Sam Harris, Free Will
and Moral Responsibility

9. Conclusion

9.3 Harris' Adversaries

The two key adversaries to Harris' hard determinist position are the libertarians, who deny determinism while thinking we have the capacity for free will, and the compatibilists, who argue that determinism is compatible with free will. How did Harris go in mounting a charge against both these positions?

Against the libertarians, Harris [2012: 12] brought up the well-known Libet-style experiments using brain imaging. The interpretation of the results is still a matter of intense debate. Never the less, the predictability of the experimental subjects' behaviours is significantly below 100 per cent. This still leaves plenty of wriggle room for the libertarian to reject determinism. Harris needed to have done much more work here.

Harris explicitly mentions libertarians relying on quantum indeterminacy [2012: 24–5] and also religious libertarians [2012: 43] appealing to an immortal soul that freely sins. However, he spends no time considering their arguments for freedom of the will and dispatches them as quickly as he introduces them.

Being partial to compatibilism, I was most interested in gauging Harris response to compatibilist analyses of 'free will'. Here, Harris' book was a huge disappointment as he failed to engage in any serious way with compatibilist arguments. As I remarked above with his attempted disproof of Misconception 1, Harris dismissed out of hand compatibilist analyses of 'could have'. In his second attempt, Harris [2012: 18] responded to the classical compatibilist conception of 'free will'; a type of account that was abandoned by compatibilists decades ago.

Harris' [2012: 18] third response to compatibilism led him to ask rhetorically and most bizarrely: Where is the freedom in doing what we want with no internal tension? Again, his example of peacefully drinking a glass of water tended to demonstrate the opposite of what he wanted to show. Harris' fourth response was a counter to the identification account of free will. His criticism that our capacity for overcoming short-term desires 'has unconscious roots' [2012: 31] missed the mark as this feature is not denied. Harris' appeal to our inability to 'build' our mind appeared to serve the compatibilists' case more so than Harris'.

Harris' fifth critique was against compatibilists equating free will with 'the idea that one could have thought or acted differently' [2012: 32]. Unfortunately for Harris, his charge that this ignores the determinate nature of the future is one that can be equally levelled against his professed 'freedom' to reinterpret the events in his past [2012: 33].

Harris' [2012: 33–5] sixth rebuttal is against Nahmias' reasons-responsive compatibilist account. To this, Harris used his martial arts example to insist that he had no idea why he took up training again after a long hiatus. Again, Harris' plea of ignorance here is just not credible. And his demands for a regress of explanations for every one of his thoughts is simply beyond the bounds of what is reasonably required of an explanation.

In his chapter on Moral Responsibility, Harris dealt with Pinker and Wegner. Harris at first seemed sympathetic to both their approaches. However, in discarding Pinker's reasons-responsive approach, Harris [2012: 45] misattributed an exclusively retributivist rationale for punishment to judges working within our current judicial systems. After conceding that Wegner's approach aids understanding, Harris [2012: 46] bizarrely ended with a rhetorical question about ordering wine to spite his preference. This ending is perhaps indicative of Harris' general lack of seriousness in responding to compatibilist arguments.


The other adversaries of Harris are his fellow hard determinists who argue that the truth of determinism entails that moral responsibility is a chimera. This constitutes the second key objective of Harris' book; to rescue our ordinary sense of responsibility from the destructive grip of a clockwork universe. Did Harris succeed in this aim?

Harris devoted his sixth chapter to prosecuting the case. He made his case harder than it needed to be by supposing the U.S. legal system is premised on the truth of indeterminism. He based this judgment on the view of a single judge while ignoring the broader theory of jurisprudence and actual practice in law courts throughout the modern world. Allied with this, Harris seemed unaware of how non-retributive rationales for punishment are given in courts of law and the central role that the compatibilist notion of free will plays in assigning guilt and innocence.

Harris' proposed solution is riddled with problems from the start. He first offered us a superficial naturalistic definition of moral responsibility that completely misses its normative force. Ironically, the descriptive component of his definition emulates a compatibilist analysis; the same kind of analysis that he ridiculed when applied to the notion of 'free will'.

Harris hoped that by working through five different cases of the killing of a young woman he would explain for us how we assign moral responsibility in varying degrees. However, Harris' [2012: 40] isolation of two variables, the intention to do harm and the killer's level of risk to others, as the key factors in assigning blame failed to account for its gradations. The upshot is that Harris' scheme falls well short of drawing the fundamental moral and legal distinction between a violent brain injury patient and a violent criminal with a well-functioning brain; that is, between a harmful criminal act and a harmful non-criminal act.

Of course, this failure to make this crucial moral distinction is inevitable as Harris [2012: 41] lapsed once again back into his v. 1 (helpless puppet) view of human beings. With Harris concluding that the more we understand the mind in causal terms, the harder it becomes to draw this distinction, Harris' initial aim of making sense of our gradations of moral responsibility was in the end completely forgotten.

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