All of these various problems mostly come down to defining words, let’s talk about this one in particular!

A while ago, there was an article by R. S. Bakker which people were arguing about on tumblr [content warning for linked article: made some people very upset, mostly disability rights left-wing crowd (I am not sure what to actually warn for so instead I’m just describing group which might want warning)]. At the time, I purposefully scrolled past every argument (the tumblr interface is terrible/amazing and leads to seeing any given argument lots of times and everyone involved always being angry) and didn’t read the article, but I put it in my list of things to read and I have finally gotten to it. Short and hopefully charitable summary of the article: when we start understanding how things work or what causes them, we decide that they’re “not their fault” and accommodate them instead of subjecting them to the normal incentive structures. As we start to understand how people work better, more behaviors will be understood and in the limit of this we have no more incentives and just try to accommodate everything. Therefore, our education system (his examples focused on education) relies on not understanding neuroscience. This sounds pretty reasonable, to be honest, and I am not sure what exactly the claim that he hates disabled people and wants them to die is based on.

The problem underlying this is basically the weird free-will-based definition of what to excuse and what to condemn. You accommodate people because They Can’t Help It. In this paradigm, understanding how something works implies that you can’t punish it. It makes more sense to define whether you should accommodate things in terms of whether negative incentives affect it. For example, if you keep giving a paraplegic detention for not running a mile, this will not make them run, so if the goal is teaching everyone to run it doesn’t make sense to do that. This is obviously susceptible to not knowing things, but there is a coherent rule which makes learning more neuroscience not cause the breakdown of society and all that we hold dear in the apocalyptic flames of slowly growing censure, which is nice.

Also, more explicit goal statements. I know I always say that, but I’m always right about it. What is your educational institution trying to accomplish? Education? Well, not really, actually—okay I guess some things would be broken by having a more explicit goal statement. The uncanny valley of explicitness of goal statements. My naive first approximation model is that the purpose of the Department of Education is to increase the budget and powers of the Department of Education. I’m assuming it also wants to provide its prisoners students with some combination of education, daycare, indoctrination, and ability and class indicators for signaling, although people are way better at following their incentives than I would expect. It’s possible that the majority even of people who will see this blog post expect people to be more rational than they actually are and I should never tell anyone that people are more rational than I expect them to be lest they update in that direction and end up being even more deluded about the standard human level of rationality.

Rules like “don’t flap your hands” generally don’t serve much purpose; large-scale hand-flapping would not bring the collapse of civilization. Rules like “sit still for 50 minutes and do the task at hand, then switch to the next task we have assigned” aren’t really generally useful for education. Rules like “turn in the homework on time” are, well, that’s probably a horribly wrong way to do education in general but within the domain of the Prussian education system—and there’s an issue with criticizing the education system where you inevitably reach “actually, we should burn everything we have to the ground and build anew”—they do serve a purpose, so lifting them would require some indication that their presence/punishing based on these rules does not cause the person in question to do their homework anyway. That creates an obvious way to exploit the system which would be relevant if this was an actual policy proposal, but as it is not doesn’t really matter. Accommodations like “printing the test in larger font”, on the other hand, should (where “should” is like “it is philosophically sound for it to be so”) be available to everyone on request, without need for diagnosis. There may be things in the category of accommodations which technically ought to be available to everyone which are financially/temporally infeasible.

What Bakker is getting at is basically a philosophical problem, and not one which is hard to solve.


One response to “Determinism/Disability?

  1. This particular piece was on the block for a reprise even before the tumblr nonsense simply because it had been completely misread from a completely different angle: first it went viral on some psychology blogs, then it went viral on Christian blogosphere. I literally didn’t know how to respond to some commenters short of, ‘Er, ahem… Kindly read again.’
    Exactly the same as with the tumblr nonsense, except that the insufferable piety was in my favour!
    The problem *was* a philosophical problem: the point of the piece (which belongs to the larger suite of concerns pursued on TPB) was to show how the abstract problem pertaining to the ‘freewill/determinism debate’ has become very, very real, one which admits no philosophical solution I can see. Our intuitive sense of ‘responsibility’ is a tool, an evolutionary artifact, adapted to resolving social dilemmas in circumstances where very limited information was available. We gerrymander, of course, try to make our intuitions fit our knowledge, but it is by no means clear how we pick and choose. ‘Laziness,’ as our ignorance has it, also has a biomechanical explanation. All human behaviour does.

    Liked by 1 person

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