The New Clarion

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Unchaining the Good: Liberty and Tabula Rasa

By Jim May · October 17th, 2010 5:30 pm · 11 Comments ·

Over at PajamasMedia, “zombie” proposes that the Tea Party and the hippies of the 1960′s share a common set of ideas.  That sort of confusion sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

Not so fast!  While zombie is indeed confused, there is much more involved here; rather than clueless overgenerosity, zombie is trapped by a much more fundamental error.  Go read the whole thing, as you will definitely need the context (and it’s very informative), and then come back here.

Peripherally interesting is zombie’s take on the character of the hippie movement prior to 1968, which is widely considered by many as a key turning point.  (Harry Binswanger, for example, has noted on HBL that 1968 was the year when he directly encountered the Leftist violence and hatred that was coming to dominate the entire movement.)  zombie provides some history of the hippie movement which shows that there were indeed some elements of anti-statism and individualism present at one point.  I find it interesting in part because it fits the experience of my wife, who saw it firsthand, and it also represents how this climax of the Left’s co-option of American liberalism encapsulates the entire century-long process in miniature.

But the main thing that I found interesting in zombie’s post was the two-dimensional political diagram in it.  At first glance it just looks like the usual libertarian attempt to graft the proper statism-liberty axis onto the invalid left-right one to create an unwieldy two-dimensional political “space”, instead of rejecting the invalid one altogether.

Unlike the libertarians, zombie actually does reject the left-right axis entirely in favor of the valid individualism-collectivism one.  But then, zombie introduces a second axis defined by a different variable: one’s view of human nature.  Its extremes are defined as “innate” (here meaning: immutable) at one end, and (socially) “constructed” at the other.

That’s an interesting approach, but not for zombie’s reasons as we shall see.

The immediate problem with zombie’s second axis, is that it represents the old “nature versus nurture” debate, which is a false alternative of precisely the same sort as the old left-right axis.  Where the old axis was designed to obliterate freedom (offering us only a choice in the form of rulers), the new one is designed to obliterate free will.

As with the old axis, attempting to locate Objectivism on it results in confusion.  Anyone who attempts to place Objectivism in that space will have no problem placing us on the extreme individualist end of the valid spectrum, but won’t be able to fit us anywhere on the “innate-constructed” one.

Objectivists see human nature as immutable, a given — but also see human beings as “tabula rasa”, a view which zombie and conservatives associate with the Leftist view of human nature as being infinitely malleable.  So, for someone trapped in that particular “space”, Objectivism seems inconsisent and confusing.

Sure enough, Zombie ends up placing Objectivists somewhere in the muddled middle, on the “innate” side — but in reality, Objectivism can be placed anywhere in that space with equal (which is to say: zero) validity.  Evolutionary psychologists, for example, would place “tabula rasa” Objectivists up at the top.  Leftists would put us at the bottom, with the religious/fascists.

Again, the pattern repeats:  that is exactly the confusion that results when someone trapped in the old left-right axis attempts to locate Objectivism/laissez-faire on that axis; they end up confused, and condemning Objectivism as inconsistent!

Is this just a coincidence — or is there something deeper going on?

Below is a cleaned-up, edited and expanded version of the comment I posted on zombie’s article, which explains my take on zombie’s “new” axis, and puts forth the “third way” on that axis: the Objectivist view of “tabula rasa” as pertaining not to human nature (which is a given), but to human character (which is individually “constructed”).

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The idea that the hippie movement was not Leftist in its original pre-1968 form, jibes with what my original-vintage-hippie wife tells me.

But that “innate versus constructed” human nature axis is a complete disaster – it’s a false alternative, just like the left-right axis. It is nothing more than the “nature versus nurture” alternative, and the falsity therein is this: it operates on the assumption that nature ==> character (where “==>” means “is directly determined by“).

Determinism, in other words.

Just as the left-right axis presents us with the false alternative of “fascism” versus “communism”, where our only choice is between different forms of rulers but not the fact of rule, the “innate-constructed” axis only offers us a choice between the innate “id” and the social “superego” — blame human nature for your failings, or blame society, but either way it’s not your fault. It’s Freud all over again, telling us that “the ego is not master in its own house.

