Free Will and Empathy

Doug McManaman
Copyright © 2002
(Published in the Journal of the Canadian
Fellowship of Catholic Scholars, Winter 2003)
Reproduced with Permission

On October 2, 2002, John Allen Muhammad -- otherwise known as the Washington sniper -- began his killing spree, which left ten people dead, and three others wounded. What was particularly curious about the psychological commentaries prior to his arrest were the descriptions of him as angry, or disturbed, or mentally ill, etc. Not one of them, however, referred to him or his actions as evil. For there is nothing morally wrong with being angry, even disturbed, or mentally ill. But deliberately and intentionally killing innocent men and women who have children that depend on them is simply evil. Nevertheless, so few psychologists were willing to commit to this.

The world of psychology is still in large part dominated by a behaviorist habit of thinking. Behaviorism regards all human conduct as the product of environmental conditioning. B. F. Skinner maintained that all present behavior could be explained by past history, current situation, and one's genetic make-up. He writes: "A person's behavior is determined by a genetic endowment traceable to the evolutionary history of the species."1 The Behaviorist adopts a rigorously scientific methodology for studying human behavior, one that regards thoughts, feelings, and intentions as superfluous to the purpose of scientific research. That is why there is no place for free choice in the Behaviorist's scientific scheme of things. He writes:

The hypothesis that man is not free is essential to the application of scientific method to the study of human behavior. The free inner man who is held responsible for the behavior of the external biological organism is only a prescientific substitute for the kinds of causes which we discovered in the course of a scientific analysis.2

If free choice is merely a prescientific substitute -- in short, an illusion -- inasmuch as man's behavior is determined not by the self, but by something outside of the self (environment) or by something within him that he has no real control over, then the very idea of moral evil is likewise an illusion.

The theological consequences of this position -- not to mention the judicial consequences -- are quite sweeping. A God who rewards virtue and punishes sin is entirely unthinkable. Albert Einstein, himself a determinist of the first order, writes: "A God who rewards and punishes is inconceivable for the simple reason that a man's actions are determined by necessity, external and internal, so that in God's eyes he cannot be responsible, any more than an inanimate object is responsible for the motions it goes through."3

But fortunately not every psychologist -- and court judge -- is a Behaviorist. One of the growing number of psychologists today who takes free choice seriously is Dr. Stanton E. Samenow of Alexandria, Virginia, an expert on the criminal mind who argues that criminal behavior is rooted in specific thinking errors that do not have deterministic origins.4 Early on in his career (operating within a Freudian mindframe) while researching criminal behavior at St. Elizabeth's psychiatric hospital (a division of the National Institute of Mental Health) in Washington D.C., he came to the realization that the successes he was experiencing with his patients were only apparent, and not real. The patients had not changed their criminal ways at all, despite appearances to the contrary, and were only cleverly manipulating the researchers, fabricating extrinsic causes that they sensed the researchers were looking for. This was a turning point for him, and it led to a paradigm shift. To make a long story short, Samenow argues that a child is not a "passive receptacle": "Rather than haplessly being shaped by his surroundings, he himself shapes the behavior of others."5 The child is an active agent in his interactions with others. He writes:

...children make choices. Although they do not choose the environment in which they are raised, they do choose how to deal with it. Does this mean that I believe that what parents do has no impact on their children? Not at all! Most of us who are parents try to be good role models. It is important that we endeavor to practice what we preach. Usually our children internalize the values we endeavor to instill in them. But this happens by choice, not by passive absorption.6

Indeed the most criminally oriented students in our schools seem to come from less than ideal situations at home, but as Samenow points out: "Overlooked is the possibility that the family ties have been weakened by the youngster's unrelenting belligerence, sneakiness, and untruthfulness."7

I continue to find, however, that many people have difficulty with this non-determinist perspective on criminal behavior, and I believe there are a number of reasons for this, one of which, I contend, is fear. The thought that an individual person is the self-determining cause of his own evil actions is frightening indeed, because it reveals to us the specter of our own powerlessness. Much easier is the thought that the criminal's behavior was caused by some factor outside of himself (environment), or something chemical or neurological that eventually, with enough scientific knowledge, we will be able to control. And so we readily believe that the criminal, the murderer, or the ruthless dictator is nothing more than an unenlightened and emotionally disturbed or mentally ill human being. We can detect this fear in the following words of Albert Einstein:

