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Sam Harris, Free Will
and Moral Responsibility

7. Moral Responsibility

7.2 Defining 'Responsibility'

Once Harris is done chiding our system of jurisprudence for letting in the notion of free will, he offers a solution for how we can keep our sense of responsibility while jettisoning free will. For that, he offers an identification/character-based account in which to say 'I was responsible for my behavior is simply to say that what I did was sufficiently in keeping with my thoughts, intentions, beliefs, and desires to be considered an extension of them' [2012: 38]. So, if Harris had found himself standing in the market naked, intent on stealing tins of anchovies, that would be 'totally out of character' [2012: 38] for him and he would thereby be shielded from responsibility for his actions.

But this can't be 'simply' what being morally responsible means as Harris' definition is purely descriptive. 'Morally responsible' is a normative concept that is action-guiding, and yet there is no directive aspect to Harris' definition. To say 'simply' that a behaviour stems from a person's character says nothing about how that responsible person ought to act and how we ought to treat them. Admirably, Harris wanted a notion of responsibility that did not depend upon 'the metaphysics of mental cause and effect' [2012: 39]. A good place for Harris to have started with this is the authoritative dictionaries. A basic definition could be something as simple as: 'To say that a person is morally responsible for an action is to say that they are an essential cause of the consequence of the action, that they are answerable for it and that they can be appropriately blamed or credited for the action.' This kind of definition encompasses the essential normative nature of the term that Harris ignores.

What Harris has offered us here at best is a criterion for determining for which behaviours a person is in fact morally responsible. Surprisingly, his is a compatibilist account, endeavouring to harmonize our sense of moral responsibility with a view of the universe in which we are merely chemical machines pushed this way and that by the purposeless forces of the cosmos. As it stands, Harris has failed to show how normativity (the 'ought'-ness of our moral injunctions) can reside in a purposeless universe populated by chemical robots. But let's leave that aside for the moment.

The second thing to note is that Harris' account of 'responsibility' is akin to an identification/character-based account that some contemporary compatibilists give of 'free will'. (For a survey of contemporary accounts, see the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Compatibilism [McKenna and Coates 2024].) Of this account, Harris complained that it is a deceptive 'bait and switch' [2012: 21] that 'resembles theology' [2012: 18]. A question for Harris, then, is: Why is his compatibilist account of 'moral responsibility' not equally suspect? Especially considering that the two concepts are so intimately related that both ordinary folk and moral philosophers think that acting from 'free will' is a necessary pre-condition for judging an agent 'morally responsible'.

Harris explicitly recognizes this inextricable connection in our minds between free will and moral responsibility. He asks: 'how can we coherently speak about right and wrong or good and evil' when we 'view people as neuronal weather patterns'? He continues: 'These notions seem to depend upon people being able to freely choose how to think and act' [2012: 38]. A little later, he adds: 'We are deeply disposed to perceive people as authors of their actions, to hold them responsible for the wrongs they do us, and to feel that these transgressions must be punished' [2012: 44]. Harris clearly sees the conceptual connection between free will and moral responsibility. And yet, on the one hand he dismisses a compatibilist account of 'free will' because it doesn't accord with what he takes to be the 'popular conception' [2012: 10] of 'free will'. On the other, he's happy to capitulate in keeping the notion of 'moral responsibility' even though it is equally imbued by the common person (in Harris' eyes) with religious and metaphysical connotations. It seems when it's to his own polemical advantage, Harris is willing to break his own rules on assigning meanings to contested terms. He's tempted to draw from the compatibilists' toolbox when he wants to save a term he wants to keep, but trashes the same toolbox when it's used to clarify a term he is allergic to.

We most clearly see Harris borrowing from the compatibilists' toolbox for his own benefit when he points out that his acting 'totally out of character' is a sign of being 'not in my right mind'; in other words, of suffering some kind of mental aberration. This is exactly the self-same criterion used in the legal system for applying the insanity defence. The defense applies when it is judged that the defendant is dispossessed of their free will. Experts for the defense must testify that the accused is either cognitively incompetent, unable to comprehend the nature of the act and to reason about it, or volitionally incompetent, unable to control their impulses. (One such example of how the absence of free will in the mentally incapacitated works in a legal defense is Colorado v. Connelly [1986]. For a useful history and critical review of the insanity defense, see Grachek [2006].)

Here again, the ascription of legal and moral responsibility to an agent is conditional upon the agent acting of their own 'free will', which, in turn, is dependent upon the agent being in their 'right mind'. Harris is content to advance a compatibilist account of 'moral responsibility' that eschews all reference to uncaused causes and other religious and metaphysical notions, but shies away from a compatibilist account of 'free will' that in like fashion is metaphysically neutral. This again illustrates the bifurcated thinking of Harris as he tries to make his free will skepticism more palatable to his readers.

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