Strawson (1962) divides pleas for mitigated responsibility in two groups. The first group consists in agential pleas, in which the agent is excused or blame is mitigated because the agent is “warped or deranged, neurotic or just a child” (ibid.) – the agent is seen as not being a full-fledged moral agent. The second group, which in Strawson’s view is the less important one, are situational pleas where external circumstances bar the agent from acting according to their true intentions. Situational pleas include cases where the agent is the victim of brainwash, under considerable stress, or tied to a chair.
Self-control is defined, broadly, as the capacity to direct behavior in accordance with one’s intentions in the face of competing motives or impulses. Many neurodevelopmental or mental disorders result in a diminished capacity for self-control. Perhaps the most archetypal such disorder is Attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, characterized by a family of symptoms relating to the dimensions of inattention and hyperactivity. When persons with ADHD fail in self-control, the disorder often figures among the causes of that self-control failure. ADHD is highly familial and its heritability has been estimated at roughly 80%; risks genes for ADHD were first identified in a genome-wide association study published earlier this year (Faraone & Larsson 2019). As a result, a genetic essentialist rhetoric is common in discussing the agency of persons with ADHD. In this rhetoric, persons with ADHD fail in self-control due to their genetic make-up. When these failures call for responsibility mitigation, the pleas are agential pleas: if persons with ADHD are less responsible, it is due to their innate traits rather than due to situational constraints.
I want to contest this claim. What we know about the behavioral genetics of ADHD does not support the view of self-control impairments in people with ADHD as immutable. The genetic causation of complex traits such as self-control is a multifactorial causal process where environmental causes enter into the equation at numerous junctures along the causal chain. Furthermore, while the agent-environment relationship in the causation of behavioral traits is often seen in passive terms, that relationship also takes active forms, referred to as active gene-environment interactions. In these interactions, individuals actively seek out or manipulate their environments to better fit their genotype, which has an effect on their phenotype. In other words, just because ADHD is heritable does not mean its impact on behavior would be immutable or that individuals and their environments would not have a significant impact on the behavioral phenotype.
Self-control is not a natural kind: rather, it is a group of behaviors and mechanisms, all of which contribute to matching behavior to intentions rather than competing motives or impulses. Some of these behaviors are intrapsychic, such as when an agent rehearses their reasons for that intention (e.g., when a student, intending to write an essay but tempted to chat online with friends reminds themselves of how much they value academic success) or construes of the competing course of action in unfavourable terms. Many such behaviors are environmental, however. Environmental practices include Ulysses arrangements where the competing behavior is made physically impossible (such as by installing an application that prevents the use of certain applications and websites for a given period of time), arrangements where the environment is structured to support the intended task (such as going to the library to write the essay, an environment that this student associates with productivity), setting up external cues and reminders, et cetera. The environment also has an impact on intrapsychic practices: for example, environmental distractions may make them more difficult, especially for persons with ADHD. While self-control is multiply realizable, plausibly not all ways to realize self-control are equally well suited for people with neurodevelopmental disorders such as ADHD. Environmental practices especially present themselves as ways to realize self-control that are equally suited for people with and without ADHD.
While the empirical literature on various operationalizations of self-control is copious, this is not typically reflected in the way we instruct each other to enact self-control. This presents everyone, but especially persons with ADHD with significant epistemic barriers to self-control. For example, guidebooks for students struggling to write their theses often include the sage advice of gluing one’s behind to a chair, a remark that is unhelpful for many persons with ADHD. As a result, self-control practices suited for a person with ADHD may be available, but that person may not be aware of them. Additionally, there may be restrictions on the availability of environmental and other suitable practices of self-control: for example, many impulses are successfully diffused by physically removing oneself from the situation, but this is often not made available in contexts such as schools and workplaces.
I propose that whether a person can be held responsible depends, in part, on whether they had access to self-control behaviors. Which self-control behaviors an individual can access is modulated by their genetic makeup and (neuro)biology but also by their immediate and past environment. For access to be present, there need to be self-control practices that are available for the individual in their immediate circumstances, and the individual needs to be aware of their availability.
ADHD does not necessarily result in impaired self-control; rather, ADHD together with the environment modulates which self-control practices are accessible. An environment that sufficiently enables self-control for most people may fail to do so for persons with ADHD. By analogy, people with mobility disabilities are not inherently less able to get around – rather, an environment that sufficiently enables others to get to a meeting on the 3rd floor may fail to do so for a wheelchair user.
Self-control is fundamentally a set of practices. Innate traits, as well as environmental supports and constraints, modulate access to these practices. When assessing whether responsibility ought to be mitigated, we ought to look into whether the individual had access to self-control practices. The case of ADHD teaches us that pleas to mitigate responsibility due to self-control failures should be situational pleas.
Duckworth, A., Gendler, T. S., & Gross, J. J. (2016). Situational strategies for self-control. Perspectives on Psychological Science 11 (1). 35–55.
Faraone, S.V. & Larsson, H. (2019). Genetics of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Molecular Psychiatry 34 (4): 562–575.
Herdova, M. (2017). Self-control and mechanisms of behavior: Why self-control is not a natural mental kind. Philosophical Psychology 30 (6): 731–762.
Strawson, P. (1962). Freedom and resentment. In G. Watson (ed.), Proceedings of the British Academy, Volume 48: 1962. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Tabb, K., Lebowitz, M. S. & Appelbaum, P. S. (2019). Behavioral genetics and attributions of moral responsibility. Behavior Genetics 49: 128–135.