Monthly Archives: February 2008

Determinism in Human Behavior and Its Implications for Advocacy

Part One

I am beginning this essay assuming the truth of determinism in human behavior, with a defense of determinism presented afterward in Part Two. My intention in this order of presentation is to immediately get to the primary point of the essay (in Part One) and leave the supporting argument for determinism at the end (in Part Two) for those who are interested in such elaboration or who have any doubts about the fact that human behavior is as determined as any phenomenon in the universe. If you find yourself frustrated at the undefended assumption of determinism in Part One, then you may want to read Part Two before reading Part One (which is the order that I originally wrote the essay in).

To start, I will define what I mean by determinism. Determinism in human behavior means that human behavior is caused by a person’s character, desires, and mental impulses, but that a person’s character, desires, and mental impulses are ultimately caused by events outside of that person’s control, such as genetic inheritance, neurobiological interactions, and environment, including the upbringing of the person, the educational opportunities, the culture and society, what happened in the past, from the past year or month to the past few minutes or seconds. This definition admits a “will” or a desire-that-produces-action, but it admits no “free will” or free desire. I will use the words determinism and causality interchangeably to mean approximately the same thing, with determinism referring to the more general state of the world and causality referring to more specific causal relationships.

What does such determinism imply for moral agency and responsibility? May we go out and do whatever we want and claim that we are not responsible for it?

Well, we already do go out and do whatever we want, so nothing has changed in that regard, given the above-stated definition of determinism. If we don’t go out on a killing rampage, it is because we’re not the kind of person who really wants to go out on a killing rampage, but if we were that kind of person (a fact about us that is ultimately out of our control), we would go out on a killing rampage and rationalize to ourselves that it was the appropriate thing to do. Nobody, whether the person is a torturer and mass-murderer or a non-vegan, does anything that they don’t rationalize as morally or otherwise acceptable. The sociopath, even if he realizes that society disapproves of his actions, believes that there are better reasons, morally or otherwise, for acting in his anti-social ways than for not acting in those ways.

What determinism implies for moral agency and responsibility is that we possess agency and responsibility within the range and to the degree that we are the type of person we are. If we are born the type of person who is easily influenced by society, not curious about the world, and lacks opportunity for expanding our horizons, we will be typical products of that society and our agency and responsibility will be restricted to that society’s norms. If we are born of a bad temperament and that temperament is amplified by a very hostile and violent environment, we will likely become violent sociopaths. If we are born with a kind temperament, more independent tendencies of mind, are not very easily influenced by our society, curious about the world, and have ample opportunity for exposure to philosophy, other eras, and other societies, we will likely be influenced by these differences and likely become a moral exemplar in our society. In short, we have subjective agency and responsibility within the psychological range of our given genetic and environmental background.

But isn’t it a contradiction of determinism to say that we have any agency and responsibility? Ultimately speaking, it is a contradiction, and we lack objective, ultimate agency and responsibility. But within the narrow range of our character, we do have responsibility that is essentially equivalent to our subjective sense of responsibility. Our sense of responsibility is the genuine feeling that we are free to do whatever we choose; that there are no external restrictions on our behavior. Our sense of responsibility is that subjective “freedom of action” that we feel when nothing external is stopping us from acting. We rationally deliberate on a course of action and choose plan B instead of plan A. That we were ultimately determined to pick plan B doesn’t matter in this limited, subjective sense of responsibility. We knowingly and willingly (but also determinedly) picked B instead of A, and we are, in that limited sense, subjectively responsible for the consequences of our choice. If we did not even have this limited subjective sense of responsibility, then words like “careful”, “prudent”, “foolish” and “reckless” would be meaningless. We can relate to the meaning of such words because of our subjective sense of responsibility, even though our actions are ultimately determined by our character and corresponding desires and impulses, which are ultimately determined by factors outside of our control.

