Society: Does It Play a Role in our Free Will?

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Victoria Simmonds

Eric Ekstrand

WRI 111: Writing Through Evil

527 April 2015

Society: Does It Play a Role in our Free Will?

The psychological aspect of the human brain has been, and still is, a mystery to solve. There have been various ways to explain how the mind works – from scientific thoughts/theories, to philosophical conception, to basic morals created by folk tales of different cultures. The most multi-answered question then comes into mind: is there such thing as free will? There’s no doubt that we, as individuals, believe that free will exists, no matter the circumstances. However, numerous factors come into play by opposing our hoped thoughts of the existence of absolute free will. One example of an opposing factor is our surroundings/environment, which can have an influence on one’s behavior/decisions, especially when relating this factor to the concept of evil. This is when the question comes in: how much of an influence does our environment have on us, as individuals, when relating it to our free will of decisions? The readings of John R. Searle, Phillip Zimbardo, and Simon Baron-Cohen will guide us to discover this clouded mystery.

Before getting straight into detail regarding free will correlating with the concept of free will, let’s take a look into the concept of free will itself. John R. Searle takes a dive into the existence of free will in his work, Mind. In his essay, Searle explores the spectrum that ranges from no free will to absolute free will, the spectrum containing three components: determinism, compatibilism, and libertarianism. Determinism, which relates to the phrase, “Everything happens for a reason”, is when your actions are already pre-determined by what’s happened in the past. In short, there is no free will. Searle uses a falling pen, for example, to show how fate is already determined for an inanimate object: because of the gravitational forces around us, the pen is already destined to fall down rather than float in the air if it pleased (Searle, pg. 216). Libertarianism, which is located on the opposite end of the spectrum, contradicts the concept of determinism entirely. Instead of no free will, libertarianism supports absolute free will, regardless of what holds you back. Examples of libertarianism come in many ways: one can choose to go to college for a higher education; one can choose not to abuse any harmful substances (ex. drugs, alcohol, etc.); and, one can choose not to join any clubs because it’s not to their liking. Compatibilism, falling in between determinism and libertarianism, shares the idea that free will and determinism are compatible. In short, you have free will, and you don’t, based on whatever situation you’re in. With the idea of going to college, for instance – sure, you don’t have to go to college. However, in most, if not all, cases, not going to college for a higher education will leave you out of luck for a prosperous life. Or, in Searle’s case, when someone shouts, “Raise your arm!” at you at gunpoint, you have no other choice but to do it, because your life is at stakeHow Much of an Influence Does the Environment Have on Our Decision-Making?

Imagine this: you’re visited by your best friend in your house, and they inform you with exciting news: Remember the group of upperclassmen that you and your friend encountered, and how rudely they rejected their request of allowing the two of you to join their group? Well, turns out that they’ve taken back their decision, giving you and your friend an open spot in their group. You, however, still have a bitter taste in your mouth when looking back at the group’s rudeness, unsure of whether to accept their invitation or not. But, you hold back the bitterness and rejoice with your friend, as they’re looking forward to hanging out with the group. Once hanging out with them, your sour mood gradually disperses, as you and your friend enjoy your time with the older kids, doing things that you would never see yourself doing: joy-riding in cars, having mini parties at the main leader’s house when their parents aren’t home, and “exploring” in private properties or abandoned buildings. However, you feel the joyous sensation running thin when the group starts doing things you feel uncomfortable with: stealing food from small gas-station stores, scaring little kids in the playground, and even insulting pedestrians when in the car. You gradually become silent, neither taking part in the “fun” that the group does, but simultaneously, you don’t say anything to anyone. Not even your best friend, who’s already influenced by the group’s crude behavior. In short, you feel stuck.

Although this situation might seem a bit far-fetched, you can’t deny the fact that this exemplifies how one’s environment can have an influence on the choices they make. You can argue that the main person (the “you” in the scenario) didn’t partake in any of the craziness that the group initiated, but what about the friend? Once being part of the group, the friend became like the members of the group, joining in their wild activities, not having a second thought at it. This is when the question comes in: how much of an influence does our surrounding environment have on our decision-making, especially when correlating it with evil acts? With the help of John R. Searle, Phillip Zimbardo, and Simon Baron-Cohen, we are able to uncover the mystery behind the psychological component of the human brain.

