Why personal responsibility requires the absence of free will

Willpower is substantially genetically determined

The willpower versus genetics dichotomy in discussions of behavior is bizarre. Personality traits like willpower are substantially genetically determined. To the degree they are not, why do we assume that they are not determined by something else out of the person’s control?

Some people are blessed with a lot of inborn willpower. Some people need more prodding. Some people are in poor health for reasons they do not understand, and this saps and undermines their willpower. Some people were educated poorly and given bad examples of behavior.

All of these things, at least in the short-term, are not in people’s immediate control. They can all determine a person’s willpower.

The question is: can a person use willpower to increase their willpower?  Possibly, but why would they use willpower to increase willpower? What motivates the original use of willpower in the first place?

It’s clear, to me anyway, that something besides willpower, some external event or some epiphany must cause this. Such things just happen; they are out of a person’s control.

To the extent that free will does not exist, personal responsibility is necessary

This does not imply that I think people are not responsible for their behavior. They are. They are responsible for their behavior because by making people responsible for their behavior, we encourage good behavior.

Imagine a situation where we made nobody responsible for their behavior, because everything is ultimately caused by a mix of environmental and genetic determinants. What would happen? Well, people who are inclined to do bad things would do them.

And since they were immediately forgiven because it is not their fault, and because they were not educated not to do bad things because nobody really chooses to do bad things anyway, people’s bad tendencies would be allowed to run riot, and more bad things would happen.

Deterrents like the law, moral conditioning such as an early education appropriate to civilized society, and “softer” enforcement of social norms as occurs among communities of adults (who gets invited to parties, who wins company accolades, etc.) are all external incentives that shape behavior. It is in fact because in many ways were so externally determined that social norms, rewards and penalties for moral and immoral behavior, a legal system, etc. are so important.

It is exactly because we are not fully internally in control of our behavior that we must hold each other morally and social responsible for our respective good and bad behaviors.

If each of us operated entirely according to an internally decided willpower, that would be when we would not hold each other responsible for anything.

Because in that case, why should we? Our holding each other responsible could have no impact on each other’s behavior.

If internal willpower de novo determined everything, then moral responsibility would in fact have precisely no meaning or utility.

It is precisely because human beings are so determined by things outside their control that holding each other morally responsible is important and useful.

Moral characteristics are unequally distributed

Each of us are born with a different set of character traits with moral valence. Some of us will be intensely motivated. Others quite unmotivated. Some of us will be more predisposed to eating a lot. Others less. Some of us will be intelligent, others dim.

Some of us will be imbued with a sexual drive that can, if not controlled, cause us difficulties. Others the opposite. Some of us will have a drive, a craving for physical activity, up to dozens of hours per week. Others will want to be couch potatoes.

Some of us are relaxed. Others anal retentive to an extreme. For some of us, being on time is a real challenge, as we become consumed with other activities and lose track of the time. Others of us will not comprehend how such people could do this.

Many of these inborn characteristics will incline us to behave in ways that will be at odds with our own interests.

Realizing this is also to a degree dependent on inborn characteristics (such as intelligence). Reshaping behavior is to a degree depending on inborn characteristics (such as motivation). And things are likely far, far more complicated than even this.

But external feedback from society is also likely to play an important role, since it can bypass intelligence and motivate us in ways that we might not be intrinsically motivated.

Moral feedback and social norms can be harmful

External feedback from society can also be incredibly demoralizing and painful.

Imagine that you are a psychopath with sadistic tendencies and you had a tough upbringing. You might have the strong internal drive to become a serial killer, or you might want to kidnap and torture small children.

Society would tell you not to do this, and it would punish you severely if you did. Your life would likely not be a good one.

People like this exist, and other well-meaning people have decided to try to rehabilitate them. Jon Ronson talks about this in the Psychopath Test.

And Ronson notes that rehabilitation programs for such people have been an abysmal failure. They don’t work. These people are permanently bad apples.

What to do? Well, if such people are permanently bad apples, that is a very sad thing for everyone. The victims of such people and the people themselves.These people could simply be isolated, or they could be made an example of to encourage others who are less extreme cases not to behave in this way.But what is clear is that externally motivating such extreme cases not to misbehave won’t work. We should abandon such an approach, as it is likely to be fruitless and unnecessarily painful.

Even though moral feedback and social norms can be harmful, they should still be rationally enforced

When we can identify such hopeless cases, we should. The problem is that this is very hard to do for almost any person or any behavior. But when we can, we should.

Deciding when and how to act to motivate others morally, in other words, is an empirical question. We study what the odds are that x, y, or z course of action will change a, b, or c behavior, and we then implement that course of action when appropriate.

Sometimes we will miss the mark and exert pressure on someone whose behavior will not be alterable. Other times, it will require a great deal of discomfort for a person who is amenable to change to actually make that change. In still other cases, change will be easy to induce.

What we need are ways to understand where, when, and how to change others’ behavior in a way that produces net benefit rather than net harm.

Conclusions and a final question

A few things seem clear:

  1. Moral characteristics like willpower are to a degree inborn and may be largely determined by things outside our control, so the dichotomy between willpower and genetics is nonsensical;
  2. Even if we are entirely determined by genetics and environment, this says nothing about the usefulness of holding others morally responsible;
  3. Holding others responsible requires that they do not have complete free will, or else it would be useless to hold them responsible;
  4. Some people are going to be more or less amenable to change by being held responsible—the way that we hold them responsible and try to change their behavior is important;
  5. It is very challenging to identify which people will be amenable to behavior change before trying;
  6. Nonetheless, a rational and evidence-based way of holding others responsible and trying to elicit change would be useful to avoid unnecessary effort and pain and maximize benefit.

To all this might be added a question: How much pain justifies change, if it is achievable?

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1 Comment

  1. Interesting as always. Every post gives a new look at what’s going on inside your conflicted brain. I’d also love to know the answers to many of your questions.

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