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Social Policy

Contents on this page:

Policy papers:

See here for a two page summary of CFN Policy and Applications (pdf).


Background

By providing a unified picture of ourselves embedded in nature, culture, and biology, inclusive naturalism serves as the basis for enlightened social policies. Currently, the commonly accepted supernaturalistic view of ourselves as having contra-causal free will prevents understanding the causes behind human behavior, while setting up individuals for unlimited recrimination and rewards. The widespread idea that persons are causally privileged over everything else in nature - that they are uncaused first causes - deflects attention from environmental and biological conditions which shape personality and behavior, thus retarding progress towards a more compassionate, less punitive culture. The highly skewed distribution of resources based on the notion of the self-made self, that those who succeed ultimately deserve their success since they possess some sort of metaphysical originative merit, is another consequence of the free will myth. Philosopher John Rawls pointed out years ago that no one deserves the talents and station in life they are born into; it's all a matter of luck (see note 1). This insight is the basis for the egalitarian political philosophy expressed in A Theory of Justice and later works.

A naturalistic understanding of ourselves has major social implications centered on 1) criminal justice and deviance and 2) social and economic justice. In what follows, the harmful consequences of the myth of libertarian, contra-causal free will for social policy are discussed, followed by the benefits of replacing that myth with inclusive naturalism.


Criminal Justice and Deviance

Negatives stemming from the free will myth:

- Retributive attitudes supporting harsh criminal sanctions. If offenders are seen as the ultimate source of their deviance (e.g., addiction) and criminality, then they are deemed deserving of punishment on the grounds that they could have overcome their environmental and biological circumstances, but simply chose not to do so. This sense of strong, ultimate desert is used to justify capital punishment and punitive incarceration over and above that necessary for rehabilitation or deterrence. Such punishment reinforces and perpetuates violence and maladaptive behavior, leaving in its wake vast and unnecessary suffering.

- Ineffective social policy. To the extent criminality and harmful deviance are understood to arise from individuals' undetermined choices, their true social and economic causes will go unaddressed. The myth of libertarian freedom essentially lets us off the hook from having to thoroughly investigate and remedy the root causes of dysfunction, and so the cycle of crime and punitive response repeats indefinitely. Free will is the bottom line excuse and justification for laissez faire and ineffective social policies which guarantee high levels of criminality and dysfunction.

Positives stemming from inclusive naturalism:

- Softening of retributive attitudes. Understanding that people don't create themselves, but instead are fully included in the causal matrix of environmental and biological conditions, undercuts retributive blaming focused on the person. This should help reduce the demand for capital punishment and harsh prison conditions. The aims of criminal justice might shift from the retributive imposition of just deserts to public safety, rehabilitation, victim restoration and reconciliation, and the prevention of recidivism (see note 2 and the Criminal Justice page).


- Enlightened social policy. Inclusive naturalism leads to the conclusion that an individual's development and behavior are fully a function of biological and social conditions, in which case the desire for a better, less punitive society should lead us to address these conditions. No longer will the free will myth excuse inaction on the grounds that people willfully choose their criminality, addiction, etc. Moral distinctions will still be made, but moralistic responses will be lessened in favor of interventions (e.g., economic and social investment and reform) which actually alleviate the causes of criminality.

- Policy initiatives: see proposal for Council on Crime and Causality.


Social and Economic Justice

Negatives stemming from the free will myth:

- Economic and social inequality. The widespread assumption of libertarian freedom, which states that an individual is at bottom self-made, works to justify and excuse huge differences in material well-being and social advantages. Those that fail economically, on this understanding, fail because of a willful refusal to apply themselves or follow the rules. Since it was their bottom-line choice not to get ahead, they deserve their misery. Likewise, those that succeed deserve their riches, however excessive or disproportionate, since they made themselves who they are. The huge inequalities between rich and poor are tolerated partially because they are thought to reflect differences in metaphysical merit derived from the differential exercise of free will.

- Ineffective social policy. To the extent that economic and social inequality are believed to result from human choices unaffected by surrounding conditions (the definition of libertarian freedom), such inequality will be perceived as the natural outcome of self-chosen individual differences, not anything that could or should be remedied by social policy. Social programs and income redistribution, therefore, will be only thought capable of operating around the margins of what is essentially up to human free will. The free will assumption, therefore, disempowers and defeats interventions to reduce inequality in advance by implying they cannot be effective, or that they somehow infringe our right to ultimate self-determination. (Of course if we really had libertarian free will, our self-determination couldn't be infringed upon.)

Positives stemming from inclusive naturalism:

- The end of metaphysical merit. Inclusive naturalism shows that an individual's economic and social success is entirely a function of family status, innate talents, and numerous other environmental and biological factors, not free will (see Rawls quote below, note 1). Successful individuals can no longer claim that their riches are deserved in the deep, metaphysical sense of having created themselves and their success ex nihilo. Nor can those who end up on the bottom be blamed for their failure on the grounds they could have chosen otherwise, given the circumstances that obtained. Social and economic inequality will be understood as the luck of the draw, not a reflection of metaphysical merit. This will undercut justifications for inequality based on the notions of deserved entitlement and deserved failure.

- Egalitarian social policy. If success and failure come to be understood as entirely a matter of environmental and biological conditions, not a reflection of self-created will, then social and economic inequalities can no longer be defended on the grounds that they are somehow deserved. This will undercut support for laissez-faire social policies that permit huge discrepancies in wealth and opportunity, and increase support for interventions that improve both opportunities and outcomes for the disadvantaged. Although incentives must still exist to encourage hard work and risk-taking, they need not result in a grossly skewed distribution of goods. Inclusive naturalism will shift the justification for having a reasonable standard of living from what's deserved to what's needed to avoid suffering.

Notes:

(1) "It seems to be one of the fixed points of our considered judgments that no one deserves his place in the distribution of native endowments, any more than one deserves one's initial starting place in society. The assertion that a man deserves the superior character that enables him to make the effort to cultivate his abilities is equally problematic; for his character depends in large part upon fortunate family and social circumstances for which he can claim no credit. The notion of desert seems not to apply to these cases" (Rawls, p. 104 A Theory of Justice).

(2) See Derk Pereboom's book, Living Without Free Will, Ted Honderich's book, How Free Are You?, and Paul Breer's book, The Spontaneous Self, for arguments in favor of policy change in the light of inclusive naturalism, especially in criminal justice. See Honderich's website for brief version of Pereboom's radical thesis on dismantling institutions of punishment. Note, however, that belief in naturalism is no guarantee of softer attitudes on criminal justice, desert, and blame. See, for instance, my review of Michael Moore's book, Placing Blame, in which he defends retributive justice despite his acknowledgement that we don't have libertarian freedom, and my exchange with David Hill on What Justifies Retribution, Precisely?.


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