Free Will vs Predestination: A Difference between Right and Left

Free Will vs Predestination: A Difference between Right and Left

So many of the disagreements between those on the right and those on the left can be explained by differing attitudes on the question of free will vs predestination. I am not speaking here of the strict philosophical or religious meanings of the terms, but rather of the extent to which outcomes in life are determined by a person’s background, external circumstances or innate characteristics (predestination, the domain of the left) or to that person’s own choices and decisions (free will, the domain of the right). These differences colour attitudes towards many varied areas of social and political debate, from criminal justice to education, from opportunity in the workplace to what constitutes a fair taxation system. Whilst not all differences can be explained by this, it is startling how often the disagreement can be brought back, at root, to differing opinions on this matter.

Almost everyone would agree that many things in life depend both on a person’senvironment and upon the decisions they make. However, I’ve observed that right and left tend to disagree in at least three principal areas:

  • The extent to which each determines the outcome.
  • Whether the manner in which each determines the outcome matters.
  • The extent to which policy decisions should depend upon any given distribution of causation.

1. The extent to which each determines the outcome.

In general, those on the left will believe that a significantly greater share of the outcome is determined by factors outside the individual’s control. This can lead to narratives of systemic disadvantage (and necessary compensating action), or to beliefs that the outcomes – for example individual earnings – do not relate strongly to individual decisions and therefore are not ‘deserved’ by the more fortunate, leading to a greater willingness to redistribute or level the playing field, and a greater reluctance to punish those, such as criminals, who carry out negative actions. By contrast, those on the right will tend to see outcomes as primarily the result of individual choices, effort or hard work, with the outcomes of those who are successful being ones that could be achieved by any in their circumstance, if had made similar decisions, and that those who do wrong are morally culpable.

2. Whether the manner in which each determines the outcome matters.

If people from working class backgrounds are less likely to enter high status professions such as medicine or law, is that because existing doctors and lawyers are actively discriminating against people with working class accents? Or is it because, statistically, people from working class backgrounds are more likely to make a number of individual choices (perhaps spending less time reading books) that result, even if they attend the same schools and have the same opportunities, in fewer of them being able to compete successfully for the available positions. For many on the left, this doesn’t matter, save as a means of diagnosing the problem – either is an injustice that must be fixed. For many on the right, this matters enormously: whilst they would agree about the injustice of the first, they would be more likely to see the latter as a matter of individual choice.

3. The extent to which policy decisions should depend upon any given distribution of causation.

Even where right and left agree on the cause, they will often disagree strongly on the conclusion. There is reasonably good evidence that approximately half of the difference in graduate earnings between different university courses is caused by background factors (including prior attainment, race, gender) and approximately half is due to the choice of subject and course. Yet I have seen those on the left say that if half is due to background factors it is outrageous to judge and compare courses on this basis, whilst those on the right say that if half is due to subject and course, of course that should be taken into account when evaluating courses. Similar dichotomies occur when discussing issues at the individual level.

As a Conservative, I believe that whilst there is some truth to both, overall the free will narrative is not only more accurate in terms of its description of the world; not only by far the best way to create a moral, successful and well-functioning society; but is the only empowering and uplifting way to consider humanity, by considering each individual as an empowered, independent moral agent, capable of free will and responsible for their own decisions. But I find it insightful how many of my policy disagreements can be traced back to what, ultimately, is a stronger belief in predestination.

14 thoughts on “Free Will vs Predestination: A Difference between Right and Left

  1. “People from working class backgrounds are more likely to make a number of individual choices ”

    Is it fair if many of the choices you refer to are made not by the individual, but by their parents?

    1. Good point, that is arguably a third category on which people’s conclusions may differ. I’m not saying the predestination vs free will is the only left/right difference!

  2. It’s kind of hard to argue with the premise: that there are both internal and external factors. And it’s not particularly controversial to say that in order to achieve something you have to try – the “internal” factor.

    But the external factors can affect how hard you have to try in order to succeed, for all manner of things. Or, to put it another way, the external factors can affect both hoe many opportunities you have, and (more importantly) how easy it is to actually take those opportunities. That ease of taking opportunities is something that is possibly best expressed as “privilege”. The obvious example is the unpaid internships, which (thankfully) are much less common, but it’s about much more than just money.

    To use the example hypothesis of a people making the “individual choice” to read less, that could be because they choose not to (or at least choose to do different things instead), or it could be because reading lots is too expensive, or difficult in some way.

