Sunday, August 5, 2012

Putting Free Will to a Vote

Un Regard Fugitif, Bluemenschein, 1900
A couple of recent "gaffes" in the presidential campaign highlight key differences in political philosophy of the candidates.

Obama got into trouble when he made the case that businesses rely on government infrastructure for their success.  This is obvious, especially if you imagine a country without a healthy, educated workforce, functioning roads, contract enforcement, etc.
“If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.”

Romney more recently got in trouble when he attributed the relative economic success of Israel compare to Palestine to superior culture of the former.
Culture makes all the difference. And as I come here and I look out over this city and consider the accomplishments of the people of this nation, I recognize the power of at least culture and a few other things. One, I recognize the hand of providence in selecting this place.
There is a sense in which the remark was not intended to refer to ethnicity, and refer narrowly instead to a kind of culture which arises purely from human capital.  Yet even here we are stretching things absurdly.  If not ethnicity, nor societal capital that facilitates the creation of human capital through infrastructure (which Israel clearly enjoys in far greater levels), then to what are we appealing as culture?  As one commenter I heard put it quite nicely, what if instead Romney had been singing the praises of the superior culture of Manhattan as opposed to Long Island?  Offensive, surely.

The positions these two candidates are taking, in terms of what to emphasize in outlining a framework of social success, are rooted in fundamentally different ways of understanding human agency.

The progressive view is one that sees success (or failure) as determined by an interplay between the individual and society.  Basic human equality of talent is assumed, roughly believing that anyone can be highly intelligent and accomplished, given the properly nurturing environment.  This view is backed up not only by endless volumes of research, but as well by common sense.  Any parent can tell you that children are largely products of your own investment and teaching.  We speak of children "raised well", and from "good homes".

The conservative view is one that sees success (or failure) less as a product of the interplay between the individual and society, but rather as ultimately the product of the individual's free choice.  Basic human talent is not assumed, but rather there are those who have been clearly endowed with superior mental and behavioral faculties.  Environment is not the ultimate determinant, but rather it is the pure strength of individual free will that allows him the agency to rise above whatever circumstance life throws his way.  This view is supported by a troubling lack of research.  There are occasional outliers, but evidence shows again and again not only that individuals are determined by their environment in the aggregate, but that countless specific pathways to skill-building exist in which it is not individual choice but social exchange that fosters specific agency.

However, there is a sense in which this conservative view appeals to common sense.  Individuals do make decisions, and each of us clearly feel as though we are the agents of this process.  If I do not get up and exercise at dawn, who is there to blame but myself?  Conservative rhetoric is very concerned with the emphasis of personal responsibility, and sees progressive claims to the contrary as morally bankrupt.  Indeed, in our everyday lives, the concept of individual responsibility is quite useful.

Yet, how to rectify this sense that we have free will and individual responsibility with the enormous quantity of research seeming to prove otherwise?  How to rectify it with the understanding all parents have that they are largely responsible for their children's development into successful adults?

It might be helpful here to think about the small child, at the tender age of five.  While still young, she clearly is quite developed emotionally and behaviorally.  Her cognitive skills are very advanced, capable not only of speaking with an extensive vocabulary, but able as well to learn to read, write, count and do basic mathematics.  She is capable of knowing right from wrong, even if her emotions sometimes get the best of her.  And yet, when she errs, we recognize her actions as not entirely her own.  That is, after a long day, when she throws a tantrum when asked to clean her room, we understand that she is likely tired, and thus less in command of her impulses.  If it has been discovered that she has stolen a piece of candy from the grocery store, we realize it inappropriate to send her to jail.  The more thoughtful among us might take the opportunity to reflect on whether deeper psychological issues might be at work, such as resentment of authority or a lack of self-esteem that might be inhibiting the development of personal integrity.

In short, there is nothing in her behavior that we can truly call free will; every action she takes can be traced to her development in relation to her socialization.  Children are not automatons.  They are often quite ponderous and reflective.  Yet even though they make choices, children's decision making process is clearly rooted in their relative development.  However, having only been on the Earth a short period of time, it is much easier to trace their thought process back to their cognitive development over time.  Epistemologically, the problem is relatively simple; there are fewer variables from which to draw causal conclusions.

In adults, there is no reason to think the same developmental dynamic does not exist.  However, because of the much greater time spans involved, the epistemological problem of trying to tease out causality from their thought process to their development as humans is far greater.  We can, through reflection, get some sense of why we make the decisions we do.  But it is very difficult and imprecise.  This epistemological imprecision is responsible for the useful illusion that our choices are caused not by our extensive lifelong development as humans, but rather by what is commonly referred to as "free will", or the ability to make decisions unfettered by developmental growth.

As dynamic organisms with the capacity for incalculably complex organization and processing of external stimulus, the positing of autonomy in the form of a "self" is enormously handy.  Thinking of a child first learning to talk, it is not uncommon to hear them refer to themselves in the third person.  Their knowledge of self is quite accurately based in an understanding of their developmental powers as identified and posited by their parent.  They have basic desires, emotions and thoughts, and quickly learn that they as well have agency.

Yet who are they?  From where does this agency come?  It comes from something that we can call a "self", and helpfully assign a name to further designate it as something different and autonomous from its environment.  However, as anyone familiar with small infants can attest, their agency is still quite limited, and in most ways they are entirely dependent on both the physical and mental capacities of their parent.  As they develop, they develop more autonomy and agency, and learn to think of all this as their "self".

