Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Question of Free Will and its Bearing Upon Governance

Governments can be, and are, defined in many ways. I think the modern world is pretty well discovering that, while not perfect, a capitalist social democracy is generally best. We enjoy electing our leaders, starting businesses, and the provision of public education. I think it’s safe to say that neither extreme communism nor libertarianism are sensible options.

At its most basic level, government is formed to provide for individual security and freedom. How these come to be defined, and then achieved, present a formidable philosophical and practical challenge. Yet I believe a key insight into where we must begin on this matter, is the question of Contra-Causal Free Will (CCFW). In order to define what government ought to be, you need to determine whether CCFW exists. A large enough subject in its own right (although one I firmly believe has been settled, due in no small part to the discoveries of modern scientific research), for the purposes of this discussion, I will avoid much of the arguments for and against the question of CCFW, and concentrate mainly on the implications of its resolution.

Because I don't believe in CCFW and the processes underlying what makes us who we are, I don't believe it is fair for a child born to a family poor in social capital to have to compete with a child born to a family rich in social capital. Therefore, any government system that does not actively seek to redress this inequity of means not only does not guarantee freedom, but through inaction actively promotes the continuation of a status quo that is anti-freedom.

For instance, in our modern economic system, if one man is able to live richly off the low wages of thousands of others, whose freedom are we talking about? Should his wealth be relative to the stability and basic fairness of the larger society upon which his market is based, or is it simply relative to what he can buy with it?

These are certainly not easy questions. And we see them being labored over intensely in current debates over healthcare - does our modern society owe it to each individual to guarantee a minimum of health services?

Conservatives know exactly where they stand on the issue of free will and why it is so central to their concept of government. They come back to it again and again as a justification for their interest in maintaining the status quo. They see a socially activist government as entirely unethical: not only does it seek to unfairly redistribute income through progressive taxation, but it seeks to fritter it away on services that would be unnecessary if people would only choose correctly (drugs, parenting, education, hard work, crime, etc.).

Liberals are the ones I always find oddly oblivious to the inconsistency in both holding that society has a responsibility to promote fairness, and that free will does indeed exist. I think the reason has more to do with free will having an entrenched philosophical advantage in being the incumbent world view, well, for most of recorded history.

But I think the paramount example of why CCFW matters is in constructing a criminal justice system. Currently, we inflict terrible punishment upon convicted criminals – a prison sentence is certainly cruel, if not unusual. Yet if CCFW does not exist, then what business do we have in exacting revenge upon people who could not have chosen any differently? Going back to my point regarding children: we treat them with forgiveness to the degree we attribute to them a lack of CCFW. The reason we treat them with the full harshness of the justice system when they reach 18 years of age is precisely because we deem them as suddenly possessing full CCFW: they could have made better choices.

Were we to instead deny CCFW, we would then have to treat adult criminals with the same sort of understanding that we do children: that they were not really responsible for their behavior: that society and genetic chance was. While acknowledging any continued threat they may pose society, as well as providing a message of deterrence, we should certainly still hold them accountable and protect society from them. But we ought to treat them with dignity, at least attempt rehabilitation, and certainly not subject them to the sort of violence and abuse rampant in today’s prisons.

On the flip side, neither does rejecting CCFW allow us to treat the millionaire as if he is responsible for his own success, rather than society and genes – at least in so far as he enjoys a level of power and privilege due to simple circumstance. This is why we no longer tolerate kings and aristocracy. What right does the wealthy man have to his wealth when it was obtained through no doing of his own? A civilized society is based in the concept that every man ought to be free to “pursue their own happiness at minimal detriment to everyone else's”. Implicit in this assumption is that we all ought to begin that pursuit at a reasonable level of equality of social capital.

So it would appear to me that not only does the question of free will have great bearing upon our personal values, but it must be dealt with if we are to structure a government that is able to best deliver freedom of opportunity to society. Fittingly, just as whether or not CCFW exists we must act as though it does, we must also structure our society according to whether or not we believe in CCFW. The consequences for either belief or disbelief could not have more dramatically different political implications.

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