When Choice Is King

As you'd expect in a culture wedded to mind-body dualism but inhabiting an age of science, articles and op-eds crop up on a regular basis defending the soul and its freedom against the threat of universal causation. Science is in the business of discovering the material origins of phenomena, including us, so it necessarily challenges explanations for behavior that invoke a non-physical, freely willing, causally privileged mind. But that's exactly the conception of ourselves operating in so much of our thinking about choice and choosing. So it's no surprise we defend this conception against science, hoping to keep those nasty dogs of determinism at bay. The result is that science gets short shrift and we remain ignorant of why people behave the way they do. Below are three recent appeals to choice as the unconditioned originator of behavior, and it’s no coincidence all are from conservatives.

Brian Doherty on the Andrea Yates case

Writing for Reason, senior editor Brian Doherty discusses the Andrea Yates insanity defense, which was successful the second time around. He says (emphasis added):

Something other than a disease seems necessary to explain her actions adequately. In the opinions of many expert witnesses, a sizable portion of the lay public, and the first jury, the most sensible candidate for that something was Andrea Yates’ choice, for whatever reason, to murder her five children. If so, many reasoned, she deserved the same treatment from the legal system as anyone else who made that choice, for whatever reason.

What's striking is that Yate's choice, according to Doherty, plays a buck-stopping role in the explanation of her actions; he's not interested in what explains the choice itself. Why not? Because that would necessarily pass the buck from the purportedly autonomous chooser to her antecedents, thus undermining responsibility. Insulating choice from explanation (except to say it's a function of the offender's free will, which begs the question) works to buttress Doherty's main objective in the piece: to downplay the usefulness of psychiatry and neuroscience in assessing criminal responsibility. Since these disciplines can't really explain much, this leaves room for the traditional intuition that there's a non-physical chooser in charge. He says there will likely be "permanent gaps between psychiatry and the law" simply because "metaphysical intangibles such as choice, intention and judgment" will never be understood scientifically.

This is the polar opposite of what Tufts psychiatrist Ron Pies calls psychiatric naturalism, and stands as an unfortunate instance of how contra-causal, dualistic conceptions of self and responsibility block a science-based understanding of how we choose. Such understanding, for instance the light neuroscience sheds on the brain and behavior, can indeed inform our judgments about culpability. Insanity is a matter of how badly a brain-instantiated mind is compromised by structural and functional neural deficits. The better we understand the brain, the better we can assess the extent to which behavior is the result of faulty functioning, as opposed to bad values. (Here are direct links to Ron Pies' articles on psychiatric naturalism: Time to End the Mind-Brain Split; Hume's Fork and Psychiatry's Explanations: Determinism and the Dimensions of Freedom; and Psychiatric Naturalism and the Dimensions of Freedom: Implications for Psychiatry and the Law.)

Dinesh D'Souza on Evil as a Choice

Another example of pointed anti-naturalism is provided courtesy of arch-conservative Dinesh D'Souza. In a piece on recent murders in Connecticut, he defends the concept of evil as a matter of free choice, nothing explicable by looking at genes or environment.  Why do people do horrible things? Not, he says, because they were shaped by nature and nurture, although of course genes and environment have their effects, but simply because they are evil:

If neither society nor genes made them do it, what did? The third possibility is that they did it because they are evil. This option, so easily scorned by sophisticates, is actually the clearest and most satisfying description of the facts before us. This was an evil act, and it was done by some really bad people. Evil inspires indignation, and this indignation is not a mere emotional response but reflects a rational comprehension of the horror that has been perpetrated.

It's disturbing that D'Souza supposes the appeal to innate evil reflects a rational comprehension of behavior, since it's precisely the opposite: he's insulating horrific acts from explanation, from understanding them in terms of their causal antecedents. D'Souza's intransigence on this point is perhaps explained by the fact that he supposes that, if people are ultimately explicable in terms of genetics and environment, then "morality is an illusion." So morality needs an uncaused causer somewhere in the person, something culpable because it simply chooses to be evil:

However screwed up the murderers might have been, can anyone deny that they chose to do what they did, and consequently that they should be held responsible for their actions?

