Free Will | How Genetics & Environmental Factors Rob People of Their Free Will

In this blog, we will discuss the various genetics and environmental factors which rob people of their free will. We will further explain the theory of nature and nurture, the free will theory, the moot debate between classical and positivist schools of criminology regarding free will, and lastly impacts of free will.

Human beings are fruits of an interaction between genetics and environmental factors. That sometimes robs us of our free will and understanding of right and wrong. The interaction between the nature and nurture is so prevalent that the two should be viewed mutually.

The Theory of Nature and Nurture

In 1869 the ‘theory of nature and nurture’ was initiated by psychologist Sir Francis Galton. Nature attributes to all the genes and hereditary factors or biological/genetic predispositions that influence who we are from our physical appearance to our personality traits. On the other hand, nurture refers to the environmental factors such as learning experiences, family size, culture, life experiences, peers, etc that influence our growth and behavior as a human. Throughout 400 B.C.E Hippocrates specified human behaviors as being biological. Many centuries later philosophers Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Locke separately thought that humans are born as ‘blank slates’ and they gain all information from their environment with their 5 senses.

The Free Will Theory

In 1764 Cesari Beccaria’s book Dei delitti e elle pene (On Crime and Punishment) supplied the draft of the modern criminal justice system. The draft was based on the assumption that ‘people freely choose what they do and are responsible for the consequences of their behavior.’ The basic doctrine of classical school is that ‘human being is a free will agent. Every human is liable for his acts and fear of punishment may restrain him from committing crime. Free will has traditionally been accepted of as a kind of power to control one’s choices and actions. When an agent practices free will over her choices and actions, her actions and choices are up to her. These choices and actions are up to her in two ways:

  1. Up to her in the sense that she is capable of choosing otherwise, or at minimum that she is able not to choose or act as she does;
  2. Up to her in the sense that she is the ultimate source of her all actions.

Reasonings for not agreeing with Dr. Ferguson’s statement

According to Dr. Ferguson, “to a degree, we are products of genetics and environment however that doesn’t rob us of our free will or understanding of right and wrong.” But in many circumstances, genetics and environmental factors rob people of their free will.

People’s choice to act morally or not, that is, to execute actions that are judged to be morally “right” or “wrong” is predictably shaped by many factors, such as genetics, education, social status, religious beliefs etc. Manifestation of control is sufficient for free will and free will is regarded as necessary condition for moral responsibility.The theory of classicism believes that humans have free will and they have the ‘decision-making capability’ to make choices and to control the benefits and risks of committing a crime.

  1. Many mental and physical disorders can affect the decision-making capability gravely. Decision-making incapacity is connected to a wide variety of clinical conditions that include various types of dementia, delirium, organic amnestic syndromes, brain injury, and disorders of consciousness such as coma, vegetative and minimally conscious states, as well as psychiatric diseases such as schizophrenia or severe depression, medical illness-induced impaired consciousness in critically unstable patients who are too ill to participate in decision- making.
  2. Children whose parents suffer from depression are more than 4 times more likely than the average child to experience a similar illness. Some researchers believe that depression is an inherited/genetic condition that manifests itself in psychological and physical disturbances.
  3. Kleptomania/compulsive stealing is a mental health disorder. It is a recurrent failure to resist the urge to steal. Kleptomaniac people do not steal to profit or to gain something material, they steal because they are unable to resist the temptation to steal.19 Genetics and biology may account for a portion of the root causes of kleptomania.20 Some genetic influences increase the risk of criminality.
  4. In Regina v Charlson (1955) a father hit his child with a mallet and then threw him out of the window, which killed the child. The father did not plead the defense of insanity but his lawyer presented evidence of ‘brain tumor’ which resulted in uncontrollable rage and violence. The jury acquitted him on the grounds that the brain tumor had deprived him of any control over and sense of the act he was committing.
  5. In another case of R v Feel (2000), a woman aged 20 was guilty of murdering her husband. She began a sexual relationship with the deceased at aged 14 and started living with him at aged 16. She had two miscarriages and her husband was very violent towards her. She was later diagnosed with “Battered Woman Syndrome” which includes chronic depression, the feeling of hopelessness and despair, and inability to act effectively by a psychiatrist. The violent environment in which she lived for a long time has developed this disease and she was unable to exercise free will and committed the murder. She was sentenced to 4 years of detention in a young offender institution.
  6. The youngest serial killer is from India and his name is Amarjeet Sada. He had allegedly killed 3 children by the time he was only 8 years old. In 2007, he strangled the last victim and hit her with a brick several times then buried her. His current whereabouts are unknown. He was later diagnosed as ‘a sadist who derives pleasure from inflicting injuries’ by a psychologist. Sadism is a personality disorder and a type of mental illness. He was minor and incompetent to exercise his free will. This type of criminal needs treatment and correction, not punishment because he does not have an effective understanding of right and wrong.

In the above-mentioned medical-conditions a person sometimes losses his ability to form free will and cannot be an author of his will to experience a certain degree of control. These diseases in many cases are inherited through genes. Thus, human free will can be robbed of by many genetical, biological, and environmental factors.

Moot debate between classical school and positive school as to free will

The classical school observed crime as a choice and believed that the criminals had to accept the responsibilities of punishment. Classical school does not consider insanity, the effect of pathology, incompetency, or other factors which make a person unable to exercise free will. In contrast, positive school considered that human behavior is determined by sociological, psychological, and biological factors which are beyond a person’s control. Crime is not a choice rather it is a form of disease and criminals have to be treated, rather than disciplined by law. According to classical school if a person is free to choose their individual actions, they must also accept the significance of their choices. On contrary, positivism is based on deterministic theories which resolve that all actions are caused by inner or outer factors that are beyond a person’s control.

Impacts of human free will on the crime commission, its prosecution, punishment and correction of the offenders

  1. The impacts of human free will on crime commission was frustrating in the 18th and 19th centuries. After the French revolution, Beccaria’s free will theory was used as a guide to draft the French Code of 1791. In 1827 national crime report of France revealed that crimes such as rape, murder were constant from year to year. The crime rate was increasing in some areas. Recidivism was arising.
  2. In recent times, according to Baumeister, people who believe in free will are motivated and willing to make efforts and they have higher self-control. They exhibit a higher prosocial and altruistic behavior. Believers of human free will commit less crime than non-believers.
  3. If we consider human free will to prosecute criminals then ‘culpability’ is based on ‘willingness’ to commit crimes. Since a man willed his action, and could have acted otherwise, he would be exclusively responsible for his choice of breaking the law, irrespective of his social and physical environment. It makes the criminal prosecution system very rigid.
  4. If we consider human free will to punish the criminals then people who are incompetent (minor, lunatic, idiot, insane) to exercise free will if they commit a crime, they will get punishment to ensure certainty of punishment. It would amount to a miscarriage of justice. Because in reality, some criminals need medical or psychological treatment more.
  5. Human free will has a negative impact on the correction of offenders. If we consider human free will then every criminal is morally responsible for his crime so he does not need correction. Rehabilitation or correction of offenders finds theoretical justification on the premise that offender commits crime because of unfavorable social circumstances not because of their choice. Free will theory supports preventive justice but correction of offenders is based on restorative justice. The concept of human free will is conflicting with restorative justice.
  6. If we consider human free will to prosecute and punish criminals then we cannot distinguish between first offender and habitual or repeating offender. Because both exercise their free will to commit crime equally. In this situation to deter crime long imprisonment will be imposed on the criminals. Prison is essential for incapacitating and punishing those who commit crimes, but some data reveal long prison sentences do little to deter people from committing future crimes. It is one of the negative impacts of human free will.

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