Monday, 30 June 2014

Free will in politics

Let's look at politics in a different way. Strip away the policy disputes of the day, the silly thing Rick Perry said yesterday, the electoral strategising, the punditry, and political philosophy too. What do we have left? Beneath the appearances the fundamental difference between the left and the right in politics is both grander and simpler than you might expect. It's about free will.

Welcome to social metaphysics.

Free will is what we feel we have, when we 'decide' to do things and then do them because we want to. Determinism is what we fear we know: that nothing happens except as caused by prior events in the material universe (themselves caused). If everything is caused by things bumping into other things, then so are our actions, choices, and even our conscious feeling of free will - making it seem rather unfree after all. (By the way, this problem can't be resolved by invoking Epicurus's swerve, or the uncertainty that quantum physics tells us is an irreducible part of the way the universe works. That would make our brain-states to some degree unpredictable, but does nothing to make them 'ours'.)

Some philosophers find this metaphysical conundrum terribly important. But for the rest of us the metaphysics hardly seems to matter: we just live our way through it. All that matters, as the eminently sensible philosopher David Hume noted, is that when I want to move my arm, I can. But there is another domain in which this esoteric philosophical conundrum comes back to bite: politics. Strangely it is not the determinism of the material universe but the social one that generates the most intense debate about free will.

The crux of the difference between the right and the left in politics is that conservatives moralise, and socialists rationalise.


Conservatives moralise the social order, and then moralise the behaviour of individuals with respect to that order. While the social order is fixed as what it ought to be (by God, tradition, or whatever) individual behaviour is contingent and can go right or wrong. Thus, if you behave as you are supposed to, you are good. If you dissent from the social order, whether by being gay or robbing a bank, then you are bad.

Yet a problem arises in this conception of social order. For in order to hold individuals morally responsible for what they do, and praise and punish accordingly, those individuals need to have been able to behave otherwise. In other words, a commitment to the moral integrity of the social order requires a metaphysical commitment: that individuals be conceived as having free will. There is a 'naturally' right way to behave. If you don't behave like that, it is because you have chosen not to act rightly. It is therefore legitimate to punish you - punishment is the appropriate response to immoral behaviour by free moral agents.

This metaphysical commitment to free will is the result of ideology - the conservative's need to defend and enforce the foundational justice of the social order. If the world is just, then people who succeed deserve to succeed, and those who seem to be suffering in deprivation must somehow deserve that too. Thanks to free will, individuals have the power and also the responsibility to determine their own futures.

Hence conservatives' fetishisation of will power or effort, a conveniently intangible factor that is supposedly equally under the control of every individual. The idea of will power squares the uncomfortable facts of unequal starting points and unequal outcomes with the thesis that we live in a just meritocratic society after all. In this model, those who succeed in life can take credit for that success as their own: 'they built that' with their will power. At the same time, the poor can be blamed for their condition and trained to blame themselves. It becomes possible to declare that a single mother trying to raise 4 children by herself could be the CEO of a Fortune 100 company if she just pulled herself together and stopped mooching off the state.

In addition, a commitment to free will allows many large scale problems to be blamed on individuals rather than the social order, thus preserving that social order from moral scrutiny. Everything, good or bad, is the result of  individuals' moral choices. Individuals have agency and hence exist in themselves; social institutions do not. So by definition there can be no such thing as victims of social injustice, only victims of bad people. Social effects are merely large scale aggregations of behaviour by individuals. Material poverty, sexual violence, racial discrimination, political corruption, and so on are redefined from being structural problems which afflict individuals to being the aggregate effects of actions that individuals choose to do to themselves or others.

A recent political event in Britain illustrates this phenomenon: a survey concerned to identify 'troubled families' suffering from multiple deprivations and thus in need of greatest help was converted by a conservative government into a list of those families responsible for causing society most trouble. As the prime minister noted,
I want to talk about troubled families. Let me be clear what I mean by this phrase. Officialdom might call them ‘families with multiple disadvantages’. Some in the press might call them ‘neighbours from hell’. Whatever you call them, we've known for years that a relatively small number of families are the source of a large proportion of the problems in society. Drug addiction. Alcohol abuse. Crime. A culture of disruption and irresponsibility that cascades through generations. (Source)


Those on the political left tend to take a rather more 'scientific' approach to social metaphysics, meaning that they study the effects of determinism rather than the mysteries of free will. While conservatives see the inherited social order as inherently good but dependent upon the moral conformity of individuals to work as it should, socialists see the nature of individuals as innately good while the actual lives we live are determined by social conditions.  As Rousseau began his Social Contract,
Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains. 
Society makes us who we are. Personal identity - what conservatives prefer to call 'moral character' - doesn't come out of nothing, any more than a rabbit can be pulled out of an empty hat. It can't be bootstrapped by some existential philosophy, or inserted into foetuses by some mysterious deity. It comes from the external world, namely society.

It is not surprising that the social sciences are overwhelmingly dominated by the left (or that economics, with its emphasis on spontaneous market order, is the exception). The social sciences' mission - to work out how personality, values, and habits are produced by society - attracts those with leftist 'rationalist' perspectives on social metaphysics, and reinforces such attitudes by its training. They look at individuals and see their lives, and the way we see our own lives, as created through social conditioning and individual circumstances and experiences. Our sense of 'free will' is a social product.

The result of this metaphysical conclusion - humans are social animals - is that the socialist takes the opposite perspective to the conservative when it comes to justice. Social problems like racism, sexism, and poverty are societal failures not the product of individual moral failures. Individuals cannot be held morally responsible in any meaningful truthful sense for their actions, any more than for their problems, if who they are is just the product of social circumstances. Blame and punishment are illegitimate. One should instead try to explain the social causes of these problems, and then intervene to address them. It is the social order, not the individual, which should be put on trial.

The general project of the left follows from this. It is concerned with analysing and bringing about an ideal social social order that would be fit for us to live in. There would be no racism or sexism in such a society because if people lived in a properly moral social order in the first place, such evils could not arise. People would naturally behave justly if only they could live in a society rationally designed according to the demands of justice (and not whatever God was thinking of in the conservative vision).


Some of the strange features of contemporary politics may be explained by this simple disagreement about social metaphysics. For example:

How can conservatives be both in favour of strong communitarian norms and pro-business?
Conservatives believe that individuals have free will, but they have moralised it in complex ways. In some areas, especially sex, the focus is on punishing deviant choices (like acting on one's homosexuality), but one doesn't get credit for doing the right thing. In other areas, like the economy, one can get positive credit for one's exercise of will power. Business, and other competitive domains like sports and the military, are proving grounds for demonstrating your superiority of will, and hence your moral claim to fame and fortune, without challenging the social order.

Why is the left both individualistic and also so concerned with regulating people's choices?
While individual welfare is a central concern of the left - the standard (utilitarian) metric of progress - individual liberty is not. In the left's 'scientific materialist' worldview, individuals are the mechanical products of social institutions and are thus dependent on the wise and beneficent designs of social engineers - philosopher kings and social scientist technocrats.

Why do conservatives seem to wilfully ignore structural explanations of the kind so common in science  (whether of racialised poverty or evolution)? 
Conservatives see the world as a moral drama that is all about the choices of moral agents. Structural explanations which attribute causal powers to invisible entities like institutions don't fit easily with this world view.

Why is the left obsessed with material equality?
Individuals are fundamentally equal because they are by nature - outside society - all innately good. So differences in how well they do must be due to either luck or social injustice, such as institutionalised prejudice or cronyist arrangements that rig the game in favour of insiders. Since neither of these is acceptable, the just society would be characterised by equal outcomes for all.

And so on.

The alternative: liberalism

No wonder conservatives and socialists don't get along! One party wants to protect the social order from wicked individuals, the other to protect individuals from an unjust society. Yet this analysis also makes clear an area of agreement: neither conservatives nor liberals are really committed to individual freedom. Instead they believe in the related but distinct ideas of moral responsibility and individual welfare, respectively.

There seems to me to be a space between these two doctrines for a genuinely freedom oriented politics in the tradition of John Stuart Mill's liberalism. Here the conservative's concept of free will is taken seriously as a central normative commitment, but not only for the purposes of assigning moral responsibility. The reciprocal freedom of individuals to exercise free will in governing their own lives and moral values should set restrictions on what kind of social order is permissible, rather than the other way around.

Pretty much everyone has the capacity for free will construed in this sense of personal autonomy (leaving children and the mentally handicapped aside). But our actual capability to exercise that autonomy depends on the opportunities we have to develop and practise our practical reason and to have opportunities for and powers of intervening in the world. The single mother caring for four young children has the capacity to be something quite different, perhaps even the CEO of some big company. But she probably doesn't have the capability to do so without access to things like freedom from social prejudice, cheap child-care, and access to a suitable academic education (like an MBA) and a career-track not mommy-track job.

Thus social institutions are of great significance, not to determining who we are, but to determining what we are able to make of ourselves. A genuinely freedom oriented view of the social order asks how it assists and hinders individuals from developing and exercising their capability to govern their own lives. That is something different from asking the narrow question of how well off it makes individuals in the end. Liberalism also adapts the left's focus on equality. Instead of focusing on equality of outcome, it focuses on equality of difference: does everyone have what they need to build a life for themselves that they have reason to value?


  1. Could you please clarify your argument: you prefer liberalism to conservatism and progressivism; but do you keep some elements of both philosophies in your own? That is, do you agree with the conservatives in free will and with the progressives in the effects of social structures?

    1. If i may:
      He put down conservatism and progressivism as 2 absolutist views, a 100% nature vs 100% nurture. Liberalism (''on liberty'' is pure awesomeness imo) is like a synthesis in a way, that is puts nature at its foundation, but does not disregard the effects of nurture. See it as looking at the world from the perspective of potential: You might have the potential to do a thing, but it is your environment that can either restrict of reinforce that potential.
      A rather common sense idea, but ofter times lost for some reason.
      As to the reason why that notion gets out of view: focus(obviously). When a person sees a particular aspect of an equation, and finds out it is significant, they get carried away and personify that perspective to the equation, disregarding the other side(s) because: If we can makes things right over here, we won't even have to bother with the other side. Il give you 2 examples.
      First up genetics: A researcher in genetics might find out that genetics is linked to all kinds of diseases(the nature perspective since you are born with it). They become so obsessed by that idea that they start advising women to preventively chop of their breasts, because their genes pretty much state that they will get breast cancer at some point in their lives. His ultimate wet dream is to engineer babies in such a way they will never ever get any of those diseases-> Fixing one side of the equation, so we don't have to bother with the other side.
      The other side in this equation is that genes work more sophisticated than that, again, they follow the notion of potential, and are more like switches rather than code written in stone. It is your environment (nutrition(in a positive sense) and harm(in a negative one)) that actualizes your genetic potentiality. Now the researcher is an intelligent guy, but a short sighted fanatic. The only weapon against short sighted fanaticism is not intelligence, but wisdom.
      Now my second example would be the young feminist cunt who is brainwashed by her women studies professors, who them selves are a victim of the ''Frankfurte schule'', but this post is already for to long, so.....

    2. On further thought, it seems now that the Philosopher's Beard is arguing, to answer my own question, people have agency, but social arrangements can interfere with them- so the solution isn't to change society as a whole, nor to pretend that people can do everything against large handicaps- but to encourage self determination or free will.
      I wonder if that's part of quixote's larger point

  2. I don't speak for our Philosopher, but I don't understand him as saying that one takes a bit here and a bit there and puts them together.

    To use an analogy, it's more as if one side was pro-omelette, the other pro-scrambled eggs, and he's saying let's let the egg become a chicken.

    Everybody is talking about the same subject (eggs, free will, responsibility, but the approaches are so different that the results would be very different, too.

  3. This is a pretty gross over-simplification, to the point of being a distortion. Rousseau has a robust theory of free will, for one thing. Not to mention that anyone who has really read Marx realizes that he has one of the most robust theories of individual freedom around, and that his social critique originates in it.

    I'd argue that what distinguishes the left and the right is that the left argues that free will is inherently substantive, in that it contains a social dimension, and that their social and political critique attempts to demonstrate the various social and political forces that prevent individuals from enacting their freedom.

    The right, on the other hand, has a largely formal, rather than substantive, definition of freedom, and this naturally leads to an asocial understanding of individuals, and that further tends to downplay any social or political impediments, seeing them instead as failures of individual will.

    You're basically peddling the standard liberals believe in equality, conservatives believe in freedom nonsense, that does more to harm political and philosophical conversation than it does good. Dress it up all you want, but it amounts to the same thing.

    1. Yes, it's a simplification, an idealisation that tries to get why conservatives are so anxious to blame and socialists to explain. I think Rousseau, with his fetishisation of authenticity and his contempt for amour propre does fit quite well (after all he was the father of modern totalitarianism). Marx though (whom you're right I should read properly) has on the one hand a goal I think of as properly liberal “replacing the domination of circumstances and chance over individuals by the domination of individuals over chance and circumstances”. And on the other hand, as a social scientist, contributes concepts like class conflict and false consciousness which are rather deterministic.

      Conservatives don't believe in freedom on my reading, but in the related idea of moral responsibility. The left's conception of equality is an impoverished inhuman one without freedom. I think it's important to acknowledge that both left and right have latched on to important features of justice, which is why political debate is not an exercise in bad faith. Nevertheless, liberalism seems to me to combine their strengths without their narrowness of vision.

    2. You're just not right about this. I don't like calling people out, but you shouldn't talk so confidently about things you really don't know.

      Specifically, calling Rousseau the father of totalitarianism is absurd. Calling him the father of the French Revolution, might be more apt, but you're so far from having any truth in your claim, that I don't know how to respond.

    3. 1) The argument of my essay doesn't hinge on the accuracy of my view of Rousseau.

      2) I note the fact of your disagreement, but it's not enough. I've read The Social Contract and I've read commentaries. If I'm wrong about Rousseau then I am wrong in a conventional way: I am in the company of many philosophers and commentators far more distinguished than myself.

    4. You made a good analysis of progressives and conservatives, but what do you make of groups like Objectivists, where do they fit in?

  4. Hi, but Marx is true, the fact is that we are both determined and free. We are determined in our possibilities, there are things we can't do even if it is physically possible but our education, environment (society) in general doesn't allow us to do so. For example a capitalist cannot betray his social class, not because it is physically impossible but, as a member of capitalist class, his social existence doesn't allow him to do so, except if peculiar conditions push him to do so.
    So it bounces back to what you call the left, society conditions you. But society is not like what you suggest an abstract society. It is shaped by humans who in their turn influence it through class struggle mainly. You say society is of great significance to allow us to make what we want to do. But "what we want to do" is socially built. In the anglo-saxon world it is taken for granted that people want to enrich and get the great positions like CEO. But this vision is linked to propaganda, the system wants you to aspire to be CEO because it tries to capture the best off you.

    So liberty doesn't mean to do what you want, like Hannah arendt says, this is, instead, the contrary of liberty. Liberty is to act according principles through ways to influence the whole society. It is to build a society which freed you from oppression. In other words to build up a society. Jean Paul Sartre once said: French people have never been so freed as during under occupation of nazis. Because the occupation gives you the opportunity (through collaboration or resistance) to radically change the face of society.

    As a Trotskyste I consider that the political structure of my party gives me freedom in the sense that it offers me the possibility to politically change society to something I build up. In this sense class consciousness and the party are the tools for me to get freedom because is allows me to act at the scale of society. You may even with class consciousness and the party refuse the struggle or even struggle against us. You are free to do so.

    To sum it up, freedom is not what you, liberalists, say: to get ways to do what the society offers: jobs, products in the market and whatever; it is to change the rules of society itself

  5. This sentence:

    "The result of this metaphysical conclusion - humans are social animals - is that the liberal takes the opposite perspective to the conservative when it comes to justice."

    presumably should have used "socialist" where it now says "liberal" given the later section on liberalism as the Third Way.