Saturday, February 24, 2007

Is Free Will Incredible?

Tibor R. Machan

As someone who became convinced early in my life and even more so in my career as an academic philosopher that human beings normally possess free will, I have been fighting something of an uphill battle about the issue despite how ubiquitous the assumption is that we indeed do have this capacity. Anytime we hold people responsible, or urge that they alter their conduct, resist a temptation, battle some bad habit, and so forth, the free will idea lurks in the background. The criminal and even tort law, of course, assumes people could have done otherwise than they did, all things being equal. Politics, with all of its blaming and praising, is in the same situation, as is personal morality where none of its would make sense unless we had the capacity to choose how we act and thus can be faulted for failing to do what’s right. As the famous German philosopher Immanuel Kant said, "ought" implies "can."

On the other hand, in most scientific disciplines, both natural and social, the idea of free will has gotten a very bad rep. Most social scientists want to find the factors or causes that explain how people behave and declare themselves value-free, free, that is, of any moral or ethical evaluation of our conduct. With the rise of the influence of genetics as a field wherein causes of human behavior, even attitudes, feelings, thoughts, ideas, and the rest are explored, the conviction has become virtually universal among scientists of all kids that everything about us is fully, unexceptionably caused by various innate, hard-wired biological attributes or properties or by prompters in the environment.

Most recently, for example, the notion that the habit of smoking is something fully physiological got a boost from findings about someone who had an injury to a part of his brain and suddenly had no inclination to smoke whatsoever. Similar findings have made the news about our intentions—they seem to researchers to be irrelevant to what we do. As the UK weekly, THE WEEK reported in its February 17, 2007, issue: “neuroscientists have, for the first time, used brain imaging techniques to work out people’s future intentions.” Specifically, “the research involved asking volunteers to decide whether to add or subtract two numbers they had not yet seen, before being given a brain scan using a technique called functional magnetic imaging resonance…[and] the researches were able to predict, with a 70% success rate, whether the volunteers would add or subtract the numbers when they were flashed up on screen.”

But it isn’t just some of this, still not fully interpreted, work that gives the determinists their confidence. From early on when the natural sciences got their big boost, around the time of Galileo, philosophers like Thomas Hobbes and Baruch Spinoza inferred from the findings of physics and astronomy that free will must be a self-delusion. In the 20th century, with the emergence of quantum physics, some of this came under criticism but even with uncertainty as a feature of the world, most scientists, such as Stephen Hawking, simply said, well we may never be able to fully prove determinism but it is really the only game in town. Such philosophers as Daniel Dennett and Paul and Patricia Churchland followed suit and today there is widespread consensus among both the scientists and the philosophers that the determinism that says all of what we do has to happen as it does and our minds are not in control of our actions seem to carry the day.

Why, then, might one hold out in favor of free will? I am no mystic; I do not believe in “spooky” things, to use Dennett’s way of characterizing the idea of human agency, or self-determination. What then? Is it sheer stubbornness, the desperate need to believe that I am in control of things? Others can do without the idea and so could I if I didn't think determinism makes little sense. And the determinist's idea just doesn’t make sense, in the end.

As I write these lines, I observe that I am in control. Indeed, the very idea that some of these bright folks have a handle on how things are with human behavior couldn’t make sense if they were not free to check it out without prejudice, without having their minds already hard-wired to think in certain ways. And the evidence against free will also seems a bit odd—when one drives down the road and a car suddenly veers into one's lane and one quickly steers to avoid it, how is it that one's intention is predictable? No one knew of the veering of the car and what someone would do—indeed, many may have gotten into a crash at such a point. Too much in our lives is unpredictable quite apart from free will and how we will act in light of such events then could hardly be predicted.

Even that evidence about parts of the brain suggesting that our habits are innate is a bit fishy—all of that may well be a matter of correlation, not causation. Sure, ongoing practices leave traces in the brain, that’s to be expected, and these are likely to become factors in the development of habits. But the initial practices could well have been a matter of free choice.

