Column on Predicting Free Actions

Predicting Free Actions

Tibor R. Machan

For several centuries there has been a widespread infatuation with approaching every topic scientifically, meaning along lines used in the natural science. The experimental method is indeed widely used in the social sciences even if its full applicability is sometimes in doubt. So we have in the field of economics a branch now called "experimental economics," in which the recommended method is to test out hypothesis with different groups of people to see if making predictions about human conduct within the realm of economics is feasible. (At my own university there is an entire institute devoted to doing such studies, under the leadership of several prominent figures in the field, including a Nobel Laureate.)

The courses I teach include business ethics, which is a branch of professional ethics that is itself a division of the ancient discipline of ethics or morality. Other courses like these include medical, legal, engineering, military ethics, and so forth. There may appear to be something of a divide if not out and out conflict between professional ethics of any kind and the supposedly scientific study of, say, business, law, medicine, engineering, or warfare.

Since such scientific studies–which warrant their designation as "social sciences"–aspire to be like what is done in such natural sciences as physics, chemistry, biology, anatomy and so forth, there is a powerful impetus among those doing work in these areas propose general laws by which the behavior of people involved in them can be explained, described, and predicted. Whereas in the fields of professional ethics it is unlikely that what is sought is explanation, description, and prediction. Instead what ethics focuses upon is principles by which what professionals do should or ought to be guided, with a distinct emphasis on "should" or "ought." And, of course, if it is possible to make sense of such terms at all, it is necessary to make room for two important supposed elements of human life, namely, freedom of choice and standards of right versus wrong.

To claim that a person engaging in business ought to be honest, prudent, fair, conscientious, or whatever means that this is how such a person should choose to behave. The claim assumes that such a person is free to choose and that predictions of his or her conduct may not be possible along lines that the prediction of some phenomena in biology or zoology is. While people should be guided by the ethics of their profession, they might not choose to be, which is why we can sometimes make sense of their engaging in malpractice or wrongful conduct. In contrast, there is no wrongful conduct in chemistry or biology! Things happen as they must, no choice about them.

But if so, then perhaps no such thing as a scientific prediction is possible in economics or sociology or political science. Yet this is not quite right either.

We can make statistical predictions about human behavior, mainly because even where people are free to choose, their choices often amount to committing themselves to a certain long range course of conduct, an ongoing course of behavior that will henceforth be predictable.

Consider a commitment to become a medical doctor or a teacher or a business professional. Each of these involves certain ways of behaving and once such a commitment–let’s call it "an oath of office"–has been made, what the professional is likely to do can be expected, anticipated, even (probabilistically) predicted. Just as with people who take a marriage wow, who can be expected, on the whole, to refrain from dating people or seeking further romantic adventures. Yet there are, of course, exceptions–think of Tiger Woods.

Free men and women, who give direction to their own lives instead of simply being prodded to behave in certain ways, can be subject to predictions because they themselves have decided to carry on in certain regular ways. So even without the assumption that we are all determined by impersonal forces to behave in certain ways, how we do behave is at least roughly predictable. And that may be all that the social sciences need to be proper sciences.

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