[Content note: more free will / responsibility stuff, because apparently I never get sick of it. Contains some qualifications on points I made last time which hopefully won’t be taken as defenses of what I criticized before.]
Now it’s the other side’s turn.
My last post was a diatribe of sorts against the societal values that I’m afraid free-will-leaning outlook on life will lead to (see “Political ideology and perception of free will” for an explanation of what I mean by “free-will-leaning” and “determinism-leaning”). But I don’t consider an unchecked determinism-leaning outlook to be a good alternative. In my opinion, it leads to a situation which might be equally dangerous in its own way, and which is the focus of today’s post.
I. What do determinist goggles do, exactly?
Parallel to their counterpart discussed in the last post, “determinist goggles”* are a metaphor I made up to describe a certain way of viewing the world — this time, involving a tendency to see conscious actions as determined by external factors. While a human who makes a decision may still be nominally considered as somehow a responsible actor by someone wearing determinist goggles, all credit or blame will tend to be focused away from them and towards circumstances outside of their control.
According to the determinist-goggler, human society is composed of individuals whose capacities for accomplishing things are in very large part dictated by their genetic conditions, their upbringing, temporary conditions that they’re subject to (e.g. sickness, treatment by others in their lives), and large-scale societal forces which buffet them to and fro as they struggle along the winding road of life. Freedom on some level exists but mainly belongs to those for whom such factors are less unfairly restrictive; maybe they should be held at least somewhat accountable for their occasionally destructive choices. The rest of the population should be treated with sympathy for having a difficult road to follow; their mistakes can mostly be explained in terms of unfortunate factors they have no choice over, and those who do manage to triumph in spite of their circumstances should be applauded. However, most successes and failures are brought about by good and bad circumstances respectively, and neither the winners nor the losers should receive judgment that they don’t really earn.
In the determinist-goggles-colored world, most of us have a rather hard time succeeding at various things through no fault of our own; yet, we are constantly getting blamed for our failures by others who refuse to see everything that’s tying us down. The refusal of others to recognize the struggles we have had to go through is easily explained by the fact that they are more fortunate and have probably never had to face those particular struggles (either that or they have experienced our struggles first-hand but are too self-centered to be able to empathize when they apply to other people). How convenient for them, what with their advantage of never having to actually understand anything about our handicaps, that they can so easily close dismiss our difficulties in order to give themselves credit for their relative success.
There’s one observation I want to get out of the way first. It is surely the case that across cultures and throughout history, a number of ideologies or key components of ideologies have been inspired by the determinism-leaning mentality; Marxism comes to mind, for instance. During my lifetime, a newer kind of determinist-goggles-ism has appeared to strengthen considerably and has materialized into an ideology which focuses on combating social inequalities brought about by privileges on various axes, nowadays often referred to as “Social Justice”. This is nothing more or less than an independently living and breathing manifestation of the view from determinist goggles which has been fleshed out into a full-blown social and political belief system.
However, today I don’t intend to hone in on directly discussing the flaws in today’s Social Justice movement and in how its objectives are argued. That is a target that’s already getting beaten to death in this part of the internet in particular and seems to be part of a wider culture war online (and the real world) in general. I’d prefer to hold my focus on the purely determinist-goggles-colored view and the difficulties that arise from it, rather than getting bogged down in commenting on some vast body of cultural rhetoric which is being used to treat a wide array of concrete social ills. I can’t promise that I’ve entirely succeeded at this, but I have tried to address the determinist-flavored mentality at the individual level as I did for its opposite, and I’ll leave it to the reader to connect the dots between the arguments I make and their applications to the current culture-wide discourse.
*It has been suggested to me that I replace the words “libertarian” and “determinist” in my “goggles” terminology with the expressions “high-agency” and “low-agency”. This strikes me as most likely an improvement, but just for continuity’s sake, I’d rather make this post more consistent with the last one and save the change for next time.
