Sam Harris, Free Will
and Moral Responsibility

7. Moral Responsibility

7.6 Retribution and Punishment

Now that we are back to Harris' earlier v. 1 'helpless puppet' theory of mind, Harris [2012: 42] wants to teach us a lesson about punishment with this thought experiment.

To see how fully our moral intuitions must shift, consider what would happen if we discovered a cure for human evil. Imagine that every relevant change in the human brain could now be made cheaply, painlessly, and safely. In fact, the cure could be put directly into the food supply, like vitamin D. Evil would become nothing more than a nutritional deficiency.

Harris' intention here is to show how 'our retributive impulse is morally flawed' [2012: 42]. How it does that is not clear to me. Bizarrely, Harris asks whether withholding this chemical cure from a murderer after they commit the crime is a suitable punishment. That we say 'no' is meant to show that it's wrong to think that the murderer 'deserves' this punishment [2012: 42]. Sure. But that goes no way to showing that another form of punishment may be justified. Just because garrotting the murderer is an unjustified form of punishment does not entail that there is no justified method of punishing.

Harris goes on, asking whether it would have been justifiable punishment to withhold the chemical treatment before the murderer's crime? Of course not. These are bizarre questions as no one is suggesting these as punishment. Again, that this withholding is not justifiable does not show that no punishment is justifiable.

His final rhetorical question is the most bizarre. 'Would it make any sense to deny surgery to the man in case 5 as a punishment if we knew that the brain tumor was the actual cause of his violence? Of course not' [2012: 42]. But why would anyone even entertain the option of withholding the treatment as an appropriate punishment when we agree that the killing is not morally and legally blameworthy to begin with?

Harris helpfully puts his reasoning underlying his thought experiment and probing questions like this: 'The implications of this seem inescapable: The urge for retribution depends upon our not seeing the underlying causes of human behaviour' [2012: 42]. The most charitable interpretation I can give of Harris' argument here is this: If we had a global chemical cure for 'evil', we would prevent the 'evil' rather than punish the evil-doer (or potential evil-doer) by withholding treatment. If we saw the 'underlying cause' of the evil behaviour, we would not seek retribution by withholding treatment.

Now, all of that might be true. But that we won't seek that kind of punishment or retribution does not entail that there are not one or more other forms of punishment or retribution that are justifiable. And the form of punishment or retribution that is justified may depend on the extent to which the agent acted autonomously and in concert with their character. In his more sensible moments, Harris lends weight to how the degree of 'moral outrage' we feel depends on these kinds of 'background conditions' [2012: 39].)


One disconcerting aspect of Harris' thought experiment is its advocacy of the medicalization of anti-social behaviour. With his series of rhetorical questions, he is highlighting the unreasonableness of the 'withholding' of a chemical cure from a murderer and a potential murderer. If Harris' intent here is to advocate making the cure available and for it to be taken at the discretion of the person, then that admirably respects the person's autonomy. However, Harris seems to go much further when he proposes putting the chemical cure 'directly into the food supply' [2012: 42].

The big question here is: Who would decide which behaviours are 'evil' and in need of this chemical adjustment? Who ought to have the ear of the government in making this decision? I bet Harris would say the ethicists who think along with him that immorality is centrally about the 'conscious intention to do harm' [2012: 40]. And what of those ethicists who disagree; those who say that it's centrally about displeasing the deity, or that it includes committing 'unnatural' acts or aborting the unborn? For Harris, are these dissenters creating egregious harms that need to be targeted with his chemical solution? It is ironic that Harris' suggestion for the medicalization of 'evil' behaviour as some kind of utopia occurs in the same chapter in which he begins with the intention of saving our ordinary notions of 'right and wrong' and 'good and evil' by 'seeing people as people' [2012: 38]. The irony continues at the end of his thought experiment making 'evil' 'nothing more than a nutritional deficiency' [2012: 42], where he writes how 'ironically, one of the fears attending our progress in science is that a more complete understanding of ourselves will dehumanize us' [2102: 43]. There's irony in the perceived irony.

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