The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Oligarchs & Criminals: Reward and Punishment After the Unmoved Mover

Our conception of human nature rules most of our social decisions, including those centered around economics and justice.

One of the primary concerns of Theology and Metaphysics was to find an “unmoved mover,” or, a “first cause.”

Our ancestors were not stupid. They noticed that effects seemed to have causes. Even when the cause was not evident, they assumed there was a cause because of how the rest of the universe worked.

In one sense, this is a search for “the creator,” or “the first,” or “God” (though it need not be God in any monotheistic sense).  What created the universe runs very quickly into infinite regress. If X created the universe, what created X?

You needed, then, to find a cause which itself had no cause. You needed to find an unmoved mover: Something that could move other things, but was not itself caused by anything.

To many moderns, this seems like a pointless pursuit, but the most brilliant people in many cultures pursued it for thousands of years, precisely because the oddest thing about existence isn’t any one part of existence, it is that there exists existence at all.

Why should there be anything?

What does this have to do with morality, ethics, reward, and punishment?

If everything has a cause, then how can anyone be morally culpable for their thoughts or actions?

This is not an inconsequential thought, it is at the heart of the prison and justice reform movements of the late 19th century, and the heart of secular efforts to help the unfortunate.

Fault requires agency. If everything you do has a cause, then how can you be blamed for anything. (Indeed, what are you? Just a collection of causes and effects, which is what some Buddhists mean when they say there is no self.)

In a pure cause and effect universe, there is no choice. Any appearance of choice is an illusion. It does not exist. Intellectually, this reached its highest point with Skinner’s Beyond Freedom and Dignity, which attempted to show how conditioning created behaviour and which was (unfairly, in my opinion) demolished by Noam Chomsky (whose work in other areas I admire).

Choice. Agency. These things require an unmoved mover. They do not require God, but they require something to happen which does not have cause.

A soul, perhaps. But if you don’t believe in such “nonsense,” then where is the choice? Absent the choice, where is the blame? Clarence Darrow, the famous jurist from the Scopes Monkey Trial, argued this in his book Crime: Its Cause and Treatment. He also wrote a book called The Myth of the Soul.

No soul. No unmoved mover. No culpability, no blame.

If people aren’t to blame for their behaviour, punishment makes no sense. You’re going to hurt someone because he hurt someone else? He didn’t have a choice.

There are no choices.

This is why prison departments are often called Corrections departments.

The criminals’ behaviour is harmful to society (well, in theory). That’s not their fault, but it does need to be corrected. Since behaviour has causes, changing the environment (which determines the causes of behaviour) can change the behavior.

Those who sneer at this should note that Nordic prisons, which concentrate on rehabilitation and avoid violence and punishment, have recidivism rates about half that of American prisons.

Most violent crimes, and especially sex crimes, are committed by people who were themselves abused. Abusing them more does not fix them. And for those criminals who were not abused, putting them into a system which will virtually ensure their abuse makes them worse when they get out, as a rule.

Once they get out, if they can only associate with the underclass and criminal class, if there are no opportunities for them because no one will hire an ex-con, well, that will cause more crime.

But this article isn’t just about criminals, it is about all of us.

Much social policy in the 20th century came out of the insight that all effects have causes combined with statistics: “Oh, people who are born poor have worse outcomes.”

That is either due to environment, or it is due to genetics.

There is NOTHING else in a pure materialistic view.

Thus, in addition to the reformers, you had the eugenics crowd, because it was either environment or it was genetics.

Eugenics basically says “this is inferior stock.” It should not be allowed to breed, because inferior stock leads to worse outcomes: more crime, more poverty, etc, etc.

Environment says that while there may be some genetic issues, most of the causes are social. What are your parents’ social position, who are you peers, what opportunities do you have?

If we want better outcomes, we have to improve the environment for people who tend to have bad outcomes.  Therefore we provide free healthcare, free education, improve their housing, put libraries into their neighbourhoods, and so on.

So much for the consequences on action. Consider the ethical consequences.

If you are not responsible for your crimes, or your position in life (it all comes down to a birth lottery and no choice you ever made…because you have no choices), then neither are you responsible for whatever wealth or success you have accrued in any ethical fashion. You never made a choice that lead to whatever you had.

Thus the statement: “I made the money, I deserve” is nearly nonsense in this paradigm.  The only utilitarian case which can be made for it is: “I will spend it in better ways than the government/poor/middle class will.” There is no deserve.

We thus have a large project through the 20th century to say that rich people WILL use their money better than government would, or than poor or middle class people would if they had it.

