Thursday, September 30, 2021

expatiation: agency and culpability

Paul Klee, Puppet Theater (1923)

Been in a bit of a funk this month. Consider this a throwaway entry, written just to get myself back in the swing of writing and trying to think about things.

In the most recent and final Kantpost of the year, I came to the tentative conclusion that we can't do without an immanent belief in agency. I'm still wondering about that.

Imagine: I am in an eight-month relationship with a woman whom I come to love.¹ One evening I arrive at her house with a heart-shaped box of chocolates under my arm. She invites me to sit down and tells me there's somebody else, someone she's been seeing with for several weeks now, and she's breaking it off with me.

In the moment, I cannot but blame her. I am in pain and distress, and this person is the cause. Through an astonishing and stupefyingly complex (but nonetheless quotidian) operation of relational responding, I answer her admission almost as though I'd actually caught her in flagrante. "Why would you do this to me?" I bawl at her. Maybe in the grip of emotion I become a Bad Ally and call her any number of rude epithets. But what other man at the bar where I go to weep into a rocks glass would blame me? Nobody was putting a gun to her head and telling her to fool around behind my back. Everybody knows it's wrong to cheat on one's partner in a relationship. She's a rotten person. She knowingly did something she knew would hurt me, and I believe I can reasonably hold her responsible. And in doing so, I ascribe agency to her.

One inconsolable week later, I call up my therapist and ask him if I can resume my sessions with him. He sits me down that evening and asks me what's wrong. I describe the whole relationship with him, start to finish. He has questions.

"You said she kept telling you she didn't see enough of you?"

"At the beginning, it was you who said you didn't want to be monogamous? Did you ever revisit that topic? No?"

"She asked you to move in with her three months ago? And you said no? When she said afterwards she felt like the relationship was stuck in first gear—and did you take any steps to address her concerns? You didn't?"

"If I have the timeline correct, she started seeing him right after that night she sat you down and asked if she could talk to you frankly about where the relationship was going. How did that conversation go? ...Threatened you'd hold your breath until you passed out and bashed your head on the coffee table unless she dropped the subject immediately?"

And so on. Turns out I'm kind of a douchebag and she could certainly do better than me. And as it happens, she and I don't have much sexual chemistry, have few values in common, and our only shared interests are Herman Melville novels and playing Super Mario Kart. I also divulge that she grew up with a volatile father and, by her own admission, became very conflict averse as a result; that we stopped having sex over a month ago and she started calling me pet names like "friend" and "buddy;" that the other man was a coworker who lives a five-minute walk from her and is as eager as her to have kids and move to Los Angeles—a city she loves visiting, and which I have no desire to ever go.

It's a case of a very bad fit, sure, but her actions over the last few months are a function of any number of incentives and disincentives. I'm a lousy partner; but she has fun playing Mario Kart with me. The other guy is a much better match for her; but she's uncomfortable with confrontation, and there's ample evidence that I'm going to act like a baby when she tells me how it is. She only sees me once a week, anyway, and all we do is play video games and then go to sleep...

What if we added that the other man's face reminds her of her favorite Jonas Brother, and he wears the same deodorant as the college boyfriend with whom she had the most sexually gratifying years of her life?² Or that she recently went off birth control, was suddenly hornier than she'd been in years, and found her nominal boyfriend interested only in playing video games with her?

Is there some impropriety in sleeping with somebody else, even though your boyfriend is a loser and your relationship is going nowhere? Sure, but that's not the issue here. As more facts of the relationship (such as it was) come to light, the more blameless she seems in the sense that her choice was determined by the circumstances. Her history, her lousy experience with me, and her wonderful experience with the other guy converged to engender a result that seems inevitable when the larger picture becomes clear to us.

During my final conversation with my long-suffering girlfriend, I understand on an intellectual level that she is part of and borne on a continuum of meshed material processes—matter and energy scurrying about hectically but lawfully. I know she is an animal whose actions are wholly determined by the multivariate conversation between biology and environment. But despite everything I understand to be true about the linear structure of events in the world, I arrogate to her some degree of liberation from causal dependence. I seem to believe that events could have transpired otherwise, that something inside her or of her was in a position to say "yes" or "no" to my rival, irrespective of the total physical state of her organism during those moments.

From a remove, of course, I see there was little chance she'd have stayed with me one way or the other. But did she have to insult me by sleeping with somebody else before dumping me? It's true that nobody held a gun to her head. Why, then, did she say "yes" when it's not unimaginable that she could have said "no," at least during their first rendezvous?

