Sam Harris, Free Will
and Moral Responsibility

3. Changing the Subject

3.1 'Could Have' or 'Couldn't Have'?

In this next chapter on Changing the Subject, Harris attempts to respond to compatibilist thinkers who argue that the notions of free will and determinism are not mutually inconsistent. Unfortunately, Harris [2012: 16] begins the chapter by misnaming the key positions. In his second paragraph, where he refers to 'determinism' and 'determinists', he means 'hard determinism' and 'hard determinists'. Although he tries to clear up the distinctions in the final part of the paragraph, it can give the mistaken impression that compatibilists are soft on determinism.

Harris makes two attempts to address the arguments of compatibilists. With his first attempt, Harris reasonably faithfully portrays the essence of compatibilism when he writes: 'Compatibilists generally claim that a person is free as long as he is free from any outer or inner compulsions that would prevent him from acting on his actual desires and intentions' [2012: 17]. However, he then refuses to engage with this account. He simply dismisses it because he thinks it's not the free will that 'most people feel they have' [2012: 17].

In line with the indeterminist libertarians, he proclaims that the 'freedom that we presume for ourselves and readily attribute to others is felt to slip the influence of impersonal background causes' [2012: 17]. Harris offers no evidence for his assumption. I suspect he has not read the studies undertaken over the last couple of decades that attempt to answer this question about what the lay person means by 'free will'. By my reckoning, the evidence to date seems to point the other way; that the person on the street uses a compatibilist sense of 'free will' when making judgments about choosing freely. (See my review of four such studies in Allan [2016b], 'Psychological Research on Free Will Intuitions: A Critical Review'.)

For Harris, if free will 'means anything' [2012: 17], it means unconditional freedom unrestricted by the laws of physics. He illustrates with the case of rapists and murderers:

To say that they were free not to rape and murder is to say that they could have resisted the impulse to do so (or could have avoided feeling such an impulse altogether)—with the universe, including their brains, in precisely the same state it was in at the moment they committed their crimes.

Now, Harris is assuming here that the only possible meaning of 'could have' is in the unconditional sense in which, given the laws of physics and the initial state of the universe, the rape and murder by these criminals does not necessarily follow. (To put it more technically, given statements describing the laws of physics and the initial conditions, the description of these criminals' rape and murder is not logically deducible.)

However, in these kinds of human interest cases, this is not what we ordinarily mean by 'could have'. In these kinds of cases, in ordinary speech we are relying on the conditional meaning of 'could have'.

For example, writing about the Mercedes-AMG One hypercar's breaking of the production car record at the Nürburgring, Frankel [2022] observed that 'the car could have gone faster still'. Now, Frankel didn't mean that if the race organizers were able to repeatedly wind the clock back precisely to the point in time at which the race started, with some of these wind backs the car could have broken the laws of physics to go faster than it did. Of course, that is nonsense. What Frankel meant is that the car had the capability to go faster than it actually did; that if the external conditions had been different, it would have done so. Frankel even specified which conditions at the time impeded the car displaying its full racing capacity: 'The track temperature was lower than the tyres would have liked and the surface both damp and dirty in certain key places'. It's not the case that Frankel's use of 'could have' is deviant or unconventional. This use is common and standard. For other examples see, Williams-Smith [2020] and Schmitt [2021]. (I give more examples in Allan [2016a: sec. 7].)

In the same vein, to say that some rapists and murderers could have resisted the impulse to rape and murder is to say that they had the capacity to not rape and murder. That is, their cognitive capacities for weighing options was intact, they had sufficient regulative control over their volitions, and so on. Congruent with the racing car being absent of some catastrophic mechanical malfunction, we see rapists and murderers exercising the capacity for free will in those cases in which they are not suffering some cognitive, conative or affective malfunction such as a brain tumour, mental illness, addiction, and so on. For both cases (the racing car and the criminals), in judging whether they could have done otherwise, we describe their nature (in the case of the racing car) and their characters (in the case of the criminals) and then figure out how they would act under different external circumstances. If there are cases in which they would have done differently, then we conclude that they could have done otherwise. (I give this kind of standard compatibilist analysis in Allan [2016a], 'Free Will and Compatibilism'.)

To his discredit, Harris does not consider seriously this kind of 'capacities' compatibilist account of 'could have' and the meaning of 'free will'. This is disappointing considering that Harris has a degree in philosophy from Stanford University. His lack of appetite for doing serious philosophical analysis of the 'free will' problem is made all too clear with his dismissive remarks about his compatibilist colleagues: 'Compatibilists have produced a vast literature in an effort to finesse this problem. More than in any other area of academic philosophy, the result resembles theology' [2012: 18]. Ironically, Harris doesn't count his own use of 'could have' in this conditional sense as theological. Later on page 42, he goes against his own hard determinist advice in opining: 'Our system of justice should reflect an understanding that any of us could have been dealt a very different hand in life.' Just how the universe 'could have' dealt us a different hand when this means fixing the initial state of the universe and replaying the tape is left unexplained. It's only when pressed by professional philosopher and (now deceased) friend, Daniel Dennett, that Harris concedes this other relevant and important conditional meaning of 'could have' when he admits: 'Yes, there are two readings of "could"—and you find only one of them interesting' [Harris 2014].

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