“Rich people create jobs.” “Rich people make superior investment decisions and those investment decisions improve the world.”

You get the idea.

Everyone wants to think they deserve what they have. It gratifies the ego, and it assures one that one will continue to be prosperous, powerful, or healthy.

The “continue to be” is important, because fitness is relative.

You can certainly make a case that the winners of any society are more “fit.”

But that fitness is for that society. Change the society, and those who are fit change. What is rewarded in Medieval Europe is not what is rewarded today in America, is not what was rewarded in Mandarinate China, is not even what is rewarded today in Japan, and various other societies.

As societies change, through changes in ideology, social facts, technology, and material base, what is “fit” changes. The genetic endowment and circumstances which guaranteed success become less and less relevant over time.

Fitness is thus not exactly arbitrary, but it is relative, and to a remarkable degree it is socially chosen. The Age of Faith rewarded monastics and hermits with great prestige, for example. Heck, it rewarded monastics with great wealth. We do no such thing; in this age, we do not value contemplatives.

In Japan, the ability to fit in and get along is far more valuable than it is in America. Mavericks are hardly tolerated. What will get you ahead in a police state like Egypt is different from what works in Europe and so on.

There is no end of history (unless we wipe ourselves out). What cultures and societies reward will always change. It has changed in my lifetime in the West: The rewards for skills in finance and technology were not nearly as large in my youth, manual labor was worth much more, and so on.

So: No unmoved mover, no free will, and you are thrown back on purely utilitarian arguments for what people “deserve” because there is no choice. What you do to people who aren’t “fit” in your society changes as well. They aren’t making bad choices, because they don’t make choices and neither do you. They are simply responding to biology and environment, and you’d act the same way if you had been born with their biology, to their parents, at the same time.

You want better outcomes? Change the biology or the environment. Everything else is a waste of time, and moral exhortations to do better are only useful if they change behaviour, but are bullshit in explanatory terms.

This is a cold universe. It contradicts our everyday feeling that we do make choices. But it is hard to argue against it.

The notable materialist attempt has been to find choice and consciousness in quantum effects. Roger Penrose, who worked often with Stephen Hawking, wrote a very dense book on this. It’s true that cause and effect don’t work in quantum mechanics the way they do in Newtonian and Einsteinian physics. The Quantum God is not a watchmaker’s God.

Consciousness, or observation, seems to effect quantum outcomes. This is spooky to us. Perhaps here we will find some room for choice, for free will.

But I do not know that it has been shown yet, and I’m not sure what Quantum free will would mean in practice.

For now, if you do not believe in an unmoved mover, there is little to no room for free will, for actual choice. And if that is true, it is also true that there is no room for blame–or congratulations–for individual outcomes beyond, “Congratulations on your fitness, which you made not one choice to create!” or, “Gee, it’s too bad you aren’t fit for this society, have defective genes, or experience!”

Look on this argument and understand what it means. Look on it and understand what it means for our social policies.

Even if you think there is an unmoved mover, this view should be of interest to you, not just because it has been influential but because statistics supports that most people perform just about how you’d expect they’d perform, given their physical endowment and their environment. Individual variation exists, and you can use free will to explain some of it, while noting that if free will exists, most people don’t seem to use it very much.

Social change comes from changing the environment people are in. It comes from very little else.

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  1. I don’t believe we have a free will. But we have to act as if we do. Because for one thing, we’re wired to imagine that we do.

    I studied the eugenics movement during my MA year in history. The statistician George Udny Yule exposed it as bad science in the 1890s.

    I use utilitarian outcomes as the root of all my political-moral arguments.

    We can use threats of punishment to prevent certain sorts of anti-social behaviour. But the subsequent emphasis should be on rehabilitation. At the same time though, it’s natural to feel disgust for someone who completely gave in to base impulses. Even if it wasn’t “their” “fault.”

    It’s like a machine that works poorly and you get frustrated with it. Even though it’s just a machine you hate it and often wish to throw it away in anger.

  2. Jeff Wegerson

    Words are a dualistic tool we use to change reality. (Changing reality implies free will, but the appearance of free will will do for my view here.) Reality is everything. Every thing in a universal sense. Universe being a dualistic word for one word (uni=one verse=word). A word attempting to use a dualistic tool to describe non-dualism, oneness etc. Or God in the Hebrew (and others) sense that there can be no word for God. Et cetera.

