Front Page Titles (by Subject) III: Human Rights and Ethics - Literature of Liberty, Spring 1981, vol. 4, No. 1
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III: Human Rights and Ethics - Leonard P. Liggio, Literature of Liberty, Spring 1981, vol. 4, No. 1 
Literature of Liberty: A Review of Contemporary Liberal Thought was published first by the Cato Institute (1978-1979) and later by the Institute for Humane Studies (1980-1982) under the editorial direction of Leonard P. Liggio.
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Human Rights and Ethics
The following summaries supplement the perspectives on normative ethical and political theory sketched within this issue of Literature of Liberty in David Gordon's bibliographical essay, “Contemporary Currents in Libertarian Political Philosophy.” The four opening summaries help clarify some recent directions taken in the theory of human rights and their moral justification. Then follow a variety of ethical issues dealing with such themes as privacy, the rights of animals and of nature, the variable notion of “nature,” the developing concept of mind, and the possibility of an objective morality.
That we currently find little consensus on how we can justify rights or on what is right or wrong in our treatment of nature, animals, or our fellow humans should excite little wonder. Our age is, in fact, undergoing a profound proliferation of values and world views. On a worldwide basis and with a novel, unprecedented confidence, individuals and social groups are asserting their right to determine their own minds, lives, and values. “Every man and every woman is his and her own philosopher"—this sometimes seems to be the implicit motto of the spirit of our age. One expression of this cultural and social pluralism has been given voice by philosophers from within the American Philosophical Association. The dissenting “Committee for Pluralism in Philosophy” has protested the lack of diversity within the professional philosophical association and has called for adequate recognition given to such non-analytic philosophizing (including such schools as phenomenology, existentialism, and American “pragmatism”). [See Janet Hook, “‘Analytic’ vs. ‘Pluralist’ Debate Splits Philosophical Association,” The Chronical of Higher Education (January 12, 1981): and Edward B. Fiske, “Analysts Win Battle in War of Philosophy,” The New York Times (January 6, 1981):15,17.]
Other non-academic examples of the individualist cultural trend asserting the right of pluralism and diversity could easily be cited from the headlines of our daily newspapers. Seen in this worldwide context, then, the current lack of consensus on rights theory may be a vital sign of health and openness. If anything, a greater variety of approaches promises to improve our understanding of freedom, rights, and the social system most suitable for healthy individuals.
Recent Scholarship on Rights
“Recent Work on the Concept of Rights.” American Philosophical Quarterly 17(July 1980):165–180.
The authors summarize recent work on the concept of rights and claim that three major issues appear: the normative elements which make up rights, the functions that rights serve, and the justification of rights. Nickels and Martin concentrate on the first two.
Some writers assert that all duties are necessarily correlated with rights; others maintain that all rights are necessarily correlated with duties. The first claim collapses because some duties are not owed to particular people (e.g. the duty to be charitable) and thus right cannot be correlated with such duties. The second claim fails because some moral or legal rights are immunities which are correlated with disabilities rather than with duties. For example, the First Amendment defines rights so that any law that Congress passes in areas denied by the Amendment will be declared null and void. Congress is legally disabled from passing such laws. This is not a case where an obligation has been created giving people an area of free choice.
If rights are not explicable in terms of second party duties, what explains them? Some have argued that the notions of claims would explain rights. But since claims as rights involve claims to and claims against someone, this view is committed to the notion that all rights entail duties (a valid claim against someone involves a duty on the part of that person). But in that case the “rights as claims” view cannot account for rights which aren't correlated with duties. Another suggestion is that rights are essentially “entitlements,” but this suggestion fails since “entitlements” is a very vague term which closely resembles “rights.”
Instead of trying to reduce rights to one normative element, perhaps rights should be seen as a constellation of normative (Hohfeldian) elements. On this view there is a defining core of Hohfeldian elements (which differs depending on whether it is a liberty-right, claim-right, immunity-right, etc.) and associated elements of the right which contribute to satisfying the core. What, then, gives unity to rights as a class? Here theorists rely on the notion that rights have a certain function in relation to other normative concepts. One possible function is that rights protect person's autonomy or give them an area of free choice. Another possibility is that rights protect certain important interests. Nickels and Martin think rights perform both functions (frequently the same right does both) and that it is implausible to weigh one function as more important than the other. The authors think the idea that rights function as trumps over collective goals is promising as a way of marking off rights from other concepts, since all rights appear to have more weight than other moral considerations and the notion of a “trump” nicely captures this.
