On Agency and Accountability

Is it morally permissible for a 14-year-old to be enlisted in the military under any circumstance? The impulse this question elicits is one of disgust, founded on a historically and geographically local set of assumptions about moral agency and its relationship to age. The “true” existence of agency itself is contestable if taken to mean the free exercise of an internal will. In light of a determinist view of causality, it may be merely a legal heuristic – a means by which to differentiate the degrees of illusory freedom to action in developed and developing brains. The human brain does not mature until the mid-late 20s, and one can safely assume that no one is up for all their freedoms to be forfeited until age 25, since no such standard exists. With that off the table as a viable standard, we are left with varying degrees of randomness, stupidity, and (often hollow) virtue-signalling.

It goes without saying that reason postcedes rather than precedes morals – humans have moral emotions, which they justify through consequentialist reasoning only if such an expectation is placed upon them. Hence, discourse of the kind that follows here is rare.

One may ask, “What is true of a 14-year-old which, if true of an 18-year-old, would render the 18-year-old unfit for military service?” Intelligence is an untenable response, because intelligence does not scale linearly with age, and there are (and have been) plenty of legally adult military personnel with IQs in the 80s. The problem would be resolvable, perhaps, if age were a quantifiable trait, as intelligence is, as opposed to a numerical series of demographic cohorts, each with large individual variation in mental profiles. The reason it is illegal for anyone with an IQ below 83 to be inducted into the US military is not even “moral,” by the way. It is that such people are useless to the military. The moral argument, if any, is retroactive. No one seems to care how hard it is for them, really. Perhaps the “child” is a sacred demographic category, one which, under current conditions, must be extolled as a nexus of antediluvian bliss and innocence. By contrast, even acknowledging the unintelligent as a group with distinct needs is to be treated with indifference at best, or more often, suspicion.

It is legal in the UK to join the armed forces at age 16. Few who object to this seem interested in learning how many of these 16-year-olds regret the decision in hindsight, which would seem a good test of how “impulsively” the choice is made. It is well known that the military offers a kind of “escape hatch” of civic duty for teenagers with little hope of succeeding elsewhere, and many of them surely wanted to join from younger ages. The military, then, removes them from the morass of indecision and wastefulness that they would otherwise carry with them. “Impulsivity” is hard to measure. Maybe it can be defined in qualitative terms: a tendency to make decisions with low future-orientation. But if 14-year-olds are blighted by that, many more adults are, especially among the stupid.

Note, concomitantly, that the moral importance of emotions such as “regret” is not uniform. I argue that there are cases in which it can safely be called delusional or self-inflicted, as all emotions can be. In some cases, it simply does not feel significant enough to onlookers for it to be considered morally salient, such as the regrets of child actors about their profession as they become adults – something that few care to acknowledge.

Even the knee-jerk harm-reduction case against the military in the context of this argument has complications, because in most years, military deaths are low – probably lower than construction work or industrial fishing. Yet, no one cares for the lowly construction worker despite the fact that he has a 50% chance of having an IQ south of 92, and a, relatively speaking, alarming risk of fatality in any given year, not just those in which there is an ongoing war. Sudden, high-density death is more morally weighty to the average person than slow, diffuse, “accidental” death.

The hard determinism of brain-states, combined with knowledge of those states’ evolution through age, may have relevance to legal degrees of agentic “freedom.” If one compares the brain at different stages of development, the complexity and variety of its interactions with the world (“decisions”) at one stage may differ from those at another on aggregate, although exactly how morally salient the difference is will vary from individual case to case and may sometimes be doomed to subjective judgement call.

The flip side of agency (or freedom) is accountability, a concept which was once as ubiquitous as that of “freedom” today. The extent of brutal judicial punishment in premodern England was remarked upon by contemporaneous authors and looks absurd in retrospect. I suspect a large part of it was an environment of resource scarcity and technological deprivation: and the social tinderbox that these facts gave rise to – lawmakers may have felt that they could not but disincentivise, in the clearest way possible, antisocial behaviour, because whatever antisocials destroyed could not be rebuilt as quickly as today. They took no chances on recidivism. Another example would be the harsh punishments for sex crimes, in a world swimming with sexually transmitted pathogens but no effective medicine. This thesis could be empirically examined: are harsh punishments more common in deprived regions? Is clemency more common among the privileged classes? Etc. It also seems to dovetail with the assertion that our modern obsession with rights and freedoms is due to technologically generated luxury, without which the social order prioritises duties.

