Free will and moral responsibility: Gregg Caruso vs. Dan Dennett

The Aeon website has a good discussion between Dan Dennett, a free-will compatibilist, and Gregg Caruso, who calls himself a “hard incompatibilist”. (Caruso doesn’t call himself a “hard determinist” because he admits that some behaviors might be influenced by fundamental indeterminism, presumably of the quantum-mechanical sort.)

The piece, called “Just deserts: Can we be held morally responsible for our actions. Yes, says Daniel Dennett. No says Gregg Caruso. Reader, you decide” can be accessed by clicking on the screenshot below:

The discussion is good because it clearly delineates the difference between the two men’s views. It’s also clear and mutually respectful.

I, of course, am on Caruso’s side, believing that we have no “free will” in the classical sense—the libertarian, could-have-chosen-otherwise sense which most people think of as “free will”). Note, too, that most people think that in Caruso’s deterministic/naturalistic universe, people are not morally responsible for their actions.

The difference between the two men here turns on three issues, which I’ll try to summarize briefly.

a.) What is free will? Caruso accepts the libertarian definition, but rejects that we have that kind of free will. Dennett thinks of free will as the behavioral actions of someone who is competent, reasonable, and subject to rational persuasion. His quote:

 In fact, if your past is roughly normal, it contains the causal chains that turned you into an autonomous, self-controlling agent. Lucky you. You weren’t responsible for becoming an autonomous agent, but since you are one, it is entirely appropriate for the rest of us to hold you responsible for your deeds under all but the most dire circumstances. As [the American country singer] Ricky Skaggs once put it: ‘I can’t control the wind, but I can adjust the sails.’ To suppose that some further condition should be met in order for you or anyone else to be ‘truly deserving’ is to ignore or deny the manifest difference in abilities for self-control that we can observe and measure readily. In other words, the rationale or justification for excusing someone, holding them not deserving of criticism or punishment, is their deficit in this competence. We don’t try to reason with bears or babies or lunatics because they aren’t able to respond appropriately. Why do we reason with people? Why do we try to convince them of conclusions about free will or science or causation or anything else? Because we think – for good reason – that in general people are reasonable, are moved by reasons, can adjust their behaviour and goals in the light of reasons presented to them. There is something indirectly self-refuting in arguing that people are not moved by reasons! And that is the key to the kind of self-control which we are justified in treating as our threshold for true desert.

I agree with Dan that some people are subject to rational persuasion and others aren’t, although the distinction isn’t as clear as he’d like. Some people are subject to rational persuasion about some issues but not others. Do they have free will in those areas where they’re subject to rational argument, but not in the other areas? If they agree to abide by some of society’s rules but not others, do they have free will? Clearly someone who’s irremediably insane isn’t subject to rational persuasion in most cases, but whether someone is insane or rational depends, of course, on the laws of physics. Both the persuadable and unpersuadable are made so because of their genes and environments, and can’t have turned out otherwise.

That said, yes, these non-persuadable people need to be treated differently if they commit crimes. This is an empirical matter: you don’t deter people, or promote rehabilitation, by putting someone who’s insane in prison. Yet both people need rehabilitation, just of different sorts.

The main issue for me is that nobody makes a decision to be responsive to rational persuasion and thus their choice to, say, commit a crime is no freer than someone who commits a crime as a psychopath.  Every human who does something bad had no choice about whether to do it, and therefore the factors behind that choice need to be examined and treated.

It is the issue of determinism that one must consider when constructing an enlightened judicial system; this is something that Dennett doesn’t dwell on but Caruso does. Dennett does, however, say that his view of “free will” mandates changes in judicial punishment, including the lack of retributive punishment. I applaud him for that, but given that Dennett thinks people deserve to be punished in the “just deserts” sense (see below), it’s hard to see why he’s opposed to retributive punishment. For it is the idea of “deserts” that is behind retributive punishment. Caruso calls him out on this (see below).

b.) Is one morally responsible for behaving badly? This is one issue that isn’t explicitly discussed by Dennett and Caruso. The word “responsible” is tossed around a lot, but it means different things to the two men. To Dan, it means “morally responsible” if the miscreant falls into the class of “someone who is rational and has agreed to play by society’s rules.” To Caruso it means, as it does to me, simply “you’re the person who did the crime and must undergo punishment for that”. Caruso:

. . . . let me reiterate that the kind of moral responsibility I reject is basic-desert moral responsibility. Of course, there are other conceptions of moral responsibility that are perfectly consistent with free-will skepticism – such as Waller’s notion of take-charge responsibility, the attributability responsibility I referenced in the Einstein example, and Pereboom’s forward-looking notion of responsibility that focuses on three nondesert-invoking desiderata: future protection, future reconciliation, and future moral formation.

Dan seems to accept “basic-desert moral responsibility.” I reject it because the very notion of “moral responsibility”—one promulgated, of course, by religion—implies that one could have chosen to do otherwise. A murderer, for instance, could have chosen not to pull the trigger.

