Sunday, May 17, 2009

"Rewards" of Determinism?

Tibor R. Machan

A few weeks ago I speculated on the motives of certain researchers at UCSB's new neuroscience center, suggesting that they are there's something "cooking at some of America's higher education institutions." The wording here can imply that those involved are up to no good or something a little circumspect, even devious. Someone to whom I showed this column as I was preparing it took issue with me. writing that what is suggested "leaves a bad taste. It patronizes hundreds of legal and moral scholars, which is especially unbecoming given that many of them (including those at UCSB, whom I know well) have already given enormous thought to the issues you raise, and are not in fact refuted by your attempted 'gotcha'."

Anytime in arguments among intellectuals motivations are introduced, one risks taking a false step. First, few people know why others champion a position on some controversial topic, although sometimes one can guess fairly well. Still, it is strictly speaking bad form to raise the issue of motives. (Yes, yes, it is done all the time but still, doing it can indeed leave a bad taste.)

Of course, the history of ideas is filled with discussions that do indeed impute questionable motives to one's adversary. Most notable is Karl Marx who in fact built the ascription of dubious motives to those whose views he criticized right smack into his theories. For example, he labeled those with whom he disagreed ideologues, meaning they invented respectable sounding ideas just to hide their true motives of wanting to exploit the workers and rule the realm. (In the end there wasn't a lot else to many of Marx's "arguments" but these kinds of ad hominems.)

As to the people I criticized and charged with being up to something, well, really, I don't know but a few personally. (A most famous early one of their ilk, the late Harvard psychologist B. F. Skinner, was actually after gaining control over other people by his promotion of the notion of a technology of behavior!) Yet, I believe a little caution in considering the program at UCSB is in order. After all, the bulk of those who will be spending the $10 million grant their institute received are determinists, people who deny that we human beings have free will, can originate our ideas and actions and are moved by impersonal forces such as genes, neuron firings in the brain, environmental stimuli, etc.
What, you may wonder, could anyone gain from looking at people in this way, depriving them of control over their lives?

Several agenda's could be advanced by determinism. A good example comes to mind with the late Harvard University political philosopher, John Rawls, who championed a largely egalitarian society in part because, as he wrote in his famous book, A Theory of Justice (Harvard University Press, 1971), "The assertion that a man deserves the superior character that enables him to make the effort to cultivate his abilities is ... problematic; for his character depends in large part upon fortunate family and social circumstances for which he can claim no credit." Which then suggests that those who are well off couldn't have earned it, nor could anyone actually deserve any credit for what he or she has achieved. And such a view is taken by many to justify wealth redistribution, something often deemed best left to well educated men and women in government (often fetched out of academia).

Of course the opposite position, which ascribes freedom of the will to people (normally) has its own public policy suggestions, even perhaps implications, such as that the more deserving among us should have more power to rule, to set the society's priorities and obtain the "society's wealth." Indeed, as a libertarian I am often charged with being but a mouthpiece of the rich because in a free society there would be no justification for taking from those who are well off so as to benefit those who aren't. Not that this has anything to do with the merits or demerits of libertarianism but many people still insist that such a "gotcha" move is powerful in at least discrediting someone with a given position in political economic matters.

Still, arguably considering the motivation that leads someone to advance an argument the very ethics of sound scholarship and argumentation regards it best not to bother with it. What ought to count is whether someone's position is justified, not whether he or she may by chance achieve some hidden agenda by it.

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