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Sam Harris, Free Will
and Moral Responsibility

3. Changing the Subject

3.2 Classical and Contemporary Compatibilism

On the next page, Harris gives a second but different summary of the compatibilist approach: 'According to compatibilists, if a man wants to commit murder, and does so because of this desire, his actions attest to his freedom of will [2012: 18]'. With this account, Harris chooses to engage. However, he is in combat with a straw man of his own making. Harris here is describing a classical compatibilist account from the period of the Enlightenment (e.g., Hume, Hobbes). This kind of account was abandoned by most compatibilists because it failed to accommodate those 'inner compulsions' (e.g., drug addiction, mental illness, brain damage) that make certain kinds of choices unfree.

Harris proceeds quickly to dispatch this account with the observation that we have competing desires and how 'one of these opposing desires inexplicably triumphs over its rivals [2012: 18]'. The examples that Harris uses here are not convincing. When our desires compete for attention, why one wins out over the other in many cases is not at all inexplicable. Take Harris' first example of the reader choosing to play with their children when they are also wanting to finish their work. In the end, the reader may choose to play with their children because bonding with them is more important to the reader than some contrived short-term work goal. With Harris' third example, the reader may choose to buy the computer even though they want to save money because they reason that buying the computer will save them money in the long run. There is no mystery there.

The larger failing is that in putting up a straw man, Harris has avoided engaging with more sophisticated contemporary reasons-responsive and identification/character-based accounts. (For a survey of contemporary accounts, see the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Compatibilism [McKenna and Coates 2024].) These kinds of accounts highlight the role reasons have in deciding between competing desires on the one hand and the types of satisfied desires that are central to free choice on the other.

My own 4C compatibilist theory that I outline in 'Free Will and Compatibilism' [Allan 2016a: sec. 4] combines a reasons-responsive account ('Cognition') with an identification/character-based account ('Character') to give a more comprehensive analysis of free will that can make sense of all cases. To that end, I include the further two criteria of 'Compulsion', in order to recognize the introspective feeling of compulsion in some cases, and 'Control', in order to eliminate cases of third-party control (e.g., brain implant, brainwashing).

All four criteria can be wrapped up with the central idea that freedom of the will is a characteristic of an autonomous, conscious agent who can reason and deliberate about alternative courses of action. Such a person is constituted by their character and that within the bounds of this character, the agent faces a range of options on how to act in a given situation. When this range is encumbered or restricted by either subverting the person's character or compromising their capacity for rational deliberation and action, the person's freedom is diminished.

Now Harris sees a deeper problem with the compatibilist account than just the fact that our desires compete for attention. Harris [2012: 18] asks rhetorically:

. . . for where is the freedom in wanting what one wants without any internal conflict whatsoever? Where is the freedom in being perfectly satisfied with your thoughts, intentions, and subsequent actions when they are the products of prior events that you had absolutely no hand in creating?

Harris illustrates his point with how he did 'feel absolutely at peace' with his decision to drink a glass of water [2012: 18]. He asks: 'Where is the freedom in this?' Now, one could ask rhetorically from the other side: How exactly does the absence of conflict in his decision to drink that glass of water deny him free will? Harris was not threatened with harm if he did not drink the water, drinking the water followed from his basic desire to quench his thirst and he was fully cognizant of his choice. What more does he need for freedom? If his choice to drink the water had run counter to his beliefs and desires and had appeared completely out of nowhere, we'd naturally say he had no free will in that instance. Quite the opposite is true. In actual fact, his voluntary decision to drink the water without hindrance is a paradigm case of acting with a free will.

So, for Harris, the compatibilist can't win either way. The compatibilist loses in cases in which our desires compete and they equally lose in cases in which there is no such internal conflict. And why? It's not because Harris has unpacked the compatibilist's analysis. It's simply because, for Harris, your thoughts, intentions and subsequent actions are 'the product of prior events that you had absolutely no hand in creating [2012: 18]. We are back to Harris' muddle number 3.

We also see here muddle number 4. Think back to my prior examples in the previous section of making a drawing 'free hand' and of a 'free range' chicken running about. Each of these cases of free action is equally the result of prior events that the hand (on the one hand [pun intended]) and the chicken (on the other) had 'absolutely no hand in creating', and yet we don't reject on that account that these actions are free. The muddle is in thinking that the word 'free' appearing in a phrase always entails that the free entity controlled the circumstances of its existence.

Harris' tortured thinking here leads him to expressing further absurdities. Whether Harris decided to drink the water or decided to do something else, he opines that he is 'nevertheless compelled to do what I effectively want' [2012: 18]. This just sounds odd as doing what you want to do without any external coercion is a paradigm case of lack of 'compulsion'. Harris claims that he best understands what the common folk mean by 'free will'. However, it turns out that accepting his advice leads to the torture of other common words in our language.

Going on to discuss how he could not influence his prior desire for water, Harris seems to make a concession to the compatibilist position. Harris [2012: 19] writes: 'And there is no way I can influence my desires—for what tools of influence would I use? Other desires?' I'm not sure how Harris answers his own rhetorical question here. His following two sentences seem disconnected from this rhetorical point. However, answering either way does not help his case.

If Harris answers, 'No, not with other desires', then he is mistaken. There are many times when we use a higher-level desire to influence a lower-level desire. For example, in my earlier years, I drew upon my higher-level desire to be healthy to motivate me to eliminate my desire for smoking. For another example, in order to avoid disrupting a lecture I am attending, I distract myself from my feeling of hunger and urge to go out to eat. Here again, I use my higher-level desire for education to mitigate my lower-level desire for food. On the other hand, if Harris answers, 'Yes, with other desires', to his question, he makes a crucial concession to compatibilists in conceding that at times we can control our thoughts, desires and intentions.

Copyright © 2024

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