Gregg Caruso on free will, the justice system, prisons, the meaning of life, and the good life

September 1, 2020 • 12:45 pm

The New Philosopher has a long interview, “On Purpose,” with Zan Boag speaking to the philosopher Gregg D. Caruso, Professor of Philosophy at SUNY Corning, Honorary Professor of Philosophy at Macquarie University, and Co-Director of the Justice Without Retribution Network (JWRN) at the University of Aberdeen School of Law.

Although I’ve never met Caruso, I consider him a philosophical confrère, as he’s a hard determinist who has no truck with notions of contracausal free will (classical you-could-have-done otherwise free will that’s the basis of Abrahamic religion). Not only that, but he thinks, as do I, that the rejection of conventional free will should absolve us of moral responsibility and therefore lead to big changes in the justice system.

He’s thought a lot harder about this than I have, and has written about the issue in several books, which you can see here. He’s debated free will with Dan Dennett, a compatibilist who thinks that you can have both determinism and free will; and Gregg tells me that he has a book coming out next January called: Just Deserts: Debating Free Willin which he and Dennett “debate our respective views on free will, moral responsibility, and punishment.” I’m looking forward to that one! He’s got yet another one coming out about the implications of “no free will” for criminal justice: Rejecting Retributivism: Free Will, Punishment, and Criminal Justice. 

Definition of free will: Caruso has a unique way of defining free will, as he says many philosophers “define free will in such a way that it directly follows that we either have it or we don’t.” Instead, he limns the concept by whether or not it gives us moral responsibility, which is, to most people, the essential concomitant of free will. And so he comes up with this:

I’ve long argued that the variety of free will that is of central philosophical and practical importance is the sort required for moral responsibility in a particular but pervasive sense. This sense of moral responsibility is typically set apart by the notion of basic desert and is defined in terms of the control in action needed for an agent to be truly deserving of blame and praise, punishment and reward. Understood this way, free will is a kind of power or ability an agent must possess in order to justify certain kinds of basically deserved judgments, attitudes, or treatments – such as resentment, indignation, moral anger, and retributive punishment – in response to decisions or actions that the agent performed or failed to perform. These reactions would be justified on purely backward-looking grounds, that is what makes them basic, and would not appeal to consequentialist or forward-looking considerations, such as future protection, future reconciliation, or future moral formation.

I contend that there are several distinct advantages to defining free will in this way. First, it provides a neutral definition that virtually all parties can agree to. Unlike some other definitions, it does not beg the question or exclude from the outset various conceptions of free will that are available for disputing parties to adopt. Second, by defining free will in terms of basic desert moral responsibility, this definition captures the practical importance of the debate. Third, this definition fits with our everyday understanding of these conceptions. There is, for instance, growing evidence that ordinary people not only view free will and moral responsibility as intimately tied together, but that it is precisely the desire to blame, punish, and uphold moral responsibility that motivates belief in free will. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, rejecting this understanding of free will makes it difficult to understand the nature of the substantive disputes that are driving the free will debate.

This of course winds up with a view of free will as will that is free from determinism: contracausal free will, which, despite Dan Dennett’s compatibilism, is really the kind of free will that most people “want.” Because Caruso, like me, sees no way that we can have the kind of agency that gives us true moral responsibility, he rejects the idea of moral responsibility.

As an aside, Caruso claims that, in his book with Dennett, Dan reveals himself as someone who also rejects moral responsibility. Now since I once argued with Dan about that very point for three hours in a car, with Dan asserting that we do have moral responsibility, with me disputing it, I’ll be curious how Greg can discern this:

As to how my view compares to Dan Dennett’s, I’ll just add one final point. While Dennett’s compatibilism appears to be fundamentally at odds with my free will scepticism, when you actually drill down into what Dan means by free will, you’ll find that he too rejects what I’m calling basic desert moral responsibility. For that reason, I think he’s more of a free will sceptic than he admits – although he would resist that characterisation.

