This article was published in Catalyst on the 29th of May 2013.

There’s a well-known saying in the English language: “There but for the grace of God go I”. It’s attributed, somewhat apocryphally, to 16th century English reformer John Bradford, and it remains a common expression to this day. It acts as an acknowledgement that our lives are governed, to some extent, by forces outside our control; as such, it is a plea for empathy for the less fortunate. If our destiny — so to speak — is primarily a matter of luck, the saying suggests, what right do we have to blame, condemn or pass judgement on others?

This, it must be said, is far from a universally accepted premise. Modern self-help books, for instance, preach the importance of personal responsibility; the idea that the individual can control his or her fate, that one gets to decide how one’s future turns out. Popular entertainment repeats this concept as if it were more or less axiomatic: we are not slaves to our pasts, the inspirational movie tells us; our fate is in our own hands. Likewise, moralists of all political persuasions like to remind us, we are responsible for our choices.

Are these sentiments at all reconcilable? On some level, they both seem intuitively true: on some level, our conscious decisions do shape the outcome of our lives; and yet, it is undeniable that we are to some extent shaped by our genetic predispositions and our cultural or socioeconomic background. So, which is true?

This may sound like a familiar philosophical debate, and it is. The real question that underlies this issue is, do we have free will? Do we, to some extent or other, choose the direction of our own lives, or are we simply victims of external factors?

To answer that, it’s probably useful to consider why we do things. Clearly, we don’t act in a vacuum. There is a reason why I’m sitting here writing this piece instead of, say, eating breakfast, robbing a bank or digging a hole in the front yard and barking at passing cars. There are factors that limit my ability to do certain things, and certainly limit the likelihood of me doing many more things.

Firstly, I’m a human being, capable of speech, complex thought and using various technologies. Furthermore, I’m bound by certain functions: in order to survive, I need to eat, I need to drink, I need to sleep, I need to go to the toilet. I’m also genetically predisposed to have a strong urge to procreate (or at least participate in the act of procreation), to be safe from predators, to feel warm at night and to engage in social interaction with other members of my species. All of these factors influence my behaviour.

Not all of these influences are biological. I’m also heavily influenced by my cultural upbringing, too. I am raised to believe that killing and stealing are wrong; that boys and girls are different types of people; that work is good because it means that I’ll have money and be able to buy the things I want, or at least pay the rent. I don’t just learn these explicit value judgements, I heavily conform to the behaviour of those around me, particularly in my formative years. I learn by mimicking authority figures, and I gather information from sources that they endorse: 1 + 1 = 2; the world is round; death is inevitable. I learn even more from personal experience.

Genes and socialisation don’t just contribute to who I am as a person, they are what I am. Scientifically speaking, that’s it. The nature/nurture debate is simply the question of which is the dominant influence of the two (with most people acknowledging that both play a role). And neither biology nor socialisation are processes that we have any control over.

So, what then of this idea of personal responsibility and constructing your own destiny? Some might argue that, while we have little control over who we are to begin with, we can choose where our life goes from there. On some level, that seems plausible; after all, we’ve all heard stories of working class kids who became millionaires, or drug addicts who turned their lives around. Clearly, our decisions often play a role in what happens to us.

Unfortunately, there’s a complicating factor. At a basic level, all organisms tend to act according to their self-interest at all times. That is not to say that organisms always do the best thing for their own welfare or are incapable of helping others (or, in fact, putting others’ needs above their own), but that their fundamental goal is always their own happiness (that is, the fulfillment of what it is that they think they need at a certain point in time). This may seem contentious, but think about this further: what action could contravene this principle? Making a donation to charity? Deciding to improve your lot in life? Committing suicide? All of these acts are chosen because they seem the best of an array of options at a given point in time (for instance, one would rather die than go on living), and the more you analyse the motivation the clearer it becomes that self-interest is at its core. In fact, I think it’s reasonable to categorically state that people will always do what they think is best for themselves in any given situation.

If that motivation is indeed universal, and is simply moderated by our existing dispositions, the case for free will seems to be on rocky ground. It still seems plausible, however — we’re still making decisions, aren’t we? The problem with self-interest — or, really, any model of human motivation you choose — is that you don’t get to choose the input that comes in. You have a brain that is out of your control; you are placed in an environment that you have not yet done anything to control; and you are faced with a series of options that you did not create. If we are destined to always pick the option that we perceive to be in our own self-interest, we are simply left with the process of considering the inputs and selecting what seems to be the ‘correct’ one. A computer could make that decision.

Computers, after all, constantly make decisions. Consider a computer chess game: its purpose is to win the game, and it will do its best to do so. It doesn’t know what input you will give it — say, whether you will move your knight or your bishop — but it will calculate what appears to be the best move based on the move that you have just made. Human decision-making, perhaps, is not so different.

Some will point out that, unlike humans, computers do not possess consciousness; but what is consciousness other than perception? Sensory perception; memory; ability to reason: without these faculties, would consciousness mean anything? The simplest organisms possess some sort of perception, yet nobody would argue that bacteria have the ability to control their destinies. Without even getting into the complex neuroscience surrounding this issue, I think logic already leads us to concede that free will may well be an illusion.

What does all of this mean for the “your future is in your hands” kind of rhetoric? It’s still true to an extent, but only on a superficial level: it’s true that the fact that you grow up in a poor family doesn’t necessarily mean that you will be poor for the rest of your life. But nobody who understands causality would ever argue against that. It would be far more accurate to say that the fact that you grew up in a poor family without an ambitious character, with low access to support networks and education, and a family history of drug addiction will make it far more likely that you will spend the rest of your life in poverty. Once you add all the other myriad factors that have shaped you as a person, your future becomes more and more certain. Keep in mind here that even the most disadvantaged person in the world could be given a hand up by a compassionate neighbour, or chance upon a good self-help book that changes their life, or be discovered by a talent show; the important thing to remember is that all of these possibilities still constitute external inputs.

Some of them will require the recipient to have, say, a patient predisposition or an ability to follow instruction, but these are traits that one either possesses or doesn’t. They may develop them, but that decision to begin that process of development is itself dependent on pre-existing factors. We are all victims of circumstance in this way.

This is why “there but for the grace of God go I” is such a compelling statement. It doesn’t just call on us to realise that we didn’t deserve our fortune or misfortune; that nothing makes us superior or inferior to others around us; it demands that we have empathy for our other human beings. Like us, they too want the same things; some are simply blessed with the intelligence or diligence to make better decisions. I can’t help but feel like the world would be a better place if more people realised this; if we refrained from judging those of us who do stupid, cruel or self-destructive things. How can we hate somebody or hold them in contempt when the realisation strikes us that we would be just like them if we had their genes and upbringing? Even in our personal relationships, we would do better to understand that we are always striving for the same essential things; some, through no choice of their own, are just a little better at it than others. These consequences may be a long way away while popular culture continues to point us in the opposite direction; in the meantime, I hope as many people as possible can give consideration to this saying and pay heed to its plea for empathy.

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