The Self Beyond Itself

  • Heidi M. Ravven
  • The New Press
  • 528 pp.
  • Reviewed by Beth Kingsley
  • June 14, 2013

An Alternative History of Ethics, The New Brain Sciences, and the Myth of Free Will.

In a world without free will can ethics have meaning? If science pushes us to conclude that free will is a mess, how can we hold people responsible for their actions? Heidi Ravven takes on these questions and presents a reasoned case for an understanding of ethics and moral agency that does not rely on free will, a concept she shows to be “a mere cultural assumption.” 

Ravven examines the problem of moral agency from many perspectives: historical, sociological-psychological, philosophical and through the lens of recent developments in neuroscience. The book opens with a disturbing depiction of contemporary attempts to implement “character education” in the nation’s schools. Children in the classroom the author visits “come alive” when recounting their own stories, but then retreat to repeating nervously the rigid definitions and tired examples they have been taught. Instead of receiving genuine help, or even a simple human connection, Ravven notes, “[t]he children in this school are here to learn the mask of obedience.” 

The author shows that “character education” fits squarely within the American tradition of moral education, in which our view of what it means to be moral is steeped in the idea of free will, and developing moral behavior means training the individual to make the right moral choice. It is not only the conservative character education movement; liberal approaches (such as “values clarification”) are equally infected by this view. Americans tend to explain societal ills as resulting from the failure of individuals to make virtuous moral choices, ignoring the relationship that social structure and the distribution have on how those choices are made. 

This assumption that morality means individuals making self-determined independent choices, argues Ravven, is a relic of the Augustinian dominance of Western thinking rather than a necessary way of thinking about human agency. St. Augustine, the hugely influential 4th- and 5th-century theologian considered a father of the (Western) Christian church, proposed that human nature consists of two aspects, physical and spiritual. The spiritual person residing within the physical body could exercise an independent free will. His ideas echoed powerfully down through the ages. 

The author describes an alternative philosophical tradition, rooted in Greek thinking and opposed to the dualist Augustinian worldview. Ravven explores in depth the philosophical theories of the 17th-century thinker Baruch Spinoza, which provide a fully developed view of moral psychology that seems remarkably prescient in light of recent discoveries in the cognitive neurosciences. 

Ultimately, Ravven describes a concept of moral agency that does not rely on a freely willed choice to follow prescribed rules. After demonstrating that moral agency is not, as we may wish to think, a function of objectively assessing a situation and making a reasoned choice to act, she offers an alternative Spinozan vision that relies on understanding that one’s self is a part of and arises out of the world; that the context in which we exist is not separate from but, in important ways, a part of the emergent self. 

This is unquestionably a challenging and important book. Unfortunately, the style presents a significant obstacle to engaging the reader. The prose too often betrays the author’s academic background; the blurb labeling it “highly readable” is unduly generous. The author did not translate the jargon of highly technical disciplines for the lay reader, who must grapple with sentences such as “That marks the devolution of the systematicity of the self into its environment and the relinquishment to the group of its internal cohesive identity of its own ‘ratio’ or ‘essence’ or homeodynamic stability.” 

The presentation often undercuts the impact of Ravven’s ideas. The author relies heavily on detailed restatements of other scholars’ books, essays and papers to an extent that goes beyond merely crediting the source of ideas to become the bulk of the text. Ravven often presents ideas as those of third parties, rather than as her own, which not only makes it difficult to follow her argument, but also undermines our confidence in the ideas themselves. A book that aims to weave together disparate disciplines to investigate a fundamental question of humanity ends up feeling more like a compilation than a synthesis. 

It is not always clear why Ravven has chosen to present particular findings. At times it feels like she is summarizing the work of particular researchers whose findings support her hypothesis rather than describing an emerging consensus among those who are experts in a field. For instance, she presents the concept of group selection to explain the evolution of altruistic behavior without acknowledging that it is a highly controversial hypothesis among evolutionary biologists. Finding this omission in one area leaves the unsettling feeling that other research may have been cherry-picked to support her vision. 

The Self Beyond Itself marks an important advance in thinking about why people act morally and how we should assign responsibility for moral action. (Hint: it resides not in the individual making mythical free choices but in an extended view of self that incorporates the social context in which individuals operate — the “Self Beyond Itself” of the title.) Although many readers may find the book a less than accessible presentation of these ideas, those steeped in philosophical discourse surely will find that it makes an important contribution to the development of our thinking about morality. 

Beth Kingsley is a member of the Advisory Committee of the Center for Inquiry DC, and a member of the board of the National Capital Area Skeptics. In her day job she is a lawyer who advises nonprofit organizations.

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