Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

Myers On Evolutionary Psychology (again).

April 27, 2015

So P.Z. Myers is going on about evolutionary psychology again. The problem, though is that like so many times before the criticisms raised against evolutionary psychology are either problems with evolution, psychology, or are just the literal biological facts of life that the critics don’t seem to be able to understand or apply to the topics under discussion.

So let’s start with the first one, which is an example of the latter:

It’s all that nonsense about modules, whatever they are — they seem to be inventions by evolutionary psychologists to allow them to pretend that they can reduce behaviors to discrete regions in the genome, or the brain, or something (go ahead, try to pin one down on exactly what a “module” is — there is no clear association with anything physical).

Um, I presume that when they talk about modules they are talking about the well-known — and a commenter even points this out — fact that the brain is arranged generally into functional areas that do certain things, and that functionality is not distributed completely throughout the brain. Which means that if you damage certain parts of the brain, you will damage certain predictable functions and leave other functions unimpaired. We can even point to parts of the brain that are, in fact, older and so were developed first in humans, and what functions they have, and what functions arose in the later parts of the brain. All of which not only supports an evolutionary approach to looking at the brain — and the psychology produced by it — but in fact constitutes some fairly important evidence for those who claim that consciousness is just something produced by the brain and was produced through evolution. I doubt Myers wants to ditch that just to spite evolutionary psychology.

It’s about The Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness, the imaginary Garden of Eden in which our brains evolved 10,000+ years ago, which is the reference by which all adaptations must be explained…despite the fact that evolutionary psychologists know next to nothing about that environment.

Well, this is a problem for evolution as well, as any trait that can be traced back to that time period — and there are lots of those for humans, including pretty much all of our mental traits and abilities, at least in early form — is going to have been in the same environment and, if natural selection is correct, greatly shaped by that period … that evolutionary biologists also know next to nothing about. Unless evolutionary biologists are willing to limit themselves only to talking about vague selection pressures — and they usually aren’t — then they have the exact same problem, it seems.

It’s about deep methodological problems: researchers who make sweeping claims about human universals by studying just the middle class white American population attending their Psych 101 class.

Which is, uh, what psychology does, and has been criticized for. So they’re following standard (flawed) psychological practice and are being singled out for failing in that regard? It seems that this should be a call for better methodology, not an insistence that the whole field is a pseudoscience, useless, and wrong.

It’s about the focus on the status quo — somehow, every study seems to find that current social attitudes just happen to be a reflection of our evolutionary history on the African savannah tens of thousands of years ago, and endorses a kind of naive biological determinism that imagines that the way people are is the way they must be.

Um, as a psychological field, no one insists on that, or at least if that’s the case then the few who do say things like that last part should be criticized by their own field harshly. But my understanding every time I read evolutionary psychology — which is, indeed, limited — is that they aren’t trying to say that this is just the way things are and will always be, or in fact in any way committing the naturalistic fallacy, but are instead simply saying that we can explain these tendencies and structures in our personal and social behaviours by the evolved innate characteristics that were developed in that time period. Now, of course, this is controversial, and to make this stick it is perfectly reasonable to demand that they show this is sufficiently cross-cultural, because cultural structures don’t follow as strictly from evolved traits as physical structures do, so you can get a lot of contamination. That being said, to insist that culture is the most important factor a priori ignores that culture comes from the behaviour of individuals, which may well be tied to evolved traits. I suspect that what we have is an intricate dance combining culture, genetic traits, and environment, and note that different cultures are often found in radically different environments … and since environment impacts evolution to a large degree, cross-cultural differences aren’t in and of themselves evidence that a trait or cultural structure has therefore not evolved. Think of even peppered moths to see how that can work.

Reading the comments, I do think that one of the main reasons that evolutionary psychology is so derided is that it potentially provides what can be seen as a justification for certain social traits that some people don’t like and want removed. If you can say that it evolved for a benefit in relation to an environment, then it looks like it is being defended as actually useful and from there, potentially, to right or, at least, not really wrong. But since they think those structures wrong, that can’t be, so the theory must be wrong. This, of course, is ignoring the whole idea that just because we have a natural instinct that evolved and was even beneficial in the past doesn’t mean that it is still beneficial today, and certainly not that it’s right. Our sweet tooth is a prime example of an uncontroversial evolved natural psychological tendency that was useful in the past but is actually detrimental now, and thinking that we ought to do something just because we naturally desire it is, in fact, the definition of the naturalistic fallacy. Now, some people may indeed point to the results and say that those instincts are justified, but they’d be committing the naturalistic fallacy and we should point that out to them, not dismiss the idea that we have that instinct because it was more beneficial to us to have that than to not have that, so those who had it reproduced more and so did better wrt natural selection. After all, the explanation for altruism relies precisely on that sort of evolutionary psychological explanation, and no atheist wants to give that up.

The extent to which the critics of evolutionary psychology often rely on the precise same sorts of flaws that they claim should make us disregard evolutionary psychology always boggles my mind. I am skeptical of evolutionary psychology … and psychology … and evolutionary explanations … but I’m at least willing to give them the chance to prove their case. The critics of evolutionary psychology tend to not even do that, while committing the precise same sins. That’s not the way to go about proving your superior scientific approach and skills …

“My Name is Peter Parker”

April 22, 2015

The third essay in “Spider-man and Philosophy” is “‘My Name is Peter Parker'” by … hey, it’s Mark D. White again! I swear this was not planned [grin].

Anyway, this essay is an examination of the conflict between the right and the good, examined in the light of Spider-man’s decision in “Civil War” to unmask. White says that Parker first decides to unmask primarily on consideration of the deontological notion of right: Peter feels that he has a duty to support Stark because of what Stark has done for him, and also due to Aunt May’s argument that he has a duty to be true to himself and to acknowledge and act as the person he truly is. This is in sharp contrast to the reason he was so protective of his identity in the first place, which is over the consequences, particularly the consequences to his loved ones. As he says earlier in the series to Susan Storm, it’s fine for the Fantastic Four to reveal their identities, but he risks his family and loved ones — who are not superheroes and so are relatively unprotected — being used by his enemies against him and killed because of that. And he knows this because it’s happened to him before, with Gwen Stacey.

Hence, the clash between the right and the good, between what is objectively the right thing to do and what has the best consequences. It can be argued that Spider-man switches from the deontological idea of the right to the consequentialist view of the good during the series, but considering what the pro-registration side is doing it can easily be argued that he merely switches to a new form of right; it is no longer right for him to support the pro-reg side, even though that will have very bad consequences for him personally. When he makes the deal with Mephisto during “One More Day”, that can be said to be him sacrificing the right for the good … except that the consequences aren’t clearly better either. That is probably best viewed as Peter having a moment of weakness and grasping at a straw instead of doing the right thing, and accepting the way life is.

