’'’I think this could be written in 2 parts - the first an exploration of what personality and determinism gets you, and a second on my opinion on where on the landscape of control you can stand to take meaningful action in your life’’’
I’ve often wondered just where we can put the pin in the great blame assignation problem. This is the problem: we know we didn’t ask to be born. We didn’t choose our parents. We didn’t choose which chromosomes crossed over and which exact mixture of mom and dad’s genes we inherited. We didn’t choose mom or dad’s particular circumstances, or the way they chose to raise their kid. We didn’t choose what we first ate, or if we were given the stimulating science toys or not. For all this non-choosing, at some point that is exactly what we begin to do. And we often do it in unhelpful and even actively harmful ways. Here’s the thing: about 50% of what we think of as personality, is in some way genetically determined. Now, in my experience, people - including myself - don’t do a great job of appreciating the depth of what is being said there. To remedy that, we must first clarify what we mean by personality. For our purposes, personality is a sort of global variable, making some thoughts, behaviours and ways of being more or less likely. You can think of it as a sort of set of dials which can be turned up or down, and each dial makes some set of things more or less likely depending on where it is. Whether you routinely feel anxiety about the impression you’re making on others, or you’re fairly self-confident. Whether you are open to new experiences, or generally find comfort in what you already know. Whether you tend to be reliable and disciplined, or disorganised and frantic.
’’’ note for above - add in more ‘colour’ and make actual stories, rather than just words’’’
These are all ways your personality can shade your everyday experience. What’s important to notice here is that none of these are absolutes, so it’s not that the genetic or environmental determinism here is specific enough to dictate that you, because of your genes and upbringing, will enact behaviour X in situation Y. It’s more probabilistic than that. Rather than the genetic determinism of something like Huntington’s Disease, where if you have this mutation, you will develop this disease (and even then it’s more complicated), it’s more like heart disease or diabetes, where we can’t say for sure at your birth if you’ll develop heart disease at age 53, but we know that if you dad had heart disease, and your mom was a diabetic, and you are a smoker, then sure, you’re more likely to get heart disease than someone without any of those risk factors - even though there are plenty of people without heart disease who smoke and whose parents died of heart disease!
So now what we’ve got so far is a person who didn’t choose where their dials were set to, and whose dials don’t dictate specific behaviour, but which do make certain patterns more or less likely. So far, this is pretty standard personality psychology. I think this becomes interesting to think about when we introduce some trouble. Take personality disorders. These are usually thought of as people with pathologically high or low settings on certain of their dials. This could be the extremely low empathy and high disagreeableness psychopaths, or the high neuroticism of dependent personality disorder people. As far as I can tell, psychiatrists (and the medical students around them) seem to take a much harder stance of moral culpability on personality disorders than on things like major depressive disorder or schizophrenia. I think, for the most part, very few healthcare professionals walk around blaming patients with bipolar disorder for their extreme emotional lability. Nor would most reasonable people feel moral outrage and blame the depressed patient with anhedonia and avolition for not being able to get out of bed in the morning and ‘failing to make a meaningful contribution to society’.
’'’see SSC post on ‘laziness’ and whether it’s useful to call someone lazy’’’
Despite this, when it comes to personality disorders, people’s heuristics (that is, their rules of thumb for decision making), seem to shift. It’s difficult to put my finger on, but the general feeling is that the psychopath and the narcissist and the borderline and the rest of the crew are responsible for their behaviour in a way that depressives and schizophrenics and manic-depressives aren’t. ‘'’see DSM reasoning here’’’ The reasoning seems to be along the lines of “these people can tell right from wrong when questioned in court and aren’t having perceptual distortions in the same way a schizophrenic might have auditory hallucinations, nor are their symptoms as ‘bad’ (in a highly qualitative and fuzzy way) when compared to the obviousness of anhedonia or the pressured speech of the manic bipolar patient”. I find this reasoning suspect. For one, people with personality disorders can have terrible life outcomes as a result of their illnesses. Life imprisonment for murder in the case of the psychopath, emotionally and physically abusive relationships in the case of the dependent, inability to hold down a long-term job because people can’t stand working with you in the case of the narcissist. Caveat that these are just examples, not prescriptions. Many people have these disorders and are not at all like this. Some will take offense, claiming that I reinforced negative stereotypes about people with these disorders. In some sense, I think that part of the problem is just this - that there are so many examples of psychopaths who don’t become mass murderers, obsessive compulsives who have some element of behavioural control, that as a society we’re more willing to invoke the concept of morality here. The narcissist who exerts a tonne of self-control and effort and questions their actions, knowing that they have the tendency to be a narcissist, is ‘good’ and the manipulative, self-aggrandising narcissist who destroys their relationships and alienates those around