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Relationship between Impulsivity and Free Will

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Philosophy
Wordcount: 2242 words Published: 17th Dec 2021

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If a perpetrator acts impulsively, without forethought and a plan, have they worked on their free will? If not, are they morally responsible for their action?

Impulsivity is defined as “actions without foresight” that is poorly conceived, prematurely expressed, unduly risky, or inappropriate to the situation, and that often results in undesirable outcomes (Animals and Translational Models for CNS Drug Discovery, 2008). “The concept of impulsivity (or impulsiveness) refers to people’s tendencies to act on matters quickly, without giving much forethought to the consequences” (Jensen & Garfinkel 1988:111). It is the opposite of being inhibited. Impulsivity has two dimensions. One involves how much does a person take to take a particular decision, and the other one is about how persistent someone is in carrying out long term tasks. Impulsivity is also a multidimensional construct as it ranges from the healthy population to a range of psychiatric symptoms such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, mania, schizophrenia, and Parkinson’s disease. People with impulsivity often don’t realise the complexity of their immediate actions, and as a result, it can lead to poor decision making. It can even lead to activities which are dangerous and intrusive. People with impulsivity often look at the immediate reward of that action rather than looking at the harm it is going to cause them in the longer run. Furthermore, they also jump to decisions which give them immediate benefit instead of waiting for a better opportunity for a lasting benefit.

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Free will is the idea that says that humans play an active role and have a choice in how they behave. A perpetrator might act impulsively or out of free will, but in a debate between an act of free will and an act of impulsiveness, we have to consider two psychological traits which are defeatism and aspiration. In the case of defeatism, the perpetrator’s action is determined by external factors where they don’t have any control over their actions, but on the other hand, the aspirated perpetrator will argue that every effort is a result of their free will. But when we consider these two factors free will plays a role in the case of defeatism as the perpetrator always had the choice of going against those external factors and when they decide not to act against those factors they are choosing out of their free will.

Although, the Roman philosophers of the Stoics school state that humans hover between a state of free will and determinism. To explain this confusion, they give the example of a dog on a leash where the dog can hover within the limits of its rope but cannot deny the leash and go wherever it wants to. Rather than dragging itself away from the leash, it makes peace with the fact that it would rather stay by the rope and not physically harm itself. The rope is long enough to give a degree of leeway, but it’s not long enough to wander where ever it pleases to. Hence, the animal should be obedient and follow the leash. But a dog is different from a human. A human doesn’t have a leash around its neck and hence has the option of revolting against the external factors. At the same time, humans have a quality of reasoning which plays the most vital element in this scenario as we have a significant advantage over a dog. Reason enables us to theorise with considerable accuracy of the destiny of the act and offers us a chance to increase our freedom to decide between what our desires are and what cannot be changed. A perpetrator might be powerless to alter a few events, but the perpetrator is always free to choose its attitude towards them.

A theory that denies free will and stands for the actions of the perpetrator is the theory of determinism. Determinism is the philosophy that previous events determine all events. They claim that even moral choices are a part of the previously determined will. According to Pierre Simon Marquis de Laplace “the present state of the universe is the effect of its previous state and the cause of the state that follows it. If a mind, at any given moment, could know all of the forces operating in nature and the respective positions of all its components, it would thereby know with certainty the future and the past of every entity, large or small”. In the case of a perpetrator acting out of impulsiveness the major setback of the determinist’s point of view is that how can we hold someone responsible for their actions if there is no free will. And how can we punish someone for their actions if they cause harm because of their impulsive action? On the other hand, there also comes indeterminism which states that at least some events that have no deterministic cause but they occur randomly or by chance. Determinists fail to defend their theory against morality and if we take the example of evil results of specific actions that can be foreseen, and this in itself imposes moral responsibility and creates an external deterrent cause that can influence effects.

According to the principle of alternate possibilities, an action is free only if the agent- that is the person doing the act could have done otherwise, thus stating that free activities require options. And according to a determinist point of view, all the actions/events are determined by previously existing causes. Nothing is acted upon by free will as everything is determined. From a determinists point of view in this scenario, it will be said that a perpetrator acted upon impulsively because of past experiences or events. For, e.g. if a perpetrator was being abused as a child by his/her parents and as a result of those past experiences a perpetrator does something out of impulsiveness once he/she is old, it will be said that it was always a determined action. Human reasoning comes into play here. In this case, that person would be held responsible because he/she is not tied like the dog tied to its leash unless the perpetrator has mental disorders related to impulsiveness.

Impulsivity in general and disorders of automatic control have a different definition in literature. As we have seen that impulsivity is a decreased sensitivity to negative consequences and lack of understanding for long term consequences of the actions and disorders of impulsive control relates to repeated failures to resist and commit an act which can be harmful, with a sense of arousal or pleasure, i.e., catharsis, while engaging the law.  At the same time, not every action should be desired only because it’s available. We have the notion of free won’t, which lets humans have the power to choose or not choose as one’s freedom includes both choosing and not choosing. In our day to day life, we exercise restraint and exercise liberty at the same time. Both of them are commodities of free will.