Can we ever really have a true clash between the right and the good? For consequentialists, we can’t, because the morally right thing to do is always the consequentialist good. For deontologists, again it isn’t an issue because the obvious answer for a moral person is to choose the right and ignore the so-called good. It’s only when we have a clash between people from opposing viewpoints — say, Captain America and Iron Man in Civil War — that they can come into meaningful conflict. Internally, everyone with any consistent moral viewpoint will have their answer … even if they don’t like it.

Is Suicide Always Immoral?

April 20, 2015

The next essay in “X-men and Philosophy” is “Is Suicide Always Immoral?” by Mark D. White. In it, he examines the question of if suicide can be moral or if it is always immoral, by mostly referencing Jean Grey’s sacrifice when she became Dark Phoenix. He examines the three main ethical views — consequentialism/Utilitarianism, Virtue Ethics, and Kantian deonotological ethics and concludes that … Kant’s view is the one that best justifies Jean’s suicide?

The question mark is there because the heart of Kant’s view, used here, is that no one should be treated merely as a means, but always also as an end in themselves. This includes yourself, which is why Kant had issues with things like masturbation, as it uses you as a means to an end — pleasure — and not as an end in itself. Thus, sacrificing your life for the lives of others — no matter how many — seems to be treating yourself as a means to that outcome and not as an end in itself, and so is at least suspect if not verbotten. Consequentialists can take that way out simply by arguing on the basis of the overall consequences, but Kantians can’t. Of course, White considers consequentialism and dismisses it because of how difficult it can be to determine overall happiness. Which is a fair criticism of consequentialism, but doesn’t really apply here: we can easily decide that the sacrifice of one life is not going to outweigh the loss of billions here, so that objection doesn’t seem to apply to Jean’s case. Jean’s case seems to not only justify her sacrificing herself in this case, but also, say, Wolverine just up and killing her even if she doesn’t want to die … which is the real problem with Utilitarian views in these cases, and a more relevant comparison point to deontological or Virtue Ethical views.

So, in order to work around the “never just a means to an end” restriction, White essentially has to argue that in Jean’s case she would be forced to do something gravely immoral by Kantian standards, or would become someone who would do gravely immoral things, and so in that case her suicide is not using herself as a means even to her own ends, but is instead used as a way to stop herself from acting immorally, which is her duty as a moral person. This, however, seems to be a bit problematic. Is it really acceptable to say in Kantian morality that if someone, say, takes over your mind and is going to force you to do something immoral and you gain one second of freedom, you should kill yourself to stop yourself from acting immorally? Even if you might be free or in control later? Aren’t you still being used as a means there, a means to the end of Kantian morality, and not as an end in yourself? I concede that you might be able to make it work under Kantian ethics, but I don’t think it’s exactly an easy ride.

I think that the view that best justifies the idea that Jean Grey might be moral for choosing suicide in that case without also easily justifying Cyclops or Wolverine out-and-out killing her is, in fact, Virtue Ethics, and specifically Stoicism. White dismisses Virtue Ethics by concluding that it, in general, would consider suicide wrong because it wouldn’t contribute to any kind of life at all, so it couldn’t contribute to having a fulfilling life. As I’ve talked about before, though, the Stoics considered life to be an indifferent, and in general “fulfilling life” didn’t not mean that virtue would not demand that you sacrifice yours. Courage on the battlefield, for example, came with the understood price of your life, and in fact sacrificing your life for others was often the epitome of courage. However, Virtue Ethical theories — even Stoicism — insist that you not spend your life frivilously, when you don’t have to. You only sacrifice your life when it conflicts with virtue, and when the only way to avoid acting viciously is, in fact, to kill yourself.

So right there, Virtue Ethics gets to White’s Kantian endpoint easily, far easier than White does using Kant. It even sidesteps the issue of what happens if later you might reassert control, because you are judged on this action, not on potential future benefits. Stoicism’s strong insistence that life is an indifferent just makes this even more clear, and it would stop Cyclops and Wolverine from killing her because they are not responsible for her immoral actions, and so if killing her is not an act of virtue — and it might not be — then they are not allowed to do it morally. The only wrinkle is that if Jean is only doing it because she’s under the control of the Phoenix Force, then she’s not responsible for the actions that it takes either, and so doesn’t have any need to kill herself to control its behaviour; she has no moral obligation for actions performed by other entities, even if they’re in her body. So the question would be how much of the action is Jean and how much is the Phoenix Force. But choosing to sacrifice herself to avoid that much suffering would never be an immoral act, even if it wouldn’t be morally obligated.

So, I think White dismisses the other views too quickly here. The essay would have been an interesting examination of how Kantian ethics could handle such a situation if he hadn’t tried to say that Kantian ethics would handle it better, but instead had examined the full issues and benefits of a Kantian approach to the question. As it is, he looks like he’s dismissing the other views too easily in favour of his preferred view … when those views might arguably have a better answer than his.

What Price Atonement?

April 13, 2015

It seems that I for some reason skipped the second essay in “Spider-man and Philosophy”, entitled “What Price Atonement?” by Taneli Kukkonen. Either I didn’t think it was interesting on my first read or just completely missed it and skipped over it. I’m thinking it was the latter, because on reading it the essay does have some very interesting things to say, and in particular raises an interesting theological point that I’d like to talk a bit about. So, what will happen is that I’ll do that one here, then do the regular X-Men and Philosophy essay, and then do the third Spider-man essay.

First, on to this one. The interesting theological point made is about Anselm’s view of infinite debt, which addresses our relation to Original Sin, sin, and ultimately the crucifixion. The idea is generally this: through Original Sin or through sin, we’ve accrued a debt to God that we need to repay. But repaying that debt implies that we give more to the person than we are required to in order to balance the debt we owe them. However, when it comes to God there isn’t anything that we can do that is over and above what we are required to do simply as our normal due to God. Therefore, we can never repay this debt through actions, because all we can do is give God what He is due; we cannot give Him more than His due. Thus, we have an infinite, undischargeable debt to God that we can never repay.

To use the Spider-man example, one of the main reasons Peter Parker becomes a superhero is to repay his debt to Uncle Ben. So he sets out to stop criminals to make up for not stopping the criminal who killed his uncle. But as his uncle said, with great power comes great responsibility. Since Peter Parker has great power, and the power to stop these criminals, he also has the responsibility to stop these criminals. So when he stops these criminals, he is just doing what he is already obligated to do, regardless of any debt he might owe to Uncle Ben. Thus, doing that can’t in any way free him from his debt to Uncle Ben, because he’s only doing what he is obligated to do, and to repay Uncle Ben he has to go beyond his obligations. Thus, stopping criminals will never free him from his debt to Uncle Ben.