Before we get into the nitty-gritty of our environment influencing our decision-making, let’s take a look into the enigmatic idea of free will, which is covered by John R. Searle in his philosophical work, Mind: A Brief Introduction. In Chapter Eight of Mind, titled “Free Will,” Seale explores the thought of whether or not free will truly exists. Within the chapter, he goes into three conceptions included in a spectrum regarding free will, ranging from “non-existent” to “absolute”: determinism, compatibilism, and libertarianism. Determinism, which relates to, “Everything happens for a reason,” is when your actions are already pre-determined, based on events that have occurred in the near past. In short, free will doesn’t exist. Searle then uses the action of dropping a pen as an example of determinism, in which numerous forces determine what is to come for the pen: Searle deciding to release the pen from his hand, as well as the gravitational forces, are what lead to the pen falling down on the table (Searle, pg. 216).

With libertarianism, it contradicts determinism by arguing that humans do, in fact, have free will, and we are capable of making our own decisions in any situation. However, Searle explores the flaws in libertarianism, showing (Searle, pg. 220).

Now, when it comes to connecting the spectrum of free will with the surroundings of the environment, I will admit that what Searle talks about makes sense, especially in regards to evil. For determinism, if someone lives in a place where crime and poverty is abundant, then it’s no doubt that the person is likely to commit numerous crimes, as well, once influenced by their social surroundings. This idea of determinism can also include the likelihood of an individual becoming an abusive parent if they were brought up from an abusive home. However, in cases of libertarianism, these outcomes are negated: rather than someone engaging in these ruthless acts of robbery and/or murder in their neighborhood, the individual can do whatever they can to get out of that wretched situation. But, what about compatibilism? As stated above, this component lies in between determinism and libertarianism, so there are numerous outcomes regarding compatibilism. Will the person find a way for a better life out of their environment? Will they yield to the evilness of their area and be criminals themselves? Or, if worse comes to worst, will they take their own lives as another option, an option that many religions would see as a sin?

This is when Phillip Zimbardo comes in with his work, The Lucifer Effect. In this essay, Zimbardo uncovers the psychological component of the human mind in terms of obedience, conformity, and authority (albeit, authority and obedience do intertwine). For these three components, all of them relate to the idea that humans were always evil from the start, based on what environment they’re in. For conformity, Zimbardo reviews Solomon Asch’s Conformity Research, in which a group of 123 people are in a room, where they are to determine whether or not three lines on various charts are of equal or different sizes (Zimbardo, pg. 263). After the experiment, the results showed that people in a situation like it’s likely that absolute free will doesn’t exist, after all: for example, when it comes to voting for a specific candidate, or candidates, for an election, it’s clear that you pick someone at your own decision. But, you’re aiming for the ‘best’ candidate, correct? So, wouldn’t it be accurate to say that the candidates’ promises for changes in society have an influence on who you choose? (Searle, pg. 217)

We are then led back in the middle of the spectrum, which is compatibilism. In the case of compatibilism, “determinism and free will are both true” (Searle, 219-220). In other words, you still have the capability to do things on your own, but, simultaneously, the decisions that you make are “casually determined” (Searle, pg. 220). For example, someone can decide to go to college after high school because they want to. However, someone’s decision can be influenced by the factors of their environment: if one goes to college, then it is likely that they will live a prosperous life; if one chooses not to go to college after high school, then the chance of having a prosperous life is slim to none, likely to struggle for a living. So, even choosing to go to college is already “casually determined” once environmental influences are involved. And, although compatibilism seems like a better explanation about the slight existence of free will, Searle still ends the chapter in a gray area, he himself unsure of whether or not free will truly exists.

Out of the three ideas that Searle discusses, compatibilism seems relevant towards the capability of one’s environment influencing their decision-making, especially when relating it to committing evil acts. But, the question still remains: how capable are we, as humans, to cave into our environment to commit such atrocities? Let’s see what Zimbardo uncovers in the many experiments he examines in his work, The Lucifer Effect.

In Chapter Twelve, “Investigating Social Dynamics: Power, Conformity, and Obedience,” Zimbardo delves deeper into how much the environment becomes a strong factor in an individual’s decision-making in terms of conformity and authority. Zimbardo then describes the Conformity Research experiment performed by Solomon Asch. In this experiment, a group of people (123 people total in the actual experiment), are recruited to be brought together in a room, where they are shown numerous cards with three lines – one line is shorter, the second line is longer, and the third line is the same length of a comparison line that is separate from the stack of cards. The experiment starts off simple, some people likely to make a couple of mistakes during the trial. However, things become difficult once the lines become hard to distinct from one another to match the comparison line. Eventually, people start to go with the majority of the group’s answer, despite seeing something differently from everyone else. But, due to the pressure of being judged by the group for getting a different answer, whether right or wrong, the individuals feel as though yielding is the only way out of the situation (Zimbardo, pg. 263). were to yield to the group 70% of the time, whether the answer was right or wrong.After the experiment, results have shown that, 70% of the time, people would have given in to the group, whether the answer is right or wrong. Results also showed that 30% of the group conformed during most of the trials, while about 25% of the group “maintained their independence” for the whole experiment (Zimbardo, pg. 263). When connecting this experiment back to Searle’s explanation of compatibilism, Zimbardo is able to support his idea of how one’s decisions are already determined based on what environment they’re set in, as for one moment, the individuals have control in their answers, while the next moment, they don’t know anymore.

