A plea for some psychology in public discussions of filicide

Filicide is the murder of a child by a parent. The term covers killings by genetic, step and de facto parents and the more specific crimes of neonaticide (the murder of a child within 24 hours of birth) and infanticide (the killing of a child under 1 year of age and defined in some jurisdictions, e.g. the UK, as necessarily involving a mental impairment) (Bourget, Grace, & Whitehurst, 2006; Browne & Lynch, 1995; Farooque & Ernst, 2003). When Damien Little allegedly shot and drowned his two children and himself this kind of killing came roaring back into public awareness. This kind of death unfortunately cannot be a private death, and I am sorry for heaping on those suffering from these killings. When I write about filicide, the hope is to contribute something to understanding it so it can be prevented. But, this comes at the cost of keeping certain individuals suffering in the public eye, and I am sorry that this is the case.

Many other commentators are writing about this case, with the same goal: understand and prevent. Rightfully much of this comes from feminist scholars and popularisers. I say “rightfully” because we know of the importance of gender stereotypes in both causing filicide and how we judge the responsibility of perpetrators (e.g. Wilcyznski, 1997). However, much of this commentary neglects the insights from the rigorous psychological study of filicide. Although McPherson is right when she laments that:

feminists are tired of hearing the voluminous acts of male violence against women and children explained away in a plethora of ‘individual’ circumstances. This explaining away turns gendered violence into a ‘figment of our imaginations’. It implies no systemic problem exists and, ergo, no systemic action is required.”

This shouldn’t be taken as implying, as McPherson sometimes seems to suggest, that the psychology can be safely ignored and that these problems can be dealt with and the social level alone. Without a properly interdisciplinary approach we run the risk of propagating myths about filicide which only get in the way of our understanding.

For example, McPherson says of Little:

While the circumstances remain unclear, it is hard not to be reminded of the Farquharson case with its narrative of ex-spousal vengeance.”

Perhaps it is, but we must not mistake this intuition for psychological insight. Spousal-Revenge or retaliation killings as they are known are those cases of filicide in which the motivation of the killer is to harm the child’s other parent by taking the child away, in the most drastic way imaginable. There are deep problems in our understanding of these killings. But, what we do know is that these killings are exceedingly rare. For example, after a study of public records of all child homicides in Sweden between 1971 and 1980, Somander and Rammer (1991) classified just one of their sample of 77 killers as of this type. Such killings are perpetrated more often then men then by women, but mothers have been known to kill for this reason (Marieke Liem & Koenraadt, 2008b). Although common, suicide is by no means universally attempted following a revenge filicide. Leveillee et al. (2007) report that in their sample (1986-1994, Québec Canada) of the 27 killers who attempted suicide following filicide and who had an identifiable motive 13 were motivated by revenge. In contrast with the 37 who did not attempt suicide and had an identifiable motive, five were motivated by revenge (Leveillee et al., 2007). It is possible that revenge was a motivation for Little, but we can’t know without having the suicide note.

Instead of speculating on exceedingly rare motivations which inspire a lot of press, it is helpful to understand what is in common amongst similar kinds of killings. We know a fair bit about that and it is here that we begin to get a grip on how bizarre filicide is, and how our limited the tools which we normally use to understand each other are. One psychological factor which is common for a variety of kinds of filicide is something called “identity collapse” (M. Liem, 2010; Marieke Liem & Koenraadt, 2008b; Somander & Rammer, 1991; West, Hatters Friedman, & Resnick, 2009). It has been proposed that both family annihilators and those who commit revenge filicide become violent following the collapse of their role as father, provider, husband, wife, or mother (Leveillee et al., 2007; Marieke Liem & Koenraadt, 2008a). But identity collapse is not simply being distraught at this loss. Those who experience this identify so strongly with the lost role, and only with that role, that when they lose the role they lose themselves. They can’t tell who or what they are any longer.

