Archive for November, 2009

Column on Can We Cause Our Actions?

Can We Cause Our Actions?
Tibor R. Machan

In a recent Op Ed column for Free Inquiry magazine–December 09/January10–Mr. Thomas Clark claims that the defense of human agency that some folks, including me, have been advancing for many years involves what he terms “contra-causal” free will. It does not.

But let me put the matter in context. In the age old debate about whether free will exists one line of argument against the idea has stressed that if we did have free will, this would violate the universal law of causality. This universal law is that everything that occurs has a cause, no exceptions. It is also put at times by stating that all things are caused or that every event has a cause. While these are nearly equivalent claims, they are not, actually.

In certain versions of the law of universal causation (or causality) there exist in nature n endless conjunction of events, moving from time immemorial to the end of existence. Indeed, by this account reality is but this endless chain of connections between events, one following another necessarily, on and on. The evidence for this is just that events do have causes, although no one of course has witnessed them all or is likely to do so. So the doctrine of such universal causation is not a discovery of science or any other discipline of study. It is an inference from numerous well established cases to the all that rest that are not established at all.

This is really the most popular idea of universal causality but not the only one. Another version of it is that whatever occurs has to have been caused to occur–it didn’t just pop into existence all on its own. This idea makes room for the former notion of causation but is not exhausted by it–some kinds of causes could exist that are not events or happenings. For example, when a beaver constructs a dam, the beaver is the cause of the dam, just as when Rembrandt painted his works, he created or produced them. All creative and productive activities involve such causation, one referred to as agent causality.

In a book I wrote nearly 10 years ago, Initiative–Human Agency and Society (Hoover Institution Press, 2000), I argued that human beings are agents and they can normally, unless crucially damaged, think and act on their own initiative. Others have defended this idea, also, such as the late psycho-physicist and Nobel Laureate Roger W. Sperry (e.g., in his Science and Moral Priority [Columbia University Press, 1983]) and Timothy O’Connor (in Persons & Causes, The Metaphysics of Free Will [Oxford University Press, 2000]). This does not involve any kind of contra-causation but is a form or type of causation. So, as already suggested, when Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart composed, Mark Twain wrote, Paul Cezanne painted and Mr. Clark produces philosophical essays, they are being agents who cause things to happen in the world. True, this means that people can be first causes in some instances but that is just one type of causation among others.

To maintain, as Mr. Clark does implicitly and as many others who take part in this debate do also, that only a single kind of causation exists in the world is contrary to what one can confirm in one’s own life, history, and most of one’s experiences with other people and other parts of nature. It is to hold, contrary to overwhelming evidence, that the kind of causality we find on a pool table, taking place between billiard balls, is the sole sort in all of reality. This is not a discovery but an dubious extrapolation, certainly not a scientific finding.

What is far more sensible to hold is that depending on what kind of thing something is, it can take part in causal relationships but not all of them are the same kind. And the reason is that not everything is the same kind of thing. Thus when a tennis ball is hit with a tennis racket the results will differ from when a billiard ball is hit with a cue stick. The nature of causality depends on the nature of what is involved in a causal relationship and since there are a great variety of kinds and types of things–that is, there are beings with a great variety of different natures–there is likely to be causal connections of a great variety as well.

Human beings, arguably, have a form of consciousness, based on a very complicated organ, namely, the human brain, that can produce certain unique actions, some of them out and out original–such as when someone writes a never before heard of short story or composes brand new music or designs a building with a unique architecture. Even the day-to-day production of ideas, words, theories, conjectures, speculations and such that surround us everywhere in the human world testify to the existence of this form of causation, one that does not at all resemble what happens on the pool table when balls collide and produce the behavior of rolling apart from each other.

This is by no means the end of the story here–the debate will continue. But it helps to have a brief outline of a certain view of universal causation, one that does not preclude human free will but treats it as a type of (original) cause in the world.

