Leftism and Determinism Part II

by Benjamin Studebaker

Yesterday I made the argument that core of the modern left’s political philosophy, that all people are worthy of equal concern, is reliant on determinism. I pointed out that this means that determinism is not merely an innocuous plaything for armchair philosophers, but a substantive moral position in its own right. This obliges us to take it out of its philosophical box and bring our worldview into consistency with it. I then posed two questions, which I intend to attempt to answer today:

  1. What other elements of our philosophy do we have to bring into consistency with determinism?
  2. Does determinism necessarily leave us with a bleak or depressing account of life?

There are likely many elements of our thinking that need to be adjusted to fit determinism. One blog post from one person is not likely to be exhaustive. That said, the most noteworthy change in our thinking required by determinism in my mind is that we must separate causation from blame.

At present, these concepts are frequently convoluted together. If Bob murders Bill, we ordinarily say not merely that Bob caused Bill’s death, but that Bob is to blame for it. With determinism, blame is off the table altogether. When Bob kills Bill with a pair of scissors, Bob is a cause of Bill’s death, but he is not to blame for it. Furthermore, Bob is not the only cause. The scissors Bob uses to kill Bill are themselves a cause, insofar as Bob could not have killed Bill any other way. Bob’s murder of Bill, like everything else in the universe, is a determined event.

This does not mean we cannot point to reasons why Bob might have killed Bill. Bob may have killed Bill because Bill was sleeping with Bob’s wife, for instance. But this in and of itself is only the trigger for Bob’s murder of Bill. When Bob found out about his wife’s affair with Bill, this information influenced Bob’s thinking and behaviour. The way in which Bob was influenced was outside of his control. Now, not everyone who finds out about a spousal affair commits murder as a result, but this is not because Bob chose murder, but because Bob was of a nature such that this affair could create in Bob a murdering behaviour. Perhaps Bob is genetically predisposed to aggressive behaviour or was abused as a child, or what have you.  These forces act on Bob in precisely the same way that Bob acts on the scissors. When Bob plunges the scissors into Bill, he is able to kill Bill in no small part because of the nature of the scissors. Scissors are designed to be pointy and dangerous such that, if picked up and plunged, they can be deadly. Bob is to the scissors as Bob’s genetic and environmental background are to the scissors’ point, ease of grip, lightness of weight, and so on.

We do not blame the scissors, and we do not blame Bob. They are both causes of Bill’s death, but neither can be blamed for it. Blame is a fiction; it is dependent on a non-existent free will.

This has wide-ranging implications for how we understand other people’s behaviour. When someone antagonises us, annoys us, or is otherwise unpleasant to us, we do not have the luxury of merely blaming the independent will we have imagined for that antagonist. We must instead recognise that the individual treating us in this way is acted upon by a variety of forces, most of which we are not aware of, that cause this person to act in a harmful way to others. Such a person is to be pitied, not blamed, as we would pity a childhood bully who takes out the aggression he receives from his parents at home on his fellow students at school.

Now, this brings us to the second question. Some see the divorce between causation and blame as having potentially catastrophic consequences for morality. If we cannot be blamed for anything, does that not imply that we do not control whether we are good or bad, and does that not mean that there can be no real moral responsibility, that we must give into nihilism? If we accept determinism, won’t that surely influence us into giving up on life, or at the very least, on the moral project?

It is important to distinguish that we are not merely acted upon by outside forces, but that we ourselves comprise these forces. The parent who abused the school bully and caused the aggression he feels has done a bad thing to this person. This is independent of the fact that the parent’s behaviour is itself determined. People cannot be blamed or credited for what they do, but they can still influence others in positive or negative ways–they can do good and do bad, and consequently be good or bad in that sense. A good person’s actions are, in aggregate, good, and a bad person’s bad in the same way.

People are amalgamations of cells which, in aggregate, comprise forces in the universe. The moral content of these forces, their propensity to influence other forces in good or bad ways, is significant. It is better to be a good force in the universe, one which contributes to the bettering of the nature of the surrounding forces, than it is to be a bad force that worsens their conduct.

As you have been reading this post, it is interacting with the nature you have developed to this point, changing it. I cannot say in what way your nature is changing. Perhaps I am motivating you to agree with my thoughts on determinism; perhaps you are repulsed and grow more opposed to it. In either case, I have an influence on you. I do not choose this influence–I am merely a force in the universe, doing what I do. By the same token, you do not choose how you are influenced by what I say. I cannot make you decide that determinism is not a nihilist belief, nor can you make yourself decide that. You will view it as you view it. All I can do is what I necessarily will do–attempt to offer an account of determinism that does not strike me as nihilist, and which might influence you not to view it that way.

The universe is full of forces. Some of these forces act broadly in ways that benefit other forces and make them want to be beneficial in turn, and others do the inverse, upsetting the forces that surround them and leading to ripples of suffering. Every entity in the universe, including all people, is such a force. Human beings can do very benevolent or very harmful things, depending on their nature. If knowing this influences you to seek the good influence of good people and to ignore and spurn harmful influences so that you in turn act in a way that helps others to themselves be beneficial, you have a life well worth living, because you do good things that bring goodness to the other forces in the universe. It is not necessary that you choose to be good through an act of will, or that you receive credit for that goodness. Doing good is sufficient for having value. Every person has the potential to do some good, under the right set of influences. When we do good collectively, when our forces work together so that we all shine brighter, there is harmony and beauty in that, as there is harmony and beauty in nature. We do not need to be independent of that, to be disconnected wills, detached from the universe. On the contrary, it is better to knowingly be a part of the fabric of the universe, and to enjoy whatever benevolent roles we happen to find ourselves in. Insofar as I believe this, and I do believe it quite sincerely, I demonstrate that determinism does not necessarily have to produce in adherents a nihilism. Insofar as you, the reader, consider this a reasonable way to interpret determinism’s moral value, perhaps you will join me in seeing it as not so objectionable after all.