Lizard Brain is a shared blog about Science Fiction and Fantasy from Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck.

Concerning the Charitable Assumption of Madness

12.11.11
by Daniel Abraham

I choose not to believe in free will as a courtesy to my friends — Walter Jon Williams

I’ve had a few conversations in the past few days about men behaving badly.  One was a conversation about Frank Miller’s opinion of the Occupy movement.  Another was a private post about sexual harassment at conventions.  Another was an exhumation of an infamous incident involving a famous science fiction author and editor that no one would benefit by being too specific about.  Suffice it to say he was an ass in public and everybody knew it.

What they all had in common was the assertion that someone — Frank Miller, the author and editor, a population of sexually inappropriate fans — were mentally ill.  This wasn’t done by a mental health professional, or even by folks who had experience with mental illness in their own lives.  It was done as an act of charity.  Given the behavior of the person in question, the kindest thing we having the conversation could come up with was that he was not merely mentally ill, but in fact so mentally compromised that he was no longer responsible for his actions.  That he was, functionally, no longer human.

The alternative was that, with a sane mind and will intact, he’d chosen to behave that way.  And agreeing to pretend he was utterly broken seemed kinder than saying was morally responsible for despicable acts.

Medicalizing behavior — talking about brain function and dysfunction — takes it out of a social realm and put it into the domain of science.  And I *love* science.  It think it’s the most powerful, interesting, beautiful invention humanity has ever created.  It’s a system of thought that has more wonders than the best imagination.  But as it stands right now, there’s no room in the Western reductionist model for will or choice.

That’s all right.  We’ve had all kinds of experience in science where there were experiences and data that didn’t fit the model.  We’re used to working with best-fit models that we all know aren’t quite right, but we don’t have anything better yet.

So, for some of us (myself included), when we see someone doing something inexcusable and we still want to like them, it’s tempting to fall into that model and say that there are a lot of guys with Asperger’s Syndrome in fandom.  Or that the anoxic brain injuries that often come with heart surgery can lead to impaired judgement and poor impulse control.  Or that anyone who’d say crap like that is clearly having some kind of Charlie Sheen-esque manic episode.  I know I’m tempted.  And the more I think about it, the less comfortable I am with it.

The problem is that I have two ways of evaluating behavior:  one that includes will and agency, and one that doesn’t. There are certainly instances when brains do malfunction so spectacularly that holding people to the usual standard is unrealistic.  I have no trouble at all crediting people’s good acts to them, but when someone’s behaving badly, I want to shift to the other model to let them off the hook.  I don’t consider what I’m saying about all the people diagnosed with Aspergers who aren’t sexually predatory, all the functioning schizophrenics who aren’t shooting congresswomen, all the people with brain injuries who put tremendous time, energy, and attention into respecting social boundaries.  And so I think my charitable impulses lead me to a deeper kind of injustice.

15 Responses »

  1. This… is a very thought-provoking blog post.

    I mean, I get what you’re saying here… but sometimes people’s brains genuinely work in rare and unconventional ways that make them do all sorts of crazy and socially unacceptable things. And it really is a matter of brain-chemicks, mostly. What you are basically saying is that people should take responsibility for their bad actions as well as their good ones… and that’s fine. I agree with you on that 100%. But something about the way you phrased it made me think of a situation where a (relatively) jolly person says to a depressed friend: “Stop being unhappy. Cheer up instead!” As if it were a simple choice or an action. I mean… aside from a few fashionable pity-trip, most people, if given a choice, would lean towards happyness instead of misery, I hope. But it is not always a question of what one just chooses to “do”. I’m not saying that we are all powerless, but I think, sometimes the structure can indeed dictate the function.

    This of course is all a part of a much bigger question to which you already alluded with your choice of epigraph: namely, how much of our acts are voluntary at all? And how much of it is the result(s) of various biological determinisms of some sort. (Some buddhists claim that this very distinction is illusory in the first place.) How much of our deeds is action and how much of it is (actually) reaction? With people usually not even knowing what exactly are they reacting to. Moreover, what constitutes as a “deed” anyway? For example, is thinking more an action or a reaction? Are thoughts deeds? How much can you choose what you think about something?

    Cheers from Tallinn
    -Juhan

    • Juhan,

      My personal belief is that all things are technically deterministic but that the complexity of the universe is such that it is rational to behave as if they are not and there is no contradiction in holding people responsible for their actions.

      Basically, I don’t believe in anything supernatural and I do believe in the physical reality of the universe. It started somewhere with certain conditions which necessarily lead to consequences of those conditions and therefore everything follows as it must based on physics, etc. But, the number of variables going into determining how I will react to feeling slighted by someone attacking me is so astronomically high, that even though it is deterministic it is not predictable. And, therefore, I am effectively a free agent with free will and responsible for my actions.

      • I’m a material monist myself (and thanks to Ty for the label), but my sense is that we don’t have the right model down yet for how brains work. And especially how they generate qualia. Specifically, I’ve been forced to the conclusion that consciousness is an property of matter (and energy). Not a universal one — I’m pretty sure my table isn’t conscious in any meaningful sense. But I am, and I’m made of matter and energy. And I’m capable of consciously directing my attention to things and making long-term, abstract plans that I follow through on. That stuff isn’t explicable yet, which is fine by me because science isn’t *done* yet. 🙂

        I love reductionism because it’s so amazingly powerful, and because anything that tries to build up without grokking the pieces is doomed to fail.

        The problem I have is that there’s no place in medical, westernized, scientific models of brain function (which are my models) that account for my experience of choosing things. Or of anyone else’s. And yet that is my experience.