    But here is what I want to remind you of Ian. Words being a tool (as well as a product of the tool) are capable of creating things that cannot exist in reality. With words we can imagine the unimaginable. And lots of other paradoxes. And that is what many great thinkers have done. They were as it were seduced by words.

    And that is all well and good. But it is not where I think you think you want to go. Just as our problems, climate change and dysfunctional economics etc. (that word again), are not technical nor technological problems but political/social ones so I would suggest to you that your goals need not resolve nor even propagate philosophical, often word based paradoxes, but focus on very concrete approaches to building better ordinary lives for those of us who find ourselves here at this time.

    As is said on the internet, imho.

  3. jsn

    I nominate Life as the unmoved mover. It has the odd properties of retarding entropy (unless we “unconsciously” burn all the hydrocarbons buried in the earth, in which case it will have been an accelerant of entropy) and making “observations” possible through what I suspect is an emergent property, consciousness.

    I’m pretty sure I’m wrong, but that’s as far as I could get…

  4. Ian Welsh

    Getting your head straight is one of the best, most concrete ways, of improving life. As societies, changing ideology and culture is one of the best ways of improving life.

  5. Tom

    Then perhaps we should adopt the Gorean Caste System.

    Essentially, if you’re a son or daughter of a doctor, you will become a doctor yourself, though if a daughter you must have two children before being allowed to practice fully and those children will follow in your footsteps.

    If born to a sheet metal worker, you become a sheet metal worker.

    So on and so forth. Your place at birth determines your profession and it can’t change except under exceptional circumstances. Women of the caste are not expected to do caste work and can stay home and raise the kids. The Caste are also Guilds which own the business they ply with merchants only selling finished goods. Your Caste Guild guarantees you a job once you complete the apprenticeship and if not suited for it, gives you subsidiary work to do in support of the Caste so you aren’t moping around.

    In addition, Gorean Politics is local, and political apathy is not allowed. Citizens of the city are fully expected to attend a set number of public events and debates or be exiled from the city.

    It would work a lot better than the current system which is ripe for civil war.

  6. tatere

    “Environment” can mean the environment in your head, too. I am a local system of rules, behaviors, and values. The values develop over time from all the usual suspects, and they are constantly changing. The same rules and behaviors produce different results to the same situation because my values are different. The system is capable of reweighting some values as an implementation of other values. I can stop eating meat. (Not that I would but I can.)

    So when we say that I have made a “wrong choice” we’re judging my values. Rehabilitation is a rewiring of my system, an externally initiated reweighting of my values. Which is why the Nordic model has good results and American prisons are crime factories – look at what they teach you is important.

    I think we do end up acting as if we have agency because that’s how we model other creatures: they don’t do what we want, they do their own thing, so we see them as having their own reasons. Then we model ourselves to ourselves like we were another person and so on down the rabbit hole. What works for the rough carpentry of daily life is just approximations anyway.

    Curious what you think of Sen’s idea of capabilities – your possible actions if you are uneducated and working 16 hours a day to live are far fewer than they would be with more education and more time, even though it’s the same “you” in either case. (That’s my poor paraphrase of it.)

  7. Adam Eran

    This is a very old argument in philosophy. Another way to state the question: “Are humans simply masses of churning chemicals, or does something like consciousness exist?”

    I would urge taking a cue from the quantum physicists: Asking whether it’s a wave or a particle tells us more about the limitations of human perception than about small wavicles. Experimental data says these small things behave according to the type of observation!

    Similarly, asking whether it’s mind or body, consciousness or chemicals may be adding human limitations to something that’s fundamentally mysterious, or at least uncertain.

    The book to read here: Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception — a far more interesting read than the title might suggest.

    One other thing: Given the dedication to meditation on this blog, I’d suggest the power of meditation, or in quantum terms:observation, may be under-appreciated in a statement like “Social change comes from changing the environment people are in. It comes from very little else.”

  8. kpv

    I don’t believe we have a free will. But we have to act as if we do. Because for one thing, we’re wired to imagine that we do.

    Not wired. Taught. I remember from a very young age being told that I could always account for my actions (even the most trivial ones like “why did you choose the strawberry flavoured lollipop”) if I were willing to, and any claim otherwise on my part was simply dissembling. Tell a child this often enough, and they’ll start confabulating reasons why they did things even if they honestly had no idea. Tell it to them early enough, and it may become such second nature to confabulate that when they grow up they’ll do it as a matter of course and not even realize that they’re doing it anymore.

    Free will isn’t a universal belief among all cultures, among all Western cultures, among all Western Christian cultures, or even among all Western Christian Protestant cultures–Calvinists rejected it. The world will not collapse if people stop believing in free will.