Letter to Free Inquiry

Dear Editor:
Mr. Clark claims [in Free Inquiry, Dec. 09/Jan. 10] I believe in what he terms “contra-causal” free will but I do not. I argue, in my book Initiative–Human Agency and Society (Hoover Institution Press, 2000)–that human beings are agents who can think and act on their own initiative. This does not go contrary to causality but is a form of it. When Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart composes, Mark Twain writes, Paul Cezanne paints and Mr. Clark produces philosophical essays, they all cause things to happen in the world.
True, this means I do defend that people can be first causes in some instances but that is just one type of causation among others. To maintain, as Mr. Clark does implicitly, that only a single kind of causation exists in the world is contrary to what one can confirm in one’s own life, history, and most of one’s experiences with other people. It is to hold, contrary to overwhelming evidence, that the kind of causality we find on a pool table, taking place between billiard balls, is the sole sort in all of reality. This is not a discovery but an artificial imposition or extrapolation, a false metaphysics and certainly not a scientific finding.


Tibor R. Machan

Ethics & Responsibility

Ethics and Responsibility*

Tibor R. Machan

I want to discuss a very important element of ethics in almost any school of moral philosophy. Ethics is probably one of those fields in philosophy that has many, many competing schools. The basic task of ethics is to answer the question, “How should I act?” “What standards apply to me as I conduct my life?” “What are the fundamental principles that I should follow?” Those are pretty much equivalent questions but the answers are extremely complicated and multi-faceted. There are a lot of very different answers that have been proposed and these are the schools of ethics most people are familiar with. Almost every major philosopher throughout the history of philosophy, east and west, has advanced an ethical theory; a theory about how human beings should conduct themselves. This is something most philosophers do. Some even contend that ethics is but a branch of politics which is prior to it, although the opposite is how most view it today. They contend that among the ancient Greeks, like Aristotle, politics is prior to ethics, although reading Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics doesn’t consistently support this idea.

There are, however, also philosophers and other thinkers who deny that there is any such discipline as ethics. In fact many philosophers, as well as many social and natural scientists, contend that the entire field of ethics is bogus. It’s akin to astrology, something most regard as a bogus field, and a lot of social and natural scientists believe this about ethics. There is no valid idea that includes the concept “ought.” Ought is an incoherent concept. That’s because judgments including it cannot be shown to be true (or false). Also those who are skeptical about ethics deny that we have any choice about how we conduct ourselves, that we can make free decisions as to what we will do. Thus for two reasons for many ethics is a non-starter (like astrology).

But the bulk of philosophers (and I would say the bulk of human beings) have a concern with ethics and take it seriously. They don’t dismiss it as bogus but tend to think there is a right answer to the question, “How should I act?” or “How should I conduct my life?” or “What principles should guide me?” whenever it is raised.

One reason that ethics arises for us (not an uncontroversial reason but a reason that makes sense) is that we don’t have the requisite set of instincts–or “hard wiring”–prompting us to behave as we need to in order to survive and flourish in our lives. If you look at almost any other animal (and I’m not going to get into the big debate as to whether there are some borderline cases), almost all have these instincts, these hard-wirings, so that, for example, in the winter they fly south and they don’t have to have a committee or go to graduate school to learn about it. Human beings, in contrast, have to figure out what they should do, how they should conduct themselves, whether to do this or that. When one’s a parent, one needs to make a choice too be a good one but might not do so and simply muddle through it all. When you’re a professor you have to consider how to be a competent one, a decent teacher and scholar, etc. And so on and so forth throughout the entire landscape of human activities. The issue of what are the right things to do and what are the wrong things to avoid doing always faces us. That is what editorials are about, that is what most famous plays and novels are about. Almost anything interesting in life tends to revolve around ethics.

Now I’m not going to try to sketch an ethical theory here but discuss the connection between ethics and human responsibility.

Responsibility is a very broad concept and one sense of it underlies any school of ethics; whether one considers utilitarianism, altruism, egoism, Aristotelian or Kantian ethics sound, all involve a person’s responsibility for conduct. However one answers the question, “How ought I conduct myself?” the issue of responsibility is central and unavoidable. But what does it mean? What is being meant here by using the concept of responsibility?

There are many uses of the idea “responsibility”. Sometimes crop failures are due to the weather so the weather is taken to be responsible for them. Buildings collapse because of earthquakes so earthquakes are responsible for the carnage. In this sense responsibility means that these factors are the causes of such happenings. What happens is because of this or that event that is responsible.