Again, choice is king: it's held to be independent of how dysfunctional the killers were, something that floats free of any explanation involving the factors that shaped them. But of course we don't need to suppose killers are moral levitators, as Daniel Dennett puts it, to hold them responsible, although we won’t any longer think of them as self-created monsters.

Note that D'Souza's positions his account of evil as obviously commonsensical, not what the "sophisticates" are trying to put over on us with their explanatory (and thus exculpatory) talk about genes and environment. He's saying, essentially, that to think about the causes of choices is elitist, a standard charge conservatives level against liberals. This is ominous indeed, since it seeks to make a political liability out of a basic human competency, the capacity to understand ourselves and the world. In order to get elected, will liberals have to play down their curiosity about the springs of human action, just as they have to play up their religiosity? If so, Canada looks increasingly attractive.

Frank Fisher on Gang Violence

A third unfortunate paean to free will is by Frank Fisher writing for the Guardian on gang violence. Although he has some good thoughts on what might help reduce violence, including education and strengthening families, he nevertheless makes a simplistic appeal to choice in explaining it (original emphasis):

These murderous boys - they were not born to murder. They were not born to be runners for crack dealers. They choose it. True, it is harder to make an informed choice when you are young - and that's why caring and disciplined parents (plural) are so vital - but even kids know that actions have consequences, and it's a rare five year old who doesn't understand that dead is dead, that killing is the most consequential action of all.

It’s of course true that very few killers are natural born, but the choice to kill or run crack doesn’t spring from nowhere, but out of a determinate combination of circumstances, environmental and genetic, that shape a person. To think otherwise is to appeal to a mystery, namely contra-causal free will. But like D’Souza, Fisher thinks that we’ve got to have such freedom since otherwise all is lost:

…it seems to me that to casually deny free will invites the total collapse of every human institution, from law, to the family to the notion of the self - it reduces us to automata. Billiard balls with legs. Wind us up, show us a certain image or ideal, and we act - senselessly and without individual volition… Worse, if we're robots, then what's the bloody point? Of anything? Locked in a pre-determined pavane, we can do nothing to influence or change our lives or the world around us from its inevitably written conclusions. Over dramatised? Not really - you either have free will, or you don't. I can't see a middle ground.

This of course is an argument ad baculum – from dire consequences – and it establishes nothing about free will. It only shows that Fisher thinks we can’t live without it. But he’s wrong; the consequences aren’t dire. If determinism is true, that is, if we’re fully caused to be the way we are, that subtracts nothing from the strength of our will, it doesn’t undermine our ability to think and choose rationally, nor does it weaken the impact of our actions on the world. Fisher confuses determinism with fatalism, the idea that no matter what we do, a pre-determined future will transpire. But our actions often make all the difference in how things turn out. Fisher continues:

We are human beings, and we can choose to let our emotions and impulses rule us, or we can overrule them. We can permit ourselves to be swept along by rage, propaganda, or a mob - or we can stop. And if we are one species, then if any of us can do this, all of us can.

If we wonder, legitimately, why someone would choose to be swept along by rage, we’re inevitably led to consider motivations, impulses, character, situation, etc., all of which involve a causal story that precedes the choice. Fisher’s failure to look behind the choice means, finally, that he’ll never understand the causes and cures of violence, and all because he must defend a concept of freedom he imagines underpins meaning and morality. Such are the costs of protecting one of our most cherished cultural myths.

So as not to end on a pessimistic note, there's a terrific piece against free will nonsense by Jay Michelson at Zeek. As he puts it, causality is our best friend, "enlightenment itself." Understanding and accepting cause and effect shows our connection to the world, inspires compassion, teaches humility, and gives us more control over our circumstances so that we can bring out the best in each other. It's possible to be moral, responsible agents without setting ourselves above or apart from nature as science reveals it. Indeed, understanding our causal connections to the world gives us the best shot at developing our natural moral endowment in service to human flourishing.

TWC, September 2007