As my first post to our blogging platform, I will endeavour to motivate my research into the constitution of self-control by means of an applied ethical challenge. A central theory within the field of criminology, Gottfredson & Hirschi’s General Theory of Crime (described in a 1990 monograph by the same name), posits that difficulties in self-control are the uniting theme of all criminal activity. The theory has received criticism as well as some level of empirical confirmation. As self-control is a capacity underlying and required for responsibility, this points towards that all criminals would have a diminished capacity for responsibility. (This does not, of course, entail that this would necessarily be so diminished as to make them not culpable.)
Meanwhile, within a separate philosophical discussion, Nicole Vincent and Elizabeth Shaw have debated the feasibility and ethics of improving criminals’ capacity for responsibility by biomedical means. The feasibility of this endeavour naturally requires that our capacity for responsibility is biologically constituted, at least to a meaningful degree.
The notion of self-control as a capacity constitutive of responsibility comes to the rescue here. Self-control, many agree, is overwhelmingly neurobiological. Although competing accounts of self-control diverge in many points, all major psychological accounts of self-control associate it with the executive functions, such as with inhibitory control and with working memory. The locus of the executive functions is the prefrontal cortex; their origins, almost entirely genetic. The executive functions would thus provide a conceivable target for interventions on our capacity for self-control and, as a result, responsibility.
While the importance of executive functioning for successful self-control is evident, however, observing self-control as behaviour makes it impossible to ignore the role of the environment in its constitution. We routinely use a variety of environment-dependent practices in self-control, such as the dieter avoiding the street with the bakery on it, choosing an alternative route home. Such strategies are readily available to most of us, enabling us to freely complement any enhancement of our neurobiological executive functions with corresponding environment-manipulation behaviour. But the availability of these strategies is largely subject to one’s living conditions.
In our fairly recent paper, “Self-Control in Responsibility Enhancement and Criminal Rehabilitation” (Criminal Law & Philosophy 2017), I and my colleagues, philosopher of action and addiction Susanne Uusitalo and psychologist Jarno Tuominen, argue that even such neuroenhancements of self-control that would be successful in the general population are less likely to deliver in the context of criminal rehabilitation. This is because convicts’ lives are often burdened by health and financial trouble. Many convicts may not have access to the basic prerequisites of human flourishing, such as nutrition, safety, and shelter, and have little control over their living circumstances. This is likely to hamper setting in place the practices of self-control necessary for its success.
Where does this leave us? In an effort to help those with difficulties in self-control, regardless of whether or not they have a criminal record, we need a detailed understanding of the complex, heterogeneous interactions between the neurobiological and the environmental that constitute self-control. For this purpose, looking into findings in areas of research that focus on these interactions, such as behavioural genetics, can be fruitful for philosophers of self-control.
In my Junior Investigator project, ADHD, Autonomy and Self-Control, I set out to do just that: to look into the behavioural genetics of a case of impaired self-control, that is, Attention Deficit / Hyperactive Disorder, and by means of philosophical inquiry, see if that would shed more light into how the environment and organism interact to produce that elusive yet ubiquitous self-control.