Room for development

What we do, think and feel has been said to be preprogrammed by our genes, determined by blind fate or a watching divinity, imprinted by culture and society, moulded by our childhood experiences. I don't feel particularly compelled by such theories that tell me, in effect, that my choices, my ideas and convictions, are really driven by something (or someone) else. Are you convinced?

We have to make a fine distinction here. What those theories I've mentioned above have in common is the claim that we don't choose ourselves what to do, think or feel. But there are different ways to understand that claim. It could be meant that we are fully controlled by something else, that none of our actions actually comes from our own decision, that we always think and feel in a way that is determined externally (that is, outside of ourselves). On this extreme interpretation, there is nothing that we really could do to change ourselves, in order to act differently. In fact, according to this extreme view, even our wish to change is something that's preprogrammed, and so is whatever we try to do in order to fulfill it. (And of course, whether we succeed in changing thus is also already predetermined.) Our notion that we have choices and some freedom turns out to be an illusion.

There is a more nuanced interpretation, however: it might be claimed that we are only partly controlled externally, that some of our actions result from influences beyond our control, but others are really what we chose freely, that sometimes we are driven, but at other times we are the drivers. On this view, there are still strong influences on us; but it also acknowledges some room for exercising choice. In fact, nobody would really think that everything is under our own full control: we experience ourselves often enough to be somewhat influenced by factors outside ourselves. Our genes, childhood experiences and so on seem indeed to have some role in shaping our lives, and unless we start to counter that influence, obviously there won't be any change. But what the nuanced interpretation allows, and what the extreme interpretation does not allow, is that there is some room for development. We may be shaped by childhood experiences, but we can to some extent conquer that influence in our lives. The same applies to cultural patterns, and biological conditions. There may be limits, but there are possibilities as well, and it is within these possibilities that we can operate.

And how else could success in life be defined, if not precisely by how well you do within the area marked out so? For living successfully, it's relevant how much you make out of the possibilities. Where exactly the lines of constraint run does make some difference for what will happen in your life, but that's not the relevant one. What makes the relevant difference is whether you do act, within the area where you can change things, and whether you actually bring about that change. That's what is decisive for whether a life is successful or not. And of course, the extreme version of the claim that other things than our own choices drive our lives leaves no room at all for that sort of success.

There is another consideration that makes the extreme view unacceptable: What would it mean for you if it were actually true? What discernible difference in your life would it make whether your behavior is preprogrammed by your genes or not? I'd rather say that if there were any difference at all, it could result only from a difference in your actions, thoughts and feelings. If you started believing in being driven by mechanisms generated by the events of your early childhood, that would possibly change your behavior in some ways, and also your attitudes: would you be able to take other people as seriously as you do now when you come to think of them of automata controlled by their genes, their childhood experiences, or social role conventions, or some such thing? Start accepting the extreme view, and you'll probably begin to behave indifferently towards others, and indeed, towards reality. However convincing the rhetoric may sound (and some proponents of the extreme view use the pathos of science, or religion, to astonishing effects), accepting the claim under the extreme interpretation is not good for you — it's harmful: it will damage your relationships with the rest of the world.

And finally, subscribing to such a view, one that takes your responses to the world as something that you don't actually control yourself, would be a perfect excuse not to put any efforts into forming your character, improving yourself, wouldn't it? What point would there be in enhancing your ability to deliberate, to figure out what's the right thing to do, when the outcome will be what providence has prescribed anyway? Why should you try to build up better, more consistent beliefs when the truth is hidden behind veils of cultural constructs? And why should you educate your feelings when they're at any rate merely a cruelly blind repetition of the events in your early childhood? Thus accepting the extreme view is damaging not only in your behavior towards others, but even in your attitude towards yourself. Again, it's harmful: it leaves no room for development.

So when you think about influences on your decisions, be careful to be nuanced. Make sure that the view you accept includes room for development: of your own character, your relationships with others, and your success in leading your life. Take care.
Copyright © 2007-2012 by Leif Frenzel. All rights reserved.