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Research Article

The “Ism” That Isn’t (Why Social Determinism Cannot Mean What it Says)


Social determinism is one of three primary explanations of human behavior, the other two being free will and biological determinism. The idea that the human self is an extension of its society dates back to ancient Greece, and was integral to the internal logic of both Plato's Republic and Aristotle's Politics. What is remarkable about the contemporary view of the effect of culture on human behavior is its radical, one-dimension of society as literally "creating" humanness. Briefly, this doctrine states that people think and act in accordance with their social conditioning rather than through genetic predisposition or a real freedom of choice, and that human action must have la sufficient distinctly social cause.

The observation that should strike one immediately about social determinism is that it is far too general in scope to be a reliable explanation of human behavior. One could just as easily make the case that human behavior is influenced, or even "caused," by the fact that most of us have two arms and two legs. Such a statement would be technically true, but practically meaningless. A mere effect does not become an explanation for human behavior unless someone sees a reason--usually an ideological reason--to make one. It is now impossible to seriously attribute such problems as crime or poverty to physiology or physics, but they can easily be attributed to "society." In politically correct America, only when an explanation becomes a cause--a means of attributing responsibility or blame--does it become an active school of thought.

Even as a theory steeped in empirical research, social determinism fares poorly. For example, psychological and sociological studies have been performed ad nauseam to "prove" that exposure to television violence predisposes children to accept or emulate violent behavior. But these correlative studies could just as easily "predict" such nonaggressive undesirable behaviors as employment instability, auto accidents, drug consumption, and nonviolent criminal offenses--as one researcher put it, "behaviors hard to attribute to the number of shootings or fistfights watched on television twenty years previously." [1] Both Genghis Khan and Adolf Hitler managed to exhibit quite a bit of aggressive behavior without having watched television--indeed, if they had, they might have become glued to the screen and lost interest in wars of conquest.

The mechanistic view of human behavior implicit in social determinism remains well-entrenched in academe. It is not that the machine metaphor as applied to human beings has not been thoroughly discredited, for indeed over the centuries it has. One can only surmise that because of its illusory explanatory power, this metaphor continues to seduce the minds of scientists who ought to know better. As economist Ludwig von Mises pointed out, people do not drink simply because breweries and distilleries exist; rather, breweries and distilleries exist because many people drink. [2] In a similar vein, one could make the case quite logically that the increased misbehavior exhibited by today's children results not from what television and other media have "taught" them to do, but rather from a lack of traditional instruction on what not to do.

Apologists for social determinism argue that just because causal factors are unseen or unknown, this does not prove that they do not exist. This is true, but neither is it proof that such factors do exist or can be presumed to exist scientifically without demonstration. Still less does it indicate that we can ever know what effects are actually imparted by distinctly social factors, and to what degree. Even if one suspends belief in the scientific method and grants that unknown or unseen causal factors can be presumed to exist, their existence can hardly be taken as proof that they actually "determine" anything. Science cannot prove negatives.

There is ample evidence that environment and conditioning have only limited roles in shaping human behavior. A 1974 book on sex differences that reviewed over 1,400 studies found that the aggressive behavior of boys is not a mere effect of reinforcement by adults, and that the universality of male aggressiveness is well-established. [3] More recently, in an article published in National Review (November 11, 1996), sociologist Steven Goldberg states:

For thousands of years, everyone, save perhaps some social scientists and others ideologically opposed to the idea, have known perfectly well that men and women differ in the physiological factors that underlie masculine and feminine thought and behavior. . . . I recently read a comment of a woman in Pennsylvania: "They keep telling us that men and women are the way they are because of what they've been taught, but you can go a hundred miles in any direction and not find a single person who really believes that."