II. Limitations on respect for limitations
As with the polar opposite pair of goggles which I treated in the last post, someone who puts their faith in determinist goggles will suffer from considering only one point of view while ignoring any and all hints of the other. This is again the most direct and obvious (even tautological) fault to find with wearing one pair goggles of any type and never taking them off. The committed determinist-goggler will fail to allow the possibility that they or the person they are sympathizing with can possibly change how they act, react, or feel about things that are happening to them. This is problematic already, but it lends itself almost inevitably to further fallacies.
To understand the trap that one is vulnerable to falling into, I think we have to go back to the philosophical definition of determinism, even as I continue to stress that in practice one’s choice of goggles probably isn’t all that correlated to one’s choice of metaphysical beliefs. The view from the determinist goggles is still rooted in abstract determinism. I’m going to say we might as well assume hard determinism rather than soft determinism here, because we’re talking about a model which renders virtually null the power to make free choices in any meaningful sense.
What is hard determinism? When you get down to it, it’s the belief that everything, in particular every human action, is completely determined by prior events and therefore cannot happen differently (for some intuitive and meaningful definition of “cannot”). So nobody — neither you and your friends, nor the antagonists in your narrative — can actually help what they’re doing.
The main criticism of this comes from the apparent implication that nobody can be held morally accountable for anything. This is a problem because it seems to contradict the very foundations of most systems of ethics, but also because in practicality it utterly and profoundly goes against the way we human beings actually process what is happening to us. When we like something we see in the world, we naturally want to praise those whose actions have put it that way; when we are upset with something we see in the world, we instead want to yell at those people and hold them accountable for fixing the problem (“those people” may occasionally includes ourselves, when we recognize our potential to change the world for the better). Without being able to do this, we are stuck in a rather nihilistic reality where we essentially have no real purpose, lacking the capacity to directly enact change or to shame someone else into enacting change. Nobody actually lives this way, regardless of the conclusions they may arrive at by doing philosophy.
Now go back to the determinist goggles, which don’t exactly make one a hard determinist but have an effect which is roughly similar. In principle, the goggles should cause the wearer to go easy not only on themselves for their failures but also on their oppressors for their failures. After all, everyone (not just ourselves or the people we’re sympathizing with at the moment) acts according to what circumstances dictate, right?
But in practice, nobody knows how to function according to this assumption. So instead, determinist-gogglers tend to follow a slightly adjusted premise that some circumstances (conveniently, the ones they and their friends find themselves under) dictate negative behaviors while other circumstances (ones which apply to their adversaries), well, they’re not really a valid excuse for anything.
One can see this play out in local settings where attempts to enforce a determinist-goggles-ism which applies equally to all parties leads to an unsustainable system of social rules. I’ve certainly witnessed such strife firsthand. One person in a social unit explains that they can’t stand Behavior Y, that unfortunately they have an “emotional need” for Y not to be done in their general direction, so it’s imperative to adhere to a rule of not doing Y. That’s all fine and good until someone else who interacts with them expresses their own “emotional need” to do Y, stating that it’s impossible for them to cope without doing Y. Maybe everything can be worked out serenely within a group where at most one person wears determinist goggles. But I imagine most groups probably have more than one determinist-goggler in them, and then it quickly becomes infeasible to come up with social contracts agreeable to everyone without first fighting a war over whose “needs” are actually valid.
I’d like to point out another scenario in which this conundrum shows up, perhaps slightly in disguise. Determinist-goggles-ism tends to imply that one should always lend a helping hand to the less fortunate, because their misfortune is probably not their own fault. Yet curiously, I’ve noticed that a lot of my acquaintances, despite generally appearing to have determinist goggles on, in certain contexts manage to avoid doing this. For instance, I almost never witness anyone give money to homeless people on the street, not even the least judgmental and most empathetic people I know. (Lest I sound holier-than-thou here, I admit to walking past beggars on a daily basis and rarely stopping to give them my spare change; I do feel bad about this despite the excuses I come up with.) As to how they justify this, the most likely explanation seems to me that they assure themselves that their own difficulties (specifically financial ones) effectively prevent them from “being able to” lend a hand to people in a blatantly more desperate situation, or at least that one should look towards others of greater means to perform such acts of generosity. And I’m not claiming this rationalization is entirely wrong. But it looks to me like a lot of determinist-gogglers have succeeded in maneuvering towards a model in which their difficulties somehow kinda-sorta trump others’ (obviously worse) difficulties.
