Sam Harris, Free Will
and Moral Responsibility

1. Introduction

Citation Information

Allan, Leslie 2024. Sam Harris, Free Will and Moral Responsibility, URL = <>.

1.1 Background and Definitions

Fresco from 1717 Saint Nicholas church in Bukovets showing Angel with Temperance and Humility virtues versus Devil with Rage and Anger sins

Since its publication in 2012, Sam Harris' little book on free will and moral responsibility has proved persuasive for an audience not academically trained in philosophy. I wanted to find out for myself its allure. My purpose with this essay is to analyse the validity of the arguments presented. Each section of this essay deals with each of Harris' nine chapters. I have tried to make each section self-contained with the aim that the reader can read one chapter of Harris and my corresponding commentary and get a good sense of where I am at. The trade-off for this benefit is that this essay is longer than usual.

In this book, Harris has two key objectives. The first is to demolish the notion that human beings have true agency—that they can exercise free will—based on the scientific truth that all human actions have a physical cause (a brain state). The second objective is to show how this seemingly alarming conclusion about human agency need not diminish our sense of moral responsibility.

First, let me define some philosophical terms that Harris uses in his book and that I add to in my analysis.

'Determinism', as it applies to human behaviours, is the view that all human actions, both involuntary and voluntary, have a complete cause in terms of physical states of the brain and its processes.

'Indeterminism' is the view that is the contrary of determinism, stating instead that at least some human behaviours are not fully caused by prior physical states.

'Libertarianism' is the view that both determinism is false and that human beings have the capacity for free will.

'Hard determinism' is the view that determinism is incompatible with a capacity for free will.

'Compatibilism' is the view that determinism is not incompatible with a capacity for free will.

'Free will' is defined differently by the opposing philosophical positions. However, it is generally agreed that 'free will' refers to genuine human agency and to the ability to have done otherwise under the same circumstances.

'Epiphenomenalism' is a theory of the mind that posits that mental events have no causal powers; that they are simply inert by-products of other physical brain processes.

The 'identity theory of mind' is a theory of the mind that posits that mental events are literally identical to physical brain events (as, say, 'water' is identical to 'dihydrogen oxide') and as such possess causal powers.

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