Anselm uses this to argue for the necessity of the crucifixion. The only being who could give God more than God is due is, well, God Himself. Thus, God becomes Man in Jesus, and then sacrifices Himself to repay our debt. However, Kukkonen points out that all this does is drive us deeper in debt, because now we not only have to pay the debt of sin or Original Sin, but also our debt to Jesus for the sacrifice he made. If forgiveness is predicated on repayment, we can never repay our debt … and so can never be forgiven.

Which, I think, highlights a problem with the “restitutional” idea of forgiveness. Kukkonen notes that Kierkegaard said that doing something above and beyond the call of duty for someone and saying that you have thereby paid off your debt seems cold, like a strict balance sheet calculation. People who are properly loving shouldn’t see the world that way. When it comes to forgiveness, it also doesn’t make sense to forgive someone for or only after they manage to repay some sort of accrued debt, like someone paying off a bank loan. Forgiveness should be granted on the basis of a genuine desire to be forgiven, and a genuine understanding that they need forgiveness for what they did. If that is present, then what need for repayment is there? Someone who is genuinely loving and genuinely good and genuinely sees that what they did was wrong should just naturally want to try to make up for the harm they caused if they can. If they can’t, then that shouldn’t mean that they can’t be forgiven. If someone accidentally breaks something of mine that’s irreplaceable and had massive value to me — like my copy of Persona 3 FES — if I’m convinced that they didn’t mean it and know that what they did was wrong and genuinely want forgiveness, why shouldn’t I forgive them? It just seems petty and cruel to refuse to forgive them under those conditions just because they can’t “make it up to me”.

I think this idea carries on to Kukkonen’s discussion of obligations, and the choices that Peter Parker has to make. When he chooses to help someone, or stop a crime, he often ends up having to break certain obligations to other people, from things as simple to seeing their play to as big as not stopping them from getting beat up. Since he can’t do all of those things at once, he ends up having to choose which obligations to keep and which to break. Under the debt model of forgiveness, this means that no matter what he does in those situations, he ends up accruing a debt to someone. Thus, no matter what he does, his debt goes up and up; he always owes somebody something, and the only benefit that he gets from the choice he makes is that he accrues the lesser debt by breaking the debt than by letting someone die. But under the model I propose, this isn’t the case. Peter Parker is obligated to fulfill the responsibilities that he can fulfill, and to fulfill the greatest responsibility he has at that moment. Doing that, he doesn’t accrue any debt to anyone else. He might make people mad at him, and so have to work to get back into their good graces, or to convince them that he can be responsible, but while he may have to apologize, he doesn’t really have to repay them. If they could understand the choice that he had to make, and that his choice was in line with what was his greatest responsibility then there would be nothing to forgive. As it is, if he can convince them that he is sorry that he had to leave them in the lurch they should forgive him even if he can’t make it right.

For me, the kind of forgiveness that God gives us is not the restitutional kind of forgiveness, dependent on us doing an appropriate penance or repayment that we can make to him, but is instead a forgiveness based on how genuinely we desire it and how we understand that we do need forgiveness for what we’ve done. Any penance or act of restitution made to others is just a natural demonstration of that; if we were unwilling to do those things, then we don’t really see that what we did was wrong and thus don’t really want to be forgiven for it. Thus, when people comment about how unfair it is that some serial killer could adopt religion and be forgiven for that and thus get into heaven without doing extra penance, they misunderstand forgiveness. The whole point of penance and/or punishment is to get people to see that what they did was wrong, and neither are actually very good at doing that. If a serial killer really did come to see that what they did was wrong and genuinely wanted to make up for it, even though they couldn’t, it would be cold, cruel and heartless of God to deny them forgiveness or to punish them anyway. Sure, they can’t make up for their crimes … but as Anselm points out, neither can we. A model of forgiveness where we are forgiven not based on repaying our debts but based on us actually learning our lesson is a better model all around, I think.

‘Humans Smile With So Little Provocation’

April 6, 2015

Skipping over the next essay in “Star Wars and Philosophy”, the next essay in “Star Trek and Philosophy” is “Humans Smile With So Little Provocation” by Harald Thorsrud, an examination of the opposing views on emotion between Data and Spock, with Data not having any emotion but wishing he had it and striving to attain it, while Spock has emotion but is striving to eliminate it like all good Vulcans. This provides excellent fodder for the philosophical discussion of emotion, and Thorsrud does an excellent job comparing fairly and accurately Aristotle and the Stoics, although Thorsrud does seem to come down, at the end of the essay, on the side of emotion. What’s most impressive about it is that Thorsrud doesn’t stuff either view into the extreme view of either that emotions are good and we should have, experience, and rely on them all or that emotions are all bad and we have to get rid of them completely, which is something that would follow from the views of the two main characters in the debate. Instead, Thorsrud notes that Aristotle wanted to moderate the emotions and that some emotions are not worth moderating, and that the Stoics did think that even the Stoic sage will still feel emotions but won’t rely on their judgement and won’t allow them to overly influence their behaviour. So the Aristolean is not going to be someone driven by emotion unencumbered by rational thought, and the Stoic sage is not going to be someone totally unaffected by the world and unconcerned with it.

Now, I come down on the Stoic side, and the reason is that for many emotions, even emotions that we see as positive or as potentially useful, moderation of them is really, really difficult to do. This is because, and Jesse Prinz notes, the general purpose and structure of emotions is that they assess and make judgements about the world. When you get angry, it’s not just the case that you are having a reaction to a stimulus from the world. The anger itself is a judgement about how the world is, usually that it is being unfair to you. Love, betrayal, happiness, sadness, fear, guilt … all of these are the result of a judgement of the world and your place in it. And as these judgements tend to be lightning fast, emotions would be great ways to come to these sorts of judgements … if they weren’t so often massively and dangerously wrong. Additionally, emotions don’t just make judgements, they also suggest and prime us for actions that we can take in response to that judgement; emotions usually include suggestions for what we ought to do next. Unfortunately, a lot of those suggestions are crude and best and terribly wrong at worst.

So emotions make judgements about our condition and bias us towards certain responses, but those judgements and biases are often wrong. Thus, if we want to react properly to the world, we would have to subject every single emotional reaction to the scrutiny of reason to make sure that it is actually judging and advocating correctly in this case. But since emotion tends to bias us, just its presence will bias even our reasoning towards its conclusions. We will always tend towards rationalization of our emotional reactions instead of reasoning properly about them, which means that even when we’re wrong we’ll be more likely to conclude that the emotion really is right. Thus, we want to minimize that sort of rationalization … but the only way to limit it is to eliminate the emotional reaction, either by not having it kick off in those cases, or by calming ourselves down after it does kick off.

