Saturday, May 09, 2009

Must they all be troubled?

Tibor R. Machan

As millions of others, I too like going to the movies, renting them or catching them on cable, even regular TV. Not that I do this a lot--I also entertain myself with novels, non-fiction works, and my brand new iPod, with its about 15 thousand selections of nearly every kind of music. I even listen to some online music offerings, such as what is playing in the background just now, "Piano Jazz" from Lucky 7 Radio. And then there is all the traveling I do, during which I visit museums and galleries and book shops and such. I am fortunate in that much of what the world offers up for amusement, entertainment, study, and curiosity holds out for me a good deal that I welcome.

All this is to launch into a minor complaint. It is that so many movies about interesting people--notables, both fictional and historical--end up being downers. No, I have not done a scholarly study of this but it seems to me that a great deal of stuff offered up in the biopic category focuses on lamentable people or lives, even when they are quite interesting. I'll try to pick at random: Byrd, the movie that Clint Eastwood made of Charlie Parker. Yes, it has some incredibly good music but the story was such a dark one for me that I have never wanted to see it again. Even Ray, that musically riveting movie about Ray Charles, had simply too much in it that prevented one from feeling good about it. I supposed Beyond the Sea, about the life and music of Bobby Darin, could be regarded as positive, although I had a hard time keeping my mind off the fact that Darin, a very upbeat entertainer-singer, died so young.

The other day I went to see The Soloist, with the actors Robert Downey, Jr., and Jamie Foxx (whose depiction of Ray Charles was so superb). Downey played the LA Times columnist Steve Lopez and Foxx plays Nathaniel Ayers, a former violin prodigy who appears to have bouts with schizophrenia as the movie depicts it, based on the novel Lopez wrote of his experience with Ayers (both of who are actual persons living in Los Angeles).

Many thousands of people have mental problems but not all of them are (a) musically gifted and (b) living among thousands of homeless people in the most run down spot in Southern California. (Why no movie about Erroll Garner, with his absolutely upbeat piano style and not uninteresting though too short life?)

There is no doubt that the performances, by all the major players, were excellent. The story hung together well and the movie was very professionally made. So then what's the trouble?

Well, the book on which the movie is based was selected at my university as what incoming students are invited to read in preparation for the commencement of the university education. And as such, no less than as a matter of entertainment, The Soloist leaves a lot to be desired. The general inference a movie viewer is likely to take away from having seen the film is that something is very wrong with America, especially Southern California, for allowing within its midst a huge group of individuals who are mentally unstable and impoverished and uncared for, as well. The way we see Ayers' life unfold we get only little bits of his great talent and he satisfaction with the little use he can make of it. Instead the film focuses on all the horrors of his situation except for the fact that columnist Lopez manages to inject some measure of calm and even pleasure into Ayers' life.

I am doubly annoyed with The Soloist, the movie, because there is another book, a novel with the identical title, written by Mark Salzman who has several other good novels to his name, written about 15 years before Lopez wrote his book. It has a generally similar theme though by no means identical. Failed genius is the common denominator, as well as the operative instrument, a cello.

Salzman's novel, however, is by all accounts a more entertaining and intellectually challenging book--the topic of free choice in the midst of mental disturbance figures in it quite heavily, as well as some intercultural issues involved martial arts. I loved that book and recommended it to everyone who would listen to me about such matters and when I first heard of the movie The Soloist, my hopes were high that it would be based on Salzman's novel. Alas is isn't. And in the shadow of Salzman's work Lopez's turns out to be a not altogether subtle example of bourgeois America-bashing.

Well, thanks but no thanks for that. I am only sorry for the students who accepted the invitation and went away from the experience with bad feelings about their society.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Social Scientists and Ethics

Tibor R. Machan

I wish to revisit a topic here I have investigated before, both in books (such as my very first, The Pseudo-Science of B. F. Skinner [1973] and the more recent Initiative--Human Agency and Society [2000]). In my line of work I come across a lot of social scientists--at conferences, my own school and in the pages of the kinds of books, magazines, and journals I read. It is from such social scientists that come many of the studies on which policy makers rely. How should prisons be designed and managed? How should children be treated in their elementary and secondary classrooms? What about the best way to care of the elderly? What should be done about illegal immigrants? What of the homeless, especially those regarded to be mentally unstable? A great number of questions like these are being addressed and answered by social scientists--in political science, sociology, economics, anthropology, and other, even more specialized, disciplines.

A widespread assumption that many such scientists accept is that what people do is explainable by reference to various factors to which they have been exposed or, alternatively, by the composition of their brains. People’s economic background or culture or childhood circumstances or racial/ethnic identity will have a lot to do with how they behave. These factors, and others mostly coming to light in the fields of biology and psychology, make us who we are, period. That, indeed, is the reason billions of dollars are spent on the studies these social scientists carry out. The results are supposed to enable the relevant people to forge successfully policies.

All the while these social scientists are committed to explaining human affairs along lines familiar in the natural or physical sciences--astronomy, physics, chemistry, and biology--there are many others close to government, mainly political candidates and elected officials, who view us as if we really had a say in how we behave. Whatever our background or upbringing, it turns out we ought to support higher or lower taxes; we ought to be for or against torture or the war on terrorism; we ought to give more or less to charity than we do or at least support or opposed faith based institutions that help people.

