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Roughly 20 years ago, a disturbing story hit the news media: Nightmare experience for man whose cancer turned him into a pedophile.

The presence of an egg-sized brain tumour is claimed to have correlated with a relatively sudden shift in the man's behaviour, during which the "pleasure principle overrode his restraint", and he began visiting atrocious websites and making inappropriate advances to the underaged.

For some, the story became a modern-day Phineas Gage analogy, in which trauma to the brain resulted in a substantial change to the sufferer's behaviour; their moral behaviour in particular. The fact that trauma to the brain could result in such a significant change to one's moral outlook for some proved an obstacle to the notion of an unchangeable, 'innate' soul or 'nature'.

Assuming for a moment that it is true that his behaviour was in fact caused by a tumour (behaviour which disappeared when the tumour was removed, then reappeared as the tumour returned), then it seems to constitute evidence that a materialistic view, according to which our minds are (at least largely) the products of physical circumstances, is supported.

Yet this leads to what is for some no doubt an uncomfortable conclusion; that our personalities, including our preferences/desires, are ultimately the result of neurological processes which are beyond our control. And if this is true, how can we claim to reasonably morally judge those who find themselves in possession of neurological structures which manifest in abhorrent behaviour? Shouldn't we instead feel sympathy for such people, and view them as the unfortunate inheritors of appalling biological states? Does it matter whether one person's behaviour is determined by a tumour, and another's is their default 'healthy' state? What reason do we have to assume that we can have any control over our minds if they are so prone to neurologic conditions?

What separates the brain tumour victim from the 'normal' person (if anything), in regards to how defined we are by our neurochemistry? Do we currently possess enough data to know if we are ever justified in condemning people as moral agents, as opposed to merely identifying and trying to prevent undesirable behaviours over which - for all we know - we have so little, if any control? Do we have grounds yet to shift from a notion of 'immorality' or 'badness' to a less personal notion of biological catastrophe; natural disaster?

Do any philosophers - perhaps philosophers of free will and/or neurophilosophy - address these questions by drawing on concepts other than pure determinism/randomness scenarios? Or are these concepts inextricably entwined from a view in which we are, in the end, the result of the architecture of our brains?

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    does it matter if they bear full moral responsibility for their desires? obviously they need to be controlled, and while it is a very sad story, the former seems more like idle speculation about god than it does 'truth' and 'immorality'
    – user65174
    Mar 23, 2023 at 17:26
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    it is well known by carers that dementia patients often lose their personality and a little more inappropriate than they were. obviously that isn't immoral, but i see no reason to say that they do not have their new personality, it's just less authentically them
    – user65174
    Mar 24, 2023 at 4:58
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    Note that wether people can choose their behavior is not directly relevant to wether we can punish this behavior. As a society, we don't want our child to be around molesters. Wether they do what they do because of free will or a tumor has no bearing on the fact that we are legitimate to want to prevent them from doing harm. We can both feel very compassionate for their condition but don't want them around. The reason they act becomes important only to determine the best way to reintroduce them in society (for exemple, remove the tumor).
    – armand
    Mar 24, 2023 at 10:22
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    @armand. Agreed. And despite any increased compassion we might have, the fact remains that the punishment still needs to remain severe enough to have some kind of deterrent property (as difficult as that is to measure). Does this line of thought lead to the possibility of neuro-manipulation as a kind of advanced alternative to chemical castration? Probably beyond our capacities at the moment, and would have to be done with consent. Mar 24, 2023 at 11:01
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    may be worth bearing in mind that you don't even have to think of it as punishment if the person is a danger to others through no fault of their of own. i would lean toward diminished responsibility, but like i said i don't think it's relevant.
    – user65174
    Mar 24, 2023 at 12:04

4 Answers 4

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We have to make a distinction between what we are and what we do. We cannot choose what we are, but we can and we must choose what we do.

What we are does not determine what we do. What we are determines only our needs and desires and preferences. We are free to choose how we respond to our given preferences and the given circumstances. Therefore we are morally responsible for our actions. Immoral needs don't have to be satisfied.

