On Free Will and DNA

It’s been a while since I’ve done a post, but the comments have been active and thought provoking and I have had a few thoughts rattling around in my head.   An article in this morning’s Science Times section of the New York Times has put me over the edge, however.  It’s about free will.  I think it helped me understand part of what troubles me about defining relationships based on genetic links (or the absence thereof).  

I believe in free will and what I think to be its counterpart–personal responsiblity.   I think I am able to make choices and it is therefore appropriate that I be held accountable for those choices.   Similarly, I choose the actions I engage in and can therefore be held accountable for those actions.  

The idea that various things are dictated by our DNA takes them out of the realm of free well.   So, for example, I have no control over the color of my eyes–that is genetically determined.  It therefore seems to me ridiculous that anyone would hold me accountable for that.  

Of course, the picture is complicated.   I may have genetic tendencies to some things (particular illnesses or susceptibilities) that I cannot control, but I can control how I deal with those illnesses or susceptibilities.   So it’s not like I think everything is either pre-determined or free choice.     

Perhaps this seems inconsistent, but I suppose I’m a bit of a romantic, too, I think.  So if you go read the third hypothetical in the Times piece (the one about Bill and the secretary), I am inclined to believe that one does not exercise a choice to fall in love.   What one does about it, though?  That’s choice, from which moral responsibility follows.

All that, I think is in the nature of disclosure.  I don’t for a minute think everyone will agree with me on these points, but you could think about where you stand on them and which ones you do agree/disagree about.   (And then we could think about why we agree/disagree and whether that is a matter of free will or choice…..uh oh—not going there.) 

Anyway, defining legal relationships of caretaking by where you find genetic links seems to me to put these relationships in the pre-determined side rather than the free will side.   You say to those who would raise children they are not related to that they cannot really be parents.  It is predetermined that the parents are whoever the DNA matches with. 

I understand that those who choose to raise children without a genetic link will never have the genetic link, and so in that sense, I’m quite willing to acknowledge that the existence or non-existence of the genetic link is determined.  But what you do with the existence or non-existence of that genetic link?  That’s free will.   You may choose to think it important and defines you as a parent (0r not-a-parent) or you may choose to say it’s just a bit of information and your performance as a parent is up to you.     

Thus, I think that people can choose to be parents without having any genetic relationships and that we should honor those choices as recognize those people as parents every bit as much as we should do that for people who act with genetic relationships.   

Which brings me round to my refrain–actions (and actions that I think are the result of free will) are what matter.


4 responses to “On Free Will and DNA

  1. I am a Determinist, and I believe that it calls for more personal responsibility than a belief in Free Will does. Determinism means that people are totally influenced by the world around them, including all the actions of other people. Free Will implies that people can overcome all the influences and other people and do whatever they want because of their own will. So when someone else does something wrong or bad, a Free Willer is going to say that it was their own fault, they are fully to blame, whereas a Determinist is going to trace the blame back to everyone’s complicity in influencing that person’s actions. A Free Willer can absolve himself of responsibility by removing himself form the causal chain of events, but a Determinist cannot, he must accept his share of the blame.
    In terms of our own actions, a Free Willer can shrug off personal responsibility by believing that the influences that tell them the right and moral thing to do don’t really have sway over them, and they are free to choose the good or the bad equally and do whatever they feel like doing. A Determinist can’t shrug off personal responsibility because, even though he knows that he is 100% influenced by outside influences, his actions are still going to result in consequences and those will be directly attributable to him.

  2. Our society reveres choice. When it encourages personal responsibility that’s great. But sometimes it does just the opposite. In encourages us to jettison responsibilities that we did not actively choose. Indeed the concept that we can have responsibilities for things we did not choose strikes many people as unjust.
    That may be so, but neither is cancer or earthquakes or poverty. As our parents used to tell us growing up, life aint fair.
    We do not choose our parents. We do not choose our siblings. We do not choose our aunts and uncles.
    That’s the difference between friends and family.
    Occasionally we may develop such a close friendship that we will describe ourselves “as close as sisters.” Note that “sisters” remains the gold standard.
    Occasionally we can develop relationships that are comparable to family, and even stronger than our family. However, there’s always something sad about that when that happens; that a person’s family did not live up to what families should be.
    (Ironically I am very distant from my sister, but the distance itself holds an emotional intensity that is not present in the relationship with some chosen friends with whom I am much closer. )

  3. Off topic, but even though I strongly believe in a woman’s right to abort, I am careful not to phrase it as the “right to choose”. This is because I don’t believe we have a right to choose anything we please. I phrase it as a right to bodily integrity; autonomy over our own bodies.

  4. After I wrote this I thought of a nice illustrative example. In the second Harry Potter book (that would be Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets) Harry worries that he is really Slytherin’s heir. He remembers that the sorting hat offered to put him in Slytherin at the beginning of his time at Hogwarts. All of this makes him think he really is more like Voldemort than he is comfortable with. He confides these fears to Dumbledore, and Dumbledore points out that the reason the hat didn’t put him in Slytherin was because he asked it not to. And he concludes that it isn’t the gifts you are given that make you who you are–it’s what you choose to do with them.

    This reflects what I was trying to get across rather nicely I think it aligns with what Kisrita said above to some degree, but looks at it from a different view. I wouldn’t just assign parenthood. I’d have people opt in and not just by saying they opt in, but by actually doing something. It’s a more nuanced version that what John Howard describes–it’s not all free will. There are things I cannot choose, but what I choose to do with those things matters.

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