Why is the idea that people may not be in control of their lives controversial

I was discussing nutrition on another board and I mentioned some studies that show when proper nutrition (essential fatty acids, B vitamins, zinc, iron, protein, etc) is given to people their rates of violent crime go down by 25-50%. Some people got angry because they feel that that is excusing people from personal responsibility.

Personal responsibility in that sense seems like circular logic. People who are in favor of personal responsibility say that if you blame other factors (environment, genetics, personal experiences, biochemistry) then you are letting the individual off the hook for their own choices. But this is based on the assumption that the individual is in control, which if the individual isn’t then personal responsibility isn’t that important anyway. in order for personal responsibility to be a valid argument, personal responsibility has to be a valid argument (ie, it is a good thing because if you don’t do it, people won’t control their lives). Circular logic. I agree taking initiative is a good thing, but some people almost seek to absolve all factors in life other than personal responsibility to determine how people act. Chemical castration, according to this article lowers recidivism from 75% to 2% in sex offenders.

“Depo-Provera also reduces recidivism rates. When used as a mandatory condition of parole (6), chemical castration decreases the occurrence of repeat offenses from 75% to 2%”

Before the introduction of antipsychotics therapy alone didn’t accomplish much to lower the rates of those hospitalized for severe schizophrenia, and when working medical treatments for obesity come out obesity rates will drop dramatically until it is an abnormality on earth.

By ‘in control’ I mean accepting that other factors aside from willpower play a role in how we end up. The people eating proper diets probably do not consciously make a decision to act less violently, but that seems to be what they end up doing. Just as the people whose genetics predispose them to being happy all the time do not choose that, but that is where they end up.





Is it just that as a society we don’t like the idea that our thoughts and actions are due to tangible biology instead of psychology? Is that why there is so much resistance to these ideas in some parts? Do people just not like the idea that their views and feelings are a collection of chemicals and not some etherical metaphysical thing? Is that where resistance comes from?

If anyone here strongly supports personal responsibility, do you support it in the sense that you feel a person’s willpower is the most important factor in how they act, or do you feel that their willpower leading to non-willpower based solutions is just as good? Ie, is a potential sex offender who takes responsibility for his situation and decides to manipulate his inner hormonal system to lower his risk of offending an acceptable form of personal responsibility? What about a depressed person who takes the initiative to get chemical help for depression or (someday in the future) gene therapy? Is it the taking the initiative to change that is important or using willpower and willpower alone that is important?

Also, is this fear that ‘we’ (our identities, motivations, emotions, fears, etc) break down into tangible chemicals instead of some etherical force why people fear drugs so much and why we have a drug war? I know alot of people have their personalities change drastically on drugs (some become happy, some sad, some philosophical, some lose their ego, etc) and is this being forced to accept that our personalities are essentially just based on tangible chemicals not something people want to face, and this leads to fear?

Baloney. In many parts of the world people don’t see obesity as a “problem”. It may shorten life spans, but many people don’t see the object of life to live as long as possible. Think here of religious folks who would worry more about their afterlife than this one.

I think it mostly comes from the fear of a slippery slope, that we will eventually discover that all actions are entirely caused by events that are outside the scope of one’s willpower. Which is motivated, I think, by a fear of materialism–a (wrong, IMHO) fear that consciousness and free will cannot be products of tangible forces and particles and such. People try to respond to these fears by trying (futiley, again IMHO) to construct a wall around our basic consciousness though which the effects of causation cannot penetrate.


1.7 billion people on earth are overweight right now, and that number will keep getting higher as countries develop infrastructure. That is 1/4 of the human population, not a small minority by any means.

This isn’t really related to the topic though.

Do you mean in the sense of having absolutely no control, or just no direct willpower control? For example, a person may not be able to control their gambling problem but if they take the initiative and start taking narcan (which is shown to help with gambling problems) then they are in control of the problem by using their willpower to manipulate their internal biochemistry.

Are you talking about the idea of total predestination to the point where people can’t take the initiative to use medicine, genetics, nutrition or pharmacology to control their behavior, or the idea that willpower alone cannot control alot of areas of life?

