Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Smoking, Obesity, Responsibility, and Choice

My recent statements that smoking, overeating, and under-exercise are (sometimes) a matter of choice, and that people should bear the costs if their own choices, naturally leads to a discussion of free will and morality.

It is widely held that if you can show that something (e.g., smoking, obesity) sits outside of the realm of free will them moral concepts do not apply. My assertion that they are responsible for the medical costs they create, then, would be rejected.

Some who agree with this view on the relationship of morality to free will hold that there is no such thing as free will - so moral concepts never apply. We are all innocent, no matter what we do. Of course, we are also determined to blame others, even if it is unfounded.

I agree with the claim that free will does not exist. This means that if you demonstrate to me that some aspect of behavior was determined and that free will played no role, I will shrug my shoulders and say, "So?"

I reject the idea that morality requires free will. This means that if you then go on to infer that moral concepts do not apply, I will stop and raise objections.

Desirism - the moral theory on which I rely on in writing these posts - is not only compatible with determinism. It requires determinism. Free will, if it did exist, would throw the theory that I use into complete turmoil.

But it doesn’t exist, so I am safe on that front.

Desirism holds that people act so as to fulfill the most and strongest of their current desires, given their beliefs. You can alter a person’s intentional actions either by altering his beliefs or altering his desires.

The tools we have for altering desires are praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment.

This is where morality comes in. Morality concerns the use of these tools - praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment - to promote desires that people generally have the most and strongest reasons to promote, and inhibit desires people have the most and a strongest reason to inhibit.

Well, that’s the aim. People often do not know what desires they actually have the most and strongest reason to promote or inhibit. False beliefs get in the way. But it only makes sense to promote desires people have the most and strongest reason to promote, and inhibit desires that people have the most and strongest reason to inhibit.

So the question, with respect to health, is not whether individuals have the ability to draw upon some supernatural force called "free will" to avoid eating or smoking or to exercise, but whether the agents' desires can be molded by environmental factors such as the praise and condemnation of others.

Do incentives work as a way to get people to exercise? To quit smoking? To avoid over-eating?

I can praise and condemn people until I am blue in the face, but it will not affect their eye color. If I threaten to punish people who have blue eyes, and reward those who have brown eyes, nobody's eye color will change as a result. So, eye color actually is something that stands outside of the realm of morality.

On the other hand, by praising those who are honest and condemning those who lie, we do have the ability to create an affection for honesty and an aversion to deception. Similarly, where deception is rewarded and honest people are punished, we can expect people to practice dishonesty to a greater degree and shun honesty.

The ability to influence the prevalence of honesty and dishonesty using these tools means we have a question to answer regarding how we are going to use these tools. We can get more honesty by praising honesty. So, if we have many and strong reasons to be surrounded by honest people, we have many and strong reasons to praise honesty.

Are eating habits responsive to social forces? Can social norms influence what we eat, when we eat, and how much we eat? Do they influence whether we spend an afternoon on the basket ball court or in front of the television?

My claim that people should pay for the medical costs associated with smoking, overeating, and under-exercise only requires that it be the case that people who engage in this behavior respond to incentives. Demonstrating that the behavior is determined is irrelevant. Demonstrating that the behavior is influenced by things other than praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment will have limited relevance. Ultimately, what will be required in rejecting these claims is demonstrating that praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment will have no effect at all on bringing about the intended behavior.

The thesis that some desires can be molded through the use of these forced is not only compatible with determinism. It requires determinism. Without it, we can't make reasonable claims about whether or how to use these social tools.

Without determinism, there can be no morality.


Cash said...

I suspect like most things in reality Free Will doesn’t fall into pure binary states of yes or no – it exists in a continuum. Just because Free Will does not exist in a hypothetical vacuum separate of physical realities and constraints, doesn’t mean it isn’t there. I think the word ‘Free’ is what really pushes people’s buttons. I think there is little doubt that ‘Will’ exists. It exists in the context of human bodies, not all being exactly equal, and the physical circumstances, also not being equal. Because the nature of human consciousness and Will is a function of biological physiology that physically changes in its adaptation to stimulus, it isn’t free of these constraints. There is very little doubt that humans have the potential to exert Will to change their existence in terms of eating, smoking and exercise. However, each of these have important physical mappings in our brains. So, do humans have ‘completel Free Will’ to act without the constraints of their brains? Of course not.

