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Libertarianism and the Myth of Radical Autonomy


Libertarians often insist that human beings are radically autonomous agents, uninfluenced in some crucial respect by the various causes that on a naturalistic understanding of ourselves explain behavior.  This view tends to justify a laissez-faire political philosophy, since if people are mostly self-made, there is little society can, and therefore should, do to alleviate the difficulties of those who are unlucky in life.  But interestingly enough, libertarians are also mightily concerned to limit government intervention, lest it have too much of an impact in our lives.  This suggests that they actually do recognize the power of social and environmental influences, and that the self-originating autonomy they defend is simply a rationalization for keeping government "off our backs."  What follow some exchanges with libertarians, two in Reason magazine, another in the Boston Globe Round 4 is a critique of Ayn Rand's Objectivism, and Round 5 takes up the issue of what sort of state, the laissez-faire disciplinarian state, or the mentor state, maximizes liberty. 

Round 1             Round 2                 Round 3               Round 4            Round 5


Libertarianism and the Myth of Radical Autonomy


Round 1

The first exchange with Reason begins with an editorial "Blame Society First," which takes issue with sociological explanations of the recent school yard massacre in Jonesboro, Arkansas, then continues with my letter in response, and ends with a further editorial comment. 


Blame Society First    by Brian Doherty                                REASON,   June 1998

Individual responsibility is the truly unthinkable.

An individual, or small group of individuals, commits a heinous act. The first reaction on the part of our nation's political and intellectual classes: Blame everyone else.

The Jonesboro tragedy is a case in point. A couple of kids commit an act of shocking villainy: summoning a group of their helpless schoolmates outside and shooting at them--aiming mostly, it appears, at girls. Five people are dead, 11 wounded.

Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee steps forward to publicly re-establish the modern moral order. He doesn't declare these kids an aberration, outside the pale of our society, deserving punishment. Instead, he declares them in essence representative of modern American society. "It makes me angry not so much at individual children that have done it as much as angry at a world in which such a thing can happen," Huckabee said the day of the shooting.

Maybe it's something in the feed at the executive mansion in Arkansas. Former Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, now president, pulled a similar moral switcheroo during his recent Africa tour of apologies. It was one thing to apologize for slavery, for which the U.S. government he represents bears active responsibility.

But Clinton went a step further: It isn't only the things we do for which we must bear blame, but the things others do. The massacres in Rwanda, seemingly the direct result of mad, bloodthirsty tribal warfare between the Hutus and Tutsis, were, Clinton declared, something for which "the international community" must "bear its share of the responsibility." Evil, then, is not the responsibility of those who practice it; rather, it is the shame of everyone who does not somehow prevent it.

There's something untoward about a mind that will do anything to avoid casting blame on those who have committed atrocities but feels free to profligately spread the blame around on social forces, or "all of us," or the international community, or inanimate objects, or the media. But that mind is everywhere; Huckabee was no aberration. A USA Today headline states it baldly: "Who's to blame for school shooting? We all are."

Even if the blame-everyone-else-first impulse makes no discernible moral sense, it makes a great deal of political sense. After all, if only the perpetrators of crimes are to blame for them, then there's nothing much for government to do but nab those perpetrators, hold a trial, and, if a guilty verdict is brought down, impose a punishment.

But if social forces, or guns, or violent TV shows and movies are to blame, then cops and judges aren't enough. We need programs, crusades, and concerted government action to try to change the very nature of our culture and society. We need V-chips, gun control, a revived economy, and new forms of educational indoctrination. And for those things, we need the brave leadership of people like Huckabee and Clinton.

A Los Angeles Times headline on reaction to the shooting said it all: "Violent culture, media share blame, experts say." Indeed, who else would say it? The culture of experts demands complicated answers, even if they don't make much sense.

Alternately, evil could be traced to its root cause, the one thing that makes it possible no matter what outside forces are brought to bear: individual choice. But to the experts, it is too simple to say someone has done wrong and must be punished. The tangled web of "social forces" is always there to be pored over, analyzed, charted, and regressed.

Whatever social forces of gun worship, misogyny, and violent entertainment allegedly stewed the brains of the Jonesboro shooters, hundreds of thousands of other young men are exposed to the same influences. Yet only these two boys took guns in hand and started firing at their schoolmates. Depicting social forces as a dominant cause for individual atrocities explains too much, grossly overpredicting the actual amount of perfidy in our world.