There’s much more to the discussion. It is a vital one for many reasons. But certain features of our lives, especially those having to do with independent—indeed, scientific—thinking support that there is a central element of freedom in human existence that is impossible to deny.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Morality and Illiberal Democracy

by Tibor R. Machan

When the term "democracy" is used loosely, as in geopolitical discussions, it is used to mean that kind of political system in which everyone can have an input into decisions bearing on public affairs. What is left mostly unspecified is just what count as public affairs.

In a totalitarian state everything counts as the public realm; in a free country there are strict limits. In most existing countries today it's somewhere in between. Democratic decisions impact taxation, government regulation, international diplomacy, education and health policies, and whatever else the government is involved in. The idea of limiting the public realm has gone out of fashion and was never taken very seriously except by some few political theorists and even fewer politicians, let alone bureaucrats. Once in power, there is a very strong temptation to expand the reach of the power one has. People who get chummy with government tend not to like it when its powers are limited—they have agendas and such limitations could impede their efforts to carry them out.

And in democracies the politicians' constituency often urges government to expand its power so as to provide the voters with various benefits —ones, however, that have to be obtained by confiscating other people's resources, including their labor.

In short, democracy often tilts quite powerfully against morality. No, there is no consensus about what is the right morality for people to practice, but there are some general principles or virtues most of us support at least in the realm of private conduct. Few people champion robbing Peter so as to "help" out Paul—we usually believe that Peter needs to agree to the idea. Instead of confiscation, stealing, most would tend to endorse generosity and charity. The same is true about honesty—on the whole, other than in exceptional cases, most of us value straight talk and have contempt for liars. I think the same can be said about respecting the liberty of others—we hire them if we would like them to work for us and do not coerce them into doing such work. Millions of others do valuable labor but we tend to consider it wrong to conscript this labor for our benefit.

So while there are disagreements about various moral matters—abortion, assisted suicide, child-raising and so forth—there is a very large sphere of agreement, too. Yet when we look at the way democracy functions in most countries, it is in these areas of basic moral agreement where a serious discord is evident. Democratic decisions do, in fact, lead to robbing Peter so as to "help" out Paul. (I use the scare quotes because one can hardly call forcing people to part with their resources bone fide help given to anyone! This is why government cannot be compassionate!) Democratic decision making routinely endorses conscripting people's labor, limiting their liberty, making them act as they do not choose to even when they are not violating anyone's rights, and so forth. In short, illiberal, unlimited democracy is routinely in conflict with standards of morality or ethics.

In practical terms this means that most countries are replete with public policies that are out and out immoral ... yet widely accepted, too. Is it so curious, then, that young people in these countries get mixed messages about how they ought to conduct themselves? If it is OK for politicians and bureaucrats to make promises they not only will not but cannot keep, who is to communicate any objections to this in how young people comport themselves toward each other and their elders? Why should they not lie when governments do so all the time? If it is OK for democratically established public policies to violate strictures of ethics—let's take Peter's wealth (he has too much, he doesn't need it so much, she is using it badly, etc., and so forth) and transfer it to Paul (but take a good chunk on the way to pay for our diligent transfer efforts)—why should young people abstain from stealing? What if, especially, they get peer approval—isn't that like democracy, after all?

Throughout the schools in most Western countries democracy is hailed day in and day out but at the same time some of the worst kind of human conduct is carried out in democracy's name, with the democratic process's sanction. Does this not tell those students that, well, when there is wide consensus for breaching morality and ethics, it's just fine to perpetrate the breach? So go ahead and cheat, copy other's tests, plagiarize, bully some kids, steal from a few, and so on. I would think it does.

It seems clear to me that if one expects the younger generation to grow up to be decent people, illiberal democracy isn't helping to facilitate this.
Abortion Debate Redux

Tibor R. Machan

Sometimes a debate or discussion goes completely astray because concepts are used that are entirely confusing. The abortion debate is a case in point.

