The Free Will Debate

The belief in free will is a foundation of our society. The idea that we don’t have it challenges our view of the world and tests everything that we value.  Our understanding of law, relationships, morality, success, and failure, all change based on whether we have free will.

I’ve long viewed myself as an incompatibilist – That is, that the truth about determinism, precludes the possibility of free will.  Because “everything that happens is determined by antecedent conditions[1] together with the natural laws,” behavior must also be determined by all the antecedent conditions.  That is, my successes, my failures, my thoughts and feelings, my writing of this post, are all the product of the near infinite series of causes and effects that led to this my point.

Which is why the compatibilist view has been so confusing to me and I’ve spent a good amount of time trying to understand that view. Although I think I now have a full understanding of that view, I still think, at best, it obfuscates the point.

The compatibilist agrees with determinism but still holds free will to be possible. However, this view obscures the concept of free will.  In essence, free will to the compatibilist is the possibility of choice. To elucidate the difference, imagine you are presented with a choice between a plate of vegetables and a plate of cookies and you choose the cookies.  To the incompatibilist, there was no free will in this choice: you chose the cookies because of a near infinite series of causes and effects. To the compatibilist, however, while they wouldn’t disagree with this point, they still argue that one has free will because a choice was possible. You chose the cookies freely (e.g. not under duress). You are responsible for that choice. Therefore you have free will.

Now, the compatibilist’s view has some important points.  Specifically, the general, if not overly simplified, argument, is that we need some form of free will to correspond to some form of responsibility.  For example, if one flips a coin, hoping for heads, and it lands on tails, we don’t hold the coin responsible for the outcome – because the coin obviously had no choice in the matter. It was simply the product of billions of interactions.  Similarly, if we truly believe that people don’t have free will, we can’t logically hold them responsible either. If we hold determinism to be true, is there a difference between someone who purposefully punches you in the face vs. someone who slips and accidentally hits you in the face? After-all, neither can be said to be truly responsible.

And it is for this reason that there must be free will to a compatibilist.  What else could explain how we conclude that the first person is responsible for their act but the second is not? Free will to a compatibilist is simply the fact that someone had a choice and acted on it. If we hold anyone responsible, it’s because we assume they acted with free will.

But there’s obvious functional differences between someone who purposefully punches you in the face vs. someone who slips and accidentally hits you in the face.  The former person is more likely to dislike you, be quick to violence, and do it again in the future.  In a related post, I talked about the differences and importance of varying degrees of responsibility, but to quickly summarize those thoughts – responsibility is important insofar as it predicts one’s character and their future behavior.  Indeed, if we learned that the person who purposefully punched you in the face had been slipped a drug that made him excessively aggressive – we would be less likely to hold them responsible.  But note that in both examples, it is product of a series of causes and effects leading to neurological changes that eventually conclude in a punch in the face. The only difference is that in the drug example, we think that it’s unlikely to be representative of one’s character and thus not likely to predict future behavior.

And here is the main reasons the compatibilist view misses the point of the free will debate.  While there may seem like a difference between punching someone and slipping and hitting someone, there isn’t.  The fact that we ascribe agency to ourselves and to others is ultimately a mistake[2].  It is a useful one, insofar as it helps us manage a society, but it is a mistake nonetheless. In both cases, the events are solely the response of a long chain of causes and effects.

To be fair, I tend to agree that the compatibilists are right when they argue that their concept of free will is the one we generally use in our everyday life.  When we ascribe responsibility[3] to anyone for anything, it is because we have implicitly acknowledged that they have ‘free will’ – that is they had the possibility of choice and acted on it.  When we learn that contracts were signed under duress or that an action was a complete unforeseen accident, we tend to acknowledge that the decision wasn’t made ‘freely’ and respond accordingly.