The total process of her accepting my rival's proposition is obscure. Whatever the circumstances, I suspect some covert verbal and/or relational behavior occurred—mentally "seeing" me, "reciting" self-directed rules like "cheating is wrong," formulating verbal analyses like "but the relationship is basically already over as it is," and so on. I can't know what she was thinking. If there really was a private event that made the difference between "yes" and "no," there's no way of identifying it, determining the variables that elicited it, or guessing what other responses it may have also strengthened or weakened. If there was latent behavior that was "overpowered" by a competing response—i.e., "part of her wanted to say 'no,' but..."—it's impossible to reconstruct or analyze the events so as to understand why the response I would have liked was superseded. The whole thing must always be ambiguous to me (and perhaps to everyone else involved), and in that ambiguity I seem to find the idea of agency. Either I was given offense by an unknowable and impersonal process or by her, and I'm better equipped to reckon with the latter. It's much more intelligible to me.

Months later, I realize this is all wishful thinking. I can survey the whole relationship in the abstract and accept that it was bound to end the way it did. I even find that I no longer blame her for what happened.

Of course, in the lifetime of our species, considering events in the abstract is a new capability. Our distant ancestors' survival—and the natural selection and propagation of the genetic material that "programs" our predispositions and possibilities—depended on navigating the exigencies of the immediate. The emotional response is a primeval survival mechanism: disregarding how it feels, we can define the emotional state called "anger" in terms of physiological changes (heightened pulse, increased activity in the amygdala, a flushed complexion, etc.) and alterations in behavior, which can include a temporary inclination towards aggression, and being reinforced by the consequences of "lashing out" (i.e., if we accidentally drop our Nintendo Switch on the floor in a "baseline" emotional state, we're horrified to find a joystick has been damaged; if we dash it to the ground in exasperation while playing a frustratingly difficult game, for at least a moment we'll be satisfied to see it in pieces). Within the crucible of "nature," the benefits are obvious. When acquiring and keeping food, finding a mate, protecting one's young, etc., depend on fending off threats from both vicious animals and other anthropoids, an inborn tendency to attack sources of aversion increases the likelihood that one will pass on his genes.

If I tell somebody that my ex's actions were "a slap in the face," I am unwittingly drawing a line of correlation between my outrage at her infidelity and the aggressive reaction of a primitive man-ape who is physically struck by one of his competitors for food or sex.

In our state of civilization, this response has outlived some of its usefulness. Possibly you were appalled earlier when I said that aimed a few misogynistic slurs at my erstwhile lover in a state of anger. You'd certainly have been horrified if I said that I hit her. (None of this actually happened; relax.)

At the same time: you'd be cheering me on if I said that I told off or even punched a strange man who got obdurately grabby with her at a bar and called her names. You might even call me a milquetoast if I told you I approached him, asked him to stop, and just stood there feeling sad after he gave me a shove, called me a fag, and resumed harassing my companion. And if you saw that viral clip of career white supremacist Richard Spencer getting decked in the face on camera during Trump's inauguration—well, don't tell me your first reaction wasn't take that motherfucker!³

Some of its usefulness. Probably the number of situations where getting angry and throwing a punch at another person was an ultimately effective response to an aversive social stimulus were more numerous some three hundred thousand years ago. We can be trained to discriminate between the appropriate and inappropriate times for the aggressive behavior characteristic of anger; we can learn to discern when anger itself is inappropriate and behave in such ways as to mitigate that state. But it's probably beyond the capability of most people to never get angry at all. Even the mythical Jesus blew his top in the episode with the money changers.

Freud and his ilk discovered that aggression needn't take the form of physical violence. We can throw insults when social training inhibits us from throwing stones at somebody who offends us. A police officer can put the screws to a motorist with an ALL COPS ARE PIGS bumper sticker by dragging out a traffic stop, asking the driver to step outside the car, demanding to search the trunk, and so on. Service industry workers have mastered the art of strategic incompetence as a means of exercising countercontrol against officious customers. In 2016, millions of Americans sublimated their anger at the government, the media, and contemptuous coastal elites by voting for Trump; in 2020, my pulling the lever for Biden was motivated solely by a wish to see Trump humiliated. And why not? It was fucking difficult to watch and listen to him and see anything other than a deranged boor who ought to be clapped in a pillory and pelted with rotten vegetables. Thinking of him as an organism shaped by his history, or to blame anybody (or anything) but him for the way he conducted himself as President, was almost too much to ask.

These emotional reactions to conditioned stimuli—many of them relational, such as when we read an editorial by some bonehead and identify the bonehead, not the immediate stimuli of computer screen or the words on it, as the cause of our displeasure—may guide us towards ascribing agency to human beings. We are coherence seekers; we experience some discomfiture ("cognitive dissonance") when we identify an inconsistency in our relational networks.

I could justify flying off the handle and saying awful things to a woman if she deserved it (and even then, really, I'd have a pretty flimsy case), but deservingness in this sense implies agency. If the actions for which I'm attacking her were contingent on anything but her choice as an autonomous agent, her responsibility seems to diminish in proportion to the number and character of determining variables. If she acts with complete freedom, my outrage is righteous—how dare she! But as I register more and more of the factors that nudged and guided her behavior, and realize that attacking her isn't going to do anything to improve my position in the present state of affairs, it begins to dawn on me that I'm just a petulant man-child throwing a useless hissy fit. Oh: that's how she dares.

