Progressive Policy Implications of Naturalism

By challenging the myth of the self-made self, naturalism undercuts a central justification for conservative social policies, and thus is inherently progressive in its implications.  Conservatives, more than liberals, hold that failure and success in life are just deserts for the differential exercise of free will, not disparities stemming from social conditions that should be remedied via social policy.   From this standpoint, social inequality, retributive punishment, and stigma are morally justifiable, given that individuals simply choose not to get ahead or conform to the law.  Since naturalism shows human behavior to be fully caused, not a matter of contra-causal free will, this rationale for laissez-faire and punitive policies toward the less fortunate is untenable.  An earlier version of the essay was published in Toward a New Political Humanism, Neil Murphy and Barry Seidman, editors, Prometheus Books, 2004, under the title "Facing Facts: policy implications of the humanist commitment to science."

The scientific basis of naturalism

Secular humanism, at least the naturalistic variety, is predicated on the idea that  reliable knowledge of the world is best attained via science - the empirical, experimental, and intersubjective investigation of phenomena.  Allegiance to science is an expression of the basic human need to predict and control circumstances to bring about outcomes we desire.  Responsiveness to the way the world is, as opposed to the way we might want it to be, is a cognitive trait that obviously serves complex organisms such as ourselves well in the quest for survival.  Science is the culturally evolved refinement of such responsiveness, and it has turned native human curiosity into a powerful tool of prediction and control, while giving us a coherent, unified picture of the world. 

The ultimate constituents of the universe, according to science, are those micro-level phenomena described by physical theory, and the rest of what exists is, in one way or another, composed of these constituents.  The scientific mode of knowing thus leads to an overarching ontological naturalism, in that whatever science incorporates into its explanations is likewise incorporated into a single, natural world, not divided into two distinct realms, the natural and the supernatural.  The latter division is the hallmark of non-empirical, non-experimental epistemologies, those driven by a commitment to revealed knowledge, authoritative texts, personal revelation, and traditional world views that often ascribe supernatural status to gods, spirits, souls, and other non-physical entities.

Because of their commitment to science as an epistemology, secular humanists tend toward a non-dualist, naturalist conception of ourselves as embedded in nature.  There is nothing that fundamentally sets us apart, or above, the natural world.  We are fully physical, caused creatures, even in our highest capacities, and the various characteristics of persons, whether idiosyncratic or universal, are a entirely a function of the environmental and genetic situation in which they develop. 

But at the start of the 21st century such a view is held by a small minority, at least in the United States.  Human nature, it seems, prevents the optimally rational allegiance to science that secular humanists hold as the ideal epistemic commitment.  The overriding desire for survival implanted in us by evolution generates the opposite, anti-scientific tendency: the wishful thinking that denies the empirical evidence that we are simply material creatures doomed to die and disappear.  Hence the widespread, often religiously expressed supposition that the causal physical story told by science can’t be the whole story: there’s something within us that transcends nature and survives death, namely the supernatural soul.  This soul, this mental essence or non-physical agent, escapes being fully included in the natural order.  But not only does it survive death, it has contra-causal free will (what philosophers sometimes call libertarian free will), the capacity to cause without itself being fully the causal product of surrounding and prior conditions.  Like God, it is causally privileged over the rest of nature.  I will call this commitment to the soul and contra-causal free will the dualist stance, since it supposes that we are of fundamentally two natures, the natural and the supernatural.

Naturalism, attitudes, and social policy

Because they imply radically different things about ourselves as agents, these two fundamentally different world views, the non-dual, naturalist stance and the dualist, supernaturalist stance, help drive deeply divergent attitudes and social policies.  The naturalist stance, based in science, acknowledges that human beings and their successes and failures are completely a function of prior and surrounding conditions, both genetic and environmental.  Human behavior is the result of complex interactions between an individual’s biology and their upbringing, education, peer group, community, and other factors, many of which are potentially affected by social policy. In seeking to explain and ameliorate sub-standard social conditions and criminal behavior, and to create a more flourishing society, those inclined towards a naturalist view of human nature will be led to consider, in the light of scientific findings, all the factors which influence individual growth and community health. 

