Deep Dive 1.4: Capone’s Elbow Room

Two summers ago, my wife and I took a road trip up the east coast hitting cities between Augusta, GA and Augusta, ME. Our last stop of the journey was Philadelphia where we experienced American history in all of its touristy splendor. Situated a couple miles from the birthplace of our Constitution, the site of the world’s first penitentiary, Eastern State Penitentiary (ESP), ages slowly as its castle walls cast shadows on a burgeoning hipster section of town. From the outside, one would not automatically recognize it as a prison. Adjacent from its towers a small coffee shop, patroned mostly by college students, sells unnecessarily expensive brews. We stopped there before touring the abandoned prison hallways, and, in so doing, we enacted a near perfect representation of the strangeness of America’s criminal justice system. How better could a hipster contemplate the complex history of our system than doing so while sipping a five dollar pourover? The historical site offers an audio tour narrated by Steve Buscemi which guides guests through its cathedral-like hallways providing details, often critical ones, of both ESP and the American penal system at large. A favorite stop along the tour provides a guard’s eye view into a restored version of Al Capone’s cell. As the above photograph reveals, and reports from the time indicated, Capone enjoyed an unusual amount of freedom compared to other inmates at ESP. While other prisoners were sometimes stuffed three to a cell, Capone had comparatively significant space to stretch his elbows. He could listen to his own music and write letters by the light of his own lamps. While confined to this room, many suspect that he continued to carry on with his “business” dealings. Some even believe that his time at ESP was somewhat self-imposed and that the castle walls served more to shield him from his enemies rather than to protect the world from him. Nevertheless, few of us would desire to be in such a position, and most of us would view such a position as a significant restraint on freedom. Even so, it is this freedom that I want to explore today; the freedom of elbow room.

Akin to conversations concerning politics and religion, people often possess passionate beliefs about free will; beliefs not subject to criticism or debate. The consideration that individuals cannot do other than what they do (that people lack the ability to freely choose) renders many nearly mentally paralyzed and often emotionally distraught. When I taught high school, I often posited such queries to frustrated students who ardently affirmed that humans had free will. It seems for many of us, our real Oedipal concern derives from the Fates instead of Freud. Daniel Dennett’s 1984 text, Elbow Room: The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting explores a version of compatibilism that attempts to avoid some of its most common pitfalls all the while cheerfully ridiculing free will deniers for their constant invocation of bugbears. Frequently philosophers both of the amateur variety, like myself, and of the more seasoned variety invoke free will thought experiments which imagine bugbears like nefarious neurosurgeons or master puppeteers who, with dastardly intentions, exact purposeful agency over otherwise free agents. As Dennett points out, such bugbears are only imagined and do not exist, at least not knowingly, in the real world. As he argues, this utilization of bugbears clouds some of the actual concerns of the free will debate. Since I’m inclined to agree, I’ll attempt to avoid such bugbears as I try and illuminate this problem. Ultimately, Dennett and I agree that the world is deterministic, but that fact, in his estimation leaves people with enough elbow room to both (1) exercise control and (2) be a self-made self. He views this elbow room as sufficient for moral responsibility, but I will contend that Dennett hasn’t provided a satisfactory reason to award deserts.

