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22 March 2011

Structure vs. Agency and Free Will vs. Determinism

I've always found it interesting how different academic disciplines approach similar problems with varying language and frames. I was intrigued by this interesting piece in the Times about philosophies regarding free will. Here is a bit from the article:
...[R]egardless of whether free will exists, our society depends on everyone’s believing it does. The benefits of this belief have been demonstrated in other research showing that when people doubt free will, they do worse at their jobs and are less honest.


“Free will guides people’s choices toward being more moral and better performers,” Dr. Vohs said. “It’s adaptive for societies and individuals to hold a belief in free will, as it helps people adhere to cultural codes of conduct that portend healthy, wealthy and happy life outcomes.”
I wonder how this translates to people's acceptance of structural constraints. Take race as an example. The common conception of racism is bigotry. Why did the white guy get hired instead of the black guy? Well, the boss discriminated against the black candidate because he is prejudiced against blacks. This is what we would call sociologically an agential explanation: racism exists because individuals choose to hold deleterious views of others. Sociologically, though, we know that these kinds of explanations can only go so far. In the aggregate, we have a preponderance of evidence that whites have better chances of employment, controlling for virtually all other influences (e.g. level of education). The agential explanation would suggest that there are a lot of bigoted bosses out there, but that's not in fact what we find. To the contrary, most people who do hiring are quite aware of issues of race and do not hold overtly racist views; nonetheless, the hiring discrepancy remains. Even when individuals choose not to be racist, the problems of race persist.

I wonder, though, what would happen if all people bought the sociological argument. Among sociologists, there is a feeling that if we can get people to understand the complexity of issues such as structural racism, we can undo it, but the experiments highlighted in the article would suggest the opposite: making people aware of the deterministic nature of social problems should make them wring their hands of any moral responsibility toward social change.

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