Thoughts on Justice, Causality, and Free-Will

Justice, Causality, Free-Will

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 failbut 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 plagiarismspelling 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.

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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:

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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 enoughto the point of maybe being almost reinforcing.

I wonder if this is the result of his behavior being shaped by prior experiencesperhaps 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 experiencesprior 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 mixwe 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 behaviorwe 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 effectcan 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.

The Importance of Being Earnest

The Importance of Being Earnest

Everyday, everyone is faced with decisions that must be made in the light of their personal ethical obligations. Sometimes these choices are complex with many pros and cons to take into consideration and at other-times they are undemanding enough to consider even momentarily. These situations may involve our perceived duties as friends or parents. They may be as controversial as whether or not to have an abortion or whether we should cheat on an exam or spouse. As I begin to write this, I cannot give a generalized maxim that can be implemented when faced with these dilemmas (however challenging or un-challenging they may be). I have not written any brilliant aphorisms that answer these situations. What I will do is try to consider and point out something that, quite lamentably, remains unconsidered in people’s day-to-day lives. The problem I wish do deal with is the importance of being earnest and, more specifically, the importance of sharing earnest positivity.

Generally, when caught in the heat of the moment, we are quick to say something we will undoubtedly regret later – “I wish we had never met,” “I hate you,” or “I can’t believe you’re MY child.” Too often, the damage we have dealt with these thoughtless, reckless words are not easily remedied. A lifetime of friendship or partnership can be brought to a quick collapse with a declarative statement spoken without any forethought — however true for the moment that statement might be. A cautionary gem found in the Epistle of James advises us to be swift to hear, slow to speak, and slow to wrath. Perhaps this is the maxim we could live by, by which many of the problems brought about by a loose tongue and quick temper would be solved. Unfortunately, these are difficult instructions to abide by. When negativity in the form of anger runs rampant onto the scene we are often dragged along on the calamitous ride.

Seemingly slaves to our feelings, it appears that it is much easier to be obedient to the devil on our shoulder than the angel on our other. What a better world it would be if our nice and constructive thoughts were the first to reach our tongue rather than the malicious and destructive ones. There is a certain importance in being earnest positively, one with clear consequential outcomes. If this is so, why is it the case that we give voice to negativity more often than positivity? Why is it that the majority of us are ready to criticize mistakes than praise accomplishments — however minor?

Imagine what relationships could have been salvaged if before that tipping point of frustration there had already been a strong foundation of open and earnest compassion, understanding, or kindness. It seems clear that we should never assume that someone knows we care, we should tell them. We should never assume that someone knows we love them, we should tell them. One maxim I have picked up on making assumptions is that when you assume, you make an ass out of u and me.

According to some professors I have spoken to as well as some online websites, there seems to be an understanding that performing 5 acts of appreciation and acknowledgment to every 1 negative interaction can fix a relationship or keep it healthy. You’d think that people who are in love with each other would find such advice superfluously and unnecessarily spoken — “Of course we should focus our energies to engaging in more positive over negative interactions,” they might say. Why, then, is it so hard? We want to be happy and we want the people we love to be happy — so why does creating unhappiness come easier?

Another thought to consider, according to suicide.org, in the United States in 2001 “Suicide [was] the third leading cause of death for young people aged 15-24 year olds.” I wonder how many of these suicides, committed at the start of these people’s lives, could have been prevented if some of the kinder words we keep to ourselves had not gone unexpressed? How many lives could have been spared if we had not assumed that they knew we cared already? How much potential was lost as a result of our unspoken positivity or our outspoken negativity?

I have been told, “If you have nothing nice to say, then don’t say anything” — but this seems to be only one side of the coin (and the other side of the coin remains without a popular and quotable maxim). Regardless, the aforementioned aphorism is one I disagree with. Above being nice, it is important to be truthful. For statements of fact, opinion, or belief to hold any weight they must be true and spoken in absolute earnest. Perhaps what you have to say is not very nice, but it could be a vital truth — and it is better to be rude than to be dishonest. Even in less dire situations, such as someone asking their partner, “Does this outfit make me look fat?” it is important that the partner responds earnestly and honestly — if not, then any further compliments may end up being disregarded as mere flattery. It is honesty in difficult scenarios that makes all other words meaningful.

Even storybook villains come to the conclusion that, “Only enemies speak the truth; friends and lovers lie endlessly, caught in the web of duty.” — but perhaps we can change that.

It is in this mode of thought that it seems important to be earnest not just in uncomfortable and unpleasant conversations but also when we can encourage and inspire. If I could propose a new maxim, I would recommend people to: be earnest and honest in all dealings, good and bad — and to be unreserved with the good. Words unabiding by this maxim seem to be empty flatteries and wasted breath.