When your biology changes, so can your decision-making and your desires. The drives you take for granted (“I’m a heterosexual/homosexual,” “I’m attracted to children/adults,” “I’m aggressive/not aggressive,” and so on) depend on the intricate details of your neural machinery. Although acting on such drives is popularly thought to be a free choice, the most cursory examination of the evidence demonstrates the limits of that assumption.
Eagleman's essay is an interesting, quick read. And it reminded me of something I wrote a few weeks ago. But I should note that while Eagleman wrote about the effects of frank brain pathology on behavior, I discussed normal brain variations that complicate questions of free will and moral accountability.
While I'm certainly not suggesting that conscious decisions and moral considerations play no role in personal fate, I think it's easy to underestimate the power of influences beyond our control. It's no accident that only ten percent of people who will attempt to quit smoking today will be non-smokers one year from now. And only five percent of alcoholics will be non-drinkers one year from now. The numbers are just as gloomy for those who are determined to lose weight.*Also see the Stanford Marshmallow experiment.
And influences beyond our control exert powerful effects on behavior extending well beyond addictions and compulsions. We regard hard work as a virtue and laziness as a vice, but when I think about people who work like animals and people who are lazy, I can't escape the feeling that the constitutional playing field is far from level. Most workaholics can't stop themselves from working their tails off. Is it a virtue to do what one can't help doing? Can we be sure it's a moral failing when a person can't seem to rally the resources to persist at difficult endeavors, or might that better be understood as something of a misfortune?*
Practically speaking, we can't throw accountability out the window, but the relationship between accountability and psychological reality is, at the least, a bit shaky. Perhaps we must pretend that the relationship is rock solid, lest we allow ourselves go to hell in a handbasket, but I think a little less self-congratulatory back-patting and and a little more appreciation for human frailty wouldn't hurt.