Human Versus Nonhuman Agency and Responsibility

The only difference between the agency and responsibility of normal adult human beings versus conscious, sentient nonhuman beings is the possession by normal adult humans of abstract knowledge and intelligence, which is interrelated with and interdependent on language use. I use the phrase abstract intelligence because conscious, sentient nonhumans are highly intelligent in their non-abstract present moment experience, but they don’t think abstractly (e.g. mathematically, linguistically, far in the past, or far in the future). Nonhumans could not survive, especially in the wild, if it were not for their non-abstract intelligence. Some might call this non-abstract intelligence “instinct”, and instinct exists in us all, but to say there is no more to nonhumans than instinct is a serious failure to realize how non-abstractly intelligent nonhumans are. [1]

Because we (as normal adult humans) can learn abstractly and be psychologically and socially conditioned so much more due to our abstract intelligence and language use, our subjective moral agency and sense of responsibility can be significantly greater than nonhuman beings. However, to the extent that this capacity to learn and be conditioned has been left dormant, we are much closer to nonhuman beings in moral agency and sense of responsibility.

Unfortunately, our abstract intelligence and language use can also make our behavior monstrously cruel and immoral, far beyond the capacity of any nonhuman, especially when our agency and responsibility for moral behavior is diminished by living in an immoral society. We are highly social creatures – herd animals, if you will – and our inclination to follow the herd, at least for most of us, is one of our strongest psychological and instinctual drives, and sadly, for most of us, is also much stronger than any sense of morality. So when the herd engages in atrocities, most of us are all too willing to go along, or at least ignore it. In fact, the herd instinct of humans can be found underlying and significantly contributing to virtually all atrocities in history and the present: genocides, slavery, witch-burnings, and the moral status and uses of animals, including their property status and slaughter by the billions.

Many readers today will say, “Yeah, sure, the first three (genocide, slavery, witch-burning) are bad, but the moral status and use of animals is fine as it is.” I’ll just remind these readers that the societies and people engaging in the first three thought those were “fine as they were” also. Again, humans never engage in activity that we have not “rationalized” in some way. We see the atrocities of other societies and other times clearly, but we tend to be so very blind to the atrocities of our own society and time. Vegans may be upset with this moral blindness of our society until we realize that it is no different than being upset with Hurricane Katrina. Tragic and sad? Certainly it is tragic and sad, but inevitable in a blind, indifferent, and determined universe nevertheless.

Implications for Advocacy: The Importance of Causality

If we live in a blind, indifferent, and fully determined universe, does that mean we should merely accept that things are the way they are and do nothing about it? Certainly not. Pure determinism is pure causality, and although our actions are ultimately caused by our character and our character is ultimately caused by events outside our control, our actions are not without effects themselves. A corollary to determinism is that every action is not only an effect of something else, but it is also a cause of something else. Our actions in vegan and animal rights advocacy cause good effects. The only reason there has ever been any moral progress in the world, whether it be the abolition of slavery and witch-burning or the recognition of legal civil rights, is because of the effects of advocacy for such moral progress. We may not be able to change the course of a major hurricane’s path, but we can change and have changed humanity’s path over time.

Causality and determinism does imply that certain types and methods of advocacy will be far more effective than other types and methods of advocacy. It does imply that we cannot advocate for animal welfare – which merely entrenches the industrial owners and users of animals further in their property rights and gives consumers a false sense of comfort about consuming them – and expect abolition to ever come of it. There is no causal relationship between consumption of “happy” meat and going vegan. There is a causal relationship between vegan education and animal rights education and going vegan. We must advocate for veganism and the end, not the regulation, of animal use and ownership.

Finally, causality means that we should spend as much of our time as possible on open-minded people and avoid spending time and energy on never-evers. We must also try to avoid anger and frustration at the general state of the world and at those who don’t understand us, for in a determined world where we are not ultimately responsible for our character, it is very similar to being angry and frustrated at a person of lower mathematical intelligence for not understanding the algebra or calculus we are showing them. This is not to say there is any correlation of mathematical or any other kind of intelligence with moral character. Indeed, many people of the lowest moral character have been highly intelligent in one way or another, but severely lacking in moral intelligence. It is to say, however, that those of lower moral character are to be considered no more responsible for this unfortunate state of affairs than someone born and raised with some other defect. It is ultimately nothing more than bad luck.

People born and raised with lower moral character may be inspired to improve their moral character. Fortunately, moral character is just as malleable as other kinds of intelligence, and perhaps more so. But the initial motivation for improvement must occur naturally and cannot be caused by the victim who lacks it. If the initial motivation for improvement doesn’t exist or occur, determinism dictates that the morally challenged will remain so indefinitely until the sufficient external cause presents itself.

