Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Do Our Ethical Decisions Result From Social Conditioning?

by Zoe Dukoff-Gordon

We hear of many immoral acts which go on in our world and there is usually some form of punishment. However one issue which immediately complicates any situation do to with the outcome arises from this idea of ‘Who is to blame?’ Can we really be to blame for our own actions when we have been influenced throughout our lives by our parents, friends and society?

Leopold and Loeb, with their
defence lawyer, Clarence Darrow
Social conditioning includes some form of ‘blame’ on our environment and the way we have been brought up, whether this is through parenting, school, friends, religion, the media. Nevertheless, there is some involvement in which a third party has an effect on our own ethical decisions which suggests that we don’t have absolute freedom, that some of our decisions have been determined. Philosopher Clarence Seward Darrow used this analogy in the court case of Leopold and Loeb where he defended them for their crimes, saying that Leopold’s influence from Nietzsche and the way he was sexually abused contributed to his decision to commit the crime, and therefore he could not be fully blamed for his actions.
Darrow was a hard determinist, meaning he accepted determinism and rejected freedom and moral responsibility. This is an incompatibilist theory- belief that we do not have any free will and that moral actions have prior causes. Nobody can be held morally responsible. Every event is fully determined by a precluding chain of causes: if x has happened, y must happen. Thus it contradicts the idea of free will as, according to hard determinists, everything is causally determined. Hard determinists state that, although we may feel like we can act freely, this is just in fact an illusion. All of our choices may be ‘computed’ by our brains in a determined way. 

However, theology states that we do not always act impulsively. We are in fact capable of considering our options; we don’t always act on the first desire that pops into our head. Hard determinists are called hard because their position is very strict: according to hard determinism all our actions had prior causes- we are neither free nor responsible. A person is like a machine, and if a machine is faulty it just needs fixing. The same applies to a person; a person cannot be blamed for their violence, violence either needs ‘fixing’ or, if this fails, the person needs imprisoning to stop their violence impinging on others.

John Hospers was a modern hard determinist who advocated this approach; he says that there is always something which compels us both externally and internally to perform an action that we would think was the result of our own freewill. Hospers modernised Darrow’s approach, by pointing to our genetic heritage, social conditioning or subconscious influences as prior causes, thus hard determinists would support this claim.

Jean-Paul Sartre
Existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre was a key contributor to the idea of ‘freedom’, and therefore would disagree with the original claim. Existentialism refers to that branch of philosophy which is concerned with the questions or problems of the human existence. How should I live as a human being? In his writings Sartre continually returned to the concept of freedom as a factor of consciousness. If we are conscious, then we are genuinely free, and freedom is not simply imagined. Sartre’s approach to freedom assumes the existential slogan that ‘existence precedes essence’, i.e. we have no predetermined essence or nature. This entails that we are simply what we do or what we value and we are radically free to act, since our choices are not determined by our external influence. Our human nature and our choices are thus a product of our existential situation. We are alone and free to be ourselves, and therefore our ethical decisions cannot be a result of social conditioning.

Moreover, determinism can be likened to some versions of Christian predestination: the total irrelevance of our actions in this life as God has already decided whether we are saved or not saved, even though the doctrine of predestination has similar precepts to that of hard determinism. Both theories are based on the idea that we are not of fault of our own moral actions- that free will is just simply an illusion, but conversely predestination would disagree with the original statement as it argues that our ethical decisions are not a result of social conditioning, but of God’s predetermined decisions. Augustine of Hippo and John Calvin are the two main theologians who say the theory is based on the idea that God determines whatever happens in history and that man has only a very limited understanding of God’s purposes and plans. This idea is not based on words or particular passages in the Bible, but on ideas about revelation, and has sat side by side with teachings about individual freedom and responsibility. According to Augustine, people need the help of God’s grace to do good, and this is a free gift from God, regardless of individual merit. Consequently, God alone determines who will receive the grace that assures salvation.

Therefore if one takes the hard determinist view that freedom is simply an illusion and that no one can be morally responsible for their actions then one could argue that our ethical decisions are merely results of social conditioning. However if you are a predestinationist you may argue out ethical decisions are results of God’s own predetermined decisions. Conversely, a libertarian would refute this idea completely, saying that we have our own freedom and are morally responsible for our actions.

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