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«Abstract This article shows how the social sciences, particularly human geography, rejected hard determinism by the mid-twentieth century partly on ...»

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Determinism and the Antiquated Deontology of the

Social Sciences

Clint Ballinger


Working copy, Comments Welcome


This article shows how the social sciences, particularly human geography, rejected

hard determinism by the mid-twentieth century partly on the deontological basis that

it is irreconcilable with social justice, yet this rejection came just before a burst of

creative development in consequentialist theories of social justice that problematize a facile rejection of determinism on moral grounds, a development that has seldom been recognized in the social sciences. Thus many current social science and human geography views on determinism and social justice are antiquated, ignoring numerous common and well-respected arguments within philosophy that hard determinism can be reconciled with a just society. We support this argument by briefly tracing the parallel development of stances on determinism in the social sciences and the deontological-consequentialist debate in philosophy. The purpose of the article is to resituate social science and human geography debates on determinism and social justice within a modern ethical framework.

1. Introduction The purpose of this article is to show that the social science rejection of hard determinism (which had an illogical [for deciding what is a factual question] but nevertheless important normative component), largely complete by the mid-twentieth century, came just before a burst of creative development in consequentialist theories of social justice that are conceivably consistent with determinism (because they do not rely on intent or free will), a resurgence that has seldom been recognized in the social sciences. Thus the current social science view of determinism and social justice is antiquated, ignoring numerous common and well-respected arguments within philosophy that hard determinism can be reconciled with a just society. This argument is important to all of the social sciences, but perhaps of particular relevance to human geography, where issues concerning determinism have been especially prominent in shaping the discipline.1 We support this argument with a purposefully concise2 tracing of the parallel development of stances on determinism in the social sciences/human geography and the deontological-consequentialist debate in The relationship between environment, society, and determinism has of course been central to geography throughout its early development (e.g., Montesquieu, Ratzel, Semple, Febvre, Vidal de la Blache, Huntington, Boas/Sauer etc.) and remained central through the mid-twentieth century (e.g., Montefiore and Williams 1955, Spate 1957; see also Sprout and Sprout 1965 for an interesting parallel discussion outside of geography). Determinism remained important through its role in discussions of laws, probabilistic causality, and explanation (e.g., Harvey 1969) and at times appeared in the radical and cultural turns (e.g., Peet 1985). Questions hinging on determinism continue to be important to geography, for example in Merrett 2003 and Coombes and Barber 2005, as well as in work by development economists such as Gallup et. al. 2003 (Is Geography Destiny?). Ballinger 2008a, Ch. 6, Section 2 discusses methodological reasons why despite the strong desire by many geographers and social scientists more generally to avoid making metaphysical assumptions concerning determinism in explanation, it is not possible to do so.

This is in order to avoid overwhelming the main point of the article with the vast and contested literature and endless possible digressions concerning these subjects. Once the main point is understood, then of course future, more detailed debate is possible.

philosophy. The article concludes with a brief consideration of deterministic consequentialist ethics, social justice, and the problems of egoism and altruism.

Any argument concerning moral considerations and determinism in the social sciences logically would be this brief: It is not logical to answer factual questions on normative grounds.

However, this has indeed been done (as we have had difficulty convincing philosophers less familiar with the social sciences; there is a small representation from the numerous examples in the social sciences included here). The illogical outcome of weighing in on what is a factual question based on moral reasoning seems to be due to the inherently moral component built into the social sciences from their earliest beginnings. For example, John Horgan recently observes: 'In the early 19th century, the French visionary Auguste Comte proposed a scientific chain of being, ranging from the physical sciences at the bottom up through biology to the "queen" of sciences, sociologie, at the top. A science of human social behavior, Comte contended, could help humanity make moral and political decisions and construct

more efficient, just governments.' (Horgan 2011). The consensus seems to have been:

If the social sciences have at base a normative component, and determinism is believed to be incompatible with morality—and besides, scientists were saying the world is indeterministic anyway (Hacking 1983; quantum physics in general) then why not object to determinism, even citing moral repugnance, despite the illogicality of deciding a factual question based on normative grounds?

Before continuing we should note that the determinism we discuss is hard determinism as defined below,3 and that a similar argument could be made replacing our emphasis on consequentialism with an emphasis on compatibilism, viz., that the many modern developments in theories of compatibilism also problematize the traditional social science moral rejection of determinism. We do not pursue this possibility because we do not find compatibilist arguments convincing—we doubt there is a way to reconcile a meaningful concept of free will with determinism.

