The “Big Boy” Defense Doesn’t Even Work in Court

The “Big Boy” Defense Doesn’t Even Work in Court
Photo: alincolnt, Creative Commons, Flickr

In a recent article, Scientific American asks the question: “If people come to believe that they don’t have free will, what will the consequences be for moral responsibility?”

The answer, via a study by Kathleen Vohs at the University of Minnesota and Jonathan Schooler at the University of California (Santa Barbara), is clear. Those who negate free will cheat.

After being screened by a series of questions to determine if they were of the free-will school of thought, or the deterministic school, half the participants were presented with a passage from Francis Crick’s book, The Astonishing Hypothesis, which suggests that the decision-making process is purely a result of neuronal activity influenced by all the events in life and not really a matter of choice.

Both Crick and James Watson, co-discoverers of the DNA double helix, are avowed atheists determined to prove that life can be completely explained in terms of physics and chemistry. Fortunately, most of the modern world continues to believe in some sort of moral monitor that stands in direct contravention to these determinists, who are superb scientists but not very appealing philosophers.

In the above study, all of the participants were next given a test, which consisted of a series of mathematical problems that appeared on a computer screen. The volunteers were asked to solve the problems, but told they had to press a spacebar after each problem appeared to prevent the answer from appearing as well. They were asked not to cheat.

Predictably, those who had read the anti-free will text “cheated” (failed to press the space bar) more often than those who hadn’t. This correlation was even higher among participants who had previously identified themselves as deterministic, or anti-free will.

Luke McKinney, who writes for the Daily Galaxy, sums it up perfectly:

“Saying that you have no choice in your behavior is the grown up version of saying "A big boy did it then ran away."

This behavior is visible everywhere in modern life, from hedge fund managers denying complicity in commodities manipulation to drug companies denying they knew of the adverse effects of their drugs, to the FDA protecting both the drug companies and their negative results.

Each of the players – hedge fund manager, drug company executive, FDA official – has a seemingly legitimate excuse for their behavior. A prime example would be Dr. David Graham of the FDA, who was cajoled and intimidated into revising his Vioxx presentation.

In subsequent investigations, after Vioxx was proved a disaster, Graham chose a variation of the “big boy” escape clause, citing pressure from his superiors. In other words, Graham insists that, “bigger boys made me do it.”

Or take the case of Bear Stearns (YYY – $100.27 ) whose hedge fund manager Ralph Cioffi (now under indictment) told participants he was "cautiously optimistic" about the funds even though he had already moved $2 million of his own wealth into a safer venue.

In Cioffi’s case, the “big boy” defense is being made for him. Robert Mintz, a former government prosecutor, says that Cioffi’s trial is a test case and may prove that Wall Street’s behavior was so endemic no one can be singled out for prosecution.

For Cioffi, the defense is: “A bunch of other big boys did it, too, so I can’t be held solely accountable.”

Three years ago, when Bushism predominated, this might have been a valid escape clause, but the tide is already turning, both in the nation’s capital and in the courts. People in high places are beginning to distance themselves from the Neroesque excesses of this administration. The excuse is scheduling conflicts, but the average person can, and does, read between the lines.

The universe may be deterministic, but the inhabitants of earth tend to believe that people are responsible for their actions. Under a values-oriented president, this perception could have far-reaching consequences for those who formerly relied on their wealth and power to escape the consequences of their behavior.

Disclosure: I don’t own stock in any of the companies or products mentioned.

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