June 26, 2017 | David F. Coppedge

Freedom Exalts a Culture

When citizens are taught that they cannot help themselves, the outcome is predictable: social breakdown and increased criminal behavior.

This headline might surprise some left-leaning, materialist philosophers in academia: “Belief in free will predicts criminal punishment support, disapproval of unethical actions.” Social scientists at the University of Minnesota surveyed 65,000 individuals from 46 countries, some with governments that respect individual liberty and some with dictatorial or corrupt governments. Here’s what they say they found:

In countries with transparent governments and low levels of corruption, the belief in free will—that is, believing that people’s outcomes are tied to choices and personal responsibility—predicts someone’s intolerance of unethical behavior along with a greater desire to see criminals harshly punished for their actions.

For residents of countries with weak governance or corrupt leaders, free will beliefs did not explain people’s views on the acceptability of unethical behavior—yet free will beliefs still predicted wanting to see criminals punished.

for belief in free will to influence people’s attitudes toward unethical actions, there needs to be an environment of honest and open governance.

Is this explainable by the presence or absence of feelings of futility? It seems that everyone has a moral sense: criminals should be punished. Yet when one lives in a country where corruption is the norm, one might grow up to feel that nothing can be done by complaining about injustice. One might as well go along to get along. The article doesn’t come out and say this, but suggests that free countries have an advantage:

This global analysis suggests that for belief in free will to influence people’s attitudes toward unethical actions, there needs to be an environment of honest and open governance. When people live in countries that do not support individual rights and where public officials are dishonest and self-interested, people’s free will beliefs inform their desire to see criminals punished. But when it comes to whether behaving unethically is justifiable, free will beliefs are irrelevant.

The paper, published in PNAS, seems to suggest that free people with accountable governments have more opportunity to let their innate sense of justice speak up and demand others be punished for their crimes. But corrupt governments corrupt the morals of the people.

In another paper in PNAS, two researchers from Stanford investigated the impact of government style on responsible behavior. Noting that dropout rates hurt both people and society, they checked whether lessons in self-control might stem the tide. “High attrition from educational programs is a major obstacle to social mobility and a persistent source of economic inefficiency,” they begin. Dropout or attrition is especially high for those who enroll in online courses.

The researchers assigned participants “a writing activity that facilitates goal commitment and goal-directed behavior.” Not surprisingly, many who completed the exercise benefited from it, and made gains in pursuing their educational goals. But unexpectedly, the outcomes were very different for participants who lived in “collectivist cultures” as opposed to those favoring individual liberty.

The activity raised completion rates by up to 78% for members of individualist cultures and primarily for those who contended with predictable and surmountable obstacles in the form of everyday obligations, but it was ineffective in collectivist cultures and for people contending with other types of obstacles.

Countries like the United States and Germany appeal to individualist tendencies. That’s where the benefit was greatest. In India and China, by contrast, students are raised to favor the collective, feeling like they must work toward consensus for the good of the group, and not stand out as individuals. The researchers explain how this even carries down to views on logic:

The if–then structure of II [implementation intentions], for instance, is rooted in the analytic system of formal logic. By contrast, the collectivist cultural tradition is more holistic and relies on dialectic thinking to reconcile logical contradictions. In collectivist cultures, personal goals are subordinate to striving for interpersonal harmony, which sometimes means subordinating personal goals to social goals and negotiating competing obligations. It may therefore be culturally incongruent and even threatening to ask people in collectivist cultures to single out personal goals, to generate personally favored outcomes associated with achieving these goals, and to predefine paths for overcoming obstacles to their goals, especially if many of these obstacles revolve around social commitments.

So if educational attainment is desirable, the cultural milieu or governmental structure can profoundly affect success. The authors note, “this research advances theory on self-regulation and illuminates how even highly efficacious interventions may be culturally bounded in their effects.

even highly efficacious interventions may be culturally bounded in their effects.

These two studies indicate that corrupt or dictatorial governments directly impact public ethics. A government or worldview that emphasizes futility robs individuals of their natural desire to see good rewarded and evil punished. And when belief in free will or individual responsibility is eroded, the educational attainment of the entire culture can suffer.

There’s no question that the Bible teaches individual responsibility. When Moses, the prophets, Jesus or the apostles spoke to crowds, it was to call individuals to righteousness. They were not concentrating on mass movements or the herd mentality. The call went out to individuals, who often needed to be exhorted to take the courage to separate from the herd. Jesus said that his words would bring division, dividing families and parents from children. He urged individuals to enter the narrow gate, because the herd clamored for the broad highway.

The Biblical message is not just for Germany and America. It was written in the middle East, between the western and eastern traditions, and was sent in both directions. Jesus said to go into all the world and preach the gospel. This implies that people are not stuck in their cultural traditions. They may be raised to subordinate personal goals to the collective, but they have brains and minds that can learn the value of personal responsibility. That’s why the gospel can and does root in Asian, Indian, and African communities, liberating them from the collective, and allowing them to experience the freedom and joy Christ promised in John 8:32: “You shall know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” Sadly, those choices often come at great personal cost.

Corrupt or oppressive governments rob people of their innate love of liberty, replacing it with futility. “What’s the use?” many will say in collectivist societies when their conscience rises, seeking justice for crimes they see around them; “It won’t make any difference.” Once upon a time, the USA had a founding principle that all men are created equal and endowed personally with natural rights. The flip side of personal rights is personal responsibility. Governments and cultures need to nurture those rights, because they are self-evident. Robbing people of liberty is a crime because it leads to crime and defeatism. Whether it comes through despotic governments, scientific theories that deny free will, or false religions that promote futility and disengagement, the outcome is the same: a society that tolerates evil.


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