How Zootopia could break someone’s brain.
Josh Bruce

Trinity of influence

Choice, nurture, and nature

In the previous note I applauded the movie Zootopia for being able to illustrate and challenge binary bias in an effective way. The previous note also marks both nature and nurture as inherently deterministic — by knowing one, the other, or both it is possible to determine the response of an individual to stimuli. Further, the note brings in a third leg in the form of free will and choice. Finally, the supposition is made that the capacity of choice outweighs environmental influences, which, in turn, outweighs biological influences of the individual.

We tend to find analogy and story easier than the conceptualization; so, let’s go with the following.

You are born with a weak heart (nature). Your heart was replaced by a mechanical device (nurture overrides nature). You chose to replace your heart (choice outweighs environment and your natural fear of death that could have resulted from the procedure).

One of the principles I hold to be self-evident is that humans use language to communicate thoughts, ideas, and images in an effort to teach, learn, and socialize; therefore, the way we communicate is very important.

Of course, focus on language can lead to conversations becoming semantic disputes that deviate entirely from the original topic, which is why lawyers and philosophers will often “define terms” at the beginning of a treatise. Having said that, even this can become problematic if the definition used for those terms deviates from the common usage of the term. For example, there is a law in Ohio put into effect years ago that defined its terms; specifically employee and employer.

  • “Employee” means a person who is employed by an employer, or who contracts with an employer or third person to perform services for an employer, or who otherwise performs services for an employer for compensation or for no compensation.
  • “Employer” means the state or any individual, business, association, political subdivision, or other public or private entity, including a nonprofit entity, that employs or contracts for or accepts the provision of services from one or more employees.

When presented to Ohio residence it was made clear that “smoking clubs” would be able to operate, providing they were not for profit (an employer) and had no employees. However, by the definitions of the bill, volunteers and employees are synonymous. As of this writing, the common definitions for both, captured by the Oxford American English Dictionary, volunteers and employees are not synonyms.

  • “Volunteer” a person who freely offers to take part in an enterprise or undertake a task.
  • “Employee” a person employed for wages or salary, especially at non-executive level.

So, the common usage of employee includes compensation in the form of wages or salary. However, the law adds a provision to include individuals providing services with no compensation and labels them as employees. Therefore, when the bill was presented to voters and the ballot language (a summation of the full bill) read that the following would be exempt:

Exempt from the smoking restrictions certain locations, including private residences (except during the hours that the residence operates as a place of business involving non-residents of the private residence), designated smoking rooms in hotels, motels, and other lodging facilities; designated smoking areas for nursing home residents; retail tobacco stores, outdoor patios, private clubs, and family-owned and operated places of business.

This is why I tend to lean to definitions provided by a dictionary, because the definitions are based on the common (or, more accurately, the popular) usage. Finally, this has problems as well, because common usage for language may change over time if we do not take the time to correct someone’s use or misuse of a term — this means a word you use or something you read, may not mean what you think it means in the future or in your current time, respectively.

Note: I am not making a claim that the motive behind the definitions was to deceive, only stating that there was a deviation.

Having said all that, let’s continue.

There are drawbacks and benefits to holding a deterministic view of the world. The following illustrates only one for each, and is not meant to explore this topic in-depth.

Drawback of a determinist view

Having a purely deterministic view can lead to a lack of responsibility and accountability, which negates our apparent belief in justice.

If every action is predetermined, can we really discipline someone for performing an action?

If something positive was supposed to happen to me, then that’s just the way it is. It did not come from any participation, preparation, or will on my part. And, conversely, if something negative was supposed to happen to me, then there is nothing I can do to avoid it, even if I know the future and try to avoid it (the real message of Oedipus). To the final extreme of thought-turned-to-action as related to the deterministic view, we should be able to determine that someone will be undesirable early in life and remove them from a cohort to protect that cohort.

Benefit of a determinist view

In most instances, the presentation of a binary is a false dilemma (a logical fallacy in reasoning and debate). Therefore, most things in the world are something other than good or bad (it just exists). If a trait or belief is presented as not being strictly vice or virtue, we can say it is predetermined and beyond my control.

Back to analogy.

I have trait or belief X. There is a cohort who believe X is a vice to be destroyed wherever it is found. There is a cohort who believe X is a virtue to be perpetuated wherever possible. There is another cohort who believe X is neither vice nor virtue and should be left to natural selection.

Again, the assertion here is that most things are not dilemmas (either-or).