Crime and punishment.  Caruso is even more of a penal reformer than I. While we agree that punishment can and should be levied even without moral responsibility, I see the punishment as basically consequentialist, and useful for not only reforming bad guys and keeping them away from others until they’ve reformed, I also think punishment is necessary as a deterrent.(We both reject retributive punishment out of hand, as it’s based on punishing someone because he made the wrong choice.) Caruso, though he doesn’t discuss deterrence in this interview, rejects it because he thinks it has philosophical and moral problems.  However, I’m not sure what you do to deter people from, say, cheating on their income taxes or running red lights, and I’ll be curious to see how Gregg deals with this in his new book on retribution. You can’t just let people drive their cars without regulation and without the threat of some punishment!

At any rate, Caruso has what he calls a “public health” view of punishment, which seems quite progressive—though I still worry about the absence of a deterrent aim:

. . . . If we reject retributivism, either because we come to doubt or deny the existence of free will or for other reasons, we need an ethically defensible and practically workable alternative. In Rejecting Retributivism: Free Will, Punishment, and Criminal Justice, I develop and defend what I believe is the most promising, humane, and justified alternative: the public health-quarantine model. The core idea of the model is that the right to harm in self-defence and defence of others justifies incapacitating the criminally dangerous with the minimum harm required for adequate protection. Yet the model does not justify the sort of criminal punishment whose legitimacy is most dubious, such as death or confinement in the most common kinds of prisons in our society. In fact, the model is completely non-punitive and requires special attention to the wellbeing and dignity of criminals that would change much of current policy. Perhaps most importantly, the model also develops a public health approach that prioritises prevention and social justice and aims at identifying and taking action on the social determinants of health and criminal behaviour.

. . . Analogously, on this model the use of incapacitation should be limited to only those cases where offenders are a serious threat to public safety and no less restrictive measures were available. In fact, for certain minor crimes perhaps only some degree of monitoring could be defended. Secondly, the incapacitation account that results from this analogy demands a degree of concern for the rehabilitation and wellbeing of the criminal that would alter much of current practice. Just as fairness recommends that we seek to cure the diseased we quarantine, so fairness would counsel that we attempt to rehabilitate the criminals we detain. Rehabilitation and reintegration would therefore replace punishment as the focus of the criminal justice system. Lastly, if a criminal cannot be rehabilitated and our safety requires his indefinite confinement, this account provides no justification for making his life more miserable than would be required to guard against the danger he poses.

This model would have the effect of eliminating the grossly inhumane types of punishment imposed by countries like the U.S. and India, replacing it with one along the lines of Norway, which has a much lower rate of incarceration as well as a much lower rate of recidivism than the U.S. (see my earlier post on this). The other day I watched this video about the country’s most secure prison, the ADX Supermax prison in Florence, Colorado where, as the show below notes, “America sends the prisoners it wants to punish the most”. I was absolutely horrified at the treatment of the prisoners, who are in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day and have one hour of solitary exercise. Note that the “punishment” goes to prisoners who may not be especially dangerous to guards or other prisoners, but they are being punished retributively.

And here’s a Supermax cell. Note the barred door behind the main door. It’s 7 feet wide and 12 feet long.

There’s a lot more, but I’ll add just that Caruso lards his discussion with a lot of social justice talk, but not of the woke kind: he says that hand-in-hand with punishment reform must go an attempt to prevent crime by eliminating “racism, sexism, poverty, and systematic disadvantage as serious threats to public safety.” This of course is useful and necessary, but it won’t of course eliminate crime completely.

I strongly agree with Caruso that penal reform is a huge priority for the U.S., and that taking the no-free-will “public health” approach—which basically sees criminals as individuals with an infectious disease that needs to be cured humanely—is essential in spurring such reform. But I’ve said that many times before.

The meaning of life and the good life. Caruso goes on to speak about the meaning of life, and what he considers a good life (he has a fascinating digression on one of his hobbies that gives his life meaning), and once again we agree on this:

[Interviewer] In philosophy, and for many people throughout history, a common quest has been the search for the meaning of life, or perhaps just for meaning in life. Is there a meaning of life? And how can one find meaning in life – a purpose to our lives?

[Caruso]: The search for the meaning of life is a fool’s errand. There is no singular, universal, all-encompassing meaning to it all. There is, however, meaning in life. We create meaning through our roles as players in the game of life.