For the concept of obedience, Zimbardo talks about the story regarding “The Third Wave”, in which a history teacher, Ron Jones, in Palo Alto, California, initiates a simulation of the Nazi party with regular high school students (Zimbardo, 281-282). Instantly, Jones introduced new rules to the class, no one stepping in to challenge these rules. One of these rules, for example, are that all answers must be three words or less. Soon enough, the “more verbally fluent, intelligent students” became inferior to the “less verbal, more physically assertive ones” (Zimbardo, 282), making the classroom’s atmosphere change immediately. There was even a “cupped-hand salute” created, along with slogans that were “shouted in unison on command”: “Strength through discipline”, “Strength through community”, “Strength through action”, and “Strength through pride”. It was only when, towards the end of the simulation, which rapidly spread through the school like a regular social movement that the students realize that they were, unconsciously, becoming a second Nazi party, once Jones shows them a video of the Nuremberg rally. As much as the students want to forget that the “Third Wave” never occurred, they couldn’t deny the truth shown right in their faces.

Authority, which is similar to obedience, can also comes into play a part in one’s environment when Zimbardo talks about the story of Stanley Milgram’s experiment, wherein which Milgram wanted to test one’s “blind obedience to authority” (Zimbardo, pg. 267276). In this experiment, two volunteers are led tointo a laboratory by a person in a lab coat. Once in the laboratory, the roles are assigned to each person: one volunteer will be the “teacher” who will give the “learner” (the second volunteer) a set of word paringspairings to memorize. If the “learner” gives the wrong answer, however, the “teacher” will shock them with an electronicelectric device, the voltage increasing by 15 volts until it reaches the highest level, “XXX”..” During the experiment, the “teacher” is led by the person in the lab coat, reluctant to stopwho calmly urges the “teacher” to continue shocking the “learner” when giving the wrong answers. The “teacher”, who is reluctant to continue the shocking once hearing theirthe “learner’s” screams intensify by each wrong answer they give., still continues with the instructions from the person in the lab coat. Although this was a simulation, the results were still surprising once finding outrevealing that almost 2/3 (65%) of the “teacher” volunteers continued onone with the electrocutions, some of them reaching 450 volts (XXX), even when the “learner” volunteers begged them to stop (Zimbardo, pg. 271).271). The fact that the strongest component in that environmental setting is an everyday person in a crisp, white lab coat shows how easy it could be for a regular person to succumb to such influence, losing the strength to stick up for themselves and leading to them committing despicable acts similar to the Milgram experiment.

Zimbardo discussing about these three components in his essay support his idea that the human mind is, in fact, evil once placed in these types of situations. It’s even agreeable that these examples are efficient displays of how much of an impact our environment has on our decision-making and free will, overall. Out of the three examples listed above, I would have to say that the Milgram experiment surprises me the most, especially in regards to the concept of evil, although all of them display various degrees of how the environment influences one’s decisions. But, in terms of the Milgram experiment, it’s daunting to even think that regular people, like myself, would go as far as to hurt an individual when ordered by a regular person wearing a white lab coat. It goes to show how potent the environment is to bring out the demonic ways of the human mind. But, are we, as individuals, truly evil?

Simon Baron-Cohen thus steps up to the plate when presenting his work, The Science of Evil. Now, there’s no doubt that cruel acts do occur in everyday life, many of them on the borderline of evil. When mixing Searle’s explanation of compatibilism and Zimbardo’s adventure into how an individual can succumb to their environmental factors and struggle with their decision-making, it’s without a doubt that regular people, like myself, are capable of committing such atrocious acts if the influences were that strong. Due to this, people will automatically jump to the conclusion that humans are just born evil. But, in terms of Simon Baron-Cohen, “evil” isn’t the case in his work, The Science of Evil, whatsoever.

