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Just Deserts: Debating Free Will by Daniel C. Dennett & Gregg D. Caruso

Stuart Jeffries considers the moral implications of a (possible) lack of free will.

In 1929 Albert Einstein told a reporter that he was not responsible for the general theory of relativity or any of his other scientific accomplishments: “I claim credit for nothing. Everything is determined, the beginning as well as the end, by forces over which we have no control” (Saturday Evening Post, 1929). This wasn’t just the charming modesty of a genius pooh-poohing praise. Einstein really was a sceptic about free will, who believed that we are not responsible for what we do. He agreed with Arthur Schopenhauer, who wrote: “We can do what we wish but wish what we must.”

The ramifications of determinism are devastating for how we live. If everything is predetermined and we don’t have free will, we can’t be held responsible for anything. If our choices are, for example, made by a brain whose activities we don’t choose, we can’t legitimately praise or blame each other. Freedom is a farce, the penal system a joke, and Rousseau was only half-right when he stated that man is born free but is everywhere in chains. We were in chains from the start.

In Just Deserts, two leading American philosophers go toe-to-toe over 206 pages on a subject that’s formed the basis of a million undergraduate philosophy essays. One of the debaters is a free will sceptic like Einstein, the other a ‘compatibilist’ who believes that free will and moral responsibility can be reconciled with determinism.

The book’s appeal is more than academic. If free will scepticism is true, prisons incarcerate the necessarily innocent, elections are a masquerade predicated on the absurd notion that we freely choose our politicians, and the ‘American Dream’ – whereby anyone can become rich, and those who do deserve their fortunes, while those who don’t have only themselves to blame – is a lie. However, if we do have free will, then the possible corollaries are just as terrible. We may have no obligation to help the poor, the obese, the refugees, the homeless or the unemployed. Perhaps they all deserve what they get as the result of their poor choices.

That kind of desert is understandably unacceptable to Gregg Caruso, a New York philosophy professor, who is also co-director of Aberdeen University Law School’s fabulous-sounding ‘Justice Without Retribution Network’. As that name suggests, he believes that our penal systems unjustly exact retribution for offenders’ crimes. Not only is this unjust because no one deserves punishment, he thinks – since no one has chosen their actions; it is also hopeless for creating a good society because it is entirely backward-looking, based on righting old wrongs and exacting futile revenge. Many of the alarmingly large numbers of African-Americans from deprived backgrounds in American jails are, on Caruso’s account, doubly wronged: first they were dealt a poor set of cards, and then they were brutalised in jail. Such punishment – indeed any punishment – is unjustifiable. Imagine, Caruso suggests, that evil neuroscientists put an implant in Elizabeth’s brain to manipulate her into killing Donald. She can’t be held responsible for the resulting murder. Yet for Caruso we are all Elizabeths. We are all manipulated by forces beyond our control.

Nonsense, retorts Daniel Dennett. Controlling human beings is very difficult, except in philosophers’ thought experiments. If it were routinely possible to control peoples’ choices, we would have no free will: “But, thank goodness,” Dennett writes, “we aren’t controlled by such agents, and we aren’t controlled by ‘our past’ either, whether it was benign or malign.” We’re not Elizabeths, but more like Ricky Skaggs, who once sang “I can’t control the wind, but I can adjust the sails.”

Minority Report
Are you free to choose your actions?
Minority Report poster © 20th Century Fox 2002

Dennett, the compatibilist, tells a story of how we become morally responsible. We were born into bodies and societies we didn’t choose, and get – if you’ll excuse the ugly term he uses – enculturated. For Dennett, societies are like clubs that have rules, and as we grow up from morally incompetent infants to autonomous adulthood, our task is to join what he calls ‘the Moral Agents Club’ – a social construction that holds society together and justifies the blame game. That game is justified, he thinks, because it “presupposes that normal people are capable of taking responsibility for controlling themselves and preventing others from turning them into puppets – which is the only variety of free will worth wanting.” Those who aren’t morally normal or who are in extremis – bears, lunatics, babies, Elizabeths controlled by evil neuroscientists – aren’t punished, and those who are serve jail time chiefly because they broke the Moral Agents Club rules and need to be seen to be punished to deter others. Dennett agrees with Caruso that retributive justice is no justice at all, but doesn’t accept that that means we cannot punish, praise, or blame. We haven’t yet got the technology of Minority Report, so we can’t bump off people just because they have the dispositions to commit future crimes. Instead, social norms, laws, and rules, if they are any good to us, help deter crimes. At least, they should. Dennett heartily agrees with Caruso that current punishment, particularily in the US, is calamitously inept at reducing the future incidence of crimes. Rather, the prison system is a machine for training criminals.

Caruso, by contrast, argues that our existing institutions are beyond reform because they are too mired in notions of desert and retribution, He proposes an alternative which he calls ‘the Public Health Quarantine Model’. This holds that just as carriers of dangerous diseases are quarantined even though they’re not necessarily responsible for getting infected, a dangerous criminal, though not responsible for his crimes, can be justifiably detained to prevent further crimes.

Hopeless, snaps back Dennett. What’s the point of ‘quarantining’ a tax evader or embezzler? Better jail them for flouting the rules of the Moral Agents Club.

It’s a scintillating exchange – just the kind of nuanced back and forth that would give anyone innocent of philosophers an idea of what they get up to in their ivory towers. By the end of the book, neither has convinced the other they’re wrong. “Your position, Dan, is like wrestling an eel,” writes Caruso: “Every time I have a grip on it, or think I do, it slips out of my hands.” Dennett, perhaps cross at being compared to an eel, concludes sniffily: “I’m disappointed that I haven’t been able to explain to you my rather straightforward and detailed proposal.” But this is to be expected. If philosophers agreed, we wouldn’t need so many. What is unexpected is that Caruso and Dennett have set up a website giving readers a chance to vote on who is more convincing: debatingfreewill.com. “I will be very interested to learn ‘who wins’ from the readers,” tweeted Dennett. But that may well prove nothing. After all, if Einstein was right, we don’t freely choose anything, least of all how we vote.

© Stuart Jeffries 2021

Stuart Jeffries is is a freelance journalist writing mostly for The Guardian and The Spectator. His books include Grand Hotel Abyss: The Lives of the Frankfurt School (2016) and Everything, all the Time, Everywhere: How we became Postmodern, which will be published by Verso in October.

Just Deserts: Debating Free Will, Daniel C. Dennett and Gregg D. Caruso, Polity, 2021, £12.99 pb, 200 pages, ISBN: 150954576X

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