There is a relationship between this use of the term “responsible” and the one that bears on ethics but it is a controversial relationship because ethics in its customary sense–namely pertaining to how human beings ought to act–assumes one of the most controversial contentions in philosophy, psychology, and almost the entire list of the human sciences. That is that human beings have something usually called free will, that they can act one way or the other and it is up to them how they will act. What they choose to do is not because of god, the weather, their genes, their DNA or anything else. They, the actors or agents, are the ones who are responsible.

Those of us with children are familiar with this without having to become too philosophical. Children quite early in their lives try to avoid being held responsible for bad things and prefer being credited for good deeds. This is a very early idea in one’s life–as well as in the history of philosophy. It is one of the earliest ideas of ethics in any region of the world. Wherever people talk or write about ethics, it is generally assumed that they have to do the right thing of their own free will. This is very common with many thinkers, especially those writing novels, editorials, Op Ed columns and the like. Whenever there is exhortation about what people should and should not be doing, the idea surfaces immediately for blame and praise are accorded in the case of most significant human activities.

Some are unsure in their views on the matter but most have, to the extent that they have a normative framework, views about how people ought to act, whether individually or institutionally. In all such cases there is much concern about responsibility. And that is quite natural. One need not be an academic philosopher to appreciate that when human beings worry about their lives they worry about something over which they believe they have a say. They have some effective influence over how they will act. They are what is often referred to in philosophy as the causal agent of their actions. And if there is anything to that, then indeed a central element of human life is one’s personal responsibility to do the right thing so that if one fails to do the right thing, one is usually held responsible for it. Criminal law obviously banks on this notion and ethics and morality do as well.

The difference between ethics and morality isn’t germane here–”ethics” was the earlier term used by the ancient Greeks and it usually meant living right, whether it has to do with one’s personal life or the lives of intimates over whom one has influence or strangers. Morality mostly has to do with coordinating properly our actions with the actions of others. Morality is the social dimension of ethics. Though this may not seem like very significant, the distinction has had a major influence on the evolution of ethics, at least Western thought. (It is often maintained now that how one ought to act is only important when it effects other people, not oneself.)

After the highly influential work of Thomas Hobbes, there has been more emphasis on morality, on what you might call social ethics instead of personal ethics such as that which we find in Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. But this is not a major issue here. Both ethics and morality concern themselves with right as distinguished from wrong conduct.

A very recent (in the sweep of human history) thinker on this matter was Immanuel Kant who coined a motto that many philosophers invoke when they connect ethics and freedom. The motto is, “Ought implies can.” It just means that if one ought to do or abstain from doing something, it has to be what one is capable of doing. It is nonsense to say someone ought to jump 30 feet into the air unassisted because that’s impossible. One couldn’t very well have a moral responsibility to do the impossible.

So “ought implies can” refers to the fact that one has to be able to choose between doing something or not doing it in order to have the ethical or moral responsibility to do it. And there is another element to this as well. Not only must one be free to do the right thing and not be compelled one way or another–not just that it is one who is doing it–but it’s must also be knowable. In other words, what is the right thing to do has to be correctly answerable because if there is no possible correct answer to the question, “what is the right thing to do?” or “what ought I to do?” then one can’t do it. So if “ought” does imply “can,” then it also requires that there be some standards of proper conduct, of proper behavior.

The issue here isn’t which of the many ethical systems that have been proposed, advocated, defended, and championed throughout the history of ethics is right. Instead here it is these elements that are crucial: People have to be free and there has to be some standard by which their conduct is to be evaluated. Otherwise there is no ethics. Ethics then really becomes a bogus field if you cannot be free to choose the right course and if you cannot determine what the right course is. And needless to stress, all these are extremely controversial issues in the field of moral philosophy in ethics, especially in a field that precedes ethics, called metaethics.