In fact, this even applies to the personal story I told last time about choosing to take a particular city bus without a ticket during one year, which I used as an example of something morally questionable that I tried to justify to myself through libertarian-free-will-ist thinking. After I wrote about that, I got to remembering that I also had a second, quite different, rationale for this cheating behavior. Recent months had not been particularly kind to me, and I felt that I’d been having a rough time. I was, for the first time in my life, trying to establish myself in a new country, and it hadn’t exactly been smooth sailing. Not only had I found myself majorly inconvenienced by countless hours of wasted time trying to navigate an unfamiliar system in a new language; I had recently wound up paying hundreds of Euros to the government unnecessarily. Sure, I was still doing fine financially despite that, but I told myself that after all I’d been through, I deserved to get a small break just this once, even if that required a bit of cheating. Now at first glance, under determinist-goggles-ism (certainly hard determinism) the concept of “desert” is questionable if not utterly meaningless. But I think I had fallen prey to the temptation to privilege my own unfortunate circumstances over any difficulties I might create for others, in a similar fashion to what I described above in the begging example.
To sum up the point of this section, any attempt at modeling people’s behavior in terms of circumstances and “needs” in a pure and even-handed way is practically guaranteed to break down and devolve into a contest over which kinds of excuses are most valid.
III. Empower failures
In my view, the most crucial failure mode of the determinist goggles can be summarized in one word: disempowerment.
from South Park’s season 9 episode “Bloody Mary” (warning: the episode’s content takes its title far too literally)
Everybody wants to feel empowered (at least in the front of their minds, most of the time). That goes for wearers of determinist goggles as well. So determinist-gogglers tend to go through all kinds of mental gymnastics (e.g. semantic manipulation like replacing the term “victim” with “survivor”) in order to emphasize what little control people have over their situations at the same time as granting them a sense of empowerment. I contend that this is no more than a futile effort to have one’s cake and eat it too. If one is going to ascribe to a belief system where someone’s action or state is determined by external forces, then an obvious immediate consequence is that someone has less power over their situation. There’s no getting around it.
I don’t think there’s any need for me to delve too much into why powerlessness is bad. Clearly it leads to hopelessness in bettering one’s situation as well as a lack of credit for (or ability to be inspired by) those who have (because the improvement in their situation was “just luck”). Also — and I think this point is underacknowledged, but I won’t dwell on it today — it opens one up to deliberate bullying, oftentimes by extreme free-will-gogglers.
I sometimes ponder how wimpy so many of us would seem to the multitudes of all everyone who existed through the entirety of human history up to very recently (not to mention citizens of many developing countries today). This may seem like a bit of a deviation from the main thrust above, but bear with me for a few moments and I hope the connection will become clear. Throughout most of history, almost nobody was as privileged or financially comfortable as most citizens of developed countries are today. Throughout most of history, many men had to do backbreaking labor for little pay; many women died in childbirth and most of those who didn’t still went through the process in incredible pain; disease was rampant; there was no “health insurance” as we know it and whatever healthcare was available was barbaric and terrifying by our standards and often did nothing to cure the recipient’s ailments anyway; although humankind was free of the hazards of modern technology, both institutions and human interactions were a lot less regulated and most people probably had far more reason to feel unsafe in their day-to-day lives; it was probably pretty common to remain for one’s lifetime within a radius of some 20 miles; and so on. My presently-existing self for one would probably be pretty traumatized by some of what the average person had to go through even only a few centuries ago.
Today, most of us can’t imagine having to live the way our ancestors did. Because of advances in science, medicine, law, and so on, we are able to enjoy an enormously higher quality of life, and accordingly, our tolerance for many things has become considerably weaker. On the whole, this is something to be celebrated. The kind of progress humankind has made and continues to make in preventing so much suffering and raising our standards and expectations is absolutely the noblest goal we as a species can strive for. But every major step forward comes at some cost, and undoubtedly one such cost has been a collective decrease in hardiness and fortitude against what our still-chaotic world might throw at us.
