingham to court, and in condemning him to die for the murder of his own children by arson. By all accounts, Willingham didn’t act as people would expect a grieving father to act, especially one who had escaped the same burning house his children had died in. Yet it was one faulty theory after anotherfrom pop psychology and preconceived notions about that ‘real’ grief looks like, from bad forensics to a poor understanding of how an exceedingly immature and awkward man might only appear guilty of an otherwise unbelievable crime, that led to his conviction and execution by lethal injection.

But the problem of false conviction for crime is much, much larger than we might suppose from the cases we’ve considered here: these were all capital crimes, and as such were subject to much more rigorous scrutiny than in other cases. If wrongful convictions are known to happen so often in the case of major crimes, we can reasonably extrapolate a very high number of false arrests, undeserved fines, and especially, false plea deals, in which people innocent of the relatively minor crimes they’re accused of are rounded up, charged, and sentenced. Plea bargaining presents a special problem: suspects are persuaded to plead guilty and accept a lesser sentence than the frighteningly harsh one they’re originally threatened with, and in jurisdiction after jurisdiction, we’re finding that huge numbers of innocent people are sent to prison every year through this method. All of this results from a blind zeal to promote justice, or at least, the appearance of justice in the interest of feeling secure, of more firmly establishing authority, or of fulfilling the emotional need to adhere to comforting social traditions.

So how do we need to change our attitude towards our criminal justice system, in the pursuit of actual justice? A proper spirit of epistemic humility, a greater concern for those who may have been wrongfully convicted, and a real love of justice itself (rather than the mere show of caring about justice that the ‘tough on crime’ too often consists of).

But we still are left with the practical task of protecting ourselves and one another. Positive action must be taken, or crime will run rampant, being unopposed. But that doesn’t mean hold on to old ideas and practices because we like them, because they are familiar and ‘time-tested’, and make us feel safe. This includes the death penalty, which shuts out all possibility that we can remedy our mistakes.

Here’s one general solution: approach criminal justice as we do science itself, where we accept conclusions based on the best evidence at the time, but founded on the idea that all conclusions are contingent, are revisable if better, compelling, well-tested evidence comes along. We need a justice system that assumes the fallibility of memory and perception, and builds in systematic corrections for them.

And we need a system that doesn’t just pay homage to this idea: we need to build one that allows for corrections, and not in such a way that it takes years, if ever, to release someone from prison or clear someone’s name if the evidence calls for it. Many would say that the system already works this way: look at how many appeals are available to the convicted, and how many hundreds of people have already been exonerated of serious crimes. But it doesn’t work that way in almost all circumstances. It takes anywhere from months to several years after actual innocence is established to actually release a wrongfully convicted person from prison. For all those not so lucky as to have their innocence proved: most cases don’t have DNA evidence available to test to begin with, at least that would definitively prove guilt or innocence. And even in the rare cases such evidence is available, most is never re-tested to begin with, since the bar for re-evaluation of evidence is so high. Or, the evidence that was available is destroyed after the original conviction and is unavailable for re-examination. Or, legal jurisdictions are so determined that their authority remain unchallenged that they make it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for prosecutors and law enforcement officers to be held accountable in any way if they make a mistake, and bend over backwards to make sure such mistakes are never revealed. And so on.

In short: we don’t just need a justice system that brings in science to help out; we need a justice system whose laws and practices emulate the self-correcting discipline of science, which, in turn, is derived from the honest acknowledgement of the limitations of our own minds.

