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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