Liberals, Evil, and Free Will

Libertarian Tibor Machan, writing in the Desert Dispatch (and reprinted in Free Inquiry, Oct-Nov, 2005), inveighs against liberals, claiming that "Liberals tend to excuse all evil with stories about bad luck and disease and a bunch of other impersonal forces that make people do bad things." He goes on to say that "The basic philosophical thesis behind the liberal the denial of free will." So according to Machan, by accepting that evil has causes, liberals deny free will, and in so doing deny the basis for moral judgments. But is it true that if everything is caused, everything is excused?

First, it's hardly the case that liberals deny free will. Liberals, like most people of all political persuasions, tend to suppose that we have contra-causal freedom. True, they are more likely to look for causes, since they are less likely than conservatives to suppose that people are self-made (see George Lakoff's book Moral Politics on this). But most liberals, regrettably, are not yet full-fledged naturalists in their understanding of persons and their relationship to the world.

But even if they did deny free will, would that make liberals the dangerous deniers of morality, as Machan seems to think? No. First, we don't lose our moral compass when we acknowledge that persons and their behavior, like everything else in nature, are entirely caused phenomena. After all, we still retain our deeply held desires to protect ourselves and our loved ones, and to promote a more flourishing, humane society. Second, we still have all our causal powers available to bring to bear in defending these values, so we don't lose our efficacy as agents. In short, we don't need to suppose, as Machan thinks we must, that there's something self-caused within each person to justify moral judgments and enforce standards of right and wrong. For more on this see "Materialism and Morality."

Machan says liberals must "toss their derisive attitude toward the rest of us who think it is perfectly sensible to distinguish between good and evil, right and wrong." But liberals aren't derisive of such distinctions, and to say so is a calumny. They simply are more likely to think, justifiably, that such distinctions are compatible with admitting that behavior, including evil, has causes.

Machan is very much like David Brooks ***(see "moral levitation")*** in supposing we must be causally privileged over nature in some respect to be moral agents. But there's no evidence that we are thus privileged, or that such exalted status is necessary to ground our moral practices.

TWC, December 2004

Tibor Machan replies:

I do hold that evil has causes, namely, the agents who perpetrate it! And as a matter of simple statistical fact, more liberals believe in the excusing capacity of such external or built in causes as addiction, disease, and so forth--just Sunday 60 Minutes had a long piece on ADD, etc., to show that people who lose focus or are confused are diseased. Now whether it is true or not, the fact is that they endorse such excusing conditions far more than do conservatives. And what they tend to believe in is bad things happening, not in evil, except when it comes to racism, sexism, intolerance and unfairness, the four great sins liberals still embrace albeit quite incoherently, since if you cannot help acting otherwise than you do, there is no way you can be held morally responsible for it.

TC responds:

The point of my critique, and Materialism and Morality, is that we can be held morally responsible, even though as events unfold we are fully determined to act the way we do by the causes, internal and external, that come to bear. Being held responsible is an important determinant in shaping behavior, and if we had the radical capacity to do otherwise in the exact situation as it arose - to contribute something to the situation that wasn't a result of earlier or surrounding determinants - then our responsibility practices wouldn't work: we would be free to ignore the influence of anticipated rewards or sanctions. But there's no reason to think that the agent and its contribution aren't fully a function of prior and surrounding conditions. Here's more on "could have done otherwise" and further reassurances about moral responsibility in a fully determined universe.