Martin and Nickel also discuss the idea of whether rights are prima-facie rights (rights that are nonabsolute and which lack a specification as to their weight). Some philosophers have objected to this notion because rights do not disappear when they are justifiably overriden. But to say that rights are prima facie merely says something about their weight, not about their scope nor under what conditions they can be exercised.
Finally, the authors discuss some features that human rights (those justified by some moral code or rule) have been traditionally thought to possess. “Universality": only a few rights are universal in the sense that they apply to all persons and all situations. However, some rights are only universal in the sense that they exist whenever a certain type of institution exists. “Unconditionality": rights are unconditional only in the sense that the rights do not depend on a person belonging to a certain social class, or being recognized by the state. Finally, the only sense in which some rights can be viewed as “inalienable” is the weak sense that no person can voluntarily waive or relinquish them.
Nickel and Martin conclude that progress has been made in understanding what a right is, and that this progress will be helpful to philosophers who are concerned with justifying rights.
Two Concepts of Rights
“Two Concepts of Rights.” Philosophy and Public Affairs 9(Summer 1980):372–384.
Montague discusses what is implied by the idea that the possession of rights by some individual generates obligations for others. The author points out the faulty logic involved in arguing that obligations imply rights which in turn are the grounds of the obligations.
One cannot justify the judgment that A is obligated not to do something to B by stating that B has a right against such treatment, since the two statements are logically equivalent. If obligations logically imply rights, then rights cannot serve to ground or justify obligations without begging the question. If rights are to ground obligations then it must be some nonlogical connection between them that does the job.
Montague suggests this nonlogical link is that certain freedoms are so valuable that others are obligated not to interfere with their exercise. This suggests that rights which in some full blown sense are exercisable (rights to free speech, free exercise of religion, etc.) will be justified this way. On the other hand, those rights which are merely logical correlatives of obligations are those which are not exercisable. There is no justification of the right needed in the second case, since they are merely obligations looked at from another point of view. Such rights are rights against being treated in a certain way (rights not to be lied to, assaulted, etc.). Some rights (e.g., the right to life) involve both types of rights: exercisable freedoms and correlatives of obligations not to be treated in a certain way. In which case, of course, the justificatory procedure is much more complicated.
Establishing Human Rights
“A Reconsideration of Natural Rights Theory.” American Philosophical Quarterly 18(forthcoming, 1981).
Professor Machan revives his efforts to show that a program sketched by Martin P. Golding (Monist, Oct. 1968), stipulating which conditions must be fulfilled to establish the existence of human rights, can best be fulfilled within the framework of natural rights theory. Golding says that we must (1) have the idea of humanity at large—or human nature—as well as (2) the capacity to distinguish between individual human beings and others, and, finally, (3) a conception of the good life for human beings, in order to show that there are human rights.
The first requirement must overcome numerous current objections to the existence of natures or essences. These objections rest on a belief that for natures to exist they would have to be absolutely, timelessly fixed. Since that cannot be established without traversing infinity, the idea of natures is rejected (e.g., there can be no human nature). But “the nature of X” means only that within the most rational frame of reference, given the impossibility of contradictions in reality, some conception of the basic characteristics of X is fully justified. So viewed, human nature could exist.
The second requirement calls upon us to show that we can identify individuals, distinguish them from others and from other kinds, and that can be shown by reference to the creative mental powers of human beings, powers that enable them to differentiate and integrate the evidence they obtain from the world. It is here, also, that we learn that human nature consists of what Ayn Rand calls “volitional consciousness,” the chosen rational capacity of a biological entity we call “man”. Various problems about borderline cases have, of course, to be handled, and issues raised by Kuhn and Feyerabend and others who remain skeptical about the possibility of correctly identifying reality need to be addressed.