Normally when we try to understand why someone acts violently we do so with reference to emotions such anger and social constructs such as power. But, the bizarreness of identity collapse along with how difficult it is to imagine reminds us that these tools, whilst helpful for day to day life, are so badly limited in cases like filicide. Whilst McPherson is rightly critical of explanations of the killings in terms of ‘snapping’ and the like and does try to undo some of the damage done by Ford’s unfortunate equation of mental illness with low self esteem, the attempt to place the killing in a broader patriarchal context doesn’t go far enough. It can’t go far enough until the psychology of filicide is added to the discussion.

McPherson does gesture in this direction when she says:

The question we must ask is not what led this man to drive himself and his children into the water (although that may be a question for mental health exploration). The question we must ask is, whatever the reason prompting his behaviour, why was this the behaviour he engaged in.”

But her attempt to answer this neglects the complexity of the psychology and is inconsistent with some of what we know about such killings. She says:

This is not a new question. Dr Deborah Kirkwood, author of ‘Just Say Goodbye’ (2012), argues that male filicidal behaviours usually occur in the context of a family breakdown and are often preceded by a pattern of violence or control within the family.

Her research points to the highly gendered nature of those acts; male perpetrators of filicide in particular hold the view that hurting children is a mechanism for hurting the (ex) spouse. It is an act irrevocably tied to patriarchal perspectives on the ownership of ‘family’ and the use of violence as a method for enforcing that ownership.”

But this hypothesis cannot explain why female killers also act out of revenge, nor can it explain why spousal revenge is identified as the least common motivation by some way for both male and female killers. This is not to say that breaking patriarchal stereotypes can’t contribute to ending other forms of violence, or even some cases of filicide. The most commonly identified motivation for male perpetrators of filicide has the unfortunate name of ‘accidental filicide’. The name is unfortunate because it could be taken as downplaying the actions of the perpetrator. That is most assuredly not the intention Resnick who coined the term. What he was trying to communicate was that when the killer kills they are not intending to kill, rather they are intending to abuse their child. These kinds of cases are much, much more common than spousal revenge cases, or murder-suicides which have other motivations. McPherson’s analysis seems apt for many of these cases which we do have reason to think are motivated by the desire for power, anger and a propriety sense of ownership of the child. We must be careful, though, not to assume that this analysis generalises to murder-suicides or spousal-revenge killings, where the psychology seems to involve a variety of factors which are extremely difficult to understand such as ‘identity collapse’. To understand these crimes the feminism needs to inform and be informed by the psychology and the psychology needs to be taken as seriously as the feminism.

with love

DrNPC

Bourget, D., Grace, J., & Whitehurst, L. (2006). A review of maternal and paternal filicide. Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law Online, 35(1), 74–82.

Browne, K. D., & Lynch, M. A. (1995). The nature and extent of child homocide and fatal abuse. Child Abuse Review, 4, 309–316.

Farooque, R., & Ernst, F. A. (2003). Filicide: A review of eight years of clinical experience. Journal of the National Medical Association, 95(1), 90–94.

Leveillee, S., Marleau, J. D., & Dube, M. (2007). Filicide: A comparison by sex and presence or absence of self-destrutive behaviour. Journal of Family Violence, 22, 287–295.

Liem, M. (2010). Homicide–parasuicide: a qualitative comparison with homicide and parasuicide. The Journal of Forensic Psychiatry & Psychology, 21(2), 247–263.

Liem, M., & Koenraadt, F. (2008a). Familicide: a comparison with spousal and child homicide by mentally disordered perpetrators. Clinical Behaviour and Mental Health, 18, 306–318.

Liem, M., & Koenraadt, F. (2008b). Filicide: A comparative study of maternal versus paternal child homicide. Criminal Behaviour and Mental Health, 18, 166–176.

Somander, L. K., & Rammer, L. M. (1991). Intra- and extrafamilial child homicide in sweden 1971-1980. Child Abuse and Neglect, 15, 45–55.

West, S. G., Hatters Friedman, S., & Resnick, P. J. (2009). Fathers who kill their children: an analysis of the literature. Journal of Forensic Sciences, 54(2), 463–468.

Wilcyznski, A. (1997). Mad or bad? Child killers, gender and the courts. British Journal of Criminology, 37(5), 419–436.

