Sam Harris, Free Will
and Moral Responsibility

8. Politics

In his chapter on politics, Harris continues with seeing human affairs as simply a matter of biology. Against the idea of the '"self made" man', he professes again that there is 'not a person on earth who chose his genome, or the country of his birth, or the political and economic conditions that prevailed at moments crucial to his progress' [2012: 47]. Sure, no person can choose those preconditions of their situation. However, a person can choose to enrol at night-school, or to start a business, or to sacrifice and invest their money. It's not always the situation that a person finds themself in. It's what a person does with the opportunities presented to them.

Harris has an answer for that: 'Even if you have struggled to make the most of what nature gave you, you must still admit that your ability and inclination to struggle is part of your inheritance. How much credit does a person deserve for not being lazy? None at all. Laziness, like diligence, is a neurological condition' [2012: 47]. Well, short-sightedness is a part of my inheritance. But poor vision is not my destiny as I can make the effort to get a pair of prescription glasses. People can both enhance and inhibit their inherited traits. Secondly, laziness and diligence are not classified by professional neurologists as a 'neurological condition'. It's plainly misleading to co-opt a term that applies to disorders of the nervous system. To take a charitable interpretation of Harris' hyperbole, sure, these two psychological traits are a function of one's neural mapping. But they are traits that are within a normal adult's capacity to change.

Harris recognizes that 'we must encourage people to work to the best of their abilities' and 'acknowledge that efforts matter and that people can change' [2012: 47]. What is left unanswered by Harris is that if other people can influence me to change my behaviour, then why can't I do that to myself? Harris rails against the 'illusion of free will' because we 'do not change ourselves, precisely—because we have only ourselves with which to do the changing—but we continually influence, and are influenced by, the world around us and the world within us' [2012: 47–8]. This admission seems to let the cat out of the bag. If we can influence the world within us, then why is that not reflective of a capacity to change ourselves? (Dennett [2014] makes this same point in his review of Harris' book.) If we have this capacity to change ourselves, then Harris' case against free will has lost its force.

It's this capacity to recognize the impacts of our actions, to reflect on them and to consciously modify our behaviours in the light of those considerations that a reasons-responsive compatibilist account of free will recognizes. In spite of Harris' earlier protestations that this kind of account 'resembles theology' [2012: 18], here he adopts the psychological mechanism for change for himself. I mean, for Harris, this influence over other people's behaviour is not done through arm-twisting or head banging. This influence is realized when we 'hold people responsible for their actions' [2012: 48]. In other words, when we offer them reasons for acting differently—as per a compatibilist account. This is the real challenge for Harris' view. If giving reasons for action can influence other people's behaviour, then why can't a person think up, consider thoughtfully and act on reasons for changing their own behaviour? This capacity for self-reflection and self-correction is patently obvious to every mature adult. Here is another instance in which Harris' case against free will does not survive self-scrutiny.

In the final paragraph of this chapter, paradoxically, Harris [2012: 48] espouses how we need to 'break the spell of free will' in order to accept that some people are responsive to reasons and some are not. For those people for whom 'change is impossible' and are 'unresponsive to demands', all we have to work with are the 'forces of nature'. For those people who are responsive to reasons for changing their behaviour, according to Harris, they are held morally responsible for their actions.

But far from jettisoning the notion of 'free will', this reasons-responsive account of moral responsibility fits hand-in-glove with the reasons-responsive compatibilist account of 'free will'. The reasons-responsive compatibilist account makes clear who we can deem morally responsible for their actions. It is those who can modify their behaviour in response to reasons—precisely those who have the capacity for free will.

Harris recognizes the seeming absurdity of his position: 'It may seem paradoxical to hold people responsible for what happens in their corner of the universe' [2012: 48]. However, this paradox can't be resolved simply by pointing to the distinction between people who respond to reasons and those who don't. Because for Harris, there is no substantive difference between them. Even when we think we are acting on reasons, Harris [2012: 22] tells us that we 'confabulate' those reasons and that 'our attribution of agency' to ourselves is always 'gravely in error'. If 'everything that we consciously intend is caused by events in our brain that we do not intend and of which we are entirely unaware' [2012: 22], then how can we be morally responsible for any of our actions? If it's always 'meaningless to assert that you could have done otherwise' [2012: 35], then how can I be morally blamed for not doing other than what I in fact did?

The paradox that Harris points to is both real and inescapable. And it arises from him trying to do the impossible: advocating his theory of mind v. 1 (helpless puppet) in order to banish 'free will' while at the same time advancing his contrary theory of mind v. 2 (rational agent) in order to rescue 'moral responsibility'. Now trying to give some moral significance to the capacity for rational deliberation using theory v. 2 is like trying to fit a square peg into the round hole of reasons confabulation and zero rational agency posited by his theory v. 1.


Harris [2012: 47] begins this chapter on politics telling us that 'dispelling the illusion of free will has political implications—because liberals and conservatives are not equally in thrall to it'. However, Harris' unflinching focus on dismantling the idea of the '"self made" man' has prevented him from seeing the much more significant implications that the value of free will has on our political thought.

Take the key freedoms central to liberal democratic tradition: freedom of association, freedom of expression, freedom of religion, right to vote and right to property.

Earlier, Harris [2012: 15] recognized the value of political freedom:

Of course, this insight [that we do not possess free will] does not make social and political freedom less important. The freedom to do what one intends, and not to do otherwise, is no less valuable that it ever was.

However, the 'freedom to do what one intends' is far from the full story of the value of political freedom. If it were, we would let children, psychopaths and fraudsters do what they intend, unfettered by legal restrictions. The rights and freedoms I listed only gain currency by enabling a particular capacity of human beings; the capacity to reason about and act on their most considered and settled desires. In other words, the capacity to develop their character and act in accordance with it, unfettered by unreasonable constraints. This is precisely the capacity for free will to which compatibilists refer and that Harris pushes aside as worthless.

Governments enshrining freedom of association, of expression and of religion recognizes this potential of each citizen to develop and express their character as autonomous human beings. The right to vote and the right to property similarly recognize citizens' capacity for rational choice, self-determination and self-development. Furthermore, our liberal democratic institutions are so designed to prevent coercion and constriction of character development. Mass media is prevented from spreading deliberate lies intended to corrupt decision-making. Public learning institutions are prevented from brainwashing students. Electoral commissions prevent voter coercion. Designing our public institutions in this way makes best sense when we see citizens as freely willing beings rationally taking charge of their own futures. The impoverished picture that Harris paints of each of us as a 'biochemical puppet' [2012: 37] granted the freedom to do what we want by our government misses the richness of a view that sees us as autonomous rational agents of our own futures. The notions of 'free will' and 'political freedom' are much more intimately tied than Harris recognizes. Harris' chapter on politics could have been so much more.

Copyright © 2024

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