Law in Contemporary Society

Professor Moglen's Untenable Claim of Selective Determinism

-- By JonathanGuerra - 28 Feb 2009


It is a difficult endeavor to sustain a claim that some human actors act deterministically while other human actors do not. In our class, Professor Moglen has made such a claim by levying blame upon businessmen for exploiting humans and human behavior. The idea is that the actions of businessmen are a result of their choice, but the actions of consumers are the result of compulsion rather than choice. Hence, a businessman’s actions may be subjected to moral scrutiny, but it would be inapposite to render moral blame upon consumers. However, this position fails to acknowledge that if consumers act absent choice, then the same must be true for businessmen.

Determinism in General

To say that an action is determined is to say that an action “P” was caused by the antecedent conditions “1P” (p-prime). This of course is not ground breaking. Indeed, we admit as much in our everyday lives. For instance, when we hear that a plane has crash landed in the Hudson River we ask “Why?” We know better than to assume that the act of a plane crashing was a completely random event not preceded by any action or condition that could be deemed its cause.

Human beings are not exempt from causal forces. Our physiology is determined by them as well as our actions. Genetic disposition along with all previous social environments and experiences shape our deliberations to be what they are. Thus, our choices may be the result of our thoughts and desires, but our thoughts and desires are the result of the conditions antecedent.

Back to Businessmen, Consumers, and Professor Moglen's Untenable Claim

Professor Moglen has contended that businessmen exploit human behavior by taking advantage of some antecedent conditions and creating others so that consumption is the result of a compulsion rather than choice. Consequently, the people who make up tobacco companies are responsible for the deaths of millions, and they can rightly be deemed murderer. Moglen asserts that smokers are not blameworthy because they did not choose to smoke. Further, the businessmen in charge of Macy’s, Walmart, and their corporate competitors are nothing short of thieves. They create antecedent conditions by appealing to our emotions and our desire to feel as though we are a part of something meaningful. Accordingly, our purchases are compulsions rather choices.

It is not clear why Professor Moglen applies the principles of determinism to consumers and not to businessman, but it is certainly true that he does. This must be the case because he ascribes moral blame to businessmen and moral blame cannot be ascribed to an agent acting compulsively. Indeed, this is why he renders smokers and consumers blameless—addiction need not complicate this discussion since it is one of the many antecedent conditions. This position of applying determinism to some people and not to others, in addition to creating a large metaphysical conundrum, ignores the fact that businessmen must be acting compulsively just as consumers are; or in the very least that the same kind of story concocted to render consumers blameless can also be applied to businessmen in order to exculpate them from blame.

The Untold Story

The businessman is cognizant that humans are creatures that need to feel desired and need to feel as though they are a part of something meaningful. He is driven by success and some antecedent condition in his life has caused him to believe that his success is determined by how much money he can make. The businessman is a person who because of his genetic disposition and upbringing feels it is ok for him to capitalize on the vulnerable dispositions of others—he may very well be addicted to a chemical rush that results from this. Therefore he is compelled to appeal to consumers’ emotions so that they may make him rich.

  • This isn't an argument at all: it's just silliness. Every repeat smoker is physically addicted to nicotine, for which there is a wealth of evidence; your "addiction to scamming people" is a pure invention for which there is no evidence of any kind. The employment of this sort of rhetoric is discrediting: no serious conversation is happening, and it is apparent that this is mere disagreement for disagreement's own sake.

The Turn

So what makes this story any less likely than the story given to us for why consumers do not exercise choice? Nothing. They may both be true, and if so neither the businessman nor the consumer is blameworthy. Or both stories may be false—the result of an evolutionary survival mechanism designed to identify cause when there is none. However, it seems improbable that one story is true and the other is not. For this would entail that some human beings are unencumbered by causality.

So What?

Professor Moglen has done what many do: he inconsistently applied a theory of blameworthiness. So what? I concede this is not a prodigious error, but given the complexities of using determinism as a basis for blame, when in fact it is the quintessential basis of no blame for anyone, I think it should be abandoned. A better approach would be to lay out values that most of us agree on, and from those values determine whether the tobacco hustler and the corporate peddler can be blamed for acting contrary to them.

  • I don't know what the point of revising was here. You haven't actually met my objections, or tried to show that we are disagreeing about something I too can recognize as a disagreement. It's not a conversation. You're asserting that I've made some sort of mistake, but as I pointed out last time, you'd be better off attending to the clear statement of your idea before deciding whether we are actually in disagreement and if so, whether you're right. None of that happened in revision, so it's still a matter of your jeering at me on the basis of an argument I can't follow against ideas I don't recognize as my own.


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r5 - 08 Jan 2010 - 21:08:33 - IanSullivan
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