Therefore, wherever we’re engaging in the fight for progress, as important as it is to highlight and foster a culture of sensitivity for the plights of those whose lives we want to improve, we should do so with an eye towards also empowering those individuals by allowing the possibility that they may yet pull themselves through adversity and come out stronger. Ideally nobody should have to make the most out of unfair circumstances, but “ought” and “is” are two different concepts, and lack of fairness doesn’t imply lack of agency: the fact that someone is not to blame for their situation doesn’t necessarily mean that there isn’t something they could (and therefore should) do to better it, or at least to learn how to cope with it as long as it remains to be resolved.
This consideration helps me to understand where Richard Dawkins was coming from in his infamous “Dear Muslima” “open letter”, which touched off the internet war known as Elevatorgate — if you were anywhere near the atheist web around 2011 you may have heard of it. Not that this puts me anywhere close to agreeing with it, mind you: Dr. Dawkins’ nastily sarcastic overreaction (and subsequent defenses) to what seems to me a mild and mostly reasonable request made by a feminist atheist was unjustified on multiple grounds. (I’m not going to go easy on a man who holds himself up as a paragon of levelheadedness and rationality at every turn.) In particular, Dawkins failed to acknowledge the validity of complaining about one particular problem given much worse problems in other places or during other historical periods. He seemed not to recognize the fact that working hard to improve adverse conditions everywhere — not just at the place and time where they are worst — is nothing less than the face of progress itself and a part of what it means to have high standards.
Yet at the same time, I think I do understand a bit of the frustration behind Dr. Dawkins’ snarky words. When progress has brought us to a point that our difficulties are tiny in comparison to the problems that were commonplace in recent memory or are rampant in other parts of the world, we should make at least some effort to respect that when we talk about them, to have perspective, to instill a conviction in our audience that although something is unacceptable, we will still be able to deal with it. After all, look at what so many others have managed to endure. We’re allowed and even encouraged to be upset about this thing, but talking about it like it’s The Worst Thing In The World when it’s clearly not might start to do more harm than good. If that was Dawkins’ frustration, then I think he took it out wrongly on the particular activist he was attacking, but I do recognize where it may have been coming from.
On a more personal note, I have been extremely fortunate in the three decades of my life so far in just how little I have had to experience physical pain. Nearly everyone I know by my age has had to go through a very unpleasant accident or a difficult recovery from some medical procedure, to say nothing of the agony that just about everyone suffered at some time or another in the days before modern medicine. But I can’t help by worry that the statistical likelihood of facing severe pain bound to catch up with me one day and that due to my lack of experience I might not handle it well. I remember reading the story of a guy on Reddit whose traumatic accident led to the most painful scene imaginable (which I haven’t the slightest desire to elaborate on) who made a side-comment about how sometimes it was nice to be able to remind himself that no painful event for the rest of his life would be anywhere near as agonizing as what he’d already gone through. In a weird way, I almost envy this kind of security.
Now imagine a mildly futuristic world in which some humanistic organization is pushing for the creation and distribution of bodily implants which immediately ease even the most minor twinges of pain. Disregarding possible risks that come from the weakening of our bodies’ natural alarm systems, this would seem like a marvelous step forward from the humanistic point of view: what could be a more worthwhile goal than to lessen suffering? Now as far as the proponents’ rhetoric goes, the most persuasive flavor will probably strongly emphasize how bad even the most minor physical pain is. In fact, such conviction will probably be sincere on the part of the most passionate members. I have a feeling that in this hypothetical world, after enough exposure to such rhetoric, I’d likely grow even more intolerant of pain than I likely already am, perhaps extremely enough to reach the point that maybe even stubbing my toe would seem like a minorly traumatic event. And I’m afraid that in the event of the pain-reduction-implants initiative falling through, or even if it passes but there are flaws in the implementation (as there always are), I would wind up in a rather weaker position when it comes to dealing with pain than real-me is today.