Phineas Gage's brain tumor changed his preferences. He had to make the choice between behaving morally or pursuing his new needs. He was responsible for his choice. There was no-one else to blame for his actions.

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  • Okay. What interests me is how you have determined that we have no control over what we are, but over what we do? What is the interceding mechanism? Also, some might argue that we are, in fact, what we do. What do you think about that? Mar 23, 2023 at 12:51
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    @Futilitarian It is just the old Schopenhauer line: "We can do what we want, but we cannot want what we want." This means that we can choose our actions, but not our preferences (or circumstances). I would not say that we are what we do. I would rather say that we are what we want. Our preferences and needs define our personality. Knowing someone's personality gives only hints about what he might do or how he might respond to some changes in the circumstances. Mar 23, 2023 at 13:19
  • I've always understood Schopehauer differently. When he says, "A man can do as he wills, but not will as he wills", I take that to mean that - in the end - he can't actually do as he wills, because what he does is dependent upon what he wills, over which he has no control. Does that make sense? Mar 23, 2023 at 13:22
  • @Futilitarian I think you have misunderstood this statement. A man's actions are not dependent upon what he wills. Preferences don't determine the actions any more than problems determine the solutions or questions determine the answers. You choose the actions to get what you want. You choose the solutions to the problems you face. You choose the answers to the questions you are asked. Mar 23, 2023 at 13:41
  • Isn't that a contradiction though? On the one hand you say: 1) "Preferences don't determine the actions". Then: 2) "You choose the actions to get what you want" (Ie: Your preferences determine your actions). It seems contradictory. Mar 23, 2023 at 13:45
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Yet this leads to what is for some no doubt an uncomfortable conclusion; that our personalities, including our preferences/desires, are ultimately the result of neurological processes which are beyond our control.

What is the person? The person is the neurological processes.

What is within the person's control? Whatever is within the control of the neurological processes.

What is within the control of the neurological processes? Here we must examine what it means for a physical process to "control" something. As an example, a thermostat controls the temperature of the room. Computers control the operation of a power generation plant. In general, A controls B, if there is a state T for B, such that A takes actions that cause B to tend towards T, whenever B happens to vary away from T.

Is it possible for a physical process to control itself? Yes. A computer may detect errors in its operation, such as hard drive read/write errors, and compensate for them, thereby controlling its own operation back towards a "normal" state T.

Do the neurological processes control themselves? Yes. For example, if a person becomes angry, they may deliberately calm themselves. Neurologically, there's a brain process corresponding to the anger, and a "calming" brain process is influencing the angry brain process towards a target state of reduced activity. Both the angry brain process and the calming brain process are part of the person, and so the person is indeed controlling themselves in this example.

What separates the brain tumour victim from the 'normal' person (if anything), in regards to how defined we are by our neurochemistry?

It is a matter of where you draw the line between person and non-person. The tumor is arguably not considered part of the person; the person with the tumor consists of only non-tumor brain processes, and the tumor's brain processes are considered something separate. Because the tumor is considered non-person, the tumor is an external force controlling the person, and which the person cannot themselves control.

In contrast, for a normal person without any tumors, there is no distinct brain system that we categorize as non-person and that has a very potent control over their behavior. So their behavior is entirely (or at least mostly) due to systems that we count as part of their self; that is what it means to be in control of their self.

Do we currently possess enough data to know if we are ever justified in condemning people as moral agents, as opposed to merely identifying and trying to prevent undesirable behaviours over which - for all we know - we have so little, if any control? Do we have grounds yet to shift from a notion of 'immorality' or 'badness' to a less personal notion of biological catastrophe; natural disaster?

What is the reason we condemn people as moral agents? We do this because such condemnations lead to a better functioning society. We can influence a person's behavior for the better by punishing them or by threatening to punish them. And the reason this influence works is that the person's behavior is within their control; they can see the threat of punishment, and change their behavior. (In other words: a brain process, that we count as part of the person, can react and change their behavior).

There would be no point to condemning or punishing someone whose behavior is not within their control, because in that case the punishment would not effectively change their behavior. As in your brain tumor case, there would be little point to punishing the man - except if we consider the importance of consistency in applying the law, and the deterrent effect on others. But for the man himself, punishment and condemnation would not change his behavior, so these are not useful things to do to that man for the purpose of changing his behavior.

But, we do understand a lot more now about external influences on a person's behavior, such as their childhood environment. And these external influences should indeed be treated like a "natural disaster" and we should try to fix the disaster. But that does not mean that blame and punishment are totally ineffective, either; a person may be the victim of their circumstances, but even so, the threat of punishment may still influence their behavior for the better.

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  • Agree with a lot of your comments. One issue still outstanding: Why is the person unaffected by tumour necessarily 'more in control'? Aren't they merely in possession of a different brain state? Why does it matter if it's a tumour or unaffected by tumour? Both are circumstances over which it's hard to see that we have any control. Mar 23, 2023 at 12:45
  • @Futilitarian I said: because we count the tumor as non-person, its influences are counted as external control over the person. The person unaffected by tumor does not have a major part of their brain that is counted as non-person. And so they do not have a major part of their behavior that is dictated by external control (meaning, external to those parts we count as the person).
    – causative
    Mar 23, 2023 at 12:46
  • Yep. I guess I'm asking why do we not count the tumour as part of the person? Isn't it merely another aspect of the person; a shift in circumstances? If it's merely another set of neurological circumstances, why do we place more moral authority with the person not affected by the tumour, but affected by their non-tumour state? Does that make any sense. I think that's the crux of my question. Mar 23, 2023 at 12:49
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    @Futilitarian The tumor is a disease state, and we generally consider disease states to be something the person fights rather than something the person is. There is also the other point I made, which is that the tumor means that the person's behavior cannot be corrected by moral condemnation, whereas the behavior of a different person without such a tumor might be. So, because moral condemnation is ineffective in this particular case, this influences what we count as person and non-person.
    – causative
    Mar 23, 2023 at 12:52
  • @Futilitarian Generally speaking, I like to say that a person is the parts of their mind that are aligned with their executive desires. If they are trying to fight against some part of themselves, perhaps some base desire or failing, then that part does not count as themselves as long as they are fighting it. It is not aligned with their executive desires.
    – causative
    Mar 23, 2023 at 12:55
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Do we currently possess enough data to know if we are ever justified in condemning people as moral agents, as opposed to merely identifying and trying to prevent undesirable behaviours over which - for all we know - we have so little, if any control?

The simple answer is no. As a society we try to prevent undesirable behavior based on the avaliable data and knowledge. Morality does not remain fixed over time so justification changes with time as well. The witch trials in Salem were justified based on the data and knowledge of the time although today they are considered a travesty. Slavery was justified based on the data and knowledge of the time although today its an abomination.

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My two cents.

There is no convincing evidence that brain damage results in (complete) lack of free will.

Being able to make choices does not seem to be affected by brain damage. Rather what seems to be affected, is how one perceives the world and values the world.

In the same sense, we can mostly agree, that a blind person does not lack free will per se simply because the person has visual perception problems.

In this sense, one perceiving that what one has in his hands is a fruit instead of a soap, and wanting to act in order to eat it, is no failure of free will per se, but rather of perception per se.

Valueing things differently and possibly outside a social norm, still makes us responsible for our choices. One may fail to perceive and thus value a (constructed) social norm. This sounds more plausible and one can be excused because of that. Since social norms, being social constructions, are based on memory of individuals instead of some natural property for their recognition, and memory is the first thing that fails in brain damage.

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  • I agree with much of what you say. Just to push back a little though, 'how one perceives the world and values the world' leads to the choices we make. In this sense, free will is brought into question. Mar 24, 2023 at 12:06
  • @Futilitarian one can answer that limitations of perception does not affect the ability to make choices but rather the potential range of choices. Eg one can hardly argue that a blind person lacks free will simply because the person cannot see.
    – Nikos M.
    Mar 24, 2023 at 12:11
  • Fair enough. I would call such a circumstance a further hinderance or diminishment of free will, I suppose, in which one's options are reduced. Mar 24, 2023 at 12:13
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    @Futilitarian options are not necessarily reduced (although it can happen) but rather change in various ways.
    – Nikos M.
    Mar 24, 2023 at 12:15

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