Free Will and Responsibility

Chimp Recently, my mother came to visit for a week. She bought some butter while she was here, since I didn’t have any. I don’t normally eat butter, but I do now. In fact, I’ve been eating it at every meal and putting it on everything I eat. I’d forgotten just how delicious it is. I now see other foods as mere vehicles for the greasy indulgence. After multiple failed attempts at self-restraint, I've reached this conclusion: as long as there is butter in my kitchen, I will consume it in a shamefully gluttonous fashion.

We like to think that we have free will, that we make decisions for ourselves–even if they’re trivial, like what to have for breakfast. But because I have a weakness for butter, whether or not I ate it over the past few days was largely determined by my mother, when she left a half pound of the decadent gold lard on my counter top.

Our breakfast choices, in general, seem to be largely determined by factors that are beyond our immediate control. Maybe you’d like to have toast and peanut butter for breakfast, but you won’t if someone else polished off the last of the bread. Or perhaps you’ve overslept and don’t have time for breakfast, or maybe you’ll be meeting with a friend who has a severe peanut allergy. The very fact that you desire toast and peanut butter may also be beyond your control. You could have awakened not feeling hungry at all. Sure, the choice is yours, but what you choose depends on a myriad of factors that are not within your control.

Debates about free will have been waged for millenia. They’ll probably continue far into the future as the issue is complex, but we should be able to agree on this: our actions, at least to a large extent, are determined by factors that are beyond our immediate control. These factors can be internal or external, or more often a combination of the two.

For example, the rituals of obsessive-compulsive disorder are largely determined by neurobiology. Many of us have minor compulsive habits, but at more extreme levels, obsessive compulsive behaviors, like repetitive hand washing and compulsive hair pulling, can get manifestly weird. People don’t choose to act this way and they generally can’t will themselves to stop. These behaviors are determined by internal factors, but they are nonetheless beyond the individual’s immediate control.

People suffering from psychoses and psychological disorders often are not considered morally responsible for their actions. In such cases, violent criminals may be confined more for the protection of the public than for punitive reasons. Once it has been established that an individual is dangerous, those who have the capacity to isolate him from potential victims might rightly assume responsibility for subsequent crimes.

When a person who’s been labelled “high risk to reoffend” is released into the public sphere and reoffends, is he responsible for the crime? If not, who is? The victim and family members might understandably be angry with whoever made the decision to release the offender. However, the person who made the decision might have been bound by rules beyond their control. Could the system be to blame? Does there need to be someone to blame?

That there are determinants of crime is undeniable. Biological factors aside, there is strong evidence for a causal link between income inequality and violent crime. A nation that experiences an increase in income disparity will consequently show an increase in violent crime. Obviously, this “extra” crime occurs without any change in morality or will power. Where poverty and income inequality cause people to commit crimes, does it make sense to hold the misbehavers responsible?

Perhaps there are cases where the occurrence of a crime is obscured by the appearance of free will. If I relentlessly bully a person for years and he eventually kills himself, is this suicide or murder? Could I be responsible for his death when it was his decision to kill himself? Could I be responsible for my bullying if it was caused by factors beyond my control (inherited predispositions, a history of being bullied myself, etc)? Or is crime just an unfortunate consequence of interactions between unchosen biological and environmental factors, for which no person could be responsible?

People are generally thought to be responsible for most of their decisions. The ability to maintain a desirable body weight is often attributed to will power. Yet there are genetic reasons for differences in susceptibility to obesity. Researchers recently identified 18 new gene sites that are involved. There are also external influences, like proximity to convenience stores, the amount of television watched in childhood, income, and exposure to advertising. If a person with a genetic predisposition to obesity is bombarded with junk food advertising from an early age, resides beside a convenience store and can’t afford a diet heavy in fruits and vegetables, to what extent can they be blamed for their being obese?

Our decisions can be strongly influenced even in very simple and subtle ways. Behavioral economist, Dan Ariely, offers the example of consent to organ donation. Huge differences among countries can be attributed to the way the option is presented. Most people will agree to organ donation passively (ie, by not checking a box). If they are required to check a box to opt in, most people will not indicate consent. When decisions are difficult to make, we will predictably go with the default option. The role of individuals' will in the decision to donate organs is insignificant compared to the influence of the design of the form.

My argument here isn’t so much that free will doesn’t exist, but that genetic and environmental factors are very important–so important that individuals, at least to a large extent, cannot be responsible for their actions. [By free will, I mean the part of decision making that’s independent of genetic and past and present environmental factors.]

Complete rejection of free will seems to inspire a sense of nihilistic apathy and recklessness. If we aren’t responsible for our actions, why should we care what we do? What’s the point of life if we’re all just a bunch of automatons behaving the only way we can given our biological makeup and our circumstances? The psychological discomfort and possible consequences of rejecting free will may lead some to the conclusion that we should carry on as if we have it even if we don’t.

But I think we arrive at a bit of a paradox. The more we cling to the idea that we are responsible for our own actions, the less power we have over them. The most effective way to control our behavior, as individuals or as a species, may be through manipulation of its determinants. We can generally modify circumstances more easily than we can modify traits.

On an individual level, this could mean limiting access to things we know we can’t resist (like butter, in my case). It could also mean enlisting the help of friends or making use of other external influences, like support groups. At the collective level, we could work toward creating social conditions that promote healthy and moral behaviors. We could ban advertising for unhealthy products, and we could work toward achieving income equality.

Whether we have free will or not, we certainly aren’t completely free, autonomous individuals. We influence and are influenced by our physical and social environments, often without our awareness. Collectively, we create circumstances that shape the behavior of individuals. And as individuals we can influence collective decision making and alter social conditions.

Acknowledging the impotence of free will doesn’t give immorality a green light–it shifts the focus toward its most important causes. If there is such a thing as moral responsibility, perhaps it means reducing immorality by manipulating its determinants, instead of blaming those who may have little control over such factors.

To the extent that we are both caused and causal agents, we are inextricable from our physical and social environments. We never know whose actions or what events could significantly alter our lives. This may be disconcerting, but it should serve as good incentive for us to look after one another better and to work toward equality. If we can establish social conditions that promote desirable behaviors, we’ll be less likely to be recipients of undesirable ones, like violent crime. Whether we have free will or not, I think it would be best to proceed as if its influence is relatively unimportant.