In my hypothetical sci-fi scenario above, of course it’s still a great idea to go ahead with the pain-reduction technology, and maybe even the most extreme “stubbing one’s toe is unbearable!” rhetoric is worth the potential downside I suggested. But it should be done in a calculated way that doesn’t disregard that potential downside, and I have a feeling that determinist goggles are pretty likely to blind the wearer to this consideration.
This discussion may appear to have strayed far from my initial characterization of the determinist goggles, but the theoretical connection and empirical correlation are clear as day to me: the more one focuses on external circumstances, the more one relies on external changes to maximize one’s state of well-being. And while such an attitude has probably been the crucial force behind much of human progress which has succeeded in improving well-being all over the world, it can also have the effect of disempowerment on the individual level. And it might be good to keep that in mind.
IV. Lack of might makes right
I’ve seen another common abuse of the determinist goggles which alarms me even more, though. To motivate my perception of it, I’ll start by recalling something I read online a very long time ago — I must have been in high school still — on some right-wing site. I don’t actually remember where this was or the exact wording, but it was a phrase about liberals that went something like
left-wing principles, where people are judged more according to their grievances than according to their deeds.
This was long before I started framing everything in terms of deterministic vs. free-will-libertarian positions, and I was (and still am) fairly liberal myself, but this snide throwaway line stuck with me and gave me serious food for thought. I don’t think it’s a fair branding of liberalism in principle, but over the years I have come to suspect that the American Left is being guided by a giant pair of determinism goggles, and the “judge people according to their grievances” mentality does seem like an easy trap to slip into if one gets overly dependent on them.
The pure, idealized version of a moderately determinist-leaning viewpoint is the assumption that there are hidden external forces behind people’s behavior, so we should refrain from giving them all the credit for doing well and go easy on them when they do badly. To the extent that it makes sense in the first place to assign praise and blame to people for their actions, possible causes outside of their control should always be entered into the equation. In particular, if we see someone doing poorly at life, we should cut them some slack and lean towards believing that they really are putting in a laudable amount of effort despite the fact that on the outside they look like they’re doing poorly. It only takes a short leap of logic to go from this to the belief that someone is laudable because on the outside they look like they’re doing poorly. (Or conversely, the belief that someone is automatically deplorable because on the outside they look like they’re doing really well for themselves.)
And I do see evidence in many people’s rhetoric of this logical leap taking place subconsciously. This worries me particularly in the case of someone openly exposing their own tendencies towards unproductive behavior or general difficulties in coping (e.g. severe anger) in a boastful tone, as though it’s somehow a virtuous trait in itself rather than an understandable reaction to something tough they’re going through. In some extreme cases, this declaration seems to be performative rather than truthful, a thinly-veiled form of bragging and vying for status.
I hesitate to make this point, because I’m afraid it could be easy to misunderstand and get taken very badly, but I see a crucial difference between recognizing that someone is virtuous in spite of their weakened state and deciding that they are virtuous because of it. It’s the difference between being able to receive empathy and understanding for one’s failings and being compelled to cling onto a righteous indifference towards overcoming them.
I can’t think of any popular quote which annoys me more profoundly than this one. I blame it on determinist goggles.
Determinist goggles may seem like a much more enlightened and progressive alternative to their libertarian-free-will counterparts, instilling empathy and compassion in those who glimpse through them. The world through determinist goggles appears at first glance to be one where everyone is just doing whatever they can just to muddle through and should be understood rather than morally judged for the situations they wind up in. But on viewing reality this way long enough, one learns to lose hope for actual remedies to the variety of problems being faced by humankind. It is a world where the only practical way to live is to assume that some people do have genuine agency and that the rest are powerless to do anything other than wring their hands and sit around waiting for those free agents to act. Taken to an extreme, this reality will eventually devolve into a society where the weak are assumed to hold innate moral superiority over the strong even while the very categories of “weak” and “strong” can only be defined relative to each member’s point of view, and such a society cannot hope to function.