Likewise, when evaluating the impact of policies on persons, societies, and the planet, secular humanists will seek out the best available empirical evidence that bears on a policy’s effects.  Moreover, their acute and steadfast appreciation of causality leads, or should lead, to a compassionate understanding of those who, by virtue of their genetic and environmental circumstances, end up on the bottom rungs of the economic ladder, or who exhibit dysfunctional or anti-social behavior.  After all, there but for the luck of the environmental and genetic draw go you or I, experiencing the same deprivation and dysfunction.  By virtue of this causality-based empathy and compassion, the naturalist stance motivates humanists toward progressive social policies that work to maximize opportunity for the disadvantaged, while simultaneously showing the effective means of personal and social change based in a scientific understanding of human behavior.

The dualist stance, on the other hand, leads in much the opposite direction, both in terms of the perceived effectiveness of policy interventions and the motivation to implement them.  Dualists suppose that there is something – the freely willing, supernatural soul – that acts independently of heredity, environment, and any and all policy initiatives.  True, as partially material creatures we are to some extent influenced by those factors cited by naturalists, but as partially supernatural creatures we can transcend any and all influences in making choices in life, should we choose to exercise our capacity for free choice.  Despite the impact of various influences upon us, we essentially create ourselves and our character by virtue of having contra-causal free will.  What we do, and the sorts of people we become, is therefore essentially and finally up to us.  So however much society invests in creating conditions under which people might become productive, flourishing individuals, it is the soul which has the final, determining say on behavior.  If such is the case, then social policies that seek to ameliorate conditions that give rise to crime and economic inequality can only have limited effects, in which case why invest much time and energy on such policies?   Because individuals, not social conditions, are the ultimate determining factor behind success in life, then it really isn’t within our capacity to help much, and so it’s really not that much our concern or responsibility.  Belief in free will, therefore, lets us off the hook with respect to others’ welfare.

Not only can the dualist view undercut the perceived efficacy of social policies, and thus our motivation to pursue them, it suggests that the less fortunate simply deserve their lot in life.  As freely willing agents, we alone merit ultimate credit and blame for success or failure in becoming morally upright, productive, gainfully employed citizens.  Those who are poor are ultimately at fault for not having competed successfully in the marketplace of education, jobs, and careers, and those that end up in the criminal justice system are likewise the ultimate, buck-stopping source of their offenses and so deeply deserve punishment.  The homeless, Ronald Reagan famously said, simply choose to be homeless, and addicts, because they simply refuse to stop using drugs and alcohol, deserve to die of needle-borne diseases, overdoses, or liver failure.  Those who succeed in life, on the other hand, are fully deserving of whatever rewards they can lay their hands on, including, for instance, the hugely inflated salaries of corporate CEOs and university presidents, and the vast unearned income from stock trade windfalls.  The differential outcomes following from failure and success are just deserts for the differential exercise of free will, not disparities stemming from social conditions that should be remedied via social policy. 

Criminal justice

Some of the starkest differences in policy objectives driven by the naturalist and dualist conceptions of human nature are found in the arena of criminal justice. The last quarter of the 20th century in the United States saw an increasing emphasis on non-rehabilitative punishment as the preferred “get tough” response to crime.  The American criminal justice system underwent a retrenchment in training programs and substance abuse treatment for offenders, reductions in inmate amenities, and sometimes even the denial of basic privileges such as exercise, books, and television.  There was a corresponding increase in punitive control, such as maximum security units, solitary confinement and physical restraints.  Criminal sanctions on juveniles became more severe, even as juvenile crime declined, and many states passed “3 strike” laws, some of which permit sentences of up to life for simple theft.  High rates of mental illness and addiction in prison suggest mental and behavioral disorders figure prominently in the cause of crime, but these remain notoriously unaddressed by the criminal justice system. 

