There’s a common idea which leads many people (myself included) to instinctively excuse our own or others’ less-than-desirable behavior because we were under the sway, so to speak, of one or another mental state at the time. This is illustrated especially clearly in our justice system, where people are routinely given more lenient sentences, given the influence of strong emotion or of compromised mental health at the time the crime was committed. “The Twinkie Defense” is a(n) (in)famous example of the exculpatory power we give such mental states, where Dan White claimed that his responsibility for the murder of two people was mitigated by his depression, which in turn was manifested in and worsened by his addiction to junk food. We routinely consider ourselves and others less responsible for our wrong actions if we’ve suffered abuse suffered as children, or because we were drunk or high at the time, or we were ‘overcome’ with anger or jealousy, and so on.
But when we think about it more carefully, there’s something a little strange about excusing ourselves and others in this way for doing wrong. What we’re saying is, in a nutshell, “But my brain made me do it!”
It’s strange because no matter what we do, our brains always ‘made me do it’.
Perhaps these kinds of excuses are a relic of the ‘ghost in the machine’ variety of traditional belief, in which we are a kind of meat-machine body ‘possessed’ by a soul. In that view, the strong emotion or mental illness, then, could be yet another kind of possession which overrides the rational and moral soul.
Yet, even if one believes that sort of explanation, that’s not a very satisfying justification of why we would accept some mental states as exculpatory and not others. Why does extreme anger, such as that of a wronged lover or a frustrated driver, excuse or partially excuse an attack, but lust does not? Both are powerful emotions that all too often promote the worst behavior. Why is jealousy so often considered an acceptable excuse, but greed is not? And the ramifications of this view go beyond relieving ourselves from the burden of responsibility: it means we can’t take or give credit for our good actions, for the most part. Emotions and states of mental health inspire and make us capable of doing those things, too, in just the same way. But we generally don’t tend to have the same sort of intuitions or apply the same sort of reasoning to credit as we do to blame.
So whatever theory or philosophy of mind we ascribe to, we need to explain why we are so inconsistent on this issue. Of course, much of it is explained in cultural terms: in an honor-driven culture, for example, anger and jealousy result as an affront to one’s honor, so to feel those emotions is just and right for an honorable person. A crime committed under the sway of these emotions, then, is mitigated by the justness and rightness of the feelings, even if they inspired wrong action. On the other hand, greed and lust are not considered a just or right emotional reaction in any case in a culture underpinned by fairness, equality, and individual rights; therefore, any crime committed under their influence would, of course, be contrary to those values and not be mitigated
Yet culturally-derived explanations, of course, aren’t the same as a justification. They just explain why people in different times and places happen to react and feel the way they do; they don’t offer a justification of why anyone should accept one emotional state and not another as mitigating factors, nor do they explain why we should think some emotions somehow make one less responsible or able to control their actions than other emotions do.
The latter, of course, is an empirical question: a neuroscientist may be able to detect that the processes that produce some emotions make it impossible or at least highly unlikely that a person can engage in rational thought, or ‘put on the brakes’, so to speak, when certain provocations occur. But until we find out otherwise, it appears evident, from the fact that most people are generally cooperative and don’t purposefully harm one another, that adult people above a certain basic intelligence level are generally capable of forming good and responsible habits, which makes it unlikely that they would react wrongly or criminally when provoked or titillated. This is especially true when the people involved in their upbringing, and the society in which they live, expect good behavior from all, and hold people responsible for bad behavior.
This is true whether or not behaving in the right way is easy. Many of the excuses offered in defense of people who do wrong sound, to me, simply as evidence that it was harder for the person to behave well than to behave badly at the time. Yet mores and laws don’t exist because it’s always easy for people to get along, respect one another, to help one another and avoid harm. They exist because it’s often hard to be a good person and a good citizen. So many of these excuses, then, do much to illustrate why mores and laws need to exist, and not so much to demonstrate why the offender was less responsible for their own behavior at the time.
The reasons that we can hold people responsible for their own actions, whether or not they occurred in an emotionally stormy moment, are the same reasons that people can be admired and given credit for them. The acts and thoughts which we judge praiseworthy as well as blameworthy are those which the person could conceivably have chosen to do otherwise, even if we grant it’s unlikely that they would have chosen otherwise, and that the person did in the capacity of themself. Personal responsibility is a burden, but even more so, it’s an honor. It means that what you do is you, in a very important sense, since the mind is the author and seat of consciousness, and all of its activity is a form of doing. We, in the sense of being a person, a self, are what our brain does.
The brain is not like a pre-determined computer program; within certain parameters, it can be molded and formed, by influences from others but even more so by our own choices, which over time form habits. So it’s up to each one of us to use our judgments, surround ourselves with good influences, and to form good habits: in any given day, in any given life, each person is faced with myriad options in thought and behavior. For those important matters, we stop and reflect, though there are simply too many to judge carefully for each one; most of the time, it’s best to purposely form good habits so that in those countless reactions we have and choices we make, we’ll tend, more easily, to go for the better rather than the worse.
There are, of course, special circumstances to consider in matters of wrongdoing or crime committed by the young, or by a person with a debilitating mental illness, or a person mature in age with undeveloped mental capacities. All of these involve some diminished or absent capacity for exercising judgment in making a choice, and the degree of consciousness the person possesses. Young people, for example, lack the structures of the physically mature brain which makes it capable of making considered decisions and of putting the brakes on powerful-emotion-driven impulses. The prefrontal cortex, where much of the capacity to exercise self-control resides, doesn’t fully develop until after puberty. It seems, then, to make sense that we generally don’t hold the young as responsible for their actions in the way we do adults. Yet, with all we know about how the brain works, I find it astonishing and often horrifying that in the United States we often try the young as adults, teens and even pre-teens, when they commit particularly heinous crimes. I’d argue not only are they incapable of controlling their emotions and of reasoning as fully as adults are and therefore shouldn’t be considered responsible in the same way, but the very heinousness of the crime is evidence of the lack of maturity, of the ability to make rational judgments, which forms the basis of any coherent concept of personal responsibility. The trying of youths as adults in the courts reveal that all too many people haven’t given enough thought to what personal responsibility really means, and don’t have the proper respect for it.
Since it’s always your brain that makes you do anything, culpability should be assessed according to whether or not your brain is capable of making a different choice, again, even if it’s unlikely you might have done so. That even holds true even in many cases of so-called ‘temporary insanity’ or ‘acting under the influence’. Generally, the brain of an adult person who maintains their own survival and enjoys the liberty of an independent adult is also functioning at a level of responsibility. For example, if you run someone down in your car while drunk or texting on your phone, you are probably also a person capable of arranging for a taxi to take you home from the bar or refusing that last drink, or are aware of the huge amount of very widely published evidence we now have that texting is strongly correlated with auto accidents.
In sum: the issue of personal responsibility should not hinge on whether or not it was easy for us to make one choice, to behave one way instead of another, but on whether we ourselves, always the product of a living brain, are capable of doing otherwise.
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*This piece, originally published Aug. 6, 2014, was edited lightly on Aug. 5, 2016 for clarity and flow