The first interpretation and the world-picture that supports it are much easier to live with.

Criminal justice gives us more pertinent examples. A man breaks into a popular shop owned and operated by a beloved member of the community; in doing so, he shoots the owner in the kneecap. The man may never walk unaided again. After his apprehension and during his trial, we find that the robber was raised by cruel, physically abusive parents in a blighted neighborhood, stopped going to school before he turned eight, ran away as a teenager, got addicted to heroin, and robbed the shop because he needed cash for drugs. A recording of the robbery shows the assailant calling the owner (who happens to be gay) any number of vicious homophobic slurs.

As it currently functions, the criminal justice system in this country is less interested in reform than providing public gratification by punishing targetable objects of public anger. The ascription of agency to our culprit is a way to justify punitive measures that leave little hope for redemption: lock him in a cage with other violent criminals for forty years, deny him pleasure, isolate him from the outside world, and release him with no prospects for a stable or productive life. It's what he deserves.

It's a relatable feeling. But how can we expect responsibility from somebody who never learned to be responsible, empathy from somebody who was never taught to empathize, and good behavior from somebody who was consistently reinforced for lying, cheating, stealing, and acting aggressively towards others?

The circumstances which produced the person who committed the crime no longer exist; we can't attack them. But we can attack the man, and so we do. Punishment for its own sake—and let's be honest, nobody realistically expects him to receive an education in prison, to be taught how to function in civil society, or to come out and atone for what he did by doing service to the man he wronged; we only want and expect him to suffer—can only be brought into conformity with any notions of "justice" or "public good" if we assume that the criminal's actions were a product of some casually independent inner agent whose role in determining his choices transcended every material contingency. If we imagine that it was simply a bad will which developed separately from the conditions of his life, we can easily believe that it will persist indefinitely, regardless of whatever he experiences in the criminal justice system. What recourse do we have, then, but to satisfy our outrage by inflicting pain and deprivation upon the possessor of that bad will? And if we admit that this is a flawed way of looking at the situation, are we to also confess that this exercise of "justice" is just a socially sanctioned form of sadism, and we like it that way?

Some left-leaning types who advocate for criminal justice reform on Twitter recognize the primacy of the environment in determining a person's behavior. You begin to notice a pattern in their discourse: the well-meaning denial of agency to certain segments of the population. In their interminable arguments with right-leaning "law and order" types, they imply that uneducated, impoverished people ought not to be held responsible for unlawful actions for which we'd take the affluent and educated to account. They're poor; their schools are a mess; they're surrounded by violence; they're victims of society with their backs to the wall. They can't be expected to do better.

What's strange, however, is the way this same strain of commentator is likely to speak of billionaire scumbags like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk. The environment of the odious member of the elite apparently doesn't shape their behavior, but simply rolls aside and allows the rich man's autonomous will to follow its whims without impediment. If only Bezos and Musk would heed the voices of their conscience, they would liquidate their assets, distribute them among their employees, and retire to live on farms—and they deserve to be despised because they have not.

Granted, one of the two groups here has an immeasurably greater range of more appealing things they can do, and their actions indirectly affect thousands of more people than just themselves—but that doesn't change the fact that all of them are controlled by the incentives given to them by their environments. If we say that is not the case, then the member of the immiserated urban poor who robs a local business through a smashed window during a looting spree deserves to be held to account as much as the Sacklers do for sparking the opioid addiction epidemic (which they have not, of course).

Either everybody is the singular originating agent of their behavior and must be considered culpable for their choices on all occasions—or nobody is. If we believe the latter, how do we mitigate the discord between our immediate experience of others as freely operating agents, and our abstract belief in their complete dependency?

1. None of this actually happened. I promise.

2. I don't know which Jonas Brother; you'd have to ask her. (I told you we were incompatible.)

3. In retrospect I'm a little less keen on the whole thing, but that's another conversation.


  1. Do you have any recommendations for further reading on this topic?

    1. Hmmm. BF Skinner's "Beyond Freedom and Dignity" comes to mind, but he's obviously a bit biased.

      I'm not sure if there's a more digestible account of Kant's ideas about free will than the second Critique, but his is really the only apology for free will that I've found compelling. I'm still grappling with it.

      "Relational Frame Theory" and BF Skinner's "Verbal Behavior" try to provide materialistic (as opposed to mentalistic or "spooky") accounts of language and thinking, and I find their frameworks (insofar as I understand them) useful in helping to conceptualize what's happening under people's skin. Although both are very long and difficult reads (I have to periodically revisit them to make sure I actually understand what they're saying), and the RFT book is an academic text that runs for over $100. Not sure how useful either will actually be to you.