Golding's third requirement asks: given that human beings are beings of volitional consciousness, what is the good human life? It is the full realization of human life in the case of the individual that one is. And “human” here means “rational by choice,” so that the good life for human beings is one that is a morally good life, necessarily of persons' own making (since they must choose to exercise the faculty and capacity that will make for their excellence). Of course, the function of such a choice is to make for an excellent life for the individual person who makes it, partly because it is not possible to choose for others in a way that can be morally efficatious for them, partly because such a choice would prevent others from carrying their own weight, morally speaking.
This last ushers in natural rights, the social conditions that human nature requires. In society, it is important that the standards by which persons can be friends or foes can be codified and enforced. These standards pertain to the sphere of persona, independent authority over one's life that any adult should procure as a morally responsible being. The rights to life, liberty, and property are standards that serve to spell out the sphere of such authority. Golding's program would thus appear to be fulfilled.
Misunderstanding Human Rights
“The Corruption of Human Rights.” Policy Review (forthcoming, 1981)
If we are to believe the United Nations Charter Universal Declaration of Human Rights, individuals have rights to vacations, to be employed by someone, to be given health care, and to numerous other benefits apart from their rights to life, liberty, and property. And these days the American legal system has firmly embraced some of these ideas. One “public service” ad speaks of the right not to be lonely!
How did the original concept of natural (human individual) rights—gained from Locke (but hinted at by early Greek thinkers, Aquinas and Ockham)—which meant not having one's moral independence thwarted by members of one's community, reach such a confused conception in our time?
The difference between that original notion and the current one is clear: The right to life, liberty, and property mean that others have no justification to use or govern a person and his property unless permission is given. It affirms the moral independence of human individuals concerning their own lives and creations. The current view of rights includes references to valued services and items to be produced by some people for others on command of governments. The former principle liberates individuals, the latter places them into servitude (of course always for allegedly noble reasons, e.g., others' needs).
One main reason for the change is that the foundations of human individual rights have been abandoned in modern philosophy. The very idea that human beings are something definite in being human has been abandoned: human nature is said to be nothing but a prejudice, with no foundation in fact and logic. So when human rights are discussed, there is no clear referent as to the scope of the concept “human” so as to provide criteria for distinguishing human from, say, special rights (e.g., those created by contract or institutional affiliation). Instead, now some process loosely referred to as ordinary language analysis (or consulting one's moral intuitions) serves to guide the identification of human rights. This comes down to listening to what people want very badly, even call theirs by right (or to what they strongly feel should be theirs by right), and concluding that therefore those things are human rights.
Another reason is that human beings are widely thought of as passive participants in nature's and history's flow of events. Thus the better conditions of some are seen as accidents and it is felt that fairness requires that these conditions be spread around equally. By reference to this criterion of fairness, it is felt that everyone has a right to some roughly equal share of goods, irregardless of who creates these goods.
The result in public policy is a massive interventionist state which embarks upon “adjudicating” demands of rights and a confused foreign “human rights” policy. All this in the face of the error of rejecting the idea of human nature and accepting the belief that human beings are passive and not responsible for their conduct. The error of rejecting human nature stems from the false belief that the nature of something must be forever fixed. If this were so, no nature could be identified, since we could never make sure that no change will occur in the future. The error of human passion stems from an invalid reductionism which holds that everything in nature must reduce in character to Newtonian matter-in-motion, human beings included.
By correcting these two errors, we can make progress in recovering and improving the very good idea of natural human individual rights.
Is Privacy an Absolute Right?
“Privacy and the Right to Privacy.” Philosophy 55(January 1980):17–38.
Is the cherished right of privacy justly prized and, if so, why and when? Prof. McCloskey is concerned with the nature of privacy and with its legitimate domain. He also asks whether there is actually a “right” to the state of privacy, and, if there is, whether it ranks as an absolute right or a conditional one.
