“We do not choose to exist. We do not choose what environment we will grow up in. The people we become, the lives that we lead, the beliefs and values we learn to hold, owe much to the lottery of our birth. Our starting point in life is one of complete dependence on forces—genetic and environmental—beyond our control. And these forces can shape us into many things. In fact human history suggests that there’s neither a belief too bizarre nor an action too appalling for humans to embrace given the necessary cultural influences. This simple idea has profound implications for our personal and political freedom.

Imagine two enemies on a battlefield—let’s say an Israeli and a Palestinian. Suppose it were possible to go back in time and swap them at birth, so that each child would be raised in the other’s culture. In time, would each not end up fighting for the other side—a different flag, a different religion, a different ideology? No one would be surprised by this outcome. It’s common sense. But the implications are significant. We’re readily admitting that the deepest convictions of these two individuals are arbitrary.

Go back to the moment of your own birth. What kind of person could you be today with a different starting point in life? Clearly, you don’t decide when, where or to whom you are born. You don’t choose to be born a Muslim or a Christian, rich or poor; into a war-zone or a peaceful suburb. Think of all the different cultures that have existed that you could’ve been born into. A Maasai tribe. Medieval England. Fascist Germany. With each one, what could you have ended up believing, fighting for, defending?

Today we’re appalled at the injustices of past societies: racism, slavery, sexism. But if we’d grown up in one of those societies, there’s no reason to think we wouldn’t have embraced their values and defended their traditions. The truth is, any of us might have developed loyalty to any group, nation, ideology or religion; learned any language; practised any social custom; or partaken in any act of barbarism or altruism. These ideas point to a simple truth: we do not choose our identity, we inherit it.

Let’s take a closer look at the reasoning here. As newborns we’re not responsible for our own nature. We’re endowed with genes we didn’t ask for, and exposed to a world we played no part in creating. So when do we become responsible for who we are? We don’t! The fact is, by the time we’re old enough to contemplate our own identity, we’ve already got one. By then, the way each one of us sees the world is framed by our prior conditioning. And that conditioning will inform any choices we make, even the choice to rebel against that conditioning. Long before we can shape the world, the world has firmly shaped us.

At this point, people get concerned. One worry is that it implies we can’t hold bad people morally responsible for their actions. Well, think of an obviously bad person—let’s say a serial killer. Is he morally responsible for his terrible crimes? The uncomfortable fact is that it only makes sense to view him as morally responsible for his actions if we believe he chose his own identity, if he chose his own genes and own environment. But it’s logically impossible to choose an identity prior to having one. And if he didn’t choose his identity, he can’t be responsible for the choices that follow from it.

Consider this true story. A middle-aged married man develops an overwhelming addiction to child pornography. Ultimately, this leads to a criminal conviction. But the night before his sentencing, he’s taken to hospital complaining of severe headaches. A scan reveals a large brain tumour. The surgeons remove it and the man’s behaviour returns to normal. Six months later, the paedophilic tendencies return. The man goes back to his surgeon and, sure enough, a portion of the tumour has returned. Another operation, and his behaviour again returns to normal.

Now, when the brain tumour is first mentioned, attitudes towards the man change dramatically. Instead of blaming him for his behaviour, people rightly blame the tumour, which of course he didn’t choose to have. But what if he hadn’t had the tumour? What if his addiction had come about only because of his genes and environment? The fact is, he’d be no more blameworthy. A person no more chooses their genes and environment than they do a tumour. Here’s the key point:Yes, we all make choices—you all chose what to wear today— but our choices are made by a brain that we didn’t choose—a brain whose workings we don’t even understand. Just as a computer doesn’t program itself, we don’t wire our own brains. They’re wired by the interaction of our genes and environment.

This way of thinking is counter-intuitive. There’s a powerful urge to hold each other morally accountable for our actions, to blame and punish each other for our wrongdoings. But, the surprising conclusion is that a prisoner no more deserves his sentence than the judge who passes it. As the proverb says: “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”

I should clarify: this doesn’t mean that we should never imprison or punish certain people. Sometimes there are good pragmatic reasons for doing this. But placing the cordon of responsibility tightly around the individual blinds us to the forces that created that individual. Imagine a sickly plant lacking sufficient light, nutrients and water. To hold it responsible for its deficiencies would blind us to the impoverished environment in which it struggles to flourish. Similarly, if we judge a person or group to be ultimately responsible for an action, we blind ourselves to the deeper causes of the action: the confluence of economic, political, and cultural forces that allowed it to occur.

