P. S. Greenspan

University of Maryland

What follows amounts to an alternate first section of a longer paper for philosophers on genetics and free will.1 It attempts to provide some background on free will issues that might be helpful to people from the several fields concerned with the implications of the genome project. I think that discussions of these topics outside philosophy are often thrown off from the start by confusions about the concepts involved: what "determinism" means, most notably, and what it implies about human behavior. In an attempt to isolate legitimate worries about genetic determination--over and above the general sorts of worries about any sort of determinism that philosophers deal with--I've collected what turns out to be a mixed bag of issues, none of them helpfully conflated with the philosophic problem of free will and determinism, but some of them worth philosophic scrutiny in their own right. What I'd like to do, then, is to begin to sort out some of the issues that trouble researchers in this area, in the hope of expressing in less confused terms just what problem or problems they involve and how these bear on free will and other philosophical issues. I don't expect to solve any of these complex problems but instead just hope to sharpen our picture of them.

I was led to this clarificatory job initially by some puzzlement from a philosopher's standpoint about just why free will questions should come up particularly in connection with the genome project, as opposed to the many other scientific research programs that presuppose determinism. The philosophic concept of determinism involves explanation of all events, including human action, by prior causal factors--so that whether or not human behavior has a genetic basis, it ultimately gets traced back to something true of the world before our birth. The philosophic problem of free will and determinism arises because this seems to undercut moral responsibility: How can we reasonably be held responsible for something whose causes we couldn't control?

Most philosophers support an answer to this question called "compatibilism" or "soft determinism." This view holds that free will and determinism are really compatible--thus softening the impact of determinism on responsibility issues, and essentially dismissing the problem, by resolving the apparent conflict. We think there's a problem, on standard accounts, only because we confuse determinism with a view of the causation of action as thoroughly independent of human decision--a view distinguished as "fatalism." On likely determinist accounts human action does depend on what we decide to do--and on similar internal causal factors summed up in philosophical parlance as " the will." Determinism simply insists that these events, too, are caused by prior events and hence in the end by independent factors. But the fact that the causal chain runs through our will is enough, at least on the usual compatibilist account, to make us responsible moral agents.

By contrast, fatalism holds that what's fated or destined to happen will happen whatever we do. Even if we made different decisions, that is, the outcome--in this case our action--would be the same. That the two views are easily confused is indicated by some of the recent discussion about a putative "gay gene," or a genetic predisposition to homosexuality. Even ignoring the important distinction between predisposition and causation-- supposing, for the sake of argument, that such a gene would be sufficient to "make" one homosexual in the sense of being attracted to one's own sex (homosexual in "orientation")--action in accordance with that inclination wouldn't be automatic but still would depend (as much as sexual behavior ever does) on human decision and control.

In general, the conclusion that we "can't help" doing what we're determined to do essentially treats the causation of behavior by states of mind or personality traits that operate via "the will" as if it amounted to direct causation of behavior. Of course, there's still an issue as to whether responsibility doesn't also rule out causal determination of the will. But the point is just that this and similar philosophical issues have no special bearing on genetic determination. If individual responsibility is in question, why should it matter whether either behavior or the mental states it depends on can be traced back immediately to our initial biological endowment, or rather whether the influence runs via other agents' treatment of us or something else in the environment outside our control? In fact, I think we'd have to bring in environmental factors to get the sort of determination of particular events--in this case, acts of particular sorts occurring at particular times--that philosophers have in mind by determinism. Genes couldn't possibly be sufficient to cause, say, homosexual activity at a given time, as opposed to the tendency or inclination to engage in it or something similar. If nothing else--on a simpleminded level--a partner has to be supplied by the environment.

