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Not Responsible?

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Tags Media and CulturePhilosophy and MethodologyPolitical Theory

08/03/1999Tibor R. Machan

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 actions."

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 so.

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 world.

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?


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