Department of Philosophy
University of Maryland
Popular and scientific discussions of the implications
of genetics for responsibility often bring up the threat
of determinism in connection with the philosophical
problem of free will.
However, these worries turn out to have little bearing
on the standard free will issue in modern philosophy,
or free will versus determinism. See my NEGATIVE
ARGUMENT for details.
The real threat to freedom, insofar as it suggests determinism,
seems to be widespread explanation of behavior in
terms of inherited reactive traits that interfere with
This issue of control harks back to the notion of
voluntary action derived from Aristotle and applied to
modern psychology. I sum this up as free will versus
psychological constraint. See POSITIVE
The threat of genetic causation to freedom on this
account turns on a form of emotional motivation.
However, there are other possibilities of emotional
influence that may or may not undermine free will.
Free will versus determinism, or the standard problem of
free will in modern philosophy, isn't really at issue in the
about genetic causation of behavior.
The reason, stated simply, is that "determinism" implies
causation, causation of all (behavioral and other) events. The threat of determinism as posed by modern science therefore
applies no more to genetic causation than to any form of
explanation of behavior in terms of prior causes, whether genetic
Most philosophers hold that causation is really no threat to free
will (a view called "compatibilism," or "soft determinism"). But
even if it were, the threat wouldn't depend particularly on
Instead, the results of genetics that seem to threaten free will
don't apply directly to specific behavioral events--acts--
rather to general traits of temperament: act tendencies,
based on emotional reactive tendencies.
For example, some trait on the order of "aggressive impulsivity"
currently suggested as a genetic factor in violent criminal behavior. But
this wouldn't mean that genes cause a particular agent to
a violent crime but at most that genes give rise to emotional
reactive tendencies in certain circumstances that make such
Free will versus psychological constraint seems to be the
question at issue in many popular discussions of genetic
This version of the free will question is concerned only with
certain causes of behavior, those that involve some sort
constraint on action and hence interfere with the agent's
It can be traced back to Aristotle's first condition on voluntary
action, which rules out force or compulsion. But Aristotle
compulsion as involving an "external" source of behavior. This
leaves it unclear what to say about cases of control by forces
within the agent's own emotional makeup.
For instance, in a case of extreme shyness--a reactive trait with
genetic sources--an agent's control might seem to be thwarted by
his own temperament. That is, shyness as a personality trait subjects the agent to
emotional responses that can limit his feasible behavioral
In such cases emotions can interfere with behavioral control by
making alternative forms of behavior difficult for the
just (and perhaps not quite) impossible, as on a deterministic
Thus, someone who's very shy might be unable to raise a
coherent question in discussion because his heart beats wildly
when he tries. And something similar might be said about the
inability to restrain oneself that's at issue in "aggressive
The results of explaining all behavior in this way would indeed
resemble determinism--and would undermine the picture of moral
character and education that philosophers derive from
Emotions are often thought of as interfering with freedom of
action. They may do so, according to the account suggested for
shyness, in cases where they increase the difficulty of some of
What's at issue here isn't causation of behavior
emotion but rather interference with rational
There are other cases, however, and my argument questions the
contrast commonly taken for granted between emotions as causal
determinants of behavior and normal reasons for action.
Where emotions undermine freedom on the account suggested,
they essentially threaten the agent with a bad state of affairs
(emotional discomfort). They may be causes of behavior too, but
that issue seems
to be irrelevant to questions about behavioral control.
Do emotions undermine freedom in other ways? Aristotle's notion
of the voluntary also rules out
ignorance; and in some cases the effects of emotion on thought
and attention may interfere with rational decision-making.
Even if the agent is able to do otherwise, that is, emotional
upset may cloud his
perception of the reasons for action, or the alternatives to a
In recent papers I explore an independent model of emotional
unfreedom based on physiological deficit of the means of self-control, as in current explanations of impulsivity in terms of
1 This is a revised version of a poster
presented at the eighth conference of the International Society
for Research on Emotions in 1994.
2 See, e.g., "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).
Last revised, 5/15/98, by P. S. Greenspan