Angry Rant #2: Personal Responsibility and the extended phenotype

November 1, 2010 at 10:49 pm (rant) (, , , )

Note: The “I” and “you” below for argument purposes and are not really myself and yourself.  Please don’t take it personally.  Unless I’m describing things you’ve done, in which case do take it personally, and do something about it.

If I were to run at you, screaming and shouting, getting into your face and hurling obscenities, would that be OK?  -probably not.

Perhaps if I were mentally unable to control my actions?  Is it still my fault then? If I had taken incapacitating drugs then it would be, even though I was not in control of my actions, because I could have done something about it when I was in control. I didn’t have to take the drugs.  Even if I’m incapable of harming you, it is still not acceptable behaviour.

But assume instead that I was just like that (sometimes I want to be); it isn’t really my fault.  In that case imagine I have a minder, someone to make sure I don’t hurt myself or others.  Would it be OK for them to stand by, perhaps tut, and explain “Oh it’s not you, he just does that?”  Should you be required to have a civil and polite conversation with my minder whilst I abuse you?

Or would you consider it rude, offensive, marginally criminal and/or negligent?  I somehow think so.  And it isn’t OK when it is an animal is doing it either.  Say, a dog.

Personal responsibility

Dogs clearly have a reduced level of personal responsibility.  Our society has a lot of complex rules that we don’t know how to explain to them; we don’t know that they would be capable of following the rules even if we could.  When a dog poops, it doesn’t have to pick it up – we do.  We have responsibility for them. It is written into law that we must prevent them from being “aggressive, or dangerously out of control”.  In more egalitarian terms which might extend to a combined human/animal morality, we are acting as their representative for situations in which they are not capable of representing themselves.

Extended phenotype

When we define ourselves, we think not just of our own physical body, but the sum of all of the things we do or cause to be.  If a person leaves a trap in a field, and it kills somebody, they killed that person even though they weren’t physically there.  Similarly, a parent may take at least some responsibility for the actions of their children; they have imbibed them with some of their knowledge and being (for good or ill, by chance or design).  The phenotype is our biological self; the extended phenotype is our effect on the world.  We have responsibility for both, when it is within our power to understand how we influence the world.

That means, when your dog is aggressive to me, and you permit this, then you are being aggressive to me.  Certainly this is true in reverse; if I were to kick your dog you would take it as a personal attack on yourself.  Aggression is not acceptable behaviour.  At the best you should expect disdain in return for not raising the dispute beyond aggressive displays.  Yet, when dogs are involved, many (not all or even most) owners are completely oblivious to the disregard they have shown for our societal pacts against aggression.  Indeed, they expect me to be polite, even cheery, as they point out that little fluffy doesn’t bite, he’s just chasing the bike, its nothing personal.

Its personal.  If your dog is aggressive to me, you are aggressive to me. You have both the power, and the responsibility, to prevent the situation, and yet chose not to do it.

A dog has responsibility for itself to the limits of its ability.  They clearly can understand physical and verbal communication, they know that actions have consequences, even if not fully understood.  But where their understanding ends, our responsibility begins.  They are our extended phenotype and for good or bad, we are our dogs are they are us.

In other words, distributed processing sucks.  If you cannot trust your “other” fluffy bodied brain to follow your intentions, then you will need  physical intervention for coordinated action. Or in other, other words, if your dog attacks people, put it on a lead!

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