Sunday, April 18, 2010

biological determinism and free will

A whole lot of energy goes into proving or refuting the  biological basis of undesirable behavior.  In large part, these are political arguments.   If it is my genes/my brain/my disease that 'made me' use drugs/kill my neighbor/be homosexual, then I should not be held accountable.  I am sick, not bad.  Not so says one of my favorite social theorists, Nikolas Rose.   In great article in the History of Human Sciences (Vol. 13:1), called Screen & intervene: governing risky behavior, Rose  notes how resoundingly biological dermininism has failed in the US courts.  He goes on to say:

"Indeed, the trend of contemporary legal thought, especially in the USA, is to operate on the premise of the inescapability of moral responsibility and culpability. On this basis, no appeal to biology, biography or society should be allowed to weaken moral responsibility for the act, let alone to diminish the requirement that the offender be liable to control and/or punishment. In this context, the argument from biology is likely to have its most significant impact, not in diminishing the emphasis on free will necessary to a finding of guilt, but in the determination of the sentence. This is unlikely to be in the direction of mitigation. For if antisocial conduct is indelibly inscribed in the body of the offender, reform appears more difficult, and mitigation of punishment inappropriate. More likely are arguments for the long-term pacification of the biologically irredeemable individual in the name of public protection."

Yikes...  So much for the argument that medicalization beats criminalization.  If our medical arguments can be used to create 'biologically irredeemable' individuals (see the post on chronic, relapsing conditions below), we may be doing more harm than good.  Rose goes on to point out the ways in which new neuroscientific technologies are being used to identify people "at risk" or predisposed to criminal behavior.  Soon, you may not even have to commit a crime to become suspect.


  1. Starting largely in the Progressive Era in the U.S., evironmental or biological/psychological determinism came to dominate theories of crime and punishment. We don't care if someone's sick; we care about how this sickness manifests itself in behavior that those in power deem undesirable Medicalization and criminalization are hardly incompatible. The largest single source of referral to publicly funded drug treatment in the US is the criminal justice system; addiction is a chronic relapsing condition characterized in part by the addict's inability to change - punishment and the threat of incarceration can be a great motivator, so the dominant theorists of addiction (many of whom have JDs, not MDs) tell us.

    As long as we see habitual substance use as an undesirable behavior we want to change, it will always be amenable to this hegemonic hybrid medical and punitive framework. Instead of worrying about what addiction "is" we might instead want to examine more closely why we care so much about eradicating it.

  2. great point. would love for you to post some of your work here that explores that a bit more, especially since I haven't read up on the punishment and deviance literature. let me know if you want to a guest post. :-)

  3. Sure, thanks for the invitation!

    Another great source for complicating these issues (in the same vein as N. Rose) is Mariana Valverde's book "Disease of the Will: Alcohol and the Dilemmas of Freedom". She reframes the problem as not one of addiction so much as of freedom. What does freedom mean? How do we know when it's being exercised? In neo-liberal governance, freedom has come to mean exercising one's will, self control, mastering one's propensity toward compulsivity. If we control ourselves, we are free. What an odd definition of freedom, right? And yet, in a society full of "risks" it starts to make sense.

    Anyway, it does seem that when we talk about drugs, obsess about addiction, reinforce the value of sobriety, we are really grappling with bigger issues that we channel into a focus on the politics of ingestion. And, we mess up a lot of people's lives in the process, in the name of healing and punishing them.