  9. Ian Welsh

    A lot of Indian philosophy doesn’t believe in free will. I’m not quite sure the Buddhist stance (of course, different schools could have different ideas), but there is definitely a lot in Buddhist metaphysics that could be taken to mean “no”.

  10. David

    For now, if you do not believe in an unmoved mover, there is little to no room for free will, for actual choice. … Look on this argument and understand what it means. Look on it and understand what it means for our social policies. … Social change comes from changing the environment people are in. It comes from very little else.

    I’m looking, and I understand this to mean that there’s no point to any action: “fate is fated”, to quote another author. There is no social policy, because there is no self to choose a policy and act upon it. There is no argument, in fact, because there is no self to make an argument; nor is there a self to understand the argument or be persuaded by it. Each event is just another link in the infinite chain of causation.

    Personally, for myself, I am convinced with Aristotle and Aquinas: there must be an unmoved mover and an uncaused cause. I am also convinced by every day experience: I have a will; I can act in keeping with my nature, and I can act against my nature, and the latter takes effort. I can select behaviors, and with effort and practice, I can train my will to new behaviors. Whether this is a free will or not I will leave to the philosophers and theologians, but it fits the common definition.

  11. This is wrong. It’s true/false, which is not the case.

  12. Ian Welsh

    I didn’t say it was what /I/ believe is the case. 🙂

  13. Spinoza

    My namesake (handlesake?), Baruch Spinoza, described freedom or “blessedness” as the understanding that most of what happens to you is ultimately beyond your control, that your actions are caused by forces beyond even your understanding, that you cannot control your actions or even your emotional reaction to what happens or what you do. What you can do is understand this and see that all your suffering is of little consequence “under the aspect of eternity”. Blessedness, for him, lies in the awareness of this and almost disregarding it. Live your life and choose that which will cause as little suffering and as much peace of mind as possible. Again, for what you do, matter not from the perspective of God.

    There is a kind of joy in this Stoic perspective. Rather like the detestable Nietzsche’s “amor fati”.

  14. Declan

    I’m not sure why Spinoza finds Nietzsche detestable, but he (Nietzsche) did dwell on this topic at some length, in particular making the point that we can’t legitimately hold people responsible for their actions.

    But it’s a common enough theme: for example here’s Nick Cave, in ‘O Malley’s Bar’

    I have no free will, I sang
    As I flew about the murder
    Mrs. richard holmes, she screamed
    You really should have heard her

    I sang and I laughed, I howled and I wept
    I panted like a pup
    I blew a hole in mrs. richard holmes
    And her husband stupidly stood up

    As he screamed, you are an evil man
    And I paused a while to wonder
    If I have no free will then how can i
    Be morally culpable, I wonder

    I shot richard holmes in the stomach
    And gingerly he sat down
    And he whispered weirdly, no offense
    And then lay upon the ground

    None taken, I replied to him
    To which he gave a little cough
    With blazing wings I neatly aimed
    And blew his head completely off

  15. Ian Welsh

    Spinoza’s view is very close to strands of both Buddhist and Hindu thought, and I might add, to my own experience.

  16. realitychecker

    I might suggest that it is good enough to believe in cause and effect based on logical connections and observations made in our actual everyday real life experiences (and the accurate predictions they make possible), while simultaneously accepting that we will never be equipped to authoritatively settle basic philosophical questions about “original” anything.

    IOW, like Killary says, “what difference does that make now?” Oy.

  17. Jagger

    My father had a near death experience back in the 80s from a bad accident. So over the years, I have off and on read extensively about the NDE. NDE’s have a unique perspective on cause and effect, free will and consequences.

    If NDEs are a reflection of a higher plane of existence, then the physical world is not real but more a temporary, artificial stage to act and learn who we truly are at the moment. What we learn may lead to further progression or evolution of our individual consciousness. It is almost as if an existence on earth can be compared to a particular tough college exam. So per NDE, reality is an eternal, timeless consciousness composed of the all existing consciousness which are both individual and linked. Moral growth appears to be the objective.

    Some people have experienced life reviews. Basically the individual is able to re-experience their lives in 3d, panaromic, almost holographic detail. In addition, they experience the consciousness of everyone involved in each “frame” of existence which allows them great insight into their actions. The surprising part is that it appears that no one judges the experience except the individual. However it seems the indivdual is a very harsh critic of themselves and many describe the experience as very painful when they make mistakes. Here is a sample quote:

    “Most things were pleasant to see, some things made me very embarrassed. In fact, revulsion and guilt took away any good feelings, making me so very sorry for certain things I had said or done. I hadn’t just seen what I had done, but I felt and knew the repercussions of my actions. I felt the injury or pain of those who suffered because of my selfish or inappropriate behavior.”

