...As far as responsibility is concerned, Kant and a right-wing tabloid such as the Daily Mail have a good deal in common. Morally speaking, both hold that we are entirely responsible for what we do. In fact, such self-responsibility is thought to be the very essence of morality. On this view, appeals to social conditioning are simply a cop-out. Many people, conservatives point out, grow up in dismal social conditions yet become law-abiding citizens. This is rather like arguing that because some smokers don't die of cancer, nobody who smokes dies of cancer. It is this doctrine of absolute self-responsibility which has helped to overpopulate the death rows of US prisons. Human beings must be seen as wholly autonomous (literally: "a law unto themselves"), because to invoke the influence of social or psychological factors on what they do would be to reduce them to zombies. In the cold war era, this was equivalent to reducing them to that worst horror of all: Soviet citizens. So killers with a mental age of five, or battered wives who finally turn on their pugnacious husbands, must be as guilty as Goebbels. Better a monster than a machine.
There is, however, no absolute distinction between being influenced and being free. A good many of the influences we undergo have to be interpreted in order to affect our behaviour; and interpretation is a creative affair. It is not so much the past that shapes us as the past as we (consciously or unconsciously) interpret it. And we can always come to decipher it differently. Besides, someone free of social influences would be just as much a non-person as a zombie. In fact, he or she would not really be a human being at all. We can act as free agents only because we are shaped by a world in which this concept has meaning, and which allows us to act upon it. None of our distinctively human behaviour is free in the sense of being absolved from social determinants, which includes such distinctively human behaviour as poking people's eyes out. We would not be able to torture and massacre without having picked up a great many social skills. Even when we are alone, it is not in the sense in which a coal scuttle or the Golden Gate Bridge is alone. It is only because we are social animals, able through language to share our inner life with others, that we can speak of such things as autonomy and self-responsibility in the first place. They are not terms that apply to earwigs. To be responsible is not to be bereft of social influences, but to relate to such influences in a particular way. It is to be more than just a puppet of them. "Monster" in some ancient thought meant, among other things, a creature that was wholly independent of others.
Human beings can indeed achieve a degree of self-determination. But they can do so only in the context of a deeper dependence on others of their kind, a dependence which is what makes them human in the first place. It is this that evil denies. In Shakespearean drama, those who claim to depend upon themselves alone, claiming sole authorship of their own being, are almost always villains. You can appeal to people's absolute moral autonomy, then, as a way of convicting them of evil; but in doing so you are pandering to a myth that the evil themselves have fallen for in a big way.