While the compatibilists might be right that this type of free will the one we generally talk about in everyday life, they are wrong in that it is the important one, both philosophically and psychologically. Arguing the compatibilist type of free will is a strawman.  No-one seriously thinks that the people don’t differ in their volitions and subsequent actions. Everyone can agree that the person who purposefully punches you in the face made that decision ‘freely’, while the person who slipped and hit you in the face, did not. While there may be some important nuances regarding when someone can and is acting freely (e.g. mental health, insanity plea, children), and these questions do deserve some attention, the idea that people differ in their relative freedom is seemingly a self-evident fact. Arguing in favor for free will in this context is like arguing whether water molecules are actually wet. Like the compatibilist of free will, everyone agrees that the subjective experience of water is wet, but the real question is whether the individual H20 molecules feel wet.

On the other hand, free will to the incompatibilist leads to a number of much more interesting and important questions. First, it calls into doubt the self-evident claim of relative freedom. For example, other than the practical reasons already laid out above, why exactly should we hold the person who punches someone in the face as responsible but not the person who slipped? And what should we do about the person who was drugged?

Consider the case of leaded fuel exposure and violent crime in the USA.

 

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Although the research has been mainly correlational, let us assume that we’ve determined that there is a definitive biological reason that exposure to lead results in greater violence. Should someone who worked in lead fuel plant be held responsible for a violent act? My intuition says no – or at the very least he/she should be held less responsible. If anything, the ‘punishment’ should be treatment – detoxifying from the lead as best as possible. And yet, what if we never learned of this link? That same person, the person who had very obvious and realistic reasons for acting violently would be held just as responsible as anyone else who hadn’t been exposed to the lead.  But similar processes are happening to everyone at every second of the day – it’s just that the links are not very obvious or as direct. How then can we truly blame people for their actions?

Secondly, the idea that I am not the author of my thoughts is one that can result in serious existential angst. What am I as a person, if I am solely the product of near infinite series of causes and effects.  Anyone with exactly the same genetics and experiences would do exactly as I’m doing.  Why bother writing this post? Why bother with anything at all? To be fair, I don’t have a good answer to these questions, but these are important philosophical questions that must be addressed, and could be addressed if we could get past the compatibilist strawman view of free will.

Lastly, the incompatibilist view of free will makes us redefine the structure of our society. In an earlier post, I wrote about the Myth of the American Dream, in which I laid out a number of the reasons that the common belief that we are all free to prosper and succeed has some important limitations. I noted then that “each and every one of us is equally the result of a vast array of seemingly random, or at least unpredictable, processes that shape our lives from the moment we are born.  Circumstances that we do not choose shape our lives in drastic ways and result in vast inequalities before we ever begin.”

While writing it, I couldn’t help but also want to touch on the elephant in the room – free will. Not only is a child born into an abusive family, stricken with poverty, negligent parents, and bad schools, etc. clearly in a worse spot than those born into supportive, wealthy families, with good schools – but that even controlling for all of that, we still have to contend that our thoughts and are actions are not our own, at least not really.

What determines whether someone is going to be Bill Gates or a homeless person is the near infinite series of causes and effects. In other words, why is Bill Gates who he is? Could you have been a billionaire if you just worked harder? Maybe, but if you didn’t work harder then is it because ‘chose’ not to work harder?

Now, I don’t want anyone to get the wrong idea.  As I said earlier, a system of rewards and punishments is quite necessary. Compatibilists like to think that if we acknowledge that there is no free will than we can’t have responsibility and then we’ll do whatever we want – but that’s asinine.  It’s similar to arguing that if there is no god, then we would just go around raping, killing, and doing whatever we want. The logic does not follow. We can build a system that rewards and punishes people based on successes and failures that most benefit society even if we ultimately acknowledge that whether we succeed or fail is not really a function of ourselves.

What does logically follow though is that our understanding of fairness changes.  Rewards and punishments are no longer as extreme. In a world concerned about huge gaps of inequality, the lack of free will is the checkmate. The lack of free will lays out that your successes and failures are not really your own. Rather, they are the product of every experience before us. Systems and societies need to be redesigned to try and ensure that people don’t feel the need to seek out crime. For those that do, punishment serves as a deterrence, protection from society, and rehabilitation.  Notions of retribution and vengeance become barbaric ideas of the past.