Metaethics simply means, how do we get to know about ethics? How do we figure out ethics? Metaethics is the considerations that come before we get to the issue of how we should conduct ourselves. There are considerations that need to be handled before that and one of them is, “Are you free to choose?” The other one is, “Is there a way to determine what is the right thing to do?” These are metaethical issues. The ethical issues are, “What should I do?” or “What should I not do?” But “How do I know it?” is what’s called a metaethical issue. If one pays close attention to this, one will already have an inkling how this all relates to political philosophy, even political theory. Clearly if one is responsible for one’s conduct and others interfere with and prevent one from acting feely, one’s ethical life is squelched. If somebody forces a person to do something, one is not going to be able to take any credit for or be blamed for it. Which is well recognized in criminal law and it is also in morality. People often defend themselves against charges of malpractice or misconduct in court by trying to make out the case that they could not help themselves, that they did not have the freedom to act, that they were not the ones that were responsible for the behavior that is deemed criminal. It was something else. Maybe it was drugs, or “the devil made me do it.”

This idea of the intimate connection between freedom and ethics is ancient, hardly anybody denies it. There are some, however, who are deniers. These are people who in my view have abandoned ethics altogether but still like to keep the word around. They are people who believe that although you don’t have the freedom to choose, or there really isn’t any way to determine there is right conduct versus wrong conduct, nonetheless there is some vague thing called ethics having to do with what the public expects of one, or how one may be enticed to act in certain ways that are desirable from the social point of view, or some other thing; these aren’t what ethics is about, however, only what may be associated with ethics. Such matters pertain to what is to be encouraged amongst each other that’s desirable, but not with choosing to do the right thing, which is the province of ethics proper.

Doing the right thing is the task of a sovereign individual, someone who has the capacity to choose and may exercise that capacity well or badly, That is where this issue of responsibility pertains to human beings squarely and in a society in which the government regiments the population (even just a little sometimes is enough) what takes place as a result is demoralization, the removal of moral choice from people’s concerns. IN such a regimented society people’s moral lives are undercut and undermined. They no longer have the responsibility to act properly because the law has taken it upon itself to coerce them into doing whatever governments considers to be the right thing to do and to abstain from what government regards wrongful conduct. But if one is coerced to do the morally right thing, one is not actually doing it. One then has become a mere puppet.

One thing one tells one’s children after they have reached a certain age is that now they must take responsibility for their own actions, whereas before that one is perfectly willing to give them very close instructions as to what they should do, maybe even force them to do the right thing (but perhaps only with an eye to their growing up to do it on their own, rather than being prodded into doing it).

Some aspects of the current political situation are incompatible with the intimate connection between ethical responsibility and political freedom. Most generally put, it is where other people treat one as though they were one’s parents. A recent inventions of President Obama’s close associated and an architect of forthcoming government regulations is Professor Cass Sunstein of the Harvard Law School. He and some others have forged the concept of “libertarian paternalism” or “governmental nudging,” both oxymorons by any reasonable account. What Sunstein and Co. have in mind is a situation in which people are manipulated into doing what the government considers the right thing for them to do, akin to how when one attends a party at someone’s house who want one to take off one’s shoes at the entrance. They are likely to leave some kind of clue at the entrance, such as a bunch of shoes by those who live at the house, suggesting that it’s time to take off one’s shoes, without having to come up and ordering one to take off one’s shoes. That would be libertarian paternalism or nudging.

Sunstein co-wrote a book with Richard H. Thaler, titled Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness (Yale 2008) that instead of promoting out and out tyrannical government promotes a subtle and circumspect but still intrusive public policy by means of which citizens will be manipulated so as to bring about the government’s goals in such a way that one won’t really notice this. Such would be a not very disguised Machiavellianism for the 21st century.

Once again, the notion that you ought to be free to conduct your own affairs is trumped with the idea that we need to be ruled, even if only with a nudge.

There are many other areas where this kind of interference, pushing, and paternalism take place. It is almost impossible to list them in the current political climate because virtually everything that is done in Washington and in many other centers of legal power amounts to interference in people’s liberties. And, of course, there is always some excuse, some attempt to achieve something good or worthwhile. Often complaining about is met with the response that, well, it is done all over the civilized world, such as France, Germany, England, and Scandinavia.

Yet what is missed in this reply is that the American political system began by rejecting the approaches to public affairs deployed in most places around the globe precisely because of their intrusiveness. Any good that is achieved by intrusive, coercive means, be these mild or Draconian, looses it’s moral significance. It can’t even be considered a bona fide human good, one that’s brought about by human beings, because such a good must be the result of human choice and not coercion, not from having a gun put to the heads of the human agent.

