Sam Harris, free will, and blaming believers for the things they say

Last week, I read Sam Harris’ new book Free Will. Until now I’ve liked everything I’ve read of Harris’, but I can’t recommend this book. The problem is that Harris argues against the notion of free will without ever putting much effort into figuring out what people mean by “free will.” Russell Blackford has been doing a series of posts on free will over at Talking Philosophy, and his introductory post makes some very smart comments:

I still tend to think of myself as a compatibilist, although I’ve increasingly come to wonder whether “free will talk” is actually very useful at all, one way or the other, in illuminating our situation. Perhaps everything that needs to be said can be said without actually using the expression “free will” – and perhaps both “You have free will!” and “You do not have free will!” convey false or misleading content, or are simply too unclear to convey anything very coherent at all to the average person. So I’ve become something of a sceptic about the whole concept, or, rather, the expression, while still thinking that there are useful things that can be said in the vicinity, perhaps in other language. Since these things include some of the content that affirmations that we have free will are apparently intended to convey, my scepticism is not so much about whether we have free will, whatever it is, as whether the expression “free will” is especially clear or useful.

Harris, on the other hand, just talks about “the popular conception of free will” or “the traditional idea of free will”  (he uses the latter phrase in particular a lot in this blog post) as if it were obvious what the popular conception is, or which idea of free will is the traditional one. But this isn’t obvious.

Now a similar complaint often gets made when talking about God, that atheists are wrong about what the idea of God is. I think that charge is wrong, so it’s worth explaining the difference. The difference is that if you want to know what ordinary people mean by “God,” it’s easy to find relevant evidence. Look at what the holy books they claim to revere say about God, look at what the preachers they listen to weekly say about God, look at how they invoke God in political debates, and so on.

With free will, though, people don’t talk about free will nearly as much as they talk about God, so it’s much harder to find clues as to what people mean when they talk about free will. So I understand why Jerry Coyne compares compatibilists to theologians who try to save the idea of God by redefining it, but I agree with Blackford that the comparison doesn’t hold. (For the full Coyne-Blackford exchange, see also here and here.)

I’ve said that I, like Blackford, am inclined to be cautious about using the phrase “free will.” But if what we mean by free will means the ability to chose, or our actions being up to us, or the ability to do otherwise (in a sense), I have no trouble saying I think free will exists. And research done by Eddy Nahmias seems to indicate most people understand “free will” in something like one of those senses. Or at least, they understand it in a sense compatible with determinism.

But debates about the meanings of words get annoying fast. Thankfully, it’s clear that what Harris is trying to argue in Free Will isn’t just about words. Harris also thinks it’s important that because we have no free will, it’s irrational to blame people for wrongdoing, much less hate them for it or seek retribution.

Now one thing I liked about Harris’ book is that he does a good job of explaining how, even if we reject free will and reject the idea of punishing wrongdoers for its own sake, it still makes sense to punish criminals for the sake of discouraging people from committing crimes. That’s a point that’s important for total newbies to the free will debate to get. And in fact, I think Harris is probably right that our system for punishing criminals should be built along consequentialist lines, that is, we should try to build it in whatever way will produce the best effects, rather than design it to punish criminals for the sake of punishing them.

But to accept consequentialism you don’t have to think we can’t make choices, or that our actions aren’t up to us, or that we never have the ability to do otherwise. Those are distinct issues. Nor do I see anything wrong with blaming or even hating wrongdoers.

I’ll start with hatred.Let me tell you a story about a man you may have never heard of before, King Leopold the II of Belgium. In 1885, Leopold managed to persuade the governments of Europe to make the Congo, under the Orwellian name the “Congo Free State,” his personal property. When rubber became heavily in-demand in the 1890’s, Leopold’s administration set rubber quotas to maximize profits. These quotas were enforced through torture, burning entire villages to the ground, and most infamously cutting off hands. No accurate records were kept of the death toll, but estimates place it in the millions. All so one European king could get even richer than he already was.

When I think about these facts, I can’t help but hate Leopold and the men who carried out his policies. I know anyone with their exact same environment and genetics would have done the same (and given my dim view of human nature, I suspect environment was the key fact0r.) But thinking about that doesn’t stop me from hating them. Why should it? We can hate a disgusting piece of food, a bad movie, an ugly building, or even a general fact about the world (like the fact that life is unfair) even though all those things are the product of outside forces. Why should our attitude towards monsters like Leopold be any different?

To take a less-extreme case, any atheist who’s spent enough time arguing about religion has a pretty good mental catalog of annoying talking points believers use. In some cases, I don’t think believers can be blamed for saying the things they say, particularly when they’re honestly ignorant through no fault of their own. (Remember that everyone is ignorant at some things.) In other cases, they’re clearly to blame for the things they say, such as if they’re just plain lying (*cough* William Lane Craig *cough*). Other cases are in between: they’re not lying, but they clearly don’t care enough to think about what they’re saying.

Now Harris would point out that that Craig’s decisions to lie is the inevitable product of environment and genetics, and the same goes for people’s lack of caring enough to think about what they’re saying. But so what? It still seems to me that there’s  a very important difference between those cases and someone who’s merely ignorant and previously had no reasonable chance to be informed. Talking about whether or not they’re “at fault” or “to blame” seems to me to be a perfectly fine way to talk about that difference–indeed, it was extremely awkward to write the previous sentence without using one of those phrases.

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