It begins with the cryptic terms used to classify the opposing sides: Pro-life versus pro-choice. While such labels should never be taken literally, in this case they tend to be. Those who are on the pro-life side seem really to think they are for life, while their opponents are against life. Yet, of course, pro-life advocates aren’t, for example, defenders of animal rights which they would have to be if they were pro life period. What they seem to be is pro human life. And here is the problem—while life may well begin at conception, it doesn’t not follow from this that what begins then is the life of a human being. A fetus is something that’s alive, as is a tooth or a strand of hair. But no one is concerned about pulling a tooth or cutting off of a strand of hair—it isn’t deemed to be murder. What is murder is the unjust killing of a human being. If, however, there is no human being around yet, only a fetus, a potential human being, then there can be no murder (although it could still be ethically objectionable).

So the real issue so called pro-lifers ought to be concerned about is when a human being comes into existence, not when life beings. Even sperm are alive, yet these are killed routinely without anyone suggesting that it constitutes murder. (Well, “anyone” may be an exaggeration!)

On the pro-choice side, in turn, the real issue isn’t choice. For one, many who believe in “the woman’s right to choose” confine this right to the choice to kill a fetus or, as pro-life folks (question-beggingly!) refer to it, “an unborn child.” Many who defend the right of women to have abortions do not believe in their right to choose not to pay taxes, to smoke dope, to refuse to sell a home to blacks, etc., etc. They aren’t really in favor of choices of which they disapprove, just as pro-lifers aren’t.

Indeed, a choice to murder someone is not one anyone ought to have a right to make. Whether “a woman’s right to choose” is worth defending depends on what the choice is about. If it is a choice to kill another human being—even if that human being is inside the woman (after all one’s child is inside one’s home and no one may commit infanticide there or anywhere, for that matter)—no one has a right to make it.

I suppose it is unrealistic to expect that most parties to this debate will get down to the business of trying to resolve it in fair and accurate terms. They are too committed either way. But there has to be a resolution—it should be either legally right or wrong to have (or to ban) abortions. What is an abortion in the majority of cases? The deliberate killing of a fetus before or around the 24th week of pregnancy. (We aren’t here talking about late term abortions, which are extreme cases and deserve separate treatment.) May a woman kill or have killed such a being? If yes, then abortions must remain legal, just as any other actions that do not violated the rights of anyone must (a point many pro-choice folks miss). If no, they must be banned, just as any murder must be.

To reiterate, pro-life people aren’t actually pro life, per se. The bulk of them have no problem with killing chicken or fish or even monkeys for purposes of medical testing. They are only against killing human beings and they believe abortion involves doing so. Most pro-choice folks, too, don’t much care about choices, only about the choice of a woman to terminate a pregnancy and they hold that this may not be prohibited because it does not involved murdering a human being.

So the real issues is when does a human being come into existence. Is it at conception? Is it when the fetus acquires some capacity to think—based on “man is a thinking animal”? Or is it when someone is born—we celebrate birthdays then, thus it's the beginning of someone’s human life?

With these questions before us, I am confident that more progress would be made in this highly divisive and acrimonious debate. It may even be lead to a rational resolution of it.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Defending Capitalism's Integrity

by Tibor R. Machan

For most of its history the capitalist economic system has been both admired and criticized. Its capacity for making productivity possible in human communities is unparalleled and hardly anyone can deny this. Even the late American Marxist, Robert Heilbroner, famous for his book The Worldly Philosophers, acknowledged this after the fall of the Soviet Union. He wrote in The New Yorker Magazine that "... Ludwig von Mises ... had written of the 'impossibility' of socialism, arguing that no Central Planning Board could ever gather the enormous amount of information needed to create a workable economic system. ... It turns out, of course, that Mises was right. ..." And Mises, of course, was one of the most consistent, uncompromising defender of pure, laissez-faire capitalism.

Yet, even after the demise of the Soviet system of socialism—the only type that ever aspired to be a fully consistent version of that kind of political economy, with full collective ownership of the means of production (including, as Heilbroner himself noted in his own book, Marxism, For and Against), human labor—many keep criticizing the fully free market system of capitalism. Libertarianism, which is the broader political equivalent of it, also gets this criticism, namely, that it has no room for a safety net for those in dire straits, those who are helpless, indigent, needy, unprepared to deal with market processes, etc. This is the usual mantra of the critics. More extreme versions of them, of course, don't like anything about capitalism and want some kind of dreamlike fully egalitarian system where the wealth is nearly evenly distributed, even if this means the complete destruction of productivity in such a human community. Better we are all equal and poor than we are unequal and most of us quite well off, with some even extraordinarily wealthy.

