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.




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.

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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.




American Politics and the Ultimatum Game.


Imagine you have been invited to take part in an activity called the Ultimatum Game.  The game is pretty straightforward: Two players, that remain completely anonymous to each other, are randomly assigned to play as either the Proposer or the Responder.

In this game, the proposer is given $20 and is given the option to give the responder any amount of money – from $.01 to $20.  The responder has a choice: Accept the offer or reject it.  If the responder accepts the offer, the money is split accordingly.  But if the responder rejects the offer, neither player receives anything. The game is only played once.

Imagine you have been randomly assigned to play as the responder and then the offer comes in:  You have been offered $2.

Do you accept it or do you reject it?

If you are like most people, you will reject this offer.  But why? Surely $2 is better than nothing[1].

The Ultimatum Game is a simple demonstration that individuals are not ‘rational’ – at least not in the maximizing financial gains sense.  Instead, individuals have a desire to punish unfairness; and this motive runs deep.  Similar experiments have been run with infants and other species and analogous findings have been found. At our core – we are even willing to sacrifice our own personal gain to ensure that others are punished.

But what does this have to do with American Politics? A lot

It’s no surprise that Americans are unhappy with the current state of affairs.  Congress’ approval rating is an abysmal 12%.  The two candidates running for president have higher disapproval ratings than approval ones.  A December 2016 poll found that 69% of people are at least somewhat angry about the “way things are going” and that “the political system seems to only be working for the insiders with money and power, like those on Wall Street or in Washington” – and these numbers have only been climbing.

In 2008 – two movements were established; On the left was ‘Occupy Wall Street’ and on the right was the ‘Tea-party.’  Although these two groups might seem to be as polarizing opposite as can be – they were fueled by similar motivations.  Both had felt cheated by the social contract that had been violated[2].  Americans had been promised: work hard, get an education, put in your 40 hours per week and you’ll be guaranteed a comfortable life for you and your family.  When that promise had been violated, Americans felt cheated and someone needed to be punished[3]. The difference was that the left blamed the money in politics, the right blamed the politicians.  While not everyone joined in at the protests in Zucotti Park or with the Tea Party – many could identify with their frustrations.


You may now be able to see the parallels with this year’s surprise candidates.  Bernie Sanders championed to reform money in politics, and went from being a candidate no-one had ever heard of, to giving Hillary Clinton a run for her money. Donald Trump, ‘the outsider.’ went from being every punchline on late-night Television to the presumable Republican nominee.

It is now all but certain it will be Clinton vs. Trump to battle it out for President of United Stated of America.  However, despite Trump having proven everyone wrong in the Republican Primaries, people are still not giving him a chance of beating Clinton[4].

But Clinton symbolizes more than anyone, what the typical U.S. citizen has come to hate and Trump, with the chaos and disorder he brings, is a symbol of a population that is growing increasingly frustrated.  Every pundit that complains about the pandemonium that a Trump presidency would bring – simply gives more fuel to those craving it.

Similarly, the upcoming Brexit vote is a virtual coin flip, despite the evidence that a leave vote would be disastrous.  But to many, it doesn’t matter; at least not right now. If the leave side wins, it will be, in part, fueled by many who don’t care about the consequences but simply want to voice their frustration at system that has let them down.  They may wake up to a sober-second thought, but the damage will have already been done.

In the Ultimatum Game, people aren’t oblivious to the fact that they are losing out on a few dollars, but that doesn’t matter; the motive to punish simply overpowers it.  Try to explain that they made the irrational choice by rejecting the offer and they’ll look at you like you’re the crazy one.  Now, while there are definitely a number of Trump supporters that honestly believe he will do a good job as President, many more simply don’t care. The motivation is simply to punish those that have acted unfairly.  Some people just want to see the world burn[5].





[1] And because you are anonymous and the game is only played once, there’s no value in signalling that you are not to be cheated.  Also there’s some evidence that this is primarily the function of western norms of fairness and economic markets.

[2] 2008 was the ‘straw that broke the camels back’ but the frustration had been growing for decades.