I believe there are two broad cases where emotion can be useful in making judgements instead of detrimental:

1) Emotions whose default reaction is “Stop and think”. A vague sense of unease is a great example, as that simply makes you stop and look around at your environment to see what might be the problem. Even here, though, there’s a risk that you’ll find something just to find something, but at least it makes you think about it and doesn’t just push you to action.

2) Emotions that kick off reflexive reactions in cases where you have to react quickly. It’s harder to find cases like this, but the speed of judgement and reaction that comes from emotion can be useful for, say, jumping out of the way of speeding objects. But to be effective, all of these have to be conditioned to the rational response, and ones that are keyed to irrational responses have to be culled.

But we shouldn’t need emotions for anything else. We shouldn’t need to get angry at an injustice to see that it is one and that it must be corrected. We shouldn’t need to feel guilt to note that we did something wrong and need to make amends. We shouldn’t need to know what the other people are feeling in order to know that we shouldn’t do bad things to them, or to decide what a bad thing to do to them would be. If emotions are making judgements that are rational, then rationality should lead us to the same judgements. And if emotions are making irrational judgements, why in the world would we want to accept them?

Making the A-List

April 1, 2015

The next essay in “Supervillains and Philosophy” is “Making the A-List” by Galen Forseman. This essay examines what makes a truly good, er, bad villain, and thus what makes a villain, well, villainous. Unfortunately, it seems to get caught up in defining villains as bad and then deriving all sorts of negative qualities from that, including a hint that the best villains fail a lot and so part of what it means to be a villain is to, well, fail a lot. This is a much stronger take on the “bad is good to us, and good is bad to us” line that I referenced previously, except that where I used it as a rhetorical tool to summarize the argument, Foresman seems to be using it as the argument. Which leaves this essay as being entertaining, but philosophically shallow.

So, let me highlight what I think are the two main qualities that make a villain a good villain philosophically, and not necessarily from a literary perspective or even a fan perspective. Let me start from his list of the top 5 villains:

1) Apocalypse
2) Magneto
3) Lex Luthor
4) The Joker
5) Bizarro

The entry that I’d quibble with is the last one. I don’t see why he was chosen over someone like, say, Darkseid, or Mr. Sinister. And since this is a philosophical discussion where we’re trying to see what qualities they all have in common, it is important to get the right list, especially if degree matters (ie you’re not just looking for good villains, but instead for the best villains). So you can’t just generate your own list and go from there. That being said, the top four are ones that some might argue should be higher or lower on the list, but are ones that are clearly among the best supervillains in comics, so we can safely use them as examples.

Now, for me, the two main qualities of a good villain are:

1) They either have heinous goals, use heinous means, or both have heinous goals and pursue them by heinous means.
2) Their power level — through various means — means that they are difficult to defeat, and so need a proportionate amount of power to overcome.

Most of this list fits that. Apocalypse holds a strong survival of the fittest notion that ensures that many mutants will die so that only the strongest survive. Both Magneto’s goals and his means result directly in the enslavement of non-mutants. Lex Luthor uses shady tactics and his goals waver from potentially admirable to incredibly selfish and short-sighted. The Joker’s main goal is his own warped sense of humour, which never works out well for anyone. As for power, Apocalypse and Magneto are normally opposed by full teams of superheroes, with sometimes team-ups being necessary. Lex Luthor is a consistent foe of the most powerful superhero in the DC Universe despite not having any inherent powers (generally). The only exception, really, is The Joker. Generally, he can be brought down by Batman working alone, who is a careful planner and exceptionally prepared but doesn’t have a lot of powers beyond that. He’s one of the big three, but he’s fighting a clown. That being said, The Joker’s chaotic nature does make it difficult to foil him, and only Batman has the abilities to do so, and so perhaps he does fit here after all, with a notion of power that ties more into mentality than into raw power. The Joker needs the world’s greatest detective to ferret out and foil his schemes.

We can also see how these, then, compare to some villains that are seen more sympathetically. For example, Galactus has massive power and has heinous means, but the fact that he needs to eat life-bearing planets to survive and generally doesn’t choose his path makes him more sympathetic, along with many of his heralds (who end up becoming heroes in and of themselves). Others like Doctor Octopus are less of a threat, as they can be opposed by one web-slinging hero, for example. But if we look at the tops of the list, we’ll see that the top villains all have very heinous goals and/or methods, and are constant and consistent threats to the heroes they oppose.

Which explains why they fail so often. It’s not part of being a villain to fail, but the top villains will be opposed by the most and the strongest heroes. Batman will drop almost anything else to stop The Joker from doing what he wants to do, just because it’s likely to be so terrible. The X-Men constantly bring out the whole team the instant they catch Apocalypse doing something. Strong villains are the ones who are the most able to achieve their goals and whose goals are so devastating that they cannot be allowed to achieve them. The only fail because they absolutely cannot be allowed to succeed.

So, good villains are strong and strongly evil, whether they consider themselves evil or not. So if you want to be a villain, you have to try to achieve that. If you can’t, then maybe you should stay at home. You wouldn’t want to have your plans consistently foiled by Frog-Man, after all …

Tropes vs Women: Introduction

March 30, 2015

So, this post is an introduction to my finally, hopefully, going through all of the Tropes vs Women videos and commenting on them. There are a few reasons why I’m now deciding to try to push on doing this, but they mostly follow from the fact that Sarkeesian is not going to go away, which could be good or bad depending on what you think of her views. She’s being tapped for more and more things and might be more influential, and so we’re likely to be hearing from her for a long, long time to come. Which pushes me to comment on her videos because:

1) This is going to be an on-going debate, and we do have to have a debate on this. My putting this out is my contribution to that, even if few ever read it and even fewer care.

2) The main purpose of this blog is to get me to write down the things that I think about a lot so I can stop thinking about them. With Sarkeesian constantly coming up in video game discussions, I’m going to hear a lot about it, which will remind me of the things I didn’t care for in the analysis. At least this way I can say that I’ve already written about it and, hopefully, can then stop thinking about it or feeling bad because I haven’t talked about it yet.

So, in this post, let me outline my overall and general issues with the series:

1) The things that she says that are true are not new. They’ve been talked about for ages and ages in various places. Now sometimes you do have to repeat true things, and also sometimes someone can be lauded for putting those old ideas in new, interesting, and clearer ways. The issue is that Sarkeesian generally doesn’t; her approach is not particularly interesting and often seems muddled, particularly because …

2) … the things that she says that are new are almost certainly not true. She tosses in a lot of what are at best very controversial ideas in the same context as the old and true ideas, and tries to link them all together, which weakens the overall argument that her videos are trying to make. She also judges a lot of things on a rather shallow assessment, which means that as soon as I note the issues she has in interpreting Dragon Age: Origins I start to wonder about the other games as well, which again weakens the overall point of the videos.

