Sunday, November 27, 2011

Free Will

Until recently, I had considered the existence of free will to be a moral dilemma. I understood that free will, in the sense of transcending our prior experience and genetics, did not exist. But I also knew that we needed to act as if it did exist to hold people responsible for their actions and to have a functioning society. I was curious to see what Sam Harris would say about it in a book I’m currently reading, The Moral Landscape.

I expected that he would accept that free will does not exist (in the metaphysical sense), but what surprised me was that he embraced it as an advance in morality. He said that we shouldn’t be locking people up out of retribution, or punishment, but out of concern for what they might do. If someone has demonstrated that they are a threat to society, and might cause harm in the future, it makes sense to lock them up. Not out of punishment, but out of concern for the consequences of their future actions.

Recently, more people have begun to attribute misbehavior to disorders of the brain, rather than simply the choices of that person. This represents a step towards seeing the mind as the product of the brain, as the difference between a person’s idiosyncrasies or personality and brain disorders is more a difference of degree rather than in kind. The more we understand this, the less we feel a strong desire for retribution for undesired or even harmful behavior. Rather, we become motivated out of concern for the person or the consequences of their actions.

While writing this blog entry, I discovered that Sam Harris has a blog post summarizing some of what he said in his book. Since he’s undoubtedly a better writer than I am, it would be a great article to read if I didn’t convey this concept very clearly.

The bottom line, though, is that we need to be clear about the objectives of our morality. If it is to promote human well-being, as I think it is, then our better understanding of how our minds work may require a change in our definition of justice. I now agree with Sam Harris: that redefinition of justice would be a step in the right direction.


bryce said...

Interesting post Bennion!

I find it interesting that in his summary (the linked one) he focuses exclusively on crime and punishment but never mentions any virtue. Sure, the justice system should be looked at, morality should be more personal and less about society.

Bennion said...

That's a good point Bryce. I think that he focuses on vice because when abandoning the concept of free will, people are concerned that if we can't hold people responsible, we can't punish them for crimes. But as he says, we can have personal responsibility: and that applies to both good things and bad things.

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