The Philosophy of Roseanne’s Ambien Tweet

By Neuroskeptic | June 2, 2018 1:39 pm

As everyone knows, Roseanne Barr posted a racist tweet. She claimed that the sleeping medication Ambien affected her behavior, but her show got cancelled anyway.


Now, I think this scandal raises some surprisingly interesting philosophical questions about moral responsibility and the nature of self-control. What follows is a dialogue between two hypothetical speakers exploring some of these questions. To be clear, this is a post about philosophy, not about Roseanne. I don’t know or care if she really took any Ambien or what her views on race are.


ROSE: “Roseanne’s Ambien Defence is absurd. Ambien doesn’t make you racist. It doesn’t put racist thoughts in your head. She came up with that tweet all on her own.”

ANNE: “But what if the Ambien affected her judgment, her ability to inhibit impulses? Sure, the idea of writing that tweet didn’t come from the drug, but maybe if she hadn’t been on Ambien, she’d have thought better of it. So, while Ambien didn’t put the racism in her head, maybe it caused it to come out.”

ROSE: “Well, that doesn’t change anything. The racism came from within her, so she is still responsible for it, and deserved to lose her show.”

ANNE: “Perhaps, but she didn’t lose her show for being a racist; she lost her show for a specific action, the tweet. There are surely others out there who dream up worst tweets than hers, but who never post them. Is it fair to punish Roseanne, and not the others, just because she took Ambien, and they didn’t?”

ROSE: “It would be fairer to punish all of them, but that doesn’t mean Roseanne should get away with it.”

ANNE: “So people should be punished just for thinking of doing bad things, even if they never do them? Have you ever thought about breaking the law or saying something terrible?”

ROSE: “Yes, but I’d never do it.”

ANNE: “Maybe you would, if you took an Ambien.”

ROSE: “I don’t like where this is going. According to your logic, shouldn’t we excuse people who do or say bad things when drunk, on the grounds that alcohol is what made them lose control? Should we forgive drunk drivers?”

ANNE: “No, because people freely choose to drink. Unless someone’s drink gets spiked, that person is responsible for getting drunk. With Ambien, it’s different, because it’s a medication taken for health reasons – at least when used as prescribed. So the Ambien Defence is stronger than the Alcohol Defence because the choice to drink is freer.”

ROSE: “Hmm, well then, what about the Personality Defence?”

ANNE: “What’s that?”

ROSE: “Some people are more reckless and impulsive than others. This is their personality, based on genes and environment, neither of which people get to choose. Some people, so to speak, are born on Ambien. Can we blame them for failing to suppress their impulses?”

ANNE: “I see. You’re saying that if the Ambien Defence works, the Personality Defence must also work?”

ROSE: “The Personality Defence is even stronger. Most people would say that we have much more choice over whether to take a pill, than we do over our own nature.”

ANNE: “But if we follow that argument, how can we be held responsible for anything – our thoughts, or our actions? Our genes and environment determine both.”

ROSE: “Perhaps moral responsibility itself is an illusion. Determinism is a harsh philosophy but we must accept it.”

ANNE: “Hang on, three minutes ago, you were the one saying that Roseanne was responsible for her own racism, and now you’re denying that responsibility exists! Isn’t that a bit inconsistent?”

ROSE: “Yes, but don’t blame me – that’s just who I am.”


CATEGORIZED UNDER: ethics, law, media, philosophy, select, Top Posts
  • Josiah

    Thanks so much for this, Neuroskeptic! Super thought provoking. I couldn’t resist the impulse to draw parallels with my recent musings =)

  • Bernard Carroll

    1. Although some Ambien related behavioral misadventures have face validity, in many cases the Ambien defense is conjectural or self-serving – it’s a post hoc rationalization, not a pharmacological explanation, unless we know her blood Ambien level or the time between ingestion and tweeting. It needs a case by case assessment.

    2. The Ambien defense is not stronger than the Alcohol defense. With Ambien, patients are warned against driving or operating machinery until they know what their reaction is. What would make the person claim the Ambien made her do it? Why, previous experience of adverse Ambien effects on her behavior, of course. So, she was responsible for engaging in risky behavior (tweeting) against medical advice.

    3. As for the Personality defense, do genes and environment determine daily behavior in a fully deterministic way? They may shift the probabilities of, say, restraint versus impulsiveness but that is not the same as ‘causing’ a specific instance of one or the other. The gene link you cited shows at best a modest effect, decreasing over time, on impulsiveness in twins.

    4. Your concluding ‘flip’ is a fun maneuver but it is possible only because you focused on abstract, universal arguments instead of casewise analyses. Cases are messy, while abstractions are elegant. Abstractions don’t recognize Bayesian prior probabilities that can be determinative for cases. That is why we have courts of law rather than an Artificial Intelligence driven, algorithm-guided justice system. In the Roseanne case, the priors speak for themselves against the Ambien defense.

    Thanks for a stimulating post, NS.

    • neurowhateverM

      Just to point out, your points (3) and (4) are a little incoherent.

      For (3), if the world is deterministic, then there are no “probabilities” that get “shifted”. The world is determined. Full stop. When we do studies that only show a modest probability of X “causing” or being “correlated with” Y, we’re just modeling the world as if it were probabilistic. That doesn’t mean the world is metaphysically that way, necessarily. The issue with Anne’s point is assuming that if we don’t have free will, determinism must be true, which is not necessarily the case at

      For (4), again, you keep modeling the world as if it were fundamentally probabilistic. Your use of Bayesian modeling to understand the world is unrelated to the nature of the world itself, which could be probabilistic, deterministic, or neither. Bayesian models are just like any other — they’re models. However the way the world works is unrelated to how we end up modeling it for our own convenience.

      • Bernard Carroll

        I don’t see a necessary conflict between a deterministic view and a probabilistic view of behavior. The metaphysical statement of determinism does not permit predictions, absent complete knowledge of all determining contingencies. Of course, we do not possess that knowledge. The probabilistic view accepts that behavior cannot absolutely be predicted even though it is determined. For predicting behavior of individuals, the unpredictability can be reduced by incorporating Bayesian priors into the predictions, but it will never be perfect. I don’t call that ‘Bayesian modeling’ of the world but a Bayes-informed way of navigating the world – which describes human interactions on every level.

    • iBro X

      Then one should add further warning on the label, “Do not engange in any social media after taking this medicine.”

  • TLongmire

    Say Trump looks like an orangutan and everyone laughs, A.I. might not see the need to over react, or maybe notice why there is a need to?

  • neurowhateverM

    Cool little article.

    I know this is kind of ignoring the point of the dialogue at the end, but I just wanted to add that Anne mistakenly assumes that determinism must be true if free will is an illusion. Free will could be an illusion regardless of whether determinism is true or not. People can read about these kinds of arguments further at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s article on Skepticism about Moral Responsibility:

    Just wanted to mention this because neuroscientists are frequently unschooled in any kind of contemporary philosophy… much to their detriment.

    • Neuroskeptic

      Yes, I agree, free will is in trouble whether the universe is deterministic or whether there is (e.g. quantum) randomness because we don’t control that either (or even if ‘we’ could magically control some quantum randomness, how do we control that decision to control? etc.)

      I was leaving that aspect of the debate out of the post.

      • Maia

        Free will is only in trouble if we view it as an absolute in opposition to NO free will, ie determinism. There is room for more nuanced views. In Sean Carroll’s recent book ranging from astrophysics to psychology, he calls himself a “poetic naturalist”, in short, somewhere between both extremes re: will. Buddhists (mostly) say that we humans have VERY LITTLE to nearly no free will, mainly because we are so unaware of our own thoughts, perceptions and motivations to act. Without awareness, there can be no free will, .therefore we are driven by urges, ego needs, random impulses. Years of observing one’s ego in action, reveals moments that appear to be still open: eg, a mean urge arises, we see it for what it is, stop—-in this moment of slender free will, we decide (in the light of deeperr/larger goals) to go a different route. Eventually, through various trainings, that slender moment of freedom widens a bit, and there are more of them. But total free will is an illusion…even for the Dalai
        And btw, the main reason Buddhists vow to stay clear of intoxicants is not because it’s sinful to get drunk or high, it’s because you lose what little free will you might have while sober, and lives can get wrecked there by.

  • Chris DeVries

    I like it. I am a free will skeptic myself, so I questioned Rose’s position from the start, until she switched to denial of moral responsibility at all, which is the position I take. People don’t choose to be who they are. They don’t know where their thoughts come from, and because thoughts cause actions, actions are themselves caused by things nobody cannot control. We’re robots whose operating systems run commands that are determined by initial conditions and external stimuli. So we can use consequentialist arguments to create consequences for actions that harm others, but we should NOT decide that the people facing those consequences deserve to suffer because of their actions. Locking up criminals to protect society is okay – creating miserable conditions for them to endure whilst incarcerated is not. I like Norway’s approach personally. By extending trust to people who by all rights (if you believe in moral responsibility as most people do) should not be trusted, you give them a stimuli that ends up prompting better thoughts and actions in most individuals. All because the Norwegians seem to understand a crucial point – crime doesn’t happen in a vaccuum, and choices aren’t free.

    • OWilson

      Apparently our Norwegian betters don’t trust people who wear hijabs.

      They just banned them from all educational institutions! :)

      • Mike Richardson

        Must be on Ambien, eh?

    • Erik Bosma

      Thoughts SHOULD cause actions but sadly it’s usually feelings that cause the actions with drastic results in some circumstances. We need to learn how to think again. Only problem with that is that the ability to think well makes one a poor consumer.

  • 1Antichrist1

    I believe these excuses , the sleeping pill, the alcohol. and the personality problem are not separate, but overlap, and its hard to determine where one is more relevant then the other. The most can be said is that the alcohol and drug dependence are symptoms of the personality problem, and they are used to deal with it.

    The level of responsibility depends on the level of personality dysfunction.

    Rosanne’s problem is quite evident , from the time she publicly revealed her bad marriage forced her to accept another woman to cohabit with her husband. The girls even wore identical dresses to please her ex.

    Only a very disturbed or/and determined woman would go to that extreme.

  • Trut Tella

    The device of the debate between the two sides is interesting, but, let’s face the reality. Roseanne is an absolute loon and she just made a totally normal free association between Dr. Zira and Valerie Jarrett, and whether due to being in an Ambien trance or whatever else, didn’t realize it might not go down well with humourless people.

    We all know that anyone with kids makes statistical conclusions about who they want their kids to be around.

    The richer, and more ‘liberal’ ones, are generally better at implementing those by buying in the ‘right neighbourhood’ and sending their kids to Chinese immersion charter schools and similar things.

    Frankly, I don’t see how they’re any better than Roseanne. At least she’s funny/

  • 7eggert

    If you deny responsibility by saying the world is deterministic, it’s determined that you shall be punished. Don’t blame the marvelous Punisher.

  • A Daigle

    Interesting post. Is it the inhibition of dark impulses that make a “good” person or is it rather the absence of those? I often pondered on this question when I used to work with dis-inhibited dementia patients who used to be polite and considerate persons and were now sexually harassing nurses and insulting people. The family was often confused. Was my father/husband an aggressive racist/pervert all this time but just hiding it? I reassured them of course but deep down I was not always sure.

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  • Erik Bosma

    Most of us will try to deny it, but we are ALL racist to some degree. It’s a basic human instinct. However I would be more comfortable with the word ‘Tribe-ist’ which I just made up.
    Although I don’t really care much for Roseanne I do have to stick up for her this time. Roseanne is into shock humour. I think we can all agree with that. If she was on Ambien or not is not really an issue here except for the fact that Ambien probably loosens inhibitions a bit. So Roseanne was on social media, when she probably shouldn’t have been – we’ve all been there, haven’t we? – and let loose a shock joke which on later examination she realized was probably not going to be understood by some people later on. Especially when the Ambien party in her head, with its attendant pretend audience who laughed at all her jokes, ended.
    Give her (and all the other people losing their jobs) a break… will ya ABC?

    • Erik Bosma

      I guess I should at least come up with some sort of conclusion: Roseanne was poking fun at our inherent tribalism and fear of the other which is something she usually does – she’s an iconoclast for Pete’s sake.

  • Rejean Levesque

    You’re forgetting that Roseanne is a Trump fan – that is an indication that her reasoning powers are quite limited…

    • Erik Bosma

      Whether or not she is a Trump fan is also up for debate – who knows if she really is? Bad press is often better than good press and she knows it.

  • sounder

    Most HR departments would fire anybody making similar comments.

  • Tim Donahoe

    Most people seem to be focusing in on the racist element of her tweet, but are ignoring the larger pattern of behavior leading up to it. Her tweet about that particular member of Obama’s administration was spurned by her wholesale acceptance and propagation of an extremely dubious conspiracy theory. While topics like moral responsibility and free will are great, I’m scared to death by the fact that so many people, especially baby boomers, seem to have very poor critical thinking skills and are easily duped by unsubstantiated viewpoints.

  • Oudeicrat Annachrista

    I dispute the claim that what she said was racist. Is there any scientific evidence I should consider?



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About Neuroskeptic

Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.


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