And this has to do with the connection between responsibility, ethics, and freedom, the kind that the classical liberal tradition has started to emphasize more and more over the last 500 years and which had its full public impact during the American Revolution with an official document, the Declaration of Independence, that enshrined those ideas as political guidelines.

The Declaration of Independence makes reference to our unalienable natural rights, ones no one can lose as long as one is human. Those are the rights to life, liberty, the pursuit of one’s happiness, among others (!), all of which require one to be free to choose. (Notice it doesn’t mean that one has a right to happiness but to the pursuit of it, something that no one can guarantee that anyone will actually do.) Having the right to choose doesn’t mean that one will in fact exercise it. One might not. Even to pursue happiness is but an option, not a demand–one may just decide to settle for being melancholy (as one recent book recommends–it argues that melancholia is a healthier state for civilized human beings than the pursuit of happiness).

In any case, no one can have a moral life, conduct oneself in morally significant ways, act morally responsibly, without the right to freedom. Its’ not possible and those who try to promote that idea are badly mistaken.


*This is a transcript of a lecture delivered at Cato University, San Diego, CA , in July 2009.

Self-Correction in Markets v. Journalism

Self-Corrections in Markets and Journalism

Tibor R. Machan

In the American legal tradition the press may not be regulated, nor may religion. No one would maintain, though, that these are flawless institutions, not by a long shot. At The New York Times, for example, scandals over the years prove the point and there is no end to how badly some of the clergy can behave.

Yet few would insist, especially among the editors and columnists at The Times, that to handle these malpractices what is needed is some kind of government regulatory remedy. I certainly have never read anything in The Times recommending such supervision or oversight. Instead, what The Times does is exactly what it dismisses as useless when it comes to remedying problems in markets; it uses its public editor to propose self-regulation; he is an ombudsman, in-house at the paper, who writes reprimands and suggests various corrective measures that then, hopefully, help the paper stay on the right side of the various aspects of journalism.

But of course such self-knowledge isn’t what The Times likes to invoke as it scolds everybody in the market place, no. When it comes to other professionals in society, The Times doesn’t hesitate to advocate the equivalent of censorship, namely, government regulation. Indeed, its editors and columnists constantly fail to see that what they take for granted, namely, an unregulated arena of journalistic operations, is not something others in the society may enjoy. Those at The Times–as well as at many, many other newspapers–evidently believe they are mature and disciplined enough to engage in self-regulation but others, outside their media operations are too inept, too childlike, to enjoy the same rights.

And such blatant inconsistency is not unusual at The Times. In a recent column of his (“Free to Lose,” November 13, 2009), Krugman wrote that policies to promote “job sharing” are “worthy of consideration” in order to remedy the country’s unemployment problems. To this absurd idea Professor Don Boudreaux of George Mason University responded with characteristically impeccable logic:

“Let’s start at the New York Times. I know several PhD economists currently without jobs (and certainly without regular newspaper columns). I propose that Times Co. chairman Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, Jr. reduce Mr. Krugman’s presence on the page to, say, one column per year. The remaining hundred or so columns that Mr. Krugman would otherwise have written for the NYT can be written by unemployed economists.”

Do you believe there is any chance at all that The Times and Professor Krugman will bite the bullet and take Professor Boudreaux’s suggestion to heart? Do you think the editors who give Professor Krugman his space in The Times will heed the advice to remedy employment problems in the press by having the good Princeton Professor, who is already holding down several different jobs, to participate in job sharing? If you do, I have this bridge in New York I would like to sell you.

Government regulation is nothing but a version of prior restraint, an imposition of burdens on market agents that they have done nothing to deserve, something that in the criminal law is forbidden by due process! Moreover, government regulation simply places some citizens in power over others, something that is clearly prohibited by the 14th Amendment to the U. S. Constitution that mandates treating all citizens as equal under the law.

To have a bunch of bureaucrats look over the shoulders of various professionals, all of them U. S. citizens, and order them to do this and that without their having been proven guilty of any criminal conduct, is plain unjust. And the folks at The New York Times would never stand for it in their work. But they routinely advocate more and more government regulation professionals outside of journalism and the clergy. They appear to be totally blind to just how inconsistent this is and how, indeed, the U. S. Constitution is itself inconsistent by permitting government regulation of nearly every other profession not protected by the First Amendment.