The option left out here, is the principle of individual self-authorship and consequent moral responsibility — the notion of character as distinct from human nature, in other words.  This is the idea that the ego IS master in its own house — and is morally responsible, therefore, for its content.

When Martin Luther King said that men should be judged “not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character“, he was rejecting genetic determinism (in the form of racism), the “nature” half of the false alternative. If the innate-constructed axis were valid, it would mean that King must therefore have been in favor of social construction, or some middle-of-the-road “hybrid” of the two.

But that is plainly false. What King meant, was that individuals should be judged as individuals — that individuals were neither a product of “nature” nor “nurture”, neither genetic robots nor passive conformists nor some blend of the two, but were authors of their own character.

That’s called “free will”, and is the genuine meaning of “tabula rasa” — not the Leftist straw man that Stephen Pinker, Thomas Sowell, and other conservatives attack.

Human nature is indeed a given, immutable and unchangeable — but a man’s character is not; it is the blank slate upon which each man authors his own character, by means of the choices that he makes throughout his life. The slate is what it is, and we do not change that fact with the things we write on it. The slate does not, however, determine in any fashion whatsoever what we choose to write on it — it does not write on itself, nor can it veto what we write on it. It cannot affect the content of our minds and our character; that is entirely up to us, the writers.

It is man’s character which is tabula rasa, not his nature.

It is this absolute fact upon which the Left’s programs, all seeking to “fix” mankind by remaking men into something they are not in accordance with some arbitrary prior standard, have indeed foundered.  What Whittle and all conservatives fail to acknowledge is that the “innate” side of the axis has foundered just as badly, and for precisely the same reasons.  Instead of trying to make human beings into something they are not, the “innateists” sought to prevent human beings from being what they are — again, because they found man qua man to be “flawed” as judged by some arbitrary prior (religious) standard!

What unites “innateists” and “constructionists” is their fundamental conflict with the facts of human nature — they are at war with htese facts, regardless of where they fall on this axis.  All of their societies have led to disaster for that common reason.

So, as is now plain, zombie’s new axis unfortunately does not map to liberty, anymore than the left-right spectrum ever did; the impulse to statism can be found equally at either end.  As an index to politics, it is therefore just as meaningless.

In fact, something I find most striking of all here, is that zombie’s “constructed versus innate” axis maps much more cleanly to the old left-right spectrum than individualism-collectivism does; “innate-ist” forms of determinism maps to rightist/racist tyrannies, while “nurture” (social) forms of determinism are clearly associated with the Leftist form.

I have long wondered what was the single variable defining the conventional left-right spectrum was; I think I may finally know.

I have to hand it to Zombie; I have never seen anyone spot the trap and step away from it into the light, as you have done — only to reconstruct another version of it, give it a different name, and step right back in (SNAP!)

Statism, in all its varieties, fails not because it chooses the wrong version of determinism, but that statism is based upon determinism as such, putting it at odds with human nature (including free will) — and THAT is its error.

Contra Bill Whittle, liberty is not based on constraining men against their (evil, “bastardly”, power-lusting) nature; how Orwellian that notion is!  Liberty is based upon the idea that every individual is morally responsible for who he is, because man is a being of self-made soul — and therefore, to achieve the greatest that is possible to him, he must be free to author himself without unwanted, coerced interference from others who fancy themselves as knowing better.

These facts of human nature, including moral self-authorship, determine what sort of society ought to exist. What is, allows us to discover what ought to be.  (So much for that other core conservative premise, the is/ought prohibition.)

Human nature, like the nature of dogs, cats, rocks and oceans, is a given, morally neutral. It is not “flawed”, and has no “tendencies” to good or evil. It simply is.

This is what it is: individual human beings, by their nature, possess free will and the unencumbered ability to choose the content of their minds (their ideas), and therefore to author their character — and they are each 100% responsible for the results.  It’s not in the cards you’re dealt; it’s how you play the hand.

Liberty, therefore, is not about chaining the evil; it is about unchaining the good.

11 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Jack // Oct 17, 2010 at 11:21 pm

    I’m surprised social conservatives are on the left side of that divide. They should be on the right side with the moderate democrats.

