Cheating & Heroism: Automaticity vs Free Will

Cheating & Heroism: Automaticity vs Free Will May 3, 2019

In this article, I am going to talk about praiseworthiness and blameworthiness with regard to terrorism and is something a little bit opposite to that idea, cheating. It is part of our human nature, or as PF Strawson says, our reactive attitudes, that we praise heroes to the hilt and attack those who cheat.

I am not a tutor. In fact, this is something I take a lot of pride in (which itself is interesting in being a form of self-praise). When I play board games or any type of game, I do not cheat. I have not cheated since I can’t remember when. My partner will say, if anyone else is playing a game of us, something like, “No, that really happened. He doesn’t cheat.”

Let’s look at an example of heroism that happened recently where a student saved the lives, almost undoubtedly, of other pupils in his school. This is from the New York Times:

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — In an alert that flashed across computer and phone screens all over campus, the instructions were spare but urgent: “Run, Hide, Fight. Secure yourself immediately.”

But Riley Howell could neither run nor hide. The gunman was in his classroom. So, the authorities said, he charged at the gunman, who had already fired several rounds, and pinned him down until police officers arrived.

“But for his work, the assailant may not have been disarmed,” Chief Kerr Putney of the Charlotte-Mecklenberg Police Department said of Mr. Howell, who was shot in the process and among six victims of a mass shooting at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte campus Tuesday evening. “Unfortunately, he gave his life in the process. But his sacrifice saved lives.”

On Wednesday, students and teachers were still reeling from the attack that left two students, including Mr. Howell, dead and four others injured. Chief Putney said the death toll could have been far worse had Mr. Howell, a 21-year-old former high school soccer goalie, not intervened.

“He is my hero,” said Mr. Howell’s girlfriend of nearly six years, Lauren Westmoreland, who said she was overcome with grief. “But he’s just my angel now, as well.”

This is a fantastic story that evokes is our senses and heroism and praise. But without wanting to belittle this heroic act, I would like to look at both heroism and cheating and see whether they are acts that we consciously carry out. Again, I am going to refer to Robert Sapolsky. I am first going to again furnish you with an excerpt from Robert Sapolsky’s Behave [UK here] before discussing the content (Chapter 13, Audiobook):

And now for probably the most important finding in this chapter. What about subjects who never cheated? There are two very different scenarios, as framed by Greene and Paxton: Is resisting temptation at every turn an outcome of “will,” of having a stoked dlPFC putting Satan into a hammerlock of submission? Or is it an act of “grace,” where there’s no struggle, because it’s simple; you don’t cheat?

It was grace. In those who were always honest, the dlPFC, vlPFC, and ACC [JP – These are parts of the brain that are reponsible for rational thought and decision-making previously analysed and discussed in the book] were in veritable comas when the chance to cheat arose. There’s no conflict. There’s no working hard to do the right thing. You simply don’t cheat.

Resisting temptation is as implicit as walking up stairs, or thinking “Wednesday” after hearing “Monday, Tuesday,” or as that first piece of regulation we mastered way back when, being potty trained. As we saw in chapter 7, it’s not a function of what Kohlbergian stage you’re at; it’s what moral imperatives have been hammered into you with such urgency and consistency that doing the right thing has virtually become a spinal reflex.

This is not to suggest that honesty, even impeccable honesty that resists ah temptation, can only be the outcome of implicit automaticity. We can think and struggle and employ cognitive control to produce similar stainless records, as

shown in some subsequent work. But in circumstances like the Greene and Paxton study, with repeated opportunities to cheat in rapid succession, it’s not going to be a case of successfully arm wrestling the devil over and over. Instead, automaticity is required.

We’ve seen something equivalent with the brave act, the person who, amid the paralyzed crowd, runs into the burning building to save the child. “What were you thinking when you decided to go into the house”? (Were you thinking about the evolution of cooperation, of reciprocal altruism, of game theory and reputation?) And the answer is always “I wasn’t thinking anything. Before I knew it, I had run in.” Interviews of Carnegie Medal recipients about that moment shows precisely that—a first, intuitive thought of needing to help, resulting in the risking of life without a second thought. “Heroism feels and never reasons,” to quote Emerson.

It’s the same thing here: “Why did you never cheat? Is it because of your ability to see the long-term consequences of cheating becoming normalized, or your respect for the Golden Rule, or . . . ?” The answer is “I don’t know [shrug]. I just don’t cheat.” This isn’t a deontological or a consequentialist moment. It’s virtue ethics sneaking in the back door in that moment—“I don’t cheat; that’s not who I am.” Doing the right thing is the easier thing.

In other words, when we decide not to cheat or to do a heroic act, we are not engaging our rational brains and deciding to do these things consciously and rationally, we are doing them automatically. So the question becomes twofold. First of all, it is the classic free will question as to whether we deserve praise or blame for such actions if they are automatically carried out by our brains over which we have little or no control at that time. I’m less interested in that question today. I am interested in what the causal factors are for this automaticity.

Roberts Kane is one of those rare philosophers who is both a naturalist and someone who advocates libertarian free will:

The first step in this rethinking is to note that indeterminism does not have to be involved in all acts done “of our own free wills” for which we are ultimately responsible. Not all acts done of our own free wills have to be undetermined, only those acts by which we made ourselves into the kinds of persons we are—namely, the “will-setting” or “self-forming actions” (SFAs) that are required for ultimate responsibility.