    I was struck a while ago when I thought about how much (more) we’d have spent on books for my daughter (who loves reading) if we didn’t have a library close to hand. A redundancy and library closure (but of which are certainly possible) would mean that getting to a library would be difficult – or would cost money. We also have plenty of space for her to store books and access them easily as and when she wants. If she not at home as much for some reason (e.g. in childcare for longer), then it’s easy to imagine that she wouldn’t have as ready access to her books. If both parents worked full time, and the library wasn’t open at weekends, then the same would be true – we wouldn’t have time/opportunity to go. In that example, and in those hypothetical situations, however strong her desire to read, there is only so much she would be able to do in order to read. The push to cut local services as part of austerity is an example of how the impact of policies can trump individual desire to take opportunities.

    To use another example take access to science centres, which have an impact on how interested people are in science, and how likely they are to take up a STEM degree/career. Well, if you live in mid/West-Wales, or in North-East England, the nearest science centre can be hours away. The money is then only one barrier – the time required to visit is a huge problem, particularly if, e.g. people work 6 days a week. One solution is for schools to run trips to science centres, but a reduction in funding for education (and increased financial strain on science centres/museums meaning that they have lower capacity to support) means that schools are much less able to fund such trips without parental contributions. This means that there is a greater effect on how easily people can take the opportunity to visit.

    In both those (fairly simple) examples there’s no suggestion that the “leftist” policy completely solves the imbalance in privilege people have in taking opportunities, but that it can mean that at least there is a bare minimum in the ability to take opportunities. To my mind, that’s much more important than the desire/choice.

    1. I obviously don’t disagree that elements of what you say are true, but your post illustrates what I mean about the way right and left disagree about the importance to ascribe to the external factors. I don’t want to get into debating the specific example, but I might, for example, compare the ease of access to opportunities available to the less advantaged today, to those available to the post-war generation or in many countries in Asia, to highlight the greater importance of attitude and choice to education in determining whether opportunities are taken up. This fundamental difference in outlook was what I was getting at – it’s an almost axiomatic difference in approach with ends up underlying many individual object-level disagreements.

      To digress a bit on to libraries: I’m a huge supporter, not just because I like them myself, but because they’re fundamentally such a Conservative approach to supporting opportunity. A library is open to all, free at the point of delivery and there are no barriers to access – but at the same time, it’s up to the individual whether or not they choose to access that opportunity and how they do so. There is every resource you need there, but there is no state telling you which books you must take out or how best to use it in the ‘approved’ method: it’s completely up to you. By contrast, leftish interventions are typically exclusionary (only available to those on certain incomes/race/gender/location), much more prescriptive about doing something in the ‘right’ way and often either compulsory or much more coercive (if technically voluntary) to ensure people do what is ‘good’ for them.

      I’d note that in Hertfordshire, under a Conservative controlled council, not a single library has closed in the last ten years – and whilst I can’t speak to every library in the county, ours in Welwyn Garden City (Conservative borough council) is open on Saturday, Sunday and has a late night opening on Thursday. Given we ran public libraries in the Victorian era, it’s simply not true to say – in our vastly wealthier era – that lack of funds is a reason to close libraries; it’s simply a question of priorities. I can’t help feeling the closures are because many leftist councils would rather people were doing the approved social programmes that the state has determined ‘is best for them’, rather than keeping open a library that enables the seizing of opportunity by anyone motivated enough to take it.

        1. That quote is an allegation from the Guardian, which doesn’t tend to favour the Conservatives, not government policy! I’ve not done a comprehensive survey of how support varies ; however:
          1. My point was that, at a philosophical level, libraries are a fundamentally Conservative approach (not necessarily exclusively Conservative, clearly) to supporting opportunity which I support.
          2. At a practical level, decisions on libraries are taken at local not national level. We all like lots of things, but one can determine a group’s priorities by what they choose to prioritise when choices are difficult. My local Conservative-controlled council has indeed prioritised keeping open libraries, as none have closed and opening hours remain very good.

          Who controls your council? And what has happened to your libraries?

          1. It’s rather difficult to compare the opportunities for today’s young people with those of the post war generation. If you mean to compare todaywith the 1950s,the world/country is very different to then, and the skills required amd opportunities available are incredibly different. If you mean to compare both today, they have incredibly different needs.

            In terms of the left restricting access to some groups, then I can see there’s a difference in approach, though I can’t think of a service of the top of my head which is restricted in such a way as you describe. One approach is to give the same thing to everyone (e.g. tax free allowance), the other is to give an additional leg up to those who need it more (e.g. child benefit). The potential risk of making a service completely open is that the people more able to take up the opportunity do so more than those who are struggling, which means the worse off struggle more and social mobility (defined in whatever context is appropriate) suffers.

            To continue with libraries, our local library hasn’t closed, thankfully, and is open on Saturdays. But we had a March to protest possible closures a few years ago. And we might be going on one again:

            The policy is not to close libraries per se, but to merge them with other services.