What plausible versions of genetic determinism seem to explain, then, is not specific acts, or not without help from other factors, but general sorts of behavioral proclivities, personality traits and the like. Besides homosexuality, the sorts of examples that come up as subjects of current research include such things as shyness and "impulsivity," a lack of normal impulse control that's taken as the source of violent and other criminal behavior under relevant environmental conditions. But even allowing for environmental influence, so that full genetic control isn't what's at issue, there may still be something worrisome about such examples. One legitimate source of worry that I've tried to identify elsewhere isn't really a worry about determinism, properly understood, but rather about some sort of limitation on behavioral self-control: an inability to do otherwise (at any rate without abnormal effort) that springs from a particular kind of psychological causation rather than causation per se. Our worry is that science may discover that more or most of our behavioral traits, possibly including normal traits, and in particular those relevant to moral behavior, really amount to genetically caused incapacities--internal constraints on our behavior, on the model of shyness, which essentially involves an inability to interact with others in the normal fashion. In the case of the "gay gene," say, this would make homosexual activity--and for that matter, on the same sort of model, heterosexual activity--look like the upshot of an "irresistible impulse," in the sense of one that's too hard to expect someone to resist, presumably not on a given occasion, or in application to specific acts, but over the long haul.

I don't mean to suggest that the genome project is clearly going to give us results like these but just that one might reasonably worry about that possibility--and confuse the worry with the standard philosophical problem of free will versus determinism. It does amount to a free will problem, even if not the traditional problem: With respect to the gay gene, say, the sort of account I've sketched would indeed give us reason, after all, for concluding that gays "can't help" being gay, and even perhaps that it would be too much to expect someone with that genetic proclivity to abstain from all homosexual behavior, even if not particular acts at particular times. We needn't be confusing determinism with fatalism, but on my account we're confusing it with something else, something for which we might more plausibly turn up evidence, in application to particular cases if not across- the-board: namely, psychological unfreedom, or internal behavioral constraint.

However, one should be wary of some of the sorts of conclusions drawn by those who welcomed news of a gay gene. If a genetic predisposition makes it harder to do otherwise, even to the point (on my present assumptions) of being too hard to expect--too hard to expect as things now stand, that is--it doesn't follow that no sort of environmental influence, including habituation or training in impulse control, can modify the tendency or its behavioral upshot. That too will be harder, perhaps too hard to accomplish by the normal means; but all the more reason, for those who devalue the tendency, to get to work in modifying it, if necessary by extraordinary means.

The negative line of response I've just sketched comes up quite clearly for the other examples I mentioned, shyness and impulsivity, where there's less disagreement about whether the trait in question is a bad thing--in the first case, psychologically bad, since it frustrates our individual aims; and in the second case, also socially bad, at least in cases where impulsivity leads to aggressive action, of the sort that can produce criminal behavior. In fact, instead of exonerating the agent from blame, a negative view of the behavior in question, assumed to be "in our genes," might be combined with a certain character-based view of responsibility--one that bases responsibility on a connection to the agent's character rather than his behavioral control--to yield the opposite result. If someone is "by nature" gay, or shy, or prone to the kind of impulsive behavior involved in criminal acts, then whether or not he can control his behavior, the trait in question looks like part of his "essence," part of the individual personality that makes him who he is. Devaluing the behavior, then, would on this account naturally lead to devaluing the person--holding him responsible in the only sense that might seem to be left to us if we do accept philosophical determinism.

Perhaps at least part of what's at issue here is something like a version of biological "essentialism," or the Aristotelian view of the nature of a given entity as determining what it does--though Aristotle had in mind a given kind of entity rather than an individual, and he extended the view to any kind of entity, not just a biological organism or a person capable of action. But "nature" in Aristotle's sense is distinct from "nature" in the sense of "laws of nature"--the laws governing the natural world as a whole--as presupposed by determinism and by modern science. An equivocation between these two senses of "nature" seems to lie behind the frequent reference in the biological and social sciences to "nature versus nurture" in connection with worries about determinism. Again, though, the philosophic problem of determinism makes no distinction between genetic and environmental causation--determination by one's own "nature" and by outside factors--but rather concerns itself with any sort of causation that traces back beyond the agent.

