The Economist Flirts with Situationism
Posted by Jon Hanson on January 21, 2007
In a recent edition of The Economist, the editors sound a little like contributors to The Situationist. In the issue showcasing research on “happiness” (and how to measure it), they go beyond simply explaining how happiness is not exactly what neo-classical economists have traditionally assumed, and describe how science is demonstrating the potentially illusory aspects of the concepts of “free will” and “choice.” If happiness-yielding preferences, free-will, and choice are not causing behavior, then what is? The editors seem to acknowledge that the answer is what we would call, in broadest brush strokes, situation.
It’s an important concession, but one that is tempered by the context in which they make it. Their primary illustration is of a man with “paedophillic tendencies” — not your everyday “choice.” That is followed quickly by an illogical jump from evidence that behavior is often mistakenly attributed to “free will” (a basic premise of situationism), to the extreme (implicit) alternative that human beings are wholly without agency (not a premise of situationism). Based on that leap, the editors caution that without a faith in “free will”:
“the idea of responsibility for one’s actions flies out of the window, along with much of the glue that holds a free society . . . together. If businessmen were no longer responsible for their contracts, criminals no longer responsible for their crimes and parents no longer responsible for their children, even though contract, crime and conception were ‘freely’ entered into, then social relations would be very different.”
Later, they warn that if we lose our “belief in free will,” our freedom itself will “erode.”
As has been thorougly documented in the situationist literature, the “pedophiles running loose” and “your freedoms are at risk” bugaboos are two of the great tropes with which even sophisticated commentators avoid taking seriously the non-affirming lessons of science.
None of this is to gainsay the revolutionary implications of situationism, which does call on us to reconceive ourselves and reimagine our institutions. Nor is it meant to deny the pscyhological and practical difficulties of such a project. Relinquishing incorrect conceptions is extremely daunting when those conceptions are simplistic, common-sensical, and system-legitimating and the new conceptions have uncertain, and perhaps threatening implications. For such reasons, faith that our planet is flat renained long after Galileo, among others, provided convincing evidence to the contrary.
But allowing our fears to lead us, and not deliberative choice, is to accept in practice the very insight that is being rejected — particularly given that those fears are likely manufactured and motivated subconsciously. This topic, perhaps more than most, requires that we will ourselves to keep our fears in check and to excercise our judgments responsibly.
Recognizing that free will and choice are less causally significant than commonly assumed does not mean the end of responsibility, nor does it portend the end of society. Quite the contrary: It makes room for situational and system responsibility — which calls on all of us, indvidually and collectively, to take greater responsibility for influential and malleable situational forces. That cannot happen if we deny their very existence and allow our illusions and fears to eclipse the truth and, in turn, our freedom to choose.