*Listen to the podcast version here or on iTunes

* Also published at Darrow, a forum for thoughts on the cultural and political debates of today

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Sources and Inspiration

‘About the Central Park Five’ [film by Ken Burns, David McMahon and Sarah Burns], PBS.org.
http://www.pbs.org/kenburns/centralparkfive/about-central-park-five/Berlow, Alan. ‘What Happened in Norfolk.’ New York Times Magazine. August 19th, 2007.
http://www.nytimes.com/2007/08/19/magazine/19Norfolk-t.html

‘The Causes of Wrongful Convictions’. The Innocence Project.
http://www.innocenceproject.org/causes-wrongful-conviction

Celizic, Mike. ‘She Sent Him to Jail for Rape; Now They’re Friends’ Today News, Mar 3, 2009.
http://www.today.com/id/29613178/ns/today-today_news/t/she-sent-him-jail-rape-now-th

Eagleman, David. ‘Morality and the Brain’, Philosophy Bites podcast, May 22 2011.
http://philosophybites.com/2011/05/david-eagleman-on-morality-and-the-brain.html

‘The Fallibility of Memory’, Skeptoid podcast #446. Dec 23, 2014.
http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4446

Fraser, Scott. ‘Why Eyewitnesses Get It Wrong’ TED talk. May 2012
http://www.ted.com/talks/scott_fraser_the_problem_with_eyewitness_testimony

Grann, David. ‘Trial by Fire: Did Texas Execute an Innocent Man?’ The New Yorker, Sep 7, 2009
http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2009/09/07/trial-by-fire

Hughes, Virginia. ‘How Many People Are Wrongly Convicted? Researchers Do the Math’. National Geographic: Only Human, Apr 28, 2014.
http://phenomena.nationalgeographic.com/2014/04/28/how-many-people-are-wrongly-

Jensen, Frances. ‘Why Teens Are Impulsive, Addiction-Prone And Should Protect Their Brains’. Fresh Air interview, Jan 28th, 2015.
http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2015/01/28/381622350/why-teens-are-impulsive-...

Kean, Sam. ‘These Brains Changed Neuroscience Forever’. Interview on Inquiring Minds, 

Lilienfeld, Scott O. and Hal Arkowitz. ‘What “Psychopath” Means’. Scientific American,
Nov 28, 2007. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/what-psychopath-means/

Loftus, Elizabeth. Creating False Memories.’ Scientific American, Sept 1,1997. http://faculty.washington.edu/eloftus/Articles/sciam.htm
and ‘The Fiction of Memory’ TED talk. June 2013.
http://www.ted.com/talks/elizabeth_loftus_the_fiction_of_memory?

 
Nelkin, Dana K., ‘Moral Luck’, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edward N. Zalta (ed.) http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/moral-luck/
 
Perrilo, Jennifer T. and Saul M. Kassin. ‘The Lie, The Bluff, and False Confessions’. Law and Human Behavior (academic journal of the American Psychology-Law Society). Aug 24th, 2010.
https://www.how2ask.nl/wp-content/uploads/downloads/2011/10/Perillo-Kassin-The-Lie

Possley, Maurice. ‘Fresh Doubts Over a Texas Execution’. The Washington PostAug 3, 2014.
http://www.washingtonpost.com/sf/national/2014/08/03/fresh-doubts-over-a-texas-execution/

Robertson, Campbell. ‘South Carolina Judge Vacates Conviction of George Stinney in 1944 Execution’, The New York TimesDec. 17, 2014. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/18/us/judge-vacates-convict

Shaw, Julia. ‘False Memories Creating False Criminals’. Interview, Point of Inquiry podcast.
March 2nd, 2015. http://www.pointofinquiry.org/false_memories_creating_false_criminals_with_dr..

‘The Trial That Unleashed Hysteria Over Child Abuse.’ New York Times, Mar 9th, 2014.
and video ‘McMartin Preschool: Anatomy of a Panic | Retro Report’

‘Flaunting’ is a Terrible Excuse for Crime

Have you ever heard the argument: ‘Well, she shouldn’t have worn that skimpy outfit / got drunk / flirted at that party. It’s (also) her fault she was raped / assaulted.’?

Compare that argument with this one: ‘Well, he shouldn’t have been wearing that Rolex / Versace suit / driven that Lexus. It’s (also) his fault he was held up / beaten to the ground and robbed.’

These are equally terrible arguments.

While one might have a point saying that a person acted impractically by wearing something in a situation where there might be predators around, that has nothing to do with the fact that it’s entirely the fault of the criminal for committing the crime.

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.

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