The advantage the state takes from blaming social forces for individual mistakes or crimes goes beyond the sort of colorful violence that makes the newspapers. All sorts of social problems for which politicians scramble to find solutions, from single-parent households to drug abuse to long-term welfare dependence, result from the cumulative effects of bad decisions made by individuals--decisions that are never made by everyone in the same social milieu. Avoiding pregnancy, educating oneself, and becoming self-sufficient are within the power of most individuals, no matter the social forces surrounding them. Anger at the world shifts attention from where real change is both needed and possible--in the choices individuals make--and leads instead to further airy plans for state action--even though many of the "negative social forces" in America, from terrible public schools to drug-war-torn streets, are of the state's own making.

Never mind Governor Huckabee and his inchoate anger at the world. Be angry at the kids who did it.


 Here's my reply to Doherty, which Reason titled:

Social Responsibility

June 19, 1998

According Brian Doherty, social forces play little, if any, role in shaping human behavior, and to declare so is merely an excuse for activist government ("Blame Society First," June issue). If this is true, however, then we are driven to the absurd conclusion that the explanation for the recent school massacres (Doherty’s example) lies solely within the individuals who commit such acts.

Teenagers who kill do not create themselves ex nihilo. They are entirely the product of their genetic endowment, their family upbringing, and the local community and larger society which surrounds them. To think otherwise is to imagine that there is some independent, self-constructing force within each individual, for which there is simply no scientific evidence, commonsense appeals to "free will" notwithstanding.

It is Doherty who is driven by the libertarian ideology of personal autonomy into denying the obvious: that teen shootings are made more likely by a host of factors, including the availability of guns, increasingly violent media images, and declining support for counseling services in schools. The reason that only a few teens end up actually killing isn’t explained by appeal to some self-generated fault, but by analyzing the rare but deadly interaction of inherited dispositions, family dynamics, peer influences, and cultural messages.

Some, like Doherty, worry that such explanations undercut moral accountability. But knowing exactly why people behave the way they do doesn’t obviate judgments of good and bad, nor does it undercut justifications for sanctions against individuals who transgress. After all, we still must protect society, incapacitate offenders, rehabilitate them when possible, and deter those with criminal intent. As sociologist James Q. Wilson remarks in his book Moral Judgment, "Nor is the reason we assign responsibility for…actions that the law rests, of necessity, on a convenient fiction, that of free will, and could not operate if it did not embrace that myth. A legal system and the society it sustains could not long endure if they depended, at their root, on mere fiction."1

Doherty says that "real change is both needed and possible – in the choices individuals make," but such choices will change for the better only if the conditions which produce them change first.

Thomas W. Clark

The author is a research associate at Health and Addictions Research, Inc. in Boston.

 1. Moral Judgment, James Q. Wilson, Basic Books, 1997, p. 40


Finally, Brian Doherty replied in the same issue:

If Mr. Clark can actually, through the magic of "analyzing the rare but deadly interaction of inherited dispositions, family dynamics, peer influences, and cultural messages," come up with a rigorous science that can explain and predict human behavior that has no room for the most basic reality that human beings can choose what to do at any given moment, he will have done something that no sociologist has ever done, or, I maintain, ever do, Isaac Asimov's Harry Seldon aside.

Mr. Clark of "Health and Addictions Research, Inc.," is one of the "experts" I discussed in my editorial, who refuse to acknowledge choice's role in human affairs because it lessens the value of the complicated "weighing of factors" they indulge in while ignoring the factor that makes the ultimate difference in what behavior an individual human actually engages in.  I do not deny that certain human choices are made more likely by a variety of environmental factors; I do deny that those factors, in and of themselves, with no recourse to human choice, can come to a final and predictable explanation of what behaviors humans will and won't commit.


Libertarianism and the Myth of Radical Autonomy

Round 2


On June 5, 1998, the Boston Globe published columnist and libertarian George Will's piece "Prosecuting 'Crimes' of the Mind?" in which he takes government to task for trying to influence character development and personal behavior.  What caught my attention in this otherwise typical anti-regulation rant were the following paragraphs on free will.  Will is describing Richard Dooling's novel, "Brain Storm," which raise issues of free speech, political correctness, and, interestingly, the implications of neuroscience for the prospects of control (Will's text is in blue):

"Brain Storm" is a crash course in neuroscience and the possible behavioral implications of neurological disorders.  One character is a scientist who says that believing in free will is akin to believing in leprechauns.  The mind, she says, is "a symphony orchestra with no conductor" - billions of neurons cooperating to produce consciousness, and we have no idea how.  But new brain-scanning technologies can produce, in effect, pictures of, say, rage or contentment - the glucose uptake, oxygen consumption, blood flow, and electrical or magnetic activities correlated with particular states of mind.  So is it unreasonable to postulate genetic, biological, environmental, or medical causes of violence - causes that can be removed?

