Can Your Brain Force You to Do Something You Don’t Want to Do?

I have been reading Jerome Kagan’s compelling recent book on emotion. I stumbled on one particular line:

An article in the June 20, 1988, issue of Time magazine, reporting on a woman who murdered her infant, told readers that the hormonal changes that accompany the birth process create emotional states, especially in women unprepared for the care of children, that can provoke serious aggression that women are unable to control. It is thus not fair, the journalist argued, to hold such mothers responsible for their horrendous actions. This conclusion is a serious distortion of the truth. There is no known hormonal change that can force a woman to kill her infant if she does not want to do so!

This raises one of most difficult problems facing 21st Century ethics. We want to treat criminals differently if they are in control of their actions. For instance, a soldier who is ordered to commit an atrocity is, if still guilty, a bit less guilty than one who does the same thing, but just for kicks.

When the outside influence constraining your free will actually arises within your own body, it’s a bit more difficult. Suppose Alfred goes on a drug-induced killing spree. Again, it’s different from the just-for-kicks murderer, but then one might wonder if Alfred should have thought of the consequences before injecting himself with psychotics. Or what about somebody who had a psychotic break? Where do we draw the line between that and a bad mood?

Many people used to be comfortable drawing the line between psychosis and a bad mood using medical information. Anyone who acts under the influence of a medical condition is less culpable (or, at least, differently culpable) than somebody who is not. However, neuroscientists find the brain correlates of conditions like a bad mood and geneticists find that nearly every personality trait is heritable (including being just plain mean), this line is breaking down.

To be fair, this is in essence not a new problem. Certain strains of Christian religious thinkers have spent centuries tying themselves into knots trying to explain how, given that everything is according to God’s plan, including sin, it was not sacrilege to punish sinners, who, by definition, were just carrying out God’s plan.

Nonethess, Christian civilizations did not collapse under the weight of this paradox, and I suspect we’ll get along for some time without a coherent answer to the Great Question of Free Will. But it would still be nice to have…

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Kagan (2007) What Is Emotion, p. 80



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