One goal of the Israeli kibbutz movement was to bread down barriers between the sexes. But Melford Spiro, who in 1995 had reported on the apparent success of the kibbutzim in doing so, found in a 1980 follow-up study that traditional gender roles had somehow returned. By that time the women mainly had conventional female jobs, and mothers no longer wanted their children to be raised communally. Girls had been required by the kibbutzim to dress and shower with boys, in the belief that sex differences could be broken down by reeducation. But Spiro found that postpubescent girls resisted this practice despite their unisex conditioning. [4] Earlier, he found that the young children would spontaneously claim such things as toys and towels as private property, and quarrel about these matters just as children in other cultures do, even though their parents were allowed no private property. Only when the children reached adolescence did they begin to recite the official ideology of the kibbutzim, which had by then been drummed into them. [5]

Philosopher Sir Karl Popper argued convincingly that even if the deterministic paradigm were valid, it would not be arguable, since it would have to explain all thought and behavior in terms of causal antecedents, and would not allow for the possibility of free choice. Thus, no one could freely be convinced that determinism is "true" purely by the weight of its arguments, but only as a result of having somehow been conditioned to accept it. [6] (If one is looking for a theory in which to believe, one that denies the possibility of winning adherents by the force of its logic seems a poor choice.)

As Antony Flew points out, if everything is assumed to have a cause, then the things we believe to be causes themselves cannot be true causes, but only effects of previous causes. Only that which is uncaused can be a first cause. [7] This being the case, social determinism must essentially maintain that everything was ultimately caused billions of years ago by the Big Bang, which would make it rather pointless to study human behavior without recourse to massive reductio ad absurdum argumentation. As William Barrett aptly points out, predictability in general is not enough for determinism; it must assert predictability down to the last detail. "Anything less than this, and the thesis of determinism must crumble. Determinism cannot afford to leave any loose ends lying around." [8]

The conditioning argument resembles the tautological statement that if people are brainwashed, they will be brainwashed. This hardly constitutes a refutation of free will, since the free will argument never assumed that rational individuals cannot be misled. Similar enigmas abound. American Marxists--among the most radical social determinists--insist that capitalism "produces" greedy and uncaring individuals, yet these observations are made by people whose thoughts have been "produced" by the very same "production relations" they denigrate. The USSR had no official capitalism and a great deal of anticapitalist propaganda, yet "produced" the current generation of Russian criminals and black marketeers.

Social determinism parallels what economist Thomas Sowell calls the "unconstrained vision": the idea that the human self is infinitely plastic, allowing humanity to be changed--and ultimately, perfected. [9] Largely because of this "vision," social determinism has gained much ideological purchase, especially among liberal academics. Indeed, it has largely become a political doctrine that has given up any pretense of being scientific. The situations in which it is applied are sufficient to demonstrate this fact. For instance, although social determinism theoretically must explain the behavior of all members of a given culture, it is nevertheless applied very selectively. As Paul Hollander puts it, the currently popular form of social determinism proposes that "only the behavior of the 'underdogs' is socially determined and hence their responsibility for their actions and attendant moral accountability are reduced." [10] This "selective social determinism" relieves "some groups of responsibility for their behavior but not others." [11] While the poor are exonerated for their actions, the middle class is held fully responsible for its "greed" and "conspicuous consumerism," and it is not often maintained that their environment "drove them to it." Ordinary crimes are sometimes explained in terms of deprivation, but not "hate" crimes, even when the perpetrators are themselves poor.

Although it tends to be used selectively, as when applied to the poor but not to other groups, the tremendous amount of blame generated by the doctrine of social determinism is inconsistent with its assumption that "society" rather than the individual is responsible for the choices, good or bad, that individuals make. But the adherents of social determinism have no choice but to blame certain groups of people for applying their free wills to "creating" this environment of poverty of "allowing" it to continue to exist. Even if an identifiable group (the rich?) is said to be to blame, the implication is that because "we" have neither eliminated nor neutralized this group, we have permitted it to operate. Thus, inevitability, the guilty party is "us." If smokers and drinkers are believed to choose their actions freely, they must be considered solely responsible for the consequences of their decisions. But if tobacco and liquor companies are responsible, then "society"--that is, the average citizen--is to blame for tolerating the existence of such enterprises. A letter to the San Francisco Chronicle (January 26, 1992) stated the following:

Lee Harvey Oswald, Jack Ruby, Sirhan Sirhan, James Earl Ray, Sara Jane Moore, Squeaky Fromme, Dan White, Mark David Chapman, John Hinckley, the Trailside Killer, Zodiac, all serial killers, hostage-takers, and mass murderers are part of the same conspiracy--a conspiracy of the deranged. The coconspirators are you, me, the American voting public, the National Rifle Association, and all our elected officials. We allow such mentally unbalanced individuals legal access to lethal firearms.