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The out-group fallacy; or, bad reasoning in the real world part 13

The out-group fallacy, which we might also call the dehumanisation or “othering” fallacy, is the belief that a persons moral value changes depending on their relationship to you and people you perceive as being like you.

I’m not talking here about the fact that our relationships with people may change the responsibilities we have toward them; for example, that being in a caring relationship with someone increases the contribution you ought to make toward that persons welfare. Relationships like this, such as caring for a child or sick friend, are binding relationships which we all benefit from. It is not irrational for us to enter into relationships which create a special set of duties or responsibilities toward some individuals and not others (provided of course we support collective efforts to provide equivalent relationships for those who have lost those relationships, e.g. supporting collective efforts to find orphans adoptive parents).

What is irrational, however, is to believe that the lives, welfare or freedom of some people is intrinsically worth less than others because they do not bare specific relationships to you, or that they are not like you in the right sort of ways. When put like this I think it is plain that it is a simple mistake of reasoning to think, e.g. that the sudden death of a child in Kazakhstan is intrinsically not as bad as the sudden death of a child in Scotland (put yourself in their shoes, like your mother taught you). Depending on which nation/culture/people/family you identify most strongly with (put another way; what your in-group is) you will naturally feel some such deaths more keenly than others. But, but we ought not take the naturalness of this feeling as a guide to the intrinsic moral value of the now dead.

Like I said to do so is to commit a mistake in reasoning, but it is a deeply ingrained mistake. In working against this, we are not working against a mistake like applying the wrong rule to solving an equation, we are working against the biggest design flaw in human cognition. And it is an insidious design flaw. It is possible, for example, to make people like each other less simply by placing them in arbitrary groups like “team red” and “team blue”. When these groups are powerful social constructs, such as race, class or nationality this changes from being more inclined to not like someone to concert efforts to enslave, deprive or conquer. In other words, acting as though the lives, welfare and freedom of some is intrinsically worth less than others.

We are awash with examples like this, but I would like to focus on this recent opinion piece in the Sydney Morning Herald. In this piece Mayer-Cesinano attempts to justify peoples differential responses to the murders by Daesh in Paris and those in Beirut. This differential response, in terms of emotional response, social media sharing, out-rage from bigoted or isolationist groups and military actions undertaken by France and others could be seen as being based in the “some lives matter more” outcome of the out-group fallacy. Yet Mayer-Cesinano denies this, instead claiming that the differential response is simply a matter of how we naturally experience grief more strongly when the lives lost are close to us and that an attack by Daesh in Paris is more surprising than an attack by the same group in Beirut, simply because the land they control is closer to Beirut than Paris. Now there’s a good point in the vicinity of this later point, namely that someone living in London might rationally feel more personally threatened by an attack in Paris than one in Beirut, as it suggests an expansion of the areas which Daesh are trying to attack. But, it would have been helpful for Mayer-Cesinano to say that rather than just that the Paris attack defied expectations.

The bigger mistake Mayer-Cesinano makes is to ignore the intrinsically moral reactions to the attacks and how they differed. This is not simple a matter of differential grief, but rather a difference in the valuing of those who were killed. Specifically we have seen an increase in bombing and discussion of the possibility of sending ground troops to Syria in the wake of the Paris attack, but this reaction doesn’t occur, or doesn’t occur to the same extent when “non-western” people are killed. Keep in mind that this isn’t talked about in terms of a greater need for France to protect itself from murders in Paris than in Beirut, but specifically in terms of a greater need for retribution for the deaths in Paris. In other words, it matters more (morally) that people have died in Paris than in Beirut.