Never mind this last alternative—it's a loser for sure and only some dreamers who would attempt to remake human nature support it. But what about those who find fault with full, laissez-faire capitalism because of its refusal to allow government to provide for those in dire straits and such? Don't they have a point?

Yes, they do—but they make inferences from it that do not follow. It is possible in a fully capitalist system for some to remain left out. There can be innocent hard luck cases, there is no doubt about that. What doesn't follow is that government ought to do something about this. Instead, free men and women would have to muster the resolve to lend a hand where that's needed. And it's rank cynicism to deny that they would—after all, it is precisely in semi-capitalist systems that charity and philanthropy thrive today! Furthermore, to think that such help would not be forthcoming undermines the very idea that it is used to support, namely, that democratic governments can step in and do the job. That's because such governments are a reflection of the population, if they really are democratic. Which means if the people are mean and heartless, government would be so in spades.

But even beyond these replies to the critics, there is the problem that once the principles of a fully free society are compromised in the legal system, all hell breaks loose. Even if government might be effective in lending its hand to those in dire straits, as soon as it would do this nearly everyone in society would insist that their agenda deserves support, too. There is no way to hold back this logic—a legal system that allows favoritism for even the most extraordinarily needy will be unable to resist yielding to the pleas of all others, and all others would mount massive lobbying efforts to achieve this. All of it is all too evident in current welfare states across the globe and it produces financial crises and more poverty everywhere than what a fully capitalist system would likely produce.

The bottom line is that a fully free society is really the best idea for human community life and even the hard luck cases are more likely to benefit from it than they would from societies with government interference.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Health Care is a Value, not a Right

Tibor R. Machan

Health care is not a right—one cannot have a right to other people’s service. Those must be provided voluntarily. A better understanding of the relationships people have to health care is that the latter is a value that doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals would, if they were free men and women, provide to people they would choose as recipients, on terms they regard as acceptable.

These values are not owed to anyone unless first agreed to be provided. Doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals may not be placed into involuntary servitude to people needing their services. The relationships must be voluntary, no matter how vital the services in question are to the recipients.

The belief that people may justly be coerced so as to secure funds to pay medical professionals who then will service those who need their work is an error—or a ruse. In a free country adult men and women must treat each other as ends in themselves, not as unwilling tools, instruments, or means to each other’s ends. Just as someone may not go over to one’s neighbors’ homes to conscript them to come and mow one’s lawn or drive one to the hospital but must ask for this and await willingly given help, so any service such as medical care must be obtained without coercion.

Some people believe that once it has been democratically determined that people must pay for medical services to everyone, there is nothing wrong with collecting taxes for this purpose. This view is wrong because no group—or majority of a group—may take what belongs to others. It is no less unjust to do such a thing than it is to hang someone because the majority in some town decides it is acceptable to do so, without first following due process, namely demonstrating through a justice system that the hanging is deserved.
The myth of having a right to medical care, and all sorts of other services that need the work or resources of others, leads to the view that people can proceed with their lives without having to be responsible for producing—or obtaining via voluntary interaction—whatever living requires. There are all kinds of costs people must cover and be prepared to cover, alone or with the voluntary cooperation through trade, charity, generosity, or grant of loans of others. Imposing such costs on unwilling others is like dumping pollution on unwilling others, a natural crime.

Arnold Schwarzenegger should not be complicit in perpetrating the myth of health care rights. He should follow the lead of his late friend, Milton Friedman, and champion a truly free society, including a completely voluntary system of doctor-patient relationships. Anything else is bad for both parties, although it may appear otherwise—as most moral shortcuts do, initially. Securing health care by means of the police power of government is bad for us all.

