Wednesday, July 24, 2013

All Beings Are Without Blame (Part Nine)

It’s been a while since I last posted to my series, “All Beings Are Without Blame.” If you haven’t followed the argument laid out so far over eight previous posts, I invite you to do so. If you have followed my argument, you may wish to refresh your memory as to what is meant by “taken responsibility” as opposed to “moral responsibility."

Those who believe that it is moral responsibility that is taken argue that people must therefore be coerced into taking such responsibility, as Daniel Dennett does, because he says, “… there will always be strong temptations to make yourself small, to externalize the causes of your actions and deny responsibility…” Therefore, he adds, “If you want to be free, you must take responsibility.”

But the only real responsibility that  can be “taken” is “take-charge responsibility” and no coercion is required. As Bruce Waller says, “Take-charge responsibility is not the price we pay for freedom, but is instead a vital element of living freely and exercising free control. It is very satisfying to take responsibility for my own life, my own decisions, my own projects, my own health care choices.”

Yes, it is very satisfying to do so – much of the time. However, it is often enough not very satisfying at all! It can be distressing and burdensome. When there is knowledge and confidence to act efficiently and skillfully, exercising control feels quite satisfying. It has been shown that patients with such knowledge and confidence who exercise take-charge responsibility for their own health care decisions recover faster and are more compliant with following their health-care regimens. I think it safe to say that this plays into the success many people have when they undertake some “alternative” medical regimen even if it’s been shown that the so-called therapy is objectively ineffective!

The benefits of “take-charge responsibility” have also been studied in long-term care situations (such as nursing homes) when patients have been asked to care for plants or kittens. Such patients exhibit greater resistance to infection, less depression and greater participation in community activities. And factory workers who have more control over their environment, and are given the opportunity to have greater involvement in the company show greater job satisfaction, are less likely to suffer depression and have fewer days lost to illness. But… if one is placed in a position of having to make a big decision without the appropriate knowledge and ability to make such a decision, then such control and responsibility becomes a stressful burden.

Those who have a strong sense of what Alfred Bandura calls “self-efficacy” find great satisfaction in exercising take-charge responsibility in making decisions and carrying on projects. They do not need to be forced to take responsibility; they welcome it! Better than thinking people need to be forced to take responsibility would be to create the conditions of solid, grounded knowledge, self-confidence, sense of self-efficacy in which people happily embrace and enjoy taking responsibility. Any parent knows that when children are young, they seek taking on responsibility – sometimes to the consternation of their parents for activities they are not developmentally ready to perform! My three-year old daughter loves to make her own eggs in the morning. Her mother and I have helped create the conditions where she knows what to do, understands what she can do (now, she can do every part of the operation but light the stove), and feels confident that she can do it, and so she embraces the opportunity. And to be sure, if she drops an egg, that doesn’t make her morally responsible! What she has taken upon herself is “take-charge responsibility.”

And this is important to distinguish and point out because when take-charge responsibility is confused with moral responsibility the conditions that favor the effective taking of take-charge responsibility are actively denied! When we hold people morally responsible and blame them as individuals for their bad acts or character, we are willfully blinding ourselves to the forces that shaped them. If we look closely – as did the buddha – it becomes quite clear that we are blaming and punishing people for acting as they do but such behavior is in fact the product of their unfortunate conditioning. And again, make no mistake, this is quite the willful avidya or ignoring and not seeing. Dennett again: “Instead of investigating, endlessly, in an attempt to discover whether or not a particular trait is of someone’s making – instead of trying to assay exactly to what degree a particular self is self-made – we simply hold people responsible for their conduct (within limits we take are not to examine too closely.”

Whew! Dennett, and those who argue alongside his form of compatibilism are literally telling us not to investigate how one’s character was formed, and to take care not to examine how responsibility actually functions. And our whole society does this quite well! For our punitive, retributive form of “justice” that holds people morally responsible and possessing free will, we must not look too closely. But it is imperative that we – as a society – begin to look seriously and deeply into the cultural, social, political and psychological conditions that foster and impede the exercise take-charge responsibility.

There is plenty of evidence that even those handicapped by conditions can learn, with the proper support, to make more skillful decisions, act less uncritically impulsive and develop a greater sense of self-efficacy. But certainly, nothing at all is gained by forcing someone to accept responsibility if they are not able to effectively; in fact, we are contributing to their suffering by doing so. The better response is to offer restorative and rehabilitative opportunities for such a person to grow in self-efficacy and the desire to exercise skillful control.

Bruce Waller strongly condemns the conditions that lead so many in our society to lack the sense of ‘self-efficacy’ and freedom: “We aren’t born free, but must develop the capacity for freedom. And we are in chains, but they are the chains of substandard education, hierarchical authoritative religions, standardized jobs that require obedience rather than thought, and a consumer culture that encourages and rewards mindless conformity.”

Not seeing the causes of duhkha is duhkha. Seeing the causes of duhkha, we see the path to ending duhkha. The buddha argued against those who said duhkha was a matter of fate, the will of the gods or random. There are causes and conditions. Recognize and understand the causes and conditions, and then change them. That is the way to “freedom” and the challenge, as we’ve come to see, is that this is by necessity a collective movement. The very reason we must act as a collective is the same reason all beings are without blame: there are no atomistic selves independent of causes and conditions that can be deserving of blame or praise.

Dennett, Daniel, 1984: Elbow Room. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press

Dennett, Daniel, 2003: Freedom Evolves. New York: Viking

Waller, Bruce, 2011: Against Moral Responsibility. Cambride, MA: MIT Press

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