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Sam Harris, Free Will
and Moral Responsibility

7. Moral Responsibility

7.4 Responsibility Revisited

If Harris had more fully explored his initial compatibilist account of 'moral responsibility' (that fits so seamlessly with a compatibilist account of 'free will'), I think he would have made much more progress in marrying determinism with moral blameworthiness. However, that would have meant him giving up entirely his earlier stated v. 1 'helpless puppet' theory of mind and his reasons for rejecting free will.

There is a more convincing approach that Harris could have taken with his character-based compatibilist account that shows how the truth of determinism is in fact presumed by our notion of moral responsibility and morality more generally. Let me illustrate this approach with two examples. In the first scenario, Mary voluntarily lends some money to Joel, who uses the money for criminal purposes. At first sight, it appears that Mary is morally blameworthy for her actions. However, once we realize that if Mary had known that Joel would use the money for bad deeds, she would not have loaned the money to him, we reverse our moral judgment of her. With that knowledge, we absolve her of blame. However, we can only find her blameless if it follows from her knowing Joel's real intention that she would have done otherwise. We only change our moral assessment of her if we accept the counterfactual conditional, 'If Mary had known Joel is using borrowed money for criminal purposes, she would not have loaned money to him' as being true.

Accepting this counterfactual as true entails, at minimum, an assumption of psychological determinism (at least in this case and cases like it). It means accepting that in this case, Mary's actions are determined by her character (i.e., the composite of her settled beliefs, desires and values) and the situation she finds herself in. Otherwise, we would have no grounds for thinking she would have acted differently. Now, for scientific naturalists such as Harris, this reasoning leads to the further conclusion that our moral judgments also presume physical determinism as our beliefs, desires and values are somehow inextricably grounded in neuronal happenings in the brain. (This realization also makes a nonsense of Harris remark in his footnote 17 [2012: 58] agreeing with Coyne that counterfactuals about human behaviours are 'scientifically untestable'.)

Mary's case is an example of absolving a person of moral blame based on a presumption of psychological determinism. Here is a case on the flip-side about withdrawing moral praise based on deterministic counterfactual reasoning. Roger donates a very considerable amount of money to Doctors without Borders, a well-known international charity. That act appears morally praiseworthy. However, when we realize that his motivation for that charitable act was solely to impress his new girlfriend, Joan, we change our moral evaluation of Roger. We do that on the presumption that if Roger had known that Joan would not be impressed, he would not have made the donation. Again, we accept the counterfactual reasoning that if Roger had different beliefs about his new girlfriend, he would not have done the charitable act. If we did not presume this necessary connection between the combination of Roger's character and his circumstances, and his voluntary behaviours, the revision of our moral judgment is without a firm foundation.

Our counterfactual beliefs in these two cases ground our moral judgments about Mary and Roger. And these counterfactual beliefs only make sense if moral agents act in law-like ways. (In my Allan [2015], I discuss in more detail how, if we assume indeterminism, all counterfactual conditionals about free human choices are either without a truth value or are false.) In assigning moral responsibility, saying how a person would have acted in different circumstances figures highly in assessing their praiseworthiness and blameworthiness. Given the part counterfactual reasoning plays in our moral judgments, far from moral reasoning being antithetical to deterministic thinking, it seems to require it.

This is the kind of compatibilist reasoning that Harris could have pursued in order to strengthen his case for thinking that people are morally responsible for their actions. But note how this kind of account based on counterfactual reasoning about how an agent with a stable character would have behaved in different circumstances is exactly the kind of analysis given by some compatibilists for when an agent acts of their own their own free will. Ironically, the kind of character-based analysis that Harris flippantly dismisses when it comes to understanding free will is the type of analysis that best supports his determinist framing of moral responsibility.

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