Monday, July 18, 2011

Determinism and Social Justice

For a number of years now, I've labored under the assumption that a belief in determinism implies a left-wing sense of social justice.  The logic of this assumption is laid out in the essay by Tom Clark, Progressive Policy Implications of Naturalism.

 I think there is a correct response to an assumption of determinism, and conservative policy isn't it. So how is this different than ordinary disagreement with conservative policy? Well, because it comes directly from a denial of free will. I say this in the sincere belief that were free will not true, I would have to seriously reconsider my liberal policy assumptions.

So, what does this actually mean? Let's take a basic illustration of social inequality: high rates of the poor and minorities in prison, and high rates of successful people having come from relatively successful families.

The simple free will argument on this is that both were just as able to choose their lot in life, so their unequal position is morally defensible and not something society need worry about. The standard determinist position is that they were both created by circumstance, and thus their unequal position is not defensible, and therefore society ought to try and help them.

Two nuanced versions of the free will positions might go something like this. A) These life circumstances must be addressed by stronger intervention. B) Though they have free will, there are life circumstances that make life more difficult for some than others. However, at the end of the day they must find their own way - this is how people learn to succeed.

A more nuanced determinist might say that though these unequal positions are determined, it is simply not within our power to do very much about them, at least no more than a properly free-market might allow for them to be better-determined.

So into these positions on free will come assumptions about behavior and the efficacy of government. But what does the question of free will have to say about these assumptions? My argument would be that it answers them definitively.

In order for this to be true, the small-government determinist must be wrong on his understanding of determinism. I might start this argument by acknowledging that determinism requires us to be morally concerned with inequality, in so far as that it is being determined by some system, it is wrong. Our difference lies in how to effectively address that inequality, governments or markets, broadly. (I think it might be relevant to here point out an argument pointed to on these boards by sugarkang, in which the fact of inequality itself actually provides a behavioral mechanism for determining individual change. I would only argue that this effect is not so strong, as evidenced by the degree to which it seems to have little effect at all.)

I would argue that determinism implies that individual thought is entirely* a product of circumstance. (* I will leave genetics out of this discussion because while there is human genetic variation, it isn't relevant to the question of social equality broadly) As such, it is his every interaction with society - family, peers, culture, neighborhood, schooling, political structure, etc. that affords him his every thought, and therefore action.

This places moral responsibility for the individual squarely at the hands of society, every moment. While he feels he is thinking freely, he is completely tied to his past interactions with the society around him, in no less a manner than as an animal in an ecosystem. Now, while it is true that many behavioral outcomes, determined as they are, will only come about through a certain degree of individual autonomy, and his interacting with the "invisible hand" so to speak, of social interaction. Even if we wanted to, there is simply no way we could account for and control every aspect of his determination so as to give him the greatest possible sense of liberty and satisfaction (how's that for irony?!!!). In fact, most of what we think of as positive human experience is a function of a sort of free-market of social interaction.

But nonetheless, we are are still morally accountable. I think we recognize this implicitly when we set out to be altruistic even when there is no clear immediate reward; we believe that we are a part of a larger, invisible hand of society that will do us all good. It is through these acts that we demonstrate - if only to ourselves - our fealty to the greater moral good.

So, if true determinism implies an intense responsibility for our fellow man, as morality itself, having been shorn from the individual and attached to the determining society at large, we must be all the more careful and scrupulous in our endeavor to provide optimal levels of human good.

And this may be where it gets the trickiest. My claim is that, given the obvious fact that there is such inequality, and that that inequality almost by definition results in such massive amounts of potential for human suffering, that relatively high levels of state - the pinnacle of social codification - intervention. Here I might make appeals to numerous specific cases of inequality resulting in real human tragedy. I might make the case that neither history nor logic provides evidence that a more free market approach to reducing social inequality will do much of anything to reduce these problems, and that government intervention will at least reduce their pain.

Yet what am I doing but appealing to flaws in behavioral or policy assumptions? In the end, is my argument, that determinism implies left-wing, or statist economic policy, resting primarily on the claim that determinism simply implies a more robust empathy for the plight of the unfortunate?

Maybe. I suppose I feel I've made the case that determinism implies a high degree of moral concern. Maybe I'm just skeptical that free market solutions are really sufficiently that. I suppose it is in no small part an expression of bad faith. I simply can't see how the work that needs to be done, work predicated on the thought that these people are as much my own personal responsibility (and each of ours), as my own kin. And what would I not do to make sure my own family has health care? Or a proper education, and a degree of equality?

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