In human freedom in the philosophical sense I am definitely a disbeliever. Everybody acts not only under external compulsion but also in accordance with inner necessity. Schopenhauer's saying, that "a man can do as he will, but not will as he will," has been an inspiration to me since my youth up, and a continual consolation and unfailing well-spring of patience in the face of the hardships of life, my own and others'. This feeling mercifully mitigates the sense of responsibility which so easily becomes paralyzing, and it prevents us from taking ourselves and other people too seriously, and it conduces to a view of life in which humour, above all, has its due place (emphasis mine).8

Another reason for the difficulty people have with this thesis is that the scientific quest is a search for causes; for science is a knowledge of things through their proper causes. But a free choice is self-determined, that is, self caused. This means there is no cause outside of the choosing subject that determines him to make the choice that was made. The choosing subject is himself the cause of his decisions. That is why genuinely free choices present a certain impenetrable darkness to the human mind. Free choices are intrinsically mysterious. We can come to an understanding of how free-choice works, but why this person freely determines himself to be a certain kind of person will always remain a mystery; for that is what man is: a mystery created in the image and likeness of the unutterable Mystery.

An Analysis of free choice

The activity of choosing freely is a complex process involving the reciprocal activity of intellect and will. Contrary to the view of reductionistic materialism that underlies Behaviorism, the intellect and will are immaterial powers. Intelligence is the ability to grasp the natures of things. As such, it can grasp the intelligible relationships between things. That is why the intellect is capable of recognizing means as means to ends. For example, I know that I desire happiness, and I know that the good life is not possible outside of the good society (the common good), and so I recognize that an education in political science, for example, is a means of bettering society, and bettering society is a means of my happiness. If we did not have the ability to recognize means as means to ends, we would be determined to the end by one means only. Freedom involves the choice between alternatives or means whereby the end is to be attained.

Now the object of the will is the good as such, without qualification, as opposed to merely one kind of good -- this could not be the case unless the will is an immaterial power. The intellect knows supra-sensible goods or intelligible goods. In other words, we do not merely desire goods that are the object of sensation, such as a juicy steak. Non sensibles or intelligibles such as education, the common good of society, justice, integrity of character, etc., are also desired by human beings. The will is the intellectual appetite, not a sensible appetite that follows upon sense knowledge. One of the distinguishing characteristics of intellectual knowledge, as opposed to sense knowledge, is that it can be universal. For example, we understand the concept of man in general, or education in general. And that is why the will can be moved by a universal object. Thus we are able to choose a general course of action, such as always to be kind, affable, or just, or always to look out for the self first. We can love or hate a class of people, or we can love all persons. We can make and embrace universal laws. In this way we can transcend the limits of the present and the material world. And we can also will particular acts and objects, for example, to give to this charity at this moment, or to obey this order. It is in this way that the object of the will is the good without qualification.

In everything that we will there is some good, and it is because of its goodness that we want it. We will to eat, because we apprehend life as a good. We will to phone a friend, because we apprehend friendship as a good to be had for its own sake. We repent of wrong doing because we apprehend the integration of character and action as a good, etc. Again, it is not the good as pleasant to sensation that is the specific object of the will -- the pleasant good is the object of the concupiscible appetite --, but rather the good without qualification, that is, the good in general.

Now the reason we deliberate before choosing is that when we apprehend alternatives, we see that each alternative contains some good that is not present in the other alternatives. For example, in our pursuit of education, which is a known intelligible good, we grasp that there is some good in pursuing psychology that is not present in the alternative to pursue philosophy, and vice versa. There is some good in pursuing political science that is not present in the other two alternatives, and vice versa. Studying philosophy will do a great deal of good, and so too the study of psychology. In other words, each alternative is experienced as a finite good. If any alternative contained all the good contained in the others, then there would be no choice to make. The will would deliberate no more and would necessarily choose that alternative. But we continue deliberating because the intellect presents to the will known finite goods that do not contain the perfections of all the other alternatives, and so a choice has to be made.