If you have a spare hour or so, have a read. Even if you reject Caruso’s hard determinism, there’s a lot to think about in the interview.

h/t: Tom

86 thoughts on “Gregg Caruso on free will, the justice system, prisons, the meaning of life, and the good life

  1. On the subject of Free Will I’m happy to let Caruso make my arguments. I find no difference in our views on the subject and he is far more articulate than I as is our esteemed host.

    I do however disagree with Caruso on the meaning of life. I believe there is indeed A universal meaning of life for all humans which only excludes anomalous psychopaths.

    Everything we do is a quest for tribe status which itself is a quest to mate and mate well. Elevated tribe status facilitates mating well. And so we are all on a quest for the feeling we get from elevating our tribe status, and the most successful way to do that is to use your particular individual talents to better the lives of your tribe mates.

    So our individual talents will dictate how we achieve the meaning of life, but the meaning of life is the same for me as it is for anyone else even though we use different talents to achieve it.

    No mere hobby will suffice unless your hobby also happens to be the thing that elevates your tribe status the most.

    My absolute favourite thing to do is surfing, but it helps no one else and so it does not bring me that “meaning of life” feeling, just enjoyment. I am still left wanting a deeper meaning that can only be gained by the status elevation I get from applying my talents to helping my tribe. I also need these efforts to be noticed and appreciated by my tribe.

    That is THE universal meaning of life for everyone who is not a psychopath. Mate well via elevated tribe status via application of personal talent towards tribal benefit that is noticed and appreciated. This is universal except for anomalous psychopaths.

    I am always looking for critiques of this so let me have it!

    1. Hi Tim Reichert,

      I see what you’re getting at, but I don’t agree. You seem to reduce the meaning of life to a popularity contest. No doubt, striving to be popular with members of your “tribe” is an important part of life for many if not most, and contributes to one’s reproductive success.

      But what if you see many/most of your fellow “tribe” members doing something that you consider to be evil? By your standards, a German who was executed for hiding Jews in his attic during World War II had a meaningless life, because he betrayed the values of his tribe. Sometimes the right thing to do is also the unpopular thing to do. Is such action therefore meaningless? One reason we’ve had so much moral progress, as described by Steven Pinker, is that at various times, people expressed deeply unpopular if not heretical opinions along the lines of, “Hey everyone, I think [XYZ thing we’re all doing] is morally wrong” (where XYZ = making human sacrifices, slavery, honor killings, torturing criminal suspects, etc.)

    2. I think that life is pointless without other people and that we should ultimately live for them. But not necessarily to acquire the highest possible rank among them.

    3. I think you are projecting your own perspective onto others.
      I am surely not alone in having been taught to be useful above all, and to help others whenever possible.

      To me, status is a secondary result of keeping myself out of positions where unpleasant people have authority over me. I think my ancestors must have felt the same way, although their solution was to just keep moving further west and into less populated areas.

      I bet you enjoy the perfect wave even if nobody else is there to see you ride it.

  2. > […] I develop and defend what I believe is the most promising, humane, and justified alternative: the public health-quarantine model. […]

    That view is airily dismissive of human nature. By placing all the responsibility for crime on society, it also tends to be unfalsifiable: whenever crime rises, an insufficiently caring system must be rid of racism and various other forms of oppression before we could even consider ideas like longer sentencing and more proactive policing, which consequently should never happen. Criminals are treated like noble savages who could not possibly have inherently evil motives. While talking about them as though they suffer from an infectious disease offers hope for reformers, the crushing reality is that we do not have a cure for their mental traits such as impulsivity and the dark triad.

    Criminal justice systems have differed widely across societies, and I would not presume that any particular one is the best. A very punitive system can be effective, as the example of Singapore shows. Another leader in crime reduction is Japan, with a murder rate that steadily fell since WW2. I suspect they are doing something right, but have no hope that Western countries are humble enough to learn from them.

      1. No, it isn’t (unless you make a lot of assumptions).

        I do not believe that Caruso’s views on determinism are necessary to agree with his ideas on criminal justice. The mental health approach that focuses on alleged root causes of crime is nothing new.

        Based on determinism, you could also support a draconian system that only leaves execution or exile to resolve serious crimes, in the full knowledge that criminals could not have acted differently.