  • 2 madmax // Oct 18, 2010 at 2:24 am

    This is an excellent post. One of the best that’s been posted at The New Clarion. However, having read many Bio-Conservative bloggers, I know that the comeback answer is going to be something like “modern neuro-science on brain architecture has shown that people are limited from the time of birth. Their personalities are largely set, their sexual temperaments are largely set, their intellectual capacities are largely set. So as a result their free will is so limited as to be largely illusionary.” This is the same answer Daniel Dennett will give you.

    I don’t agree with this but its everywhere these days, especially in the secular Right. It seems as if the evolutionary psych and neuroscience crowd are trying to make free will a matter of science; in essence reductionism.

  • 3 L-C // Oct 18, 2010 at 4:51 am

    madmax: In other words, their position is that various biological factors effectively wage force upon the human mind.

    Genetics do provide inclinations and altered potential toward various things such as alcoholism or talent in one area or another. But have they even attempted to show how this, in any way, refutes volition?

    Do they seriously believe that the child of an alcoholic is all but mind-controlled, fantasy/sci-fi style, to drink excessively? In any case, my impression is that no debate is necessary or even possible with those who deny free will. It is too fundamental an issue to disagree on. What are humans, at all, if not volitional?

  • 4 Beth Haynes // Oct 18, 2010 at 9:29 am

    Excellent analysis. This has helped me frame a better understanding of those who argue that one of the many problems with leftist central planning is the belief in the “perfectibility of man.” This belief leads to the conclusion that if the environment is properly constructed, people will be shaped into doing the right things. That’s why the all-knowing elite have to be in charge–to create the right “nurture” environment.

    Then, that leaves those arguing against man’s “perfectibility” through nurture to state the obvious: man’s nature includes free will, which means the ability to make wrong choices, and therefore requires some external authority (state or religion) to keep him in line.

    Neither has the proper view of a human nature (free will) capable of self-constructed character. Thank you for this clarifying construction.

  • 5 c andrew // Oct 18, 2010 at 11:46 am

    “no debate is necessary or even possible with those who deny free will.”

    LC,
    It also raises the interesting question, “Who, exactly are you arguing with? My genes? My environment? And since you are compelled by your genes or your environment to make this argument how can you validate the truth status of the argument you’re making?”

    About the only thing you can do with someone who plays the determinist card is to point out the self-refutation and hope that it penetrates their social conditioning!

  • 6 Andrew Dalton // Oct 18, 2010 at 12:36 pm

    Another part of the larger context to keep in mind is that these empiricist “bioconservatives” are not engaging in academic bull sessions or trying to score debating points. Rather, they have a grand normative agenda covering important matters such as foreign policy, immigration policy, and the criminal justice system. They are saying, “Given these scientific facts, here is what our immigration policy ought to be; here is what our crime policy ought to be; etc.” They are assuming the free will of legislators, presidents, voters, etc. even while denying or trivializing it as a part of human nature.

  • 7 Jim May // Oct 18, 2010 at 7:39 pm

    madmax: let them try that one.

    The error they are making is the smuggled assumption that human will is only truly free if it is unencumbered by any facts of reality — i.e. that a truly free will must be omnipotent. It’s a cousin of the fallacy that certainty is only possible to omniscient beings. It’s an interesting offshoot of primacy-of-consciousness; human beings can only be said to have free will if they are free to author all of reality. (To which the Left answers: great! Let’s get started!)

    I already refuted that one in the original article, though I might have given it short shrift in the original post in the interests of brevity:

    “Human nature is indeed a given, immutable and unchangeable — but a man’s character is not; it is the blank slate upon which each man authors his own character, by means of the choices that he makes throughout his life. The slate is what it is, and we do not change that fact with the things we write on it. The slate does not, however, determine in any fashion whatsoever what we choose to write on it — it does not write on itself, nor can it veto what we write on it. It cannot affect the content of our minds and our character; that is entirely up to us, the writers.

    It is man’s character which is tabula rasa, not his nature.”

    and later:

    “it’s not about the cards you’re dealt, it’s how you play the hand.”

    Does the fact that a car cannot fly mean that the driver does not have control of the vehicle (because of the “limitation”?)

