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Sam Harris, Free Will
and Moral Responsibility

7. Moral Responsibility

7.8 Compatibilism Again

In this chapter on Moral Responsibility, Harris again makes reference to non-religious compatibilist accounts of free will, but, in the end, gives them short shrift. Harris briefly considers Pinker's and Wegner's accounts. Dealing with Pinker's account first, Harris [2012: 45] gives this summary:

One way of viewing the connection between free will and moral responsibility is to note that we generally attribute these qualities to people only with respect to actions that punishment might deter. I cannot hold you responsible for behaviors that you could not control. . . . If the threat of punishment could cause you to stop doing what you are doing, your behaviour falls squarely within conventional notions of free will and moral responsibility.

Pinker's account neatly illustrates how a reasons-responsive compatibilist account of free will marries neatly with a naturalist approach to moral responsibility.

Here is why reading Harris is so frustrating. He places an each way bet on compatibilism. On the one hand, Harris [2012: 45] leaves open the truth of Pinker's compatibilist account: 'It may be true that strict punishment—rather than mere containment or rehabilitation—is necessary to prevent certain crimes.' Harris adds sympathetically that the way Pinker is 'attributing responsibility to people' 'may even be unavoidable as a matter of convention' [2012: 45]. But in the very same breath, Harris [2012: 45] objects that Pinker's rationale of 'punishing people purely for pragmatic reasons would be very different from the approach that we currently take'. That current approach, Harris opined at the start of his book, is one of appealing to the metaphysical notion of uncaused causes and a 'deep sense' of desert [2012: 7]. Harris is now unsure at this late point in his book whether our conventional notion of 'free will' and 'moral responsibility' is compatibilist or whether it is metaphysical and indeterminist.

What can we make of Harris' [2012: 45] objection that Pinker's rationale for punishment based on practical deterrence is far from our current conventional approach? Is the pragmatic compatibilist approach that Pinker highlights really that different from our current practices? In jurisprudence theory, the five purposes of punishment are retribution, incapacitation, deterrence, rehabilitation and reparation. (See, for example, Banks [2004: ch. 5].) In actual judicial practice, the one punishment commonly serves two or more of these aims concurrently. (See, for example, Warner et al [2017].) So, I think Harris is mistaken here in his presumption, and with it, his critique of Pinker's compatibilism.

We can also view our systems of punishment in terms of our evolutionary history. It's not difficult to see how long before our formal legal systems were developed, the natural reactive responses of members of a community towards a wrongdoer served to contain, deter and reform the wrongdoer, as well as deter others from committing the same wrong. So, the psychological urge to punish and the utilitarian benefits of punishment can be seen not as conflicting, but as complementary.

Following dispatching Pinker with the confused and confusing objection that his proposed rationale for free will and punishment may fall within 'conventional notions' while at the same time is 'very different' from the conventional approach, Harris moves on to that other compatibilist, Wegner. As with Pinker's account, Harris initially gives a nod to compatibilism and common-sense morality. Entertaining Wegner's compatibilist view of moral responsibility and free will, Harris [2012: 45–6] writes:

As the psychologist Daniel Wegner points out, the idea of free will can be a tool for understanding human behavior. To say that someone freely chose to squander his life's savings at the poker table is to say that he had every opportunity to do otherwise and that nothing about what he did was inadvertent. He played poker not by accident or while in the grip of delusion but because he wanted to, intended to, and decided to, moment after moment. For most purposes, it makes sense to ignore the deep causes of desires and intentions—genes, synaptic potentials, etc.—and focus instead on the conventional outlines of the person. We do this when thinking about our own choices and behaviors—because it's the easiest way to organize our thoughts and actions. Why did I order beer instead of wine? Because I prefer beer. Why do I prefer it? I don’t know, but I generally have no need to ask. Knowing that I like beer more than wine is all I need to know to function in a restaurant. Whatever the reason, I prefer one taste to the other.

All of this sounds reasonable, you would think. With Harris conceding that 'free will' can be a 'tool for understanding', I thought finally Harris might seriously entertain a compatibilist view. But in another sharp U-turn, he ends the chapter quite abruptly with: 'Would I magically reclaim my freedom if I decided to spite my preference and order wine instead? No, because the roots of this intention would be as obscure as the preference itself' [2012: 46]. After all of the effort in putting Harris v. 2 (rational agent) theory of mind to work to rescue moral responsibility, we are suddenly jerked back to his v. 1 (helpless puppet) theory. If you are feeling even more whiplash, you are not alone.

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