Unification News for May 1996


Freedom: A Quality of Distinction

by Haven Bradford Gow

A zoologist and professor of psychology at Emory University, Dr. Frans De Waal, tells us in his new work Good Natured: The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals (Harvard University Press) that "In addition to being human, we pride ourselves on being humane. What a brilliant way of establishing morality as the hallmark of human nature-by adopting our species name for charitable tendencies! Animals obviously cannot be human; could they ever be humane?"

Dr. De Waal points out that Darwinians have a difficult time explaining morality: "For one thing, inasmuch as moral rule represents the power of the community over the individual, it poses a profound challenge to evolutionary theory. Darwinism tells us that traits evolve because their bearers are better off with them than without them. Why, then, are collective interests and self-sacrifice valued so highly in our moral systems?"

Are human beings really qualitatively different from mere animals and the rest of physical nature? In his book The Difference of Man and the Difference It Makes (Fordham University Press), the eminent American philosopher Dr. Mortimer Adler argues that the answer to that question is a firm and resounding Yes. Dr. Adler says humans differ from animals because they possess the ability to reason, conceptualize, utilize and comprehend symbols, and to engage in propositional speech. And as Dr. Adler notes in his two-volume work Freedom, humans possess the inherent capacity to make free choices and judgments.

For Dr. Adler, freedom of the will is a quality of distinction. By freedom of the will, he means the natural freedom of self- determination: a freedom which is possessed by all men, by virtue of a power inherent in human nature, whereby man is able to transform his own character creatively by deciding for himself what he will become or do. In this sense, man's choices are self-caused and are not determined by processes beyond his control. Circumstances may affect the way human beings exercise this inherent capacity, and so may moral and mental traits that they do not or do acquire; however, neither acquirements nor circumstances of any sort are able to confer or deprive of this freedom.

When a person goes to a Chinese restaurant and decides to eat chow mein instead of fried rice, he is thereby exercising his natural freedom of self-determination. Reflection upon our common experience will yield many such instances in which we exercise our free judgment and free will by choosing between alternatives or goods (good, in a neutral philosophical sense, means any object of desire). For example, a young mother must choose between having an abortion or giving birth to a mentally and physically handicapped child. All the medical evidence indicates that the newborn child will be deformed, and she is tempted to procure an abortion to save herself and her husband from future emotional pain. Nevertheless, the young mother decides to have the child; and by so doing, she has both manifested and exercised the freedom of self-determination.

Freedom in this sense of self-determination is of crucial importance. For if, as some (e.g., B.F. Skinner) allege, man is not self- determining but rather is determined by processes beyond his control, then one is unable legitimately to maintain that man should be held accountable for his deeds. (Traditionally in the West, motives behind a person's actions are part of the morality of the actions.) Among those who would negate man's dignity by denying that he has the natural power to make free judgments are the behaviorists.

Behaviorism has done much to undermine the philosophical and religious roots of freedom, roots which we who believe that man has intrinsic moral worth and dignity and more than just instrumental value must conserve and defend. We ought not to remain complacent as the scientific hubris, which manifests itself in behaviorism, rejects the "divine spark" within man.

The behaviorist contends that there are no activities (e.g., the utilization of our rationality) and that there is no such thing as principled behavior (i.e., behavior that is influenced by consciously entertained generalizations), since man's behavior, he further argues, results from processes outside of his control.

However, what occurs when the behaviorist is challenged to prove his assertions? Does he not, in fact, engage in activities, in principled behavior? The obvious answer is: Yes, for if the behaviorist is to validate his point of view, he must search for evidence, appeal to the norms of inquiry, consult the principles of logic. By engaging in these activities, the behaviorist-by his own behavior-refutes his own elaborate theories. Perhaps the philosopher C.D. Broad was not being unduly harsh when he said that behaviorism is "so preposterously silly that only the very learned men could have thought of [it]."


Download entire page and pages related to it in ZIP format
Table of Contents
Copyright Information