June 2013

James Orbesen


The Self Beyond Itself: An Alternative History of Ethics, the New Brain Sciences, and the Myth of Free Will by Heidi M. Ravven

Near the end of Heidi M. Ravven's The Self Beyond Itself: An Alternative History of Ethics, the New Brain Sciences, and the Myth of Free Will, the author relates a telling anecdote:

In my many conversations about what my book was about, the response of perhaps most of the folks I was talking with, from the most rigorous philosopher to the acquaintance I bumped into standing in line at the grocery store, was usually along the lines of "Don't we need free will so that wrongdoers can be held responsible for their actions?" My answer is no, we don't, and here's why.

It's a challenging question posed to Ravven, one, on the surface, that seems somewhat insurmountable. Free will is such a powerful concept, and a deeply embedded one. Here is what might account for so many of those perplexed reactions: free will seems just so damn intuitive.

How could we not have free will? I choose what I do and when I do it. I choose to commit a crime. I choose to do drugs. When I want lunch, I choose to go have lunch. If I want to make my BLT deluxe, I do that too. Sure, I might be rash or impulsive or pigheaded, but that's implicit with choosing. Sometimes you just get it wrong. The fault, or praise, is on you for choosing. Free will is seen as instrumental in leading us towards a moral life. Our wills enable us to overcome basic instincts and urges, the background noise of context, and to work towards the path of goodness, if we choose to.

Ravven dives into the subject confidently. And confidence is certainly something anyone challenging free will needs on his or her side. Just think of the sheer amount that has been written on the subject. You can't swing a dead cat in philosophy's annals without knocking over the notion. Beyond the classroom, think about how integrated free will, as a concept, is when it comes to discourses on politics, economics, and practically every field in which words like "choice" get put into play. It's been said before and still sticks: we are rational actors making choices in our own self-interests.

In order to tackle free will effectively, Ravven needs to deal with specifics. Therefore: "The Holocaust will be the test case of free will as the basis for moral agency." Although it might seem unfair to indict free will as the blatant and gross abandonment of morals as the Holocaust was, the scale of the atrocity provides ample evidence in multiple insistences.

For example, there is the case of Reserve Police Battalion 101. Consisting mainly of middle-aged men largely unfit for front line service, Reserve Police Battalion 101 hailed from cosmopolitan Hamburg, an area cold to the Nazis' influence. When the unit was activated and sent east, it operated much like the better-known Einsatzgruppen, roving death squads that exterminated Jews and other undesirables.

Reserve Police Battalion 101 was ordered, again and again, into villages where it performed its duty. This might just be a case of the old saw "just following orders." But -- and this is where it gets chilling -- the men, of middle class background and little political conviction, were given just as many chances to sit out the mass executions. Their commander repeatedly insisted that whoever wanted to avoid the atrocity could sit out, be assigned to another role, with no penalty to themselves or their comrades. Basically, if you don't want to do this, you don't have to. No gun to the head here. Out of a battalion of over 500 men, only fifteen ever exercised their free will to abstain. Ravven, in her study of the battalion based on a famous book of Christopher Browning's, takes this to mean there are larger things at work here. Instead of these men being a few bad apples, as she muses, perhaps it is more they were placed in a bad barrel.

But surely one case isn't enough to throw free will out the window. Ravven goes deeper, utilizing the research of Stanley Milgram, who performed tests whereby subjects administered increasing doses of electricity to an innocent strapped into a chair by order of a doctor, and Philip Zimbardo's famous Stanford Prison study. She demonstrates how easily free will can be subsumed. Over and over, in multiple iterations, spin-offs, and reenactments, the vast majority of test subjects demonstrated a haunting lack of morality by obeying authority even when they stated their discomfort at what they were doing. As Zimbardo concluded from his work, "we are all potential murderers."

So what's going wrong? If making a choice between right and wrong is the only way to be moral, why are so many well-adjusted people across every conceivable background so ready to cast aside everything and commit evil? Ravven edges us forward:

Why do we think we have free will? Where does the belief come from? Can we do without it and still be ethical, and, if so, how? And if free will is a dead end... why have we stuck with it so long? Why have we been so reluctant to relinquish or at least modify the belief that individuals are independent from group, history, and context, as moral actors who originate their actions?

What she does next is a stunning example of balancing numerous scientific, psychological, and philosophical positions to develop her argument. Although her writing has a tendency towards repetition, and can read like a book by an academic for academics, Ravven is surprisingly approachable, even when it comes introducing advanced notions of modern brain science or the finer points of Spinoza.

And that's where Ravven shows her persuasiveness. She unpacks so many different elements; how can you not agree with her in face of all the evidence and insight? She challenges free will as a hand-me-down of Latin Christianity promoted by St. Augustine and the early church fathers. She claims the influence is so overbearing it has tainted modern philosophy from Descartes to Kant, and it continues to do so.

Because free will is so widely believed in, it's been impossible to dislodge. But science is changing that. A new breed of neuroscientists and philosophers are unpacking the inner workings of our brains, and it doesn't look good for free will. We are much more reliant on the contexts in which we develop rather than the choices made. We are imprinted upon, branded with our experiences, and cling to what we believe rather than what we know and can see. People do the things they do because of where they come from, what they've encountered, and how others around them act.

You don't even need to get technical. Just look at how so many people do things that are contrary to their own rational self-interests. Think of the smoker who doesn't stop when he gets cancer. How about the poor working mother who votes for those intent on slashing social programs? Consider how all of us are so quick to dismiss positions that run counter to our own, even when evidence says differently.

We're not at a dead end for morality, however. Ravven doesn't leave us in a deterministic, behaviorist hole of punishment/reward/stimuli. We can be moral. That's the project she initially set out to prove, remember? Summoning Plato, Aristotle, the early Islamic falsafa, Maimonides Spinoza, and Hume, she paints a picture of an ethical system that packages morality with personal responsibility and understanding:

[I]t was in the ways that thinking shaped desire and desire shaped thinking that intervention to substantially change moral actions was thought to be possible and could be initiated. In other words... moral transformation was consequent upon a systematic, and thoroughgoing transformation in interpretation -- of the world, of the self, of the self and human person in the world -- as it recast meaning and redirected motivation.

Context matters. We are not isolated from each other and from nature. We do not emerge from a vacuum where it's our will versus the world, but from a rich web of group identities, upbringing, opportunities acted upon, situations thrust into, and enrichments pursued. As Aristotle conceived of ethics, it was virtues that mattered, the cultivation of human potential. Ultimately, Ravven concludes, it is about understanding the essential relationships that govern and influence us that will lead the way to better moral decision making and a more just world, not by simply willing our way to outcomes we can never fully achieve.

The Self Beyond Itself: An Alternative History of Ethics, the New Brain Sciences, and the Myth of Free Will by Heidi M. Ravven
The New Press
ISBN: 978-1595585370
528 pages