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Hmmmm - Sally's Journal
June 29th, 2006
04:11 pm

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Hmmmm

A long time ago, I was musing on foo-isms (racism, sexism, etc) and when the law should impinge on peoples right to do what they want in a public context. (What I was actually doing was discussing sausage sellers, and whether they should be allowed to refuse to sell sausages to people wearing hats, but it sounded better like that). And one of the things that came up in that discussion was the idea of choice - a person wearing a hat can choose to take the hat off, but a black person cannot choose to nip round the block and change his skin colour.

So it sort of slipped into my assumptions that choice was an important part of how you were allowed to treat people. If someone was $thing-you-think-is-awful through no choice of their own, they had no responsibility for being $t-y-t-i-a, (and in fact might hate and despise it in themselves as much as you hated and despised it in them) and so it is wrong to treat them differently because of $t-y-t-i-a

Of course, if you think like me and you think about choice for too long, your brain melts. Because at the end of the day, if Person Y chooses to do the right thing and Person X chooses to do the wrong thing, how much of it was their free will? Maybe Person Y had been lucky to be well brought up and taught right from wrong, and Person X hasn't had these opportunities and so doesn't know what the right thing to do is? Maybe it is that Person Y is stronger willed and more determined than Person X, but isn't even that likely to be due to good fortune in genetics or upbringing or life experiences?

My conclusion was that this was one of those dilemmas where you just had to believe that there was free will. It's a situation where if you're wrong nothing changes anyway - if there isn't any free will, well, you didn't have any choice about whether or not you believed in free will at all. But if you were wrong in the other direction, the consequences would be terrible - acting as though people can't make choices or have responsibilities would let them get away with murder because "they couldn't help it".

Back to the foo-isms, then, it suddenly seems much less important whether the person chose to be $thing-you-think-is-awful or not. What matters is whether $thing-you-think-is-awful is an awful thing. It's not that the black man had no choice about being black, it's that being black really doesn't hurt you, or anyone else. It's not whether the murderer made a choice to kill people or just couldn't help himself, it's that killing people is bad.

Of course, all this comes with a healthy dose of being very careful and accepting that the odds of you being right about what is good and what is bad all the time are quite slender. And it also comes with a hefty warning against punishment - when we're on the verge of concluding we can treat people differently for being foo, even when they had no choice about being foo, we have to think about how we might want to treat them differently and why. The reason for their different treatment is that foo is bad and we don't want it to happen. So our different treatment of them must be motivated not out of hatred of them for being a fooer, but out of hatred of foo. They might not have chosen to be a fooer, they might hate fooers and despise themselves. They don't need to be punished for what they are. The foo needs to be stopped, but the foo should be stopped in the nicest way possible. OK, this might mean they get locked up, or treated differently at social gatherings, but they shouldn't get any extra bad stuff that isn't aimed at stopping the foo.

But it is OK for them to get extra bad stuff just because of the way they were born.

I hate that conclusion. But I think it's true. Possibly trivially true. Hmm.

(49 comments | Leave a comment)

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From:aldabra
Date:June 29th, 2006 03:57 pm (UTC)
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CS Lewis said that it wasn't a moral advance that we don't burn witches any more. It's an epistemological advance. We don't believe there are witches any more. If they were maybe we would have to burn them.
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From:atreic
Date:June 29th, 2006 04:02 pm (UTC)
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Yes, but because they are witches and witches are evil, not because they evilly chose to be witches.
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From:ptc24
Date:June 29th, 2006 04:03 pm (UTC)
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Just let go. Free Will is a poisonous concept; you're better off without it.[1]

[1]Well, OK, maybe I'm being slightly facetious, but not entirely.
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From:atreic
Date:June 29th, 2006 04:04 pm (UTC)
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No, the whole point is that you have to believe in it even if it isn't true, even if that means you look back on yourself being awful to people who did things they had no choice about doing. Of course, in that situation you had no choice about your awfulness too.
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From:aldabra
Date:June 29th, 2006 04:19 pm (UTC)
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Step one: explain how it's possible to choose something freely, given that a) your neurons have to do it, b) they then have to implement it via your muscles, c) nobody's observed chemistry in neurons behaving differently from chemistry not in neurons.