So, if I can point to research demonstrating trait X as the result of DNA (nature) or the way I was raised (nurture), then I can usually sway more people like me or who would defend me (building a tribe, or coalition, or cohort) to band together. If acceptance of trait X is somewhat new for the immediate cohort, then my argument will most likely be summarized as: Don’t be angry or shun me, I cannot help how I was born or raised.

(Note: Traditionally in the USA attributing a trait or belief to nature is more effective than nurture, because the trait or belief is “hard-wired” by one’s DNA, but nature and nurture are deterministic.)

There are drawbacks and benefits to holding a total self-deterministic view of the world as well. The following illustrates only one for each, and is not meant to explore this topic in-depth.

Drawback of a self-deterministic view

We only have to look back to the benefit of determinism.

I have trait or belief X. The cohort of people who believe X is a vice to be destroyed is the majority cohort. I get destroyed, because if I wanted to change, I could — it’s my choice, not my destiny.

Benefit of a self-deterministic view

One word: Liberty.

The second definition of liberty as provided by the Oxford American English Dictionary provided by macOS is:

the power or scope to act as one pleases

Notice it doesn’t say to act without consequence. Therefore, we need to have principles, ethics, and so on to satisfy the part of me that seeks justice. For me, there are two first principles related to the concept of liberty in order to limit power and define scope:

  1. Non-aggression: No individual has the right to initiate force on another.
  2. My liberty ends where yours begins, after that it's about negotiation and informed consent.

The language used on a topic also speaks to the prevailing mindset at the time. For example, if you and I are speaking on trait or belief X and I say any one of the following:

  1. People with this trait or belief are born that way; therefore, changing their DNA would remove the trait or belief. (It is deterministic insofar as we cannot alter someone’s DNA and is based on nature.)
  2. People with this trait or belief are taught that; therefore, changing their environment would remove the trait or belief. (It is deterministic insofar as we cannot change the history of how we were raised and is based on nurture.)
  3. People with this trait or belief choose to have the trait or belief; therefore, presenting them with alternatives may result in them changing that trait or belief. (It is self-deterministic and operates beyond external influence.)
  4. This trait or belief is something people choose, it could be changed, if they saw benefit in doing so. If this trait or belief is still something people choose, but the adoption is heavily influenced by their environment, it could be changed through effort despite “the struggle being real” so to speak due to external pressures. If this trait or belief is something the person is born with and is not easily changed without medical intervention or constant, conscious effort. (It is holistic and focuses on the trait or belief — not the person.)

All of these statements point to a potential bias.

The first is a bias toward nature. The second is a bias toward nurture. The third is a bias toward choice. The fourth is a bias to believing we can objectively identify some thing as being primarily the result of nature, nurture, or choice.

This can lead to frustration if you are talking about something with someone who does not hold the same bias as you.

For example, if you’re making the argument that it is in the nature of mankind to be monogamous (or polygamous) — that is a nature-based argument. However, if I make the argument that it depends on the culture or society — that is a nurture-based argument. At which point, I would question whether the conversation (or debate) is really about the pair-bonding habits of humans in general and is more about discussing whether pair-bonding in humans is based primarily on nature, nurture, or choice.

Where we find ourselves in trouble

I have hazel eyes. According to this article, one of the supposed traits of hazel-eyed people is that we are independent.

What is implied here?

I might make the assertion that I’m independent because I have hazel eyes. Someone else might make the same assertion. If we view “independence” as a virtue, then we open the doors to an irrational bias for hazel eyes. If we view “independence” as a vice, then we open the doors to irrational bias against people with hazel eyes. (For example, another trait proposed is that people with hazel eyes are short-tempered.)

Both of these demonstrate the foundation of prejudice and most, if not all, -isms (racism, sexism, ageism, and so on) so to speak.

In other words, the reaction or assessment of me (my character as an individual) within society is not based on how I behave and interact with the external world; instead, it is based on my belonging to a group, and the tendencies of that group. Specifically, in the case of eye color, a group I did not choose (or consent) to be a part of.

I, as an individual, get sacrificed (so to speak) to the average of the group based on something I, as of now, cannot control. Further, would changing eye color cause me to become a different person?

If there is a nature-based link between the physical characteristic and the trait, then yes; hazel eyes cause independence and changing eye color would change who I am. If there is a nurture-based link between the two (what the article asserts), then no; the culture in which I live would have to change its perception of people with hazel eyes. If independence is simply a choice, then there is no correlation — and the conclusion is coincidental.

(Note: The slight comedy that I am proposing an individualistic approach when referencing an article that says hazel-eyed people are independent is not lost on me.)

(Note 2: As of now, to the best of my knowledge, Medium does not have a way to create a series or thread; therefore, instead of linking to a previous article, I am using the respond feature to accomplish the same.)