    Observe that “limitations” merely define the physical space within which free will operates. No matter how limited a car is by its nature, these facts only sets limits to what is physically possible to the driver. It does not, and never does tell the driver where to go — which is to say, it does not dictate the content of the driver’s mind. Two different things!

    Morally, these limitations constrain the range of the driver’s moral responsibility. All they mean is that is that the driver cannot be held responsible for failing to fly; his (finite) range of responsibility is defined by his (finite) range of choice.

    Similarly, the physical characteristics of the human body represent part of the facts of reality which set negative limits and boundaries to the raw physical capacity of a human being. However, they say absolutely nothing about what a human being may do within that space.

    Even the so-called “tendencies”, while they may make certain choices more difficult and others easier, some more desireable and other less, that is simply nature in action. I am a heterosexual male, for example. To the extent that this fact “limited” me to women, it said nothing about *which* woman I was to marry, leaving that choice to me — and while I may lack a desire to do so, I remain nevertheless capable of sleeping with men.

    Last but not least, we remain capable of *conceiving* of actions beyond apparent limits. Good thing too, else we might never have left the ground!

    The distinction which these “bioconservatives” refuse to make, is that between the *content* of one’s mind (and therefore, one’s moral character) and one’s mere physical capacity. It’s a short step from there to conclude that physical capacity therefore dictates the content of mind.

    If that sounds familiar, it should — that bizarre idea of one’s mind being “conditioned” by one’s tools Ayn Rand lambasted in Atlas Shrugged, is a close corollary.

    Ultimately, their viewpoint distills to the doctrine of innate ideas, which they got from Kant — and the basic self-refuting nature of all forms of determinism is all that’s left.

    So let them try that gambit. It’s not like I don’t know question-begging when I see it.

  • 8 Jim May // Oct 18, 2010 at 7:46 pm

    They are saying, “Given these scientific facts, here is what our immigration policy ought to be; here is what our crime policy ought to be; etc.” They are assuming the free will of legislators, presidents, voters, etc. even while denying or trivializing it as a part of human nature.

    That’s rather funny, considering that the is/ought prohibition is a key conservative assumption.

  • 9 Richard // Oct 20, 2010 at 10:32 am

    I probably don’t need to point out the irony of someone using the name “Zombie” to write an article supportive of determinism… but there, I just did.

  • 10 Elisheva Levin // Oct 28, 2010 at 5:56 pm

    This was a great article, and I thoroughly enjoyed the challenge to think about these things in a new way.

    I have used the “World’s Shortest Political Quiz” sometimes in order to get people with whom I am conversing to even entertain the idea that there may be more to political ideas than the false left-right divide. And yet a person’s view of human nature has a very large impact on his political thought. I admire Zombie’s idea of placing it on the y-axis, because it is something new under the sun, even though I agree that it presents a new version of the same old false dichotomy.

    Today seems to be the day when people are discussing determinism by brain chemistry, and original sin via evolutionary biology. (I am thinking of the talk of a “liberal” gene). However much brain chemistry influences mood (and a number of other brain functions) though, and however much environment in turn influences brain chemistry (through immediate early genes), individuals–human ones, that is– still have the amazing ability to influence both. That is free will and the self-made soul.

    Sure, human beings are constrained by certain limits physically, there is a limit to the malleability of human nature. But it is what it is, and it is that way not because of Adam’s fall, or the sins of the fathers, but because of the success of the fathers and the mothers over the past two billion years and more of life on earth.

    We all come from a long line of successful ancestors. What were they successful at? Living on earth. There is nothing deterministic about it, but we have been endowed with all that we need to make the good choices, the ones that lead us to become one more successful link in that eternal golden chain of inheritance.

    Perhaps the only thing outside the purview of the free will of a human being is the requirement to choose. Fascinating.

  • 11 L-C // Oct 29, 2010 at 2:33 am

    “I admire Zombie’s idea of placing it on the y-axis, because it is something new under the sun”

    http://www.politicalcompass.org/ have used something similar for years.

    Also, there’s a lot of spam on this site at the moment. Is there anything effective yet unintrusive that would fix it?