Then I'll convincingly demolish your explanation.

We'll iterate until you concede I'm convincing 8-)
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From:cartesiandaemon
Date:June 29th, 2006 04:28 pm (UTC)
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I think regardless of your philosophical position on free will, real life, politics and laws have to act the same way they do/would with free will.

Where it gets sticky is people to some extent not in control of themselves. Gay people *can* successfully hide it, with immense pain and difficulty. Mentally ill people *can't*. People with a desire to steal certainly can.[1][2] Who deserves protection?

[1] I am not comparing being gay with being mentally ill or stealing.
[2] By stealing I refer to stealing for gain, not the few people who are literal kleptomaiacs and maybe can't help themselves.
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From:atreic
Date:June 29th, 2006 04:34 pm (UTC)
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That was what I was trying to say, that non of them deserve protection if what they are doing is bad, even if they had no control. It's a bit of a nasty conclusion to come to.

But what I mean by it is that first you have to decide what's bad (gayness, being mentally ill, or stealing) in as informed and enlightened a way as possible. And then if you do decide it's bad, you only act to stop the bad stuff. You shouldn't hurt a person for doing bad stuff any more than you need to to neutralise the bad stuff. But you should hurt a person as much as you need to to neutralise the bad stuff, even if they had no control over the bad stuff they were doing.
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From:cartesiandaemon
Date:June 29th, 2006 04:31 pm (UTC)
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If *one* sausage seller wants to bar the hatted it doesn't really matter. Market forces will take care of it, and that seller can be indulged his odd but legitimate preference. If they *all* do, society has to step in. This might be why only some discrimination is legislated against.
From:neonchameleon
Date:June 30th, 2006 08:38 am (UTC)
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That's not the real danger. The real problem is when the overwhelming majority want to bar the hatted but a few do not - and there is societal support for this. At that point, social forces will step in so that the clientelle for the saussage seller that doesn't bar the hatted is more or less exclusively hatted - and damn the market forces.
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From:naath
Date:June 29th, 2006 04:31 pm (UTC)
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I think that I'm agreeing with you here...

1)We need to decide if foo is objectively bad for people (murder is easy, so is blackness, but some people will *insist* that being gay is bad for people... so there needs to be a better metric than 'it squicks me') and possbily this ought to include the idea that it has to be bad for non-consenting people rather than saying crap like 'but it's bad for *you* to do foo so we'll punish you'.

2)Having done so we need to stop fooers doing foo. This might mean that we oughtn't give them sausages (because they are a serial killer whose MO is killing people with sausages) or maybe we ought not sell to them atall (because they have a contagious-by-touch/air disease of great awfullness, technical note - leprosy isn't comunicable that way) or whatever.

3)I think that sometmimes a punishment that is Just Punishment is a Good Idea if only for a bit. It's supposed to act as a deterant. So you want to make it so people don't murder then you make murder illegal and that deters lots of people who might have no moral compunction against murder but who don't want to get arrested. But that most of it should be aimed at getting the person to stop doing foo such as giving them something better to do.
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From:smhwpf
Date:June 29th, 2006 04:47 pm (UTC)
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Well, a person who is mentally ill in a way that makes themselves a danger to themselves and/or others may be sectioned, even though they did not choose to be mentally ill.

We do, legally at least, treat situations where it is considered that someone has chosen to do bad things differently. On the one hand, we don't punish mentally ill people, or discriminate against them more than is necessary to protect themselves and others. On the other hand we don't, except in the case of the very worst criminals, keep them in prison until we are sure they are safe, which can happen with a mentally ill person. Punishment is limited by what is considered to be 'deserved'. So if someone burgles, you can't keep them in prison forever even if you think they are likely to burgle again. Because it is considered to be a matter of choice, you consider that they may choose not to burgle as well as choose to burgle, and so we release them once they have 'served their time'. In life sentences we do have an 'until safe' clause, but that's only because it's considered that the crime potentially merits a life sentence. The 'tariff' sets a minimum considered necessary for the punishment to fit the crime (even if safe), beyond that we let them out if they are considered to be safe, but that is in some sense an allowance for the possibility of forgiveness and redemption on the part of society.