McCloskey believes that a clear concept of privacy requires a stipulative definition. Yet even without this, we can achieve greater clarity by distinguishing privacy from notions which have often been confused with it. He thus scrutinizes ten attempts at defining the term: “Privacy means being left alone;” “Privacy relates to the inviolate individuality of each person,” etc. In each of these positions, McCloskey identifies substantial elements, as well as imprecisions and illogicalities. None of them succeeds in explaining privacy as an entity unto itself, and the author himself declines the task of providing a comprehensive definition of the term. He does assert, however, that any such definition must be essentially negative, since “privacy” denotes “the absence of something.”
Turning his attention to the grounds for the right to privacy, the author examines the gamut of justifications which have been offered on its behalf: on the basis of utility, as a basic psychological need, as essential for freedom, as required by respect for persons, etc. He concludes that privacy is morally obligatory only when it helps secure other more basic rights (life, liberty, justice, etc.).
Privacy is thus a derivative right, originating in a concern for other values and rights. As a conditional right, it must be overridden when it conflicts those more essential goods. Privacy, for example, must not interfere with the free access to information, which is a fundamental right in a free society. McCloskey feels that legal support for the right to privacy must be pursued with the greatest caution, so as not to harm primary social values.
“On Assigning Rights to Animals and Nature.” Environmental Ethics 2(Spring 1980):67–71.
Richard A. Watson has argued that most animals do not have intrinsic or primary rights such as the rights to existence and to freedom from unnecessary suffering. To have such rights, Watson claims, a living entity must be a “moral agent,” that is, it must possess self-consciousness, a free will, and whatever else is required to fulfill reciprocal duties in a self-conscious manner. Povilitis dissents and suggests (1) that Watson's “reciprocity framework is overly anthroprocentric in holding pre-eminent only those evolutionary features that appear to be unique” to the human species; that Watson's framework is based on an incorrect assumption that the Golden Rule refers to mutual rather than individual duties; and (3) that Watson arbitrarily identifies moral rights with primary rights.
Moreover, since “intrinsic” rights are virtually assigned rights, the assigning of rights to an entity corresponds to its perceived value. Thus Watson chooses “Cartesian values” in assigning rights by his very act of emphasizing differences between man and nonhuman animals. Conversely, the ecological and evolutionary relatedness of living things forms the basis for Povilitis's considering rights within the “naturalist tradition.”
The central life-and-death question is not “Do nonhuman animals and nature have rights?” but rather “On what basis should rights be assigned to animals and nature?” Povilitis favors a “naturalist” tradition which asserts that “life itself represents a value comparable to or greater than that assigned to the allegedly unique properties of the human mind.” Naturalists value nature “not only as a provider of goods and services but also as a place of creativity that cannot be duplicated by man, who is merely one of its derivatives.”
Nature and the Tao
“The Idea of Nature, East and West.” The Great Ideas Today: 1980, ed. Mortimer Adler. Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, 1980. pp. 234–305.
The Eastern concept of nature has interesting parallels with its Western counterpart. Wedding these two notions could help us avoid exploiting nature and achieve greater contentment with our material lot.
As to the parallels, both Eastern and German traditions exhibit a love of natural beauty in a manner that Hebrew or Greek poetry does not emphasize. Whereas pessimism in Western thinking means a weariness with existence in this world, pessimism in Japanese thinking means a weariness with social restrictions, from which we may be delivered by living closer to natural beauty.
In ancient times, both the Eastern Vedic poets and the Western Greeks conceived of the universe as an ordered whole, which furnished a standard of morality that even gods must obey. If a ruler transgressed this moral order, calamities would result and revolution could be justified. The thought of revolution was called Ko-ming which means, literally, “to cut off (or take away) the mandate of heaven from some particular ruler.”
In modern times, the Confucian philosophy emphasized the importance of the form of government, in addition to the character of the rulers. Huang Tsung-hsi (1610–95) wrote: “I say we must first have laws which govern well and later we shall have men that govern well.” In Japan, the teachers of Mental Culture (Shingaku) taught that virtue consists in living in conformity to our nature, when that nature is in accord with a broader, natural order, called Mind. Like Grotius in the West, Master Jiun drew a sharp distinction between universal, inviolable natural law and nonuniversal mutable civil law. But instead of seeing God as the author of nature, Jiun held that nature and law are nothing but perfect Mind or “Buddha” himself. Even so, the final source of knowledge about natural law is neither tradition nor books, but an aware observation of nature.