Underlying such policies are more or less unquestioned retributive attitudes supporting harsh sanctions, attitudes stemming from a dualist conception of the criminal, who freely chose to become an offender.  If criminals, not the conditions that produced them, are seen as the ultimate source of their criminality, then they are deemed deserving of punishment on grounds that they could have overcome their environmental and biological circumstances, but simply and willfully refused to do so. This sense of strong, ultimate desert is used to justify both capital punishment and incarceration far more punitive than necessary for rehabilitation or deterrence.  Such punishment simply models and perpetuates violent, retaliatory behavior, leaving in its wake vast and unnecessary suffering.

To the extent that criminality and harmful deviance are understood to arise from individuals' undetermined, freely willed choices, their actual biological, social and economic causes will necessarily go unexplored and unaddressed.  The myth of contra-causal free will essentially releases us from the obligation to thoroughly investigate and remedy the origins of maladaptive and anti-social behavior, which lie in mental illness, poverty, child abuse, lack of education and economic opportunity.  Free will is the bottom line excuse and justification for harsh and ineffective criminal justice policies which guarantee continuing high levels of dysfunction and alienation, and which perpetuate the cycle of crime and punitive response.

The scientific view that people don't create themselves, but instead are fully included in the causal matrix of environmental and biological conditions, can help to defuse retributive blaming focused on the person alone.  As the metaphysical assumption of free will is questioned, and replaced with a naturalist understanding of how offenders are shaped by their genetic and environmental circumstances, retributive attitudes should soften, which in turn will help reduce the demand for capital punishment and punitive prison conditions.  Simultaneously, more attention will be paid to the factors which generate criminality.  Under pressure from naturalism, the aims of criminal justice will shift from the retributive imposition of just deserts to policies that support the prevention of crime and recidivism, rehabilitation of offenders, and victim restoration and reconciliation.  These policies will do far more to increase public safety than the punitive orientation of our current criminal justice system.  Such reforms have long been contemplated, of course, and some are underway, but the secular humanist commitment to the science of human nature adds a powerful rationale for their adoption.

As of this writing, there is evidence that under severe budgetary constraints brought about by the recession of the early 2000s, some states are reconsidering “tough on crime” criminal justice policies.  It turns out that long prison sentences for non-violent offenses, such as drug possession, are simply too expensive to justify their punitive objectives, even for those who favor punishment over treatment or training.  The financial incentive to be “smart on crime,” therefore, is shifting attention away from the merely retributive aims of criminal justice to the practical, pragmatic aim of keeping the peace cheaply.  It turns out that less punitive criminal justice policies, involving alternatives to incarceration for non-violent offenders, and rehabilitation for those who must be incarcerated, might well be more economical and more effective.  It is to be hoped that the budgetary inducement to rethink retributive justice will carry over into an increased appreciation of how more humane criminal justice polices, those that emphasize prevention, rehabilitation, and community restoration, are indeed smarter, more efficient policies.  A naturalistic understanding of ourselves will help accelerate this process.

Social inequality

During the 1980’s and 90’s, voter support of get-tough criminal justice coincided with declining enthusiasm for public programs designed to address unequal opportunities in access to housing, education, job training, child care, and other necessities strongly associated with economic success in life.  The 1960’s vision of a “Great Society” in which government would play a central role in equalizing opportunity was, by the end of the century, largely usurped by a narrower, private sector philosophy in which individuals sink or swim in competitive market economies without much government assistance.  Efforts to better the lot of those born into disadvantaged circumstances are now more likely to be dismissed as paternalistic infringements on a person’s right (and obligation) to be a self-sufficient self-starter instead of praised as altruistic attempts to level the playing field. 

Helping to motivate this retrenchment is the widespread assumption of libertarian, contra-causal freedom, the Western radical individualism which supposes that persons are at bottom self-made.  This works to justify and excuse the increasing differences in material well-being and social advantages that have followed the dismantling of the Great Society.  On this dualist understanding of ourselves, those that fail economically fail partially because of a willful refusal to apply themselves or follow the rules.  Since it was their choice not to get ahead, they deserve their impoverishment.  Likewise, those that succeed deserve their riches, however excessive or disproportionate, since they made themselves who they are.  The huge and growing inequalities between rich and poor, driven by conservative policies such as tax cuts for the wealthy, welfare reform, and disinvestments in public infrastructure and education, are tolerated partially because they are thought by many to reflect differences in metaphysical merit derived from the differential exercise of free will.  Inequality, at bottom, is simply the reflection of what people deserve.

