Thursday, 16 March 2017

[] Are we wholly responsible for our actions? Do we have free will


Religions teach us that we have free will and so we are fully liable for our actions. But times have changed and like many religious precepts this aspect of free will is being questioned.

Before we go into the issue of free will let us examine culpability and punishment. Most if not all of our punishments are corporeal and inflicted on the body. But our body is not a permanent object. Instead it is in perpetual motion like the waters in a river. Take the case of Yakub Memon. He committed the crime in 1993 and was hanged 22 years later in 2015. During these 22 years most if not all of his body cells have been replaced by other cells and materials so that the body that was hanged was not the same body that committed the crime. This brings us to the fundamental question as to whether corporeal punishment is ethical. But for lack of a better deterrent I guess we have to go along with the present system. It is also probable that we are punishing the identity of the criminal which is more permanent rather than his body which is far more transient than his identity.

In this connection there is also another concern. There is a novel titled 'Erehwon' (the word nowhere spelled in reverse) in which a traveler ends up in a place called Erehwon where criminals are treated in hospitals whereas those suffering from ill-health are punished. So if you catch a cold you are given a short jail sentence whereas if you are born malformed or if you contact TB or some such deadly disease you are executed. Consequently all the citizens of Erehwon are extremely healthy and handsome. Of course we would laugh this system away. However there is also grain of truth in the concept that criminal behavior is a kind of disease which can and should be treated. This concept also implies that we do not have free will to the extend  religions say we have.

Here is an excerpt from my book which shows that free will is not so free as the religions teach us especially with regard to violent behavior. .

It may be opportune here to distinguish between aggression and assertiveness. Children preparing to enter kindergarten need to develop the socially important skills of being assertive. Examples of assertiveness include asking others for information, initiating conversation, or being able to respond to peer-pressure. If the child fails in its attempts to assert itself, it often resorts to aggressive behavior, such as hitting or biting, as a form of communication. In time, this can lead to aggression and violence especially in males.

Culture plays a significant role in aggression. Empirical cross-cultural research has found differences in the level of aggression between ethnic groups. In one study, American men resorted to physical aggression more readily than the Japanese or the Spanish. Japanese men preferred direct verbal assaults when compared to their American and Spanish counterparts. Within the American environment itself, southerners were more aroused and responded more aggressively than northerners when upset. There is also a higher homicide rate among young white southern men than among white northern men in the United States. Also Southerners tend to subscribe to a culture of honor and vendettas and to adopt physical violence in response to slights and insults. Social inequality and the frustration springing therefrom also have been blamed for aggression and violence. This theory attributes violence to social causes alone and implies that if people are not frustrated, they will not become aggressive. This in effect means that man is not naturally aggressive. This may be partly true in the case of personal and domestic violence. Indeed the French, Russian and Chinese revolutions, three of the most violent upheavals in human history, were largely due to gross systemic inequality and the hopelessness and frustrations arising therefrom.

However, all violence cannot be attributed to frustration alone. It was found that the Blacks in the South of the United States, though far more frustrated than the Whites, were far less violent. Nonetheless, poverty and frustration do contribute to crime.  Invariably there is some degree of injustice under all political dispensations. Some such variations are normal. Other forms of systemic injustice, such as during the apartheid in South Africa or as under the caste system in India, are quite glaring. On the other hand, injustice within democratic systems such as in India arising from regional hegemony or corruption is not so much in evidence. Everything seems to be placid on the surface while seething underneath. Galtung coined the term structural violence to refer to such situations as during apartheid or or under the caste system or in a corrupt regime, which although not violent on the face of it, contain a level of systematic oppression or injustice. The more such structural violence in a society, the higher will be the chances of vicious backlashes.

Violence Poverty

There is no point in preaching ethics and morals to a starving man. Violence comes naturally to a man that lives a hand to mouth existence especially when his neighbor wallows in wealth and ostentatious extravagance. However, where there is abject poverty or famine, there is little violence as noticed by the Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen, who narrates how the starving people of Bengal seldom resorted to violence and watched idly as trucks loaded with food grains rolled by during the great Bengal famine.  The theory that deprivation is the cause of violence also does not explain why there is violence in reasonably affluent societies. Violence is thus seen to be a very complex issue and there may be diverse causes that give rise to social violence.  

Frustration does not spring from deprivation alone. Frustration and aggression increase if a person feels that he or she is being blocked from achieving a goal. One study found that the closeness to the goal makes a difference. Accordingly, the second person in a queue is more aggressive than the fifteenth when someone cut into the queue.  Unexpected frustration may be another factor. In a study in this direction, a group of students were asked to collect donations over the phone. Some of them were told that the people they would call would be generous and the collection would be very successful. The other group was given no such expectations. The group with the high expectations was more upset and became more aggressive when no one acquiesced to their solicitations. Extrapolating this to real life, unrealistic expectations raised by ruthless politicians is the cause of much political conflict we come across in the democratic world today.

There is a relationship between drugs and violence. About a third and more of all violent crimes are under the influence of alcohol and other drugs. The earlier an adolescent takes to alcohol or drugs, the more likely it is that he will grow up into violent adult. Alcohol and drugs impair judgment, and disrupt the way information is processed. An inebriated man is more than likely to view an accidental event as a premeditated event, which is intended to harm him or to ridicule him. Consequently, he may resort to violence in a state of intoxicated suspicions.

Hot weather has been diagnosed as a contributory factor to violent behavior. One study completed in the midst of the civil rights movement found that mobs were more likely to riot on hotter days than on cooler ones. Students were found to be more aggressive and irritable after taking a test in a hot classroom. Drivers in cars with air conditioning are less likely to honk their horns than drivers sweating it out behind the wheels. It may not be entirely coincidental that the words temperatures and tempers sound identical in many languages though temperature refers to heat while tempers allude to feelings of anger. Language usages like 'hot headed' or 'hot tempered' meaning quick tempered also point to the correlation between anger and high temperatures.

There is some evidence to suggest that the presence of violent objects such as a gun can trigger aggression. In a study done by Leonard Berkowitz and Anthony Le Page in 1967, college students were made angry and then left in the presence of  guns or badminton rackets. They were then led to believe they were delivering electric shocks to another student, as in the Milgram experiment. Those who had been in the presence of the gun administered more intense shocks.  

It is also well known fact that males are more aggressive than females and that males in the age group of 18-30 are far more violent than their elders prove that testosterone levels play a huge part in our making decisions vis-a-vis violence and crime.

Identical twins have the same DNA structure and genes. It has been found that such identical twins make the identical decisions under identical conditions proving that our DNA or genes have a significant role in making decisions. Obviously free will is not all that free.



Myth Buster

Cataract is the third biggest cause of blindness. By far religion and politics remain the first and second.

"All new ideas good or bad, great or small start with a one-man minority" - anonymous


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