In art, Eastern culture has always given a priority to nature, whereas Western culture allowed human or divine subject matter to predominate until the eighteenth century. In the gardens of Zen temples, rocks and streams are symbolized and used to point directly at the Tao or Way of nature. In this Taoist conception, man and nature are allied, connected, and inseparable. Man must be understood in vital interconnection with nature.
Japanese and Indian thought emphasize the idea of the natural world, seen as the power of change, becoming ultimate or absolute reality. Experiencing the world in this way is called enlightenment. After Japan opened to the world in 1868, most Japanese Buddhists broke away from the disciplines, which have been replaced by the notion of service to the community, however. In doing this service, the individual is freeing himself and becoming true to his own nature.
Self-Knowledge: Nietzsche, Heidegger & Buber
Discovering the Mind: Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Buber. Volume II of a Trilogy. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1980.
How has the discovery of the mind been advanced or impeded by Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Buber? Professor Kaufman, who died September 4, 1980, gives his analysis in the second volume of his last work.
Nietzsche (1844–1900) liberated psychology from moral prejudice and thereby prepared the ground for Freud's major breakthroughs. Nietzsche's contributions can be summarized by five theses: (1) The thesis that “consciousness is a surface” is a major insight which highlighted the role of the un-conscious in our psychic life which had been widely underestimated. (2) Nietzsche's theory of “the will to power” is primarily a psychological thesis rather than a metaphysical theory. It means that most psychological phenomena are strategies that we adopt to maximize the feeling of power or control. This drive is more basic than either self-preservation or pleasure since people will risk their life to increase their feeling of efficacy or will become ascetics to enhance their feeling of worth. (3) Nietzsche developed a psychology of world-views; for example, he analyzed the resentment that underlay Christian metaphysics. (4) Nietzsche pioneered psychohistory with his portraits of St. Paul, Luther, and Wagner, for example. (5) Nietzsche also developed a subtle “philosophy of masks,” by which multiple meanings can be more adequately conveyed by a kind of “role-playing.”
In sharp contrast to Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger (1889–1970) is seen as impeding the discovery of the mind's constitution. Attempting to reconcile Nietzsche with Kant, Heidegger searched for the necessary modes of human existence. His stark contrast between authentic and inauthentic existence was a dogmatic, non-historical oversimplification of man's nature.” His thinking was “deeply authoritarian,” as when he simply assumed that “Being” has only one meaning. Heidegger's interpretations of other thinkers ignored their context, and he merely secularized Christian preaching about guilt, dread, and death. His thought belongs to the romantic revival in Germany and not to the pre-Socratics, as he believed.
Martin Buber (1878–1965) advanced the discovery of the mind insofar as his theory of translation required that writers be interpreted in their own terms, according to their own distinctive voices and styles of thinking. Buber also revealed how the discovery of another individual requires opening our heart to their distinctive voice and uniqueness, rather than subsuming the individual under general terms or laws. Unfortunately, his own interpretation of authenticity was too one-sided, because genuine, intimate encounters between people need not be either brief or destroyed by thinking about the other person. Also, there are more ways of avoiding genuine encounter than by turning the other individual into an “it” or an “object.”
The Prospects of Objective Morality
“The Prospects of an Objective Morality.” Social Research 46(Winter 1979):745–765.
All attempts to justify an objective morality have failed. Cognitivism (the view that we are endowed with some moral faculty for discovering what is right, good, and obligatory) also fails. Cognitivists have failed to explain how this moral “organ” has the ability to notice moral blindness. Cognitivists have also failed to explain the relation between this allegedly universal organ and the inherent historical nature of human existence, the divergence of moral sensibilities, and the unpredictable, contingent nature of moral problems.
With cognitivism and meta-ethics rejected, comes a skepticism concerning rational rules for determining the solution for moral disputes. Any formal rules, for example, that justice requires that like cases be treated alike or that moral judgments be universalizable, are either vacuous or false. Similarly, Kant's categorical imperative cannot work since not all immoral actions are inconsistent.
