Free Will And Social Behavior: Who Is Responsible For What – Analysis


There are two basic frameworks for behavior: biology, as the internal, endogenous determinant of human and community behavior, and ecology, as the exogenous shaping factor of both human and community behavior. These two factors break down into many components and their groups. For example, the biological factor includes genetic configuration, hormonal profile, etc. The ecological factor combines adaptation to the environment, social processes, benefit exchanges, etc. In addition, both of these bases and their components are in constant interaction, finally determining human behavior and its variability. The same applies to society as a social community: the aforementioned factors ultimately shape the rules, norms and processes in a social community. All of the above applies not only to humans, but also to any biological organisms.

How do norms and rules help subordinate biological predisposition? How does S (Sacred) – the human – increase its weight relative to P (Profane) – the animal – in McCloskey’s model of B (Behaviour) – behavior =S+P?

Initially it is the exchange and extraction of goods, i.e., economics, that triggers the establishment of common rules and norms. The more sophisticated the exchange, and the extraction of goods requires more knowledge and skills, the more complex and stimulating the rules and norms become.

As a result, such norms, rules, and customs are transformed into social ethics and morality that are positive for members of society. Any individual is forced to obey such norms, overcoming his biological resistance. The individual is able to limit his negative emotions and their expression in physical aggression if there is a good reason, stronger than the desire for self-expression due to biological drivers. The more a person is able to buy out biological triggers, the more deeply he perceives norms and rules and fears the consequences of their violation.

Let us look at the conditioned Mr. Smith. His biological constitution is unfortunate: he is prone to aggression, temper tantrums and violence because his orbitofrontal cortex is underdeveloped and his mediator neurons are underactive. He also has a lack of the hormone oxytocin, but a high level of testosterone. In addition, his mother lived all her pregnancy in a port motel with rough sailors, working as a cleaner, and apparently had additional unpleasant part-time jobs of a sexual nature. Consequently, while still in the womb, the future Mr. Smith took copious doses of maternal cortisol, adrenaline, and other stress hormones. After birth, Mr. Smith was taken in by an aunt and uncle, who were residents of a poor criminal suburb in Philadelphia. Mr. Smith’s upbringing was predominantly violent and physical, and growing up in a community of teenage gangs…

The result is a highly unfortunate biosocial profile of Mr. Smith. Not only does his biological frame suggest a tendency toward aggressive emotionality, violence, and low levels of empathy, but his social environment and corresponding norms and customs have contributed to this personal biology.

Does this mean that Mr. Smith will end up a murderer, rapist, criminal, or, at best, a domestic tyrant? Very, very possibly. At any rate, the probability of such a fate is extremely high. Is there, at the same time, the possibility of an alternative path in life? Absolutely. But it does not depend fundamentally on Mr. Smith, and this is exactly what Robert Sapolsky says when he asserts the virtual absence of free will and the ephemerality of notions of guilt and merit.

Indeed: the extent to which Mr. Smith’s unchosen and unchangeable biological predispositions will develop depends on the conditions in which Mr. Smith continues to live, how early these conditions become stationary for him and their drivers internalized, whether they will be stationary at all or constantly changing.

Suppose that at age 12, from the outskirts of Philadelphia, Mr. Smith finds himself in a very different environment, such as the home of wealthy literary scholars, Harvard professors, where three other teenagers, children of these scholars, live. There is affluence, friendliness, trust, respect, empathy, concern for one another, freedom of choice and the value of individual rights, an appropriate ethic of behavior, liberal rules and norms. Little Mr. Smith is at a fork in the road, and no one can predict in advance or ever accurately: can the new incentives and norms profoundly change Mr. Smith’s behavior and offset his biological triggers? Will biology or normative pressures and a humane environment that stimulates efforts to limit aggression and the desire to use violence win out?

Perhaps the new humane ethics and domestic processes in which Mr. Smith finds himself will be able to encourage Mr. Smith to follow them, and will condition Mr. Smith to seek reciprocal action, that is, to respond with empathy to empathy, or to consciously limit the negative consequences of reactions triggered by personal biological traits. Whether this happens depends on a host of additional variables, such as Mr. Smith’s other surroundings outside the home, the frequency of situations conducive to aggression or other criminal behavior (e.g., bullying at school or having to steal a vase to replace a broken one). This process is uncontrollable and random. However, if there are few or no such undesirable situations, Mr. Smith is very likely to learn new rules and norms and follow his new ethics, as this would be the most effective and beneficial behavior in such an environment.

The need to express empathy, tolerance, and caring as the most rational behavior will become a habit and will be an important factor in reducing the level of aggression and corresponding involuntary behavioral reactions: Mr. Smith will learn to restrain or at least reduce the severity and saturation of his aggressive biology.

The assimilation of humane and humanistic morality (recall, based solely and entirely on the rationality of adaptation in the beginning) will facilitate positive reflection in the future. Mr. Smith will analyze his behavior and attitudes toward people, comparing them with the behavior of others and his attitudes toward himself, bringing increasing awareness to his behavioral manifestations. Such awareness will be increasingly able to prevent biological manifestations rather than reduce the degree of reactions that have already occurred.

Mr. Smith’s future in this scenario could be very, very sunny, with a great family, a loving wife and beautiful children. Certainly, his biological constitution will be a factor, but it can be consciously or naively channeled into a form that is not costly to others: Mr. Smith will become a keen hunter, a visitor to theme sex clubs, a paintballer, a commando, a policeman, or anyone else in a field where violence is legal and its regular use is desirable or necessary.

But things can happen differently, and they can happen back then, at age 12, in that same beautiful Harvard faculty house. Bullying at school, the hatred of a five-year-old stepbrother, the need to commit violence even in the name of a good cause, like getting blunted for that same stepbrother – any driver encouraging a display of personal “failed” biology will keep that biology at bay. Regular situations of this sort will somehow neutralize the reduction of innate biological aggression and the positive influence of the rules of a humanized environment. As a result, Mr. Smith will beat his wife, abuse his children, perhaps he will begin torturing detainees if he becomes a policeman, or skinning her undead shot deer. Ethics and norms will not become the leading adaptive driver, changing behavior and responses, following individual biology.

We know that extra injections of testosterone in bodybuilders don’t make them aggressive – they make even more aggressive those who were already prone to aggression. Soldiers howling in foreign territory do not become prone to beastliness because the situation promotes it – those who were already beasts become brutal. We can call this the “mistake of Hannah Arendt,” the author of “The Nature of Evil,” who drew the wrong conclusions from very interesting material – conversations with the concentration camp commander. Arendt asserted the banality of evil in the sense that a person caught in an environment intensely stimulating to the manifestation of evil as the norm would somehow become a conduit of evil, no matter how “normal” the person was or could be in ordinary life. Just as the conclusions of Philip Zimbardo’s famous Stanford prison experiment, Arendt’s conclusions from conversations with concentration camp commander Eichel proved to be wrong, and modern science has thoroughly refuted them (to be fair, Zimbardo’s experiment was in fact manipulation and quackery, unlike Arendt’s qualitative work, whose conclusions proved to be simply wrong).

This is an important point for understanding how our Mr. Smith’s fate might play out.

 Is Robert Sapolsky’s claim that free will does not exist, since every reaction and behavioral act we make is conditioned by biology, both internal – our personal biological profiles – and external – the environment and the established adaptation to it?

Fundamentally, yes, and it is impossible to argue with this, because modern neuropsychology, neurobiology, and biology in general have unequivocal evidence for this. A modern endocrinologist can parse your entire behavior down to the simplest chemical reaction, and a neuroscientist will give you a picture of your basic perspectives and even the probabilities of their realization by studying your biological profile down to the molecules.

Sapolsky is quite right when he speaks of the fundamental absence of free will, since personal biology is a lottery upon which we have no control. In fact, neither is external biology, since, for the most part, humans, especially in childhood, do not choose the environment in which they will exist, much less evaluate it based on the degree of sustainability and permanence of humane norms and ethics. It is all a random process.

Taking this logic to its limits, Sapolsky argues that one can blame, but one cannot blame, a violent serial killer or an aggressive domestic abuser, since their every action is not already predetermined by them as individuals a few seconds before the action. It is predetermined by their biological device. You can’t accuse–you can’t convict–an epileptic who hit a pedestrian to death when he had a seizure behind the wheel. Just as it is pointless to praise a Nobel laureate for being smart and great, his success is a win in the biological lottery and a positive external environment with processes that favored the development of his “lucky biology.

Indeed, what to be born into and where to grow cannot be the active and volitional choice of man, and in this sense there really is no free will. However, there is also the external biology that I mentioned, the environment that determines adaptation processes and shapes behavioral responses among other things. And here I see a very important question.

A person who has internalized the norms and rules of the humanistic environment begins to behave rationally: he follows these norms because this is the most profitable and efficient way of living in such an environment – maximizing utility and reducing costs. Growing up in Oslo, a Somali will not cut up his opponent, simply because the basic motivation would be the irrationality of such behavior in Norway to win an argument. But the personal motivation to argue non-aggressively will be the ethics and morality already formed from the basic incentives. Over time, adaptive traits become the norm of behavior and the primary factor in behavioral manifestations.

For example, Mr. Smith, being very irritated and ferocious toward his lovely wife, has the primary biological reaction of beating her and jumping on her back, as angry male chimpanzees do. Such an intention is a consequence of a physiological response to an external stimulus according to a personal biological profile, which, as we know, Mr. Smith is not very good at. But Mr. Smith has learned the rules of humanistic ethics over the many years since he lived at Harvard House. He has learned to show empathy and to restrain aggression as a constant rational behavior, a habit, and he now has the strength and skill to suppress the initial urge.

For one thing, it is rational: a battered wife can leave him, can take the children, can shoot him in the night, can tell her acquaintances about it or give an interview to the local tabloid, can put Mr. Smith in jail. In the end, she might just fall out of love with him. This would be a great blow to Mr. Smith, for the love of a loved one is a very favorable substratum for the development and ingraining of empathy, and this is an important deterrent to our hero’s failed biology.

Second, Mr. Smith, by practicing benevolence, caring, and restraint as a norm of rational behavior in his environment, has learned to prevent his reactions, not simply to make them less extensive and concentrated. And this means that the decision of whether or not to make an effort to limit himself to effective aggression is a decision of Mr. Smith’s personality. And here we can speak of a semblance of free will, because Mr. Smith has an alternative, he has a choice, and he has the strength and skills to make a humane decision, accumulated and developed during his “humanizing adaptation”.

Let’s rejoice: Mr. Smith makes a rational decision, profitable and ultimately low-cost: he approaches Mrs. Smith, kisses her, apologizes, jokes, gives her flowers and a Tiffany ring to boot. Rather than the option of mashing her sides, smashing her nose, and calling her a whore, he does not let his subject biology get in the way. Someone has wittily defined this “model” as follows: five minutes of happiness, years of suffering. The irrationality and costliness of non-empathic aggressive behavior is succinctly and accurately demonstrated.

Of course, such decisions are much more difficult for Mr. Smith than for Mr. Jones, who was born with plenty of oxytocin, his mother lived all her pregnancy in a villa in Monaco with her adoringly handsome husband and listening to Schubert, while little Mr. Jones received streams of protein and a minimum of his mother’s stress hormones. Then little Mr. Jones was bathed in his mother’s love, lived well and went to a better school, and so on. All of these factors, in addition to gene configuration, influence the formation of Mr. Jones’s brain and overall physiology, from his intrauterine formation to the social environment of his adulthood. Thus, Mr. Jones has a much easier time dealing with aggression than Mr. Smith, and his empathy is broad and concentrated.

Of course, the model characters, factors, and processes presented are nominal simplifications and generalizations. Of course, there are dozens if not hundreds of times more variants of behavioral outcomes, factors and variables that form both the biological profile and adaptive traits, and the ways they interact with each other can hardly be counted at all. However, generalizations capable of explaining the foundations of any behavioral action can be considered as fundamental concepts, on the basis of which specific thematic models and theories are developed and differentiated.

As a final reminder, I will recall one conceptual experiment that has been repeated many times, with different modifications depending on the observers’ goals. However, the basic scenario was more or less the same.

In a room with four monkeys-usually rhesus macaques-a rope to which a banana was tied hung from the ceiling. Each time one of the four monkeys jumped and grabbed the banana, a torrent of cold water would pour down from the ceiling, showering all the monkeys in the room. Gradually, time after time, the monkeys learned that it was better not to jump for the banana, otherwise it would be bad for all at once: when one of the monkeys did decide to jump again and grabbed the banana, she was properly beaten by her roommates after the inevitable water procedure.

Then one of the monkeys was taken out of the cage and a new one was launched. Of course, the new roommate of the old macaques jumped for the banana, and, of course, got her neck slapped. After some succession of similar attempts and with wrinkled sides, the new macaque also stopped jumping for the banana: first, she was tired of getting wet, but, more importantly, she was getting a thrashing from her suffering roommates because of her.

Next, another old resident was replaced by a new one, with whom the same story happened. And so they replaced all the old monkeys that were originally in the room with new ones. Not a single old monkey remained in the room, but all four new monkeys had clearly learned the rule of not grabbing a banana.

When they decided to start replacing the second worship monkeys with the third, the new monkey was not even allowed to jump in, as were all the subsequent ones. Eventually the third generation also learned that there was no need to jump for that banana, not even understanding why.

In the end, about 6 generations of macaques were changed in that room, and they all never jumped for the banana until one culprit was found and jumped.

This is how institutions are created and this is how subject biology can be neutralized.

The semblance of free will and the physical possibility of human choice can be effective neutralizers of an unfortunate biological profile – excessive aggression and other distortions due to personal biology – only in societies where ethics, morality and institutions provide the greatest incentives for cooperation, empathy and tolerance. These are societies of advanced humanism, and they are represented by liberal democracies with developed markets.

With the initial frightening variability and randomness of the entering variables, which make it impossible to count on a high probability of personal humanization of any particular individual, liberal ethics and democratic institutions still offer hope for an overall positive result, and hope is solid: the humanization of Western society is undeniable, unlike the reverse movement in illiberal societies: autocracies and dictatorships.

This, however, is a different story…

Paul Tolmachev

Paul Tolmachev is an Investment Manager, Economist and Political Analyst. He is Certified Professional in Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE Program), Duke University. Paul is serving as a Portfolio Manager for BlackRock running $500 million assets under personal management. He also is a visiting research scholar at The Hoover Institution (Stanford University), where he researches political economy and social behavior, specializing in the analysis of macroeconomics, politics, and social processes. Paul is a columnist and contributor to a number of international think tanks and publications, including, Mises Institute, Eurasia Review, WallStreet Window, The Heritage Foundation,, L'Indro, etc.

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