Now I believe that these undetermined self-forming actions, or SFAs, occur at those difficult times of life when we are torn between competing visions of what we should do or become. Perhaps we are torn between doing the moral thing or acting from ambition, or between powerful present desires and long-term goals; or we may be faced with difficult tasks for which we have aversions. In all such cases of difficult self-forming choices in our lives, we are faced with competing motivations and have to make an effort to overcome the temptation to do something else we also strongly want. There is tension and uncertainty in our minds about what to do at such times, let us suppose, that is reflected in appropriate regions of our brains by movement away from thermodynamic equilibrium—in short, a kind of “stirring up of chaos” in the brain that makes it sensitive to micro-indeterminacies at the neuronal level. The uncertainty and inner tension we feel at such soul-searching moments of self-formation would thus be reflected in the indeterminacy of our neural processes themselves. What we experience internally as uncertainty about what to do on such occasions would correspond physically to the opening of a window of opportunity that temporarily screens off complete determination by influences of the past.

In simpler terms, what Robert Kane offers here as a theory is that at earlier points in our lives, we are faced with difficult decisions and walking paths. We rationally choose, at these moments that he calls Self-Forming Acts, to do one thing rather than another, A rather than B. At later times in our lives, when we choose to do A, but this choice can be shown to be deterministically caused, we can defer back to the moments of the original SFA to gain ultimate responsibility for that later event, and, indeed,  all those moments when we subsequently choose to do A.

Of course, we get back to analysing whether the original SFA’s causally determined or a result of libertarian free will. I, as most other philosophers, would argue that those SFAs are themselves causally determined. I don’t want to rerun that whole debate here, the whole libertarian free will versus determinism debate. I’ve written a book on it and have written extensively on this blog about these ideas. It seems to me, as I set out in my book on free will, that’s Robert Kane uses a large dollop of special pleading in order to argue that his SFAs are not causally determined but later instances are.

Robert Kane aside, the idea is simply that, for almost all cases of decisions of not to cheat or to be a hero, these are automatic events in our brains. And if we think about it and reflect on our own lives, we can probably recognise that this happens when we are being kind or pro-social or deciding not to do something or to do something with a moral dimension. These things happen with alarming automaticity. In fact, there is heaps of research on top of what Sapolsky provides in his book, to suggest that prosocial behaviour is automatic and even has a genetic component.

It would be a great time to bring in the biology of willpower here, since willpower is a key to why we do, or don’t do, certain actions. However, I have decided to include this subject in the section on moral responsibility, so you have something to look forward to later in the book. But to whet the appetite, let me mention the research that has been carried out into genetic determinism and kindness. It is usually assumed that kindness is something that we choose of ourselves. Not so, according to Masahiko Haruno of Tamagawa University in Tokyo, along with Christopher Frith of University College London. They have found that generosity (also seen as the desire for fairness) appears to be automatic – activated by the area of the brain that controls intuition and emotion. The findings are in line with current neuropsychological understanding, that humans are on a scale of being ‘prosocial’ or ‘individualist’, with prosocial people being more inclined to share with others. The research has found that experimenting on two groups of people (a pre-sorted group of prosocial people and one of individualists, sorted by standardised behavioural tests) has produced results that show activity in the amygdala region of the brain increased significantly in prosocial people when dealing with unfair distributions of money. The amygdala did not show such activity in individualists. The more that the prosocial people disliked the distribution of money, the more the activity fired in the amygdala. There are two crucial parts to these findings. Firstly, it was originally theorised that generous people used their prefrontal cortex to suppress selfish feelings, and thus people were thought to control their kindness in the active suppression of selfishness. This experiment showed no activity of the prefrontal cortex, and no difference between the groups in this area. Secondly, the region that was activated (the amygdala) is an area that responds automatically, without thought or awareness.

The researchers consolidated their findings by creating extensions to the experiments, whereby they gave the participants memory tasks to carry out whilst rating the splits. The parts of the brain usually responsible for deliberation over things were being used, and yet the prosocial participants still had the same brain activity, showing that they were not suppressing selfish desires, but responding automatically. Whether the automatic response is in-built or as a result of learned behaviour is not important to the determinist, since at the point of making the moral decision of kindness, those automatic reactions are out of one’s control, regardless of how and why.

Carolyn Declerck, a neuroeconomist at the University of Antwerp, Belgium, claims that this evidence backs up her own as yet unpublished research that shows that prosocial people are driven by an automatic sense of morality: “So far, all our behavioural and fMRI experiments confirm that prosocials are intrinsically motivated to cooperate.” [Source]

Haruno will next try to figure out how this difference in the activity of the amygdala arises. It’s partly genetic, but also likely influenced by a person’s environment, he says, particularly the social interactions during childhood. He says it is interesting to think there might be ways to promote this activity to “realise a more prosocial society.”

This is a massive piece of evidence to support determinists’ worldviews. Kindness, generosity, nay morality is seemingly the outcome of genotype, with a healthy dollop of determined environment. If this wasn’t enough then just open any science journal and you will find supporting evidence. Take Reuter et al who have discovered a gene variant of the COMT gene influences altruism in the form of willingness to donate. This activity of kindness was twice as evident in people with a certain variant as with others. As ScienceDaily reported:

This mini-mutation also has effects on behavior: “Students with the COMT-Val gene donated twice as much money on average as did fellow students with the COMT-Met variant,” explains Reuter. This is the first time that researchers have been able to establish a connection between a particular gene and altruistic deeds.

To be honest, the plethora of human behaviours and emotions are being mapped out more and more by the work of neuroscientists and geneticists, that at some point, I wager, little mystery of the human persona will remain, if any. Just as cartographers’ satellites have mapped out every inch of the world, so too might scientists map out every defining atom of our human existence.


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