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Criminology Class, Fall 1999
Levels of Learning and Associated Affect

California State University, Dominguez Hills
University of Wisconsin, Parkside
Latest update: November 5, 1999
E-Mail Curran or Takata.

Auto-Poietic Learning Systems

This lecture is from a number of texts on Habermas. I can't quote pages because I can't find my books. Sorry. This time take my word for it. jeanne

Habermas conceives of our society as consisting of a variety of systems: the political system, the financial system, the legal system. It is in the system of law that Habermas sees the potential for public discourse to bring the legitimacy that might permit us to live in peace. He believes that the system of law is the only one that provides the language necessary for us to communicate effectively over issues of legitimacy: how to distribute resources justly and how to guarantee that the validity claims of each citizen ruled by the system shall be heard in good faith.

Luhmann, another German sociologist, describes the system of society as one which provides feedback. Each part of the system feeds into the next, so that rules can be set, the system gets feedback when something isn't working, and corrects itself. In this way the system perpetuates itself. The ultimate auto-poietic system also has a process for updating the rules as conditions change, so that the system becomes self-sufficient in its operation.

Habermas believes Luhmann's model to be wanting, for he argues that it lacks legitimacy. Recall that he is defining legitimacy as the right of every citizen to be heard in good faith on issues of justice and resource distribution. The Luhmann model does not allow for feedback from the citizens ruled by the system to tell the system it does not properly function for them. Habermas calls this a "non-learning auto-poietic system." He argues that the system of law must provide for a "learning system," that is, a system that provides for the citizens ruled by that system to be heard in good faith.

One of the examples I gave in class was a social definition of crime with which some do not agree. The war on drugs provides an example. The use of narcotics is defined as a crime. People are punished, often by incarceration, for a violation of the laws against narcotics. Our failure to win the war against drugs has led to increased punishment, on the policy that if people do not obey the law we need to apply greater punishment. Thus, more and more people are in jail for narcotics offenses. Habermas would say that this is a non-learning system, for instead of seeking to explain why punishment hasn't worked, and what more effective alternatives we might find to attain our goals, we simply stick to our rules and increase the punishment. Habermas would argue that the system of law, through its necessity for legitimacy, should be a learning system, and should provide for a good faith hearing from those for whom the rules are not working.

Thorndike's Second Law on Punishment

I also discussed at this point Thorndike's Second Law of Learning. Thorndike is one of the classical learning theorists. His first law states that behavior which is rewarded is more likely to reoccur. His second law states that behavior which is punished is more likely to be extinguished. Problem is, before he died Thorndike's research convinced to revoke the second law. He concluded that punishment did not serve to extinguish behavior.

If punishment does not extinguish behavior we want to get rid of, and if rehabilitation was ineffective in the ways that we have tried to apply it, then perhaps we need to listen in good faith to those who exhibit the behaviors we wish to extinguish to see if interdependently we could find more effective alternatives.