        1. In what sense could determinism — which posits that an offender has no free will, thus, could not have acted otherwise, and, therefore, bears no moral culpability for his of her crime — be considered consistent with a draconian system that authorizes execution or exile as the only punishments for serious crime?

          1. That draconian system prevents the punished criminal from committing any further crimes. You could argue that the absence of moral culpability should increase risk aversion.

            Most people do not think that animals have free will, but would want a lion in their neighborhood permanently exiled (probably in a zoo) or killed.

            1. Yours is an argument I’ve never heard put forward by any actual determinist, anywhere. So let me return to my initial question and put it to you even more unambiguously: Do you accept determinism, or do you believe in contra-causal free will?

              1. I do not believe in free will and lean towards biological determinism.

                Does anyone agree with me? I could only think of Gregory Cochran, to be honest. But the percentage of Westerners who would consider a draconian system is small, and probably especially so among the higher-IQ folks who bother to read arguments against free will. I don’t think I would have compared criminals and animals without some unusual (and heritable) personality traits.

  3. Prison reform is a fine goal and we could use a lot of it. However it does not begin to solve the inequality of our legal system in this country one bit. The people who go to jail and or prison for their crimes depends mostly on your status in the society and the money in your pocket. Many will make it through their entire life tricking the system to their satisfaction. There is no better example of this than our current president.

    1. Some, if not most, of the inequality in the legal system stems from cohesive inequality in society.

      In sciences, like physics, the physics community is blamed for not having more minorities or females. There is some bias, but mostly it is not the physics community as it is the rest of society making opportunities unequal. In the end, it looks as if science is unequal but it is largely not because science is unequal but society. And I think that is true of the legal system. Not so much with the police force. There are deep problems in policing, but they are always important for society.

      1. You may be trying to compare things that just do not connect. Inequality in society only spills over into various other areas such as science or the legal system. Reform of the prison system is one part but the inequality built into the legal system is total and for the benefit of the rich. The rich are protect from much of the legal system that the rest of society must adhere to. That is why I mention one for example, Trump. His entire life is filled with illegal action but he has never done a day in jail. The law and specifically the mass of lawyers allows one to avoid the system. Only the rich get this pass. He is proof that being rich and being president allows you to get away with anything. It makes a joke of democracy.

        1. I agree, they are not a direct connect.

          But do you think wealth inequality is necessarily racist? I know of people who want to remain wealthy and approve of economic inequality but they are not driven by racism. They just want to be wealthy at the expense of others not having equal opportunity.

    2. Lots of people, maybe most people, manage to stay out of the prison system by just not committing a bunch of crimes.

      Of course it is maddening when fabulously rich people get away with doing things that, if you or I did them, we would get hard time.
      But for the vast majority of people, not becoming a registered sex offender is simply a matter of not raping anyone.

      I know that nothing is really that simple, but just as the super rich are an exception, so is the prisoner in the supermax who is there like Jean Valjean, having stole a loaf of bread.

    3. The rich would do even better without our criminal justice system. They can hire private security and self-isolate in gated communities. The poor with low SES, on the other hand, would be defenseless.

      I find it hard to think of criminals as oppressed when they are able to terrorize their environments. Their social status is high, as is their self-esteem. They have more sexual partners and children than non-criminals (after controlling for income and class) and can even become rich without working.

      1. “The rich would do even better without our criminal justice system.”

        I assume that you presume everybody knows that “our” means “the USian”. A bit of provincialism there, but so be it, despite this being a rather international non-blog.

        Anyway, you are clearly confused. No one says to remove the justice system. They merely ask for it to be improved. One might even say, to be civilized. The hope and belief is that this would reduce the incidence of criminality in your country. There seems, for the less provincial of us, to be some evidence from the rest of the world that this would happen.

        Maybe not without a reduction in racism as well. But without that, the removal of vengeance/retribution from sentencing is unlikely to happen anyway.

  4. I often think that much of the debate about free will and punishment will end when neuroscientists learn how to observe the mental processes that occur in the brain below the level of conscious awareness. The lack of awareness of the origins of our motivations, desires, and decisions seems to me the most convincing evidence that we lack moral culpability for our actions. When we can show how deep that lack of awareness is, I hope many more people will give up their punitive attachment to free will and embrace the public health approach to crime and punishment.

