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What if Personal Responsibility is a Myth?

Posted on March 8, 2019

What if Personal Responsibility is a Myth?

Like many of you who commented last week, I’m also not ready or willing to give up that human beings possess free will. I will attempt in the next couple weeks to present what I see the research is saying on the subject. This week, I want to propose a thought experiment for you.

What if the behavior of those we serve is 100% predictable based solely on past experiences and the variables in the environment?

How would this change your programming?

In other words, if you had perfect knowledge of how their past impacts their brain functioning, you could predict exactly how they would react in certain situations. Behavior and actions are entirely deterministic leaving no room for volitional choice or free will. Behavior is predictable like punching numbers into a calculator or writing code on the computer.

I ask this question because, while I still see a window for free will and personal responsibility, the research shows me that this window is much narrower than many believe. Most of our schools, programs, and systems evolved out of the assumption that people are continually making well thought out logical choices. What if the exact opposite was true?

We will search for the middle ground next week but feel this thought experiment helps us explore an extreme that is closer to reality than many of the past assumptions we used to create and operate helping interventions.

2 responses to “What if Personal Responsibility is a Myth?”

  1. Joshua Smith, LMSW says:

    We have, through the arts and literature, explored this line of thinking before. Minority Report is a great example of a society that builds itself around the concept of “future crime” and punishing people before they have a chance to inflict harm on society. Also, there is an animated series called Psychopass that explores this idea too wherein a computer can predict almost all individuals proclivity towards antisocial behavior and controls them accordingly (caution: it’s a very violent show, but thought provoking all the same). The concept of choice is explored heavily in both of these examples. 1984 explored several elements free will and “The Party” using thought control to remove this from society. We root for the heroes in these examples due to their struggle against deterministic fatalism.

    In the scenario you proposed, it certainly would be nice to know exactly the right words to say in just the right way to get everyone of my clients to move on the best path. The problem I find is that by doing this, I or someone else has to choose the path. Even if the client’s “choose” the destination, in a deterministic world, the change agents pick that path that leads there. Perhaps this is ethical on the societal level. It may best serve everyone that the individual client’s agency is removed (even if they don’t know it) and we lead them down the desired road.

    I get a bitter taste in my mouth at the thought of it though. Such collectivist approaches have been tried before and history has provided us with the outcomes of this line of thinking. One read of The Gulag Archipelago gives one all they need to know of those horrors.

    Ultimately determinism may be a reality, but we must impose virtues, such as freedom, on top of this to prevent becoming the masters over the broken or the weak. Even if we could control every factor with a client to recover them, they need to walk down the path before them instead of being dragged or prodded from the back.

    • Matthew Bennett says:

      Wonderful! So much to unpack, so many examples. I wonder how many students, clients, patients, feel like we are the “masters,” imposing our ethics and rules and taking away basic needs if they fail (which we see as a thoughtful choice) to disobey. I also remind myself that I’m a part of a system and try to find ways to provide real choice. Again, the Matrix always spoke so powerfully to me about this conflict.

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