Image from Something Awful.
It is often said that all philosophical discussions eventually reduce themselves to the free will versus determinism debate. The same could be said about political discussions and the concept of self-ownership. But what is not often said is why that should be the case.
The importance of the debates derives from the fact that everything we think or do is at its core thought and done by human beings. This is a fundamental implicit premise of any philosophical reasoning, and the debates just make it explicit. We have two basic options: either human beings are “little gods” that self-generate everything, which means reality takes a back seat to human action, or human beings are engaged in a process of discovery and reality is primordial.
They are all part of what one might call (to borrow a Creationist term) “human exceptionalism,” the delusion that humans are somehow exceptional by being exceptions to natural law. “Mere animals” do not have free will, are not self-owners, do not construct their own morality, but humans do, somehow, in some vague, fuzzy way.
A human being is not one thing among others; things determine each other, but man is ultimately self-determining. What he becomes—within the limits of endowment and environment—he has made out of himself.
Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
I call this mindset “self-generation,” and we can easily see how it applies to the three members of the free will/relativism/self-ownership triad (which I broached on in my earlier entry on free will as an ideological weapon):
* Free will can be reformulated as the position that individuals self-generate (“choose”) their decisions.
* Relativism can be reformulated as the position that individuals self-generate their morality.
* Self-ownership can be reformulated as the position that individuals self-generate ethics (“I own myself so I decide what’s right for me to do in society”).
What about God-belief? Some people include it as a primary element of the self-generation mindset, but I don’t think it’s primary. Every sect of Christianity has a different conception of what God is and how to follow God’s (subjective) laws, and which set of beliefs one adopts is purely subjective. Christian belief is relativist because the moral rules one adopts is not based on facts but rather on sectarian preference (not to mention that each sect has as much evidence for their moral position as any other).
So relativism is necessary before we even have a conception of God, at least in Christianity. As other thinkers have noted, relativism and subjectivism go hand in hand; a subjective moral principle is not likely to connect to any standard that transcends the individual point of view (e.g. to exhibit moral realism and not moral relativism).
And the Christian belief in God itself leads to belief in free will and self-ownership. An atheist may still hold such beliefs, but that’s usually because they’re holdovers from Judeo-Christian thought. Still, the possibility of a consistent atheistic adherence to the triad cannot be rejected, which means Christianity cannot be its fundamental basis.
Christianity is relativist in two ways. One is what I’ve already pointed out, that the sects’ moral principles are all equally valid on the sole basis of their supposed adherence to the Bible. The other is in the belief that God created everything, including morality. Whatever God decides is good, is good, regardless of existing facts.
Each element of the triad is dependent on the other two, so disproof of one of them casts serious doubts on the others. To take an easy example, when (not if) free will is conclusively disproven, Austrian economics, which for decades has been a major support for capitalism, will also have been conclusively disproven, since it holds “choice” as its foundation (see the Axiom of Human Action). Likewise, a radical position against self-ownership means that free will is rather unlikely, since self-ownership is predicated on (the self) being in control of one’s body.
In this way, it seems relevant to me that Wikipedia describes the sense of agency as being intertwined with the sense of (self-)ownership:
The “sense of agency” (SA) refers to the subjective awareness that one is initiating, executing, and controlling one’s own volitional actions in the world. It is the pre-reflective awareness or implicit sense that it is me who is presently executing bodily movement(s) or thinking thoughts. In normal, non-pathological experience, the SA is tightly integrated with one’s “sense of ownership” (SO), which is the pre-reflective awareness or implicit sense that one is the owner of an action, movement or thought.
The three concepts all depend on each other for justification, because they represent different interconnected facets of a coherent (if nonsensical) mindset.
I call the triad the “little god” because each of its parts involve giving humans some kind of element that goes beyond the natural world. When we look at the natural world, we come to certain moral or ethical conclusions, such as that genocide is evil. Indeed, most “little god” believers will usually agree with these conclusions. But when we apply the conclusions to their belief systems (for example, genocide in the Bible narratives), they balk and argue that God decided that genocide was good and that’s that. But for this new conclusion to also be true requires there to be something more than the natural world, some supernatural process or entity that can somehow overrides normal morality (in this case, God).
This sort of contradiction does not only apply only to Christianity, but to all forms of relativism. Take for example cultural relativism and its justification of atrocities such as footbinding, female circumcision, suttee or the Inquisition. Academics have an almost endless fountain of justification available to them (for examples, see Gyn/Ecology by Mary Daly). And yet equivalent acts, but acts which do not perpetuate the status quo, would be considered atrocious by most, if not all, people.
Suppose, for instance, that gangs of theologians were going around torturing and murdering women, or that parents started chopping off their babies’ ears a few days after their birth. I’m pretty sure that everyone, except the offenders, would be outraged (when the police or jailers do the torturing, on the other hand, we’re not outraged because this maintains the status quo).
In the case of free will, the non-natural element is obvious: for there to be something contra-causal, there must be something non-natural, whether it is a soul or a quantum process in the brain (or some other kind of “pure randomness”).
God himself is said to have complete free will (but also omniscience, however that’s supposed to work), to be the supreme owner, and the ultimate relativist (whatever he says, goes). So he’s a perfect fit for the unholy triad.
The funny thing is that many people engaged in worshipping “little gods” insist that they are being “objective” (others, like New Agers, don’t really care and only want to indulge in their pretend divinity as much as possible). A lot of the demonization and political rationalizations going around actually exist to try to prove that the profound subjectivism of the triad is actually an inexorable law of nature or is based on laws of nature. So you get absurd positions which state that it is a law of nature that there is this domain (the human mind, morality, politics) where there are no laws of nature.
This then provides the opportunity for the “experts” to affirm the absolute truth of the lack of truth, the freedom of tyranny. Self-ownership “proves” voluntaryism, which “proves” capitalism, which “proves” the need for neo-liberalist policies (which crush the lives of the dispossessed around the world). Free will “proves” total personal responsibility, which “proves” the evilness of the dispossessed (poor, “immigrants,” people persecuted by the government, invalids, and so on), which grounds hatred against the dispossessed (for an example, here is an entry from Femanon discussing how this is applied to women). Cultural relativism “proves” the validity of evil cultural practices, which grounds implicit or explicit approval of those practices (said practices being mostly used against the dispossessed).
Another property they share is their chilling effect on scientific inquiry and intellectual curiosity. This is especially true with free will, as its proponents are outright hostile to the examination of the causes of human actions (especially criminal ones). Through voluntaryism, self-ownership blocks awareness of the effects of people’s “voluntary” actions on others. Relativism prevents one from examining the validity of other people’s moral principles and measuring them to ours. In all cases, we are enjoined to stop thinking and stop evaluating. We are invited to cheer for “freedom” and are told that anyone who objects to these magical, contra-causal ideas is against “freedom.” We are told that systemic analysis is intolerant and wrong, that only the individual creative intent matters.
So it’s important to keep in mind what these concepts lead us to. Free will leads us to pride, but it also leads to demonization and revenge. Self-ownership leads us to a feeling of control, but it also leads to voluntaryism and free market capitalism. Relativism leads us to tolerance, but it also leads us to genocide. In all cases the negatives are many orders of magnitude more important than the positives.