A man is enrolled in a college course. In this college course it is required that he write his own work and respond to the work of his peers. On at least two occasions, this man has been exposed for plagiarism.
Under normal circumstances, it only takes one strike to fail—but the professor gracefully gave the student a second chance… a chance that the student did not take seriously because soon afterwards the man was exposed, yet again, for plagiarism—spelling an end to his enrollment in his course and spelling the beginning of another dismal episode in his academic career.
Probably due to my current Behavior Analysis frame of mind, I’d say that this is a perfect demonstration of the principles of Reinforcement and Punishment. The man got away with plagiarizing the first time around, increasing the likelihood that it would occur again.
In order for behavior to be modified, the desired behavior must be reinforced and the undesired behavior must be punished. In this instance, the man’s behavior was reinforced. The first time around, he received a reinforcing grade for his undesired behavior which was more reinforcing than the aversive talking to that most people would agree should have dissuaded him.
In order for punishment to be effective it must be: 1. Immediate 2. Consistent 3. Aversive.
For a punishment to be truly aversive, I wouldn’t say that punishment needs to “fit the crime”—it just needs to be aversive enough to ensure it doesn’t happen again. In this scenario, we could imagine a punishment that might have been aversive and appropriate given the situation:
Unfortunately for the cheater, we might say his idiocy prevented him from grasping a warning as an aversive enough condition.
But is idiocy really at the core? Perhaps a warning simply wasn’t aversive enough—to the point of maybe being almost reinforcing.
I wonder if this is the result of his behavior being shaped by prior experiences—perhaps getting warnings for his errors without a real response-contingent punishment from parents, professors, and policemen. In behavior analysis it is understood that behavior occurs because it has been reinforced. If this is the case, can we really blame him? He’s just the product of conditioning. So am I and so are you.
All of our wants and desires, values and ideals, attitudes and personalities are the consequences of prior experiences—prior reinforcers and punishments acting on a completely uncontrollable machine composed of neurons. All of our behaviors (intrinsic and extrinsic) boil down to the turning of cosmic wheels. No matter how complex this equation, there is no room for free-will to creep in. As an aside, some pseudo-scientific understanding of quantum indeterminacy might appear to add an element of randomness to the cosmic machine, but it would be comparable to throwing in a dice-roll to the mix—we remain reorganized cogs in an apparently mercurial machine. This appearance of unpredictability, however, is faulty. Whether stemming from obscurity, complexity, a false premise, or simple ignorance, to admit of free-will is to deny the obvious rule of cause-and-effect.
Sam Harris illustrates in his book, Free Will, a short-hand description of what precedes our imagined notion of “free-will”:
Take a moment to think about the context in which your next decision will occur: You did not pick your parents or the time and place of your birth. You didn’t choose your gender or most of your life experiences. You had no control whatsoever over your genome or the development of your brain. And now your brain is making choices on the basis of preferences and beliefs that have been hammered into it over a lifetime — by your genes, your physical development since the moment you were conceived, and the interactions you have had with other people, events, and ideas. Where is the freedom in this? Yes, you are free to do what you want even now. But where did your desires come from?
This cocktail of factors that determine our every thought really can account for all of our wants, desires, wills, decisions, etc.—however obscure or impossible that idea might seem.
The student failed because he cheated. He cheated because the behavior had been reinforced. Everything he will ever do is a response to previous consequences of previous actions stemming from the very first stimulus that provoked him to his first behavior—we can almost call it a primum movens.
The question of free-will, however, is not the question that bothers me. The question that bothers me is: Can he be blamed? In understanding the law of cause and effect, perhaps “blame” is an out-dated concept. We don’t blame the bullet for the destruction it causes, nor the gun for projecting it, we tend to blame the person pulling the trigger. But if people are composed of the same matter that composes everything else — all of their being is subject to the same laws of nature, the same law of cause and effect—can they really be blamed?
Within the context of justice and creating a just society, we certainly need to hold individuals accountable for their actions and act accordingly; but perhaps there is another way of thinking about the problem of responsibility and blame that would make this whole concept make more sense that we (or at least I) have not yet considered.
Perhaps my initial anger at the cheater is an outdated response when considering the much more complex reality of the situation. Perhaps all retaliatory impulses are outdated as well as the laws and punishments that reflect them.