Implications of Determinism for Punishment

What about punishing those who are not ultimately responsible for their actions? In light of causality, punishment as a deterrent makes sense. It also makes sense to keep dangerous, violent beings (human or nonhuman) physically separate from trustworthy, nonviolent beings. Retributive punishment does not have justification in light of causality, but it does make living victims feel much better and brings psychological closure to living victims, due in part to the subjective sense of responsibility we experience and that we naturally project onto others. I see retributive punishment as a moral gray area to be decided on a case-by-case basis, and even then, it seems to be a matter of opinion, as it is in most gray areas, as to whether we did the right thing with respect to retributive punishment. We should try to err on the side of caution and clemency in retributive punishment.

Part Two

A Defense of Determinism

As promised in the first paragraph of this essay, the following section presents a defense of determinism.

In my experience and without exception, all phenomena are caused by something other than themselves. I have never witnessed anything or anyone as the cause of itself and I don’t expect to see any such miracles during my brief existence in the universe. The only conclusion that makes sense and coheres with firmly established scientific theory and empirical observation is that the universe has been an on-going process of unimaginably numerous, complex, and interrelated chains of causal relationships stretching back at least 13.5 billion years.

Some theories in physics (both classical and quantum) suggest “uncaused” randomness, but at this point in time, the theories seem to be too dependent on problematic philosophical interpretation to overthrow the overwhelming empirical evidence in other areas of science and in everyday life that there is a reason or cause behind every phenomenon. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. It seems far more likely that we don’t know the whole story (perhaps including the best philosophical interpretation) in quantum mechanics and chaos theory than that these theories confirm “uncaused” randomness. I’ll keep an open mind for extraordinary evidence or epistemologically stronger interpretations to arise in the future, but for now, I remain a believer in an absolutely determined universe.

Determinism and Us

Given determinism in all areas where we are on the most solid epistemological ground, it seems that we have no reason to believe that humans stand outside of and/or above causality, despite our anthropocentric and egocentric propensity to think we’re special and transcendent. Indeed, we are just as determined as the weather: in some ways we are as predictable and in other ways we are as unpredictable, but always determined to the same degree. Even if there is an “uncaused” randomness in the functioning of our brains at some level within chaos theory or quantum mechanics, it would only mean that humans are determined by some “uncaused” random factors, not that humans are not determined.

Some of us might object that we don’t feel determined. It certainly seems that I’m choosing to write this essay now. If I want to stop writing and go remove snow from my deck or roof, there’s nothing stopping me. Compatibilism is the idea that since there is nothing external to us constraining our actions, we act freely. The compatibilist perspective accepts a determined universe, but defines freedom of action as the absence of external constraints on or causes of our action. In cases where we act without such external constraints or causes, we are said to act freely in an otherwise determined world. The compatibilist perspective makes sense subjectively. The compatibilist view is somewhat akin to the view that “the sun rises in the east and sets in the west”. We don’t feel Earth rotating, and it certainly appears that “the sun comes up and goes down”. So conventionally, we still talk that way even if we know that from an objective perspective, it isn’t correct.

The pure determinist perspective differs from the compatibilist perspective in defining freedom of action as the absence of both external and internal (character, psychological, neurological, and/or physiological) constraints on or causes of our action. From the pure determinist perspective, we are always under the influence of psychological constraints or causes (which are a combination of our particular neurobiology and life-long environment) for which we are not ultimately responsible. The compatibilist perspective maintains that we can take action to build our character and therefore “take responsibility” for our character. The pure determinist perspective maintains that before we build our character, we must be the kind of person who would desire or be motivated to build our character; which in turn depends again on our character, which in turn depends on our circumstances of birth (the brain and temperament we inherited) and our initial environment (parents and community), and other aspects of “moral luck” [2] that we did not choose and for which we are not ultimately responsible.

We acknowledged above that when we decide to do something, like stop writing and go shovel snow, the act appears to us to be completely free. But from the pure determinist perspective, we would have to acknowledge that we are determined by our impulses to act in certain ways at certain times, and that our impulses to commit or refrain from any given action at any given fraction of a second are determined by thoughts arising independently of our “willing” them to arise and, on a scale of which we’re not aware, neurological functioning (the electrochemical whirl and buzz of millions of neurons per second doing their life-long habitual routines without consulting us and about which we are utterly unaware). As to our actions in everyday life, we should also acknowledge significant factors such as our innate tendencies to scratch inches, to drink when we’re thirsty, to eat when we’re hungry or bored, and to generally react to the world according to our temperaments, our desire for pleasure and aversion to pain, our previous habits, what we have read or heard, our life experiences, and our culture, all of which we were ultimately thrown into by the past conditions of our determined (or random) universe.