Old criminal justice may have been disproportionate and cruel. Nonetheless, if ever it were possible to quantify how well behaviour X at {age} predicts outcome Y at a later date, why deny agency, or accountability, in cases where it is indeed predictive? God knows who is qualified to make such calculations; probably no human, since humans are all preoccupied with sending virtue signals of endless freedom and protection. But, in principle, it ought not to be difficult to tell whether a child who murders is likely to do so again in adulthood, just as it is possible to make an algorithm that predicts recidivism within adulthood. In which case, why not hang the little shit? (Comedic exaggeration, of course. I do not endorse the death penalty.) After all, many traits are stable throughout the lifespan. What is now called psychopathy is usually one of them. I have no “solution” to dealing with age-dependent social norms, nor much hope of a “science” of agency and accountability ever coming to pass. Age and agency is nevertheless a conundrum of interest to thinking people.

It is doubly unlikely that such a science will emerge as social norms from high-status societies, such as the West, spread across the planet memetically. Eventually it will get to the point where people cannot distinguish the signal from reality, and we shall all pretend that the move in this direction was “scientific,” and “progressive,” as with child labour laws. A less pernicious example of exactly this is the recent trend of Arabs turning away from religion. By far the biggest predictive factor in (ir)religiosity at the national level is IQ, and this change is not due to the Arabs’ having gained IQ points, so they are probably just copying what they see as their social betters, in the West.

The arbitrariness of it all came to mind again when I saw someone on Twitter being called a “true sociopath” and “enabler of child-rape” because he was apparently endorsing changing the age of sexual consent to 15. The same was debated in Britain recently. Since the legal age is 16 here, presumably Britons are enablers of child-rape as far as the average American is concerned. It never occurs to them: maybe the concept of the post-pubescent “child” is highly socially fungible, and no one can even really agree on what it is, let alone what its rights or liabilities should be.

Such faux pas are ever-present, though, because extraordinarily few people have a picture of reality in their heads that integrates anything beyond the whimsy of the here and now. Many people struggle to wrap their heads around how different public opinion was on their political hobby-horse as recently as 20 years ago, never mind any further back.

And that’s not counting the surprising number of stupid and ahistorical things which even political dissidents believe.

The Hand is Pinker Than the Eye

Apologies for borrowing the title of this article from one my favorite Pink Panther cartoons, but it seems as appropriate as ever. The AltRight was quick to embrace Harvard professor Steven Pinker’s recent remarks referring to them as “highly intelligent and internet savvy.” This was somewhat laughable to me, as it should be clear to anyone with the least bit of critical thinking skills that in the overall context,(as Jesse Singal correctly observed) Pinker was saying that people in the AltRight held incorrect views and were simply just not exposed to the powerful counter arguments and explanations which would refute their ideas. He referred to them or (or those potentially susceptible to persuasion toward their way of thinking) as lacking the necessary facts which would provide ideological immunity toward embracing identitarian views.

Now you might think at this point that someone as intelligent as Pinker must hold some kind of trump (small t) card and that these counter arguments he has must be devastating. Well, far from me to come off like an anti-vaxxer, but let’s just say that the “immunity” that Pinker offers to inject you with consists mainly of the same basic bitch arguments you’ve likely already heard a thousand times already and rejected.

Allow me to give a couple of examples:
Pinker claims that the “the majority of domestic terrorism is committed by right-wing extremist groups.” First off, this statement is rather vague and misleading in and of itself. For one thing, Muslims represent a tiny percentage of the population relative to whites and other demographics, so who commits the “majority” of domestic terrorist acts isn’t the most relevant statistic. Here are a few things to keep in mind:

A. Muslims commit terrorism at a rate which is vastly disproportionate to their percentage of the population.

B. Islamic groups self identify as Muslims and almost always clearly state their religious motivations for carrying out their attacks, whereas “right-wing extremist group” or “white supremacist” are dubious, subjective classifications often attributed by third parties and which may or may not be accurate or even have served as primary motivations for the attacks.

C. The media and the government frequently downplay Islamic violent acts, to sustain the narrative, minimize panic and prevent the dreaded backlash against Muslims. Often attacks will be comically categorized as “workplace violence” and the Islamic component of the crime will be ignored, even when explicitly stated by the perp as an inspiration for committing the act.

