Government's Role in Society

Commentary on George Will's piece "Prosecuting 'Crimes' of the Mind?", in which he takes government to task for trying to influence character development and personal behavior.

On June 5, 1998, the Boston Globe published columnist and libertarian George Will's piece "Prosecuting 'Crimes' of the Mind?" in which he takes government to task for trying to influence character development and personal behavior.  What caught my attention in this otherwise typical anti-regulation rant were the following paragraphs on free will.  Will is describing Richard Dooling's novel, "Brain Storm," which raise issues of free speech, political correctness, and, interestingly, the implications of neuroscience for the prospects of control (Will's text is indented):

"Brain Storm" is a crash course in neuroscience and the possible behavioral implications of neurological disorders.  One character is a scientist who says that believing in free will is akin to believing in leprechauns.  The mind, she says, is "a symphony orchestra with no conductor" - billions of neurons cooperating to produce consciousness, and we have no idea how.  But new brain-scanning technologies can produce, in effect, pictures of, say, rage or contentment - the glucose uptake, oxygen consumption, blood flow, and electrical or magnetic activities correlated with particular states of mind.  So is it unreasonable to postulate genetic, biological, environmental, or medical causes of violence - causes that can be removed?

The trouble is, the law holds us responsible for controlling our minds, which presumably control our bodies. Unfortunately, government increasingly wants to inventory and furnish our minds.

(Readers familiar with cognitive science and philosophy of mind might recognize Patricia Churchland's position above.)

So what's the problem, George?  I wrote the following letter, printed in the Boston Globe on June 9, 1998, which they titled

Government's role in society

To the Editors:

George Will, true to form, worries that "the government increasingly wants to inventory and furnish our minds," by prosecuting hate crimes, banning tobacco and beer ads, limiting campaign spending, and broadening the definitions of sexual harassment and minority discrimination ("Prosecuting ‘crimes’ of the mind?", June 5 Op-Ed). But the government is not, as Will implies, some alien presence, imposed on us against our will, but rather our democratically achieved consensus of how best to live.

He also says that "the law holds us responsible for controlling our minds, which presumably control our bodies," suggesting that there is some incompatibility between such self-control and liberal social policy. However, by holding us responsible, the law functions as a primary means of regulating behavior, consistent with an activist role for government.

Will’s mistake is to confuse self-control with the notion that the individual possesses some innate regulatory mechanism that could (and should) function independently of those social and governmental restraints which libertarians like Will find so burdensome.

But individuals are completely shaped by their genetic and environmental circumstances, and the degree to which they control themselves is entirely a matter of how well they are taught to do so. Government, like family, schools, and community, has a legitimate role to play in such instruction.

Thomas W. Clark

But, this wasn't the end of it.  Eleven days later, the following letter appeared, a full bore defense of the individual's power to shape himself, free of society, government, or any other constraining influences.  This reply stands as a wonderful example of how the myth of personal autonomy can distort the obvious fact that human beings, like everything else in nature, arise entirely out of a network of circumstances, and so bear their imprint.  The vehemence of the reply suggests that the myth of autonomy will, no surprise, die hard.  I reproduce the letter below without further comment.  The Globe called it

Let your conscience be your guide

To the Editors:

Thomas Clark supports the notion that the government has a role in individual morality (letter, June 9).  His letter was a response to George Will's June 5 column, "Prosecuting 'crimes' of the mind?"

Clark stated Will made a mistake in thinking that the "individual possesses some innate mechanism that could (and should) operate independently of those social and governmental restraints which libertarians like Will find so burdensome."  Such a mechanism does indeed exist.  It is called the conscience.  People of integrity and good character do exercise this mechanism often in direct contradiction to what society or the government would have them do.

The critique of Will shows to what lengths people will go to avoid personal responsibility.  The government is an alien presence when it comes to individual actions. The individual is the ultimate responsible party, and it is up to the individual to properly form a conscience and morality.  Soon the government will outlaw certain ways of thinking, as Will intimated.  We have the unrestrained right to think and feel any way we are inclined.   We may hate whomever we want.  We can be ignorant, bigoted, homophobic or whatever other politically incorrect stereotype we choose.  We simply cannot act on those thoughts as we choose, including speech.

The view that the government should be educating people in a certain way, or that it has any role in formulating an individual conscience, is foolish.  People are not completely shaped by genetics and the environment, but are also shaped by themselves as they choose to act as the person they want to be.  Running away from personal responsibility and the basic truth that each person has a conscience is to deny that each person is called by human nature to be moral, not because of society or government, but in spite of them.

Far too much blame or excuse is laid at the feet of society, while all the blame or merit lies fully on the individual and how that person chooses to act.  Government has far too large a role in society and as Clark's letter demonstrates, people are too willing to let that role expand.  It is nothing but moral laziness and cowardice.

Douglas B. Scibeck