Now don’t get me wrong, I felt the Paris attacks more than those in Beirut, no doubt because of my relationships with Paris. I’ve been to Paris, but not Beirut, I have friends in Paris and not Beirut and the intellectual, moral and cultural achievements of France and its people are much more strongly part of my cultural narrative than those of Lebanon. Whilst all this makes my emotional reaction to those murders understandable, what it doesn’t do is justify a different moral valuing of the deaths, that would depend on the out-group fallacy and that is the mistake made by Mayer-Cesinano.

with love, DrNPC

Ad Hominem; Or, Bad Reasoning in the Real World Part 12

Sisters and Brothers,

Once again Australian politics has shown itself to be fertile ground for those of us who like to point bad reasoning when we see it (I’m shocked). For those who don’t know the climate change “debate” in Australia is essentially a running joke, with frankly bizarre conspiracy theories getting mainstream press, and many prominent politicians repeatedly claiming that either the climate isn’t changing, or that it is but Human activity has nothing to do with it. Or most amusingly that we shouldn’t have wind farms because they’re ugly (that is actually their best reason, not a shovel article).

Within this context Senator Larissa Waters yesterday asked whether the Prime Minister Tony Abbott had a response to the Pope’s recent comments on climate change. This was also an attempt, I suspect, for Waters and her party the Greens — who are traditionally much better at communicating with those who self-identify as atheist — to highlight common ground with the Catholic Church. None-the-less the question is relevant because the Prime Minister strongly self-identifies as Catholic and so the Pope’s position may well lead to the Prime Minister changing his mind on climate change.

Now the response to Waters in the Senate is what I’d like to focus on here. Aside from some expected name calling (“bloody bigot” “disgusting”), Senator Barry O’Sullivan interjected asking Waters if she was married. How this is supposed to function as an attack on her escapes me, but none-the-less that was clearly the intent. Apparently we should not listen to women who aren’t married (this is a long running strategy from the Prime Minister’s, in fact conservative, Liberal Party who questioned former Prime Minister Gillard’s capacity to love because she was unmarried and had no children).

This argument is a prime example of what we call an Ad Hominem Fallacy. This fallacy takes the form of highlighting some irrelevant feature of a person, in this case their marital status, an using that to attack their argument, or question, or conclusion. When laid out like this the argument is clear fallacious:

Question: will the Prime Minister be changing his position on climate change in light of the Pope’s teachings?

Response: we shouldn’t answer that because the asker is not married.

Not only fallacious of course, but catastrophically sexist (male senators never have their questions rejected on the grounds that they aren’t married).

It’s important to distinguish the Ad Hominem Fallacy from some other arguments we see in the public sphere which sometimes look superficially similar. It is not committing the Ad Hominem Fallacy to question someone’s trustworthiness when you have specific grounds for thinking they might be lying. This is most relevant in cases of testimony. For example, we don’t ask the goalkeeper if the ball crossed the goal line because of well known biases that come with perceiving sport when a member of a team. In this case we treat the goalkeeper’s testimony that the ball didn’t cross the line as untrustworthy because we have good reason to suppose that their perception is biased (even if we don’t think they’re lying about what they saw). Similarly, despite what Joe Hockey would have us believe it is not committing the Ad Hominem fallacy to question someone’s qualifications to perform a specific professional job when they show evidence that they are not qualified for the job in question. Neither of these cases are instances of the fallacy because they deploy specific evidence regarding a person’s capacity to make a particular judgement or to complete a specific task.

Instances of the fallacy, in contrast, highlight some irrelevant, but apparently undesirable, feature of person to attack a question, argument or conclusion when stands independently of the person asking, arguing or concluding. Anyone could have asked Water’s question and it would have been relevant regardless of whether or not they where married.

with love, DrNPC

Once last note: to my mind the Ad Hominem Fallacy is the most basic mistake one can make in argument. It’s essentially responding to everything by saying “so’s your face”. If we are in an instance when Senator’s, who are presumably well educated, still think that this is an appropriate way to conduct themselves when discussing important issues like climate change, faith and leadership in the Catholic Church one really has to wonder if our education system is achieving the goals we, as a society, want it to. Perhaps it is time to properly fund education, end the absurd private/public division and the end the over the top political interference in the content of course we’ve seen this century.

