You probably thought that the answer is: “I am.” But neuroscientist Sam Harris argues in his 2012 book, Free Will, that your genes and your environment are responsible for your behavior: you have no choice.

Harris claims that free will is an illusion, and therefore no-one can be held accountable for his behavior; we merely act the way our genes and environment dictate. Therefore, we cannot assign blame or praise to anyone. Criminals are victims of their circumstances; Olympic athletes and successful entrepreneurs excel solely because of their genes and upbringing.

The thought of shedding personal responsibility might be comforting so some; however, we should care about Harris’ claim and understand why it is wrong.

Harris is mistaken for two reasons:

1) because we need to choose and pursue values (from food and shelter to a successful career and a profitable business) to survive and flourish—as opposed to acting on the basis of random urges we feel in any given circumstance (such as stealing food, defrauding the bank to finance our business, or hiring a hit man to eliminate our competitor), and

2) because we don’t know automatically what values are required for a happy life (or a profitable business) and how to achieve them. Harris would have us believe that some of us are destined to achieve values and others are not. Ending up with a life of crime, with an Olympic medal, or with a successful business are all beyond our control, claims Harris.

Harris’ erroneous assertions are easy to refute. All one has to do is some introspection to observe free will in action. The fundamental choice we all make in any given moment is to focus our mind, or not. You have to choose to focus to read this blog, or let your mind wander, or quit reading. Your genes do not pre-determine that choice for you, nor does your upbringing.

All our subsequent choices depend on the fundamental choice to focus your mind, to “turn the switch,” or not. Only if you choose to focus can you achieve your values in the long term. By choosing to focus, you can learn, acquire a skill, develop a business plan, persuade investors to invest in your company and customers to buy its products and services. Ultimately, the consequence is a thriving business and achievement of other rational values.

The alternative to focusing is refusing to focus on facts at hand and evading that what’s around you as well your own thoughts and emotions.  Not focusing means, for example, evading new technologies being introduced, insufficient cash flow of your business, competitors taking your market share, unmotivated and unproductive employees, and customers dropping your products or services. (The assumption is, of course, that to have built a business in the first place, you must have focused earlier, and then abandoned that effort). If you choose not to focus, you will live in a mental fog and take random actions, as the mood or some inexplicable urge strikes you. The consequence is a loss of your business and all other values.

A little introspection will reveal that the choice to focus is not an illusion but must be made in each waking moment. It is yours to make—and you are responsible for that choice and for the rest of your behavior: how you live your life and conduct your business.


Originally posted 7 August 2012






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Jaana Woiceshyn teaches business ethics and competitive strategy at the Haskayne School of Business, University of Calgary, Canada.She has lectured and conducted seminars on business ethics to undergraduate, MBA and Executive MBA students, and to various corporate audiences for over 20 years both in Canada and abroad.Before earning her Ph.D. from the Wharton School of Business, University of Pennsylvania, she helped turn around a small business in Finland and worked for a consulting firm in Canada.Jaana’s research on technological change and innovation, value creation by business, executive decision-making, and business ethics has been published in various academic and professional journals and books. “How to Be Profitable and Moral” is her first solo-authored book.

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