On Human Conduct Essay - Critical Essays

Michael Oakeshott


Oakeshott rejects the determinist view that individual behavior is simply a response to a stimulus, and he insists that “human conduct” is based on choice and intentionality, with rational human beings responding to situations and anticipating the choices of other humans. In making choices, individuals are influenced by their personal histories, for they are conditioned by educational processes which result in acquired beliefs, skills, knowledge, and understanding. Although there are many constraints which place significant limits upon a person’s freedom of choice, the concept of human freedom is based on the premise that a person is endowed with “reflective consciousness.” In other words, a person has freedom in interpreting and understanding a situation, and “what is called ‘the will’ is nothing but intelligence in doing.” Oakeshott explains: “Wherever there is action or utterance there is an intelligent agent responding to an understood (or misunderstood) situation meaning to achieve an imagined and wished-for outcome.”

In arguing that humans have a margin of indeterminate choice, at least in their ability to use reflective consciousness, Oakeshott takes a position which is both reasonable and respectable. Critics have charged that he sometimes tends to assert his theories rather than to formulate cogent arguments and that he also tends to present either/or alternatives without considering the possibility for other perspectives. This second criticism appears to have some validity—for example, when Oakeshott criticizes the determinism found in certain schools of modern psychology, as in his conclusion that “psychological mechanisms cannot be the motives of actions or reasons for beliefs.” Many psychologists would maintain that humans do indeed possess a margin of freedom but that, at the same time, unconscious mechanisms— sometimes irrational in nature—can also operate as motivations for behavior. Such a view, in fact, does not necessarily contradict Oakeshott’s position about conscious motives providing a basis for the use of reasoned judgments in making decisions. It does appear, moreover, that the most intelligent of humans sometimes react to environmental stimuli without much use of conscious understanding. Even if somewhat extreme, however, Oakeshott’s description of human conduct constitutes a strong case against utopian schemes such as that of B. F. Skinner’s Walden Two (1948).

This distrust of utopian thinking is especially evident in Oakeshott’s delightful interpretation of Plato’s allegory of the cave dwellers. The philosopher-king, according to this interpretation, does not use the same language as the cave dwellers, and they are suspicious of his claims because he does not have any respect for their dignity. In truth the cave dwellers are correct to suspect such a pretentious theoretician: “They resent him [the philosopher-king], not because they are corrupt or ignorant but because they know just enough to recognize an impostor when they meet one.” When a philosopher-king or another utopian theoretician claims to seek the substantive goals of equality and justice, Oakeshott fears that the actual consequences will be to establish a relationship of master and servant. Similarly, he believes that the goal of communal solidarity “is easily recognized as a relic of servility of which it is proper for European peoples to be profoundly ashamed.” As one might expect, he is most critical of the utopianism of Karl Marx, Francis Bacon, and anyone who promises a “New Jerusalem” or “Grace Abounding.”

Going beyond this anti-utopianism,...

(The entire section is 1486 words.)