D. When Pinker says “the majority of domestic terrorism is committed by right-wing extremist groups,” what metric is he using? Are we talking body counts or number of incidents? Can we really give the same weight to an incident like 9/11 where 3000 people were killed to a situation where someone whom happens to be AltRight panics and drives into some people while his car is being surrounded and attacked? I’m looking over the list of recent domestic terrorist incidents, and I’m just not seeing a whole lot of “right-wing extremist groups” or even whites being implicated. There is the Vegas shooting of course, but as yet we have no information as to the motive.

E. Unlike other forms of domestic terrorism, Islamic terrorism is almost entirely preventable. It’s like “bonus” terrorism. The 9/11 hijackers were all here on temporary visas. If we did not continue to import people (whom we do not benefit from anyway) from Islamic countries, our risk for this particular brand of terrorism would be greatly reduced. Since these people explicitly state their hostility toward western values and express no desire to assimilate to our cultural and social norms, one wonders what the point is.

Another factoid Pinker touts as some kind of antidote to AltRight ideas is that even though Blacks commit a disproportionate amount of violent crime, the Irish also once had high crime rates, therefore it’s possible for groups’ criminality to change over time. Okay sure, but so what? A few points:

A. What parameters are we talking about? The Irish once had higher crime rates, but what was the murder/violent sexual assault rate relative to the rate among blacks for the same types of crimes? This would be useful information to know. Italians also were once over represented in crime. It’s perhaps telling though, that the nature of their criminality was vastly different from that of blacks. Italian crime took the form of organized and sophisticated syndicates which often involved committing murders and robberies in association with those activities. The mob built and managed casino resort hotels though. It didn’t rape old ladies or kill random people on the street for 5 bucks. There was a degree of impulse control and future time orientation in play even within the criminal element.

B. While crime rates do fluctuate among groups depending upon their circumstances and cultural environment, the violent crime rate among blacks is consistently higher throughout the entire world, remaining elevated, spanning over a wide variety of countries and radically different environments. Sure, it’s certainly possible that over the next 80 years, the violent crime rate among blacks will be greatly reduced…but so what? Why are we obligated to subject ourselves to it in the meantime and accept this finality as a given. It’s a bet I didn’t agree to take. Since the vast majority of blacks have little interest in assuming any responsibility for their own behavior and would rather blame white people, wouldn’t it make more sense to go our separate ways and allow blacks the self-determination to flourish to remove whites as a variable in their equation for success/failure? Then in 80 years, after nations like Haiti have advanced space programs, established functioning sewage systems and can sustain violent crime rates equal to those of poor white communities if West Virginia, perhaps we can revisit the possibility of multiracial integration. If in 80 years blacks have demonstrated they have the ability to act civilized and courteous in public in accordance with western ideals, then we can give it another go.

C. Using the argument of Irish or Italian crime fluctuation is unlikely to persuade people with potentially AltRight leanings to embrace multiracialism or mass immigration from non-white countries. In fact, most people who hold these views believe that allowing migrants from Italy, Greece, etc into the US was a mistake to begin with (I say this as someone whose 1/4 Italian by the way.) These migrant waves did irreparably transform the country in culturally undesirable ways for the Anglos who were here at the time, and they had every right to resist being overwhelmed by them. Just because the status quo seems “normal” to us in the contemporary, that isn’t inherently indicative of it being an improvement for those who pre-existed its manifestation. As F Scott Fitzgerald (part Irish!) wrote in This Side of Paradise:

When Amory went to Washington the next week-end he caught some of the spirit of crisis which changed to repulsion in the Pullman car coming back, for the berths across from him were occupied by stinking aliens-Greeks, he guessed, or Russians. He thought how much easier patriotism had been to a homogeneous race, how much easier it would have been to fight as the Colonies fought, or as the Confederacy fought. And he did no sleeping that night, but listened to the aliens guffaw and snore while they filled the car with the heavy scent of latest America.

It’s been nearly 100 years since This Side of Paradise was published, and Fitzgerald’s sentiments still ring as true as ever, while Pinker’s ideological inoculations carry the familiar scent of snake oil.

Brandon Adamson is the author of Beatnik Fascism