  5. I’ve often wondered if there is another aspect to retribution which doesn’t normally get included in the discussion about Free Will.

    The point of retribution may be to satisfy the feelings of victims (and society in general) enough so that they are not tempted to apply their own personal retribution later. Otherwise vendettas can take hold and corrode society.

    The thought of retribution may be of little worth as a deterrent to a socially inadequate criminal – there is some evidence (if only I can find the link) that ordinary criminals do not consider the risks of being caught and punished at all. But ordinary people do.

    1. I agree with you: retribution is much more about satisfying the innate desire for revenge of both the victims and the general public, than about the utilitarian principle of deterrence.

      I would add that whenever the general public develops the idea that “justice is not being done”, the response is likely to be in terms of demands for more authoritarian “law and order” regime changes, ending up with results that are just the opposite of what Caruso is trying to achieve.

      1. Yes I agree. It is interesting to see how non retributive Justice affects society as a whole over many generations. Someone here once asked if we are considering human behaviour,menu not consider the need for revenge of a victim’s family or of society? How does that play out ?

    2. “The point of retribution …… Otherwise vendettas can take hold and corrode society.”

      Do you know of any real evidence of that? I doubt that Norwegians are more likely to privately try for revenge than USians are, having lived a small amount of my life in both countries. I’m sure there must have been a few attempts to get at Mr. Breivik, but doubt it would be more than in a similar situation in US.

      If no convincing evidence, I’m strongly thinking that this excuse for retribution in a justice system is false. In fact, the opposite: that excuse quite likely encourages private retribution it seems to me, but with no real evidence I admit.

        1. You do understand the difference between a court’s verdict, which we were not talking about, and a court’s sentencing, which we were??

          Despite the clear non-example of what I asked for, that could actually indicate some desire for revenge at times by Norwegians. Big surprise. I did not claim the opposite. I did suggest strongly that there was no greater desire for revenge in that society, in fact quite possibly less desire, compared to the US, with its (most extreme among ‘western countries’) retribution in sentencing.

          In addition, if you believe claims made by defence attorneys all the time, you would clearly be a poor choice to be a member of a jury.

          1. The point is that, even in the very progressive Norway, the perception of missing retribution can elicit a desire of vendetta, which is neither more nor less than what Harper stated before

            1. Even had the verdict been guilty rather than not guilty, in Norway as opposed to US they would not have had their retribution anyway via sentencing. So it is pathetic at best as an example of the evidence you seek.

              Find something better if you can.

              1. What is really pathetic is the straw man you built. Harper and I were discussing the absence of retribution and its effects. You instead started arguing about various types of retribution: completely different discussion.

                The example I gave relates to the original discussion about missing retribution, not to your straw man. The fact that the event in my example would receive a different retribution in US vs Norway is completely irrelevant to the original discussion.

                Given the fact that, in addition to building irrelevant straw men, you are also rude, our conversation ends here as far as I am concerned.

              2. “The point of retribution …… Otherwise vendettas can take hold and corrode society.”

                Asking for evidence of this, which obviously would amount to evidence from countries where vengeance or retribution has been largely eliminated in criminal sentencing, is all I had requested. Norway seems to be an example such a country. No such evidence, from sociologists for example, has appeared as far as I can see, with respect to Norway or any other country.

                Given that eliminating it is regarded by the host here and others, including me, to be desirable for the welfare of other countries, it seems not unreasonable to ask for evidence for any claim that it is actually undesirable.

                If disagreeing with someone is considered rude by you (not the least bit of evidence yet for that rudeness either), so be it. Perhaps here is not the most desirable kind of non-blog for you to offer opinions, since they might be disagreed with.

              3. “If disagreeing with someone is considered rude by you (not the least bit of evidence yet for that rudeness either), so be it. Perhaps here is not the most desirable kind of non-blog for you to offer opinions, since they might be disagreed with.”

                Just curious, do you see any difference between saying “I disagree” and saying “Your argument is pathetic” (or, “You are pathetic”)?

            2. “..Just curious, do you see any difference between saying “I disagree” and saying “Your argument is pathetic” (or, “You are pathetic”)?..”

