Sam Harris on Free Will: A Criterial Critique

“Consider what it would take to actually have free will. You would need to be aware of all the factors that determine your thoughts and actions, and you would need to have complete control over those factors.” -Sam Harris

Harris is among the most popular authors contesting the viability of free will. The core of Harris’s claim isn’t so much that we lack free will; it’s that the very notion is incoherent. As stated above, according to Harris you must have complete control over the conditions that cause your actions in order to have free will. But of course, you can’t have complete control over all of the causal conditions of your actions because many of them precede your capacity for control in the first place.

Here is a formulation of Harris’s argument:

1. If one acts freely, then one has perfect control over the conditions that cause that action
2. No one ever has perfect control over the causal conditions of their actions (Incoherent).
3. Therefore, no one ever acts freely.

Perfect control means you’re able to dictate all of the causal conditions that lead to your actions. And with this notion of control in mind, it’s fairly easy to see why one would dismiss free will. No one chooses their parents, genetics, moral community, brain structure, country of origin, initial contacts, etc.; all which influence your decisions.

The problem is simply that Harris is loading too much into his conception of freedom. Straw structures are easy to burn down.

Much of  Harris’s error consists of conflating the idea of free action with morally responsible action.

Contrast the following conceptions* with Harris’s

S acts freely if and only if
1. S is the source of his action (no brain manipulation (mechanisms that lead to it are his own))
2. S wants to perform the act he does and has reasons for doing it
3. S could have done otherwise.

S is morally responsible for performing x if and only if
1. S wills x
2. S wants that she will x
3. S wills because she wants to will x (no manipulation)
4. S has the capacity to consider the sources of her desires
5. S knows that her willing x and wanting to will x have causal antecedents beyond her control.

Now does Harris have non-question begging argument for why we ought to prefer his criteria of free will and moral responsibility? If not, then Harris’s argument is unsuccessful. I think my accounts ought to be preferred because they’re both intuitively plausible and it means the majority of people aren’t massively deceived about themselves and the justificatory status of their responsibility practices. If I’m correct, then most people are suitable to sign contracts and are the proper targets of punishment for well-calculated acts of harm. If Harris is right, then were all just the victims of a sort of neural conspiracy.

Next time I’ll look at possible objections to both of these accounts and why I think they fail.

*This is Lynne Baker’s account of moral responsibility*