However, it is a far cry to say that just because someone is incapable of being fully responsible for their decisions and life style, that anyone else is there for compelled to be responsible.

Anonymous said...

Without determination nothing gets done.

mojo.rhythm said...

People assume that if determinism is true, the future is inevitable. That is not true; we are evolved to avoid certain futures. If you throw a brick at my head, I duck. I am avoiding a future in which a brick is lodged in my brain.

Moreover, you "avoid" the bad, and "what" the good? You go after it, you gather it, you seize it, you pursue it, you catch it.

Now rephrase the phrase: if determinism is true, the future is un-seizable.

Now you can see the absurdity of it. We are evolved to avoid certain futures and go after other ones.

Kristopher said...

@ mojo

determinism does = inevitable
you argument seems to imply that the future will be inevitabley rosy and happy but i dont see how it argues for a break between determinism and inevitability.

@ alonzo

why would desirism fall apart with free will? if one assumes free will is somehow verified i don't see how that would negatively affect desirism

mojo.rhythm said...

determinism does = inevitable
you argument seems to imply that the future will be inevitabley rosy and happy but i dont see how it argues for a break between determinism and inevitability.

There is a difference between saying:

1: If determinism is true, what will happen will happen.


2: If determinism is true, the future cannot be avoided.

(1) Is a tautology. And it also applies for indeterminism. Even if your choices ultimately emanate from a non-material aspect of your being, what will happen will still happen.

(2) actually has non-trivial implications, but it is false. Like I said before, we have evolved to be avoiders. Our brains are, more or less, future simulators, causing us to behave in ways that try to avoid certain futures, and realise other ones.

"The future is inevitable" presupposes something an agent wants to avoid, something bad. If it was something good, the equivalent sentence would be: "If determinism is true, the future cannot be realised--it is unreachable." Yet everyone can see how nonsensical that is. "The" future is not unreachable, some futures are. Our brains cause us to seek after those futures that are desirable, and shun those we are averse to.

As to Alonzo's claim that indeterminism abrogates moral culpability, I'm right with him on that one.

Imagine two universes. Both literally identical in every single way to one another. In one universe, I am sitting at my computer, typing on my keyboard. In the other universe, instead I decide to get up, jump in my car, start driving, and immediately crash head-first into a tree.

Remember: both universes are exactly the same. I have exactly the same brain, with the same beliefs, desires, wishes, goals, virtues, vices, qualities, and attitudes. Yet, in the second universe, I crash my car into a tree.

How can I be blamed for it? I didn't have a desire to get in my car; I had no desire to start driving; I believed that if I drove into a tree it would be a horrible thing, so why? If it is something that is totally divorced from my beliefs, desires and intentions, blaming me would make as much sense as blaming the child with Tourettes for swearing at his mother. This esoteric "free-will" force controls me. Ironically, it saps me of my free will!

kipkoan said...

mojo.rhythm: you are giving an argument for compatibilism that Daniel Dennett gives. The problem is one of semantics. The "free will" that compatibilists (like me & Dennett) claim exists is not the same "free will" that most people claim exists. Most people think that "free will" means someone could have "willed" (chosen) differently given the same state of the universe (including their brain states). This is false. If we rewind the universe and play it back, a person will make the exact same choices (determinism is true). There may be times that something different happens, but if so the only thing that could account for that would be quantum randomness (not something that was "willed" or "chosen"; random events are not what people mean by "free will"). There is no "will" that is free from the laws of the universe. All "wills", like every other event in the universe, are determined by the physical laws and current state of the universe.

And… as Alonzo is arguing… this is a good thing. If a person could "will" something independently from the state of their brain and the laws of the universe, then our moral "tools" (praise, condemnation, reward, punishment) would not work, and the entire practice of morality would be worthless.