        I do have some experience with brain dysfunction and I’ve read enough of the science to have that weird fluttery “oh shit, I’m a zombie” feeling sometimes, but I what I’m working through right now is the impulse to ascribe mental illness to someone so that I can avoid passing judgment on them for having chosen to act as they did.

        If I can say “Well, he did that because he’s got poor impulse control. Probably played football in high school. You know how it is with brain injuries…” it gives me a way to avoid saying “That man is acting like an asshole, and what he just did is unacceptable.”

        This actually just came up in a conversation about HP Lovecraft. Yes, he was almost certainly mentally ill. He was also a virulent racist. I don’t have a way for one of those to speak gracefully to the other.

  2. So…

    Doesn’t anyone else have a take on this subject? I was kind of hoping we would get into a discussion here. Hopefully an interesting one.

    (Oh, and in the previous post where it just says “pity-trip” I meant to write “pity-trippers” as in a freshly made up term for people who “trip” on pity, as opposed to drugs or something else. You definitely know the type. Oh well. I probably should have gone for an easier term. Or even better, for a real one. But I felt I had to reply urgently, because this topic is kind-of-very-interesting to me. And I thought I was on a roll. Anyway, a careless typing mistake, that. And I’m not talking about the whole reply here. Or maybe I am, who knows? Depends on what will follow.)

  3. Thank you, Daniel. And I totally get you. It’s been something I’ve put a lot of thought into for a long time.

    I think you’re touching on it, but I’ll say it out loud: I think the issues of will/agency and the disservice it does to all the people who are actually mentally ill who succeed at not being jerks, lead to victim culture.

    “Medicalizing behavior — talking about brain function and dysfunction — takes it out of a social realm and put[s] it into the domain of …” victim culture. Not only do we excuse their behavior because it’s ‘not their fault’, but also we feel sorry for them and we elevate them to some kind of Special Snowflake. A thing they often believe themselves and then use, themselves, to not bother to learn how to behave as a human being. And, just as you point out with the ‘disservice’ issue, there is the converse problem that a lot of people who are being classified as victims and special really, really don’t want to be. They are strong and capable and not a helpless victim of their circumstance but a self-aware agent influencing their future.

    • And yet, I’ve met people who were so mentally ill they were utterly incapable of even being aware of their actions and the consequences thereof. How can such a person ‘decide’ to be nice or an asshole? And if such people exist, and they do, where do we draw the culpability line?

      • Oh, yes, definitely. There are people mentally deranged enough (in a variety of possible ways) that they cannot not behave in ways the rest of the culture in which they are operating agrees is transgressive. I am not denying that.

        And the line of when a person’s brain is arranged to prevent them from being able to avoid transgression is very very very fuzzy right at the line, but gets more and more clear the further away you move from it on either side. The question of how to draw the line is a very interesting one and well worth spending a lot of time hashing out.

        But in the case where you recognize that what you are doing is assuming mental illness to avoid naming bad behavior, you are saying that you don’t have a good reason to assume mental illness. And so the issue is cultural. Query: Why am I so unwilling to just say that person is mean? I am positing the answer: It is confrontational to call someone mean and nice to assume they’re a victim of circumstance.

        I abhor this answer. It lets mean people off the hook and lumps victims of circumstance with the mean people.

        Something a lot of parenting books recommend is speaking to the action and not the person. I don’t have to call someone names to call attention to their transgressive behavior and state my concerns about it. So, I am wondering if I make that a habit such that it becomes my actual thought process, would it then feel less confrontational and so would I then stop the somewhat ingenuous habit of assuming mental illness.

        Of course, having written that, I am wondering if it is at odds or complementary with a related exercise I am actively practicing recently to try and think of understandable reasons why people might behaving in upsetting to me ways. “Maybe he had to many concussions playing sports” sounds like something I might come up as part of that exercise. Maybe it shouldn’t be.

        • I think it’s a charitable way to dismiss transgressive behavior when the person in question isn’t important enough to you to spend your emotional capital on. If some guy I don’t know cuts me off and flips me the bird, I might just dismiss it with, “what an idiot.” If my wife flips me off, I’m going to try and get to the bottom of what caused that, no matter how uncomfortable it is.

        • But the scientific and medical account of a functioning brain and a deranged one are equally empty of will and choice. It’s just not the model you want to use for that question.

          Not yet, anyway.

      • Not using reductionism, as much as I love it. The line of culpability can’t be discovered because it (apparently) doesn’t exist. It has to be created.

        • Every line is created. They don’t exist before we make them up, but we make them up because society can’t function without them. We know we don’t want 11 year olds hammered on whisky, so we pull the number 21 out of our asses. We don’t want people to get away with murder by claiming their actions are deterministic, so we create the concept of free will. But some people are so clearly broken that we can’t possibly attach that label to them, so we give them the brain malfunction pass. It’s all arbitrary, it’s all made up, but without it society ends.

          My friend David calls it ‘virtual free will’. The idea being that there probably isn’t anything like actual free will, but it’s all so complicated and unpredictable that we can pretend there is and it seems to work ok.

          Freewill is like dragons in World of Warcraft. We’re all paying our 9.95 a month to be playing, and it sure looks and sounds like a dragon. Might as well go along with it and act like there’s a dragon.

          • I’d argue, that the line between pathological and healthy liver function is amenable to discovery in a way that brain function isn’t.

            But regardless, we basically agree.

          • Well, we’re getting better at it. They’ve gotten pretty good at finding schizophrenia or a tumor on a brain scan. But outside of a few things like that, you’re right.

  4. Violence that does occur in relation to mental disorder (against the mentally ill or by the mentally ill) typically occurs in the context of complex social interactions, often in a family setting rather than between strangers.

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