The trouble is, the law holds us responsible for controlling our minds, which presumably control our bodies. Unfortunately, government increasingly wants to inventory and furnish our minds.

(Readers familiar with cognitive science and philosophy of mind might recognize Patricia Churchland's position above.)

So what's the problem, George?  I wrote the following letter, printed in the Boston Globe on June 9, 1998, which they titled

Government's role in society

To the Editors:

George Will, true to form, worries that "the government increasingly wants to inventory and furnish our minds," by prosecuting hate crimes, banning tobacco and beer ads, limiting campaign spending, and broadening the definitions of sexual harassment and minority discrimination ("Prosecuting ‘crimes’ of the mind?", June 5 Op-Ed). But the government is not, as Will implies, some alien presence, imposed on us against our will, but rather our democratically achieved consensus of how best to live.

He also says that "the law holds us responsible for controlling our minds, which presumably control our bodies," suggesting that there is some incompatibility between such self-control and liberal social policy. However, by holding us responsible, the law functions as a primary means of regulating behavior, consistent with an activist role for government.

Will’s mistake is to confuse self-control with the notion that the individual possesses some innate regulatory mechanism that could (and should) function independently of those social and governmental restraints which libertarians like Will find so burdensome.

But individuals are completely shaped by their genetic and environmental circumstances, and the degree to which they control themselves is entirely a matter of how well they are taught to do so. Government, like family, schools, and community, has a legitimate role to play in such instruction.

Thomas W. Clark

But, this wasn't the end of it.  Eleven days later, the following letter appeared, a full bore defense of the individual's power to shape himself, free of society, government, or any other constraining influences.  This reply stands as a wonderful example of how the myth of personal autonomy can distort the obvious fact that human beings, like everything else in nature, arise entirely out of a network of circumstances, and so bear their imprint.  The vehemence of the reply suggests that the myth of autonomy will, no surprise, die hard.  I reproduce the letter below without further comment.  The Globe called it

Let your conscience be your guide

To the Editors:

Thomas Clark supports the notion that the government has a role in individual morality (letter, June 9).  His letter was a response to George Will's June 5 column, "Prosecuting 'crimes' of the mind?"

Clark stated Will made a mistake in thinking that the "individual possesses some innate mechanism that could (and should) operate independently of those social and governmental restraints which libertarians like Will find so burdensome."  Such a mechanism does indeed exist.  It is called the conscience.  People of integrity and good character do exercise this mechanism often in direct contradiction to what society or the government would have them do.

The critique of Will shows to what lengths people will go to avoid personal responsibility.  The government is an alien presence when it comes to individual actions. The individual is the ultimate responsible party, and it is up to the individual to properly form a conscience and morality.  Soon the government will outlaw certain ways of thinking, as Will intimated.  We have the unrestrained right to think and feel any way we are inclined.   We may hate whomever we want.  We can be ignorant, bigoted, homophobic or whatever other politically incorrect stereotype we choose.  We simply cannot act on those thoughts as we choose, including speech.

The view that the government should be educating people in a certain way, or that it has any role in formulating an individual conscience, is foolish.  People are not completely shaped by genetics and the environment, but are also shaped by themselves as they choose to act as the person they want to be.  Running away from personal responsibility and the basic truth that each person has a conscience is to deny that each person is called by human nature to be moral, not because of society or government, but in spite of them.

Far too much blame or excuse is laid at the feet of society, while all the blame or merit lies fully on the individual and how that person chooses to act.  Government has far too large a role in society and as Clark's letter demonstrates, people are too willing to let that role expand.  It is nothing but moral laziness and cowardice.

Douglas B. Scibeck


Libertarianism and the Myth of Radical Autonomy

Round 3

Jacob Sullum, senior editor at Reason Magazine, reviewed a new book by Thomas Szasz, staunch libertarian and longtime radical critic of psychiatry.  In the letter below, published in the April, 2003 edition, I seek to correct Szasz' idea that there's a conflict between a scientific understanding of behavior on the one hand and choice and responsibility on the other.


Reason Magazine 

To the Editor:

Quoted in Jacob Sullum’s review of Pharmacracy: Medicine and Politics in America, Thomas Szasz writes that “Attributing mental illnesses, such as addiction and panic disorder, to biological alterations occurring at a ‘subcellular level’ is a parody of the denial of free will, choice, and responsibility".