Another alternative is to admit that we are prudentially interested agents and derive certain rational minimal standards which all rational agents want. Assuming people are basically egoistically motivated to promote their own survival and satisfaction, the question then becomes: what is the fairest way to serve those interests? But this approach is not as neutral as it seems: it tilts moral philosophy in favor of radical individualism. The question of which interests should be promoted and at the expense of what and whom, has no value-free, nonideological answer. Some accomodation of the known historical condition under which communities exist must affect our moral reflections; but to concede this means to concede that morality consists of a battle among partisans. Partisan bias also applies to any philosophers (such as one influenced by Hegel or Marx) who attempts to derive some moral precepts from a historically favored society.
We may conclude that two general and objective constraints on moral policies and philosophies are (1) certain minimal prudential interests assigned fairly to individuals and (2) the prevailing ideological currents of the historical communities affected. Yet there is no way to derive any objectively valid judgments or commitments from the constrainst. At any given time there are an array of moral convictions, and reflection tests these convictions against the constraints listed above. The indefensible views are discarded leaving the rest to bargain for effective power.
But how then does one account both for the openness of moral disputes and the sense of objective constraints? By a theory that human beings are both human animals and human persons. The fact that we have a common biological nature (human animals) generates some objective minimal prudential concerns, but the fact that we are culturally emergent beings (persons) who learn a language and act and produce in a particular culture, means that our outlooks differ depending on where we are located. The nature of persons, then, being culturally emergent, is determined by history—hence Margolis's relativism in moral matters.
Measuring Ethical Ideologies
“A Taxonomy of Ethical Ideologies.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 39(1980):175–184.
Prof. Forsyth developed a survey instrument, the Ethics Position Questionnaire, designed to assess an individual's perspective on ethical issues. The questionnaire contains two scales tapping the degree of “idealism” and the extent to which universal moral rules are rejected in favor of “relativism.” On the basis of scores on these scales, a person can be characterized as using one of four ethical ideologies.
Persons scoring high on idealism and high on relativism are termed “situationists.” They reject moral rules and use an individualistic analysis of each act in each situation. Those scoring high on idealism and low on relativism are labelled “absolutists.” They assume that the best possible outcome will be achieved by following universal moral laws. Those scoring low on idealism and high on relativism are termed “subjectivists.” They base appraisals on personal values and perspectives rather than universal moral principles. Finally, persons scoring low on idealism and low on relativism are labelled “exceptionists.” They maintain that moral absolutes should guide judgments but are pragmatically open to exceptions to those standards. This taxonomy is discussed in terms of the philosophical concepts of ethical skepticism, ethical egoism, deontology, and utilitarianism.
In a sample of college students, the scales for idealism and relativism were demonstrated to be virtually orthogonal. The test—retest reliability of the scales was acceptable. With increasing age, individuals were found to be both less idealistic and less relativistic. Neither scale correlated with Rest's measure of principled moral reasoning on the Defining Issues Test, but the relativism scale was found to be negatively correlated with scores on Hogan's Survey of Ethical Attitudes.
On questions relating to a number of contemporary moral issues (e.g., abortion, euthanasia), “male absolutists” tended to take more extreme positions, particularly when compared to male situationists. Females in the four categories showed fewer differences. In judging the morality of an actor in a written scenario culminating in either positive outcomes, negative outcomes, or mixed outcomes, “absolutists” only occasionally allowed positive outcomes to sway them from negatively evaluating a liar or a thief. In contrast, “subjectivists” only rarely used information about moral norms to influence their consequences—based moral judgments. “Situationists” were also influenced by the quality of an actions consequences. “Exceptionists” tended to be the most forgiving of the four groups but not when an action ran counter to a moral standard. While the four groups were found to differ in moral judgments, their moral behavior was not found to differ in a cheating situation.
Individualism and “Locus of Control”
“Individualistic Bias in Studies of Locus of Control.” In A.R. Buss, ed. Psychology in Social Context. New York: Irvington Press, 1979.
