Sam Harris, Free Will
and Moral Responsibility

7. Moral Responsibility

7.5 Morality Begone

Notice how Harris begins this chapter with his v. 2 'rational agent' theory of mind. This is what he needs if he is to account successfully for our intuitions about moral responsibility. On this account, character is paramount. Why? 'Because what we do subsequent to conscious planning tends to most fully reflect the global properties of our minds—our beliefs, desires, goals, prejudices, etc.' [2012: 40] On this view, Harris illustrates, if you are still intent on killing the king 'after weeks of deliberation, library research, and debate with your friends', that decision 'reflects the sort of person you really are' [2012: 41]. This v. 2 view sees human beings as rational agents whose decisions are understandable in terms of prior beliefs, desires and values. However, this view in which decisions are the causal consequences of prior psychological states is completely at odds with Harris earlier v. 1 'helpless puppet' theory of mind.

On Harris' former v. 1 epiphenomenalist view, our decisions seem to have no causal antecedents in our psychological makeup. They 'merely arise spontaneously' [2012: 9], do 'not originate in consciousness' [2012: 9] and are something 'over which we exert no conscious control' [2012: 9]. (See previous sections on 'The Unconscious Origins of the Will' and 'Choices, Efforts, Intentions'.) As we have seen before, even while relying on his v. 2 theory of mind to account for our ordinary moral intuitions, Harris' v. 1 frame of mind is not far away.

For example, in reviewing what's so different about his case 5 (the killer with the brain tumour), Harris forces his own hand. Why does this killer's brain tumour change our view about moral culpability so dramatically, Harris asks. He answers: 'Both the tumor and its effects seem adventitious, and this makes the perpetrator appear to be purely a victim of biology' [2012: 41]. The obvious question for Harris here is: Is this not the case, according to Harris, for all criminals? For Harris' cases 2, 3 and 4, Harris initially allows some measure of moral blame [2012: 39]. But in all of these cases, equal to the brain tumour case, the killer didn't choose their genes and upbringing. All these prior causes are 'adventitious', outside of the killer's control. Harris agrees. This self-realization—this reminder of his own earlier reasoning—sucks Harris [2012: 41] back into his earlier v. 1 radical position:

Here is one front on which I believe our moral intuitions must change: The more we understand the human mind in causal terms, the harder it becomes to draw a distinction between cases like 4 and 5.

But this is a gross understatement of Harris'. It's not just on 'one front' he is trying to revise our moral intuitions. In removing the moral distinction between criminal (case 4) and non-criminal (case 5), he's torn down the entire edifice of morality. If there is no distinction between a violent brain injury patient and a violent criminal with a well-functioning brain, then there is no moral distinction left to make. What started out as Harris' big promise 'to find some notion of personal responsibility' [2012: 38] that we can use to 'make sense of these gradations of moral responsibility' [2012: 40] is now completely forgotten.


I also see this split-brain approach of Harris' to determinism and moral responsibility continue with his response to Dennett. In discussing Austin's putt (in which Austin, as a competent golfer, on this occasion missed a very short putt), on the one hand Harris sees Austin as not blameworthy for missing the putt: 'But can we blame Austin for missing his putt? No. Can we blame him for not trying hard enough? Again, the answer is no' [Harris 2014]. But Harris goes on immediately to concede that blaming Austin is fine as long as 'blaming him were just a way of admonishing him to try harder in the future'. Well, is it acceptable to blame Austin or not?

For Harris, Austin is not 'truly responsible' because, for that, 'we would need to know that he could have acted other than he did' [Harris 2014]. But then again, in the next breath, Harris recommends seeing the notion of 'moral responsibility' as 'forward-looking'. As Harris [Harris 2014] puts it:

Holding people responsible for their past actions makes no sense apart from the effects that doing so will have on them and the rest of society in the future (e.g. deterrence, rehabilitation, keeping dangerous people off our streets).

So, are we morally responsible for our actions or not? Harris is in two minds, wanting to have his cake and eat it too.

As the hard determinist, Harris insists that recognizing the unconditional sense of 'could' is 'morally consequential' [Harris 2014] in divesting us of real moral responsibility. But then, on the other hand, Harris agrees with Dennett that his suggested conditional sense of 'could' based on an agent's capacities has 'important moral implications' that 'do not depend on "absolute free will"' [Harris 2014]. By 'absolute' free will, what Harris means here is the libertarians' notion of 'free will'. The key moral implication for Harris of Dennett's compatibilism is that it remains appropriate to hold people 'responsible' and to 'admonish' them for their wrong-doing in spite of the fact that there is no libertarian 'free will'. So, Harris wants to stick to his hardline hard determinist position that we are not 'truly responsible', while at the same time riding the coattails of the compatibilists and their justification for holding people blameworthy.

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