According to neuroscientists, there is a brief nanosecond between when the subject’s brain indicates it’s body to get ready and the action itself. This means that just before the perpetrator acts impulsively, there is a moment of deciding about it and if this is the case, the perpetrator acted out of his/her free will and not out of impulsiveness. Free won’t is the power to say no to your impulses rather than merely working on whatever is on the table to act upon rather than blaming the deterministic world and saying that humans don’t exercise free will. If there is no free will, no one can be held responsible for their actions, be it good or bad.

In 1983, Benjamin Libet experimented with testing whether a human has free will or not. According to his findings, he found a spike in brain activity called the readiness potential, which precedes a voluntary action and it occurs about 350 milliseconds before his volunteers became consciously aware of their intentions to act. He stated that the readiness potential is the thought to signal the brain to prepare for the action. Libet also indicated that it is a not only the neurological activity that has the control, but the 200-millisecond gap between conscious awareness of the perpetrator’s intention and the initiation of the act lets the perpetrator exercise free won’t where he/she can decide for or against the thought of the action.

lthough, Emilie Caspar and Axel Cleeremans of the Free University of Brussels (ULB), Belgium decided to see if there is lack of free won’t in impulsive people and they found that some people have a shorter time interval. “It might suggest that maybe impulsive individuals have less time to inhibit or control their actions,” says Caspar. Aaron Schurger at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, says that readiness potential is not the signal of the brain getting ready to act, but it is “a signature of random neural noise that accumulates and then crosses a threshold, making movement possible”(Ananthaswamy). Schurger’s study also found that “impulsive people have less time to ‘veto’ their actions since the decision to act happens much closer in time to the action itself”(Schurger).

In an experiment by Marcel Brass and Patrick Haggard in 2007,  where they used fMRI ( Functional Magnetic Reasoning Imaging) to study the brain activity of subjects pressing a button which they choose to do themselves and the questions who decided to press the button but held back before pressing a button.  When Brass and Haggard compared the fMRI results of both the scenarios, it was found that pulling back yielded activity in the dorsal frontal-median cortex(dFMC); an area on the middle of the brain which did not show up otherwise. "The capacity to withhold an action that we have prepared but reconsidered is an important distinction between intelligent and impulsive behaviour," says Brass.

These results also suggest that human behaviour, in the case of intentional action, has a structure for withholding or self-initiated inhabitation, which is also called free won’t. There are “degrees of freedom” which varies in different systems. Ants have few degrees and rats have a bit more and go up till chimpanzees and humans have the most in this case. But in the affairs of psychopaths or brain damaged or the chemically addicted, they have lesser degrees than others, and hence the law adjusts for their lesser degrees of freedom in terms of moral and legal accountability. According to the Scientific American, “ These vetoing neural impulses within a complex system with many degrees of freedom are part of the deterministic universe. Thinking of volition as a component of the causal net lets us restore personal responsibility to its rightful place in a civil society.”

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From the discussions mentioned above and arguments, we can say that free will is an integral part of human society. Even though the determinists argue against free will, they are not able to eradicate free will’s relationship with the human mind as it struggles to answer a lot of questions regarding human nature and morality. The only exception where free will does not come into play is when the perpetrator is mentally challenged and there are external forces in deciding his/her actions. From a non-impulsive person’s act of impulsiveness to a spontaneous person’s act of impulsiveness, we also saw the presence of free won’t in numerous studies which proves the existence of free won’t in humans. In the case of a perpetrator who acted impulsively, without forethought and a plan, it can be said they have acted out of the free will if there were no external forces which led to the act and hence the perpetrator had the 200-millisecond gap to act upon. Unless the impulsiveness is brought about by mental disorders  or disease like Parkinson’s disease where we have seen that the patients have very fewer degrees of freedom we can say that they have acted on their free will and are morally responsible for it.


McArthur, R. A., & Borsini, F. (Eds.). (2008). Animal and translational models for CNS drug discovery. Academic Press.

Jensen, J. B., & Garfinkel, B. D. (1988). Neuroendocrine aspects of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Endocrinology and metabolism clinics of North America, 17(1), 111-129.

Laplace, P. S. (2009). Determinism, Ignorance, and Probability. 2009), Philosophy of Science: a Historical Anthology, Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 250-253.

Libet, B., Gleason, C. A., Wright, E. W., & Pearl, D. K. (1993). Time of conscious intention to act in relation to onset of cerebral activity (readiness-potential). In Neurophysiology of Consciousness (pp. 249-268). Birkhäuser, Boston, MA.

Caspar, E. A., Christensen, J. F., Cleeremans, A., & Haggard, P. (2016). Coercion changes the sense of agency in the human brain. Current biology, 26(5), 585-592.

Schurger, A., Sitt, J. D., & Dehaene, S. (2012). An accumulator model for spontaneous neural activity prior to self-initiated movement. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 109(42), E2904-E2913.

Ananthaswamy, A. (2019). Brain might not stand in the way of free will. Retrieved from https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn22144-brain-might-not-stand-in-the-way-of-free-will/

Brass, M., & Haggard, P. (2007). To do or not to do: the neural signature of self-control. Journal of Neuroscience, 27(34), 9141-9145.


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