Abbott’s shrinking circle

Human Beings of Australia our Prime Minister has reached a new level of detachment from the people he is supposed to govern. We have all been crying out for some actual leadership, some vision from a Prime Minister who wants to improve our home and perhaps even (though this is controversial) the rest of the world as well. Obviously this has been too much to ask from this Prime Minister. But, if we are not to have any sort of actual leadership, the very least we can expect is that the Prime Minister grant his people some basic human regard.

It is one thing for him to dehumanise and attack vulnerable “foreigners”. After all they have committed the egregious crime of running for their lives. Well, really they’re just not us, they are out-group, other and so less worthy of protection. At any rate that’s a difficult aspect of human psychology to overcome, the feeling we have that “others” are less than “us”. It is another thing entirely for the Prime Minister to dehumanise his own people.

Yet this is exactly what he has done in declaring that employers should be able to try before they buy. Despite what it sounds like he was not referring to a new model of espresso machine, nor even a new printer. Instead he was referring to you. The people of Australia. The key word there is people. Our Prime Minister discussed other human beings, people he is supposed to be governing, as though they were property. But, Human Beings of Australia, you are not property, mere things, you are people and you deserve to be treated as such.

What we see is Abbott attempting to shrink the circle around himself, to reduce the number of people worthy of his protection and governance. Business owners are fine, but workers, not so much… and certainly not the long term unemployed. They are not enough like him to worthy of governance.

The language Abbott used here is not a slip of the tongue, or a bad joke, or even misuse of an idiom. If it were maybe we could all just laugh it off. Rather, it is a deliberate attempt to make the long term unemployed sound less like people and more like property. How do we know this? Because of the goals Abbott was trying to achieve, namely free labour. He was suggesting that employers get a month of free labour from an employee. It is, of course, obviously wrong to not pay someone for working. As expensive as they are to buy, it is perfectly acceptable to not pay your espresso machine or printer.

Dehumanisation has licensed the most exploitative practices imaginable, all the way up to full blown slavery; the literal ownership of people. These are no “mere words” that we ought not get worked up about. These comments are the latest salvo in the class war perpetuated by Abbott and the neo-aristocracy in an attempt to create a new class of surfs, of people, like you, but so disadvantaged as to have no choice but to work for two dollars a day. We see this not only in the rhetoric of neo-aristocrats like Abbott and Rinehart, but in their actions as well. From assaults on a minimum wage, to a royal commission into the organisations of people who disagree with him, to bypassing the competitive grants process in order to reward political allies with university research centres, the actions of the Prime Minister speak loud and clear: Only some people in Abbott’s Australia matter.

It cannot be economic theory that leads to our Prime Minister acting this way, for reducing the amount of money available to workers to spend reduces the amount of money moving through the economy. Vacuumming cash out of our economy to sit in the bank accounts and investment portfolios of a few people just means everyone else makes less. Which means they spend less. And the system we have chosen, for better or worse, depends on as many people as possible continuing to spend.

Instead our Prime Minister’s behaviour is part of a broader pattern of dividing Australia on the grounds of race (the attacks on refugees and closure of aboriginal communities), religion (only Christian chaplains in schools) and class. This is a pattern that has never worked. Dividing France into three estates lead to revolution and the rise of one of the most deplorable dictators the world has ever known. Taxing citizens whilst at the same time denying them representation in government lead to the American Revolution. Only violence has ever come from dividing a people into those who count and those who don’t in the government’s eyes.

But, the last thing we need is revolution and more violence. Instead we need leaders who understand that we are all in this together. Who understand that every person counts, regardless of how much they are “like them” or whether or not they’d like to get together to skol a beer. And who understand that a unified nation is a prosperous, happy and productive nation. This can never be achieved so long as we degrade each other and act as though our only value is to make someone else money.

Abbott is the Prime Minister of Australia. With that comes the opportunity to unite the people of Australia. He is our Prime Minister after all and the very least we can ask is that he is Prime Minister for all of us. We wait in hope, Human Beings of Australia.

With love

DrNPC

& Dr Elizabeth Schier

Do we elicit a sense of agency by inferring that our intentions cause actions?