    So in general, the NDE suggests the individual has free will. And their individual consciousness is the only determinate of the consequences of their use of free will on earth. So cause and effect is very important per the NDE but in terms of conscious choices rather than in deterministic physical cause and effect.

    So here is another interesting vision of free will to put up against Spinoza, Buddhism and others. Although it isn’t based on a purely philosophic reasoning or religious inspiration but rather the subjective description of experiences by those near death or actually dead but revived. It isn’t every century that you see an alternative, cohesive, logical vision come together on the meaning of existence. I guess with time, we will all eventually discover the answer to that great mystery.

  18. kpv

    I have a will; I can act in keeping with my nature, and I can act against my nature, and the latter takes effort. I can select behaviors, and with effort and practice, I can train my will to new behaviors. Whether this is a free will or not I will leave to the philosophers and theologians, but it fits the common definition.

    And from the purview of an individual person’s affairs that works just fine.

    The problem is, the common definition, which is really just garden-variety “will”, is going to get equivocated with the philosophers definition, with all the sorts of ghastly repercussions the OP alludes to.

    Nobody really doubts will exists, and if you call it by the synonym “volition” no one will even pretend to doubt it exists. “Free will” is a thornier issue.

  19. ekstase

    I was told recently that brain research has shown that meditation, over time, has the effect of “strengthening” the part of the brain that controls “fight or flight.” Apparently this enables people to not just stay calm, but to control their behavior in new ways, effortlessly.
    My gut feeling is that there is some force or energy that links us, and directs everything that has a consciousness, which may well be everything. And the fact that we feel a certain revulsion towards certain human behavior, or the destruction of our planet, is evidence of this link. Also, I think that a lot of this is beyond words, which is why things like meditation may be increasingly important.

  20. Hugh

    I think the Greeks pretty much got it right. It’s about society, the polis to them. Aristotle said that the greatest good was happiness, but that happiness can only come from within society.

    Without society, we are a babe in the woods who will die in its first few hours. Even if you object and say but there’s still the family, that will only get you a few years more. You will still be living like a feral animal and your family will die out in a few generations through disease, starvation, accident, and inbreeding. If you try to move beyond that level to families interacting, you have, ta-da, moved into the realm of society.

    If I had to guess, I would say it was probably Aquinas who took Aristotle’s idea of the unmoved mover and equated it with God. And while Aquinas cast the problem in Aristotleian terms, he still struggled, like theologians before and after him, in trying to reconcile the notion of an all powerful deity with both the existence of evil in the world and the concept of free will. Evil becomes not so much a negation of God but a kind of vacuum where God is not. Free will becomes a gift of the Creator. You can decide for yourselves whether either of these formulations actually advance matters or simply add another layer to the problem.

    There is, however, an important difference between the Aquinian and Aristotleian views. Aristotle’s idea of an unmoved mover is purely about physical causes, not moral ones. Morality for Aristotle is a product of society. It is about how we live together in a society both as individuals and as members of that society. All social activities, including economic ones, are governed by this morality. And it is for this reason that economics is not descriptive, but always prescriptive (i.e. morally determined). It is also why the real metric of economics is not GDP, but happiness.

    Theologians and the religious ascribe the source of morality elsewhere. They seek to place God or godhead first and this creates the problems Aquinas and others had to deal with. Morality becomes absolutist, divinely prescribed, even as the universe and human experience are not. The truth is that society comes first. While it is possible to conceive of societies without religion, the contrary is not true. You cannot have religion without society. You are reduced to the dying babe in the woods and family with which we started. Society provides a receptacle for religion. It allows for its transmission across generations. And above all else, it allows for its toleration. Toleration is a social agreement, between those with one set of beliefs and those with others. And it is neither absolute nor unlimited. Just because your religion prescribes human sacrifice or plural marriage or holds that the world is 6,000 years old does not mean the rest of us have to agree. We may tolerate some beliefs in some contexts and not in others (creationism) or in none at all (human sacrifice). In practical and social terms, and that is where we live, society comes, and must come, first but it is not an absolute unmoved mover. It is expansive and flexible and meant to maximize our happiness.

  21. charlie

    Liking the discussion . I should add that Libet’s gap explains much what you do with regard to free will.

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