Before delving into Dennett’s argument, I feel inclined to sketch out a brief aside dealing with semantics. In the preface to the new edition of his text, Dennett admits that his project involves a rescuing of the term “free will” and an attempt to illuminate “a free will worth having.” He acknowledges that this task may not be possible and has argued that the term “has too many unfortunate and apparently irresistible connotations to survive reform.” This is a worthy endeavor, and I, generally, am in favor of reorienting our definitions to conform to the realities of the world. That is, when confronted by a brute fact about the world that conflicts with a previously held belief, we have two options: (a) we can redefine what is meant by the previously held belief or (b) if the definition is too marred, we can cast it aside. While it isn’t clear which option is preferable, it is clear that that tension defines many of our debates. The free will debate serves as a model for such tension. It remains intractable because philosophers can’t agree on definitions. I hope to avoid such problems. I’ll state at the outset, that I’m not interested in winning the free will definition debate. If people want to contend that “free will” means something other than that people have the ability to have done otherwise, I will likely cede to such arguments. My primary concern with the “free will” debate deals, not with definitions, but with the application of deserts. As I discussed in a previous post, the question of whether people actually deserve rewards or punishment, if they are praiseworthy or blameworthy, is a fundamentally different question than whether rewards and punishments have other essential utilities. Society may use rewards and punishments in the latter case to achieve a particular end (e.g. improving society). A utilization of this kind would be entirely compatible with my understanding of free will. However, my concern is that people actually believe individuals to be praiseworthy or blameworthy. Such people are worthy of praise or blame because those people could have acted differently. People praise the hero for jumping onto the train tracks to save someone precisely because the hero could have chosen not to jump onto the train tracks. People blame the thief precisely because the thief could have elected not to steal. Generally, society doesn’t conceive of praising or blaming such people as a method for encouraging and discouraging those behaviors; rather, society believes such individuals are deserving of praise or blame. My claim is that since people could not have done otherwise, heroes and thieves don’t deserve praise or blame, and, subsequently, they don’t deserve rewards and punishments. I contend that shifting such a paradigm could actually lead to the outcomes society desires.

The elbow room that Dennett carves out for deserts is two-pronged. It involves (1) a careful distillation of what is meant by control and (2) an understanding of how one makes oneself. Dennett defines control in the following way:

The root idea of control…is (in ordinary terms) that A controls B if and only if the relation between A and B is such that A can drive B into whichever of B’s normal range of states A wants B to be in. (If B is capable of being in some state s and A wants B to be in s, but has no way of putting B in s, or making B go into s, then A’s desire is frustrated, and to that extent A does not control B.) (Dennett 2015, 57)

He then proceeds to give an example of how one can be in control of a model airplane. (58) Ultimately, Dennett argues that one is in control of the model airplane if and only if one has the capability to move the plane where one wants within the plane’s abilities. Importantly, the fact that one cannot make the plane hover would not rule out one’s control over the plane. In this instance, we have a clear “A”, the pilot, and a clear “B”, the plane. What Dennett seems to be teasing out here, really, is one’s ability to control voluntary actions. If that is all that one means by “free will,” that one has capacity to control voluntary actions, then I will now concede the “free will” debate. While there may be important considerations to make regarding this voluntary control, they do not seem so thoroughgoing that are of any grave concern. We seem as a society to judge between voluntary actions and involuntary actions appropriately enough. The real concern lies, rather, when we begin to evaluate the locus of self-control. This problem, essentially boils down to this, even if “A” can control “B,” “A” can only be responsible for its control over “B” if “A” is responsible for itself.

While Dennett appeals to an interesting concept of making one’s self, it ultimately doesn’t seem to be sufficient to provide enough elbow room for moral responsibility in the deserving sense. We do not view human beings at birth to be responsible selves. When my daughter poops on the changing table the moment after I remove her diaper, she isn’t responsible for the action. She has no control because there isn’t a sufficient enough “she” developed to be held morally responsible. However, if someone were to stand on my dining room table and defecate on top of my dinner, such a reprehensible person is responsible. According to Dennett, this type of responsibility that we seek to establish emerges over time. He argues:

[S]ince the skills of self-control and deliberation have been put to a fairly severe test over the eons, there is a real basis in fact for our having high expectations about deliberative skill, and more generally the capacity for self-control, of our fellow human beings. (102)