And so the intellect moves the will, that is, presents the will with known goods, but the will in turn moves the intellect, causing it to continue presenting alternatives, that is, to continue deliberating. Decision occurs at the command of the will; for the very word "decide" comes from the Latin: "de secare" (dissect), which means literally "to cut off". At some point the will commands the intellect to "cut off" its deliberation. The will orders the intellect to impress upon the will (itself) a definite known good for the last time. For example, if the person is deliberating over four alternatives (A, B, C, D, representing four local universities), the will, in deciding for alternative A, commands the intellect to present alternative A for the last time. Thus the will, by terminating the intellectual process, is actually determining the course of action to be followed, that is, which means is to be chosen. In this way the will specifies itself, and in specifying itself, it determines its own character. This is what it means to choose freely.

It is not possible to judge the degree of freedom involved in a particular decision, because the degree of freedom depends upon the amount of options or alternatives. One cannot reasonably say, for example, that "You could have chosen to go to Princeton, but you chose York University". Princeton was not an option for the vast majority of us. Man is not, contrary to Sartre's contention, absolutely and totally free. But at the very core of our spiritual nature, the will cannot be moved by any other agent. The very notion that the will can be moved by another is self-contradictory. And within the limited context of my environment, I am always confronted with alternatives. That is why Sartre is not entirely off the mark either. He writes: is in an organized situation in which he himself is involved. Through his choice, he involves all mankind, and he can not avoid making a choice: either he will remain chaste, or he will marry without having children, or he will marry and have children; anyhow, whatever he may do, it is impossible for him not to take full responsibility for the way he handles this problem....moral choice is to be compared to the making of a work of art...It is clearly understood that...the artist is engaged in the making of his painting, and that the painting to be made is precisely the painting he will have made...Never let it be said by us that this man -- who, taking affection, individual action, and kind-heartedness toward a specific person as his ethical first principle, chooses to remain with his mother, or who, preferring to make a sacrifice, chooses to go to England -- has made an arbitrary choice. Man makes himself. He isn't ready made at the start.9

And so it is not that we are determined by our environment. Rather, the environment is in large part determined by us. As Aristotle says, the intellect is in a sense all things. The mind becomes what it knows in an immaterial way. As intellectual creatures, we know our environment. It is within us and in a sense is us immaterially, at least when known. We transcend our environment in knowing it. And that environment that we know or that is within us is the result of the choices of other people. The characters of others are part of my environment. They are within me when known, not simply outside of me causing me to behave a certain way. And I establish my own character or moral identity by the choices that I make within this environment and in relation to it, an environment that is both within me and outside of me. Thus in choosing, I contribute to the making of this environment for others.10 I have no control over others' choices, and so a good part of the environment is out of my control. But I do have control over my own choices, and so I can enter into relation with that environment and change its character as I will, at least in part. Psychotherapist Rollo May writes:

Freedom and will consist not in the abnegation of determinism but in our relationship to it Man is distinguished by his capacity to know that he is determined and to choose his relationship to what determines him. He can and must, unless he abdicates his consciousness, choose how he will relate to necessity, such as death, old age, limitations of intelligence, and the conditioning inescapable in his own background. Will he accept this necessity, deny it, fight it, affirm it, consent to it?11

From the Universal to the Particular

Before I know the specific nature of any material being in my environment, I first apprehend that what I know is a being. In this way, our knowledge proceeds from the general to the particular. Similarly, the first choices that we make are the more general or universal choices, and it is in the context of these universal choices that we make more particular choices, as a novelist conceives the whole novel very generally, and only later begins to fill in the particular parts, chapters, paragraphs, and sentences, that give expression to the original idea. He knows where he is going from the start. In other words, the whole is prior to its parts. Now the more universal the decision, the less motivated it is by sensible goods, and the more free and self-determined it is. But particular decisions motivated by strong passion can mitigate personal responsibility. For example, place a Hershey bar and a carrot in front of an overweight boy and ask him to make a choice. We all know that it is very likely that he will choose the Hershey bar. But the more universal an idea is, the more abstracted it is from matter. So too, the more universal the choice, the more it exceeds the influence of matter.

Now, at some point or within a certain period of time in our lives, we make a very general choice about ourselves. We choose to be a certain kind of person. This choice does not take place in a vacuum, but within an environment containing many different kinds of people. Very early on we choose to be like him, or like her, or not like this person or that person. In choosing actions, we simultaneously choose to be a certain way, and the actions that we choose constitute that certain way of being. For example, a child might want to be a person who cares for senior citizens, tends to their needs, etc.,. It is on the basis of this more general decision that other alternatives become more appealing, that is, in accordance with the "kind" of character that I originally chose for myself. Conversely, certain alternatives drop out of consideration because they are inconsistent with the kind of character I have chosen for myself (I do not choose this action, because I don't want to be that kind of person). It is possible for a person to choose to always look out for himself first, to make himself the very center around which his life will revolve. For example, I have decided that feeling comfortable is more important to me than the well being and rights of others. I accept that this is the kind of person I have become, that is, one with a less noble identity than that of a person who has made a better choice. And there are certain choices that are consistent with that general decision of mine, and there are choices that are inconsistent with it, and these latter tend to lose their appeal, such as doing volunteer work or giving generously to charitable causes, or watching certain kinds of shows or applying for certain courses of study, etc. Consider, for example, how appealing education becomes to a person who has made a commitment that requires some years of schooling.

It is not necessarily possible for us to determine exactly when this very general choice was made by a particular person, but some of us remember moments in our own childhood when we became conscious of having made a simple and general decision to be "like this person" or to strive to be "like that person", or to be "a good person", or "a more powerful person than all others". There is no need to attempt to search for the cause of this decision. The choice is self-determined, or self-caused. The power to choose freely is really the power to "make oneself". And what is made is more intimately yours than anything else that you might own. You are the kind of person that you are because you willed that to be. Contrary to Schopenhauer, a person indeed can will as he will as well as do as he will; for he can know that he knows and know what he wills and will otherwise.

It is true that much of what we carry will affect the way we interpret the world around us. This in turn will affect our decision making and possibly limit the degree of freedom underlying it. As an analogy, consider what it would be like having to live with fresh burns on your back and arms. An unintended collision with another would certainly cause great pain and the burn victim might very well experience a surge of intense anger. One's condition has made it so much easier to incorrectly interpret the situation, reading into it an intentional affront when it was nothing of the sort. So too, a person may be carrying around deep emotional scars that keep him from correctly assessing the situations in which he finds himself. For example, he might read into another's glance or words intentions and sentiments that have no real basis. Many of his decisions might very well be rooted in his distorted judgments for which he is not entirely responsible. On the other hand, he might very well have an accurate assessment of things despite his emotional scars. And even if his judgment is distorted, his decision in the face of what he inaccurately perceives to be the situation at hand is something that he is responsible for. For example, a person might misinterpret the gestures of another, reading into them racist sentiments that are really not part of the other's mindset, and he might not be entirely responsible for this. But his decision to assault him is still made freely and deliberately. Moreover, he might very well be responsible for the decisions that resulted in emotional wounds that in turn contributed to his distorted perception of reality.

And so it is not always possible to know just how free are a person's individual choices at a given time. But the assertion that a person is entirely a victim of his environment and thus entirely determined is as unfounded and "judgmental" as the assertion that a person is always totally free and entirely responsible for every decision that he has made or will make.

Excessive Empathy

Another reason that people have difficulty taking free choice seriously is excessive empathy. Empathy is the power to enter into the feelings of others. It is the mark of the humane. But virtue is in the mean between the extremes of excess and defect. What empathy does not do is allow us to enter into the judgments and decisions that others have made. Excessive empathy can cloud the vision, as excessive feeling tends to do. That is why in the world of the excessively empathetic, there are many "victims". Consider some of the "social justice" newspapers in North America in which everyone who is homeless or unemployed or living below the poverty line is automatically "a victim of injustice". This can be an attractive habit of thinking because it simplifies the world, dividing it up neatly into the "oppressed poor" on one hand, and the "comfortable oppressors" on the other. This simple division has been the mantra of Marxism since the 19th century, as well as the ideologies that have their roots in Marx. The human spirit tends to react with indignation to injustice, but if certain ideological principles have rendered personal evil impossible, instead of being denied completely, evil will be relocated on another level, usually the institutional level. We see this today in anti-Americanism, anti-Capitalism, or anti-Catholicism, etc. But free-choice tends to complicate matters.

The late Canadian psychiatrist Dr. Murry McGovern, who was responsible for evaluating candidates for the priesthood for the Hamilton Diocese, would carefully warn those seminarians who displayed a tendency to excessive empathy. Candidates would be shown, among other things, pictures that they would be required to interpret by writing a story that would render the scenes more meaningful. Some would write stories that portrayed those in the picture (i.e., three men sitting by a railway track consuming alcoholic drink) as victims of a cruel environment, i.e., the Depression, an unjust employer, etc. McGovern would advise them to keep in mind that many of the situations that people find themselves in are a result of bad personal choices made in the past. Failure to do so may lead to serious problems in the long run; for excessively empathetic priests, he would stress, tend to be vulnerable to the artful schemes of evil and blind to the preternatural malice of Satan; for they readily believe that everyone is good willed, and are thus dangerously unsuspecting. Moreover, such empathy inevitably pressures one to refrain from speaking the truth, if it is perceived that speaking the truth will cause certain others to feel uncomfortable or sorrow.

Practical Suggestions

How does a person, such as the Catholic teacher, cultivate a more shrewd posture? Perhaps the first task is to become aware of the amount of empathy one tends to have. Those who enter the helping professions, such as social work, psychology, teaching (especially the teaching of religion), chaplaincy, ministry, priesthood, etc., are usually very empathetic to begin with. It is important to be aware of the limitations of empathy and compassion and be sure not to confuse these with love, which is not empathy, but an act of the will. Love wills for another what is intelligibly good. A surgeon who has so much empathy that he is unwilling to cut into his patient is ineffective and useless, not loving.

A shrewd mind is a searching mind -- not to be confused with a perpetually suspicious mind, much less a cynical mind. A teacher must learn to listen very carefully to his intuition, for the criminal/anti-social child can hide himself well. Such a one is not necessarily the person who constantly acts up in class. Relatively recently, I taught a young man who never acted up or spoke out of place, or manifested any disrespect -- although he did not have any real respect either. But this person would, on a regular basis, break and enter into stores after hours and steal specific types of clothing with friends. He had no remorse, and his only reason for telling me was that he wanted to know if there was any possibility that he was going to hell for his crimes (he wasn't too worried about civil punishment, for he was living in Canada). But his "acceptable" behaviour in class was purely utilitarian. He had set goals for himself -- not necessarily legitimate goals -- and higher education was a step in the achievement of those goals.

Samenow recommends to parents a number of steps to take to overcome the errors in dealing with anti-social children that prevent effective action. Such steps are especially useful to teachers and administrators.

Firstly, denial is a fundamental mistake that parents -- and by extension, teachers and administrators -- can make. He writes:

Denial is a psychological defense mechanism that protects us from being overwhelmed by fear or guilt or by a reality that seems too threatening to handle. It is a defense mechanism that can blind us to such an extent that we do not even recognize that a problem exists until it has become so severe that we can no longer escape its consequences.12

Another mistake to avoid is failing to be firm and consistent and to exercise leverage. Children who receive little discipline tend to find it difficult to become self-disciplined. What Samenow says about parents easily applies to teachers:

Parents who equate leniency with love often have unceasing difficulty controlling their children. Life holds consequences for irresponsible and destructive behaviour. What could be more loving than to help a child learn this early, when penalties for misbehaviour are far less severe than they will be later in life?13

Also, teachers must not fail to demand accountability and trustworthiness, for the anti-social child is profoundly untrustworthy. He must not be permitted to divide and conquer (administration vs. teacher), and treating the child as a victim must be carefully avoided.

The child who becomes anti-social is a master at offering excuses that sound convincing to parents, teachers, and others who hold him accountable. He aims to persuade others that he is not to blame, but is a victim of circumstance. His explanation after he has done something wrong sounds plausible, but it has little or nothing to do with the truth.14

As was argued above, after a child makes a choice with regard to a general course of action, other alternatives begin to appear as desirable and attractive, while others drop out of consideration. For example, the child who chooses to always be kind, will be drawn to other more specific alternatives, such as friendship with a particular person on the street. The anti-social child has chosen to be a certain kind of person, and school and its demands are usually not part of the identity of what has been chosen. School, which involves self-discipline, doing what you are told, sitting still for a certain duration of time, reading and writing, does not come across as a very appealing option to him. He is bored, profoundly uninterested and unable to focus his attention. This is not to suggest that all kids who are bored and unfocused are anti-social, but a confusion of cause and effect can occur at this point. Samenow writes:

Many children who are anti-social have been misdiagnosed as hyperactive. Truly hyperactive children are diffuse and random in their activity. Among the features of the "attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder" listed by the American Psychiatric Association are "difficulty sustaining attention in tasks or play activities" and "[engaging] in physically dangerous activities without considering possible consequences (not for the purpose of thrill seeking)." The anti-social child, on the other hand, is able to concentrate for long periods on whatever interests him, but he balks at virtually any task that he finds disagreeable. He deliberately seeks out "dangerous activities" because he craves excitement for its own sake. A youngster may have elements of an attention deficit disorder and be anti-social. One does not cause the other.15

Finally, Samenow underscores the futility of continuing to ask "why?" He writes: "Rather than just dwell on the deficiencies of a youngster's parents, it is important to ask, How does the child choose to deal with those deficiencies? Many human beings turn out well despite their parents, not because of them. We don't hear or read about these boys and girls. But we constantly hear from those who blame their parents and the larger environment for their own irresponsibility."16

Concluding Thoughts

Samenow's insights and unsentimental approach are much more consistent with a Christian anthropology than is the perspective that habitually regards the violent criminal as a victim. A Christian anthropology regards the human person as one created in the image and likeness of God, that is, one who has the ability to think and make choices determined by nothing or no one other than himself. The habit of regarding the anti-social student as a victim is at best rooted in fear and a need to make sense out of what in many ways is impossible to completely make sense out of. At its roots, it is a profoundly anti-Christian habit. But it is prevalent nonetheless. For example, consider what Dr. William Glasser has to say about the roots of violent behaviour among young students. In his essay entitled: "School Violence from the Perspective of William Glasser", he writes:

What all these violent students share is exactly what the violence-prevention program is designed to address. They lack good relationships with warm, caring responsible adults. The job of the VPP counselor is to be that adult for these students. The success of the program will be directly related to how well the counselors can do this.17

Note that the success of his program is not, according to what he says, directly related to the how the student chooses to relate to the caring counselor in his life. It is as if violent students are good willed from the beginning, but merely lack an adult who knows how to relate to the young and violent non judgmentally and compassionately. What is left completely unaddressed are the possible reasons why violent students lack good relationships with "warm, caring responsible adults". Some students simply choose not to connect to the warm and caring people around them who are willing and know how to relate to them with warmth and understanding. Glasser, who generally appreciates the role of choice in determining a person's psychological make up, has for some reason adopted a more sentimental approach that overlooks the role of choice in one who is young and violent. Regarding the Columbine killers, he writes:

Klebold and Harris did not have this kind of relationship with their parents or with any teacher in school. Most adults look at young people in trouble as if they are guilty, and if the adult is to relate to them, they have to prove their innocence. It is not that their parents or teachers did not try. I'm sure they did, but because of what happened, apparently no adult succeeded with these two young men. The reason they didn't succeed is that neither their parents nor their teachers knew how to make this relationship (emphasis mine).18

Again, Glasser has it backwards. A large part of the problem with violent young people is that the adults in their lives, in particular their parents, look at them as if they are not guilty when in fact they are. Moreover, relationships are founded upon love, and love isn't love unless it is freely given. Perhaps Klebold and Harris were surrounded by loving and caring teachers and administrators who knew how to enter into relationship with the young, but chose not to return the love that surrounded them and was offerred to them. Perhaps these violent students are unhappy not because they are misunderstood and unfairly judged, but rather because they have chosen vice over virtue, a moral identity that is inconsistent with a happy life. Human persons are not things that can be manipulated and made to behave in ways that we might find desirable, like animals that can be trained or computers that can be programed, but intelligent creatures who enjoy the dignity of being free self-determining agents. The power of free-choice is a very dangerous gift that makes possible unimaginable blessings that have their roots in an incomprehensible decision to love, as well as horrifying tragedies that have their roots in an equally incomprehensible decision not to love, but to hate.


1 B. F Skinner. Beyond Freedom and Dignity (New York.: Knof Publ. Co., 1974) p. 101. [Back]

2 B. F. Skinner. Science and Human Behavior (New York.: Macmillan. Co., 1965) p. 447. Cf. pp. 6-10, 17, 23-24, 116, 241, 342, 438. [Back]

3 Albert Einstein. The World As I See It (New York.: Philosophical Library, 1949) p. 27. [Back]

4 Samenow uses the phrase "anti-social child" descriptively, not as a fixed diagnostic label. "I can't stress enough that irresponsibility and criminality occur by degree and that occasional irresponsibility does not a criminal make....The criminal approaches the world with a sense of ownership, as though people and objects are mere pawns on his own personal chessboard. He aims to control other people just to enhance his own sense of power. Human relationships are avenues through which he pursues conquests and triumphs. The criminal expects others to do whatever he wants without hesitation. He delights in arguing for the sake of arguing. He is intent on winning what he regards as a battle, no matter how trivial the issue. He is a master at ferreting out weaknesses in others and ruthlessly capitalizing on them. When people oppose him, he can be merciless. Ignoring the rights of others, the criminal sounds like a constitutional lawyer whenever he believes that he has been unjustly treated. In nearly everything he does, he aims to feel powerful." Before It's Too Late, (New York.: Three Rivers Press, 2001) pp. 27-28. [Back]

5 Ibid., p. 14. [Back]

6 Ibid., pp. 20-21. "In my clinical practice, I see youngsters who are referred by juvenile courts, sent by school counselors, and in nearly all cases dragged unwillingly to me by their parents. For the most part, these boys and girls are already knee-deep in crime. As I evaluate them psychologically, I find that their defiance and excitement-seeking began as early as the preschool years and that their criminality is far more extensive than anyone suspects. Their parents are overwhelmed by fear, anger, and guilt. Guilt can be the most devastating emotion, for it often paralyzes parents so that they are unable to take effective action. As they struggle to make sense of it all, the mothers and fathers of these youngsters are positive they must have done something horribly wrong that caused their children to become so irresponsible. But rarely is this the case.

It is tragic that for decades, psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, and educators have convinced parents that they are chiefly responsible for shaping their children's destiny. Erroneously, the experts have asserted that the child comes into this world much like a totally unformed lump of clay and then is haplessly molded by parents. Millions of mothers and fathers have internalized this message and, understandably, feel blameworthy for everything that goes wrong." Ibid., pp. 12-13. [Back]

7 Ibid., p. 15. " in another case, a counselor assumed that a child turned to drugs because the parents had provided poor role models by drinking and using tranquilizers. It is difficult to dispute the desirability of a parent's integrity, perseverance, compassion, and other positive qualities. And yet every reader of this book probably knows of a family where the parents have been loving and responsible, but in which one of the offspring rejects those good role models to follow a path totally different from his siblings (who do pattern themselves after the parents). Conversely, I have known parents who are poor role models but whose child, instead of identifying with them, identifies with other people in his environment whom he admires. In one family, the father was in jail and two of the sons had been incarcerated. The mother was struggling to maintain her own emotional and financial stability. The youngest child in the family, when asked why she did not fashion her behavior after the antisocial role models prevalent both in her family and in the neighborhood, responded in three words: "I wasn't interested." She had observed the world around her and concluded that she would be like people who were doing something constructive with their lives. Had she ended up in a life of crime, social workers, psychologists, and other professionals would have found it understandable, perhaps even excusable, because of the adverse environment in which she grew up and the terrible hardships that she had faced. Instead, she chose to turn her back on the drugs, the crime, and the poor examples within her own family, and to live responsibly We keep coming back to theories that have been accepted for decades. We say that it is the parents who are at fault. Or society at large that shuts children out of the mainstream, causing them to fail so that they commit crimes to achieve recognition. Or we claim that specific outside forces corrupt them, such as their peers, television, or the movies. But these theories explain little about origins or motives of antisocial behavior. Worse still, they are misleading, even dangerous, because everyone and everything becomes the culprit, except the actual perpetrator of the crime The much-cited role of peer pressure in criminal behavior is a prime example of the fallacious cause-effect reasoning that continues to be prevalent. Yes, peer pressure exists; it is an important aspect of life nearly from womb to tomb. And it is true that most children want to belong to a group. The pure, unvarnished truth is that people choose the company they keep. Children want to belong, but they choose the groups to which they want to belong. One father despairingly said to me that if his son saw two groups of kids, one that was talking about sports, rock music, and school and another that was speaking in profanities about teachers, discussing drug purchases and what girl was an easy mark, his son would invariably choose to be with the second group. In short, children do not get pressured haplessly into embarking on a life of crime. They make deliberate choices to do so!" Ibid., pp. 20-22. [Back]

8 Op. cit., p. 2. Schopenhaur's premise that "we can do as we will, but not will as we will" is contradicted by philosopher and psychologist William James. Writing of his depression and his decision to rise above it, Rollo May writes: "After the five years in his late twenties and early thirties, when he was paralyzed with his own depression and scarcely able to will the simplest thing, he decided one day that he could make an act of will to believe in freedom. He willed freedom, made it his fiat. "The first act of freedom," he writes, "is to choose it." He was convinced afterwards, that this act of will was what enabled him to deal with and transcend his depression. It is at least clear in his biography that at that point, the highly constructive life which continued right up to his death at sixty-eight began for him...He knew that in an act of will a man was doing something more than what met the eye; he was creating, forming something which had never existed before. There is risk in such a decision, such a fiat, but it remains our one contribution to the world which is original and underived." Rollo May. Love and Will. (New York.: W. W. Norton & Company. Inc., 1969) pp. 270-271. [Back]

9 Existentialism and Human Emotions. New York.: Philosophical Library, 1985, p. 41-43. [Back]

10 " act is to modify the shape of the world; it is to arrange means in view of an end." Jean-Paul Sartre. Being and Nothingness, (New York.: Philosophical Library, 1956) pt 4, ch. 1. p. 433. [Back]

11 Rollo May. Love and Will. pp. 269-270. "Freedom lies not in our triumphing over objective nature, or in the little space that is left to us in our subjective nature, but in the fact that we are the men who experience both. In our intentionality, the two are brought together, and in our experiencing both, we already change both. Intentionality not only makes it possible for us to take a stand vis-à-vis necessity, but requires us to take this stand. This is illustrated ad infinitum in psychotherapy, when the patient argues rigid determinism, generally when he is discouraged or wishes to escape the meaning of his intentions. And the more he is "determined to be a determinist" -- the more he argues (which already is intentionality) that he has nothing to do with the fate that is bearing down upon him -- the more he is making himself in fact determined." Ibid., p. 270. [Back]

12 Samenow. Before It's Too Late, pp. 126-127. [Back]

13 Ibid., p. 150. [Back]

14 Ibid., p. 178. [Back]

15 Ibid., p. 183. [Back]

16 Ibid., p. 201. "...the antisocial child functions in a manner both quantitatively and qualitatively different from his peers. Instead of developing empathy, he deliberately looks for weakness and preys upon it to achieve his objective. Rather than learning to work cooperatively, he takes an uncompromising position and insists that others operate on his terms. (If you put nine of these youngsters on a baseball team, each would insist upon being the captain.) His parents, teachers, and others keep placing their trust in him only to discover that he constantly betrays that trust. Prepared to take anything offered, he gives precious little of himself. While insisting that others play by the rules, he is forever making of himself an exception. This youngster develops no concept of social boundaries, but he can become the greatest constitutional lawyer when he thinks that somehow his rights have been infringed upon. Although he may be intelligent, talented, and charming, he uses these assets to ingratiate himself with others so that he can then take advantage of them.

How does such a personality come to be? The conventional wisdom about causation appears to explain it all. Rather than see the child as behaving monstrously by choice, it is far easier to accept as an explanation that he acts as he does because of what has been done to him by others. Virtually everything has been blamed for youthful crime. We are told that poverty causes crime. Yet most poor people are not criminals. We are told that abusive parents cause a child to abuse others. But most boys and girls who are abused do not become criminals. We hear that children turn to crime because of peer pressure. Overlooked is the fact that youngsters choose their peers." Ibid., pp. 200-201. [Back]

17 William Glasser M.D. "School Violence from the Perspective of William Glasser". The William Glasser Institute. 05/19/2005 (05/30/2005) [Back]

18 Loc. cit. [Back]

The image above is called The Dance of Good and Evil, an abstract oil painting by Curtis Verdun.