And this is what most people in four surveyed countries think, too: the majority feel that in a society in which there is no libertarian free will, one cannot be morally responsible. I agree, although of course I think that lawbreakers and wrongdoers are still responsible for their actions. It’s the words “morally responsible” that I abhor, and Caruso says why:

The system of desert keeps alive the belief that if you end up in poverty or prison, this is ‘just’ because you deserve it. Likewise, if you end up succeeding in life, you and you alone are responsible for that success. This way of thinking keeps us locked in the system of blame and shame, and prevents us from addressing the systemic causes of poverty, wealth-inequality, racism, sexism, educational inequity and the like. My suggestion is that we move beyond this, and acknowledge that the lottery of life is not always fair, that luck does not average out in the long run, and that who we are and what we do is ultimately the result of factors beyond our control.

I do of course use the word “moral”, but in the sense of “adhering to society’s code of conduct.” Thus I might occasionally used the words “immoral act” or “moral system”, but I mean those as “conforming or not conforming to what society considers right behavior.” But I try to avoid saying that someone is “morally responsible” for the reasons above.

Whether someone “deserves” punishment is ambiguous here. “Deserve” can be construed, as Dennett does, as “receiving one’s deserts”, while I and Caruso conceive it as “requires praise or blame for one’s good and the good of society”. This may seem a semantic issue, but remember that the illiberal “Just World” view of politics, in which poor people are seen as deserving to be poor because they don’t make the effort to acquire money or escape their circumstances, hinges on a notion that one can make a free choice.

c.) Will society fall apart if people don’t adhere to some notion of free will? Dan says yes, Caruso (and I as well) say no. Dan has argued this several times in various speeches and talks, and I don’t think it’s true. In fact, saying that we need to embrace some version of free will as a necessary social glue comes perilously close to theologians’ and accommodationists’ claims that one needs to embrace some version of God to have a moral society. Here are two earlier quotes from Dennett:

. . . we [Dennett and Erasmus] share the doctrine that free will is an illusion is likely to have profoundly unfortunate social consequences if not rebutted forcefully.”

And below Dan is talking about the kind of responsibility that comes from accepting his compatibilist form of free will:

If nobody is responsible, not really, then not only should the prisons be emptied, but no contract is valid, mortgages should be abolished, and we can never hold anybody to account for anything they do.  Preserving “law and order” without a concept of real responsibility is a daunting task.

I don’t know any hard determinist, though, who thinks that their views will make society fall apart if adopted widely. We’ll always feel as if we can make free choices, but we can rationally accept that we can’t, and take actions upon that rational belief. Further, under my and Caruso’s non-compatibilist definition of “responsibility”, society will be fine with that non-libertarian definition. I cannot see people becoming wild and crazy criminals if they accept determinism.

Caruso has also picked up on Dennett’s quasi-theological use of free will, and on Dan’s charge that one can have no stable society without an appeal to moral responsibility. He calls for Caruso to specify how this could be, and here is Caruso’s answer (note that it starts with a further quote by Dan about the dire consequences of abjuring the idea of “moral responsibility”):

Finally, I do not agree that rejecting free will and basic-desert moral responsibility will ‘return humanity to Hobbes’s state of nature where life is nasty, brutish and short’. You write: ‘If you have some other vision of how a stable, secure and just state can thrive without appeal to moral responsibility, you owe us the details.’

First, let me reiterate that the kind of moral responsibility I reject is basic-desert moral responsibility. Of course, there are other conceptions of moral responsibility that are perfectly consistent with free-will skepticism – such as Waller’s notion of take-charge responsibility, the attributability responsibility I referenced in the Einstein example, and Pereboom’s forward-looking notion of responsibility that focuses on three nondesert-invoking desiderata: future protection, future reconciliation, and future moral formation. Second, I agree that I owe you and others an account of how to maintain a stable, secure and just society without basic-desert moral responsibility. Fortunately, my good friend Derk Pereboom has already provided most of the details for such an account in his two books Living Without Free Will (2001) and Free Will, Agency, and Meaning in Life (2014). And I have further developed a detailed account of how to address criminal behaviour without basic-desert moral responsibility – it’s called the public health-quarantine model. While I wish we could debate the merits of it here, it unfortunately looks like we have run out of time. The details of my account, however, are readily available for anyone who is interested (see herehere, and here).

I’ve said many times that the discussion over how to construe “free will” is likely to be unproductive given that most people on the street define the phrase one way and Sophisticated Philosophers™ another. What we should be doing is working out the consequences of behavioral determinism, a determinism on which Dennett, Caruso, and I all agree.

That is a valuable and worthwhile task; redefining free will to be compatible with determinism—not so much.

66 Comments

  1. Posted October 4, 2018 at 10:51 am | Permalink

    I read the Caruso vs Dennett exchange earlier, and thought to myself that Jerry would be writing a post. 🙂

    As usual on this topic, the upshot is that everyone agrees. That is, everyone agrees on the facts of the matter.

    What they don’t agree on is how to construe different concepts and words.

