How to Make People Irresponsible

Finnish version not currently available.

How to make people irresponsible? At the core, it’s simple: Tell them they’re not responsible. Tell them they’re not in control. Make it seem like they don’t have a free choice and don’t hold them accountable for what they do.

It really works like that, and that’s one reason that things that don’t seem to matter, like a culture’s customs of what to say to and about people, really do matter. This is what the concept of responsibility is for, and it turns out to be one we really need.

On being held responsible

People may consider themselves responsible for reasons they have thought through independently, of course, but socialisation has a huge effect on whether they do. And when you’re aware you’re responsible for the action you’re considering taking, you’ll consider whether it’s really right — and what others will think of you. If I do this, will others dislike me for it? Will I have to face punishment? What will the direct consequences be? Does it really help me achieve what I really want to achieve? Will I feel guilt over it? What does it say about me as a person?

That is what happens when you feel that you are a genuine agent with free choice about the matter. That you are making a choice and are responsible for it, and that it reflects on who you really are.

But, frankly, we don’t always have a free choice, and it’s not always reasonable to hold people responsible or demand too much of them. If you’re being forced to do something at gunpoint, you have little free choice. If you’re too sick to get out of bed without great effort, it’s not much of a choice whether to stay home or go to work. If you’re interrogated by torture, it may not be under your power to resist. And we tend to be understanding about others in such situations, too. Similarly, it’s just unreasonable to demand some things. It’s not generally reasonable to demand that your child get perfect test scores at school, or that everyone remain celibate. Sometimes, you can’t ask for more than that someone do their best, or practise moderation. And that’s fine.

When a person feels like they don’t have control, or agency, or a real choice, they may stress over what they can’t help, but they can also just accept it and stop worrying. I’m very sick. I’m going to stay in bed. I don’t have to feel guilty about it, and if anyone asks, I can give a good reason. It doesn’t mean I’m lazy or anything, this is the right thing to do while I’m sick. End of story.

And that’s fine, too. But then there’s the thing that’s not fine. The “how to make people irresponsible” part. And that’s when you should be telling people that they’re responsible, when they could and should take responsibility — but you don’t, you tell them the opposite, and they don’t, and they act as if compelled by external forces, with no choice in the matter.

I can’t help it. This is just how we are, just how it is. This is going to hurt someone? That’s not my problem. Once I’m in this situation, this is what’s going to happen.

If you felt like you have a choice and that whatever you do you’ll be responsible for it, you’d at least try to do the right thing. But now? It’s not on you. It’s all predetermined. If there’s any fault, it’s the fault of someone else, probably the one you’re hurting, for not taking into account how you can’t control yourself.

I’m not just making this up, either. There are examples of this kind of thing in real life.

Example: Alcohol

It’s (as far as I know) a plain scientific fact that the effects of alcohol make it harder for people to think clearly and control themselves. So surely it must be a fact that people under the influence of alcohol cannot control themselves, and surely it follows that the should not be held responsible? Like sick people or people being tortured?

Well, no. The first part is a lot more complicated than you might think. There is plenty of room for both choice and for the influence of others. And consequently the second part doesn’t hold either.

First, there is a very simple idea: If you know you are prone to doing something bad under the influence, don’t get under the influence. That is a straightforward way people can control themselves anyway, and similarly a way they can be held responsible.

But they are not always held responsible, and it makes a difference. It’s been found that some cultural groups almost never produce alcoholics, such as the Chinese and Jewish populations somewhere in the USA. The reason for this appears to be that they hold their members responsible for their drinking and its consequences. You don’t get a pass if you act badly while drunk or drink too much. You’ll be condemned for it, and thus you’ll think twice before doing it again. People are held responsible for this thing, and consequently they take responsibility. And remember, the numbers show that it works, unless of course there is some other explanation.

On the other hand, in Finland (I don’t know how generally, obviously it doesn’t apply everywhere), it’s kind of a given that people are allowed to get drunk and act irresponsibly. Not everyone buys that — I certainly don’t, for one thing — but still, you will certainly see people stumbling around on a Friday night, thinking they’re being funny or getting angry at nothing or vomiting or stabbing each other or what have you. And no, our numbers of alcoholism aren’t that low either. Why? Because that’s what people here are being taught, by talk and example, is what people do. It may be objectively stupid, but all a lot of people see is that it’s what’s done and you’re not condemned for it too much.

Incidentally, while it is presumably objectively verifiable that alcohol has some effects on a person’s ability to function for purely physiological reasons, how exactly people act under its influence is still influenced by cultural expectations.

