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.