            The threats are part of a huge reduction in local government spending since 2010. I appreciate that the government doesn’t dictate what councils do, but they do heavily influence the overall budget.

            If you want a non-Guardian link:

            This isn’t really a surprise. After all, it was Conservative policy for the “Big Society” under Cameron – while the label/phrase has been ditched, it does feel like the same ethos persists. Running vital services with volunteers isn’t a ringing endorsement of its importance.

          2. I don’t agree it’s difficult to compare the circumstances of people today to those in the past / other countries.

            Your argument is certainly the standard left-wing argument for exclusion. And also demonstrates the viewpoint that removing opportunities from those who have them is often seen as a good in itself by the left, even if it doesn’t help anyone else (this is in contrast to actions such as taxing, where the money is used to directly benefit others). As long as a facility is genuinely accessible to all, as a library is, it doesn’t matter if some choose to use it and some don’t.

            I note that the council threatening to close your library is Labour run. 🙂 (Assuming your in Cardiff).

            It was an interesting article. I’d certainly be happy to strengthen the legal protections for libraries. At root though it doesn’t seem to go beyond saying that because the Conservatives have cut local budgets, they must be targetting libraries. This doesn’t follow: there may be many other areas they would rather to cut, and given that libraries make up less than 1% of local budgets, any authority which wishes to preserve them can, as Hertfordshire does.

            On ownership, my priority would be what works for the public (see my post arguing we should allow a state owned rail company to compete against the private ones). I don’t see any problem having volunteers play a role in services as long as the quality is kept up – volunteers play a vital role in many public services, from school governors to the RNLI.

          3. I’m not talking about removing opportunities from people. I’m talking about ensuring that there a bit of extra support for those who would otherwise struggle to take up the opportunities. If I may, it’s a very “right-wing” statement to argue that giving additional support to one group is the same as taking it away from another.

            In terms of comparisons, the problem is that so many things have changed, so comparing one subset is difficult. For example, it’s often stated that “young people” have many more gadgets etc. than the previous generations, and that maybe they should spend that money buying houses. However, the standard of computer/digital literacy required in an average job today is obviously very different from even 20 years ago, so it’s a good thing that children today tend to have much more exposure to digital technology (within reason – it’s not all good). On the flip side, I know of relatively few young people (my generation, mid 30s, and below) who haven’t required significant financial support from parents to get on the housing market – something which I don’t think was the case a generation or two previously. That’s not to say that parental support is bad (though it certainly doesn’t help social mobility and the inequality divide), but the world is changing in so many ways that simple comparisons don’t work.

            I don’t disagree that volunteering has place in society, but it has to be appropriate. I suspect we may disagree on what level is appropriate.

          4. I agree with you on housing.

            Your argument was that there is a problem with (certain types of) government funded services being open to all because if better off people use them more that will increase inequality.

            The obvious corollary is that government support for existing services of this type should be curtailed or at least deprioritised. In practice, though you personally may not support these examples, this is exactly the sort of argument we see when Labour councils close libraries and when tuition fees were introduced (I’d also argue a lot of policies in schools, but the situation there is more complex as people also legitimately disagree on cause and effect).

          5. P.S.We have digressed quite a lot. To return to the premise, regardless of which of us is actually better, it does seem like your preferred approach (creating services or opportunities available to specific people based on certain characteristics) fits very well with the predestination model, whereas mine (create opportunities open to everyone recognising not everyone will take them) fits very well with the free will one. Which was the main point – we know we disagree on these matters, but it’s interesting how deeply that particular split underlies many other areas.

          6. Yes, we have rather. But to return to my original comment on the premise:

            You state that those on the right “see outcomes as primarily the result of individual choices, effort or hard work, with the outcomes of those who are successful being ones that could be achieved by any ***in their circumstance***, if had made similar decisions” [emphasis my own].

            I’m not sure how this fits with social mobility, which is something that both sides seem to support (or claim to, at least). It follows that someone in a “worse” circumstance, then they likely have to try harder to achieve the same outcome. This adds a barrier in terms of time, energy, effort, money etc. (depending on the outcome). People who’ve had to overcome adversity in some way often get partial credit, but those barriers are often out of their control and can be all but insurmountable in some cases.

            The statement I quote above therefore implies that those whose circumstances put them at a disadvantage such that they can’t achieve their outcomes are simply unlucky. Which seems like predestination to me…

            Where in that flow does your right process diverge?

          7. Isn’t this he core divergence? Whilst it’s obviously hard to argue such barriers don’t exist, in any given circumstance you are likely to think that they are larger and play more of role in determining success than I do. Hence why you lean left and I lean right.

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