Mind Control, Free Will, and Jessica Jones

By Hazem Zohny

In the first season of the Netflix show Jessica Jones, our traumatized, alcoholic protagonist is up against a particularly nasty villain: Kilgrave. He is a mind-controller and complete psychopath. A virus he emits compels people around him to do whatever he commands.

Early in the season, he makes a young woman, Hope, kill her parents in front of Jessica just to spite her. Jessica, who knows all too well what it’s liked to be “Kilgraved,” consoles Hope by repeatedly telling her, “It’s not your fault.”

And it surely isn’t her fault. Once Kilgrave commanded Hope to kill, she could in no way have done otherwise. More than that, she was not in any meaningful sense the source or author of her murderous act, which was completely incongruous with her past behaviours and with her love for her parents.

 

 

Most of us accept that in such fictional situations, one is not morally responsible for their actions. But also, to the extent that certain psychiatric conditions or brain dysfunctions can, as it were, “Kilgrave us,” most of us I think would also accept that people who are victims of such conditions are not morally responsible for their actions either.

Case in point: a man who developed sudden and uncontrollable paedophilia was found to have an egg-sized tumour in his brain. Once it was removed, his sex-obsession disappeared. Later, when he reverted to paedophilia, a brain scan revealed that the tumour had re-emerged. Removed once more, his paedophilia disappeared again. While we cannot know for sure what went on in his mind, this seems like a plausible situation of being Kilgraved by a brain tumour.

Now imagine if Kilgrave’s power worked a little differently. Rather than being able to compel people to kill others on the spot, his villainy worked on a slower timescale. In this case of what I’ll call Slow Kilgrave, his superpower is the capacity to select each of his victim’s genes before they are born, and then to design and control every significant event in their life, choosing their parents, relatives, teachers, friends, and enemies, as well as the books and ideas and opportunities they have access to. Imagine he does this to all his victims, moulding their genes and environments in such a way so as to ensure they end up murdering their parents by the time they reach their 30th birthday.

Have they been Kilgraved? In a sense, yes: everything about their life, from their notions of right and wrong, their relationships and their dispositions – including, presumably, their dispositions toward trying to change their dispositions, such as via self-improvement – has been controlled and determined by Kilgrave.

On the other hand, in this case we can at least appeal to his victims’ life story to explain or attempt to make sense of their decision to murder their parents. Unlike Hope, whose sudden and horrific act cannot be explained by her history, these victims would seem rational and coherent, even though they were puppets in a diabolical plot.

Is this difference relevant in regards to moral responsibility? I think not. The relevant point about this scenario is that victims of Slow Kilgrave had no control over the sorts of forces that made them who they are, and therefore what they did. Even if they seem rational and believe themselves to be free, their lives were nevertheless fully controlled by Kilgrave. They are first and foremost victims of a diabolical plot, not morally responsible murderers.

If correct, this suggests that we are not ultimately interested in whether someone is rational when we ascribe blame. Rationality is something we look for in a murderer because we presume it correlates with something more fundamental: whether they are the true source, or in some sense the author, of the act. Was it really them, or was it something else that made them do it? In this case it seems the real author was Slow Kilgrave, even though his victims appear rational and capable of understanding what they did and why they did it.

If we accept this conclusion, then the obvious question becomes: what difference is there between victims of Slow Kilgrave and real people? None of us have any control over our genes, who our parents or relatives are, nor any of the conditions or opportunities that eventually make us who we are, including how we respond to conditions and opportunities later in life. We are all, for better or worse, Kilgraved by life; free will and the notion of moral responsibility that tags along with it are incoherent fantasies.

There is certainly a quick response to this conclusion: real lives are not a product of a diabolical plot. There is no puppet master manipulating every aspect of our lives.

But is this difference relevant? The victims of Slow Kilgrave don’t seem morally responsible because they have no control over the forces that determine who they are, not because those forces were manipulated in a way that reflects the desires and intentions of a supervillain.

Greene and Cohen, making this same point, put it nicely:

“The fact that someone could deliberately harness these [biological and environmental] forces to reliably design criminals is an indication of the strength of these forces, but the fact that these forces are being guided by other minds rather than simply operating on their own seems irrelevant …”

In other words, the fact that in reality these forces are determined by chance (i.e. the genes you happened to have, the family you happened to have been born into, etc.) rather than a villain, does nothing to endow us with the kind of freedom we associate with moral responsibility.

This seems a distressing – though by no means philosophically novel – conclusion. For one thing, it suggests no one deserves blame or praise. Even Kilgrave is a victim of his own miserable life. But while this means he doesn’t deserve blame in the usual sense of the word, it also doesn’t mean he deserves to carry on undeterred. We can justify trying to remove him and other psychopaths and irredeemably dangerous individuals from society. We do not need to appeal to free will or responsibility in order to defend ourselves or to look out for the well-being of a society.

Similarly, for otherwise normal individuals who behave badly, we can and do attempt to condition them so that they and others watching are less likely to repeat those behaviours – prisons being an extreme (though likely ineffective) example. At the other end, we give medals and money to people who behave in ways we want to encourage. This conditioning process relies on free will about as much as a computer program does – which is to say, not at all.

The question is what sorts of minds are amenable to this conditioning process, and what sorts of incentives or disincentives work for a particular mind. Does an addicted mind tied to a particular social context respond to punishment or the threat of it? What about the mind of a psychopath? And precisely what sorts of incentives can we create to stop otherwise stable minds from occasionally being destructive? Whatever the answers, it is all too easy to forget that, once we stop thinking in terms of moral responsibility as it’s traditionally been conceived, these become questions in science, broadly construed, not ethics.

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One Response to Mind Control, Free Will, and Jessica Jones

  • Lucymarie Ruth says:

    “The question is what sorts of minds are amenable to this conditioning process, and what sorts of incentives or disincentives work for a particular mind. Does an addicted mind tied to a particular social context respond to punishment or the threat of it?” — some, but not much, usually.

    “What about the mind of a psychopath?” — not at all amenable to conditioning process

    “And precisely what sorts of incentives can we create to stop otherwise stable minds from occasionally being destructive?” — to begin with, stop offering financial incentives to commit horrendous acts. Stable minds are not OCCASIONALLY being destructive, they are DAILY being destructive.

    “Whatever the answers, it is all too easy to forget that, once we stop thinking in terms of moral responsibility as it’s traditionally been conceived, these become questions in science, broadly construed, not ethics.” — Moral responsibility becoming questions in science does not preclude it from remaining questions in ethics, and indeed, we cannot and must not allow ethics to go by the wayside.

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