This is a relatively persuasive argument. I can make myself because underlying whatever quarks of luck, I am endowed with a set of skills that allow me to deliberate. Fair enough, but perhaps, as in Neil Levy’s argument that I discussed in the last deep dive post, luck is too problematic. He proceeds to expand on his point by providing an analogy comparing a life to a marathon at which throughout the process of living we gain agenthood. Sure, it may take some of us longer than others, but we’ll all become sufficiently morally responsible. He acknowledges that some may not be able to participate in this marathon because they can be singled out as “defective–retarded or psychopathic, for instance” (104). He beckons us to imagine that if we scored basketball based on the cases of luck involved and refused to count baskets made only by chance, we would consider that to be odd and inappropriate. (I once played a game of pool where my mates insisted that pocketed balls only counted if they were the result of intention rather than luck. Such a game is frustrating. But nonetheless, still a game.) Ultimately, Dennett worries that by counting everything as a matter of luck, we discount developed intentioned skill. However, I think there are two salient concerns that Dennett misses. First, luck can be compounding. Second, in holding someone morally responsible, the stakes are significantly higher, and therefore, worthy of being more clearly parsed. I’ll deal with them in turn.

One element that we may miss from the development of skills is that developing skills can be a matter of compounding luck. Malcolm Gladwell, in his text Outliers, presents a relatively compelling case that the systems society sometimes establishes arbitrarily can constrain the development of skill. He notes that Canada’s cutoff age for playing in the junior hockey league led to an inordinate amount of hockey players in the professional league with birthdates clumped at the beginning of the year. Because the cut-off date was January 1st, people born the beginning of the year had to wait an entire year before playing. That means someone with a January birthday, who had to wait until 8 to play in the league, didn’t get to start until he was almost 9. Because someone with a January birthday is effectively older and likely stronger and more coordinated as a result, they tended to do better. This led to more practices and greater chances down the road. While Dennett suggests that in the long run, such a problem will work itself out, it doesn’t seem to be the case because luck is compounding. They were lucky to have a January birthdate, lucky to make the all-star team, lucky to practice more as a result, and lucky to become great at hockey. Yes, all of it involved skill, but the compounding of luck seems to present a problem. The second major objection is that his analogy to sports trivializes the real problems we face when we hold someone morally accountable. While I may not be too concerned with whether or not someone becomes a star hockey player, it matters significantly, when we evaluate whether someone deserves to be in prison for the rest of his life. One such example of where this is prescient can be seen in the book The Other Wes Moore. In it, a successful man compares his life to that of another man named Wes Moore, who, even though they both came from difficult backgrounds, experienced a different life outcome. The writer, Wes Moore, argues that his life could have turned out like the convict, Wes Moore, had not been for a few lucky instances. Because such dire consequences are at stake when we hold people morally accountable, we cannot quickly dismiss our need to properly understand whether the elbow room that Dennett presents is sufficient for people to deserve praise and blame.

I started by talking about Al Capone and whether or not his jail cell provided him elbow room worth wanting. One can claim that Al Capone, even though he was locked in prison, was able to exercise all the free will he desired. He was in a prison, but one of his own making. But there was one prison Al Capone couldn’t escape, and that was Al Capone. He was no more self-made than an alternate Al Capone who became a doctor and discovered a panacea for pneumonia. Further, one wonders to what extent Dennett might grant Capone a pass if it was proven that Capone was defective. Perhaps Capone had some sort of psychopathology. One could then venture down the road of claiming that everyone with an exculpating factor is exempt from moral responsibility. But what counts as an exculpating factor? And who would be left over to deemed morally responsible? It could be that we find, as Sam Harris puts it, tumors all the way down. If a tumor in one’s brain exculpates them from certain crimes, at what point do we arbitrarily stop finding “tumors.” This all bears on how we should look at prisons in general. When Eastern State Penitentiary was designed, it put every person in solitary confinement so that they could remake themselves. It was a terrible idea. If we can’t judge such people as blameworthy, we must wrestle with how to redesign our criminal justice system. It would not be fair to utilize punitive punishments for people not worthy of blame, but other restorative measures may actually help reduce recidivism and better ensure that citizens become productive. Deciding on exactly how to may involve delving into some messy empirics, but, whatever the case, it is clear our current model isn’t designed with that end in mind. The fact is that while Al Capone had the elbow room to be Al Capone, he was still stuck with Al Capone’s elbow, an elbow not of his own making.

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