Current political, educational, and business environments promote the lies of free will and personal responsibility. These beliefs are usually supported by authoritarians who believe in the just world fallacy. The authoritarians use discussions about personal responsibility and making good choices to instill shame in people and thus make them easily controlled. Personal responsibility is also supported by people who are lucky to be born with the biological traits needed for success in the world they find themselves in – traits like attractiveness, extraversion, diligence, emotional stability, intelligence, etc.
The societal belief that each individual is wholly responsible for his or her success helps these winners of the genetic and environmental lottery boost their egos. In reality, people are controlled by their biology at all times. Even people who start out believing in personal responsibility may eventually change their minds when they encounter tragic circumstances due to the laws of biology and physics. The remaining lucky people who manage to escape tragedy or who were fortunate to be born with the neurobiology of resilience then represent the ultimate form of survivorship bias. You can begin the journey into learning about the illusion of free will starting with my post The Best Argument Against Free Will. Human behavior is either deterministic (according to classical physics) or random (according to quantum physics), which means that people don’t choose what to believe or how to act.
The problem with personal responsibility is that this obsolete belief system hurts the people who need to believe it least, and it helps the people who don’t believe it at all. Psychopaths and people with antisocial personality disorder already behave as if personal responsibility doesn’t exist, and there’s no way to make them believe in taking responsibility for their actions. Rather, the shame resulting from believing in personal responsibility hurts anxious and depressed people the most. In fact, a recent study shows the neurological basis behind self-blame in depressed patients. Depressed people are likely to blame themselves even for things that aren’t their fault, whereas non-depressed people are more likely to become indignant and blame others. A different study shows that patients with obsessive-compulsive disorder can gain relief by giving up personal responsibility.
When media commentators and leaders say that people need to take personal responsibility, it increases the shame of people who are already plagued by shame. The psychopaths and narcissists aren’t listening in the first place and won’t take responsibility for their actions just because some politician or religious leader says they should. Believing in personal responsibility involves living a lie. Many scientific studies present evidence for biological and environmental influences on human behavior. The major societal concern related to giving up the idea of personal responsibility is that it will excuse crime. The argument goes: if people aren’t responsible for their actions, there is no reason to punish them.
Here’s an alternative argument:
1. Some people are potential threats due to the condition of their brain. They are biologically predisposed to be evil due to their genes and upbringing. These are the type of people who become killers. These people simply can’t participate in a society based on reciprocal altruism. These people need to be identified and healed before they harm others. These are the type of people who harm others both on a small scale (in terms of committing acts of interpersonal violence) and on a large scale (by infiltrating governments and corporations and then causing genocide and environmental destruction). Telling them to take responsibility for their actions isn’t enough to prevent them from harming others.
2. The current beliefs in personal responsibility and free will are based on lies. People who care about accurate evidence-based living can’t continue to believe that individuals are totally responsible for everything that happens to them in life.
3. Understanding that people aren’t responsible for their actions is the first step towards creating a society that rewards people for doing things that enrich everybody in the world. It’s important to develop a science-based understanding of human behavior and reward people for increasing the happiness and well-being of everyone. Instead of assuming that people will take responsibility for their actions just because someone says so, a more useful and realistic option is to structure societies in ways that reward people for truly improving the human condition. This doesn’t necessarily have to be imposed by governments. Nonprofit organizations could create a better world by developing better rewards for incentivizing people to help others.
4. Meaning in life is determined by the condition of the brain. Whether people judge their lives as meaningful or not is determined by neurotransmitters and brain activity in response to genetic and environmental influences. This indicates that a sense of meaning in life is associated with certain biological states. Finding the right biological influences could help a person feel like his or her life is meaningful and valuable.