Nevertheless, compatibilist theories also call into question the self-assuredness of the social science moral rejection of determinism.4 Also, we should be clear that our argument does not hinge on an argument that within philosophy consequentialist ethics have become more influential than We use a common definition of determinism in Vihvelin (2003, para. 5): ‘the thesis that a complete description of the state of the world at any time t and a complete statement of the laws of nature together entail every truth about what happens at every time later than t. Alternatively, and using the language of possible worlds: Determinism is true at a possible world w iff the following is true at that world: Any world which has the same laws of nature as w and which is exactly like w at any time t is exactly like w at all times which are future relative to t’. The high degree of acceptance of a moral rejection to determinism in the social sciences (Section 2 below) demonstrates that most social scientists are libertarian incompatibilists, i.e., (metaphysical) libertarians and the determinism they object to ‘hard’ determinism. That is, they do not believe free will and determinism are compatible and so are not compatibilists, and since they believe in free will they reject incompatibilist hard determinism (the belief in determinism at the expense of free will).

It is important to note that, confusingly, the view is sometimes found (e.g., Mason 2005, 344) that compatibilism is determinism compatible with morals rather than the more common view that compatibilism is determinism compatible with free will and thus morals. We believe the former view makes it difficult to distinguish between several common combinations of determinism, free will, and morals: 1) (hard) determinism with no free will and no morals, 2) (hard) determinism with no free will but that is somehow moral (or more precisely, ethical, with an ethics emerging from the self-interested actions of many individuals, discussed in Section 3.1) and 3) determinism with free will and thus also morals. It seems clearer to consider the first two of these both ‘hard determinism’ (and then debate the possibility of an ethical hard determinism) and the last of these as ‘compatibilism’. Of course, it may not matter – Koons (2002), for example, argues that in practice an ethical hard determinism and compatibilism are identical.

deontological approaches in the last half century. In fact, the reverse is probably true.

However, measuring their relative influence is not relevant to the argument at hand.

What is important is that there has been an explosion in views on ethics (both consequentialist and deontological) since the mid-twentieth century, and among these are numerous new or refined consequentialist approaches that are highly relevant to social science assumptions yet have not received sufficient attention in the social sciences. It is perhaps time to reexamine social science assumptions and moral stances towards determinism given these developments.5 Why bother with determinism at all when the physical sciences seem to have shown that even the world of physics is indeterministic, much less the biological and social realms? Simply because it is not nearly as clear that physics has shown the world to be indeterministic as one might think if reading only social science references to quantum physics. In fact, even the standard interpretation (i.e., not just heterodox interpretations such as the oft-cited Bohm interpretation) of quantum mechanics by no means incontrovertibly shows that the universe is fundamentally indeterministic. In a careful survey of the topic asking the question ‘If we believe modern physics, is the world deterministic or not?’ John Earman concludes that ‘there is no simple and clean answer’ (Earman 2004, 43). After a similar survey on indeterminism in neurobiology, Marcel Weber concludes that ‘for the time being it is necessary to set the record straight on indeterminism in neurobiology. At present, its prospects are not good’ (Weber 2005, 672). And while there has been a pronounced emphasis on free will and agency in the social sciences in the last half century, without a neurological basis for indeterminism it seems difficult to account for where something truly ‘free’ enters into the question of human action. Even if there is Richardson and Bishop 2002 represents an effort to develop more sophisticated approaches to the consideration of determinism in the social sciences, although with a focus on psychology and a ‘hermeneutic’ perspective on ethics that ultimately does not seem to address (beyond embracing the communitarianism of Etzioni [1996] and similar perspectives) the fundamental contradictions many see between social justice and determinism.

ontological chance in quantum physics, this may not ‘percolate up’ and make the biological realm indeterministic (see, for example, Millstein 2000 and 2003, especially on the concept of ‘asymptotic determinism’). With no appeal to free will, some combination of nature and nurture and their astonishingly complex interplay may be sufficient to account for human action.6 In recent decades, due in part to positions on supervenience and physicalism, doubts about free will have been common among philosophers, especially the (metaphysical) libertarian free will that pervades the social sciences. Koons notes that ‘[m]ost philosophers now concede that libertarianism has failed as an account of free will’ (Koons 2002, 81) and Smilansky that ‘metaphysical or libertarian free will, is highly contentious and, as many believe even incoherent. To pin the hopes of egalitarianism on libertarian free will would be suicidal’ (Smilansky, unpublished, 4).

Comparing these views with those on free will and agency in the social sciences gives an idea of the divergence of the social sciences from many modern philosophical perspectives on free will. In sociology, for example, Wright notes that ‘the last few decades have witnessed a pronounced shift in thinking towards agency arguments.

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