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Sam Harris, Free Will
and Moral Responsibility

1. Introduction

1.2 Book Chapters

To give you a feel for the line of Harris' reasoning and the structure of his book, I have summarised each chapter to its core ideas.

In the first chapter, The Unconscious Origins of the Will, Harris draws on his own introspection and the famous Libet experiments to show how we are not the conscious authors of our actions that we think we are. Our brains have already decided for us what we will do before we do it.

It's in the next chapter, Changing the Subject, that Harris defends his view against the compatibilists who say that human beings exercising free will and the theory of determinism can both be true without any contradiction. Harris argues that the compatibilists are describing a kind of free will that is irrelevant to the way most people use the term.

In the next very short chapter, Cause and Effect, Harris responds to those indeterminists who rely on possible quantum indeterminacy to underwrite free will. Even if our choices were indeterminate, Harris emphasizes, this fact makes free will and responsibility for our actions unexplainable.

It's in his fourth chapter, Choices, Efforts, Intentions, that Harris makes a radical U-turn in the direction of his argument. In this chapter, he seeks to resurrect the common-sense notions that our choices matter and that we bear moral and legal responsibility for our actions.

The next chapter is again very short. In Might the Truth Be Bad for Us?, Harris concedes that for some people, accepting determinism leads to bad consequences. Nonetheless, for Harris, accepting this truth has made him a better person and has given him more control over his own life.

The chapter on Moral Responsibility is where Harris puts most of his work in resurrecting our common-sense notions of right and wrong and moral responsibility. By working through five cases of unintentional and intentional killing, Harris tries to show how three factors—intention to do harm, character and risk to society—mediate how morally responsible we think a person is.

In the chapter on Politics, Harris returns to the notion of the '"self made" man', showing it to be a fiction. We still need to hold people to account, though, according to Harris, even if they can neither choose their genes nor their circumstances.

Harris wraps up his case in his Conclusion, reinforcing one last time with the use of an experiment on himself how we are completely unaware of the cause of our ideas. For Harris, this shows free will to be a nonsensical concept.

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