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  • Vice and Naturalistic Ontology
  • Christopher R. Williams (bio)

causality, criminality, determinism, medical model, positivism

These questions have been posed: Is vice (encompassing criminal and other wrongful conduct) best regarded as “sick” behavior, “immoral” behavior, or some other type altogether? Are we to understand vice in natural-medical terms, or are we better served by utilizing a moral framework? Is criminality reducible to and best categorized as a metaphysical type the essential features of which are neurological or otherwise biological in nature? Or, perhaps, is criminality closer to a (non-natural) sociological type, the essential features of which can be understood only through reference to social norms and cultural conventions? These are torturously involved philosophical and theoretical questions that have given rise to an equally torturous volume of literature. Without pretending to do justice to these questions or their corresponding literature, several key considerations that must be inserted into and accounted for within the discursive pursuit of these inquiries are worth noting.

Where a naturalistic ontology is employed within the study of vice, we reduce the intricacies of deviant behavioral phenomena to what we presume to be their underlying medical/biological properties. It is worth remembering that behavior itself cannot rightfully be said to be “sick”; rather, what we mean to say is that the behavior in question—in our case, various forms of “vice”—is symptomatic of some underlying illness or medical/biological condition. The presumed underlying sickness and the behavior itself are distinct, ontologically linked only through their theorized relationship to one another. This, then, is a key assumption of the medical approach to vice and its ontological classification as a natural-medical kind: that there exists a relationship between the behavior (a symptom) and the underlying illness or medical condition, and that the relationship is of the causal kind. Vice, it is suggested, is a change in state that is caused by (or, at the very least, is a direct consequence of) sickness or illness. Second, to legitimate such attributions, the illness supplying the requisite causal force must be identifiable and its causal connection to the behavior must be or be capable of being sufficiently explicated. In other words, once we have identified the relevant medical/biological properties and the behavior to which they stand in causal relatedness, we must be prepared to characterize this dynamic—we must be able to show exactly how and why such and such a condition gives rise to such and such a behavior.

Problematically, causation itself is and has always been a contentious metaphysical specimen. Hume (1955) reminded us of the troubling reality [End Page 39] that we cannot ever “see” one thing cause or necessitate another. We are left, rather, to merely presume the existence of causal relationships between things. How is it, exactly, that disorder in neurodevelopment can necessitate certain behavioral outcomes? Even if we can “see” (in the empirical sense) the disorder and equally “see” the behavior, we cannot of course witness the precise causal action of the former upon the latter. Even if we are content inferring causal action in such cases, we still need to demonstrate the basic conditions of causality. To show that Condition X is causally related Behavior Y, we need to show that they are regularly associated with one another, that Condition X temporally preceded Behavior Y and, most challengingly, that no other conditions or factors have an intervening (e.g., additive, synergistic) influence. Hypothetically, if we were to posit a causal relationship between schizotypal personality traits and violent behavior, we would need to establish: (1) that schizotypal traits and violent behavior regularly coexist; (2) that those traits presented before the manifestation of the violent behavior; and (3) that no other factors (biological, psychological, and/or sociological) contributed in any meaningful way to those manifestations. We would thus need to systematically rule out family dynamics, income, education, intelligence, substance use, and so forth, as contributing factors. If, in turn, we were to determine that the presence of schizotypal traits alone is not sufficient—even if a necessary condition—to produce violent behavior but, rather, that those traits act in concert with other variables to produce the behavior, then we would not truly be...


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pp. 39-41
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