As they grow older and more sophisticated, as their powers of agency grow, it becomes more and more useful to think of themselves as "selves".  As teenagers, their powers of self-reflection and group awareness reach the point where they are able to truly transcend their immediate home culture and begin to imagine other world views and forms of living, and even incorporate them into their growing capacity for self-identity and conception.  By the time they reach adults, any single decision they make seems entirely removed from any cognitive, emotional or behavioral development they have thus far experienced.  In the abstract, it might make some sense, but in any given situation, there is only so much one can epistemologically know about why one is making a particular decision.  To the extent that it can be known, it might be useful, but it can also be a hindrance, as time is often of the essence and too much navel-gazing can become a liability.

And so we move through the world, live our lives as if we are autonomous selves.  We feel proud of our accomplishments.  We feel shame for our failures.  But even the most stubbornly convinced among us that we indeed possess a free will that originates entirely within ourselves realize that the degree of credit we can take for our actions, the degree of personal responsibility we feel, is in some proportion to the degree to which our actions were not determined by external causes.  The concept of the "self-made man" is defined by the extent to which one's actions are divorced from external determination.  For instance, as successful as one is in business, if that business was built and handed to him from his father he cannot take full credit for it.  He was not self-made.

Returning to the research, it is rare to find anyone who can be described in any sense as "self-made".  Whether the privileges are obvious, such as family inheritance, or more subtle, such as the commitment, support and love of a parent, there is almost always a rather clear causality involved in human development and success.  This is just as true for those who lives lives of desperation and tragedy.  A lack of privilege, or outright misfortune almost always colors the lives of those who society would term failures, such as drug dealers, criminals, or just your average, everyday jerk.  Poor role-models, abusive parents, or an otherwise unloving or unsupportive environment is almost always the story of the lives of these individuals.

Of course it is possible for individuals to overcome circumstance.  However, contrary to the popular myth of the self-made man, or he who by the boot-straps pulls himself up, this can only take place in an environment in which he has been able to both develop the skills within himself that allow him to triumph, as well as take advantage of structural leverages afforded him by the society in which he lives.  Both of these - the skill building and societal leverage - fall under the rubric of societal capital, an external resource.  The former requires an environment in which he is able to develop the proper behaviors, attitudes, habits, knowledge, etc. that allow him agency.  The latter is, of course, the environment itself which affords him opportunities to apply his amassed stores of human capital.

This is the larger narrative behind the respective ideologies that Barack Obama and Mitt Romney represent, the assumptions about how agency is developed and applied in society.  Obama, representing the progressive view, emphasizes the degree of social determinism in the development of every citizen.  Romney, representing the classical liberal and modern conservative view, emphasizes the degree to which individuals are able to transcend society and freely make of themselves what they eventually become.  Strange as though it may be to believe, the Romney tradition is highly allergic to the concepts of societal and human capital as dynamic, reinforcing aspects of human development and realization.  The Romney view would deny much of the extent to which human capital is dependent on societal capital, instead viewing it as something that an individual is able to manufacture from whole cloth.  Societal capital itself is likewise seen with diminished import, either in many cases its dismissed entirely as a factor, or its valance downplayed.

To Obama, the successful business man is not really self-made at all, but rather is privileged to have enjoyed environmental privileges - societal capital -  that have allowed him to experience success.  Obama would no doubt view inequality between Israel and Palestine and look for imbalances in things like education, roads, access to water, occupation, etc. to explain such disparity.  To Romney, a businessman is in most ways an island of self-determination, free from the constraints of both human and societal capital.  Thus his reference to Israeli culture itself seems a contradiction - would not culture be a clear description of the interplay between human and societal capital?  Yet in the Romney framework, culture, to the extent that we are not simply arguing ethnocentric bigotry, is not so much viewed as a causal factor, but a description of things as they are, the way one might look at a flower and describe it's beauty.  However, while the flower's beauty has a clear evolutionary purpose, its cause entirely traceable to its genetics, the Romney view of culture is owed to a profound faith in the free will of man, and therefor outside the ordinary realm of natural causality and the physical universe.  This was actually illustrated rather well in Romney's follow-up allusion to "providence" as having played a role in Israel's relative affluence. 

In the November presidential election, we face two competing visions not only of policy and values, but of deeper assumptions about the nature of human development and agency.

In Obama, we have the belief represented that a free citizenry, one with an equal chance at life success, depends on individuals having equal access to the societal capital that will allow them to build and then leverage their own human capital.  While this project is no where near finished, and will likely never be, government can play a highly effective role in guaranteeing access to at least minimum levels of required societal capital.

In Romney, we have the belief that a free citizenry depends only marginally on individuals having access to societal capital, that they are each perfectly capable of developing and finding ways to leverage their own human capital.  Government has grown much too large and invasive, and needs to do much less in the way of ensuring societal capital to individuals.

Ultimately, the vote will largely be about whether you believe that human and societal capital are highly dependent, as research has proven again and again, or that human agency is something that individuals can create from nothing, likely even more so when their faith is placed in the Christian God, a view for which there exists not a shred of evidence, and is counter to our most basic understanding of the laws of the universe.

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