At any rate, the worry about specifically biological determination seems to pull in the opposite direction from the standard philosophic problem. Tracing the chain of causation to the agent, to his essential self, rather than to something beyond his agency, is the source of worry here. Let me call this "genetic essentialism."2 This is where I think we can locate at least some of the special problems associated with genetic determinism, as opposed to the various other forms of determinism within the sciences, social or biological. Genetic explanation seems particularly threatening, not because it's deterministic, but because it seems to put the determining factor within our essential selves, our pre-given biological natures. So we have nothing else that can count as individual moral character, the source of responsibility for what we do.

In fact, there's much to criticize about this view of things, once we see what it amounts to--not simply genetic determinism but determinism plus genetic essentialism. We should also note that it needn't just be individual identity that's in question here. I've often been puzzled about the way discussion of issues relevant to biological determinism often seems to stray onto the question of whether there's a universal human nature; and I think the confusion of determinism with determinism-plus-essentialism might help explain this. For that matter, subgroups of humanity are also sometimes treated as if they had a "nature": Some of the implications for responsibility that I've outlined in the individual case also may figure in the more politically charged arguments about group differences--putative sex and racial differences--raised by genetic research.

However, if the point is to get us to give up on reasonable and necessary attempts at social change--to relieve society of responsibility, in a "forward-looking" sense--it's important to see that this view adds something to determinism, something independently criticizable. For that matter, it adds something to biological determinism, or even, more specifically, to genetic determinism. In any reasonable sense of these terms, they enlarge the biological or genetic bases for behavior only on the assumption that other causes operate as well.

A different way of seeing this point is supplied by the discussion of some overlapping worries about biological explanation of traits of temperament in the recent popular account of advances in psychopharmacology, Listening to Prozac. Even if a tendency to depression as a form of impulsivity is genetically based, first of all, the assumption that it can be corrected by drugs makes it clear that environmental factors have to play a role: The doctor and the drug are part of the environment of a given individual. If we assume some version of biological determinism, that just implies that environmental causes will be translatable into biological terms, not that there aren't any. More generally, biological explanation doesn't imply a one-way causal relationship between the individual and his environment. Nor is it confined to the boundaries of a particular biological entity--unless we add in something else, presumably some version of biological essentialism.

Of course, the environment doesn't normally influence our genetic endowment--apart from either mutation or medical intervention--but merely allows its influence on behavior. However, there's something else in the Prozac book that raises deep questions directly about essentialism, even in its specifically genetic form: It seems that patients who do well on Prozac or similar antidepressants for an extended period and then, when taken off the drug, relapse into their earlier pattern of depressive behavior, commonly report that they're "not themselves." That is, they come to identify themselves with their medicated selves, as if the sources of longstanding patterns of behavior had now been shown to be something alien to their natures.

Of course, one might be tempted to dismiss these comments as simply misguided, but they at least illustrate in vivid form the ways in which our notion of who we are may be adjusted in light of the possibilities of development opened up for us by changes in the medical or scientific environment. Our "selves" may be identified, that is, by appeal to what might be thought of as a standard of "achievable normality," a standard that will be influenced by advances in genetic and other scientific research. Our natures won't be settled by reference to our natural genetic endowment, once possibilities of genetic modification come into play so that genes too will be subject to medical manipulation in the common run of events. We needn't have any fixed natures or essences, genetic or otherwise, on this account of things; and the genome project, to the extent that it enlarges the possibilities of genetic modification, more or less at the same time as it increases our knowledge of genetic influence, might be seen as helping to solve at least some of the problems it raises for free will.


1. See "Genes, Electrotransmitters, and Free Will, in D. Wasserman and R. Wachbroit (eds.), Genetics and Criminal Behavior: Methods, Meanings, and Morals (New York: Cambridge University Press, forthcoming). A paper including versions of the present essay and section III of the longer paper was read at colloquiua of the Sydney University Department of Psychology, the University of Melbourne Department of the History and Philosophy of Science, and the University of Queensland Department of Philosophy in 1995.

2. Cf. R. Dreyfuss and D. Nelkin, "The Jurisprudence of Genetics," Vanderbilt Law Review, 45 (1992), 313-48.

Last revised, 5/15/98, by P. S. Greenspan