Happy horseshit makes people feel strong, and allows them to dehumanize others:
OUT of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbow’d.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul. *

William Ernest Henley (1849-1903)

[fixed italics, I think --Gaudere]

I’m sure both senses contribute some to the general feeling. However, I think the fear of having no control at all (and hence no moral responsibility) is a much bigger concern than having no direct willpower control.

I think the hostility to the concept also stems from some people’s fear that criminal punishments may be lessened and criminal behavior increase as a result if it’s widely accepted.

To some people, punishment is much more important than understanding crime or preventing it. Even legitimate excuses such as complete mental derrangement are not valid in some people’s eyes-- witness those who scream “fry the bitch” when a severely mentally disturbed woman kills her children.

I think that personal responsibility is a quality of reason that every rational human being has to exercise. If someone is not in the grip of a psychosis, then they more or less choose to carry out all the actions that they do carry out. A non-psychotic sex offender chooses whether or not to sexually assault someone - does he give in to whatever sick urges he feels, or does he walk away?
If someone is really severely depressed, I would question whether they are 100% rational at that point in time, due to wacked-out serotonin levels and whatnot. The rational them might have thought, “I feel like shit. I want to kill myself. This can’t go on. I need to go to the doctor and get treatment ASAP.” The severely depressed them is less rational, and thinks, “I have to get out of this. I’ll never feel better. I should just get it over with now…” and so on.
Personal responsibility is limited by pre-existing mental, physical and socio-economic factors, IMHO. A resident of a famine-stricken, disease-ravaged village in Zaire may decide to study hard, because they want to become a doctor. They may have the brains, the rational capacity, the personality etc. to become a doctor, but if they don’t have the opportunity, then they won’t be able to effect that choice. It sucks, I know.

The thought that we aren’t in control of our lives is scary because we want to believe that we have the power over our destiny. We want to say that every good thing and bad thing that has happened to us is because of our own action or inaction. The idea that someone, some government, the economy, who we know or don’t know, or a Power can be able to control our lives is an idea that makes us feel we are a slave, a prisoner who is not free and powerless.

Do you believe in fate, Neo?
Because I don’t like the idea that I’m not in control of my own life.

  • The Matrix

I believe that I am free… to close that italics tag.

Or is it merely fate?

It appears that we are here because we are NOT free… I hope a mod is, though.

A big part of it is because people have a need to feel that they are in control. Captain of my ship, master of my destiny, chart my own course, yada yada yada. People need to have some feeling of control, even if it is something small. It is ingrained in everyone.

Today, I’m not even in control of my own errors! :smack:

Where do you demarcate rational from not? And why is the loony not in control of her actions while you are? Your actions are still the product of your own mental activity regardless of whether you are aware of it. Your self or conscious will is not an entity all unto itself and independent of the confounding factors of the brain.

To say that here there is personal responsibility, while over there no personal responsiblitiy obtains, you need more than a declaration of rationality. I find Daniel Wegner’s arguments in The Illusion of Conscious Will to be quite compelling indeed; the self is a nice warm-fuzzy, but the sense that my self is somehow a coherent entity governing the actions of my brain, and therefore body, is not compelling reason to think such is true.

I find declarations of personal responsibility to be something akin to Cartesian dualism or free will: the assumption that there is some entity, uncorrupted by any influence, that embodies the person and a person’s actions are the result of free and unrestrained choices of this entity. Rational or not, sane or otherwise, I see no reason to conclude that this description is accurate of reality.

The insistence of personal responsibility ironically undermines the concept of its validity and force; accomodation must be made for people who are completely nuts or under coercion. Because of this personal responsibility becomes a quality divorced from the actions of the person and becomes attached to some fantastical notion of the self as a Platonic mind living within the confines of the brain. Personal responsibility is now the function of an add-on, often called a soul but in many cases undefined, that only people who are Just or Right or Chosen have.

The simple truth is that when a paranoid schizophrenic harms another because of an untrue belief, the person is just as responsible as the person who thoughtfully helps a lost child find her parents. Accepting the universal nature of personal responsibility does not imply that punishment for crimes, for example, have to be meted out without concern for the conditions under which they were committed. What it does, IMO, is allow for more nuanced consideration of actions in the context of what people really are. The notion of the self or the will as prime mover and decision maker puts us against a standard that simply doesn’t jibe with reality, and it is ultimately a standard which we can probably never meet.