3) It really seems to me that underneath all of the feminist theory and psychology and the like, that at the end of the day her argument boils down to “We need more female protagonists” … which is not a particularly interesting comment and goes against a lot of her recommendations and her criticisms of gaming companies and gaming in general.

But I hope to make this more clear when I post on her specific videos.

One thing that I need to address are claims that this will only increase the harassment of her as people use my charges that she’s, well, wrong about things to harass her for being wrong. That might happen (I personally doubt it, considering how small this blog is). But I still have to be able to criticize her views if I think them wrong, no matter how others might use that. We simply cannot say that a lot of people are jerks to her so no one can criticize her. That’s an artificial stifling of debate, and that’s not acceptable. We might just as well insist that she not talk about things that people will disagree with as say that people ought not disagree with her because of the potential for harassment. I will strive in my responses to be fair, charitable, and argue for my position with as strong arguments, reason and evidence as I can. That’s all anyone can expect from me, and that should be acceptable.

Compatibilist Creationism …

March 27, 2015

So, continuing my theme for this week, Jerry Coyne is going after compatibilism again, this time comparing compatibilists to creationists. He starts by trying to figure out their possible motives, which is a very bad sign, especially since a number of compatibilists commented in his previous post on just what their view actually was and what it entailed. So what are those motivations:

1. It’s just an intellectual game with no consequences for the real world or how the average person thinks.

2. It makes people feel good by assuring them that, despite the advances of neuroscience that tell us we don’t really have the ability to influence how we think, we nevertheless remain active agents in our behavior, and can really make choices that could have been otherwise. After all, that’s the way we feel!

3. It’s necessary to tell people they have some form of free will because if they think that determinism is solely behind their actions, they’ll start acting either immorally or will lose all ambition and lie abed. That, for example, is at least one motivation behind philosophers like Daniel Dennett (see my post and the video here).

I’m not sure where he gets 1) from. The closest he can get is an argument that the average person’s view of free will is wrong and muddled, and so a number of compatibilists argue that it doesn’t matter if their view of free will captures what the average person thinks, or if the average person really thinks of free will as being dualistic and/or libertarian. Where I come from, that’s generally considered “Doing philosophy”, and for issues like these pretty much all philosophers think that they are saying something that does have an impact on, at least, how we ought to act … just as Coyne thinks that holding determinism has impacts on how we ought to behave. So the only other possible reasonable argument is that compatibilists end up agreeing with all of the things that he says follow from determinism, so all that’s left is an argument over semantics. However, the issue here is that it is not as easy as Coyne thinks to decide who is simply co-opting the other sides views and calling things by different names. As I’ve frequently argued, Coyne is the one who seems to be doing that by taking all of the behaviour of the old terms and insisting that those should be called other names … for some reason. So, no, as Coyne himself says, few compatibilists have 1) as a motivation, but that says nothing about their view and about who is right and who is wrong.

For 2), what the compatibilists are doing is indeed trying to preserve the feeling we have that when we deliberate those deliberations matter and impact our behaviour. At the neuroscience level, this means saying that what it means for us to be active agents is to have neurological processes that make choices and make decisions, and do deliberation. Thus, if our choice-making processes worked different or, more importantly, weren’t there at all, we’d make different choices and act differently than we do when they are engaged. So having decision- and choice-making processes matters to our behaviour, and that’s roughly what is meant by free will. So a compatibilist free choice, at the heart of it, is essentially a choice that was made by our decision-making processes, and nothing more.

Which, BTW, leads to an aside here about a debate that’s going on in the comments. There are too many to sort through and find the original, but I’ll co-opt Vaal’s here, talking about what free will means to compatibilists:

As to compatibilist definitions, the concept has been stated plainly over and over here.
I’ll take this from Wikipedia’s page on free will as defined in compatibilism:

“compatibilists define free will as freedom to act according to one’s determined motives without arbitrary hindrance from other individuals or institutions.”

And, slightly expanded:

“Compatibilists often define an instance of “free will” as one in which the agent had freedom to act according to his own motivation. That is, the agent was not coerced or restrained.”

This has led some compatibilists to say that if someone puts a gun to your head and threatens you, then you didn’t do that of your free will. Commenters like reasonshark have pointed out that this seems to be equivocating on free will; if that’s all they mean by free will, then pretty much everyone agrees on that and agrees we have it, but surely it has to mean more than that for this to be any kind of a debate. And I think it does, and think that the issue here is the conflation of moral responsibility and free will. You need to have free will to have moral responsibility, but it is not the case that every case where you don’t have moral responsibility you also don’t have free will. Given my definition above, we can see that you still do make a decision; your decision-making processes are still engaged and could choose otherwise. But we tend to think that the consequence is so strong that you can’t be held morally responsible for choosing to save your life over whatever would be, in theory, more moral. But this does not mean that you don’t have free will, and also doesn’t even mean that you necessarily don’t have moral responsibility. It’s not true by definition. Stoics in fact insist that you have precisely as much moral responsibility as you did in any other case, and so ought not even steal $5 under that threat. Utilitarians can insist that you must calculate the overall utility of the action, and so if someone says to release a gas that will kill 100 people or else they’ll kill you, you ought to let that person kill you. Most importantly for free will, we do not see the joke of “Your money or your life! I’m thinking!” as being inherently contradictory. It’s funny not because no one could actually do that, but because we can’t see why anyone would do that … or, rather, we can understand why someone would and find it funny that their priorities are so out of whack.

So you still make free choices with a gun to your head, or when you’re coerced. You just don’t have moral responsibility for them. You don’t make a free choice if someone puts a chip in your head that takes over your actions and makes you pull the trigger. In the former case, your decision-making processes are still engaged, and could come up with a different answer; it’s just that no one expects them to. In the latter case, your decision-making processes are completely out of the picture. This, to me, is the sort of free will that is, as Dennett puts it, worth wanting or having.

So, on to 3). Some of them do think that not being able to be held morally responsible for your actions can lead people to at least act amorally. Coyne tries to argue that they are wrong because somehow he still tries to act well … but not morally, since he seems to reject morality, and seems to reject it because of determinism. Remember, he thinks that the reason determinism means that we don’t have moral responsibility not because it means that we don’t have responsibility, but because talk of morality doesn’t make sense. So he’s not a good example of how moral behaviour can be preserved under a deterministic mindset, arguing that morality doesn’t really make sense in that mindset and all. But even if this is the motivation of a lot of compatibilists, that doesn’t mean that they’re wrong.