So, we can largely make people responsible, alcohol or not, by holding them responsible. What should we tell them to achieve this effect? The old “alcohol is evil” thing? No: we should tell them that they’re responsible and have a choice, and the “alcohol is evil” story is actually another way of saying they don’t. It’s saying that they have a choice and responsibility to never touch alcohol, but if they do, then there is no more choice, then they’re already doomed. And that means that if someone slips just once, they’re going to keep slipping forever. The communities mentioned above that had hardly any alcoholism were telling their new generation that “This is alcohol, you may use it, but you’re still responsible.” In communities where they tell people “This is alcohol, you may never use it or it will be your doom,” you mostly get either teetotal types or drunks. Because they don’t teach that there is such a thing as responsible use.

This is incidentally a criticism against Alcoholics Anonymous. While they believe theirs is the only working way of substance abuse treatment, actual numbers show it doesn’t work better on average than quitting by yourself — and it makes relapse more likely, because it teaches people they don’t have a choice, that they have to rely on some “higher power”. Now, different people need different things, and this will work for some, but statistically, it’s just poor policy. This is also a problem with calling alcoholism a sickness; it may be sensible in some cases — someone may genuinely need treatment for it, for example — but as a general statement, it may even do more harm than good.

By the way, it’s a more general fact that whether people are able to do something well is dependent, among other things, on whether they believe they can. For example, if they’re constantly told they’re dumb and not good at something, they won’t even try properly. As seen from the above, this also applies with self-control and control over your habits.

So: Do not tell people they are not responsible for their use of alcohol or what they do under the influence. Sometimes and to some extent there is a lack of control anyway, that’s true, but what you tell them is itself a powerful self-fulfilling prophecy. For one thing, it can mean the difference between a mistake that you learn from and an excuse to make the same mistakes over and over again.

Willpower, taboo and principles

There is also an indirect way that seeing oneself as responsible will make one more so. It is this: willpower can be trained by use. If you make an effort to control yourself, you will get better at it over time. Thus, it will be easier to resist a temptation when you know you should.

And, yes, often the difference between doing the wrong thing and the right thing will be being able to resist a temptation. You will have an inclination to do something but know it’s wrong, and if you feel responsible for your action, you will try to resist the inclination. This takes some effort and doesn’t always work, but it certainly seems, based on the above and otherwise, that holding people accountable for their actions increases their rate of resisting wrong temptations. And why not? It makes them try, after all.

There is another way you can make it easier to do the right thing by practice, too: if it’s something you can make into a habit, doing that will make it easy, no longer requiring an effort of will.

However, doing the responsible thing isn’t always about exerting willpower. That’s why I wrote this article complaining about someone’s saying that even if women are dressed revealingly, men should be able to control themselves and not rape them.

It’s actually a common way of speaking in a way that removes agency to assume men are horny animals, unable to control their sexual lust. It’s also one I particularly detest. The thing is, the statement that “men have to be able to control themselves” is actually assuming a part of the same discourse. Sure, it says they can control themselves, or rather that that is to be required. But that’s not strong enough. It still says it’s an issue of self-control. It’s not, or, more to the point, it shouldn’t be. You don’t need to exert self-control to avoid doing things that you can see are obviously completely abhorrent.

There are at least two reasons a thing can seem to out of the question people won’t even consider it. The first is another form of cultural reinforcement: when culture enforces the notion that that thing is completely unthinkable, it’s taboo. This makes people just automatically shrink from it without thinking. This is often a bad thing if it makes people not even consider an alternative that could be reasonable in certain circumstances. But for something like rape to be taboo? It’s hard to even imagine when that taboo would need to be broken, at least without going into some absurdly artificial scenario where a supervillain (I was going to say terrorists, but honestly, we don’t have to think about terrorists all the time) will blow up the whole city if you don’t rape someone.

It’s probably fine for society to enforce certain obvious taboos, because there will always be many people who don’t do such advanced moral thinking that they’d realise some things are horribly wrong without someone telling them. All this “telling people stuff affects how responsible they feel and become” thing largely assumes a certain external herd morality. And obviously there is a lot of that around. But it’s perfectly possible to come to the conclusion of responsibility independently, which should by all accounts have the same effect insofar as one really believes in it.

As hinted above, the “men are horny animals” thing doesn’t just imply that men cannot control themselves. It also implies they have a certain way of viewing the world, because otherwise the the situation would be totally different. I don’t recall the source for this, but it would work even if it was just a hypothetical example: A comment by someone that when a man sees a woman passed out, he sees an opportunity. (You know, to rape her.)

Firstly, to whoever said this: Congratulations — in so much as saying that, you have chosen to act as complete human scum, as something frankly less than a full person, though you can always choose otherwise and grow a spine. (And this is why I avoid just calling people names; you can be held responsible for what you do but not what you are and, well, see this article.) Myself and a lot of other men with some actual brains and/or morals can immediately tell how wrong that is, both factually (ie. it’s not true) and morally (ie. it’s not okay), and probably want to punch you for saying it.

Secondly, can you see how absurdly limited the perspective of this so-called “man” would be in such a situation? And how absurdly limited is the point of view of anyone who has been taught in such discourse or non at all so that he actually sees the situation like that? (There is little doubt you can find individuals so deficient, as seen from some actual rape cases that have received publicity lately.) If you only see an “opportunity”, you don’t see the situation at all, you don’t see what’s objectively right in front of you: a person. Not some thing that you can just use as if that will do no harm to anyone.

If, on the other hand, you are not left in such a sociopathically blind state of understanding (and don’t get me wrong here, it’s pretty much the ground state for human beings without the right kind of socialisation — see Pinker’s book, below); if you can actually see the situation for what it is; then you will pretty much automatically shrink for doing something objectively horrible even if it hasn’t been taught to you to be a taboo. This is the second reason people don’t always need willpower to not do what’s wrong. In sum, it can be called autonomous understanding and morality. Where you have that, you don’t need anyone telling you how it is any more. You still need to consider yourself responsible to act responsibly, but the feeling arises from your own reasons.

I haven’t really read about the psychology of when you don’t even need to use willpower to avoid the temptation of something you might want in some way, but I think the difference can be illustrated by an analogy. Suppose you’re really into chips, so much that you might have difficulty resisting the temptation to eat them in most circumstances, or at least it would take an effort of will. And suppose that right now, you are hungry and there is a bag of your favourite chips that you could take — but there is a thick wall of fire between you and them. You can’t get to the chips any other way than by going straight through it. Physically, you probably could get through if you really tried, so it’s not that it’s physically impossible. You’d just feel pain and suffer burns. At that point, you don’t just think it’s a bad idea to get the chips but have to fight the urge anyway. Your brain just weighs against it automatically because the cost would be absurd. And if you don’t feel the same way about raping someone (as an example), there’s something wrong with you.

Conclusion

The real point of holding people responsible is to affect them so as to make them act responsibly, teaching them self-control and making society a better place. Even if you think it’s really because people just deserve such and such punishment when they’ve done such and such, which point I have refuted elsewhere and may write more comprehensively about later, the point remains that this is one function of holding them responsible — because it really works like that. There is real evidence.

However, society and other people don’t always set the right demands. True, you can’t demand just anything you like. Some things are really at odds with human nature and possibilities, at least so much so that only relatively few people can meet certain demands. However, what I’m mainly concerned with here is when people are told this when it’s manifestly no true. This may not be obvious to people trapped in a particular cultural point of view, that’s kind of the point, but more objectively it often is obvious. This can be seen in the examples with alcohol. We can see that some groups get higher amounts of responsibility in its use simply by demanding it and teaching autonomy, showing the other groups’ cultural beliefs that such cannot be demanded to be simply false. Hence, it is counterproductive and wrong to spread such beliefs.

Feeling responsible doesn’t make people immune to mistakes. If it did, willpower could never have a part in this, because it is something that sometimes fails. It can have a part, and people do make mistakes. But there’s a world of difference between feeling responsible for your mistake and trying to avoid them in the future — and accepting it as inevitable and something that’s going to just keep on happening.

You can teach people to be responsible, or you can teach them to be irresponsible. The choice should be clear. As for yourself: You can choose to act responsibly, or you can choose to act irresponsibly. It’s your choice. Regardless of what anyone tells you, you are responsible for it. And the more you realise this, the more freely you are able to make your own choices, as you come to see them as your own choices.

Sources and readings

  • Midgley, Mary: The Ethical Primate. Humans, Freedom and Morality (Responsibility and its denial.)
  • Peele, Stanton: 7 Ways to Beat Addiction (Responsibility and substance abuse.)
  • Baumeister, Roy F. & Tierney, John: Willpower. Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength (Self-control as trainable.)
  • Stewart, Ian & Cohen, Jack: Figments of Reality. The Evolution of the Curious Mind (Chapter 9: Responsibility and trying to disavow it.)
  • Pinker, Steven: The Better Angels of Our Nature. The Decline of Violence in History and Its Causes (Ethics and empathy as something that is learnt; the role of self-control.)
  • Berger, Peter L. & Luckmann, Thomas: The Social Construction of Reality (How the current state of affairs becomes socially excused by explaining it as necessary — this also applies to what is said about what people can be held responsible for.)

(I don’t have time to give proper sources for everything I claim in this blog. Some of the psychological results I’ve pointed to can’t be found in any of these books, and I couldn’t even say what their sources were off-hand, though I know I learnt them in probably reliable places like university lectures. I’m not saying you shouldn’t believe me, but just remember you haven’t actually seen my sources yourself, so don’t give these claims as high credence as if you had. I would rather encourage critical thinking than ask for blind faith.)

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