In his essayThe Science of Evil, Baron-Cohen discusses thehis belief that evil doesn’t exist in people. Instead, it’s the“evil” is replaced with “lack of empathy” within people that leads to the performance of evil acts. Throughout his essay, Baron-Cohen includes various examples in which the environment plays a big part into influencing an individual’s level ofwho commit acts without an empathic thought to it. This is usually common in environments where empathy. is either extremely low, or not present. The Holocaust, for is a good example, shows that Baron-Cohen uses to show how impactful one’s surroundingsenvironment can be in regards to one’s level of empathy. For the Nazi scientists, who performed cruel experiments on the victims of the Holocaust, Baron-Cohen argues that, before Hitler’s propaganda even initiated, the future Nazi scientists were regular people with a regular levellevels of empathy for anything and anyone. But, once Hitler’s propaganda was initiatedexpanded all aroundacross Nazi Germany, the once-positive atmosphere of the environment turned for the worst as the horrors thrown at each future Nazi’s face lowered their levellevels of empathy. This, then, resorts to As a result, it was easy for the Nazi soldiers “dehumanizingto “dehumanize” the victims of the Holocaust to perform, performing any atrocity that comespopped into their mindminds (Baron-Cohen, pg.7). Baron-Cohen then goes into detail regarding the levels of empathy for individuals. For instance, he talks about the Bell Curve, which is a diagram that displays the general populationan explanation of a special type of people that fall in whichever level of empathy. A diagram is included in this section, showing that most people fall between levels 2 and 4 based on their empathy levels, while it’s rare to discover people with extremely low or extremely high levels of empathy (Baron-Cohen, pg.19). The Bell Curve concept also correlates to an examination, called the Adult Version of the Empathy Quotient, thatwhich tests an individual’s level of empathy based on thetheir answers that they give toon a set of questions (agree/disagree). The higher the individual scores, the higher their levels of empathy, and vice versa (Baron-Cohen, pg. 21). Based on whateverthe score you receive after the testindividual receives, Baron-Cohen describes the seven levels of empathy that one is placedtheir scores will lie in (levels 0-6). At level 0, also in relation to or “zero degrees of empathy”, this is when,” an individual is capable of committing heinous acts (ex. murder, assault, torture, rape, etc.) onagainst anyone without feeling a sense of remorse (Baron-Cohen, pg. 23). In the case of the Nazi soldiers, for instance, it’sAlthough many people are likely that their surrounding area affected their normal levelsto disagree with Baron-Cohen’s “lack of empathy, thus resulting in “zero degrees” thesis, one can’t deny the fact that one’s environment can affect their meaning of thought and decision-making, therefore leading to a slew of empathy”.horrendous acts.

The “lack of empathy” aspect that Baron-Cohen brings up is a valid explanation to the cause of evil acts. The abundant amount of moments of when people objectify others have been, and still are, continuous in human history. Only one question comes into mind: what about misanthropes? For those who don’t know the term, “misanthropy” is the strong dislike/mistrust of mankind. In short, someone who is a misanthrope does not care for humanity whatsoever, albeit it’s possible that there can be different levels of misanthropy. If one does become a misanthrope over time, one factor could be the individual’s environment: the person doesn’t have to live in a dilapidated neighborhood that’s crime-infested, but rather, they can live in a prosperous neighborhood, as well. Therefore, the sub-factors that come into play for a misanthrope can range from the mental tiredness from hearing about senseless killing to just plain hypocrisy. Therefore, they’re likely to have low empathy for mankind. However, just because misanthropes can’t stand humanity (depending on the severity of their distaste in humanity), it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re destined to eradicate mankind all in one.

Searle, Zimbardo, and Baron-Cohen share very intriguing points regarding how much of an influence the environment has on an individual. Once covering the various topics from each author, it’s fair to say that our surroundings do have an impact on our behavior. However, in terms of how much of an influence: it all depends on the situation in the environment itself. Sure, the impact can be ginormous to the point of when the individual must succumb to its power. But, it’s also fair to think that the human mind has the capability to overcome such challenges. Challenging someone/something has happened before throughout history. Why would it stop now?

Work Once digging through the thoughts of Searle, Zimbardo, and Baron-Cohen, the mystery behind the capability of our environment influencing our decision-making becomes a bit clearer once taking in the information. When looking back on it, some can agree that it has to be the will of someone, be it strong or weak, that will determine whether or not they will succumb to the ways of their environment. In the Milgram experiment, there could have been people who chose not to go on with the experiment. In the Holocaust, it’s been historically proven that there were Nazi soldiers who still retained the amount of empathy that they had to save victims of the Holocaust. But, unless that individual had that strong of will to stand up for their own independent thoughts, it truly depends on how potent the environmental influences are on people as a whole.

Works Cited

Baron-Cohen, Simon. The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty.


: Basic Books, 2011. Print.

Searle, John R. Mind: A Brief Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. Print

Zimbardo, Phillip. The Lucifer Effect. New York: Random House, 2007. Print.

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