It’s also with this argument that Coyne seems to show a remarkable lack of self-awareness, which sounds harsh but there’s no more polite way to say it. He says this about that view:

This makes compatibilists like creationists. After all, one of the motivations—perhaps the main motivation—for creationists to keep attacking evolution is that they think the theory has inimical effects on morality. If we think we evolved from beasts, they say, we’ll act like beasts. And so evolution must be denied lest the moral fabric of our society disintegrate. You hear this over and over again from creationists and fundamentalists.

That’s how many compatibilists feel about free will. The observations, from both experiment and observation, that determinism does not make people immoral—and that incompatibilists like myself still try to behave well, and do behave well—is irrelevant.

Okay, first, doesn’t Coyne normally insist that the big reason for creationists to oppose evolution is religious, meaning that they’d have to give up their religion and their God to accept it, so they refuse to? Sure, some do argue that it eliminates morality as well, but that’s more of a “Gotcha!” than an overwhelming motivation. If it was, then creationism wouldn’t be a religious view but instead a philosophical one — since it can be made regardless of religion — and so someone who taught it couldn’t be said to be teaching religion in schools, which is one think that Coyne is consistent about. Additionally, Coyne talks a lot about how he opposes religion because of its effects, and it is obvious that one of his main issues with religion is indeed how it attacks and opposes the teaching of evolution. Thus, at this point someone could compare him to the creationists in the same way, based solely on his motivations here. Moreover, he rails against compatibilists because they don’t highlight determinism enough, mostly because he thinks that understanding determinism is important to get us to change our behaviour in the right ways, and that accepting compatibilism gets us to behave in bad ways (like supporting executions, despite the fact that most compatibilists oppose that for other reasons, and it’s actually pretty easy to justify executions under Coyne’s view because, well, it stops the bad behaviour, right?).

So the only line that Coyne has to fall back on is the weakest possible one: it’s different because I’m right. They refuse to accept what has been proven only because of their motivations, which is why they refuse to see “reason”. Except that this requires Coyne to in fact know that he’s right, or that he really has addressed all the concerns … and he hasn’t. In fact, given the muddled mess of Coyne’s views on what determinism entails, it’s more reasonable to say that he just doesn’t see what’s going on and is only taking the very strong stance he does because of his attachments and motivations. Even when compatibilists tell him what their view is and that you don’t need to hold a hard determinist view to achieve most of the gains he thinks follow from determinism, he still insists that they are saying what they are specifically not saying. So his making this charge very much risks Coyne through stones while living in a glass house … and only fools throw stones while living in glass houses (OB Kang).

Once you get into motivations, you’ve usually lost all chance of having a reasonable debate. But I can’t imagine that Coyne can’t have a reasonable debate on the issues with Dennett or Sean Carroll or any of the others who are compatibilists who comment on his site. And yet … he doesn’t seem to have come to any better of an understanding of compatibilists than he had when he started. Heck, I’m an incompatbilist like him — though I come from the libertarian side — and I get it far better than he does … and still think them wrong, and understand their motivations, even as I, again, disagree with them. If I can do it, surely Coyne can, too.

Let me end with another aside, following from the above idea that I am an incompatibilist, too, despite being a liberatarian about free will. There are two main positions here: incompatibilism and compatibilism. Incompatibilists all say that free will and determinism are, well, incompatible. Hard determinists say that free will and determinism are incompatible, but determinism is true, so we don’t have free will. Libertarians says that free will and determinism are incompatible, but we have free will, so determinism is false. Compatibilists say that they are not incompatible, so it is the case that we have free will and that determinism is true.

So imagine my dismay at reasonshark’s insistence that compatibilists who denied dualistic free will should be considered incompatibilists just because of that:

No, we’re endowed with a *non*-mysterious faculty that makes decisions.

Then stop calling yourself a compatibilist! You do not believe in free will – and don’t give me the “what definition” response, you know full well what I mean. You do not believe in mind-body dualism. You do not want to be confused with someone who thinks human decision-making is somehow something more than or fundamentally different from animal cognition or a complex physics system. You do not believe in the ghost in the machine. You are clearly an incompatibilist in the determinist or indeterminist camp, and – more to the point – not in the free will camp. The classic, dualist free will camp, I will emphasize, which is the one that matters. As far as the classic, popular, readily recognized debate between free will and determinism is concerned, you are in the same camp as I am. Yet you persist in acting like “indeterminist” is a diss-word applied to semantic pedants.

The person he was responding to holds that determinism and free will — or at least a meaningful form of it — are compatible. The goal of compatibilists would be to convince libertarians like myself that they can preserve the parts of free will that make me want to keep it around and think it just obvious that we have it without having the need for a disembodied or non-physical entity that does it. In my opinion, they fail, but they do believe in free will … and insisting that they can’t call themselves compatibilists if they think that dualism is not required is confusing at best, and dishonest at worst.

Obviously Not Obvious …

March 25, 2015

So, one of the next posts after Coyne’s comment on free will was a post talking about Dennett attempting to save free will. I don’t want to talk too much about the content, but instead want to use it as a springboard to talk about something else. But to do that, I have to talk a bit about what Coyne is charging Dennett with here:

Based on statements of some compatibilists, I realized that one reason philosophers spend so much time trying to define forms of free will compatible with determinism is because they see bad consequences of rejecting all free will. Some compatibilists think that if people realized that they don’t have the kind of free will they thought they did, the world would disintegrate: people would either lie in bed out of sheer languor and despair, or behave “immorally” because, after all, we can’t choose how to behave.

I’ve been rebuked sharply for imputing these motivations to compatibilists. Their efforts, I’m told, have nothing to do with trying to stave off possible bad results of rejecting free will. Rather, they’re supposedly engaged in a purely philosophical exercise: trying to show that we still have a form of free will that really matters, even if the libertarian form has been killed off by science. I have, however, responded by pointing out statements by compatibilists like Dan Dennett warning about the bad things that could happen if neuroscientists tell us that we don’t have free will.

If you ever doubted that compatibilism is motivated largely by philosophers’ fears about what would happen if people rejected classical free will, and weren’t presented with a shiny new compatibilist form, watch this “Big Think” video by Dan Dennett. It’s called “Stop telling people they have free will”

Coyne does pretty consistently charge compatibilists with having other motives for advocating compatibilism than just thinking that compatibilism is actually true. Actually, Coyne does that for a lot of other positions as well: sophisticated theologians, for example. And the worry here, especially since Coyne does impute those motivations repeatedly and spends a lot of time trying to prove that the people he’s arguing with have those motivations, is that he’s using these motivations as a way to refute their arguments in lieu of actually refuting the arguments. Whether Dennett thinks that thinking that there is no free will causes people to act badly or not has no real impact on whether or not his view is correct. And it is clear to everyone that Dennett isn’t just saying “Shhh! Don’t tell them the truth or they’ll act badly!”, but instead really does think that there is a meaningful notion of free will, and so is really saying “Please stop telling them that false stuff that makes them act badly!”. Which is pretty much what Coyne is always saying about religion. If Dennett’s arguments can be dismissed because he thinks the position true and also sees bad consequences from believing the false or incorrect alternative positions, then so can Coyne’s.