As can be seen from the forgoing, social determinists have little choice but to embrace the idea that the responsibility for whatever is wrong in the world falls on the shoulders of society at large--with notable exceptions of the poor, racial minorities, and other "victimized" groups. And many self-doubting Americans have readily accepted blame for that which they cannot possibly be responsible. Note the use of the word "we" in the following. Referring to American Indians, film star Kevin Costner said: "We've destroyed 400 cultures systematically. We're a pretty ruthless country. We pride ourselves on freedom, but we completely deprive others of theirs." [12] Former television personality Dan Rowan, of Laugh-In fame, wrote:

I feel guilt for my white American ancestors and on my Mother's side paternally we go back to at least Nathan Hale. I am also ashamed and remorseful and feel the colored races are entitled to reparations. . . . What form those reparations should take can be decided when the happy day arrives they are granted. [13]

The fact that the apologists for social determinism are typically quite far from poor themselves may not be unrelated to the extent to which they feel responsible for such problems as poverty. The belief that "society" is to blame for individual failings requires a certain psychological distance from the real-life experiences of real people. Who are more psychologically cloistered than wealthy liberals and liberal academics?

In 1988, a white high school student, who had been attacked by black youths who broke his nose, wrote to the New York Times that the incident was motivated by gentrification of the black neighborhood, which allows a few to prosper while making thousands suffer. "Getting attacked because of my race," the student declared, "made me look at myself and understand what I symbolize to other. It doesn't matter that I have not a single racist bone in my body; too many white people before me did." [14] Dinesh D'Souza spoke with a liberal student who admitted that "[t]here has been a lingering guilt with me for a long time." He felt "partly responsible for the historical crimes of slavery, segregation, and subjugation. [15]

Former Attorney General Ramsey Clark complained that "we glorify violence and want 'things' inordinately." [16] In his view, "[t]o permit conditions that breed antisocial conduct to continue is our greatest crime." [17] (Apparently poverty exists only by "our" permission.) Commenting on the situation of the homeless, a New York judge observed, "The blame and shame [for homelessness] must attach to us, not to them." [18] On June 5, 1968, the New York Times, editorializing on the assassination of Robert Kennedy, ventured that America needed sympathy for itself, "for a country and a people out of which could spring the hatred and the madness to produce such monumental tragedy." More recently, playwright Andrew O'Hehir wrote that watching President Kennedy's assassination on television was :

our only way of witnessing, and lamenting, the blood of the Algonquin, the African, of the Iraqi children not yet born. We are all conspirators in those deaths. . . . We created JFK, and killed him, to evade responsibility for the worsening calamity of America, and the calamities America has inflicted on the world. [19]

Liberal anthropologist Ashley Montagu was quoted as saying, "[w]e are as responsible for the death of one of humanity's greatest leaders, Martin Luther King, as if we had pulled the trigger ourselves." [20] Indeed, the magnified and misdirected blame generated by the deterministic outlook has become a pop-cultural clich?, the tired rallying cry of a generation of bored youth looking for a cause. Dinesh D'Souza quoted one of these lost souls who had written a letter to the left-wing magazine Mother Jones, proclaiming:

White, male-dominated, western European culture is the most destructive phenomenon in the known history of the planet. [Western culture] is deeply hateful of life and committed to death; therefore, it is moving rapidly toward the destruction of itself and most other life forms on earth. And truly it deserved to die. . . . We have to face up to our own individual and collective responsibility for what is happening--our greed, brutality, indifference, militarism, racism, sexism, [and] blindness . . . [21]

Some years ago, Christopher Lasch observed that modern-day liberalism, like other political creeds, is not a program, but a language. [22] If this is true of political ideologies, it is all the more true of social determinism, which, as we have seen, is most often used not to explain, but to indict. It is applied selectively, an unusual trait for a doctrine whose believers actually have the faith in it that they claim to. As is the case with the enemy that has been met, "society" turns out to be us, and many intelligent and benign individuals have taken this inanity seriously, encumbering themselves with personal guilt. This is a doctrine that denies free will, and yet incorporates it by spreading blame--as if certain carefully chosen individuals, at least, have unimpeded free will and thus absolute personal responsibility.

