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Monday, January 01, 2007

Making the Right Choices

Do we have free will?:

Free to choose?, The Economist: In the late 1990s a previously blameless American began collecting child pornography and propositioning children. On the day before he was due to be sentenced to prison for his crimes, he had his brain scanned. He had a tumour. When it had been removed, his paedophilic tendencies went away. When it started growing back, they returned. When the regrowth was removed, they vanished again...

His case dramatically illustrates the challenge that modern neuroscience is beginning to pose to the idea of free will. The instinct of the reasonable observer is that organic changes of this sort somehow absolve ... responsibility that would accrue to a child abuser whose paedophilia was congenital. But why? The chances are that the latter tendency is just as traceable to brain mechanics as the former; it is merely that no one has yet looked. Scientists have looked at anger and violence, though, and discovered ... a particular messenger molecule in the brain, that are both congenital and predisposing to a violent temper. Where is free will in this case?

Free will is one of the trickiest concepts in philosophy, but also one of the most important. Without it, the idea of responsibility for one's actions flies out of the window, along with much of the glue that holds a free society (and even an unfree one) together...

For millennia the question of free will was the province of philosophers and theologians, but it actually turns on how the brain works. ... Science is not yet threatening free will's existence: for the moment there seems little prospect of anybody being able to answer definitively the question of whether it really exists or not. But science will shrink the space in which free will can operate by slowly exposing the mechanism of decision making.

At that point, the old French proverb “to understand all is to forgive all” will start to have a new resonance, though forgiveness may not always be the consequence. Indeed, that may already be happening. At the moment, the criminal law—in the West, at least—is based on the idea that the criminal exercised a choice: no choice, no criminal. The British government, though, is seeking to change the law in order to lock up people with personality disorders that are thought to make them likely to commit crimes, before any crime is committed.

Such disorders are serious pathologies. But the National DNA Database being built up by the British government (which includes material from many innocent people), would already allow the identification of those with milder predispositions to anger and violence. How soon before those people are subject to special surveillance? And if the state chose to carry out such surveillance, recognising that the people in question may pose particular risks merely because of their biology, it could hardly then argue that they were wholly responsible for any crime that they did go on to commit. ...

Markets also depend on the idea that personal choice is free choice. Mostly, that is not a problem. Even if choice is guided by unconscious instinct, that instinct will usually have been honed by natural selection to do the right thing. But not always. Fatty, sugary foods subvert evolved instincts, as do addictive drugs such as nicotine, alcohol and cocaine. Pornography does as well. Liberals say that individuals should be free to consume these, or not. Erode free will, and you erode that argument.

In fact, you begin to erode all freedom. Without a belief in free will, an ideology of freedom is bizarre. Though it will not happen quickly, shrinking the space in which free will can operate could have some uncomfortable repercussions.

Capital L Liberals are portrayed as libertarians on this issue, but some liberals oppose government intervention of this type as well. My worry is that people will use this research to decide what's best for me, conclude my genetic predisposition doesn't allow me to choose the optimal path they've decided I should be on, and then impose positive and negative incentives to make me behave according to the norms they have decided are optimal. I am the best judge of my own utility and I really don't need anyone looking in from the outside and telling me what would make me happiest.

To some degree, we are already heading in this direction. Some researchers have found that our genetic predispositions do not allow us to correctly balance our present and future needs and that therefore we need to be manipulated to make optimal choices for things like our level of savings. Other neuroeconomic research supports such conclusions. Thus, according to this research, we should (and do) impose opt-out savings plans to increase participation rates. The argument is that this will make people better off than they would be if left completely free to make their own choice. Some people even argue that the default option ought to be costly so that people are motivated to participate.

We could carry this further and be very proscriptive. Why not make people opt-out of other types of expenditures we think are good for them but not chosen due to their particular genetic predispositions? I don't eat enough fruits and vegetables. The paper linked in the previous paragraph suggests why - immediate gratification overwhelms what's good for me in the long-run because different brain systems are involved in the two decisions. Should my employer give me a box of fruits and vegetables as part of my paycheck each week unless I choose to opt-out? Should my employer take part of my paycheck and enroll me in a fitness program at a local gym unless I opt-out? Seems like the same argument applies.

I think it's a dangerous path to begin asserting, for example, that poor people are poor due to their genetic predisposition to make poor choices. Because they don't know what's good for them, we will make them behave properly, i.e. make them better off by giving them the right positive or negative incentives. Of course any spending by the poor on anything other than absolute necessities would be seen as failing to properly balance immediate gratification and long-run needs, so we should tax the poor heavily whenever they try to have fun. We do this implicitly anyway when we do things like look down or noses at someone using food stamps to buy a candy bar or bag of chips instead of a carrot.

We should correct market failures when we can and that may justify intervention into markets to make them function efficiently, but I'm less inclined to support interventions based upon neuroeconomic-based assessments of what would make me happiest. So long as I'm not hurting you or anyone else, leave me free to choose even if you don't approve of my choices. Oh, and one last note to my family. If someone could please hide the left-over Christmas candy, the fudge and caramels in particular, that would be great. I've had more than my share and I can't seem to stop myself from eating them.

Have a Maximum Utility New Year.

Update: There is a nice discussion of free will in comments, and also at Free Will: Now You Have It, Now You Don’t.

    Posted by on Monday, January 1, 2007 at 10:02 AM in Economics, Policy, Science | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (27)

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