Free Will and the Cult of Personal Responsibility
America is full of contradictions. On the one hand it is built on notions of freedom and equality, yet its beginnings feature enslavement and exclusion. On the one hand it is a nation of immigrants, yet it often treats immigrants harshly. On the one hand it tries to spread democracy across the world, yet it often cozies up to brutal dictators. Some observers seem to think these contradictions are quaint and charming – although these observers are generally people in positions of profound privilege, who don’t have to worry much about how these contradictions impact their own lives.
One of the most obvious contradictions has to do with personal responsibility. On the one hand, Americans have this strong belief that individuals are in control of their own thoughts and behavior. UNLESS they can slap a label on them, like autistic, mentally disabled, senile, psychotic, the list goes on. In these cases the mindset totally changes, and there is wide acceptance that undesired behavior should be excused, that the person is incapable of control to a significant degree. Naturally, this approach assumes that only a small fraction of the population will “deserve” a label and thus get a dispensation.
The problem, of course, is that labels often impose typologies on phenomena that follow a continuum. Psychologists have long recognized this. Autism is not an all or nothing, which is why it is actually called autism spectrum – a continuous spectrum of disability. It is the same with psychoses like schizophrenia, and of course, intellectual skill. Psychologists now recognize numerous disorders which exist along continuous spectra – narcissistic personality disorder, antisocial personality disorder, bipolar disorder, seasonal affective disorder, melancholic depression, the list goes on and on. Whether a given person suffers from one or more of these disorders is a matter of degree. Ultimately they are based on one’s ability to integrate into the broader society, and this is always a matter of degree, not to mention a function of society’s expectations.
While psychologists are aware of all this, the average American strongly believes in the power of free will for most, and with it, the importance of personal responsibility. The human will is indeed capable of great power. But a moment’s consideration reveals that so-called “free” will is far from limitless. Human beings are not blank slates. We are all products of our genes and our experiences. All of us suffer from addictions, obsessions, delusions, and neuroses. None of us can completely control our thoughts, our emotions, or our actions. Yet I can almost hear the collective retort. “Sure I can! I have control!” Really? Try not thinking about a pink elephant for the next 10 seconds. Or watching something really funny without laughing. Or beating a grand master at chess. If you have free will, then you should be able to will yourself to understand quantum mechanics as well as Niels Bohr, or relativity as well as Einstein. You should be able to think whatever thought you want to and feel whatever emotion you want to, whenever you want. Pleasure, misery, ecstasy, rage, it should all be under your control. The things that really, really annoy you? Why, you should just be able to turn those emotions off. Who wants to feel annoyed? You should be able to suppress those emotions as you choose.
The whole concept of free will was ludicrous from the start. Much of what we do is the product of subconscious motivations we aren’t even aware of. Neurological research clearly shows us that a large portion of decision making is subconscious, even when we are convinced that it isn’t. Freud himself used the analogy of an iceberg to describe the mind – the conscious mind being only the tip of the iceberg. We are easily manipulated to feel this or that emotion, to make this or that decision. It could be argued that the promotion of the idea of free will is itself a form of manipulation – it encourages the manipulated to believe that they are in complete control at all times. In the wonderful series The Mentalist, FBI consultant Patrick Jane explains, “The key to a good con is always making the mark feel that he is in control.”
Experiments have even shown that we can be fooled into thinking we made a decision we didn’t make, and will then try to rationalize it. In 2005, 4 psychologists published a paper describing experiments in which they presented subjects with photos of 2 faces, and asked them to choose the more attractive one. They then used sleight-of-hand to give the subjects the photo they DIDN’T choose, and asked them why they chose it. Only 13% of the subjects realized that this wasn’t the photo they chose. The other 87% proceeded to give reasons why they made a choice they didn’t make in the first place.
4 out of 10 American males have been arrested at least once by the time they’re 23. This doesn’t exactly encourage me to believe that an inability to cope is limited to only a small fraction of the population. Large numbers of Americans, particularly young American males, at one time or another seem to fall outside of our society’s requirements of personal responsibility.
