There is no escaping from the fact that individual minds are shaped by social forces. When you look at individuals who come from certain social backgrounds, you see that they have something in common: they have a high probability of reflecting the values and beliefs instilled in them by their respective communities. The "reality" that an individual ends up observing is therefore socially constructed.
For example, a person growing up in an impoverished, gang-ridden neighborhood is more likely to commit crimes (e.g. robbing a bank to support his family after failing to find employment) than a person growing up in a wealthy neighborhood. If the person from the impoverished neighborhood commits a crime, and is sentenced to jail, shouldn't his social environment be taken into consideration in the trial? It is true that it was ultimately his decision whether or not to break the law. However, his social background (an impoverished community filled with gangs) seems to predispose him to commit crimesl; this seems to add more weight to his decision to commit crimes. It seems that his mind, his values, and his decisions were ultimately shaped by society (i.e. his neighborhood), based on the reality of crime and violence he witnessed growing up.
Consider another example: gender roles. Isn't it true that men and women tend to assume positions in society based on how society constructed "gender roles"? In patriarchal societies, men are most likely to be in positions of decison-making. In matriarchal societies, it is the opposite. Also, consider the fact that, in our society (America, and perhaps other societies as well), "crying" is a behavior commonly sanctioned for girls; that if a boy cries, he is considered to be "girly." Males and females are socialized into their respective roles; thus, they end up engaging in behaviors that are in comformity with what mainstream society implicitly (e.g. through social customs/rituals) deems socially acceptable for each sex. The notion of "stereotypes" seems to be evidence to that fact. How can individuals in different societies be "objective" if their process of rationalization is shaped by societal beliefs/values, and if the reality they perceive is socially constructed?
How would an Objectivist refute the assertion that one's mind, and therefore one's actions and identity, are shaped by social forces?
This question begins provocatively with a claim about individuals being shaped by social forces, and challenges Objectivists to refute it. The implicit presupposition is that man is socially determined and lacks free will.
In the process of doing that, however, the question offers a number of observations about how social and cultural norms seem to affect individuals, and asks, in effect, why there wouldn't be more individuals openly deviating from the norms if everyone has free will. The answer is to be found in the nature of free will. An informative overview of the Objectivist perspective on free will can be found in the topic of "Free Will" in The Ayn Rand Lexicon. One excerpt explains:
The act of focusing one's consciousness is volitional. Man can focus his mind to a full, active, purposefully directed awareness of reality -- or he can unfocus it and let himself drift in a semiconscious daze, merely reacting to any chance stimulus of the immediate moment, at the mercy of his undirected sensory-perceptual mechanism and of any random, associational connections it might happen to make.
How, then, does the choice to focus relate to higher level choices of values and of actions to achieve one's values? There are two possibilities: one can unfocus one's mind and simply absorb whatever the culture offers; or one can focus, and then think, and perhaps form one's ideas of what to value and what to do independently of any cultural norms, although it takes a rare individual of highly unusual intellectual capacity and motivational commitment to do the later.
Societies and cultures are driven and shaped by their underlying philosophies. In "The Chickens' Homecoming" in Return of the Primitive (pp. 45-46), Ayn Rand explains:
The task of philosophy is to provide man with a comprehensive view of life....
The Lexicon topic of "Free Will" includes an excerpt that addresses the influence of society very directly:
A social environment can neither force a man to think nor prevent him from thinking. But a social environment can offer incentives or impediments; it can make the exercise of one's rational faculty easier or harder; it can encourage thinking and penalize evasion or vice versa.
An earlier excerpt in that same Lexicon topic emphasizes:
In any hour and issue of your life, you are free to think or to evade that effort. But you are not free to escape from your nature, from the fact that reason is your means of survival.... [Man] needs a code of values to guide his actions.
Free will gives man two ways to define his values: he can follow the trends set by others, which is usually the easier path in the short run; or he can proceed to think independently, which is usually far harder but potentially far more rewarding in the long run. The resulting statistics, the relative numbers of people who choose one path or the other, should not be surprising. But people do choose, and their choices are not beyond their control, particularly when there are at least a few voices attempting to point them toward a rational course.
answered Aug 19 '12 at 00:03
Ideas for Life ♦