    Thus, Jerry construes the word “moral” in a way compatible with determinism in some usages (“I do of course use the word “moral”, but in the sense of “adhering to society’s code of conduct”), but not in others (“I reject it because the very notion of “moral responsibility” … implies that one could have chosen to do otherwise.”).

    Dennett, however, always construes “moral” in the first of those ways. That’s the only substantive difference.

    When Dennett says that we need *some* notion of “moral responsbility”, otherwise society would fall apart, he just means that we need some agreed codes of conduct that we hold each other to. I suspect everyone would agree.

    • Posted October 4, 2018 at 11:46 am | Permalink

      +1

    • Giancarlo
      Posted October 4, 2018 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

      “What they don’t agree on is how to construe different concepts and words.”

      No kidding. Wittgenstein’s teeth must be itching in his grave.

    • darrelle
      Posted October 4, 2018 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

      Might be a first on this topic, but I completely agree with every bit of your comment.

      And, well said.

    • Posted October 4, 2018 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

      “When Dennett says that we need *some* notion of ‘moral responsibility,’ otherwise society would fall apart, he just means that we need some agreed codes of conduct that we hold each other to. I suspect everyone would agree.

      Not everyone, I hope. Unfortunately there have been societies in which the agreed codes of conduct have included burning heretics or exterminating Jews. If all that’s required of a code of conduct to be “moral” is that it be agreed upon, I’d say we’re in a heap of trouble.

      • ploubere
        Posted October 4, 2018 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

        Good point. There is an objective reality to morals, and it is whether an action or behavior causes harm to others. If the only measure were conformity, then Nazi Germany would be a highly moral example.

    • peepuk
      Posted October 5, 2018 at 7:26 am | Permalink

      Within Folk Psychology, moral responsibility is unthinkable without believe in Free Will. That’s why I disagree with Dan Dennett, his defense of freewill doesn’t defend “folksy” Free Will.

      “otherwise society would fall apart … Dennett means …”

      Why does Dan Dennett not say what he means?

      And of course society wouldn’t fall apart because people stop believing in freewill or moral responsibility. However without a believe in freewill, you can not convincingly claim justification for Retributive justice.

      ‘return humanity to Hobbes’s state of nature where life is nasty, brutish and short’

      This will only happen when groups of people , with enough power, see any advantage to pursue such “state of nature”, whether they believe in freewill or not. It is not very likely that soft-on-crime-people like the freewill deniers will give any support to such cause.

  2. Posted October 4, 2018 at 11:16 am | Permalink

    “What we should be doing is working out the consequences of behavioral determinism, a determinism on which Dennett, Caruso, and I all agree.”

    Indeed, and as you and Gregg point out, a deterministic understanding of behavior means that we can’t suppose that we could have done otherwise in an actual (as opposed to counterfactual) situation. And any indeterminism, should it play a role in behavior, wouldn’t add to our control or responsibility. Since I suspect most folks think we *could* have done otherwise in an actual situation, they buy into basic desert and belief in a just world and all the nasty stuff that follows from that. So there’s a lot of work to be done in making the case for determinism as non-threatening, humanistic and empowering. Dennett, sadly, is not into that project but the forces for good, including you and Gregg, are gaining traction.

    • Posted October 4, 2018 at 11:46 am | Permalink

      … there’s a lot of work to be done in making the case for determinism as non-threatening, humanistic and empowering. Dennett, sadly, is not into that project …

      I would have said that that is exactly what Dennett is doing!

  3. YF
    Posted October 4, 2018 at 11:27 am | Permalink

    Of course there is free will- it’s another way to say ‘voluntary choice/behavior’.

    The distinction between voluntary and involuntary behavior is both real and indispensable in our daily social interactions and legal system. E.g., did you sign the contract voluntarily or under duress? Did you have sex consensually (i.e., freely/voluntarily) or against your will (i.e., rape)? There is nothing at all controversial about this distinction, so I don’t understand what all the academic fuss is about.

    Moreover, this understanding of free will is fully compatible with the idea that nervous systems and the choices that they make are governed by the laws of physics, whether deterministic or not (quantum). There is a vast literature in neuroscience which focuses on the brain networks underlying voluntary versus involuntary actions.

    As for ‘morality’- that is nothing but a social convention regarding ‘proper’ behavior in a given societal context. There is no metaphysical basis for the notion of ‘moral responsibility’. Society sets up rules and mechanisms to enforce them- if you break the rules there is a penalty. That’s all there is to it.

  4. Steve Gerrard
    Posted October 4, 2018 at 11:32 am | Permalink

    It seems more like a discussion of what “responsibility” means, rather than what free will means. It might benefit from just dropping free will from the discussion altogether, and focusing on what “holding someone responsible” means.

    I think many ordinary people have a substitution version of “could have done otherwise” in mind when considering a criminal situation. They think “that person could have done otherwise” because they think “I could have done otherwise” in that same situation. They are more focused on the fact that the person was not forced to do it, in the sense that someone else in those shoes would not have been forced to do it.

