The Battle against the Fates

Battle of Ideas festival 2011, Saturday 29 October, Royal College of Art, London


Men at some time are masters of their fates:
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.
(Julius Caesar, 1.2.146), Cassius to Brutus

Education Minister Michael Gove says the government wants to help all Britain’s children shape their own destinies and become ‘masters of their own fate’. But is this a realistic aspiration, or even a meaningful one? Certainly the human struggle for self-mastery has a fine pedigree, going back to the ancients. But has the modern age brought us closer to this goal, or simply revealed the futility of trying to tame the fates? After all, one scientific discovery follows the next suggesting our behaviour is genetically driven. Some scientists claim everything from sexual preference to criminality, altruism to greed, is hardwired. Brain research and evolutionary psychology are mobilised to argue that even religious beliefs and morality are expressions of genetic and neurological dispositions. When US President Franklin Roosevelt said in 1939, ‘Men are not prisoners of Fate, but only prisoners of their own minds’, he was of course unaware of the gains of modern neuroscience. Bestselling authors like Sam Harris in The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values and David Brooks in The Social Animal tell us a ‘cognitive revolution’ has occurred in recent years, ‘producing amazing insights about who we are’. Behavioural economics suggests we are essentially irrational, simply acting out our unconscious urges. Social determinism is also influential: it is taken for granted in the current discussion on social mobility that where you are born, both geographically and in class terms, is likely to dictate your future. Meanwhile, we feel increasingly powerless to deal with external forces, from international terrorism to swine flu, climate change to volcanic ash clouds.

The fatalistic zeitgeist means we tend increasingly to downplay the significance of our own actions and focus instead on external forces beyond our control. Frequently this leads to a conspiratorial mindset, and fears of being manipulated by anything from subliminal advertising to unknown powers that have no name. In such circumstances, our ability to change our destiny seems futile; we have little option but to defer to fate. What explains today’s intellectual temper of fatalism? If we believe individuals cannot control their own behaviour, let alone their future, where does that leave the exercise of free will? If our capacity to influence events is so limited, can there be any meaningful sense of responsibility? How can we be held to account if ‘my genes made me do it m’lud’? Or is it cowardly to avoid understanding that man-made science is now freeing us from the metaphysical ignorance that suggested we could determine who we are? Can the capacity for moral independence be rescued or is it a futile rage against the inevitable? Where does fate end and free will begin?

Professor Frank Furedi

sociologist and social commentator; author, What’s Happened to the University?, Power of Reading: from Socrates to Twitter, On Tolerance and Authority: a sociological history

Peter Hunter OP
principal tutor, philosophy, Blackfriars Hall; Dominican Friar

Steve Rayner
James Martin Professor of Science and Civilization; director, Institute for Science, Innovation and Society, University of Oxford

Jeffrey Rosen
professor of law, George Washington University; author, The Supreme Court: the personalities and rivalries that defined America

Claire Fox

director, Academy of Ideas; panellist, BBC Radio 4’s Moral Maze; author, I Find That Offensive