Thursday, September 30, 2010

Our "Weird" Preoccupation with Choice

    Two weeks ago, I argued that conception of moral responsibility in the Iliad is very different from our own. In Homer’s world, the Gods, Fate, and irresistible passion often determine the heroes’ behavior—but that doesn’t let them off of the hook.  They’re still responsible, they still deserve blame, and if you want to disembowel them (and taunt them while you’re doing it), knock yourself out.
    You can see this seemingly weird notion of responsibility in Agamemnon as well.   By most accounts, Agamemnon had to sacrifice of Iphigenia—he had no choice.  Zeus had determined that the ships would sail and destroy Troy, and you can’t buck the will of Zeus.  Yet Clytemnestra (certainly) and the chorus (arguably) still blame Agamemnon for killing his daughter.  Some commentators have gone so far as to call this attitude logically inconsistent.  The critic Albin Lesky writes:
    If one makes a clear logical distinction, of course, one will say: "A man who acts under necessity is not acting voluntarily." But to insist upon logical consistency would mean that we should have to reject considerable parts of Aeschylus' tragedies.... Is not the campaign against Troy a just punishment inflicted on behalf of the highest god, Zeus, who protects the rights of hospitality? Thus, Agamemnon acts on behalf of the god who wills this punishment. And yet the price for this punishment is a terrible guilt, for which the king has to atone with his death. Here there is no logical consistency. (my italics)

    Now as a philosopher I know something about logical consistency, and there is nothing inconsistent about holding people morally responsible for acts that they were compelled to perform.  Short dialogue to make this point:
    Lesky: Hey Clytemnestra, why’d you kill Agamemnon—he had to sacrifice Iphigenia to fulfill the will of Zeus.  He had no choice!

    Clytemnestra: I don’t care if he had a choice or not.  He did kill her.  So he deserves to die.  Period.

    Is Clytemnestra contradicting herself here?  Of course not.  There’s no inconsistency, she just doesn’t place the same conditions on guilt and responsibility that Lesky does (and that we do in the contemporary West).   

    A better word to describe this view of guilt and moral responsibility at guilt is "counterintuitive."  It just seems unfair to blame and kill people for an action that they did not choose to commit of their own free will.  It might be logically consistent, but it still seems primitive, backwards, weird.

    But what if we’re the weird ones?  What if our conception of responsibility as dependent on choice and control is the exception rather than the rule?   Research in cross-cultural psychology suggests this might be the case.  If you have some time, check out this article, “The Weirdest People in the World,” by Joe Henrich and colleagues in Behavioral and Brain Sciences.  The "weird" in the title refers both to "peculiar" but also to "Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic" societies.  The article documents a number of ways that the values and perceptions of people in WEIRD societies (like the U.S.) differ from the rest of the world.  Many of our core values and beliefs—the ones we think of as “self-evident”—are simply not shared by other cultures.   Not only that, most societies both today and throughout history have not been WEIRD.  We’re in the minority.  We’re the weird ones!

   One of these cross-cultural differences concerns the way people regard choice and control. People in WEIRD societies (1) place much more value on individual choice and personal autonomy, and (2) perceive themselves as making more autonomous choices (in identical scenarios), than people in other societies.  In America (a prime example of a WEIRD culture), we think “yes my environment may influence or predispose me to do certain things, but ultimately it’s up to me what I do.  My free will is in charge.  By contrast, people in non-WEIRD societies are more prone to regard themselves and their behavior within the context of their group, their relationships and social environment.  They are less likely to attribute their actions to their individual will.

   Bringing this back to Agamemnon—you can see how in a non-WEIRD society, the question of whether Agamemnon had a choice just wouldn’t matter as much for determining guilt and responsibility.  In fact, the issue never really comes up throughout the play.  The chorus, in their condemnation of Clytemnestra, doesn’t mention it.  We might think the justice of Clytemnestra’s act of revenge is deeply connected to the question of choice—but they don’t.  This isn’t illogical or irrational.  It isn’t even weird.


Henrich, J. et al.  “The weirdest people in the world?   Behavioral and Brain Sciences (2010) 33: 61-8

Lesky, A. "Decision and Responsibility in the Tragedy of Aeschylus," Journal of Hellenic Studies 86 (1966): 78-85, 82-83.