              I assume this refers to wording by me:

              “I disagree” and ““Your argument is pathetic”:

              Neither was said by me. However I did say “it is pathetic at best as an example of the evidence..”. And that, for those whose rationality in reading something is not overcome by their over-sensitivity, is simply not insensitive. It had been explained quite clearly why it was nothing like evidence for what I had asked for. The annoying mischaracterizing of my question initially had persisted. I prefer to regard those mischaracterizations as non-careful writing, not as dishonesty nor as rudeness towards me.
              Perhaps I’m under-sensitive?

              “Your argument is pathetic” and “You are pathetic”:

              Not only did I not say either, but as far as the second, the ad hominem, goes, you can inspect a very large number disagreeing-type entries here by me, and you will not find a single ad hominem against anyone contributing here. I’m sure you know the difference between ‘disagreeing’ and ‘disagreeable’.

              You may see some ad hominems by me referring Mass Murder donald. They are needed. Some milk-toast criticisms and discussions of his policies here are themselves a bit pathetic when reasons for not voting for him come up, when you think of the harmful evil the man has perpetrated against his fellow USians (e.g. a good portion of ¼ million deaths) as well as against the entirety of humanity (e.g. climate change). I am also in the habit of cursing and swearing verbally. But it is at things which are not people, never at people, except at myself when landing a hammer on my finger or similar. My wife of 55 years can testify to that, but knows that change is beyond possibilities!

      1. Two Wikipedia entries for you “Feud” and “Retributive justice”.

        I offer the Wikipedia entries not as a slam-dunk rebuttal but as places setting out the concepts and linking in the references to other sources – which you could probably spend several hours following up!

  6. It strikes me that the purpose of retributive punishment is not to “punish” an offender for mis-exercising their free will. The purpose of retributive punishment is to define the boundaries of the community.

    In Portland the other night, a gent got shot. This was a normative statement, this is not collectively who we are as a group. Sure he exercised his free will by wearing blue lives matter shorts or something, but he got shot because he was an enemy of the group, and his execution reinforced group identity and cohesion. Granted that this was not a lawful execution, but the role of retributive punishment in a legal system is precisely to create this kind of collective identity. [“No true Scotsman rapes children, so you have to die.”]

    Incarceration is itself a form of exile, a kind of social sanction. You can dress it up in rehabilitation, but it is always confession, exile, penance, and re-admission into the community.

    The reality of the world is pretty much all groups practice retributive punishment, even groups that endorse deterministic metaphysics (like ancient pagan with their astrologers), and the utility of retributive punishment has zero to do with Christian metaphysics.

    One of the struggles I see in philosophical determinism is that concepts like reasonable doubt and individual rights and procedural due process and the like are all cultural byproducts of a commitment to individualism. One of the challenges I see for deterministic philosophies is dealing with differentiation (after all, Spinoza, the father of modern determinism, had everything just part of the cosmic goo: Nature/God). Obviously, no differentiation, no real individuality, no individual rights, no humanism (or so it seems).

    I don’t want to defend Christian metaphysics in some general sense, but I do think the intense philosophical exploration of personhood in Christianity, combine with some elements of Protestantism around freedom of conscience, cast their shadow on the Anglo-Saxon legal tradition in a positive way, and freethinkers as a movement probably owe some heritage to these cultural currents.

    To get back on point, once you take out individuality, I think you end up with something a lot more like the Chinese system or the old Soviet system, or you-know-who, than you do with Norway, that is to say, you are creating a metaphysics of totalitarianism.

    Further, if you’ve had children, you probably noticed they each came out with their distinct personalities and inclinations, so its a little different from billiard balls.
    Haecceity, going back to Duns Scotus, the quality of thisness does not on its face appear to be addressed by universal laws, because what makes this this can never be universal (the universal would determine what it is as a general type), moreover, “this” cannot simply be a function of space and time coordinates, or you end up with widgets.

    To sum: it is unclear how you get differentiation and identity in a deterministic, Spinozian universe, and without that, it is hard to see how you avoid a social organization along the lines of an abusive undifferentiated ego mass.

    1. The above comment is probably too “soul”ey in a sense that it focuses on the human person. You get this problem on the level of trying to define physical causes as well. The match is struck, and fire is the effect, but in fact, you have a continuous physical system undergoing a chemical reaction due to the introduction of heat from friction. Where does the cause end and the effect end? Or are there no causes, and does saying that help in any way?