Once we understand that we are not the authors of our own identities, it’s natural to ask, who is? For though our entry into this world is arbitrary, the world that greets us is not. Numerous forces vie for our attention and loyalty. Our minds are a battleground of competing forces. And the outcome of this battle determines who we become and the society we create. Sadly, the forces that win out are rarely the most desirable. Throughout history, people have been conditioned to defend oppressive ideologies, support destructive systems, and believe downright lies.

If we are to get beyond our conditioning, we need to question the forces that have shaped us. We need to ask ourselves, why do we hold the beliefs that we do? Why have we formed the habits we’ve formed? And, crucially, whose interests do they serve? It once served the interests of monarchs to spread among their subjects the idea of the divine right of kings. It once served the interests of imperialists to spread the idea of racial superiority. Today it serves certain interests to spend $2 billion a year marketing fast food to children, at a time when child obesity is a major public health problem.

Globally, $500 billion a year is spent on advertising. It’s certainly not for our benefit. Research has shown that the materialistic values saturating advertising have a toxic effect on our happiness. They are correlated with far higher rates of depression, mental illness and loneliness. A striking example took place in Fiji, where in 1990, bulimia didn’t exist. In 1995, television was introduced, mostly from the US and laden with adverts. Within three years, 12 per cent of teenage girls in Fiji had developed bulimia.

When questioning our identities, we need to question the information we receive, but also to ask what information has been left out. In classrooms throughout the US, children are taught to recite the pledge of allegiance, linking liberty and justice to the US flag. What they are not taught is that between 1945 and 2005, the United States attempted to overthrow fifty governments around the world, many of them democracies. And in the United Kingdom, how many of us learn that over the same period, Britain was complicit in the deaths of over 10 million people globally?

These examples, and many others, suggest that identities tend to be shaped to serve the interests of those with the power to do the shaping. Patriotism, consumption, materialism, obedience and religious loyalty are not inevitable; they are learned. We are the soil in which our particular culture plants seeds of belief, loyalty and behaviour. This is why over 90 percent of people born in Sudan become Muslim. Over 90 percent of Thais become Buddhist, and over 90 percent of Italians become Catholic. If we’re lucky, our culture will also plant the seeds of reason and doubt, so that we can grow the tools necessary to question our identities and the world confronting us. This is the closest we can get to escaping the arbitrary nature of our identity. If our beliefs and values are going to be shaped by something, it may as well be reality. And to stay in touch with reality we need to be able to make discoveries and to question—to question the agendas behind our culture, education, media, religious institutions, and the economic and political ideologies that underpin our lives.

And it’s of vital importance that this questioning takes place. To shape identities is to shape the future. But what future are we creating? Today, our world is scarred by war, extreme inequality, and environmental devastation. If we’re to create an alternative future, we can’t reproduce the thinking that shaped our past. We can’t afford to reproduce the thinking that drives our one-dollar-one-vote democracy. Or the thinking that places short term profits before human beings and the environment on which we depend.

All these ideas expose the arbitrary nature of the labels and loyalties that divide us from each other, and from reality. It provides a potent antidote to the sorts of dogmatic world views that compel us to kill and die for flags, symbols, gods, and governments whose connection to us is no more than accidental.

I’ve only had time to touch on a few areas of this topic. There is much more to be said. But it’s clear that the view of freedom and responsibility I’ve discussed requires a revolution in our thinking. It’s supported by decades of research in psychology and neuroscience. And to my knowledge, there’s not a single scientific finding that provides support for any other conclusion. But the dominant view in our world remains that each person bears ultimate responsibility for the choices they make. The most advanced legal systems on the planet are still founded on this assumption. It’s at the heart of the American Dream which tells us that anyone can become rich, that those who do deserve it, and those who don’t only have themselves to blame. This incoherent way of thinking makes inequalities of power, wealth, and opportunity far easier to justify. But though powerful interests may profit from this view, it has absolutely no basis in fact. Instead, understanding that we are not ultimately responsible affirms the appropriateness of compassion as a response to suffering. It shows that no one is more deserving of happiness or suffering than anyone else, whoever they may be, or whatever they may have done.

The ideas I’ve spoken about are taken for granted when we talk about the rest of the natural world. But for some reason we assume they don’t apply to us. Perhaps it offends our egos. It is a humbling conclusion. But it’s also empowering. Admitting that we’re not ultimately responsible for who we are, is the closest we can get to taking responsibility. The more we understand the effect the world has had on us, the more we can control the effect we have on the world. The more we understand the limitations on our freedom, the better placed we are to transcend them. It’s through questioning and understanding, not ignorance, that we empower ourselves to create a fairer, happier, more compassionate, world.”

Raoul Martinez (2 Posts)

Award-winning documentarian, writer and artist, Raoul is currently working as a writer, director and producer on his first documentary series, Creating Freedom.