Pure determinism does not deny that we make decisions and choices (i.e. does not deny that we have a “will”), but rather denies our independence from causal factors (outside of our control) that ultimately determine what character we possess and therefore what choices we will make (i.e. denies that our “will” is free or independent of our genetics, environment, and life circumstances).

To get first-hand experience in one aspect of psychological determinism, sit quietly for all of five minutes and “free will” yourself to think of absolutely nothing (or if you prefer, will yourself to think only of one thing, like your favorite number). If you have so much control over your mind and impulses, then you should be able to go five measly minutes willing yourself to be locked on to one single concept or a completely blank mind. If you did the experiment, what you found was that you don’t control your thoughts (no matter how hard you try). If anything, your thoughts (and desires) control you. At best, they unstoppably arise and pass away like bubbles in a carbonated beverage, only hopefully not that rapidly. Chances are excellent that you didn’t even make it one minute, probably not even 30 seconds, before an uninvited subtle thought slipped through the back door and crashed your concentration party.

Is Free Will a Logical Possibility?

Here’s a thought experiment: Imagine everyone, starting at midnight tonight, was granted “free will”, meaning that we could now rid ourselves of all past psychological conditioning, intelligence, temperament, and character, and literally be the cause of ourselves. We can now select our intelligence, temperament, the degree of our desires and aversions, our character, and start with a clean slate with no cultural or socio-economic baggage.

An interesting question arises, however: How would we begin to choose? Would we not need a Rawlsian “original position” of knowledge? If so, wouldn’t that knowledge in the original position be a determining factor in our free will? Is pure free will with absolutely no determining factors even logically possible?

I often find myself in disagreement with the 19th century philosopher, philologist, and intellectual entertainer, Friedrich Nietzsche, especially in moral philosophy, but in answering the question of the logical possibility of free will, and therefore the causa sui, I agree with Nietzsche when he says in his typically colorful way, “The causa sui is the best self-contradiction that has been conceived so far, it is a sort of rape and perversion of logic; but the extravagant pride of man has managed to entangle itself profoundly and frightfully with just this nonsense. The desire for “freedom of the will” in the superlative metaphysical sense, which still hold sway, unfortunately, in the minds of the half-educated; the desire to bear the entire and ultimate responsibility for one’s actions oneself, and to absolve God, the world, ancestors, chance, and society involves nothing less than to be precisely this causa sui and, with more than Munchhausen’s audacity, to pull oneself up into existence by the hair, out of the swamps of nothingness.” [3]

Whereas the compatibilist perspective makes sense subjectively, the pure determinist perspective makes sense objectively. The pure determinist view is somewhat akin, in contrast to the compatibilist view stated earlier, to the view that Earth rotates on its axis while the Sun remains relatively stationary. Determinism in human behavior and the heliocentric view of the relationship between Earth and Sun are both objectively correct, even though conventionally and subjectively, it makes sense to talk of compatibilism and the Sun “rising” and “setting.”


[1] The non-abstract, present-experience intelligence of nonhumans is a topic that is beyond the scope of this essay, but I might address it in some future essay on the nature of nonhuman minds.

[2] “Moral luck” is a term introduced by Bernard Williams and subsequently developed by Thomas Nagel. Nagel describes four kinds of moral luck: resultant, circumstantial, constitutive, and causal. The kinds of moral luck that I am referring to in this essay are circumstantial and constitutive. Circumstantial luck is luck in the circumstances we are born into, such as the era, society, culture, family and socio-economic conditions we were born into (i.e. the luck of our environment). Constitutive luck is luck in our basic genetic characteristics and includes our species, race, nationality, temperament, moral or immoral tendencies, mental and physical abilities (or lack thereof) (i.e. the luck of our genetic inheritance).

[3] Nietzsche, Friedrich, Beyond Good and Evil, Number 21, translated by Walter Kaufmann in the Basic Writings of Nietzsche, The Modern Library Classics, 2000.

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