But being fair to Coyne, although this involves me imputing motivations to him myself, I don’t think that he really uses this as a way to refute the argument, even if it sounds very much like he does. I think the key is in what he says at the beginning of the post:

I’ve long been puzzled by the many writings of “compatibilists”: those philosophers and laypeople who accept physical determinism of our choices and behaviors, but still maintain that we have a kind of “free will.” Such people reject the classical form of free will that’s been so important to many people (especially religious ones)—the kind of “libertarian” free will that posits that we really can freely control our actions, and in many cases could have chosen to behave other than how we did. This is the kind of free will that most people accept, as they don’t see the world as deterministic; and most also feel that if the world were deterministic, people would lose moral responsibility for their actions (see my post on the work of Sarkissian et al.).

I think that the key is Coyne’s puzzlement, especially when it comes to Dennett. Coyne, I think, respects Dennett and his thinking ability and rationality. But he also thinks that it is just obvious that everything is determined and that that eliminates all notions of free will. So then he is incredibly puzzled at how someone so smart, so educated and so rational can maintain the position he does in light of what Coyne thinks is the obvious and abundant evidence that it is wrong. Thus, he needs something to explain what he thinks is an irrational commitment, and thus he finds their motivation: concern that the position will lead to bad behaviour. Knowing that sometimes people can hold irrational positions because of psychological motivations, he accepts this as the explanation that best resolves the conflict, and thus concludes that Dennett is really so attached to the position despite the evidence because of that motivation … even though Dennett also certainly thinks his view is right and has made a number of arguments in favour of it.

Ultimately, I think the culprit here is the assumption of the obvious … which is something that I think philosophy, if one commits to it, helps with more than any other field I’ve ever encountered. One of the things that interested me the most about philosophy is not the answers that I got from it, but rather the questions that it promoted. Or, rather, how it challenged a lot of the things that we thought were obviously true and gave good arguments for why they weren’t, in fact, obviously true, and in fact probably should be considered false. Even if I ultimately didn’t buy the arguments, the arguments for them were always arguments that I could look at and say “Yeah, I see how that works, but I don’t think we need it because …”. For example, I’ve always been a little leery about the reference model of meaning in a language, where you have to have a direct connection to a real object in order to explain the meaning of the world (which runs into major issues when we get into fictional entities, for example). I thought that forcing that sort of reference seems like overkill, but I can see the problem that they were trying to solve: if you don’t have a link in a proposition or a statement to the real object, how can you be saying that you’re saying something that’s true about that object? The same thing applies to the “Ground of All Being” God: I don’t see why the explanation for existence has to be a real object, but again I can see the problem they’re trying to solve with that and see how they get there.

Philosophy, if you do it well and if you accept it, gives you examples of two things. First, it gives you many, many examples of things that you thought obvious that you can’t demonstrate the truth of beyond “Well, that’s just obvious”. The people who just don’t get philosophy are the ones who insist on saying “But it is just obvious! Why argue over it?” when they hit these, and these people usually end up hating philosophy and claiming that it’s just mental masturbation with no link to the world. But the key thing, I think, to take away from philosophy is not that these obvious propositions are wrong, but that they aren’t as obvious as they seem at first blush. That we should be able to justify them and we can’t, even as we have to assume or rely on them in other areas. If you come out of that still thinking that you don’t ever need to justify obvious claims, you miss, in my opinion, one of the foremost and most important lessons that philosophy can teach you.

The second thing is more practical, I suppose, but if you do any philosophy or any length of time you will come across people who are just as smart as you and just as well-educated as you and who know just as much as you do who disagree with you strongly over things that you think that just clearly and obviously true. And they’ll be able to argue for their position and show why your position is not clearly obvious and why they think they’re position is. As I’ve commented before, my favourite professors were ones that I disagreed with — with a least a couple being strong materialists about mind while I was a dualist — but who understood why I might find materialism lacking, and what the problems with it were. This is the position that Coyne is in wrt Dennett, and I think he’s getting frustrated that he can’t just cite evidence and have him agree, because citing the evidence is pretty much all you need to do in science. But in philosophy it is usually possible to cite the same empirical evidence and have people still disagree, because philosophy focuses more on concepts than on strict instances. So you spend more time arguing with people over what seems obvious … and as such you are more prepared to not cite motivations for their disagreement and instead to think that they have a concern or an argument or a problem that they are trying to solve that you aren’t seeing or that you don’t think is one.

This is the heart of my disagreements over mind, most of the time. I’m concerned about explaining qualia, and they are more concerned about explaining the behaviour that is caused by qualia. They think that not having a causal story between the mental and the physical is a major problem; I think that epiphenomenalism is a major problem. Once I came to understand this, it helped me to see what the main areas of disagreement were and how I might convince them … and how they might convince me. And, also, why we can both be reasonable in our disagreements until we can settle what we really need to care about. And this is part and parcel of what you learn doing philosophy.

The obvious benefit of philosophy is that you no longer think of things as obvious. And that’s a good, if strange, thing.

A Criminal Mind …

March 23, 2015

So, Jerry Coyne seems to be determined (in any sense of the word) to talk about free will, and specifically how we don’t have it. In this post, he talks about a case where a court upheld an execution order for someone who had brain damage, and essentially is arguing that it makes no sense to argue over whether or not someone knows whether something was right or wrong, or was capable of knowing what is right or wrong, because it makes no difference. Regardless of that, they had no real choice in what they did. Now, one of my constant criticisms of Coyne that I don’t think he’ll ever address — because I can’t comment there anymore and he’s never shown any interest in replying to pretty much anything I write here — is that Coyne consistently argues that we can maintain a meaningful notion of responsibility, but determinism eliminates any chance of us having moral responsibility, while the claim that is usually made is that a hard determinism eliminates any responsibility that I might have for my actions, and so I can’t be held responsible for something that I can’t actually do. The only way this builds to morality is by tying it to the idea that ought implies can, and that if I can’t act morally then no one can say that I ought to. Or, rather, all moral statements are ought statements, but if I can’t do other than what I do then one cannot say that I ought not do that, or ought to do something else. So if Coyne can eliminate all normative claims, then he might have a criticism against morality wrt hard determinism, but he would have lost responsibility first and he clearly wants to hold people responsible for their actions to justify being able to lock them up or do things to “correct” their behaviour … and “correcting” their behaviour seems to imply some sort of normativity, even if only a weak notion of normativity.