It would be interesting if this subject would be broached on the pages of The Times, say in an Op Ed column. But please do not hold your breath.

Rand v. Greenspan on Selfishness

Greenspan versus Rand on Self-Interest

Tibor R. Machan

Nearly every time Alan Greenspan is written about in the media, his early association with Ayn Rand is remarked upon. The impression is often left that Greenspan holds the same views as Rand did, especially about the ethics of egoism or selfishness.

Some will no doubt remember that Ayn Rand wrote a little book, The Virtue of Selfishness, A New Concept of Egoism, in which she defended the idea that everyone has a moral responsibility to strive to live successfully, to achieve happiness in life. (Not all that different from Aristotle’s eudaimonism.) This does include one’s economic flourishing but is by no means confined to it. And one implication of Randian egoism is that everyone must first discover what would make him or her happy as a human being and then seek to attain that goal.

When economists talk of self-interest—the way Alan Greenspan spoke of it in his testimony on October 23rd to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform—they have something very different in mind. What most mean by self-interest is a supposed inner drive we all have to seek to further what we like, what pleases us, including, of course, our prosperity. From this view they derive many of their conclusions regarding the way people conduct themselves in the market place. So, for example, Greenspan said that “Those of us who have looked to the self-interest of lending institutions to protect shareholders’ equity, myself included, are in a state of shocked disbelief.” To Representative Henry Waxman’s question of whether his ideology pushed him to flawed thinking that has contributed to the current financial fiasco, Greenspan replied “Yes, I’ve found a flaw. I don’t know how significant or permanent it is. But I’ve been very distressed by that fact.”

What exactly is the ideology that Waxman had in mind that supposedly “pushed [Greenspan] to make decisions that you wish you hadn’t made”? It was not made clear either by Waxman, Greenspan, or those who reported the exchange in The New York Times. But it is fairly evident from the context that they had in mind the standard neo-classical economic notion that everyone always, automatically, pursues his or her self-interest which has a substantial economic component to it. And this is supposed to be especially so with Wall Street firms, including “lending institutions.”

In a less unnatural language the idea Greenspan gave voice to means roughly that those who work in the lending industry would be motivated by their professional responsibility to serve their clients properly, not unlike it is expected that doctors, attorneys, psychiatrists or other professionals do. But it is not part of this language that professionals are driven to serve their clients competently, conscientiously. No, outside of the social science of economics it is pretty much understood that professionals can carry on properly, ethically, or fail to do so. Indeed, their self-interest as professionals may well be neglected and they may yield to the temptation to promote other objectives, some of them at times induced by various political pressures and contingencies.

For example, if politicians establish regulations that violate the laws of sound economics, this can promote irresponsible conduct on the part of professionals in lending institutions and throughout the widely integrated market place. And this possibility was not at all touched upon by Greenspan and others at the hearings although it was raised at an earlier time and has received some coverage since.

It is true that the professional interests or objectives of lenders would tend, in the main, to coincide with the best interest of their clients, as this is true in other professional-client relationships (doctors/patients, teachers/students), except when various bureaucratic and political objectives interfere. But when President Clinton and many others in Washington, D.C., insisted that lenders ignore the standards of proper lending because adherence to them would leave out a pretty sizable segment of the voting population from among those who would receive loans to purchase homes, this changed the economic dynamics considerably. It created incentives for both lenders and buyers to act imprudently, rashly, wildly even, and the overall effect of it all came to be the current fiasco just as had been forecast at the time (and reported by, you guessed it, The New York Times—see Stephen A. Holmes’ report on September 30, 1999, for example).

The ideology that Greenspan seems to have embraced is not what Ayn Rand taught. Rand advised that we be prudent, strive for success, including in our economic lives. She didn’t believe, as Greenspan and others seem to have, that people, including “lending institutions,” will necessarily pursue their self-interest. Had market agents followed Rand’s advice, this fiasco would have been avoided. Greenspan himself should have studied Rand more carefully.

Machan is the author of Ayn Rand (Peter Lang, 2001) and teaches at Chapman University, Orange, CA 92866. He also wrote, among other works, A Primer on Ethics (U. of Oklahoma Press, 1990).