Ultimately, a true acknowledgement in our lack of free will changes everything we think we know. Even while acknowledging this truth, we can still accept that there are relative levels of ‘freedom’ that coincide with individual character, volitions, and its predictive nature of future behaviors and subsequently responsibility. By understanding these differences, we can grapple with what a world without free will means and begin to develop a society that embraces it.

Author Note: If you enjoyed (or hated) this post, feel free to share it, leave a comment, and/or subscribe.  You can also email me personally at playdevilsadvocate@gmail.com

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[1]The notion that some events are random or probabilistically determined does not change my view of determinism or incompatibilism.  If it’s true that certain atomic properties behave randomly or stochastically then all that logically follows is that some of my thoughts/actions are random or probabilistically determined. It does not follow that randomness = the ability to choose. All that follows is that choices may be in part influenced by some level of randomness.  Ultimately, I may not be an incompatabilist in the formal sense, but I find the logic easier to explain and subsequently grasp if one begins with determinism as a premise.

[2] ‘Mistake’ may not be the most operative word.  The main argument is that if we truly understood all the causes that led to an action, we would see little difference (aside from the obvious pragamatic reasons outlined), between the two actions.  Because we don’t see all the causes the led to the action, we assign responsibility differently. As an analogy, imagine that a person was under duress to make a decision, but you didn’t know that. Subsequently, you would think he made his decision freely, despite him not having free will, and subsequently would hold him responsible. Now consider the example of the man with the tumor that makes him violent and if/when removed made him not violent. In that case, until we learned about the tumor, we held him responsible for his violent actions, but then once we learned about the tumor, we stopped holding him responsible. Well, if everything is just ‘tumors,’ (billions, trillions of them, all interacting with each other – random or deterministic) but we just don’t know about them, then you can see how we make ‘mistakes’ by holding people responsible.

[3] I don’t know if responsibility is necessary predicated on free will.  One can think of examples in which people are responsible, despite not having any free will in the matter. Consider a driver who slips on black ice and gets into an accident – he is responsible, despite not really having free will in the matter.  Perhaps, one might think that choosing to drive comes with the inherent risks like slipping on black ice.  So consider another example – sitting on a chair at a friends house which breaks.  We might still hold the person responsible to replace it.

 

 

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Two Types of Responsibility

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I’ve recently been listening to the podcast, Very Bad Wizards.  In their first two episodes, the co-hosts, David Pizarro and Tamler Sommers, discuss free will and moral responsibility.

Despite holding determinism true and libertarian free will as false, the hosts maintains that individuals should still be held morally responsible for their acts. In later episodes, Sam Harris takes on this apparent contradiction.

This podcast with Harris becomes even more bewildering as Pizarro and Sommers both agree that certain natural occurrences which modify one’s behavior, such as a brain tumor, would absolve individuals of responsibility, whereas other natural occurrences, such as the alignment of cosmic radiation would not.  They ultimately defend this inconsistency by resorting to their intuitions, arguing that they simply feel that certain people should be blamed and held responsible.

I had an urge to yell at my phone, as I generally agreed with both of them, and was pretty confident they too generally agreed. And yet they couldn’t seem to find solid footing to reach this agreement.

As I hope to argue, the problem with this debate, and one’s like it, are that there are two different types of responsibility.  Unfortunately, language is imperfect and ideas are often conflated when two similar constructs are used interchangeably.

The first type of responsibility is what might be defined as ‘libertarian responsibility.’ Simply stated, this is the type of responsibility that would come from libertarian free will. In a deterministic world without libertarian free will, libertarian responsibility is impossible.  The person who punches you, should not be held ‘libertarian responsible’ regardless of why, as there was no opportunity to do otherwise.  Libertarian responsibility follows logically from the basic premises that all matter obeys laws of cause an effect (and/or randomness) and that behavior is the function of matter (e.g. the brain and body).  It would seem that Harris, Pizarro, and Sommers all would agree that individuals shouldn’t be held responsible in this sense.

The second type of responsibility is what might be defined as ‘emotional responsibility.’  Simply stated, this is the intuitive feeling that one feels when someone is culpable for an act and subsequently one feels that they deserves to be punished (or rewarded).’Emotional responsibility’ is felt and ascribed regardless of whether you believe there is no libertarian free will.