It’s doubtful, is the short answer, but the long answer is more interesting. What I’m asking about today is the account of the sense of agency put forward by Daniel Wegner and various collaborators since the late ‘90’s (Aarts, Custers, & Wegner, 2005; Wegner, 2002; Wegner, Sparrow, & Winerman, 2004; Wegner & Wheatley, 1999). Their account can be read as either an alternative to or an addition to the comparator model account of the sense of agency which we have met in previous posts. Unlike the comparator model which hypothesises that the sense of agency is elicited by the same mechanisms that are responsible for action control, Wegner and colleagues’ account suggests that the sense of agency is elicited by an inference as to the internal causes of action. In its most basic form if I infer that one or other of mental states, usually on of my intentions, causes me to act in a certain way, then I experience a sense of agency for that action. But, that’s getting ahead of ourselves for the moment, so let’s remind ourselves what the sense of agency is.

“Imagine that you are moving swiftly down a flight of stairs. At the appropriate floor, you slow and reach for the door handle that will allow you egress from the stairwell. As you open the door, you find it moves far more rapidly than you had intended. Someone else is opening the door from the other side! Call this the simultaneous door-opening effect. This effect involves the feeling that one is the agent behind an action being suddenly replaced by the feeling that one is not the agent due to the interference of another.” (Carruthers, 2010, p. 345)

In this example, which is supposed to be fairly ordinary and mundane the sense of agency is just the feeling of being the agent who is performing/controlling/initiating (different authors prefer different descriptors here) action. That is the feeling which Wegner and colleagues’ are seeking to explain. So what, on their account, might be happening in the simultaneous door opening case? It seems that the agent of this action will, for a while, infer that their mental states, their intention to open the door say, is causing their action, and so they experience a sense of agency. But, after experiencing the effects of another on the door this inference is no longer plausible and so their sense of agency is lost or reduced.

In order to complete the model Wegner and colleagues owe us an account of how such inferences are made. Well that’s probably asking a bit much, but we would like an account that tells us something about what information the inference is based on and that makes predictions about when it is made. This is just what we get in the articles cited above. To be able to infer that one or other of one’s mental states are the cause of an action one needs to represent the action and a mental state that is a potential cause. Say opening a door and one’s intention to open the door. When do we infer that one’s intention caused the door to open? According to Wegner and colleagues we do so automatically when 3 further conditions are met. First, the intention must appear an appropriate time prior to the action, e.g. a memory of previously opening a door won’t be inferred as the cause of one currently opening the door. Call this the principle of priority. Second, the intention must be consistent with the action, i.e. it should specify that action, e.g. my desire to get a coke represents a different action than my intention to open the door so won’t be inferred as a cause of that action. Call this the principle of consistency. Third, the intention must be represented as the exclusive cause of the action. Call this the principle of exclusivity. This is what is violated in the door opening scenario, in that case the subject perceives that another agent is also opening the door and so their intention to open the door isn’t an exclusive cause of it opening. As such their sense of agency is reduced.

Wegner and colleagues’ studies looked to confirm this model by attempting to elicit a sense of agency for actions not controlled by the subject. They do so by creating circumstances where to the subject it appears that the principles of priority and consistency are met. Typically it is clear to the subject that the principle of exclusivity is not met. However, as each of the three principles are considered to contribute to the sense of agency, and the sense itself is conceived of as being formed by continuum, it is hypothesised that subjects in these studies should report a weak sense of agency rather than a full or absent sense.

If we allow the assumption that the inference that one’s intention is the cause of an action is mandatory, i.e. that the subject must make it when the principles are met, then combined with the above assumption about a continuum of senses of agency, some studies do support Wegner and colleagues’ model. For example, in the helping hands study (Wegner et al., 2004), subjects reported a weak sense of agency for other people’s actions:

“In this study, one subject (the participant) stood with their back against the second subject (the helper). The participant stood with their arms by their side, whilst the helper reached their arms forward underneath the participant’s arms. A screen obscured the helper in such a way that their arms appeared (from the front) to be those of the participant. Both subjects were given head phones. The helpers heard a series of instructions to perform a set of hand movements (e.g. make the ok sign with both hands). The participants were divided into three groups depending on what they heard. One group (the preview group) heard the instructions to the helper whilst the other groups (the control groups) heard either nothing or an instruction to perform a movement other than what the helper heard. Those in the preview group reported a greater sense of agency over the movements of the helper than either of the control groups (Wegner et al. 2004, pp. 841 & 842).” (Carruthers, 2010, p. 346).