To the extent that economic and social inequalities 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-originated individual differences, not anything that could or should be remedied by social policy.  Progressive social interventions, 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 contra-causal free will, our self-determination couldn't be infringed upon.)

In contradicting the myth of radical individualism, inclusive naturalism shows that a person's economic and social success is entirely a function of family status at birth, innate talents, access to education and other social resources, and numerous other environmental and biological factors, not free will.  As John Rawls put it in A Theory of Justice:

"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."[1]

If we take science as our guide to truth, 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.  There are no literally self-made men or women.  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, a matter of environmental and biological conditions, not a matter of self-created will and hence not a reflection of metaphysical merit. 

Accepting a naturalist view of ourselves will therefore weaken justifications for inequality based on the notions of deserved success and deserved failure.  Those of us living comfortable lives will see that but for circumstances we, not they, would have been denied such comforts, and this insight will increase our empathy for the less fortunate. It will undercut support for social policies that have generated huge discrepancies in wealth and opportunity, while increasing support for interventions that improve both opportunities and outcomes for the disadvantaged.  Although incentives must still exist to encourage hard work, initiative, and risk-taking, they need not, and should not, result in a grossly skewed distribution of resources.  Inclusive naturalism will shift the justification for having a reasonable standard of living from what's deserved to what's needed to live a fulfilled, satisfying life.  It will also challenge the implicit assumption that nearly unlimited riches in the hands of a few is an acceptable outcome of a just economic system.[2]

There are many other arenas in which naturalism suggests progressive policy reform, including our approaches to such behavioral issues as mental health, addiction, obesity, and learning disabilities.  Whenever the individual’s free will is assumed to play a role in causing behavior, as it often is in these domains, the secular humanist response should be to challenge that assumption, and initiate a scientific investigation into the actual causes.  Such inquiry will serve to reduce the stigma surrounding the behavior in question, since it will no longer be considered to originate from the individual alone.  This helps to supply the empathetic motivational basis for pursuing non-punitive, rehabilitative interventions.  And by illuminating the causal story of how interventions actually work (or don’t, as is too often the case), naturalism will make them more effective.  An increase in the awareness and acceptance of an inclusive, thorough-going naturalism, therefore, should result in the adoption of progressive social policies and humane behavioral interventions that work better than those premised on the existence of free will. 

The prospects for naturalism

If naturalism is both true and a basis for enlightened social action, the question arises of how secular humanists can promote naturalism within a culture that seems increasingly inimical to science and critical thinking.  The challenge to free will, like earlier secular humanist challenges to god, the supernatural and the paranormal, will not receive a warm welcome, given the widespread assumption that contra-causal freedom is the basis for all we hold near and dear.  In fact, the scientific threat to our cherished causal exceptionalism is already beginning to spark anxiety in some quarters.  In a 1998 conference on Neuroscience and the Human Spirit, conference organizer Dr. Frederick K. Goodwin put it this way in his opening remarks:

"Do …scientific advances challenge the first principles that the majority of our citizens believe provide the very foundation upon which our civilization rests – free will and the capacity to make moral choices?...Does this growing understanding of genetic and environmental influences on human behavior leave any room for free will?...How can the ever-mounting discoveries of biological, genetic, and environmental factors shaping human behavior be integrated into our culture without contributing to further erosion of individual responsibility?...To the extent that our choices are not truly free, it would seem that we have less moral responsibility for them."[3]

Some philosophers, notably philosopher Saul Smilansky in his book Free Will and Illusion, claim that although inclusive naturalism is true, it is dangerous and counterproductive to make it widely known.   He recommends that the truth about free will be kept an academic secret, so that what he considers to be the fictional but nevertheless irreplaceable basis for morality and values remains intact.  Daniel Dennett, in Freedom Evolves, also warns about the “environmental impact” of spiking the myth of libertarian freedom.  Demoralization might ensue, he worries, if people mistakenly conclude that they’ve lost something essential when they cease to believe that they’re causally privileged. 

