It would appear from recent developments in neuroscience that we are less conscious of our decision making than we would like to think. One of the most important functions of our brain is to filter the world as we perceive it, to identify from the infinite number of inputs that surround us those which matter and those which we should pay attention to. These filters are in part genetic, partly cultural, partly the result of previous filtering, and take place at a subconscious level.
These filtered perceptions and memories, which are themselves filtered for a second time as we retrieve them, form the basis for our apparent decision making process. I say apparent because we are not aware of much of this process happening! We then retro fit a story of conscious decision making onto what we have unconsciously decided in order to maintain our illusion of being in control of ourselves and the world around us.
Walking around Auschwitz last weekend this out of control decision making was troubling me. Did the Nazis have a choice? Was their industrialised evil inevitable given the vast number of small, unconscious, genetically and culturally driven micro decisions that led up to it out of their conscious control? Were those horrendous events inevitable given the time, the people, the context?
The slippery topic of guilt then arises. If what happened was inevitable what happens to guilt? Guilt is an emotive word, loaded with all sorts of moral and cultural baggage. It assumes a level of conscious control and intent that may not be our reality. It leads to feelings of justified retribution, ripples that spread out and subtly affect the attitudes of millions and itself becomes one of those unconscious factors that will steer the decision making of generations into the future.
But none of this means we get let off for the consequences of our actions. Causing untold suffering and misery isn’t something we can ignore or condone. Whether or not we are conscious of our decisions we make them and they have consequences.
This is where the idea of accountability is, I think, more helpful. However unconsciously our decisions are made they have consequences and we must be held accountable for those consequences.
Arguably you have to be “out of control” to carry out even a more mundane murder never mind instigating the insanity on the scale of The Holocaust. No one “in their right mind” would do such a thing.
But this doesn’t mean that you should ever expect to walk free having taken the life of another – whatever neuroscience might suggest.