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Sam Harris, Free Will
and Moral Responsibility

7. Moral Responsibility

7.7 Second Thoughts

Towards the end of the chapter, Harris has second thoughts about abolishing punishment and retribution entirely. Perhaps, he muses, 'punishment is an essential component of deterrence or rehabilitation' [2012: 43]. In working through two real-life scenarios, his discussion leads him into even more muddles. For his first example, Harris recounts how a New Guinea highlander, Daniel, got 'exquisite relief' [2012: 44] from avenging the death of his paternal uncle. Harris [2012: 43] contrasts this case with another in which the person had an opportunity to kill the man who murdered his entire family during the Holocaust, but turned the murderer over to the police instead. In seeing his family's murderer released from prison only one year later, the person spent the next 60 years 'tormented by regret and guilt'.

If the person in the latter case had 'a full account of human behaviour', Harris thinks this knowledge should have softened his feelings towards his family's killer. To support that conclusion, Harris [2012: 44] asks us to imagine that the person's family had been trampled by an elephant or had contracted cholera or that his family's killer had lived a moral life before a virus destroyed part of his brain.

Harris is right that the person most likely would not have suffered the same anguish from seeing the killer go free if the circumstances had been different in the ways Harris describes—but not for the reason that he gives. The key to understanding the change in response is not that the full causes of the killer's behaviour are known, but that the causes are of a different kind. Clearly, an elephant and a cholera virus have a completely different standing as moral agents compared with a mature and competent human being. In these scenarios, the elephant and the virus did not form 'the conscious intention to do harm' [2012: 40], which is the essential criterion that Harris himself offered for morally blaming a person.

The same holds for Harris' scenario in which the killer kills the family as a result of a virus eating the killer's brain. In this case, the killer lost his cognitive capacity to weigh choices freely. At the start of this chapter, Harris was able to make these kinds of distinctions in moral culpability based on 'background conditions' [2012: 39]. As he wrote back there about the similar case of the killer with a brain tumour (case 5), 'we cannot help seeing him as a victim of his own biology' [2012: 40]. But now, such distinctions are lost. For Harris, a cause is a cause is a cause. This is another example of Harris flip-flopping from one conclusion to its opposite. This vacillation is all the more remarkable as Harris started the chapter with the intent of finding a way to keep the notion of 'moral responsibility' that allows us to 'remain committed to seeing people as people' [2012: 38]. At this point in his treatise, he's lapsed into seeing people as no different to elephants and viruses when it comes to attributing responsibility for our behaviours.

There is one thing Harris is clear on. He expects our acceptance of the truth of determinism to 'attenuate our natural response to injustice, at least to some degree' [2012: 44]. If all he means is that we ought to give up our desire for cruel punishments, just as civilized societies have given up the barbaric punishment practices of the past, such as flogging, locking people in stocks and solitary confinement, then that's all well and good. There are still many penal reforms that need to be instituted. Although, we ought to note that the significant reforms of the past were largely driven by utilitarian moral considerations from reformers such as Jeremy Bentham and J. S. Mill, and not from ruminating about deterministic metaphysics. (Note also that these reformers were compatibilists on the question of 'free will'.)

If, on the other hand, Harris means that we ought to repress our ordinary reactive responses to wrongdoers, then I think he is mistaken. Doing so would deprive us of our humanity; our genuine and deep connections with other human beings. Let me illustrate my point with the converse of blame and punishment. Harris would ideally do away with all punishment if it wasn't for its practical value in preventing and deterring harm. Let's flip Harris' desire so that it aims at suppressing our instinct to praise people because, you know, no one deserves praise because they are not the ultimate source of their good deeds. Let's modify what Harris writes on page 45 so that his advice applies to praise:

It may be true that strict praise—rather than mere permission or encouragement—is necessary to enable certain virtues. But praising people purely for pragmatic reasons would be very different from the approach that we currently take.

Hard determinists very rarely talk about doing away with praise because their case for the reform of our language immediately becomes suspect. What would it be like to praise people 'purely for pragmatic reasons'? Looking through a hard determinist's lens, the successes of our friends and loved ones become simply the desired endpoints of our manipulations of their behaviours.

Let me illustrate the consequences of this kind of framing. Imagine your child excelled in their set of exams. Anyone who has children realizes the value of praise and blame in this context. Imagine telling your child that they didn't deserve your praise for their excellent results because they would have got those results anyway. Imagine telling your child that they didn't deserve any accolades because the excellent results they got were the outcome of the mindless interplay of genes and social environment that they had no hand in forming.

As a loving parent, I feel you pushing back. You will say: 'It was my child who put in the effort in not going to those parties with friends, staying up late studying and staying home on weekends. It was my child who was the agent of their actions.' Telling their child that their excellent exam results were just the outcome of the mindless forces of the universe playing out is completely disempowering and dispiriting. Not to mention how such impersonal declarations fracture any loving bonds that exist between you and your child.

The upshot here is that lessons about how all of our thoughts and actions are determined is appropriate for the physics and biology classrooms, but not when giving praise and blame. It's just not helpful for Harris to advise that in our reactions we think of ourselves primarily as forward-looking utility calculators and only secondarily as human beings engaging in meaningful relations. In our human interactions with our loved ones, our peers and all others we share community with, it matters greatly how we talk about the inevitability and possibility of achievements.

So, it's not that our reactive attitudes of wanting to reward and punish is more or less important than our recognition of the scientific fact that all of our behaviours are sufficiently caused by prior factors. Our emotional reactions of praising and blaming in response to the recognition of people's motives, reasons and desires run in parallel with our intellectual recognition of the part that genes and environment play in human behaviours. These two ways of seeing human beings are not in conflict. They are complementary, with the former framing how we engage in genuine bonds of companionship and recognize our mutual responsibilities within a shared community. The latter frames how we situate people within their history and culture and recognize their unconscious motives and biases.

Harris deserves credit for trying to grapple with this tension between our natural reactive attitudes towards wrongdoers and our intellectual recognition of the prior causes of a wrongdoer's behaviour that existed even before they were even born. In the end, Harris wants to discard our natural reactive attitudes as 'a sham form of retribution' that 'rests on a cognitive and emotional illusion' [2012: 44]. Why? Because we have no free will. It seems to me Harris is so fixated on his crusade against the 'religious metaphysics', with its 'logic of hating' [2012: 41] and its central idea of a kind of free will that 'supports the notion of sin' and 'eternal punishment' [2012: 43], that he is unable to consider seriously other naturalist and more compassionate notions of free will and punishment. It is to Harris' fifth attempt at critiquing compatibilism that I turn to next.

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