The assumption in most of the research on Rotter's concept of locus of control is that it is better for a person to have an internal orientation, perceiving the outcome of events as contingent on her own personal action, than for that person to have an external orientation, whereby she perceives the outcome of events to result from chance, fate, or the actions of powerful others. Research indicates that an internal locus of control is related to a person's perseverence, creativity, achievement, self-esteem, and other adaptive personality characteristics. Furby criticizes this research for focusing too heavily on the perceived correlation between one's actions and outcomes.
The individualistic bias to which the author objects is seen when the perception of the locus of control of events as external is assumed to be inconsistent with “reality.” Only in instances where there is an actual potential for personal control is an internal orientation true and useful. Thus situation-specific expectancies of locus of control are more appropriate than are the generalized expectancies discussed by Rotter. However, in any specific situation, it may be exceedingly difficult to ascertain the actual potential for control.
Using the techniques of the sociology of psychological knowledge, Furby suggests that the individualistic bias in locus of control research is a function of the social and political attitudes of those involved in the research. Internal ideology is said to embody the Protestant Ethic and be related to the capitalist spirit. The author observes that “any social and economic structure entailing gross inequalities in both political power and material well-being is likely to foster an internal control ideology.” Those out of power are thereby encouraged to perceive their “failure” as a result of their own doing rather than to blame the system. Psychologists accept an internal control ideology because (1) they have been socialized to accept the general societal values, (2) they have greater than average wealth and social power, and (3) they, in fact, have greater than average actual personal control compared to the general population.
The author concludes that for psychologists to endeavor to increase an internal orientation as a general strategy is wrong. There are circumstances where an external locus of control is not only appropriate but may lead to more effective behavior. What is needed is to expand the conditions under which individuals will experience actual control.
Should We License Parents?
“Licensing Parents.” Philosophy and Public Affairs 9(Winter 1980):182–197.
The capriciousness of being born to parents who are unchosen and often incompetent is a puzzling fact of human life. Why should some children enjoy the care of a mature loving couple, while others suffer abuse and deprivation at the hands of an unsuitable father, mother, or both? Such questions have prompted writers from Plato to Aldous Huxley to conceive systems designed to alleviate the failures of the “natural” rearing of children. In this article, Prof. Lafollette suggests that parenthood should take its place among those professions customarily licensed in advanced societies.
Two criteria have traditionally served as a basis for licensing practitioners of certain skills. First of all, the skill in question must involve the risk of harm to others. Medicine, law, pharmacy, psychiatry, and even driving are obvious cases in which activities poorly executed may seriously harm persons other than the practitioners. In an effort to minimize potential harm to the public, test procedures establishing “competence” (the second criterion) have been instituted by government.
As it has evolved, licensing constitutes prior permission to perform professional activities. While tests are not foolproof, licensing procedures have been established in critical fields whenever moderately reliable tests have been developed.
Prof. Lafollette argues that parenthood constitutes an almost archtypical example of a profession requiring a license. First of all, parenting may cause real harm. Statistics of physical abuse by parents and psychological disorders among children bear out this assertion. Obviously, a parent must be competent if he is to avoid harming his offspring. He requires even greater skill if he is to do his “job” well. Unfortunately, many parents do not even possess minimum competence. Prior testing would serve to eliminate the unqualified.
To the objection that licensing of parents would involve massive government intrusion into personal lives, Prof. Lafallete replies that those granted licenses would face only minor intervention. Those denied one would experience a major intrusion. Nonetheless, the proposed interference could not equal that already practiced by public and private adoption agencies. As a result of rigorous adoption procedures, it has been demonstrated that adopted children are five times less likely to be abused than children reared by their biological parents.
Some may also object that it would prove impossible to prevent unlicensed couples from producing offspring. Lafollette suggests several solutions to deal with such an eventuality. For example, a system of tax incentives for licensed parents coupled with protective scrutiny of the unlicensed might adequately insure children against abuse.
Most philosophical objections to this proposal are, in the author's view, rooted in the dubious notion of parent's natural sovreignty over their children's lives—an idea advanced by some parents as a justification for mistreatment of children. This abhorrent view, Lafollette feels, must give way to a more child-centered perspective which emphasize children's right to respect as persons from their elders. Licenses to raise children would represent a significant step toward this view. Licensing would increase the likelihood that more children will receive adequate guidance toward maturity.