Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Optimism is a Brain Defect

At our retributivism conference on Friday, Luis Chiesa pressed the provocative point that we ought to take seriously the possibility of causal determinism and incompatibilism in punishment theory.  Taking such views seriously would mean toying with the possibility that there is no free will and therefore no culpability for wrongful acts -- indeed no 'wrongfulness' at all.  Luis's argument seems to depend on a prediction about the moral attractiveness of our punishment practices if we accept these possibilities.  Agreeing with these possibilities might threaten the whole enterprise of retributivist punishment, along with much else.

I appreciated Luis's learned presentation, though I don't agree with him about these matters.  On the other hand, here, finally, is a deterministic finding that I can get behind (h/t Tom Smith).


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relatedly, perhaps, it's long been known that there's a strong connection between giving an accurate representation of one's skills, abilities, standing, and the like and being depressed. I think the direction of causation isn't clear- for many people, having an accurate conception of their skills and social standing is probably depressing, for example, but it also seems that being depressed might just make people not have the overly-positive self-image that many, perhaps most, people have.

As for Luis's paper, I think it's a very hard subject to get one's mind around. Of course, there's a long tradition, popular w/ some here, I suspect, that holds that wrongfulness and moral accountability doesn't depend on being able to do otherwise than one did. I don't find that an attractive or plausible view at all, but it has a long pedigree, of course.

Posted by: Matt | Nov 6, 2011 1:51:35 PM

See Cordelia Fine's book A Mind of Its Own: How Your Brain Distorts and Deceives. Here is the Scientific American review as it appears on Amazon.com:

Many psychological studies show that on average, each of us believes we are above average compared with others—more ethical and capable, better drivers, better judges of character, and more attractive. Our weaknesses are, of course, irrelevant. Such self distortion protects our egos from harm, even when nothing could be further from the truth. Our brains are the trusted advisers we should never trust. This "distorting prism" of selfknowledge is what Cordelia Fine, a psychologist at the Australian National University, calls our "vain brain." Fine documents the lengths to which a human brain will go to bias perceptions in the perceiver’s favor. When explaining to ourselves and others why something has gone well or badly, we attribute success to our own qualities, while shedding responsibility for failure. Our brains bias memory and reason, selectively editing truth to inflictless pain on our fragile selves. They also shield the ego from truth with "retroactive pessimism," insisting the odds were stacked inevitably toward doom. Alternatively, the brain of "selfhandicappers" concocts nonthreatening excuses for failure. Furthermore, our brains warp perceptions to match emotions. In the extreme, patients with Cotard delusion actually believe they are dead. So "pigheaded" is the brain about protecting its perspective that it defends cherished positions regardless of data. The "secretive" brain unconsciously directs our lives via silent neural equipment that creates the illusion of willfulness. "Never forget," Fine says, "that your unconscious is smarter than you, faster than you, and more powerful than you. It may even control you. You will never know all of its secrets." So what to do? Begin with self-awareness, Fine says, then manage the distortions as best one can. We owe it to ourselves "to lessen the harmful effects of the brain’s various shams," she adds, while admitting that applying this lesson to others is easier than to oneself. Ironically, one category of persons shows that it is possible to view life through a clearer lens. "Their self-perceptions are more balanced, they assign responsibility for success and failure more even-handedly, and their predictions for the future are more realistic. These people are living testimony to the dangers of self-knowledge," Fine asserts. "They are the clinically depressed." Case in point.

I would say optimism, in evolutionary terms, is adaptive. Perhaps overoptimism is a "brain defect," but it seems to me a lot of the brain functions that distort perceptions are adaptive.

Posted by: David Nickol | Nov 6, 2011 7:39:57 PM