The extreme selectivity of social determinism is most apparent in the failure of its adherents to apply its premises in the one area where it would hold the most promise. Since some cultures outperform others economically, one obvious solution to poverty would be to indoctrinate the lower-performing groups with the culture and values of those on top economically. But this would require "selling out" to the culture of success and "privilege," and tacitly admitting that the habits of the poor would benefit from some adjustment.

This is not to say that the cultural milieu in which one was raised, and in which one lives should not be used as a partial explanation for behavior. But to transform this common sense observation into a form of determinism is not only foolish, but destructive, certainly philosophically naive.


1. Michael R. Gottredson and Travis Hirschi, A General Theory of Crime (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990), p. 69.

2. Ludwig von Mises, Socialism (London: Jonathan Cape, 1951), p. 446.

3. Eleanor Maccofby and Carol Jacklin, The Psychology of Sex Differences, quoted by Carl N. Degler, In Search of Human Nature (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), pp. 298-99.

4. Melford E. Spiro, Gender and Culture: Kibbutz Women Revisited, quoted by Degler, p. 302.

5. Spiro, quoted by Helmut Schoeck, Envy: A Theory of Social Behavior, trans. Michael Glenny and Betty Ross (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1969) p. 311.

6. Karl Popper, “Indeterminism and Human Freedom,” in A Pocket Popper, ed. David Miller (U.K.: Fontana Press, 1983), pp. 258-59.

7. Antony Flew, Thinking About Social Thinking (Oxford: Basil Blackwell Ltd., 1985), pp. 41-42.

8. William Barrett, “Determinism and Novelty,” in Sidney Hook, ed., Determinism and Freedom in the Age of Modern Science (New York: Collier Books, 1958), p. 47.

9. Thomas Sowell, A Conflict of Visions (New York: William Morrow & Co., Inc., 1987), Chapter 2.

10. Paul Hollander, Political Pilgrims: Travels of Western Intellectuals to the Soviet Union, China and Cuba (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, Inc., 1990), p. 426. (Italics in original.)

11. Ibid.

12. Quoted by George Perry, “New Man, Old Values,” Us, March 7, 1991, p. 28

13. A Friendship: The Letters of Dan Rowan and John D. MacDonald, 1967-1974 (New York: Fawcett Gold Medal, 1986), p. 168. (Italics in original.)

14. “How Gentrification Broke My Nose,” New York Times, December 3, 1988, p. 27.

15. Dinesh D’Souza, Illiberal Education (New York: The Free Press, 1991), pp. 129-131.

16. Quoted by Sidney Hook, Vladimir Bukovsky, and Paul Hollander, Soviet Hypocrisy and Western Gullibility (Washington, DC: Ethics and Public Policy Center, 1987), p. 56.

17. Ramsey Clark, Crime in America (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1970), p. 43.

18. Jeanie Kasindorf, “The Real Story of Billie Boggs,” New York, May 2, 1988, p. 42. (Italics added.)

19. Andrew O’Hehir, “JFK: Tragedy into Farce,” SF Weekly (San Francisco) December 18, 1991, p. 16.

20. Quoted by Max Gletman, “Reflections on Violence,” National Review, May 21, 1968, p. 514.

21. Quoted by D’Souza, op. cit., p. 7. (Italics added.)

22. Christopher Lasch, The New Radicalism in America: 1889-1963 (New York: Vintage Books, 1965), p. 290.

Allan Levite is a Research Fellow at The Independent Institute in Oakland, California.

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