But let’s start with his characterization of what hard determinism says that we’re like:

Our brains are computers made of meat, and run programs based on their wiring, which comes from the genes we inherited and the environments we experienced. There is no ghostly “we” that can override the output of those programs.

Now, Coyne likes to take shots at compatiblists, but compatiblists like Dennett, at least, accept that, to some sense … except that they argue — and more convincingly than Coyne does here — that what we are is the sum and output of those programs. So, no, they don’t argue that there is some ghostly “we” that overrides it, but that what we call “we” is nothing more than the output of those programs. And those programs make decisions and are capable of understanding morality. And since we are those programs, the programs can be said to be responsible for the consequences of our actions, and so we can be held to be responsible for the consequences of our actions. If this move isn’t made, then what we seem to have is the same sort of responsibility that a rock has when it breaks a window. But we can see that it makes sense to say that if I pick up a rock and throw it at my neighbour’s window, I’m responsible for the window breaking and so have to make restitution for doing that. The compatiblist view sketched out here argues that because my action was determined directly by the decision-making processes of my brain, then I’m responsible in a special way that the rock, which has no such processes, is not. And we can further test this by asking what would be the case if instead of a rock I pick up Jerry Coyne and toss him at the window. And we’d still say that he doesn’t have to make restitution for the broken window, because while he’s directly responsible for it breaking — his hitting it is what broke it, after all — I’m the one who is actually responsible for it; he really had no choice in the matter because his decision-making processes weren’t involved, while mine were. The best that Coyne’s view can do here is look at where you’d have introduce changes to change the behaviour and ensure it doesn’t happen again, but the best he can do is work to the same conclusion with a much clunkier method, since it has to start from presuming whether the behaviour is desirable or not, and doesn’t work easily to say that someone has correct behaviour and so has properly functioning processes. So, first you have to classify the behaviour, and then you identify what you need to do to change it. The compatiblist view assigns responsibility first, and then can figure out whether the behaviour should be praised or condemned or corrected.

Now, most people would call the responsibility I have there a moral responsibility. This is precisely the sort of responsibility that Coyne says we don’t have and is not useful.

But let’s move on to his objections to being worried about whether or not someone knows right from wrong:

Yes, some miscreants do know and understand those things, but, given that they couldn’t have acted otherwise, why is that relevant? It’s entirely possible to know that what you’re doing is wrong by society’s lights, and yet still be unable to resist doing wrong. Sociopaths are the most extreme example of this: some clearly understand that society judges their actions as wrong, but they themselves don’t feel that they’re wrong. But even criminals who sense that their own actions are “wrong” still have no choice in what they do.

Now, Coyne is consistent in claiming that we need to figure out how to correct bad behaviour and prevent it from happening again:

What Clayton needed was not a lethal injection, but treatment. Yes, perhaps treatment couldn’t help someone with such a severe brain problem. In that case rehabilitation might be futile, but Clayton would still need to be jailed—for both the protection of society from his poor impulse control, and to deter others less obviously debilitated from committing similar crimes. Biological determinism is still compatible with confinement for these things. Deterrence, rehabilitation, and sequestration are the reasons we determinists favor incarceration, whether it be in a jail or a hospital. (Deterrence is simply the action of an environment circumstance—the observation of someone suffering for what you might contemplate doing—on your neurons.) But in all cases our goal should be the good of society and the possibility of changing the prisoner so he can re-enter society without endangering us all.

So, my response here is to say that whether or not they have any real choice, it is incredibly important to know whether or not they know or are capable of knowing whether the behaviour is right or wrong, and on a moral level, to determine how to treat them and if they can be treated at all.

So let’s take five cases under consideration:

1) A kleptomaniac, who knows that stealing is wrong but has a brain condition that means that they get an uncontrollable urge to steal.
2) A psychopath who is incapable of understanding that stealing is wrong. This maps to Coyne’s example of the sociopath, but the sociopath is someone who can know that others believe that stealing is wrong but can’t know it themselves. And if you doubt that characterization, think of someone from today transported back in time to when slavery was considered moral, and note that they’d clearly know that the people then think that slavery is right, but surely wouldn’t know that it was right themselves.
3) Someone who is capable of knowing that stealing is wrong, but hasn’t learned it yet.
4) Someone who knows that stealing is wrong but is being compelled to do it by an external force, like a gun to the head or a threat to a loved one.
5) Someone who knows that stealing is wrong but has decided that the benefit to them outweighs any moral considerations.

What can we say about these cases?

For 1), we ought to say that the kleptomaniac is a moral person but unfortunately has a mental condition that pushes them to act in bad ways. They are not morally responsible for their actions because they are not responsible for them. We need to treat them with drugs or surgery to remove this very tragic burden from them.

For 2), the psychopath is clearly amoral. They cannot be held morally responsible for their actions because they cannot understand or adopt any moral stance. We need to treat them for their condition and/or make them capable of acting morally.

For 3), they are a moral person but their moral learning is incomplete. We need to teach them that stealing is morally wrong, and then we can be assured that they will not steal again. Note that we cannot do this for the previous two cases; the kleptomaniac already knows that stealing is morally wrong, and the psychopath can’t learn that stealing is wrong until we cure their condition.

For 4), they are a moral person, so we need to take out the external force, and then they will act morally. Note that again we can’t do this for the other cases, as none of them have an external force directly impacting their decisions.

For 5), they are at best amoral and likely immoral. These are the sorts of people that we might definitely need to lock up because they’ll never act morally because they disdain morality. They are people that need strong deterrence and punishments to make it so that they never decide that their own interests trump the right action.

So, five cases, five different responses, all of which are neatly and adequately and even powerfully supported by notions of “free will” and “moral responsibility”. I assume that Coyne will agree, at least, with the recommendations for how we should treat these people — he won’t want us to treat the kleptomaniac like the person who is choosing to act despite knowing that it’s morally wrong — and so he needs to find a way to ensure that his analysis comes to these same outcomes. Thus, despite the fact that he’d argue that none of them make “real choices”, the factors that are normally associated with choosing are, in fact, relevant to deciding how we treat them. Thus, Coyne will either reintroduce the precise distinctions that he’s trying to eliminate under different names, or else he’ll treat people identically when they really shouldn’t be while he’s trying to correct their behaviour.

Ultimately, almost all compatiblists want to accept determinism while preserving these incredibly useful and powerful tools that seem to go along with the notions of “real choice”. The biggest problem with all hard determinist views is that either they have to eschew all of these tools or simply reintroduce them while castigating their opponents for clinging to the outdated terms while clinging to the concepts those terms represent. This does not make hard determinism a philosophically appealing position, as it leads to attempts to define your opponents out of the game rather than arguing/evidencing them out of the game.

And there is much defining out of the game in Coyne.


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