The feeling that someone is ‘responsible’ corresponds with the perception of whether the act was intentional / it represented a dispositional element of one’s character. This view coincides with ideas of virtue ethics, which emphasizes one’s character over specific acts.

For example, the person who gets shoved or trips and unintentionally hits your drink out of your hand, is not held to be as ‘responsible’ as the person who purposefully knocks a drink out of your hand. Particularly in that second example, if the drink caused a stain on the shirt that needed to be dry-cleaned, the blame and responsibility ought to fall on that person.  Even if you acknowledge that this person had no ultimate, libertarian free will in the action, the person was still (emotionally) ‘responsible’ for it.  In other words, one could acknowledge that it was the near infinite series of causes and effects since the dawn of the Universe that ultimately led to the knocking of the drink out of one’s hand, but one can’t ask the Universe to pay for the dry-cleaning.

To provide another example.  Despite being a determinist and holding libertarian free will to be false, I still often regret my decisions and dwell on counterfactuals.  If I logically conclude that I could have only acted in one way then there’s no reason to regret anything; and yet I do.  I’m human and I’m going to emotionally and intuitively react to things; the ’emotional responsibility’ argument acknowledges this fact.

As a final example, consider being hit by an apple – either by a tree or by a person.

In the tree example, you were hit by an apple, by a near infinite series of causes and effects that eventually led you standing under the tree at the exact moment the apple fell.

In the person throwing example, you were hit by an apple, also by a near infinite series of causes and effects that eventually led you to be standing near a person, at the exact moment he threw an apple at you.

In both cases, the tree and the person are ‘responsible’ in the same deterministic manner. Neither have free will in that sense. But, nonetheless, you are going to hold the person ’emotionally responsible’ in a different manner than you would the tree.  Similarly, if being hit by the apple resulted in an injury, one would feel justified, and ought to feel justified, in seeking some level of reparations or justice from the person; whereas one would not feel justified in seeking reparations from the tree, or even the owner of the tree.

Lastly, the argument doesn’t necessarily require a consequentialist, utilitarian argument, although one does exist. As I noted briefly above, and will discuss briefly below, intentional actions are a reliable indicator of personality and future actions.  ‘Punishment’, through any means, may serve as a deterrence, a protection of future acts, and ideally, rehabilitation.  From a consequentialist viewpoint, holding people ‘emotionally responsible’ helps to promote greater societal well-being by deterring negative actions, protecting society from harmful people, and/or attempting to rehabilitate them to become better people. If Harris had an assistant and then learned that the assistant was stealing from him, he would have to acknowledge that the assistant wasn’t (libertarian) responsible for his actions and yet he would hold the assistant (emotionally) responsible and fire him.  One cannnot adequately navigate through life without hold people responsible for their actions.

Ultimately, Emotional responsibility rests on intuitions and emotions in the same way that other emotions do. For example, if you find out that your partner cheated on you, you will feel jealousy, anger, perhaps sadness.  As in the regret example, you might hold determinism to be true and realise that there was no other action that your partner could have taken.  And yet, this will not prevent you from feeling jealousy or anger – and similarly will not prevent you from holding your partner and perhaps their ‘lover’ as morally responsible.

With this distinction of two forms of responsibility being made, it is now possible to reconcile the initial views.  Harris was concerned with libertarian responsibility, logically positing that it’s just “Tumors all the way down.” On the other hand, Sommers and Pizarro were primarily concerned with ‘emotional responsibility’ and thus examples in which brain tumors or curable diseases that caused malevolent behavior were argued to result in less responsibility compared to situations in which brain tumors or curable diseases were not a cause.

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This above example provides a window into this disconnect.  Harris jumped  ‘all the way down’ in a single leap from the tumor ’cause’ to the cosmic rays ’cause’, and subsequently overshot Sommers’ emotional intuitions.  Instead, if Harris had slowly moved through these intuitions, unpacking weaker and weaker causes (e.g. tumor vs. side-effect of a pharmaceutical, vs. learning that your wife was cheating on you vs. lack of sleep, etc.), they may have been able to get to the heart of the disagreement.

