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Not Responsible?

August 3, 1999

When Hillary Clinton explained her husband's philandering was probably due
to the fact that "he was scarred by abuse," specifically by "the
terrible conflict between his mother and grandmother," she gave voice
to a very widespread trend of thinking in our era. This is that when
we engage in misconduct, we do so because certain facts in our history
or biology made it happen.

Parental abuse is often cited but much else
has been invoked, as well, to explain why we do bad things in our
lives. Society or culture is often offered as the explanation. Genes
or biological evolution follows close behind. Peer pressure,
especially in the case of kids, is cited as a cause, as are the movies
and television programs. All in all, there are many candidates around
to take the "blame" for what we do and we tend to get exonerated or
exculpated via such explanations.

In the end individual human beings end up not being responsible for
what they do, be that something good or bad. This is the result, in
essence, of a certain view of reality that gained much respectability
during the 16th century, namely, scientism.

The gist of this view is that everything behaves the way that
physical matter behaves because, well, everything is actually nothing
else but physical matter. In the last analysis, the story has it, our
behavior must be understood no differently from how we understand the
behavior of billiard balls-–being pushed by various forces, we must
move as we do, period.

There is much promise to this story, indeed, when we consider how
useful it has been in the creation of the most wondrous technological
advances in the history of humanity. In part it is this kind of
thinking, which treats everything as particles of matter being moved
around by other particles of matter, that has enabled us to transform
the world in ways we find very beneficial to ourselves.

But there is a downside to it all, as well. This point of view makes
it very difficult to make sense of what Bill Clinton said in response
to Hillary's observation. To wit, White House spokesman Lockhart
reported that, "the president believes he's responsible for his

In other words, Bill Clinton is maintaining that he, along with the
rest of us human beings, is not just being moved around to behave as he
does but has a direct causal role in his own conduct. Yes, he may have
had some hardship in his childhood--who among us hasn't had some of
that? (For many of us it has been much more drastic that witnessing
quarrels between our mothers and grandmothers!) But, by his own
account, Mr. Clinton is opting for a different understanding of his own
conduct: He did it on his own.

And there is evidence that the kind of explanation Hillary seems to
prefer is not quite able to make sense of human affairs, after all.
For one, the very ideas of morality and legality would have to be given
up if her position were correct. After all, if we are being moved to
do what we do, no one can be said to be morally wrong or morally right
about anything since morality assumes we choose our conduct.

Even more fundamentally, though, the very idea of truth would have to
be abandoned since what we say would all be a matter of just having to
say it, including whether it is true or false. No independent way of
judging these things would be possible. Scientists, jurors, teachers
and parents--indeed, all citizens--who are constantly called upon
to make evaluations would be speaking pure nonsense when they try to do

Some influential philosophical systems have endorsed this idea with
great confidence. In the early part of the 20th century logical
positivists declared all ethics, politics, esthetics and other areas
wherein evaluations occur as total gibberish. And many of the social
sciences accepted this, out of which came the view that social science
must be value free and that social engineering is the way to change the

But now there is doubt about all this again. Even to endorse one view
over another is, after all, an evaluation-–you judge one right, the
other wrong, not morally but scientifically or philosophically. And
that seriously suggests that when someone makes the wrong judgment, one could have avoided it. After all, when scientists
-–let alone doctors-–make mistakes, this is not
without serious consequence. And they cannot escape the fact of choice, for even when debating
whether we are free or not the issue comes up as to which view we should embrace, what
is right, and what follows from this and who should be held responsible
for going wrong on the issue.

Not often does one run across an issue that brings a philosophical
topic so clearly to light. We can at least thank the Clintons for this
much: their scandalous lives have given us a good reason to revisit one
of philosophy's most ancient controversies: Are we free to act on our
own initiative or is it all a matter of que sera, sera?


TIBOR R. MACHAN teaches at
Chapman University and is an adjunct scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute.

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