Zachary Bell | Grateful to graduate


Critical Playground | Our idea of reward and punishment overemphasizes free will


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Zachary Bell
Critical Playground

Photo by Zachary Bell


In three weeks, I’ll stride across a stage in my Ivy League regalia and accept my diploma. As I march off with a triumphant smile, I’ll be greeted by a chorus of congratulations from family and friends.

But as the show approaches, I can’t help but wonder: Do I really deserve such praise? How proud should I be for graduating from Penn?

Ironically, the knowledge I have gained from my liberal arts education is exactly what has made the reward for its completion confounding. Nearly all research dedicated to explaining human behavior points to versions of determinism.

From a young age, I viewed free will as a prerequisite for a fair meritocracy. According to the American Dream, we’re each given natural abilities and faced with opportunities. If we make good choices, we’re rewarded and if we make bad ones, we’re punished.

However, ever-expanding literature documenting the factors that affect our decision-making is shaking the foundations of free will and this dream.

The notion that individuals deserve to be rewarded for a good work ethic has been partially undermined by academics. Biologists trace one’s work ethic to a genetic predisposition. Sociologists attribute self-discipline and diligence to conditioning from teachers, parents and coaches.

Constructionists argue that definitions for “intelligence” and “achievement” are socially constructed. Physicists might say the chemical interactions of our brains are just following physical laws that have determined universal motion in a continuous thread of causation going back to the first state.

We’re praised and blamed for the choices we make. But if these choices — as academia suggests — are largely decided by forces outside of our control, how can the society we live in be considered fair?

In criminal law, this dilemma has been confronted by scholars like Law School professor Stephen Morse. In his publication “Lost in Translation? An Essay on Law and Neuroscience,” Morse explains that while a “person’s mental state is influenced by biological, psychological, and sociological variables … the law is ultimately concerned with the mental state itself, rather than the causes of it.”

So the only crimes that can be excused are ones in which a criminal’s mental state renders him or her an unintentional actor.

However, Morse sees the possibility of a future in which juries see all defendants as “victims of neuronal circumstances.” While criminals would be punished for practical purposes, jurors would wonder whether the defendant was capable of acting otherwise.

Acknowledging that an individual’s free will has its limits has led to an increase in using the “disease model” to decriminalize behavior like compulsive sex, gambling and drinking.

While there may be practical purposes for a legal system that punishes individuals for their actions, our culture remains needlessly fixated on the individuation of blame and reward.

We still idolize the fictitious “self-made man,” pulling himself up by his bootstraps. We still blame victims (Trayvon Martin shouldn’t have worn a hoodie) and demonize criminals (George Zimmerman is the devil).

Since our impulses, decisions and behavior are determined by both nature and nurture, it’s unproductive to attribute success or failure to individuals. Instead, we should try to change the systems that produce that harmful behavior.

When our fetishization of the individual withers, compassion and humility can flourish. For me, the sociological lens is most helpful, especially when reflecting on the choices I have made. As a teenager, I tried to live up to an archetype of an aggressive, strong male and wanted friends, status and sex. Given my background, this pursuit led me to join a fraternity in a private university — a socially-acceptable decision.

However, had I come from a different background, such desires could have easily led me to join a gang and commit crimes and possibly end up in prison.

This understanding makes it clear that, at the very least, we should not scold the prisoner or douse the graduate in praise.

Instead, we should have compassion for someone who — for reasons largely out of his control — has been stripped of his freedom and temper our praise for someone getting his diploma.

At birth — without an audition — we are cast into a grand production. While we may interpret how to perform our roles, the play has been written. So let’s don the costumes for our parts — an Ivy cap and gown — but feel privileged, humbled and grateful to graduate.

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