And what constitutes “disability,” anyway? What constitutes pathology? Kevin Dutton is a British psychologist who specializes in psychopaths. In 2011 he published his Great British Psychopath Survey, which examined the frequency of psychopathy in different occupations. His top 10 list, in decreasing order of psychopath prevalence, is as follows:
Needless to say, most of these are positions of considerable authority. So is psychopathy a disability, or is it a virtue? Psychopathy is characterized by limited empathy, poor impulse control, and propensity for violence. Studies of domestic abusers have estimated that 15-30% are psychopaths. Yet some traits of the psychopath often seem to be rewarded in a workplace context, especially in positions of leadership. Dutton himself was asked by Scientific American in 2016 to rate some prominent leaders, including some infamous ones, on psychopathy. Not too surprisingly, Saddam Hussein received a very high score (189), and Adolph Hitler as well (169). George Washington rated much lower (132) and Abraham Lincoln lower still (123). Bernie Sanders rated a bit lower than Washington (129), while Hillary Clinton rated considerably higher (152). And Donald Trump? A little above Hitler at 171.
How can a pathology be an advantage? The apparent contradiction is resolved by realizing that the ability to manipulate and the ability to empathize are 2 entirely different things. Psychology does not give you points for your ability to manipulate nor dominate. Psychology considers a manipulative, domineering, unfeeling person to be unhealthy, regardless of how “successful” he is. There is always a fine line between white collar “success” and white collar criminality, as our previous moron-in-chief may soon painfully discover.
The argument could be made that a society, any society, can no more tolerate a lot of “successful” psychopaths than it can a lot of criminal psychopaths. Psychopathic authorities are only tolerated because they are few in number. In this sense such people aren’t really coping, because they don’t “fit in” to the larger society. Admittedly they are more integrated into society than criminals are, but feigning sincerity and having genuine sincerity are not the same. People in positions of authority are often described as being of good character. Many of them are. But we tend to equate “success” with a high sense of personal responsibility, rather than merely an ability to play the social game, particularly in a system devoted to competition. What we call “success” in some contexts actually flows from an INABILITY to feel certain emotions. This may lead you to antisocial behavior – or it may lead you to a position of great authority.
As always, the issue of “coping” is very much a function of how the particular society is organized. Behavior that was considered quite normal and desirable among participants in the People’s Crusade of 1096, namely mass murder, would quickly land you in jail in that very same part of the world today. Not so very long ago, lynchings were popular local gatherings, even the subject of postcards, in America. It must be difficult for psychopaths to understand why lying through your teeth will often get you to some of the most powerful positions on earth, while selling someone a worthless “cure” is criminalized as fraud. Behavior that is tolerated, even encouraged, among the “successful” in America today may find itself quite marginalized and even criminalized in the future.
It should not be surprising that our economic system encourages psychopaths to believe they can be “successful.” Many of them are. But they are always walking a fine line. Playing the game without feeling the emotions is tricky. Human beings are pretty good at spotting insincerity, and it is far too easy to make the leap from friendly competition to pathological competitiveness.
The argument could be made that a charming, manipulative, ruthless, domineering psychopath can create tremendous group cohesion, and that group cohesion has been the key to group success throughout most of human history (and likely prehistory as well). In any case, it is quite obvious that personal responsibility has very little to do with “success” in today’s America. Determination yes. Ruthlessness certainly. Honesty, integrity, sincerity, empathy, fairness, tolerance – the things that we associate with personal responsibility, and teach our children – not so much.
Does this mean that we should throw personal responsibility out the window? No, I don’t think so. It merely means that we have to have a more realistic, less caricatured view of human beings, one that accepts that we are not blank slates, nor are we in total control of ourselves. We should realize that “coping” is always a matter of degree, and that the ability to play the social game does not tell us much about a person’s character. We should realize that none of us, not a single one of us, is in total control of ourselves. The false dichotomy that separates “good guys” from “bad guys” is not grounded in reality. We should realize that we have been heavily propagandized for generations to encourage us to have one standard of personal responsibility for the impoverished and another for the “successful,” no matter how unprincipled they are.
In the field of addiction it seems that we are finally beginning to come to grips with this as a society. When addiction interferes with coping, it must be treated. But “coping,” in the sense of skill at playing the societal game, is not character. If winning is everything, human beings get hurt. As I have said before, capitalism has proven itself as a driver of human happiness. But not unbridled capitalism. Uncontrolled capitalism discourages empathy and tends to keep us atomized from each other. The notion that the almighty free market will somehow magically produce a greater good is nothing more than superstition.