Extensive research into the brain’s neuroadaptation to drugs shows that at least part of the explanation of addiction lies at the subcellular level.  Dependence, tolerance, and craving for nicotine, alcohol, and other drugs are a function of changes, brought about by substance use, in the number and responsiveness of neurotransmitter binding sites in various brain systems regulating behavior.1  More generally, any scientifically sound and complete explanation of addictive behavior or other disorders, whether at the subcellular, neural, or personal levels,2 must perforce involve the denial of free will,3 since free will (at least in the libertarian sense of an uncaused chooser) is precisely that which can’t be explained by causal analysis.

In order to defend free will, Szasz and others wedded to the notion of libertarian freedom must hold that science can’t fully explain human behavior: that we are in some deep sense causally privileged over the rest of nature.  However, there is no evidence for such causal exceptionalism, only the traditional supposition that in order to hold people responsible, they must be ultimately self-caused in some respect.  But this supposition too is increasingly being called into question, as it becomes clear that moral and criminal responsibility can be reconceived as necessary guides to behavior for rational but nevertheless fully determined agents.4, 5, 6, 7  Holding people responsible helps to create good choices.

A complete scientific explanation of addiction and other disorders, therefore, need not be forsworn in favor of choice and responsibility, since these turn out to be entirely compatible with causality.8  Admitting we are not exceptions to nature can only further the humanitarian mission of learning how and why we behave as we do, whether in sickness or in health.

Thomas W. Clark


Research Associate

Health and Addictions Research, Inc.

1.  Blum, K., Cull, J. G., Braverman, E.R., Comings, D.E. (1996) Reward deficiency syndrome, American Scientist, V84, March –April, pp. 132-145. http://www.sigmaxi.org/amsci/Articles/96Articles/Blum-full.html

2.  Leshner, A.I. (2001) When the question is drug abuse and addiction, the answer is ‘all of the above’, NIDA Notes, V16 #2, pp. 3-4. http://www.drugabuse.gov/NIDA_Notes/NNVol16N2/DirRepVol16N2.html

3. Clark, T. W. (1998) To help addicts, look beyond the fiction of free will, The Scientist, V12 #16. http://www.the-scientist.library.upenn.edu/yr1998/august/opin_980817.html

4.  Clark, T. W. (1998) Materialism and morality: the problem with Pinker, The Humanist, V58 #6. http://world.std.com/~twc/morality.htm

5.  Morse, S. J. (2002), “Guiding Goodness,” paper presented at the 2000 Congress of the International Academy of Law and Mental Health. http://www.law.uchicago.edu/academics/gg.draft.morse.pdf

6. Pinker, S. (2002) The Blank Slate, chapter on “The Fear of Determinism,” Viking Press.

 7. Flanagan, O. (2002) The Problem of the Soul, Basic Books.

 8.  Clark, T.W. (2002), Science and freedom, Free Inquiry, V 22 #2. http://www.secularhumanism.org/library/fi/clark_22_2.html


Tibor Machan replies to "Liberals, evil, and free will"

I do hold that evil has causes, namely, the agents who perpetrate it!  And as a matter of simple statistical fact, more liberals believe in the excusing capacity of such external or built in causes as addiction, disease, and so forth--just Sunday 60 Minutes had a long piece on ADD, etc., to show that people who lose focus or are confused are diseased. Now whether it is true or not, the fact is that they endorse such excusing conditions far more than do conservatives. And what they tend to believe in is bad things happening, not in evil, except when it comes to racism, sexism, intolerance and unfairness, the four great sins liberals still embrace albeit quite incoherently, since if you cannot help acting otherwise than you do, there is no way you can be held morally responsible for it.

TC responds:  The point of my critique, and Materialism and Morality, is that we can be held morally responsible, even though as events unfold we are fully determined to act the way we do by the causes, internal and external, that come to bear.  Being held responsible is an important determinant in shaping behavior, and if we had the radical capacity to do otherwise in the exact situation as it arose - to contribute something to the situation that wasn't a result of earlier or surrounding determinants - then our responsibility practices wouldn't work: we would be free to ignore the influence of anticipated rewards or sanctions.  But there's no reason to think that the agent and its contribution aren't fully a function of prior and surrounding conditions.  Here's more on "could have done otherwise" and further reassurances about moral responsibility in a fully determined universe.


