As I have mentioned, I am presently reading a book by Gregg Caruso and Daniel Dennett called Just Deserts: Debating Free Will [UK]. Sometimes I wonder what to label myself as in terms of the free will debate because it all depends on what you define by the term “free will”. However, I think this passage from Gregg Caruso really sums up my position:
I disagree with you that people deserve to be praised and blamed in the everyday cases you discuss. Consider the case of Albert Einstein. He too was a free will skeptic who believed that his scientific accomplishments were not of his own making. In a 1929 interview in The Saturday Evening Post, he said: “I do not believe in free will… I believe with Schopenhauer: we can do what we wish, but we can only wish what we must.” He goes on to add: “My own career was undoubtedly determined, not by my own will but by various factors I have no control.” He concludes by rejecting the idea that he deserves praise or credit for his scientific achievements: “I claim credit for nothing. Everything is determined, the beginning as well as the end, by forces over which we have no control.” (Side note: my own free will skepticism is agnostic about determinism. I maintain that whether or not the universe is governed by deterministic laws, Einstein’s general point remains true, since indeterminate events are no more within our control than determined ones. This is why, following my friend and sometimes-collaborator or the Derk Pereboom, I call myself a hard-incompatibilist rather than a hard-determinist.)
Of course, we can attribute various accomplishments to Einstein – free will skepticism is perfectly consistent with attributability. 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.
I know this sounds counterintuitive, but that’s only because internal to the moral responsibility system, desert-based praise and blame, punishment and reward come naturally. The problem with appealing to our everyday practices, however, is that it takes for granted the very thing in need of justification. To paraphrase my friend and fellow sceptic Bruce Waller, if we start from the assumption of the moral responsibility system, then the denial of moral responsibility is absurd and self-defeating. But the universal denial of moral responsibility does not start from the assumption that under normal circumstances we are morally responsible, and it does not proceed from that starting point to enlarge and extend the range of excuses to cover everyone (so that everyone is profoundly flawed). That is indeed a path to absurdity. Rather, those who reject moral responsibility rejected the basic system which starts from the assumption that all minimally competent persons are morally responsible. The free will skeptic, it is never fair to treat anyone as morally responsible, no matter how reasonable, competent, self-efficacious, strong-willed and clear-sighted that person may be. Since skeptics like myself, who globally challenge moral responsibility, do not accept the rules of that system, it is question-begging to assume our ordinary moral responsibility practices are justified without refuting the various arguments for global skepticism.
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