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Sam Harris, Free Will
and Moral Responsibility

1. Introduction

1.3 Criminal Responsibility

In his untitled introduction to his book (2012: 7–10), Harris begins his war against the notion of free will with the case of two criminals, Hayes and Komisarjevsky, who committed the cold-blooded murder of almost an entire family. How does this case show that free will is an illusion? Because their heinous crimes came about either because of their deprived and abusive upbringing or because they suffered a neurological disorder. In either case, Harris writes, determinism reigns and so, it seems, they are not responsible for their actions.

Already in this introduction, Harris puts forward patently false propositions that he will repeat throughout the rest of his book. A recurring theme is that we have no real insight into why we do the things we do. For Hayes and Komisarjevsky in particular, 'Whatever their conscious motives, these men cannot know why they are as they are' [2012: 9]. But Harris himself gives us an unsubtle clue as to what they know about themselves. Harris tells us that for Komisarjevsky, 'for as long as he can remember, he has known that he was "different" from other people, psychologically damaged, and capable of great coldness' [2012: 8].

Harris then asks us to consider our reaction if we learned that both these criminals committed their acts as a result of undiagnosed brain tumours. Harris quizzes [2012: 9]:

But a neurological disorder appears to be just a special case of physical events giving rise to thoughts and actions. Understanding the neurophysiology of the brain, therefore, would seem to be as exculpatory as finding a tumor in it.

Sure, to a neuroscientist there is no substantive difference in the type of explanation for their respective behaviours. It's all down to brain states, right? But neuroscientists are neither the victims in this case, nor their families, nor the judge and jury trying the criminal case. Harris moving from neuroscientific explanations to moral judgments in one sentence is way too fast. Here lies the persuasive force of many of Harris' arguments. Suggesting rhetorically that morality is fundamentally about neurology, Harris sets the pattern of thinking for his readers from the get-go.

Contra Harris, another way of seeing this heinous act as a special case and exculpatory is to think that it is so because violent acts resulting from a neurological disorder are out of character—not of the person's making—as it was not within the control of the executive function of the person's brain. Harris will return to cases such as this one in his chapter on Moral Responsibility.

Another theme that Harris highlights repeatedly in order to kill free will is this idea that our thoughts simply pop into our heads unannounced. As Harris [2012: 9] puts it: 'Free will is an illusion. Our wills are simply not of our own making. Thoughts and intentions emerge from background causes of which we are unaware and over which we exert no conscious control'.

This just seems nonsense. We know the psychological precursors to many of our intentions and we can control our thoughts. For example, I know my thought that I feel hungry is caused by my missing out on lunch. My intention to get some food into my belly arises from that feeling of hunger. As a second mundane example, my intention to focus my mind in the middle of the night on sleep-inducing boring thoughts (such as counting sheep) comes from my desire to get some sleep. And that intention then shapes the kinds of thoughts I will have until I fall asleep.

Time and again, Harris' appeal to introspection seems to backfire. As when Harris [2012: 10] insists:

Seeming acts of volition merely arise spontaneously (whether caused, uncaused, or probabilistically inclined, it makes no difference) and cannot be traced to a point of origin in our conscious minds. A moment or two of serious self-scrutiny, and you might observe that you no more decide the next thought you think than the next thought I write.

Contra Harris' confident assertion, a moment's reflection reveals that conscious control over our thoughts is not a difficult task. For example, I can decide that my next thought will be about the first house I bought, or about the birth of my daughter. I can even decide my thoughts further into the future. I can set my timer for one hour, at which time I've resolved to put my mind to that overdue project I'm working on.

In this chapter, Harris [2012: 10] declares what is in fact a false dilemma: 'Either our wills are determined by prior causes and we are not responsible for them, or they are the product of chance and we are not responsible for them.' He goes on bombastically to announce: 'No one has ever described a way in which mental and physical processes could arise that would attest to the existence of such freedom.'

There is a third way that Harris keeps from his readers. In fact, many reputable philosophers have described such a way, going back to the time of Aristotle. Most professional philosophers today think that determinism is compatible with free will and moral responsibility. These compatibilist philosophers are in the majority (59.2 percent), with only 11.2 percent of philosophers considering this question siding with Harris. (See Bourget Chalmers [2023: 7].)

Of most importance in Harris' introductory chapter is his setting of his objective for the rest of his book. He points out succinctly the two false assumptions upon which, he thinks, the popular conception of 'free will' rests. These two assumptions that Harris [2012: 10] wants to disprove are:

  1. that each of us could have behaved differently than we did in the past, and
  2. that we are the conscious source of most of our thoughts and actions in the present

On the first supposed misconception, I will show how Harris never seriously considers current compatibilist analyses of the term 'free will' that elucidate how we can have behaved differently even in a deterministic universe.

On the second supposed misconception, Harris has already begun trying to rid us of this belief in this introduction. This effort continues through to the very end of his book. It is on his success in achieving his two stated objectives that I will assess the value of his book.

Copyright © 2024

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