A variety of studies, mostly coming from Wegner and his collaborators, seem to confirm that subject’s experiences of their own agency can be altered by playing with the principles of priority, consistency and exclusivity. As such we have good reason to consider this model a viable explanation of the sense of agency.

As I said above, though, I think it is doubtful that it is making such an inference that causes subjects to experience a sense of agency. The reason for this, is that such an account ties the sense of agency to the subject’s knowledge of their mental states, in particular their intentions. This, it seems, we have good reason to question as some subjects seem to experience a sense of agency even when they don’t know what their intentions are.

A study by Montgomery and Lightner (2004) provides an illustrative example. They began by showing young children (3-4 years old) a picture of a ball. They then copied the picture by holding their child’s drawing hand (with the child’s eyes closed) and moving the hand in a circle. The child then watched the experimenter alter the picture to be a picture of a clock. In comparison conditions the child either produced a copy of the picture of a ball themselves or produced the copy themselves and then watched as the experimenter changed it to a picture of a clock. After the picture of a clock or ball was produced in this way the child was asked who had produced the (final) picture. This was relatively easy for 3-4 year olds, most of whom were able to accurately state who drew the final picture. That is they were able to identify the agent of the action, suggesting they experienced a sense of agency. Despite this, in the conditions where the experimenter changed the picture of a ball to a picture of the clock, the children tended to claim that they had tried (i.e. intended) to produce a picture of a clock. In other words, although the children where good at keeping track of who the agent of the action was, they were poor at knowing their own intentions. Even though they knew it was the experimenter and not themselves who had drawn the clock, they nevertheless claimed that they had tried to produce the picture of a clock.

Lost? Fair enough. The point is in this study children knew who had done what (so they had a sense of agency) but they did not know what their intentions where. So it seems that a sense of agency is not dependent on knowing what one’s intentions are, as predicted by Wegner and colleagues’ model. So it is, as I say, doubtful that we elicit a sense of agency by inferring that our intentions cause our actions.

with love

DrNPC

A more complete version of this argument is published in: Carruthers, G. (2010). A problem for Wegner and colleagues’ model of the sense of agency. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 9, 341–357.

References

Aarts, H., Custers, R., & Wegner, D. M. (2005). On the inference of personal authorship: enhancing experienced agency by priming effect information. Consciousness and Cognition, 14, 439–458.

Carruthers, G. (2010). A problem for Wegner and colleagues’ model of the sense of agency. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 9, 341–357.

Montgomery, D. E., & Lightner, M. (2004). Children’s developing understanding of differences between their own intentional action and passive movement. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 22, 417–438.

Wegner, D. M. (2002). The Illusion of Conscious Will. MIT Press.

Wegner, D. M., Sparrow, B., & Winerman, L. (2004). Vicarious Agency: Experiencing control over the movements of others. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 86(6), 838–848.

Wegner, D. M., & Wheatley, T. (1999). Apparent mental causation: sources of the experience of will. American Psychologist, 54(7), 480–492.

Meditations on Moral Failure and Growth

A meditation is a funny thing to write. Not least because it is fundamentally unscholarly. That always bugged me reading Descartes, no sourcing of ideas, only the vaguest sense of who he’s responding to – without a historian to hand anyway. I don’t like that; being unscholarly. A bit of harder work, well a few months, and I could contribute something significant to the genuinely philosophical attempts to understand ourselves. I have no reason not to do that, except I sleep a lot.

Moral Failure”. That sounds funny too. It reminds me of the signs up in Sydney’s Hyde Park telling us to stay away during storms, in case of “Tree Failure”. What they mean, of course, is falling branches. I don’t know why they don’t just say that. What I mean is the failure of good people, and people who are trying to be good, to act morally.