I am probably whistling in the dark about this (and many other matters having to do with how people should relate to one another on a completely voluntary basis). Too many hope that when the government secures for them what others can do they will escape being victims of such coercion. Slavery, even the more moderate version involved in the universal health care scheme, gains its support mostly from folks who think they will never be the salves, only the masters.

Yet as history shows, this is a futile hope. When the policy of obtaining services form others through coercion gains widespread acceptance, in the end no one can escape becoming a victim. This is one reason the American founders opted for a country in which everyone has unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and no one may be coerced for any purpose at all—that’s what unalienable means! But their teaching was largely premature. Too many of us still suffer from the governmental habit, the worst habit of them all.
Revisiting Human Nature

Tibor R. Machan

False alternatives are often presented as if there is nothing else to choose—like, love me or hate me, or being kind or mean. But in most cases there are many other options.

Throughout the history of ideas there has been a false alternative that’s been paraded before us, that of human beings as either naturally, innately good or evil. In modern philosophy the two positions are represented by Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Thomas Hobbes. For Rousseau we are all born good but then get corrupted by society. According to Hobbes we are all driven by dark motives, mostly fear of death, to seek power over nature and others.

In religion, too, there is the idea that basically human beings are sinful and need to be lifted out of this awful state; in some other religions, however, we are deemed to be good from the start. Before considering this idea that its either one or the other, it is worth considering that conservatives have championed the Hobbesian idea, as well as its religious version, namely, that we are all basically corrupt. The conservative believes, as David Brooks points out, “a universal human nature; that it has nasty, competitive elements; that we don’t understand much about it; and that the conventions and institutions that have evolved to keep us from slitting each other’s throats are valuable and are altered at great peril.” Idealists or utopians think people are essentially good (or might, at least, be reengineered to be so).

Yet, think about it: if we are really so bad at heart, why should anyone think those conventions and institutions that have evolved aren’t the fruits of our evil nature? Why trust them? Quite the opposite would follow—naturally evil beings spawn evil practices, customs, laws and so forth. Also, how come we are born good but somehow society—which is, after all, the lot of us—makes us bad? Seems a weird idea.

There is also the problem that “competitive” is mistaken for “combative.” People, very nice ones indeed, compete throughout the world without in the slightest being nasty. Also, if we don’t understand human nature, how come David Brooks and others with whom he aligns himself on this issue have so much to say about it? From ignorance nothing follows, so why are they not just silent about it all?

But by far the most important problem here is that we are presented with a significant false alternative. So, suppose Rousseau was mistaken. Does it follow that Hobbes is correct? The evidence does not bear this out at all.

No once can dispute that there is a lot that’s objectionable in what human beings have done but no one can reasonably deny that human beings have also achieved much that’s admirable. Even all the conservative laments about how we are all “slouching toward Gomorrah” (a book title by Robert Bork) is an exaggeration—those looking back to the good old days conveniently forget that at least America’s good old days were filled with slavery, conscription, male chauvinistic laws, censorship, a murderous war, and lots of awful public policies. But, yes, there were also glorious things in the past, like the rule of law, respect for private property rights, civility in discourse, and so forth and so on. In short, human history has been replete with good and with evil.

What does this suggest? Certainly not that people are naturally good. Nor that they are naturally evil. Indeed, what it does seem to support is that human beings are neither one or the other, at least at the outset of their lives—they are what even the Bible suggests, quite without good or evil but with the capacity to embrace either, more or less, over their lifetimes.

The idea that people possess free will supports this, as well. Yes, they have a human nature—maybe even a firmly fixed one—but this could well amount to the fact that they are capable of thinking and, in consequence, choosing how they will conduct themselves. Some will choose well, some badly, none has to do just one or the other.

There really is much more support for this view of human nature—one that understands us with the freedom to choose our character for good or for ill—than what the conservatives or the utopians present. If the conservatives were right, humanity would have been doomed from the start. If the utopian idealists, then we would have no problems and all would go well all of the time. And clearly neither of this is what the evidence shows.

It is interesting that the American legal tradition gives credibility to this view of human nature, when it treats those not convicted of a crime as “not guilty.” That’s how we should see ourselves.