Libertarianism and the Myth of Radical Autonomy

Round 4

The Moral Consequences of Objectivism

The Objectivist Center and the Ayn Rand Institute, organizations devoted to safeguarding and disseminating Ayn Rand’s legacy of radical libertarianism, did an effective job of letting the world know about her 100th birthday in February.  Op-eds about Rand’s philosophy appeared in newspapers across the US and abroad, celebrating the sovereignty of the individual and condemning the infringements of big government on personal freedoms.   

Running a Google news search using the terms “free will” and “determinism” will pick up a good number of such op-eds, and you can find their sources here and here.  It turns out that Rand’s Objectivism includes among its tenets a strong commitment to free will and rejection of determinism (unless it’s the determinism of self-determination).  Here’s a taste from an op-ed in the Freelance Star of Fredericksburg, by Michael S. Berliner, board member of the Ayn Rand Institute:

Her philosophy, Objectivism, upholds objective reality (as opposed to supernaturalism), reason as man's only means of knowledge (as opposed to faith or skepticism), free will (as opposed to determinism--by biology or environment), and an ethics of rational self-interest (as opposed to the sacrifice of oneself to others or others to self).

And the Boston Globe ran a piece by Edward Hudgins, director of the Objectivist Center, that quoted Rand herself:  ''As man is a being of self-made wealth, so he is a being of self-made soul."

The irony, of course, is that there’s no way to square Objectivism’s ostensible commitment to scientific objectivity, reason, and anti-supernaturalism with the idea of a self-made soul.  Science shows that individuals in all their aspects and capacities are fully a function of their environmental and biological determinants, not literally self-made.  True, once we become autonomous, rational agents, it’s usually our own desires that determine our choices, including some choices that may influence our very character and values.  But the capacity for such self-modifying choices, and their direction, for good or ill, can always be traced back to influences that were prior to both our character and our choice-making capacity.  Such tracing is at the heart of empirical explanation; it’s what science does for a living, partially.  This is to say that, on a scientific understanding of ourselves, our autonomy and its uses are fully natural and fully determined, ultimately arising out of conditions that were not within our control.

The Objectivist insistence on the idea that individuals are causally privileged in some sense, that they have strong, metaphysical free will, seems designed to shore up Rand’s radical individualism.  Without it, we are less the heroic gods of free market capitalism, throwing our wills around, and more the humble, interdependent, lucky or unlucky creations of biology and culture, some of whom harbor considerable delusions of grandeur.  To give up such delusions wouldn’t be to give up either our real individuality or our real powers as human agents, but simply to place them on a more realistic, scientific footing.  And being scientific (or not) about ourselves has moral consequences.

For there’s a link between Objectivism’s unscientific homage to the self-made self that takes ultimate credit (or blame), and the ruthless egoism of Rand and many of her followers.[1] Indeed, egoism becomes the cardinal virtue in “the ethics of rational self-interest” (mentioned in the op-ed quote above), which supposedly reflects our self-caused nature to look out mainly for ourselves.  But there are two errors here in addition to thinking we’re ultimately self-made. 

 One is to suppose that in empirical fact we are merely self-interested creatures.  But we aren’t; there are many altruistic bones in our body.[2]  Second, it’s to commit the naturalistic fallacy of arguing that if we are selfish by nature, that means we should be selfish.  But there is no direct implication from a natural is to an ethical ought.  Instead, we have to justify our moral claims, in this case the virtue of self-interest, not simply point to our natural inclinations. True, if we were literally incapable of altruism, that would render moot any moral injunction to nurture thy neighbor (this could be called the “feasibility constraint” on morality).  But since it turns out we are capable of altruism, arguments for it might possibly gain purchase on us, and fortunately they often do. 

 So a science-based, objective understanding of ourselves calls into question the basic premises and conclusions of Randian Objectivism: that we are self-made, exclusively self-interested, and morally required to pursue our self-interest and eschew altruism.  In championing the myth of human contra-causal exceptionalism, the followers of Ayn Rand are simply reflecting the beliefs of the vast majority in the US and the world about free will.  But in taking the myth to such extremes, they show how belief in the supernatural, self-choosing self can sometimes have morally unpalatable consequences. 

TWC  3/05

[1] See Cathy Young’s portrait of Ayn Rand in Reason, which shows how Rand's ideology of willpower erased any capacity for sympathy.

[2] There is a growing literature on reciprocal altruism as an adaptive component of our evolved moral sense.  See for instance Daniel Dennett’s Freedom Evolves, ch. 7, “The evolution of moral agency” and Owen Flanagan’s The Problem of the Soul, ch. 7, “Ethics as human ecology.”


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