In short, there is a lot of talk about how people ought to act, regardless of what supposedly makes them tick. They ought to be truthful, just, generous, prudent, compassionate, well disciplined and so forth, because, well, it is the right way to be. Never mind your background--as a human being you are supposed to be free to choose what you will or won’t do and there are standards you ought to use to guide your conduct.

Did you notice something curious here? If the social scientists are right and what we do is explainable by reference to all those factors they keep mentioning, then there really is no room for talk about what we ought to do or ought not to do. We will just behave the way we are made to behave by these various factors. There is no choice to be found in this approach to dealing with people, none at all.

The moralists, in turn, seem to think that we are free and responsible to choose the right course. They rarely see any excuse for our misconduct. All those factors are supposed by them to be mere influences, at most, certainly not compulsions. We can be blamed for all the misconduct and praised for all the good conduct because, well, it is we who are in charge of what we do.

These two points of view are both extremely prevalent in our society and have much to do with the laws and public policies that get enacted and implemented everywhere. Yet they are mutually contradictory. It’s either que sera, sera--what will be, will be--or it is free to choose--we are in charge and fully responsible (unless something terribly serious interferes).

How does one resolve this conflict? Is there a way? Well, that’s one of the things people in my discipline, namely, philosophy, worry about a lot. Every generation tackles the issue and most philosophers have some kind of proposal to offer, not excluding me. And there may well be a right answer, although this isn’t the place to try to work that out. (A clue: the social scientists who produce all those studies that explain us often go on to advise policy makers on what they ought to do. So, they turn into moralists themselves, prescribing conduct rather than just sticking to explaining it.)

What is worth noting is that the issue is not generally touched upon in public forums. Indeed, one faces it mostly in novels--say, Mark Salzman’s The Soloist (or, for that matter, LA Times reporter Steve Lopez's similarly titled more recent work of which a movie has been made--and television drama--for example, Law & Order. But do you hear anything about this on Fox TV’s O’Reilly & Friends, PBS’s Charlie Rose, CNN’s Larry King or...well, you get the point. Sure, some mention is made of the matter in most college philosophy course but after the test is done, it tends to be forgotten. It may come up at a rehab seminar, when clients wonder whether they have the free will to “just say no.” But it is not there on most prominent forums that deal with important matters.

Too bad, for without some idea as to how to deal with it, the problem will confound and lead to much confusion, perhaps disillusionment, and most likely wasted resources.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Without a plan

Tibor R. Machan

A huge difference between champions of the fully free society (or libertarianism) and others who are concerned with political economic matters is that the former really do not approve of imposing any kind of agenda on the lives of others no matter how desirable it would be. Not even universal education, let alone universal health care, is deemed important enough for libertarians to assume power over other people--e.g., the parents of children, those with ailing elderly in their homes, etc. Unless there really is negligence involved, such that someone is failing to fulfill a legal obligation to feed his or her children, the government simply has no role. Furthermore, those who really accept the imperative to respect the rights of everyone to live as they choose provided no one's rights are being violated, may not force others to do the right thing in, say, abstaining from racial or gender discrimination at the work place, just as this is something one may not impose on others in their personal lives.

This full commitment to human liberty is really quite an unusual and often difficult stance. Yet it is at the heart of the difference between what a free and what an authoritarian or totalitarian society is about. Just as no one may force others to go to a certain church, regardless of how sincerely and devoutly one holds to one's religions faith, neither may these other practices that to many appear to be elementary decency be imposed on other persons. Just as no one may impose on others what they must read, so others must not be forced to do all kinds of things that are deemed to be just and proper. Just as in one's personal life one must be free to choose with whom one will or will not associate, the same holds for one's professional associations. (There are some intricacies here that can make it appear that one isn't free to avoid others with whom one doesn't want to fraternize--as when one joins a club that has a non-discriminatory policy--but those are complications that would need to be discussed elsewhere.)

Many decent people recoil in disgust from these elements of a free society while they accept others which are very similar. They do not mind that freedom implies that people can read or write whatever they please, however immoral it may be; yet they refuse to accept that one has a basic--and should have a legal--right to adopt highly objectionable policies at the factory or office that one owns. They see nothing odd about people refusing to accept someone into their family who does not share their religious or even political convictions while they consider it impermissible that they may refuse to hire such people even if this is a fully disclosed condition for employment.

The realm of the private is far broader in a free society than most people realize, so private choices and preferences have a greater scope. Which can be a very benign influence over the society as well as introduce some not very admirable ones. This, however, is the implication of taking the right to liberty really seriously instead of cherry picking liberties that one likes and are uncontroversial.

A truly free country leaves it to its citizens to plan their lives, for better or for worse, and refuses to permit the imposition of plans on them even by the most wise and smart among us. If one has plans for others, regardless how worthy they may be, these must be promoted without coercion, by voluntary means. That is indeed the mark of civilization--human relations must at all level adhere to the principle of free association and avoid treating people as if they may be included in the plans of others without their willing participation. However cumbersome this may appear, it is still the basic imperative of a free society.

Those who understand this and advocate it may themselves find some of the implications very distasteful. That people may indulge their anti-Semitic, racist, male chauvinist and similar objectionable attitudes is not something that is easy to accept. But if one is going to b serious about trying to build a just and free society, accepting it all is simply unavoidable.