As noted, the difference between the two types of responsibility is that ’emotional responsibility’ is important insofar as actions predicts a person’s character; and character matters because it predicts future behavior.  We hold people differently responsible between the tumor and cosmic ray example because we intuitively (and arguably rightly) feel that the two causes differ in how much they can affect a person’s character.  If a cosmic ray is what made the difference between a particular malevolent act or not, then one is just another cosmic ray away from another harmful act.  It is generally accurate to presume that this person is dispositionally quite malevolent. However, notice how the intuition changes, if the cosmic ray was responsible for causing a tumor that eventually leads to the personality change.

And this is where relying on intuition becomes a problem.  Intuitions are moderated by a number of facts, norms, etc. A person who both feels that homosexuality is wrong and that it is a ‘choice’ will also likely feel that the person is responsible for their actions or even their thoughts, and subsequently deserve punishment.  This intuition has changed for many individuals, but the question remains: How are we to know which intuitions of responsibility should be held and which intuitions will eventually be dismissed?

Lastly, It is not only moral responsibility that needs to be considered.  It should be noted that most examples/thought experiments  tend to focus on harmful scenarios where intuitions are both highly primed and generally tend to be consistent among people.  But yet, all actions run into the problem of two types of responsibility – good and bad.

Consider how we treat a doctor, professor, or athlete compared to a janitor, taxi-driver or fast-food worker.  Anyone who holds determinism to be true must accept that the only reason that these people are the way they are are due to a long chain of causes and effects. Even if we allow for some form of libertarian free will, we all know that a person born into a stable, high income household will have many more opportunities than someone born into a chaotic, impoverished one; and this doesn’t even begin to consider genetic differences.  Anyone in a ‘good place in their life’ is simply the recipient of a ‘good’ set of causes and effects.

And yet in the same way, we hold people responsible for their lot in life.  Who should get the promotion, the person who did a good job or the person who did a bad job?  Who should get accepted into the University, the person with the high grades or the low grades? Just as in the moral responsibility examples – two things can be true at the same time.  We can acknowledge that doing a good/bad job, getting good/bad grades, doing something moral/immoral etc. is simply the result of a long chain of causes and effects (libertarian responsibility, or specifically the lack thereof), while at the same time hold people responsible and reward/punish them for their actions (emotional responsibility). If Harris had two employees, one of which needed to be let go – he would undoubtedly keep the one that worked considerably harder and better than the other, despite acknowledging that they were not ultimately responsible for the differences in their ability and effort.

The importance of acknowledging these two differences has important consequentalist repercussions.  For example, there’s a strong belief that individuals should be able to ‘pull themselves up by their bootstraps’ and yet we know that systemic forces make this particularly difficult. Changing the belief that an individual and their subsequent actions are simply the product of their experiences and their genetics should motivate us to improve the system to one in which all individuals can flourish.  But reward and punishment are important experiences that are vital for learning and modifying behavior and so holding people responsible is important;  We just have to know exactly what is meant by responsibility.

 

 

 

 

Why I feel uneasy about the Kim Davis case

Motivated by the Nuremberg trials and the trial of the Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichman, Stanley Milgram conducted a set of experiments to understand just how millions of individuals could have contributed in the holocaust.  How could ‘just following orders’ rationalize such heinous acts? In his experiments, he recruited random individuals to administer a ‘learning task’ on a confederate, pretending to be another volunteer.  With each successive mistake by the confederate, participants were instructed by the experimenter to give a progressively worse shock.  The shock would continue to until a lethal 450 volts.

Thankfully, the shocks were fake and the confederate was simply an actor, because 65% of the participants gave this final lethal shock. While all participants showed some hesitation as the voltage climbed, they were easily persuaded by the experimenter to continue.  The experiment has been conducted in numerous countries, with consistent and similar results in every society.

Jonathan Haidt, one of today’s leading experts on the psychology of human morality, has noted and demonstrated that there are two ways in which individuals and societies curb selfishness and promote cooperation.  One way is by focusing directly on the individual.  We all do this by caring about others, trying to minimize harm and by promoting justice.  The other way is by focusing on loyalty to the group; following laws and listening to authority.   This latter form of morality is vital for establishing structure and maintaining order but can also come with the dark-side that we saw in Milgram’s experiment.

This is why the argument against Kim Davis, the Kentucky clerk, has left me somewhat uneasy.  Don’t get me wrong;  I think that Kim Davis should have be providing marriage licences to LGBT individuals and should lose her job for not doing so*.  But I also think she and all other clerks should have been providing those licences 20 years ago.  The change in the law does not change the morality of the action and it worries me that people are quick to condemn her for violating a rule but that we didn’t criticize her or any other individuals for the same action before the Supreme Court decision.  Note how strange it is that every other clerk is either currently violating  or now violating their own sense of what is right and that we expect people to simply fall in line and do what the law says. It is because of people challenging the law for last 40 years that we’ve seen movement for gay rights in the western world.   The Stonewall Inn and other meeting places for gay individuals are now lauded as vital to the promotion of the LGBT rights and yet at the time, what they were doing was illegal.

I do recognize that the “you should do your job” defense is in part, a rationalization of being morally outraged by the action.  If a clerk had somehow done the opposite; managed to legally marry two same-sex partners, before it was legal – we’d likely hear the same “do your job” arguments by those who are now supporting her; while those that are now outraged, would be applauding her as a hero.

But we should all realise that the same psychological processes that made Davis not do her job are, ironically, the same psychological processes that make us want her to do her job’  Just as we are appealing to the Supreme Court’s decision to determine what she ought to do, Davis, and those that support her are appealing to an even higher authority (to them) to determine what’s right and wrong.  This last point should make it abundantly clear that an appeal to authority for morality is never, in itself, a rational reason to do something.

The next decade will likely see some pretty vast changes to our justice system.  Whether it be the legalization of marijuana or of euthanasia , what’s now considered law will not be and things that are not considered illegal might be.  Actions can and must be judged as being more right or wrong based on the amount of harm it does to individuals (and animals).  Those judgments are not always easy to make but they should not rely on a dogmatic following of the law.  While it is undeniable that laws and rules help to maintain order, they should only be the consequence of ethical deliberation, not the antecedent for it.

*I think this problem/solution is more difficult than it appears on first glance.  Consider the case of euthanasia, which will be legal in Canada within the year and is already legal in some states.  What should we do about doctors, who don’t have it within them to assist in someone’s suicide?  I am 100% in favour of euthanasia, and yet I recognize the gut-level aversion to performing these actions – just as someone who eats beef might be fine with it but be averse with slaying the cow themselves.   Ideally, laws will be written so that not all doctors will not have to perform these actions, after-all, other doctors can surely step in.  But what-if the law states that all doctors must do it? Should we expect doctors, who trained extensively and did not expect this, to simply accept this as part of the new job description?  The parallel with this thought-experiment and Kim Davis case can be seen and anyone who feels uneasy about providing a doctor with the ultimatum ‘euthanasia or quit’ must also recognize the uneasiness in the Davis case.  (although it is unclear from the reports I’ve read, for how long Davis restricted her staff and how much of her job is about providing marriage licences – which may make Davis’ actions a bit more troublesome)

Pro-life/pro-choice debate: A false dichotomy?

Are you pro-life or pro-choice? It’s a question that although we aren’t often asked, we can immediately answer.  Or can we? Take an individual who thinks it’s the right of the mother to make the choice, but still feels that abortion is an immoral thing to do.  How about an individual who thinks that abortion is the killing of a child, but thinks that in certain circumstances, the mother is reasonable in making the choice to do so.  These people, can’t strongly assert themselves as pro-choice, or pro-life.  However, the nature of the debate has forced them into one of these categories, that they do not feel fully comfortable in, leaving the most extreme individuals to fight the battle.  Indeed, this pro-life, pro-choice debate is a false-dichotomy,   asserting the assumption that there are only two positions.  However, there is lot of grey in this debate.  I propose four categories to help provide a deeper and more interesting understanding and help facilitate debates.

Ultimately, the debate rests on the importance people put on women’s body rights and the right of the fetus.  Typically, individuals who are pro-life, feel the rights of the fetus to supersede the rights of the woman.  Individuals who are pro-choice feel the opposite.  These four categories, which by no means encompasses the whole abortion debate, helps to better address it.

Anti-Abortion:  Individuals who are anti-abortion, see abortion as no different than the murder of a healthy one year old.   Although they may have varying views on a women’s body rights, there is virtually nothing that condones the murder of an innocent child (perhaps with the exception of a guaranteed loss of life of both child and mother).  Because of this, people in this category will not be able to discuss with people of the other categories.  There is no grey here. Murder of an innocent child is wrong, even regardless of whether the mother was raped.

Pro-life.  These individuals are also anti-abortion.  They see abortion also as the murder of a life form but do not have the same moral conviction.  While they see it as inherently wrong, they are willing to make an exception in the most serious of cases.   They probably won’t see the parents as being too young or ill prepared as a suitable excuse, but danger to the mother, rape, or severe genetic disability to the baby may condone it.

Pro-Choice.  These individuals believe it is the right of the mother to make the choice.  They will have differing views on what the fetus is or how moral it is to have an abortion (although rarely will they have as strong views as even those who are pro-life).   While they may not like the idea of an abortion, especially for more frivolous reasons (e.g. I don’t want another child) and be more a proponent of adoption, they ultimately believe in an individual’s right to make the choice regardless of circumstance.

Pro-living.  These individuals do not see the fetus as a living thing with any rights.  Subsequently, the living always take priority over the unborn.  Pro-living individuals not only feel that it is the woman’s right to choose, but that in certain circumstances, such as the mother (parents) are not prepared to have the child, it is the more moral decision to have an abortion.   This does not necessarily mean that they are pro-abortions or will campaign for people to have abortions, knowing that abortions are not pleasant experiences for anyone, but rather they recognize there are situations where it is the utilitarian approach, and may advocate for it in those situations.

Once again, although these categories are not exhaustive, they do increase the scope the debate and perhaps allow for better understanding.   I would be interested in anyone reading this to let me know if they don’t feel they fit into one of these categories, so that I can either, revise them or add to them.

Lastly, one may point out that another point of interest in the debate is when the fetus becomes life.  Indeed, this is an important category, but moderates the above 4 stances.  For example, an anti-abortion person who believes it is only a life after 3 months, may likely be pro-living up until that point.   Another issue could be where the importance of the father’s decision, a topic that isn’t covered often.  Ultimately,  the abortion debate is clearly not as simple as pro-choice, pro-life and pretending it is, doesn’t help anyone.

What’s Our Economic Endgame?

What’s Our Economic Endgame?

Talk to a parent about their worries and you’ll probably hear, “will my son or daughter have the same kind of opportunities I had? Will they be able to find a job, raise a family?” Ask them about their hopes, and you’ll probably learn that they want their children to have a better future than they had.

It’s cliche, but the want for a better future, seems to be nearly universal.  This ideal of a better future, usually comes in terms of economics.   These economic concerns, however, come with such vagueness and no real attempt to understand current trends or to make speculations of where they will go.

This post is an attempt to look our world, how it is developing and where that will lead.  Discussion on this topic is made all the more salient and vital, with the Occupy movements around the world echoing their displeasure. People aren’t happy, they feel mistreated, and simply feel the economic system has let them down.  While there are political and economic reasons, being cited as the causative problem,  no-one has bothered looking at the technological trends that have led to this point.

Economics is a science of scarcity.  For the first time ever, many first world countries , don’t have that problem – but instead have a problem with distribution. For example, there is more food than we can eat, but yet still some people have to go without eating. Technology has increased our productivity so that in certain areas, we are able to produce more than we need, cheaper, faster and with less people.  GDP is at all-time record high.  It may have stagnated the past few years, but the world is producing much more than it did 10 years ago (58 Trillion (2009)  vs. 33 Trillion (2002). This increase is seen in virtually every country, even Spain and Greece (See here).  The question then is if every country is producing more than they did 10 years ago, why do so many people have less?

Well one answer is that companies can’t sell more than people want to consume. And if people are already consuming as much as they can or want; then there are is no need to hire more people to produce more.  That coupled with technological advances,  it takes fewer people to make more, compounds the problem.  The world is becoming more and more automated.  Now travel agents are much rarer if not virtually extinct, news industries are endangered, big businesses are going bankrupt and the United States Postal Service is suffering. As computer algorithms become more elaborate and engineering becomes more precise, what will happen? Simply stated Production will continue to increase as employment continues to decreases.  Despite the accepted fact that technology makes production more efficient, people generally fail to consider the obvious logical conclusion.

Consider the following thought experiment: I call it the robot paradox

Regardless of whether you believe in an eventual true AI or not, it is not unreasonable to think that our technology will progress to a point where technology can do virtually anything a human can faster, better, and cheaper.   We already have a computer that can beat the best Jeopardy players (with goals of ‘helping’ out doctors), and a program that can write sports articles, with plans of expanding it’s subject area (“those clowns in congress did it again, what a bunch of clowns).  Humans will be outperformed by technology, in virtually every domain. Herein lies the paradox – what are humans to do, when technology can outperform them in everyway? No matter how well educated or skilled you are, there likely won’t be a job for you to do.

And as we move toward that point,  it is not difficult to see a world in the near future, where many jobs are replaced by computers and robotic devices.  Grocers are already being replaced by efficient scanning machines.  It won’t be long where you can just put your food on the belt and the machine will scan it and slide it into a bag for you, or perhaps a scan as you go device that scans things as you put them into your cart; which already exists; Or how about fast food moving from ‘automated’ burgers  or coffee to truly automated burgers and cashiers. Other jobs are already semi-obsolete, but are ‘just waiting’ for the culture to change. For example, bank tellers are rarely necessary and typically serve older individuals not comfortable with a machine handling their money.  However, we will undoubtedly see cuts to those jobs as individuals become more comfortable with technology.

But the question is:  is this a bad thing?  Not if we prepare for it.  This could be a future where people pursue tasks that give their life meaning, while computers and robots take care of those ‘little things’ (like food, shelter, manufacturing etc.). That sounds like my utopia.

Given our current economic policy, however, this future is daunting.  A future where either you own a business, have one of those few select jobs that robots can’t do  or you are unemployed; unemployed being the strong majority.   What needs to be realised is that we must begin moving from our current system which says that says everyone can work, the best just get paid more; to a system that says there just aren’t enough jobs in the world for everyone and more importantly there never will be.  It is a difficult transition, but it needs to be done.

The developed world is faced with staggering unemployment rates that are causing problems for many families and individuals. Although we live in a time where we produce more than we ever have, there are still many who don’t have enough.   Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think that we are at the point yet where we have to have too few jobs to go around.  If done right, there are jobs currently to be created, but unfortunately, we haven’t prepared for this properly.  For example, there is much needed in terms of R+D, infrastructure like roads, railways, and bridges, and the movement to a more sustainable electric grid of solar and wind.

The world needs to come to understand that we will continue to produce more with less and less people.  At some point we will have more than we need and even more than we want, but fewer people to actually obtain it.  Economics is a tricky system and I have simplified many of the concepts here.  I don’t have the answer, but I am trying to pose the question.  If you are worried about whether “your son or daughter will have the same kind of opportunities you had, will they be able to find a job, raise a family or whether you will be able to get a job or even keep it” then these question raised in the Robot Paradox should be your concerns too.

For the time, it seems we are content with our imaginary surplus of burning oil, tearing down/ building up infrastructure,  and a minority of us unemployed and on welfare.  We blame an economic recession, but while that may play a part, we are failing to see the bigger picture and more important trend.  Every day we will produce more than we need and with fewer people to do it, and this, by definition results in more unemployment.  Let’s face it, we’ve reached our current system’s economic endgame, it’s time to re-write the rules and play some thing else.