  5. Posted October 4, 2018 at 11:55 am | Permalink

    Caruso: We can also say that Einstein was extremely intelligent, gifted and creative. What we cannot say, if we are free-will skeptics, is that Einstein deserves praise (in the ‘basic desert’ sense) for his attributes and accomplishments.

    This seems a bizarre idea to me. We can praise Einstein but we just can’t admit that he deserves it? Einstein’s self-effacing modesty is well known. I think we can all understand where he’s coming from when he claims he’s the product of his birth and circumstances. However, we know that he must have also made good choices along the way. When he came home from working at the Patent Office, he didn’t always go out drinking with his friends but stayed home to work on his physics. We can argue over what we really mean by “deserve” but I do believe Einstein deserved a Nobel Prize.

    • Posted October 4, 2018 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

      Well put.

      Also, the notion that you are responsible only if “you did the crime” seems ad hoc. Indeed the notion of “you” seems as hoc if you want to ground your argument in the wave function or some such low level notion. DD et al try to ground things at a higher level of abstraction, one which as you point out, it seems hard to do without.

    • Giancarlo
      Posted October 4, 2018 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

      “However, we know that he must have also made good choices along the way.”
      But perhaps his capacity to make good choices along the way was also the product of birth, upbringing and circumstances (the causal chain.)
      If we are going to enter a semantic quagmire, here’s my contribution: by Einstein’s own distinction, in the same way he claims he is not “responsible” for his achievements, but that they should be “attributed” to him, we can also say that he didn’t “deserve” the Nobel, but that his achievements should have been “recognized” with it.

      • Posted October 4, 2018 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

        “But perhaps his capacity to make good choices along the way was also the product of birth, upbringing and circumstances (the causal chain.)”

        Certainly they were a factor. But his mom probably urged him to do his homework and Einstein chose to respect her wishes. (Actually, he was supposed to be a mediocre student but you get my point hopefully.)

        All of these discussions seem to boil down to different definitions of free will, choice, desert, etc. I go along with Sean Carroll on this. Everyday free will and choice belong to a higher level of discourse than fundamental physics. I prefer to look at it a different, but equivalent way. We are machines that, among other things, make decisions, much as a computer program has ‘if’ statements that control its behavior. While it is all determined (or even if it isn’t) by physics, the program still performs its task and it matters to the programmer and the end user what branch is taken when the ‘if’ is executed.

        • Giancarlo
          Posted October 4, 2018 at 4:53 pm | Permalink

          Albert chose to obey his mom out of freedom to act (Dennett’s sense) but he had no choice but to do so (Caruso sense.)
          That’s why I agree that most of these problems are semantic. It would be nice if philosophical debates were preceded by a glossary of terms used that all debaters agree too. However, they would also need a glossary for the terms used in the definitions, a glossary for the glossary, if you will, and so on in infinite regression. Philosophy!

          • Posted October 4, 2018 at 5:12 pm | Permalink

            If the philosophers could agree on the glossary, they could probably skip the debate.

        • Posted October 4, 2018 at 8:41 pm | Permalink

          I don’t agree that different definitions are the root of the conflict. They’re a symptom. The underlying disease, for responsibility debates, is different interpretations of our normative practices of holding each other responsible. (Dennett’s interpretation is much more faithful to our actual practices, IMHO.)

  6. Sastra
    Posted October 4, 2018 at 11:57 am | Permalink

    I agree with Dan that some people are subject to rational persuasion and others aren’t, although the distinction isn’t as clear as he’d like. Some people are subject to rational persuasion about some issues but not others.

    I think Dennett’s construes being “subject to rational persuasion” in a more narrow sense (or is it broader?) in that an individual has to be able to entertain the concept of alternatives and making a choice between them. Someone who says “There is no possible argument which will make me give up my belief in God” must have the capacity to recognize alternatives and the ability to reason why all these Godless alternatives are wrong. Just because they’re bad reasons or intractable reasons doesn’t mean the individual is no longer a rational agent who is subjectively involved in the process of persuasive argument.

    “The system of desert keeps alive the belief that if you end up in poverty or prison, this is ‘just’ because you deserve it. Likewise, if you end up succeeding in life, you and you alone are responsible for that success.”

    The belief that background, circumstances, genetics, and environment have NO significant effect on an individual’s choices isn’t kept alive by the system of desert, moral responsibility, or free will. In my opinion it’s kept alive by magical thinking. It’s the supernatural assumption that the self is sui generis and as universal and eternal as God.

    “I should have had different parents.”
    “If I had been a medieval knight, I would have stayed away from battles.”
    “All I have to do to understand other people is imagine me in the same situation.”

  7. Posted October 4, 2018 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

    Both Caruso and our host seemed motivated by the need to reform our justice system. As Dennett points out, we don’t need to deny the existence of free will to fix the justice system, or any other part of society for that matter.

    The central idea seems to be that a criminal is a product of their environment, upbringing, genetics, and luck. They may think they made choices but they couldn’t have done otherwise. Both can be true, and usually are. We are all products of those things but we also make choices during our lives for which we are morally responsible, assuming we are competent agents as Dennett defines. A criminal should receive punishment for only those bad choices and not the stuff that was out of their ability to control. All the reforms we need can be tied to that.

    • Posted October 4, 2018 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

      I would argue that a firm grasp of determinism PROMOTES reform of the judicial system, while accepting free will doesn’t really promote it beyond people’s dislike of how the system works anyway. And it also suggests what kinds of fixes need to be made.

      • Posted October 4, 2018 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

        My guess is that most Lefties support a similar set of justice reforms regardless of their belief in free will and/or determinism, they just use different language to justify them. Both Caruso and Dennett seem in favor of justice reform. Is there any element of those reforms on which they would disagree for reasons involving free will and determinism?

  8. Posted October 4, 2018 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

    In an odd way philosophers dont really want free will (hear me out now!). The extreme rationalist wants to be such a perfect reasoner that they would turn their whole life upside down (would feel it irresistable) if they fouhd a perfect argument–even one written on a blackboard somewhere. Dennett would agree with this (I think–I’m not 100% sure). But that process is as much freedom as they want. Or need. Im pretty sure that Dennett would agree that most of what people want from freewill is just moonshine. But–that doesnt mean that there isnt a real distinction between those who act under reason and those who dont. And the former can be held responsible in ways that the latter can not

  9. Tom Waddell
    Posted October 4, 2018 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

    All this discussion about free will amounts to how many angles can fit on the head of a pin. Everyone has free will, even choosing not to use it is exercising free will.

    Look up Jimmy Santiago Baca and tell me he didn’t exercise free will. Go ahead, tell me everything in Jimmy’s life, from not having an education, not being able to read or write, of getting arrested for dealing drugs, of DECIDING not to kill a fellow inmate and then becoming a world renowned, award winning poet was all predetermined.

    To say we don’t have free will, that everything in our lives are predetermined and involve no choice is to totally disregard what makes us human, what makes us have, innately, a sense of right and wrong.

    • mikeyc
      Posted October 4, 2018 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

      Well, since pinheads are typically spherical (or can be approximated as such) I feel I should point out that since spheres are non-Euclidean, the sum of any angles on it will not equal 180. So be careful with your maths.

      oh….wait…

      😉

      • Giancarlo
        Posted October 4, 2018 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

        I would also point out that given the typically spherical or dome-like shape of pinheads, any point like mass (I consider both angels and angles to be such a thing)resting at its apex will exhibit behavior that (according to some) violates the determinism of Newtonian mechanics, which would land us in even hotter water.
        http://www.pitt.edu/~jdnorton/Goodies/Dome/

  10. Posted October 4, 2018 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

    I don’t claim to even understand determinism, let alone believe in it, but it does seem to me that Caruso is confusing the systemic with the personal. He’s right, of course, that the “lottery of life” is not fair, but this doesn’t alter the fact that everyone has to play the hand they’re dealt (to change the lottery metaphor in mid-stream). Neither the advantages or disadvantages of where or to whom one is born alters the degree of responsibility one has for one’s actions—as if wealth were not potentially as much a hindrance as poverty in developing sound values. Nor do I see that “this way of thinking” prevents us from acknowledging and addressing social ills or helping others overcome handicaps that they did nothing to deserve.

    I’m not so much arguing here as making an admission. Samuel Taylor Coleridge makes a nice distinction between understanding someone’s ignorance and being ignorant of someone’s understanding. In this instance I have to admit that I’m simply ignorant of Caruso’s (and Coyne’s) understanding.

    • Posted October 4, 2018 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

      Yes. Free will == playing the hand you’re dealt.

      • Posted October 4, 2018 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

        Who’da thunk we’d agree about something–eh, Paul? 😊 Good post above (#7).

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted October 4, 2018 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

      Lemme break it down for you, Gary: we determinists believe that, in the moment, on the ship’s deck, the old mariner could have done no other, when, with his crossbow, he shot the albatross. 🙂

      • darrelle
        Posted October 4, 2018 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

        A favorite of mine, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

      • Posted October 4, 2018 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

        Watch it, Ken–my politeness and smiley faces end when you start messing with my man Coleridge. But—in for a penny, in for a pound—I surmise that you also go along with the following (which I’m sure would warm Sister Mary Perpetua’s heart):

        He prayeth best, who loveth best
        All things both great and small;
        For the dear God who loveth us,
        He made and loveth all.

        • Ken Kukec
          Posted October 4, 2018 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

          If I’m recalling my Romantic lit figures correctly, STC was a confessed English opium-eater, like his buddy Mr. De Quincey.

          • Posted October 4, 2018 at 4:43 pm | Permalink

            You recall correctly, Ken. Coleridge’s usual use of opium was through laudanum, a mixture of opium and alcohol, which he started using for an illness (in De Quincey’s case, a toothache) and got addicted to. He said he wrote that marvel-of-a-poem “Kubla Khan” during an opium-induced dream (which he claims was interrupted by a highly questionable visit from a “man from Porlock”). I wouldn’t try this at home if you haven’t been writing poetry for many years and if you don’t happen to be Samuel Taylor Coleridge. 😊

  11. Steve Cameron
    Posted October 4, 2018 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

    My sense when I read or listen to these arguments is that they’re as much about semantics as anything. “Free will,” for example, is such a loaded concept that it’s easy to talk past one another (or the reader) without completely realizing it. I prefer the term “agency” but maybe that as a concept is missing something that “free will” evokes more clearly? It’s hard for me to say without putting a lot more hours into researching this topic.

    I lean a lot more toward Dannett’s point of view, but it’s clear there are problems with some of his arguments. One point I think Jerry misunderstands, though, is Dennett’s quote for issue (a), “What is Free Will.” Dennett talks about people being “reasonable” which Jerry interprets as “subject to rational persuasion” but I think that’s not the same thing. People can be irrational in their reasoning, after all, and often are. We will, for example, weigh other concerns such as tribal identity or appeals from authority over factual, rational argument. I realize this is incidental to the greater debate, but it underlines how much this is a semantic argument.

  12. Rosmarie Maran
    Posted October 4, 2018 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

    The issue of moral responsibility appears to be structurally very similar to that of meaning. Probably most rational people agree on the statement that there is no ultimate or absolute meaning in the universe, but would not agree that because of this there is also no meaning at all to what one does in ones actual life, day by day. The latter I would term relational meaning as opposed to absolute meaning. And quite so, there is also relational responsibility – and no absolute responsibility.

  13. Posted October 4, 2018 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

    I am always surprised when Dennett claims that society will fall apart if people don’t adhere to some notion of free will.

    Really? I do not meet people in real life who ever think about free will. Never. If you told them they don’t have free will, they wouldn’t know what that means and more importantly they would not care. They will continue to act, period. Work, eat, sleep, repeat.

    From a practical point of view, free will is only interesting to smart and/or concerned people who understand that we need to embrace engineering and administrative controls over time that will reduce, deterministically crime rates.

    Today’s murder, who has not choice, will be tomorrow’s non-murder, who also has no choice. Constraining actions is moral thing to do. It’s using determinism to save the most lives.

    • Posted October 4, 2018 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

      I think that is precisely the point Dennett is making. If we all agreed tomorrow that trying to convince people using rational argument was pointless due to their lack of free will, society would break down. Even ordering dinner would be pointless. Might as well tell the waiter, “Go ahead and bring me what you would have.”

      • Posted October 4, 2018 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

        Argument is not pointless because people have no free will. Argument is just as effective free will or not.
        The ideas you hear in an argument are part of your instinctive process you brain goes through tomorrow yo decide what you will do that you have no conscious choice/free will to change.
        The same is true of having been in jail. That becomes part of the unconsciousness that drives you to make decisions you cannot control.

  14. darrelle
    Posted October 4, 2018 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

    “And this is what most people in four surveyed countries think, too: the majority feel that in a society in which there is no libertarian free will, one cannot be morally responsible.”

    But, I wonder how well that supports either view. What do the various people in these surveys think “moral responsibility” is? When even practiced thinkers like Dennett, Caruso and Jerry need to take such care to reason out how their conceptions of the term are subtly different and what the implications of those differences could be?

  15. Posted October 4, 2018 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

    Reblogged this on The Logical Place.

  16. Posted October 4, 2018 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

    Facts:
    John Smith robbed a bank. He go caught.

    Question:
    What do we do with him?

    Answer:
    Ten years in jail.

    Question:
    Was he morally responsible, responsible, or could not help himself?

    Answer:
    Does not matter.

    Question:
    Why not?

    Answer:
    Nobody knows and this robbing of banks has got to stop.

    Question:
    But why put him in jail?

    Answer:
    1. He may have been responsible.
    2. To deter other people.
    3. To keep him off the streets, responsible of not do that for at least ten years he does not rob another bank. By then he may have changed or died.

  17. Posted October 4, 2018 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

    *DESSERT not “desert”.

  18. ploubere
    Posted October 4, 2018 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

    If people have no choice in committing evil due to lack of free will, then I may also have no choice in condemning them, since I would lack free will as well. That line of reasoning disappears down a black hole.

    • darrelle
      Posted October 5, 2018 at 8:14 am | Permalink

      But when your are exposed to arguments in conversations like this your “programming” is modified by them and it is possible that these changes could result in you having no choice in the future but to not condemn people who commit evil.

  19. Stuart Worley
    Posted October 4, 2018 at 5:37 pm | Permalink

    I agree with the post somewhere above. I need a glossary in order to follow the discussion.

    Also, I beleive that when the discusion talks about determinism it does not mean “predetermined”, but I don’t see how to avoid that path.

    Can someone explain and/or point me to source that explains this?

    Thanks

    • Posted October 4, 2018 at 6:06 pm | Permalink

      Predetermined means God set it all up from the beginning of time. Determinism leaves God out of it because the people who talk about it are atheist. They believe it was and is all determined by the laws of physics.
      But where did the laws of physics come from. There is hope that the study of quantum theory will help answer that question.

      How did sluggish get started anyway? That seems to be the pertinent question expressed in Southern Appalachian speak. ( My native tongue)

      • AC Harper
        Posted October 5, 2018 at 5:16 am | Permalink

        Arguably the ‘laws of physics’ do not exist – the words are just a label for ‘observed regularities that enable accurate prediction of similar future events’.

        You could also argue that ‘moral laws’ don’t exist – again the words are just a label for ‘observed social behaviours that enable accurate prediction of social approval or censure for similar future events’.

        I’d extend that further. ‘Free Will’ doesn’t exist – the words are just a label for ‘actions whose causes include hidden or unknowable prior causes’.

        Of course some people might disagree.

    • Giancarlo
      Posted October 4, 2018 at 7:44 pm | Permalink

      I’ll take a stab at this against my better judgement:
      The world is governed by determinism if, given a specified way things are at time t, the way things go thereafter is fixed as a matter of law. This is a drab rephrasing of Laplace’s Demon.
      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laplace%27s_demon

      and would seem, at first glance, to imply predeterminism – the doctrine that states that all events, past, present and future have already been decided, but not so fast, I guess, for while the present may have been determined by an un-alterable past causal chain, the future is not, because of the fundamentally indeterminate nature of quantum mechanics by most interpretations of it. So in a simple analogy, the present is one big algorithm fixed by the determinate past, but the future input into the algorithm is aleatory (and by the way will change the future-present algorithm to a new one.) Oh boy, I’ve embarrassed myself.

  20. Posted October 4, 2018 at 8:28 pm | Permalink

    All the smart people are saying that compatibilism vs incompatibilism is down to different definitions of “free will”. But they’re wrong – it’s more important to properly define “causality”. Or rather, not to define it, but simply to understand what science has to say about it.

    The intuitive idea of “causality” may well conflict with the idea that a person could have done otherwise. The scientific picture of causality has no such conflict.

    The intuitive idea of causality is anthropomorphic. We push things around. As children, we learn that if we move our hands one way, we build a block tower. If we move another way, we demolish the tower. This idea of causality is inherently asymmetric, with a master who pushes, and a slave who gets pushed. When as adults, we generalize causality to apply also between inanimate objects, we still hold on to this imagined asymmetry. Only now, the earlier event becomes the master, and the later one the slave.

    Scientific determinism has no place for such an imagined asymmetry. Classical physics is time-symmetric. The Standard Model is CPT-symmetric, where C P and T stand for charge, parity, and time. (Even in the absence of time-symmetric fundamental laws, there would be no place for the master/slave aspect of the intuitive picture of causality, but that’s a harder argument to make, so I prefer to focus on the scientific laws that are in prevalent use.) If you want to argue that modern science undermines “free will” because of “causal determinism”, you ought to notice what actual scientific theories say about causality – not what your intuitions say.

    Since a survey of what people believe about free will and causality will invoke their intuitive ideas of “causation” or “determinism”, it says little or nothing about the actual philosophical problem.

    Responsibility is another topic, but this comment is already long.

  21. Roo
    Posted October 4, 2018 at 9:39 pm | Permalink

    I’ve said many times that the discussion over how to construe “free will” is likely to be unproductive given that most people on the street define the phrase one way and Sophisticated Philosophers™ another. What we should be doing is working out the consequences of behavioral determinism, a determinism on which Dennett, Caruso, and I all agree.

    I think this is a good summary. In casual conversation, people not interested in this somewhat esoteric topic generally think ‘no free will’ means ‘forced to act against one’s will/agency, like a robot’. It causes a lot of confusion that delays any real productive conversation for quite awhile, I think.

    I think the topic of free will is a wonderful way to start questioning the surface appearances of reality, enculturated views, and so on. I really enjoyed Sam Harris’s book on the topic (and when I read it had never even thought to question free will) and think there is a lot of value in discussing such issues for those seeking philosophical understanding. That said, I think nuts and bolts practicality is a somewhat different issue, and from that vantage point, the topic of free will is something of a koan. Any argument on the topic sort of self-refutes as no one involved – criminals and judges, those who believe in free will and those who don’t, etc. – had the free will to conclude whatever they concluded, ergo it’s becomes a sort of zen, pantheistic way of saying “Everything is what it is”.

    I think what we are really talking about in these conversations, then, is largely about questions of moral truth, and individual agency and the role it should play in society. Moral truth because any topic that lacks any sort of truth value whatsoever has no basis for communal consensus (I believe in moral relativism – something of a dirty word in 2018, but by this I mean a midpoint between moral imperatives and moral nihilism – so I do believe there is some contextual moral ‘truth’ to be found.) ergo there’s little point in talking about it anyways. If some moral truth does exist, however, then the degree to which people are correct or in error when assessing those truths can be used as a communal basis for discussing moral behavior. Agency because while libertarian free will may not exist, the volitional vs. non volitional behavior of agents does. There is a moral difference between hitting someone whilst having a seizure and hitting someone in anger. In this, I am actually somewhat more sympathetic to those who believe in free will. I don’t believe in libertarian free will, but I do think a society wherein we do not treat people as individual agents might not be such a pretty picture. While the idea of individual agency is the basis for punishment, it is also the basis for things such as individual human rights over collectivist utilitarianism – I do think that’s an important philosophical point to keep in mind. The conceptual boundaries we draw around individual people are likely just that – conceptual. But remove those conceptual boundaries and view the world not as a collection of individual agents but as a web of influences that don’t belong to any one person, and I think the basis for individual rights is also impacted. Logically speaking, I think individual rights are the positive side of the coin associated with individual punishments. It’s difficult to justify one without the other. If we parse the world in terms of ‘one big mass of interrelated outcomes arising’, then it’s more difficult to say that we should protect individual agents simply ‘because we should’. If we parse the world as units of one that begin and end with individual egos, then that means those egos will be both protected and held accountable for outcomes – it seems difficult to logically justify only one half of that equation.

    • Rosmarie Maran
      Posted October 4, 2018 at 11:40 pm | Permalink

      wholeheartedly agreed.

    • Posted October 5, 2018 at 12:01 am | Permalink

      I don’t see any valid argument in any case for protecting individuals against their acts. Your argument shows a misunderstanding of how to handle behavior that is outside the norms of acceptable behavior.

      • Roo
        Posted October 5, 2018 at 10:34 am | Permalink

        See point 1 about ‘moral truth’. Acceptable to who?

  22. Posted October 5, 2018 at 11:19 am | Permalink

    In the the legal system, acceptable in the eyes of the legislature. They pass the laws and make the rules representing, according to theory, the wishes of the voters.
    In a family, acceptable to the parents as they guide their children.
    At work, acceptable to the owners or managers of the business.
    In a street gang, the leader of the gang.

    In all situations there is someone in charge who sets the rules. The norms of behavior on the long run are, once again in theory, set by the members of the group. If the leaders are out of touch, they get removed and Ned leaders take their place.

    Remember to vote in November. It is very important. Our leader, in my opinion, is out of touch and needs to be sent a signal.

    • Roo
      Posted October 5, 2018 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

      But by that logic, Kim Jon-un’s leadership is as morally correct as Obama’s. He meets all of above said criteria.

      Granted, there are people who do subscribe to that level of ‘stability at all costs’ thinking. Putin, for example – he seems to take the stance that the identified authority of any group is the legitimate authority, period, and that is whose norms you interact with.

      I think such a mindset is helpful to a point – it discourages over zealous interventionism, for example. And historically, there are many examples of great harm coming from cultures trying to force themselves on other cultures, in the form of imperialism and wars. At a more day to day level, no one likes a controlling busybody telling them how to live life or raise their kids. So I think that to a *degree the concept of ‘live and let live’ should certainly be taught.

      However, you could push this to an extreme that almost no one would agree with. If one parent maintains control in their household by terrorizing and abusing their children and another does this via love, bonding, and genuine respect, I think we all have a baseline moral intuition that those are not equally good ways of being. If that is the case, then you either have to a) Disregard that intuition or b) Look for other variables to explain the difference. And that gets back to the idea of looking for something like truth value behind morality, vs. simply a consensus-makes-right approach.

      • Posted October 5, 2018 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

        In North Korea there is a leader that is out of touch with his society. and should be overthrown. I clearly stated that leaders are not always correct, right, or moral.
        I inferred the same thing as to societies. I said in the long run thrymembers of society will determine the norms. And may have said in theory.

        The ultimate answers as to who decides what is moral is that I do.
        That is true for each individual. Each person decides and in the long run the decisions of the totality of the group. That is the way civilization works. That does not mean that at every point in time every group or every society is correct in what they think is moral. Quiet the contrary.
        Lo
        You asked who decides. Th only answer is that in the long run the people do.

        • Roo
          Posted October 5, 2018 at 5:21 pm | Permalink

          Yes, but I would argue that people can be more or less *correct about what they truly want (think of a heroin addict,) and that in this sense there are self-evident truths to be known about morality. If this is *not the case, then punishment in general is simply yet another human whim, and one has no basis to say I misunderstand it, only that we experience different whims on the topic.

  23. Posted October 8, 2018 at 6:31 pm | Permalink

    It seems that opting to believe in the “not morally responsible” line of thought is indeed a decision made using free will and therefore you are morally responsible: i.e. your free will has allowed you to pursue the belief that you supposedly don’t have free will – ergo you do

    • Posted October 8, 2018 at 6:33 pm | Permalink

      WHAT? No, I was determined by the laws of physics, instantiated through my evolved brain, to make that argument. You’re dead wrong if you think that making that argument means I have libertarian free will.

      You see the error, right?


%d bloggers like this: