Monday, November 06, 2006

Why My Students Are Likey to Vote Republican

Because they believe, against all credible information, in radical free will. I just came back from my Introduction to Philosophy course, where we discussed how meaningful a concept of free will is. We start off by discussing the relatively uncontroversial statement that most events in the world are caused by something and move to the more controversial claim that perhaps all human actions are caused by antecedent events, thereby making "free will" a problematic concept. Now, how philosophers have framed the problem of free will is quite different from our common sense understanding of the notion.

For most philosophers, free will is opposed to determinism. That is, if an act is free, it was not determined by a prior cause, whether that be one's childhood education or one's basic temperament. The common sense notion of free will is that despite the fact that we find ourselves limited or determined by past events/conditions, we have some ability to choose against our inclination.

While this common sense definition resonates with my views, it dramatically differs from the more radical view that "we can become whomever we want to become," a statement, btw, uttered by one of my students today. The sentiment in that statement is that those who wish to climb out of deep poverty and make something of their lives can do so, if they want to badly enough. I have to say, that view is attractive. It is downright romantic. And, for years, my father instilled this same view in me; hence, I still feel affectionate toward it.

Having said that, I have learned, through experience, that one's desire to transcend his or her circumstances are often thwarted by conditions out of one's power to change. I tried to illustrate this point to my students with the following thought experiment:

Let's assume that Pete has grown up, in a working class neighborhood, in Camden, NJ. Pete's mom dropped out of high school when she was 17, because she wanted to keep Pete and couldn't do so while in school. Her parents were not well off, and so she needed to work to help fray the costs of a new baby. She found a job in a day care center, and was able to enroll Pete for free. She made minimum wage, with no benefits. Pete grows up loved and with a great deal of ambition to get out of Camden. He works hard in school, but his school is underfunded, crowded and hence, his education is sub-standard. He earns a high G.P.A and decides to apply to college. He is accepted a few places, but they are all too expensive for him, even with the aid from the school. He opts for Community College, which costs $5,000.00 a semester and he continues to work in a department store. To pay for the tuition, he takes out a student loan. After three semesters, he has to drop out because his mom gets ill and so they don't have enough money for rent. After 6 months of this, his student loans become due and he is required to work more to cover the cost of these loans. He realizes that he might get better tuition benefits if he enrolls in the Army. He does, and unfortunately, while on a supply run, he gets seriously injured and returns back home. He is in the hospital for a few months, and finds out that the military won't grant him his full G.I. bill since he was in for only 2 months.

My question to the class was: Is Pete morally responsible for not getting out of poverty?

Their reaction: Yes.

Their second reaction: the example is completely absurd, no one would have such horrible luck.

So, you see, my students simply cannot imagine living in such conditions. Because of that, their views of radical free will are untroubled, and the tough language of "personal responsibility" resonates with them.

After all, people like Pete are poor, because they didn't work hard enough.