On free will: Daniel Dennett and Gregg Caruso go head to head

December 8, 2018

Caruso: [Dan,] you have famously argued that freedom evolves and that humans, alone among the animals, have evolved minds that give us free will and moral responsibility. I, on the other hand, have argued that what we do and the way we are is ultimately the result of factors beyond our control, and that because of this we are never morally responsible for our actions, in a particular but pervasive sense – the sense that would make us truly deserving of blame and praise, punishment and reward. While these two views appear to be at odds with each other, one of the things I would like to explore in this conversation is how far apart we actually are. I suspect that we may have more in common than some think – but I could be wrong. To begin, can you explain what you mean by ‘free will’ and why you think humans alone have it?

Dennett: A key word in understanding our differences is ‘control’. [Gregg,] you say ‘the way we are is ultimately the result of factors beyond our control’ and that is true of only those unfortunates who have not been able to become autonomous agents during their childhood upbringing. There really are people, with mental disabilities, who are not able to control themselves, but normal people can manage under all but the most extreme circumstances, and this difference is both morally important and obvious, once you divorce the idea of control from the idea of causation. Your past does not control you; for it to control you, it would have to be able to monitor feedback about your behaviour and adjust its interventions – which is nonsense.

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.

Caruso: I don’t disagree with you that there are important differences between agents who have the kind of rational control you highlight and those who lack it. Such a distinction is undeniable. A normal adult who is responsive to reasons differs in significant ways from one who is suffering from psychopathy, Alzheimer’s or severe mental illness. I have no issue, then, with acknowledging various degrees of ‘control’ or ‘autonomy’ – in fact, I think you and other compatibilists have done a great job highlighting these differences. My disagreement has more to do with the conditions required for what I call ‘basic desert’ moral responsibility. As a free-will skeptic, I maintain that the kind of control and reasons-responsiveness you point to, though important, is not enough to ground basic-desert moral responsibility – the kind of responsibility that would make us truly deserving of blame and praise, punishment and reward in a purely backward-looking sense.

Consider, for example, the various justifications one could give for punishing wrongdoers. One justification, the one that dominates our legal system, is to say that they deserve it. This retributive justification for punishment maintains that punishment of a wrongdoer is justified for the reason that he/she deserves something bad to happen to them just because they have knowingly done wrong. Such a justification is purely backward-looking. For the retributivist, it is the basic desert attached to the criminal’s immoral action alone that provides the justification for punishment. This means that the retributivist position is not reducible to consequentialist considerations that try to maximise good outcomes in the future, nor in justifying punishment does it appeal to wider goods such as the safety of society or the moral improvement of those being punished. I contend that retributive punishment is never justified since agents lack the kind of free will and basic-desert moral responsibility needed to ground it.

While we may be sensitive to reasons, and this may give us the kind of voluntary control you mention, the particular reasons that move us, along with the psychological predispositions, likes and dislikes, and other constitutive factors that make us who we are, themselves are ultimately the result of factors beyond our control. And this remains true whether those factors include determinism, indeterminism, chance, or luck. This is not to say that there are not other conceptions of responsibility that can be reconciled with determinism, chance or luck. Nor is it to deny that there may be good forward-looking reasons for maintaining certain systems of punishment and reward. For instance, free-will skeptics typically point out that the impositions of sanctions serve purposes other than punishment of the guilty: it can also be justified by its role in incapacitating, rehabilitating and deterring offenders. My question, then, is whether the kind of desert you have in mind is enough to justify retributive punishment? If not, then it becomes harder to understand what, if anything, our disagreement truly amounts to since forward-looking justifications of punishment are perfectly consistent with the denial of free will and basic-desert moral responsibility. And if you are willing to reject retributivism, as I think you might be, then I’m curious to know exactly what you mean by ‘desert’ – since it’s debatable whether talk of giving agents their just deserts makes any sense devoid of its backward-looking, retributive connotations.

Read the whole story at: https://aeon.co/essays/on-free-will-daniel-dennett-and-gregg-caruso-go-head-to-head?utm_source=Aeon+Newsletter&utm_campaign=a0914a4bb7-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2018_10_03_05_06&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_411a82e59d-a0914a4bb7-70411565

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