Such concerns suggest what must be done to make the naturalist view of ourselves palatable: secular humanists must defuse the common “determinist anxieties,” as they might be called, that arise when we discover we are entirely natural creatures.  Just as they strive to show that we can be good without God, they must also show that we can be moral, effective, and fully individual agents without belief in free will.  In addition, they must also demonstrate, as I have attempted above in discussing criminal justice and social inequality, the positive motivational and practical benefits of taking a consistently scientific, causal view of ourselves.  Allaying anxieties and showing the positive consequences of naturalism will help to generate acceptance of a world view that, although empirically well-founded, now has barely a foothold in a public consciousness dominated by the myths of free will and radical individualism. 

Although it is beyond the scope of this essay, anxieties about determinism having to do with responsibility, morality, individuality, personal efficacy, and rationality (to name some of the fears most frequently encountered) can be successfully addressed.  This requires showing how, in each case, the assumption of a freely willing agent is unnecessary for a self-image that supports robust and socially adequate conceptions of moral agency, cognition, action, and personhood.  As Daniel Dennett has put it, nothing valuable gets lost in this revised picture of ourselves – everything we need is afforded under naturalism, and the myth of contra-causal freedom ultimately does far more harm than good.  Readers are referred to some of the recent literature on coming to terms with determinism and naturalism, including such works as Dennett’s Freedom Evolves, Owen Flanagan’s The Problem of the Soul, Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate, my articles on naturalism for the Humanist and Free Inquiry, and other readings here at www.Naturalism.Org (see also Recommended Books).

Facing the naturalistic facts about ourselves, including the sometimes emotionally fraught denial of free will, involves a firm commitment to science as one’s epistemology.  Secular humanists, nearly universally, find this commitment to be second nature, but many will find it sorely tested as they confront the initially discomfiting realization that we are not exceptions to causality.  Nevertheless, as the positive personal and social implications of a fully consistent naturalism sink in, accepting this truth about ourselves will become easier.  Secular humanists will be in the vanguard (as they always have been) in this next revolution in our understanding of our place in the universe.  Their humane motives, reinforced by the empathy generated by taking the fully causal view, will ensure that the immense power of causal understanding will be used wisely and for the good as we seek to create a more flourishing, sustainable world.

For the majority not committed to science as the route to truth, naturalism stands as a clear threat to some dearly cherished notions of human nature and the proper social order.  Their response to the view proposed here is likely to be increasingly heated denials that science does or should have the final say about who we are, and a more fervid embrace of dualistic faiths that proclaim human causal exceptionalism.  The ideologically driven rejection of naturalism in the face of our increasing scientific understanding of ourselves may well emerge as the defining schism of the culture wars.

In facing such opposition, secular humanists must apply the same causal thinking that informs their approach to all other phenomena.  Understanding the various factors that contribute to supernatural thinking, including needs for emotional security, lack of education, and growing up within religious traditions, will help humanists avoid the counterproductive demonization of their opponents.  Supernaturalists, just as naturalists, are fully caused to believe and act as they do, and do not willfully choose to remain unenlightened.  An intelligent, empathetic appreciation of the causal story behind supernaturalism itself will allow secular humanists to be more skillful and more humanistic in their quest to make known the virtues, and truth, of naturalism.   

TWC, December 2004


[1] John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, 1974, p. 104

[2] Indeed, the marginal utility (the immediate added subjective value) of an increase in resources, e.g., a $10,000 tax credit or government grant, is far greater for those that have little than those who have much, so an objective increase in the net quality of life across economic strata is achieved via redistributive policies.

[3] For more on this conference, see Does Neuroscience Threaten Freedom and Dignity?.

Other Categories: