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?