Of course it would be possible to take a different aproach to criminal justice, and either not lock someone up at all if you're sure they won't do it again, however heinous the crime, or lock them up forever if you think they will do it again, however minor the crime. (Or both). Personally I think the current philosophy is right, if not the way it is currently implemented a lot of the time. (e.g. harmful short custodial sentences for non-violent offenders.)

When it comes to 'fooisms', discrimination on grounds of sex, race, etc., I think it's more complicated, and you have to take account of the element of power rather than just individual prejudice. Blacks and whites and Asians are not Foos and Bars or whatever, they are blacks and whites and Asians, with all the history of interaction between the peoples and nations involved colouring (npi) what goes on now. Anyone can be either prejudiced or the victim of prejudice, but it is non-whites who are institutionally the victims of Racism.
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From:lisekit
Date:June 29th, 2006 05:59 pm (UTC)
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Apropos of nothing in this discussion - I spotted you on Magdalene Bridge at 8pm on Monday night!
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From:ptc24
Date:June 30th, 2006 08:18 am (UTC)
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Now I have some time to post to LJ:

There appear to be several issues that are being confused here. The first concerns the case of mental illness etc. - consider the case of the alcoholic who decides that his life is a mess and goes cold turkey and doesn't touch another drop for fear of what will happen next. Clearly there's a mental process that makes the alcoholic drink (the alcoholic drink), a process that can't routinely be beaten by just deciding not to have another drink (which is why going back to being a sensible social drinker isn't an option), but nevertheless one that has vulnerabilities.

Or, to look at it another way - you've got a 'higher' process that has some (but not total[1]) power over a set of 'lower' processes. Now there's no reason why this higher process isn't every bit as mechanistic+random (wholly determined by causes outside of itself) as the lower processes. In short, all of that stuff about mental ilnesses etc. is very interesting, but a bit of a red herring with respect to the real point about free will.

Secondly, you say that you pretty much have to believe in free will, otherwise you might have to forgive a murder. Haven't you just recently taken on a religious commitment that might require you to do exactly that?

[1] Maybe you could say it can do anything, but it can't do everything.
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From:atreic
Date:June 30th, 2006 08:38 am (UTC)
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Secondly, you say that you pretty much have to believe in free will, otherwise you might have to forgive a murder

I don't think that's what I said. You have to believe in free will, because otherwise everything has no point, or at least, your actions can't change anything, you have no power over the way the world will go. OK, if there is no free will, you're right, and the fact that your actions can't change anything is depressing but true. But if you're wrong, believing in that powerlessness / pointlessness should lead to behaviour patterns that are pathalogical in a society where you really do have some control over your actions.

It's not about forgiveness, it's about responsibility. In a world with free will, there is a difference between someone being killed by the will of another person, and someone being killed by a random act of nature. In a world without free will, there would be no difference. It's not that you shouldn't forgive, but if you disempower people by reinforcing the idea that they had no control over what they did then you undermine their belief that change is possible and that they could become better people.
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From:jdc39
Date:June 30th, 2006 11:51 am (UTC)
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I think right and wrong are distinctions makeable by everyone, the difference is how much the person has thought about the situation from the various angles to realise which it was. There are plenty of times when people don't put themselves in the other person's shoes to realise what they did might be wrong, and that's the distinction that needs to be made. Everyone deep down knows murder is wrong, they just have to consider it happening to a loved one (because any victim almost certainly also has loved ones). Someone's upbringing can cause them to not see everyone to be equal to themselves and thus make their empathising rare, but they're still capable of seeing what they did was wrong.

If they have a condition which renders such realisation impossible or near-impossible, then I'm not terribly sure whether it's okay to treat them so differently. If there are situations where they will just end up offending/hurting people then they should be kept away from those situations because the amount of misery caused is minimised. Ultimately that's the important thing, to zoom out and look at everyone in the situation. So in that sense I think it is okay to lock someone up if they are mentally ill and a danger to others, because they may be miserable at being restricted but the misery of many others is worse.

Erm, may have gone off-topic, still alcohol'd.
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