I’m going to begin this article by stating that I anticipate, and welcome, any disagreement and criticism that it will likely entail.
How free is free will, and what does it comprise? This foundational question of philosophical and practical importance has been hotly debated for centuries, and despite the recent advances in neuroscience, we continue to perceive free will as being unfettered, unrestrained by brain chemistry and innate personality traits, as though all of us began at some equal biological starting point, with the same capabilities and, at least similar, ethical codes. Since as far back as recorded history goes, we’ve continued to view man, and his ability for moralizing, in simplistic terms: man, it’s said, has been granted the power of reason and therefore, has the ability to freely choose between right and wrong; and thus, our concepts of good and evil were born.
Those notions, and their particular black and white duality, are toxic in the same manner that labeling oneself as either stupid, smart, competent, incompetent, beautiful, or ugly is. And most of our grief, and our resentment, toward others stems from this simple interpretation of people as rational and moral agents; but, the science continually shows otherwise. In his article in Scientific American on the culpability of murderers, Micah Johnson argues, “Free will should not be understood as a mysterious ability to cause actions separate from our brain activity. In fact just the opposite might be true: that free will requires certain connections between our brains and our actions… Previous research has demonstrated that criminal behavior is impacted by genetics, childhood mistreatment, low self-esteem during adolescence, lack of parental support, social and economic disadvantage, and racial discrimination… The fact that violence can be a symptom of brain disease shows not that free will is an illusion, but that free will can be injured just like other human abilities.” And, this begs the question: are some people bad or are they ill? Science, it appears, points to the latter.
For the narcissist, and the psychopath, are products of their environments and genetics; their inability to empathize greatly reduces their ability to act morally, as to be moral, or to try to be, requires one to fully take stock of the potential emotional and/or physical consequences of their actions, which they cannot. It isn’t my intention to argue against our societal need to prevent crime, and I don’t know what that would look like in light of this shift in thinking; but, nevertheless, I want to help others change their perspective on how free their free wills actually are. From a clinical standpoint, I argue that these individuals, as difficult as it may be to accept, need treatment, rather than condemnation. And although, empathizing with them is likely to be challenging, it’s a necessity for those whom they’ve harmed, required for their healing and sustainment in emotional well-being.
Some of the most challenging aspects of my work include helping others heal from narcissistic abuse, damage done by parents, and other loved ones, who shouldn’t have reared children. Narcissistic abuse stems from individuals without the ability to empathize with others, those who verbally and emotionally abuse the people who love them for the sole purpose of feeling superior and in control; this type of abuse leaves a trail of extensive damage in its path, and sometimes takes years to recover from. Those of my clients with narcissistic and/or antisocial (psychopathic) parents often find comfort in understanding the extent of their parents’ illnesses, their psychological constitutions and their consequences. Although, it’s impossible to reverse course and change their pasts, some of the individuals I treat are greatly helped by the knowledge of their parents’ subjective experiences and knowing that the lack of love in their early lives were indicative of severe illness, rather than their unlovability.
For them and for the rest of us, a new model of morality is desperately needed, for a new promise of recovery. I don’t yet know how this would affect our criminal justice system; but I am certain of how much this understanding has affected some of my clients. Despite my present inability to create its replacement, it’s clear to me how detrimental our old view of morality has been. As with the other labels, moral labels are just as, and maybe even more, toxic; it’s all too easy for us to categorize and shame others for behaviors that we ourselves may also engage in. I’m not arguing for a black or white version of morality in which those who harm others aren’t punished, as I believe that those who inflict harm should be held responsible; but, their penalty should be treatment, as they often are the loneliest and saddest among us.
I highly recommend reading the above-mentioned article on free will: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-responsible-are-killers-with-brain-damage/