The essence of moral failure is a lack of regard for the welfare, needs, desires, wishes, freedom and interests of other persons. At least that’s the kind I’m meditating on. I’m interested in this as a matter of personal growth. When I have failed to act morally – and it is at this point that my meditation runs the risk of becoming a suicide note – it has been a lack of regard for other persons which has made my actions wrong.

That’s not why I acted immorally of course. I acted immorally out of misdirected anger and feelings of powerlessness. It feels as if everything that is easy for other people is hard for me and so I lash out. But it is not merely being motivated by anger that makes it wrong; even if that is a sign I should have been able to pick up on that I was at risk of doing something wrong. What makes it wrong is a failure to respect other persons as persons. If I where in a scholarly mood I’d call them “moral subjects”. Beings worthy of the full range of moral protections.

So I’m worried about the failure of people who are trying to be good – perhaps rather arrogantly I’ll include myself in that group – to act with regard for others. But why ‘good people’ and ‘people trying to be good’? Well, because that’s all of us. Contrary Catholic Doctrine and the evidence of the 20th century, humans aren’t born evil. Perhaps, even, as Yeshua tells Pilate in The Master and Margarita ‘There are no evil people in the world.’ It is our very essence to be social, if we were born with a lack of regard for other persons – at least those in our immediate groups – we surely wouldn’t have survived long enough for any of us to meditate on anything. Let alone morality.

Although we are born good, that goodness doesn’t easily extend to regard for all persons. The circle of people who’s interests we will naturally respect is really very small, for some of us as small as one, but most will include their family or football team. To extend the in group takes more than a little effort. It seems to me at least that the tendency to divide the world of persons into an in group who’s interests we respect and an out group who’s interests we don’t is the biggest flaw in humanity. Metaphorically it’s God’s biggest mistake and it’s a mistake because it makes acting morally effortful and invites moral failures.

Just as the history of the moral failure of myself and of good people is a history of failing to have regard for persons; the history of moral growth, of going from doing something obviously wrong to doing something obviously right strikes me as the history of expanding the set of people to whom we have regard. Persons are excluded from the group of people we protect at our convenience, because we can use them for something, and more often then not we know it’s wrong. We can tell that we know it’s wrong because these exclusions are accompanied by the most bizarre post hoc justifications. It was ok to enslave Africans because they supposedly lacked a soul, women could be excluded from science because they supposedly lacked intellectual capacity and refugees can be excluded from society because they are dangerous criminals and probably terrorists. Certainly they are not “us” enough.

We grow morally when we expand the group of those who we have regard for. We drop the absurd excuses for excluding them from the group of “us”, real people, who are worth protecting and we welcome them with open arms. This is what I need to do to stop treating people disrespectfully when I am angry at them or someone like them, and it’s what we need to do as a society, as a people, to grow beyond our moral failures. Big things give me hope that we can do this, we no longer endorse slavery (even if we make use of it in ignorance) and we have women scientists (even if they do face systemic disadvantages). Little things give me hope that we can do this too, #Teamhumanity is much more inclusive than Abbott’s team Australia.

But big things also punch back against hope. As I write this Scott Morrison has been promoted from the Minister for Torturing Refugees to the Minister for Disadvantaging Poor People. I’m desperately hoping that in a few months time I’ll look like a divisive partisan knob for the second title. But, I’m not optimistic. Morrison’s work on Asylum Seekers has been to make us see people running for their lives as a dangerous out-group, and thus not worthy of moral protections. His first act in social services was to set up poor people, presumably the dole bludgers the Telegraph et al wish us to exclude from the group of people who’s needs count for something, against people living with disabilities.

When people like Morrison are repeatedly elected to positions of power it makes the entire endeavor of avoiding moral failures seem worthless. Why should I, even in my limited personal sphere, bother trying to avoid moral failures when failing to act morally is encouraged and rewarded in our leaders? Because, trying is the right thing to do. There is no better reason to do something than that.