[3] Another blog post could be dedicated to this point.  While I center on politicians and the financial industry here – one can see how the same frustration and subsequent blame is placed on other groups (e.g. immigration).

[4] I’ve argued that what we’ll likely see Trump do against Clinton is attack her large financial donors and similarly make certain promises regarding financial and corporate industries.  He likely won’t talk about taxing the rich – but rather focus on greater punishment for those who have acted unethically and/or about those that give money to politicians.  He’ll also continue to talk about manufacturing and trade, where people have likely felt this inequality the most.  Places like Wisconsin or Michigan are ripe for this rhetoric. Whether that will be enough to sway those on the left remains to an open question.

[5] Michael Cain (Alfred) – The Dark Knight.

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)

The Myth of the American Dream

“Some people are born on third base and go through life thinking they hit a triple.” – Barry Switzer

American Dream 1

A number of years ago a friend of mine had a full athletic scholarship to play baseball at the University of Michigan.  While exceptional at baseball, he also was quite bright and would likely have been successful even if he didn’t make the Major League.  However, as he was playing baseball, just few weeks before he was set to head off to Ann Arbor, the ball came off his bat and hit him in an unprotected part of his head, leaving him with significant brain injuries.  Unable to play baseball or go to school, he has now spent his life as a dishwasher and doing other menial tasks to make ends meet.

Individuals in the United States are brought up with the national ethos of the American Dream: the belief that we are all free to prosper and succeed. However, the belief in the American Dream is predicated on so many faulty assumptions that it has undoubtedly caused harm to so many.  Like the situation of my friend, 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.

Walk into a few schools in your city of varying socioeconomic status.  By the time school starts, children from poor households are already behind those from more wealthy ones.  Of course, this difference isn’t the fault of the child and in many cases it’s hard fault the parents. Parents in these households surely couldn’t, as easily, afford additional learning tools, like books and may have to work long or odd hours to provide for their family limiting the amount of time they could spend. These differences simply compound overtime. How can we believe in the American Dream, when we know that children are so disadvantaged before they get started?

What would a country where the American Dream actually existed look like? To begin, each and every individual would have the same chance of moving upwards and downwards.  For example, if we split income into quintiles, 20% of those in the bottom fifth would make it to the top fifth and 20% of those in the top fifth would fall to the bottom.  Instead, only 6% of those in the bottom make it to the top, while only 7% who started at the top, end up in the bottom.  Similarly, 43% of children born into the bottom quintile remain in that bottom quintile as adults and 40% of children raised in the top quintile will remain there as adults – and this problem is only getting worse.

What’s more, is that America has one of the worst levels social and economic mobility.  For example, the best country in terms of social mobility, Denmark, only 25% remained in the bottom fifth and 15% climbed into the top.  Despite this, Americans have the strongest belief that they live in a meritocracy.  When asked whether people get rewarded for their efforts, Americans answered at near 70% while the median across 27 other nations hovered below 40%.

American Dream 2

Indeed, one’s family income and status play a huge role in determining where one will end as demonstrated above, but it is not the only factor.  At the moment of conception, our genes have set the stage to explain a considerable amount of the variance in success.  For example, we know that height plays an implicit part on our judgments of others.  We see taller people as having better leadership qualities, being smarter, whether or not it’s true.  On average, every inch is worth an extra $800/year. This may not seem like a lot, but on average, someone who is 5’5 will make about $6000 less per year than someone who is 6’1.  For all we hear about the differences in gender inequality, height actually makes a bigger difference.    And that only touches on one aspect of success:  income.  Other research has demonstrated that when it comes to attracting women, making friends, or being looked upon as a leader, for example, a man’s height plays an even greater role.  For example, 80% of women say they’d rather date a man who over 6 feet tall and eHarmony will only match women with taller men due to complaints about being set up with shorter ones.

Cultural circumstances play a similar role.  Note that in 1931, Adams defined the American Dream as one in which “life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement…regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.”   And yet, this was said at a time when overt prejudice and discrimination was being applied to various races (e.g. African and Asian Americans) and women.   While certain leaps have been made with regards to explicit suppression of certain races, cultures, and genders, we still have a long way to go before we resemble anything like the American Dream.

An entire book could easily be dedicated to the way initial genetic and environmental circumstances influence one’s success.  Income, education, mental health, race, gender, diseases, location, and attractiveness are just a few of the obvious uncontrollable conditions that affect one’s life.  Couple that with a life of other relatively uncontrollable events such as injuries or new diseases and it becomes painfully clear that success is not doled out in some idealized meritocracy, but rather are the result of more fatalistic processes.

And yet, so many take the view that our successes are our own. Interestingly, when bad circumstances plague us, we’re likely to blame external factors; a bias in psychology known as the correspondence bias.   More importantly, however, we don’t grant the same belief to others. Rather, we typically take the view that one’s failures are their own.  Poor, homeless, and/or unemployed individuals are denigrated and told to fend for themselves without any sympathy or acknowledgment that anyone born into a similar situation would be in the exact same spot.  Increasing amounts of suffering are inflicted on people due to circumstances outside of their control.

This problem is further compounded by the fact that this belief actually hurts all of us.  Recent work by Richard Wilkinson and colleagues have noted that as inequality increases so do health and other social problems – across all levels of income.

For example, consider that it is more expensive to patch up the problems associated with homelessness, than to simply provide them with homes and other basic necessities.  Shelters and emergency health care are way more expensive than what it would cost to simply provide basic housing.   Estimates put the average cost currently between $66,000 and $134,000 compared to $10,000 and $25,000. Think of the good that could be done and the money that could be saved by simply recognizing that some people got dealt a rough deck and providing them with a real chance to make the best of it.

Another obvious inefficiency is what we spend on criminals and imprisonment.  On average, it costs over $31,000 per year to imprison a single individual which amounts to near 50 Billion dollars across the U.S., and this doesn’t take into account the billions of dollars spent on court fees and police[1].   More importantly, the U.S. dwarfs other countries in how many people we incarcerate; 2 million people, compared to the next country China with only 1.5 million people (which has about 3x the population).  What is responsible for such a high rate of crime? Surely, U.S. citizens do not carry some innate ‘criminal gene’ and so one can only conclude that a host of environmental and cultural factors are to blame.  Terrible drug policies and systemic racism surely play a part (and two more reasons for our non-meritocracy). But more vital is the fact that the U.S. fails to help those who are least fortunate – setting them up for a life of crime.  Ironically, when crime goes up, the gut-level reaction is to increase police and jail sentences, but that only costs more money, which in turn results in the need for cuts and important social programs are often the first to go.  Imagine what states could do with the billions of dollar we spend on police and prisons if instead, we only helped to provide for those who felt they needed to turn to crime to survive.  More teachers, better schools, free tutors, supervised after school programs – simple changes that would have amazing ripple effects to both lower crime, save money, and promote the wellbeing of so many.

I could go on and on.  One final example, the average student loan debt for going to college and university is $29,400 – but this also factors in the 30% of people who have their way paid for by a wealthy family or some scholarship; suggesting the total amount for people who pay their own way is much higher.    While most people have to pay for their education; those who have families that front the costs – save on both the amount to pay back the debt and the insane interest that comes with it.   More importantly, those individuals who have to pay for their entire education, likely need a job to pay to supplement their student loans, while those who don’t are free to spend their time on additional studying or taking part in worthwhile extracurricular activities; setting themselves up for additional advantages down the road.

“No man is an island entire of itself,” wrote John Donne.  Even those who are least fortunate still benefit from those around them, social services, as well as the many important people that came before.  But for others, their early advantages dwarf any benefits provided by any country’s social system.  The mantra “you can do anything you set your mind to” is only true for a select few.   Like individuals born with dwarfism who want to be NBA stars, some goals are simply out of reach from the moment some individuals are born.

I’ve worked hard and it feels like my successes are my own. But they aren’t.  I’ve been lucky to be born into a well-to-do, two parent household and the benefits that has provided me have been incalculable. For example, I recently won a prestigious scholarship for graduate school, partially as a function of some research I did in my undergrad.  The research position was unpaid and I was only able to do it because I didn’t have to worry too much about finances.

Whether I would have come to terms with this would be debatable had I not had the opportunity to see the other side first hand.  My girlfriend has had a tough life.  Born with not much, a father who passed away relatively early, and a mother with mental health problems, she’s had to work tirelessly to get where she is.  She is now a teacher and an amazing one at that. But if it weren’t for the benefits my parents had provided me and now transfer to her – she would be scraping by, likely unable to fulfill her passion.  Needing to use my car to get from school to school for her substitute jobs[2] as well as some additional resources to live (substitute jobs are hard to come by, at least at first), it is doubtful she would have ever been able to become a teacher, unless she could convince the bank to give her a loan; one that the bank would see as risky and thus extremely high in interest.

The American Dream is currently only that: a dream.   While the idea is beautiful, its execution has been disastrous.  That anyone can do anything is a wonderful belief, if true, but things shouldn’t be believed simply because we want them to be true.  Through this belief we have degraded and vilified those who do worse than us, believing that those who do worse are actually worse. This idea that people deserve what they get and that failures and successes are due to some inherent disposition[3] and not due to a wide variety of situational factors leaves us only to blame and disparage, rather than help and motivate.

The American Dream remains a myth, but it doesn’t have to be.  We can restructure our society so that we live up to the initial visions put forward by Adams and others.  We can live in a world where ‘life can be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement, regardless of social or circumstances of birth.’

[1] It is approximately 40 billion for 40 states, so I extrapolated to 50 billion for 50 states.

[2] In Canada, one has to put in over a year on the substitution list before they can become even a long-term occasional teacher.

[3] Even it is an inherent disposition, it is still arguably not ‘fair.’  Like the person with dwarfism and his dream to be an NBA basketball star.  This problem is a much harder one to solve and as long as their is genetic variance – it likely won’t be.

Numbers don’t lie, but they don’t tell the whole truth

Consider the following three situations.

Situation A) Albert is driving home. It’s an icy night and he suddenly hits a patch of black ice.  Despite his best efforts, he hit into another car and tragically kills 3 people.

Situation B) Bob is driving home.  He’s had a few drinks and is driving rather aggressively.  Trying to pass someone he clips the side of their car, killing 1 person.

Situation C) Charles is driving home.  Seeing a group of people he dislikes walking, he immediately turns his car to purposefully run them over.  They narrowly jump out of the way, saving their lives.

Whose character is most morally reprehensible? If you’re like me, you’d say that Charles is the worst person here, despite not killing anyone.  Albert, on the other hand, is responsible for killing 3 people – but you might even feel sorry for him.  Indeed, it would be hard to make a case to condemn Albert more than Charles (or Bob for that matter). Focusing solely on the numbers killed would be cognitively lazy and missing the importance of the context here.  Indeed, whether Charles actually hit and killed someone would be almost irrelevant to how we judge his moral character.

Now, there’s an important difference that needs clarification – despite being the least morally reprehensible – Albert was involved in the most tragic situation.  Total deaths should definitely cue us to injustices and problems in the world, but they say little* about moral character, intent, and blame.

Yet, In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, much of the emphasis has been almost solely on the numbers.  Despite a low death toll in Israel, 2600 rockets have been fired into Israel, with the sole purpose of killing civilians.  Like the Charles example above, the intent was harm, and it was only due to the quick actions of the individuals that their lives were saved.

This of course cues us to an important question – would Hamas be any more morally reprehensible, if Israel did not have the iron dome? If Israel did not have bomb shelters? Or if Hamas had better rocket technology?  Imagine if every rocket sent with the intent to kill someone, in fact did – and the death toll was over 2600 in Israel.  Would this change how we view the conflict? Would Hamas suddenly be worse, because Israel couldn’t defend themselves? Would Charles be a worse person, if the people failed to get out of the way in time?

This of course begs the many questions related to why are we only focusing on total death for implicating moral responsibility?  Indeed, just north of Israel in Syria, the systematic death of 170,000 people has occurred and proportionally little discussion, protest, or action has taken place.

The loss of life is all equally terrible.  The more people die, the greater the need to end the conflict.  But in terms of placing blame and condemnations, focusing on total deaths is at best lazy, and at worse, systematic bias and prejudice.    This post is not meant to free Israel of any culpability, but to encourage others to think hard about what the context of what is happening, both in Israel and in the rest of the world.

* All things being equal, someone who kills more is more morally questionable.

Should Failure to Get a Vaccine be Considered Negligence Causing Death?

A few weeks ago, a Quebec women made a choice she thought was right.  She stopped her car to let some ducks pass by.  The problem was that she stopped on a busy highway that resulted in the death of two individuals and resulted in her receiving a jail sentence for criminal negligence causing death.  

In another case, the parents didn’t take their child to a doctor when he became sick.  Believing in faith-healing, the child eventually died.  Further, this was the second child to die.   A judge found the two parents guilty of involuntary manslaughter. 

Consider some other cases.  The CDC found that 90% of flu deaths were in children not vaccinated, or the fact that whooping cough deaths have increased as a function of lower vaccinations, or that over 400 cases of the Measles was directly tied to one individual.  Yet despite the widespread problems and occasional deaths that failure to get vaccines cause, noone is being held accountable.

Now, one may make the case that people can still get sick and die with the vaccines, and this is true.  The fact that 90% of children who died of the flu were not vaccinated, means that 10% were.

But consider The same argument that could be made for seat-belts. Some people die when they wear seat-belts.   In fact, The case against seat-belts is stronger.  Some people die, BECAUSE they were wearing seat-belts.  Yet, if a parent failed to buckle up their child, some places give them jail time, and arguably rightfully so! Being anti-seatbelt and worried about seatbelt related injuries does not provide an adequate defense. Lastly and perhaps most importantly,, a seat-belt only effects the parent and the child, whereas a vaccine (or lack thereof) effects everyone and makes it all the more important.

Regardless of whether you think jail time is a fair punishment for those who fail to get a vaccine or for those that stop on a highway or don’t put a seat-belt on their child, you must recognize there is a huge inconsistency with the law.  We punish some negligence and not others.  Doctors and Scientists have been doing a good job in advocating for vaccines, but like any scientific claim, there will always be dissenters.  Perhaps it’s time to use legal precedent and the piles of evidence and enforce vaccinations like we do any other negligent behavior.


Image taken from  

Hudak’s 100,000 job cuts is a terrible political move

Who is Hudak’s team of advisors? They should all be fired because anyone who lets a politician publicly state that they want to cut 100,000 jobs deserves to lose theirs.  I don’t even want to comment on whether or not it’s actually a good idea for Ontario (I’d argue it’s not), but let’s examine how dumb a political move it is.

For context, Hudak has suggested that he will create 1,000,000 jobs and part of this plan involves cutting 100,000.   Let’s ignore the fact that in Ontario there are only 560,000 people unemployed, so I’m not sure what or who the other 300,000 to 400,000 jobs are for.  Let’s just talk strategy.

There are 650,000 public sector works in Ontario.  That means that while 560,000 people might be motivated to vote for Tim Hudak, there are 650,000 motivated not to.  Sure only about 1/6 will lose their jobs, but who’d take their chance?  And Right there, we’re at a net loss of 90,000, and some multiplier more, if we also assume that close friends and relatives will have similar motivations.

Further, people have a tendency to prefer avoiding losses than they are to acquiring gains, which is exacerbated by the awareness that cuts are easy, creating jobs are hard.  This leaves the motivation, one-sided.    While many may be eager to have a more fiscally responsible government,, public service jobs serve the public (it’s right in the name).   People typically don’t want to give up their firefighters, police, teachers, nurses, etc.   Remember that loss-aversion problem!

Wynne has also done a good job exploiting that, citing cuts have consequences in response to Walkerton.  Although, one might argue that it’s a little disingenuous, as much of the fault lies with 2 managers, the Walkerton report explicitly lays out that lax regulatory oversight as a function of cuts was also a huge factor attributable in large part to the hasty budget cutbacks of the early Harris administration.  An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure! 

But maybe I’m wrong.  Maybe people are really motivated to save that 2% and are persuaded by the fact that it will somehow help balance the books.  Rob Ford got elected on stopping that gravy train!