In his recent book, Sam Harris (neuroscientist and the author of “The End of Faith”) has officially declared the notion of free will to be an illusion (Harris, 2012). He mentions studies that have shown one’s action can be determined some seconds before one is actually aware of them, and this goes against our notion of free will.
Needless to say, this has severe implications for judging people’s actions: If there is no free will, how can we hold people morally responsible for their actions? After all, if they have not freely chosen to do wrong (or right) holding them responsible will become meaningless. (This is not the basis of my argument in rejection of what Harris puts forward against free will)
Harris of course tries to justify why we do hold criminals (and people) responsible for their actions, but still, this can only mean that even we have no free will, and what we are doing is only a projection of our own illusion.
We could make two types of objection to this notion: One is the responsibility associated with each person is indeed different from morality of an action. Thinking about “how” a person has come to do a wrong doing does not change or reduce the wrongness of that action; it can only change the amount of responsibility of that person (Whyte, 2004). But of course Harris does not completely abandon this, as he argues that “Some criminals need to be incarcerated to prevent them from harming other people” (Harris, 2012). If harming people is wrong, then regardless of responsibility we incarcerate criminals.
The other objection, the more important one in my opinion, is purely from philosophical ground, particularly from a Kantian perspective. Kant argues that we understand ourselves from not just one physical standpoint, but also from “an “intelligible” realm of free human agency”, the realm of ideas and beliefs (Sandel, 2009). Just the fact that we are the only creatures that apparently is capable of having abstract thoughts is evidence for that. Ironically, Sam Harris’ thinking about free will is by itself evidence for his autonomous existence, not his heteronomy (i.e. being a slave to the nature). Mere object are incapable of abstract thoughts, and therefore there is no decision making for them, no argument, no responsibility and no morality.
To understand this better, we can have one good example based on one of the most famous philosophical statements of (probably) all times: Rene Descartes’ “Cogito ergo sum (I think, therefore I am)”.
By reading the simplest introductions to logic (for example “42 Fallacies” by Michael LeBossiere, 2011) we immediately seem to recognise there is an obvious case of begging the question here: If we want to prove that “I” exist, we should not have assumed the existence of “I” in our assumptions. If there exists an “I” to think, then we are going in circles trying to prove that the same “I” exists.*
But here we can have a defence of Descartes from that Kantian point of view: If the first “I” is the “I” that thinks and the second “I” is the autonomous I with freedom (of the will), then there is no begging the question. The second “I” is the one with both aspects of being: Both physical and rational. It is only obvious that only the rational I is capable of thinking about the physical I, however they may be inseparable.
Back to our subject, let’s consider the case of two murderers: One abused 12 year old boy that has been abused his entire life kills someone that has ridiculed him. And the case of a 40 year old man who murders his wife in order to marry his mistress. The difference between these two cases is the second “I”, capable of rational thought. The boy is almost without an autonomous “I”, acting only what was dictated to his mind based on his lifelong torture. But the man had developed that “autonomous” I, and that is the reason why he is held morally responsible for his actions, not the boy.
In the end, the argument becomes something like “Comprehendo, igitur liber sum (I understand, therefore I am free).” **
* It has been said (Warburton, 1998) that Descartes was completely aware that “I think therefore I am” is in form of begging the question. The argument in fact is not supposed to be a logical argument, but a psychological fact: It is hard to think that there is no I that thinks. This criticism therefore is a straw man.
** Translation by a dear commenter (Karl) below.
Harris, S. 2012. Free Will. Kindle ed. Free Press (A division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.). New York.
LaBossiere, M. 2011. 42 Fallacies. eBook. Amazon Digital Services. [Accessed on 14th March 2012].
Sandel, M. J. 2009. Justice: What is the Right Thing to Do?. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. USA.
Warburton, N. 1998. Thinking from A-Z. 2nd ed. Routledge. USA.
Whyte, J. 2004. Crimes Against Logic: Exposing the Bogus Arguments of Politicians, Priests, Journalists, and Other Serial Offenders. McGraw Hill Professional.