Like you, I often think about the extent to which it is meaningful to believe that individuals are in control of their choices, beliefs, and behavior. Parents, courts, and teachers, inter alios, (especially in the West) tend to assume that something called the self directs or chooses to not direct its energies in particular directions. And once such an assumption is made, blame and credit are appropriate responses to the behavior of these selves. The fundamental attribution error, justifications for inequality, and mandatory prison sentences each have their foundation in the presumption that individuals choose their behavior.
But the evidence for that proposition is sparse. We tend to believe it because it makes us feel all feisty and in control. Plus, we feel as if we are in control, and that feeling is quite enough to convince us that what we want to believe is what we should believe. Amazing luck and good fortune are just other words for brilliant choices.
But if the cynicism dripping from that last paragraph is deserved, are we left with a sense that responsibility cannot be attributed to individuals? Not necessarily. I urge you to take a hard look at Michael Gazzaniga’s Who’s in Charge: Free Will and the Science of the Brain.Read together with Ken Gergen’s Relational Being: Beyond Self and Community to consider an alternative paradigm for thinking about human meaning and human responsibility. Anchoring both in what Gazzaniga calls “layered social interactions,” permits us to pursue meaning and responsibility without any requirement to believe in free will. We can leave individual will out of the discussion and still locate thoughtful meaning and expect responsibility at times.