—Tamler Sommers


  1. I think anyone who actually prescribed to such a theory of moral responsibility would be hard-pressed to defend it. It seems like the short dialog you gave showed Clytemnestra to be compelled by pathos, not ethos. The gods are really to blame--she can't hurt the gods, but she can hurt Agamemnon. It's the line between punishment and vengeance. Ethically blaming someone for something they cannot fail to do is crazy, let alone logically inconsistent. It's where racism and sexism stem from: hating people for things they have no control over.

    We might have weird (or W.E.I.R.D.) ideas about ethics, sure--I don't think that makes them wrong.

    ~Concerned Student

  2. Concerned student, that's a fair point (no need to post this anonymously, reveal yourself!). A couple things in reply:

    1. I'm not endorsing this view of responsibility. I'm aware of the ethical advantages of the WEIRD position. Of course, there are ethical advantages for the Greek view too. But the goal of my post was not to endorse one or the other, just to show that the Greek view was not primitive and crazy, something that the world has move beyond long ago. We're the outliers.

    2. Your racism example isn't really fair to the no-control/choice view because (as I'm sure you'd agree) there's nothing intrinsically wrong about belonging to a particular race. So it really doesn't matter whether we have choice about our race. There's nothing to blame anyone for. On the no-control/choice view of responsibility, you still have to do something wrong in order to be blameworthy.

    3. You seem to insist that Clytemnestra is being logically inconsistent in addition to being unethical or vengeful. But where's the inconsistency in her position? Where's the contradiction? You need to point that out or else your claims are just ad hominem (as we say in Philosophy) attacks.

    Again, no need to post anonymously--these are good issues to bring up.

  3. DAVID MIKICS said:

    I have to say I agree with the student, the real world, 99 percent of the time, claims that you're responsible for something even though you were compelled to do it occur in a particular kind of situation: ethnic, racial or national rivalry. Especially when violence is involved, the non-WEIRD view ties individuals to group identity--in a way that's closely allied to racism and other kinds of group prejudice.

    I'm skeptical, as well, that there are many purely non-WEIRD societies anymore. Any place with a modern justice society is WEIRD, though it may have substantial non-WEIRD elements too. Most often, what we're dealing with is a fight within a society or culture--not pure examples of WRIRD or non-WEIRD. And when there is such a fight, we have to decide which side we're on.

    What _are_ the "ethical advantages" of the archaic Greek view, in your opinion?

  4. David, you wrote:

    "in the real world, 99 percent of the time, claims that you're responsible for something even though you were compelled to do it occur in a particular kind of situation: ethnic, racial or national rivalry."

    What's your basis for this claim? Where did you come up with that statistic? It strikes me as wildly implausible. In any case, as I said, in order to be blameworthy, you have to have done something wrong. What's immoral in the cases of racial prejudice is the belief that being a certain race is bad. It's entirely beside the point whether or not we're responsible for that part of us. Think of debates about whether homosexuality is a "choice." Many gay people (rightly) resist engaging in that debate. Why? Because they reject the implicit premise that homosexuality is immoral. If it's not immoral, why should it matter whether it's a choice or not? Similarly, implicit in your claim is that it's bad to have a certain racial or national identity, so we need our conception of individual responsibility to recognize that it's it's not their fault.

    As far as your skepticism about whether there are non-WEIRD societies (with the view of justice and responsibility I'm describing)--again, I'd ask: what's the basis for your skepticism? I can give you tons of examples of these societies from my book. They seem (at least on the surface) to embrace the view of responsibility I'm describing. Just saying your skeptical doesn't seem sufficient...

    Finally, you ask what the ethical advantages of this view are. That's a good question. I think the moral cost of our emphasis on individual choice and responsibility is a weakening of communal ties. In cultures where you can be responsible not just for what you choose to do, but also for how your relatives, friends, group members behave, there is a natural strengthening of relationships. So to the extent that group solidarity is a moral good, this view of responsibility promotes it.

    Even in our culture you can see that feelings of collective responsibility are bound up with how much we identify with the people close to us. I talked in my lecture about the responsibility we feel for the acts of our children. I take pride in my daughter's accomplishments and I feel ashamed if she does something wrong or harmful to others (which she never does because she's the sweetest soul on earth). A cynic might claim that we only feel pride or shame for our own role in raising them, but as most people who have children know (as you're about to know), that's just not the case. The responsibility we feel for our children is genuine--and it's an expression and a reinforcement of love and solidarity. That's a good thing, not something we should see as irrational or morally inferior.

  5. Perhaps the difference between our points in that I'm focusing on a political context, and you seem to be focusing on families and communities _seen from within_ (the strengthening of one's responsibility for "one's own"). I'm interested in what happens when we accuse other people--outsiders--of responsibility for what their group has done. It still strikes me that almost all such cases (in which the outsider is being accused) are dangerous examples of blaming people for things they haven't, individually, done. This is a main setting for political and ethnic violence. You're killed for what you are, not what you've done.

    Your familial and communal examples are far removed from what we're reading about in the _Iliad_ or the _Agamemnon_. (Is the Atreus family strengthened by Clytemnestra's judgment that Agamemnon should be killed?--rather different from your example of your own family!) Families, too, sometimes divide (between men and women, parents and children).

    I'd like the hear more about the "tons" of societies that are purely non-WEIRD. Again, any society that has a modern justice system is at least partly non-WEIRD, because it's at least partly based on the principle that you shouldn't sentence a person for what other people have done. Should we support such an idea, or should we oppose it? We have a clear choice.

    Here's a fascinating case. It's been argued (and I agree) that Germans growing up in the 1950s and 1960s were responsible for Nazism, since they grew up in a society surrounded by elders who were guilty of serious crimes. Yet a German born in 1940 can't be "responsible" or "guilty" to the same degree (or even, I think, in the same way) as an older German who chose to commit crimes in order to advance in the Nazi regime (and who remained unpunished). And in between the two is the Nazi soldier who was compelled to commit crimes. Should these distinctions be elided, or should they be investigated and understood? On your account there's a danger of eliding them, I think.

  6. Dr. Sommers, the advantage of the Illiad's sense of moral responsibility you propose is a sound one. However I think an even greater advantage of their notion of moral responsibility is how much simpler it is than that of WEIRD societies. The idea of communal responsibility results in less red tape when determining people as guilty or innocent. It is also beneficial because locating the origin of blame or praise is ridiculously difficult given the amount of "experts" that propose contradictory theories surrounding their origins and variables.
    The major issue with communal responsibility that I find if applied to contemporary WEIRD society is how large are present-day communities? In The Illiad the Trojans are all held accountable for the actions of Paris. But how far would this extend now? Should all United States citizens be held accountable for the actions of its president?
    Also, I propose that it's still relatively easy to find societies that have a sense of communal responsibility despite being WEIRD (perhaps not rich though). In many Latin American countries, especially in the rural villages, there is still the maintenance of the old adage "the village raising the child." In this case there is the idea of responsibility residing with the entire village for the actions of the children bred and raised there.

  7. Andre,
    I'm doubtful that you actually do prefer a non-WEIRD system (despite your claim that you do).

    Think about this: would you prefer courts to sentence people on the basis of what their family, neighbors or friends have done--what their communities have done...or would you prefer courts to sentence people for what they themselves, as individuals, have done?

    This may seem a bit abstract. Let's make it more concrete. Imagine yourself as the defendent in such a case. Shoudl you be thrown in jail because of what your father or mother (or brother or sister did)? Because of the group you belong to?

    If you say "yes," then I'm convinced that you really are convinced of the advantages of the non-WEIRD model. But be prepared to go to jail for something you didn't do.

    Since Professor Sommers lives in a WEIRD society and still takes credit for his daughter's accomplishments (and she is very terrific--I've met her!), it seems to me that the question of taking pride in or being responsible for people connected to you is rather different from the question of blaming, punishing, or killing someone because of what his (or her) "people" did. We as a society disapprove of the latter (killing because of group identity) and yet we still feel bound by communal and familial responsibility. The burden is on those (Tamler, is this you?) who would suggest that there's a connection between punishing others in a non-WEIRD way and taking responsibility, or blame, for one's own group (also in a non-WEIRD way). Perhaps there's an inverse connection: the more you lay collective blame on others the more you evade collective responsibility for the actions of your own group. Or perhaps there's not a connection at all. Why should these two phenomena--blaming other communities and taking responsibility for one's own--support each other?