      While I think science can explain how a match can be ignited to create a fire, I don’t see how science can divide the world into causes and effects or substances and accidents, or whatever.

      1. In my more philosophical moments I wonder if ’cause and effect’ is one more language game we play, rather like the teleology language that creeps into even discussions about evolutionary processes.

        Indeed, if naturalism is true, determinism is true, and there is no Free Will. There is only State of the Universe 1 followed by State of the Universe 2 in accordance with the regularities (Laws) we may infer. Our inference ‘creates’ the language of Cause and Effect which we project on regularities we observe.

        Now it may be that ‘Cause and Effect’, like ‘Moral Responsibilities’, is a useful fiction which simplifies a complex natural world enough for us to live in it.

        1. And I would contend that the conceptualization of our experience is integral to our experience being intelligible and predictable, and that conceptualization is independent from science by virtue of the fact that it is arbitrary.

          Before I get the accusation of being a post-modernist, I would point out that Plato, Kant, Hegel, Phenomenology, Existentialism, etc. would agree on the first point.

          The second point is simply observation. Is an amphibious plane a plane or a boat for tax purposes? A tax court could rule either way.

          Where does our freedom lie? In the capacity to re-conceptualize our experience. Legal fictions like a corporation may be fictions, but the existence of corporations has transformed the world, in terms of allowing for large, private, consolidation of capital permitting large-scale private capital-intensive projects. It may be a fiction, but its invention has had real world consequences. Further, I don’t think the laws of physics would allow us to predict the invention of the corporation. The law of corporations could obviously never have gotten started, or gone in a totally different direction.

          1. Is a fetus a person?

            Is that determination the province of the arbitrary decision of a set of judges or legislators, or is it a question for determination by scientists? Has the major professional organization of biologists undertaken to scientifically demonstrate that a fetus is or is not a person? Why not? Is it simply political cowardice, or is it that its a legal question, not a scientific one.

            Say personhood is a fiction. Does it matter whether a fetus is determined to be a person or not? Why if we both agree it is just a fiction?

    2. Determinism is either correct or it isn’t. That one finds the implications of determinism distasteful — and I do not agree with your analysis of the implications that ineluctably flow from determinism, but that is different discussion — has no bearing at all on determinism’s truth or falsity. It is merely a fallacious argumentum ad consequentiam.

      Also, the determinism of the “ancient pagan[s and] their astrologers” (if, indeed, “determinism” it be) is not in any sense the same “determinism” discussed here by our host.

      1. Yes and no. There is a correlation between philosophical systems and political systems, and perhaps not surprisingly, philosophy is an elite activity engaged in by elites which tends to legitimate a political status quo. [If not, the philosophers career ends like Socrates or Marx.]

        But I reject determinism in favor of indeterminism. Newtonian physics is not actually deterministic, Quantum physics is not deterministic. That is to say that the laws of physics are necessary but not sufficient to dictate a particular state of affairs. For example, a game of chess obeys laws of physics, and in addition to the laws of physics, the game creates rules which govern how pieces must move. However, while how a game of chess unfolds is dictated in part by the movement limitations of the pieces, obviously simply knowing how the pieces can move does not make you Kasparov. You need something more than physics, and something more than the mere “physics” of chess. But if physical laws determined movement (rather than set constraints on movement), how could you further restrict the movement of chess pieces by creating movement rules?

        Further, the possible worlds metaphysics makes my point for me, in the sense that the only way one can postulate that this is a deterministic universe is by imagining the existence of an infinite number of other deterministic universes. You can’t, based on the initial conditions and the laws of physics, predict exactly how this universe unfolds. You observe how it unfolds and then post hoc imagine a multiplicity of other possible worlds where every other possibility transpired (nor do you have any predictive theory why this universe went South and the other universes went North).

        This is not a refutation of possible worlds (I suppose they are possible), but the existence of the metaphysics does refute classical reductionist determinism of say LaPlace. It is simply another world view.

        As far as naturalism = determinism, that depends on what you mean by naturalism and what you mean by determinism. But I don’t see how it follows that saying that the universe is open and indeterminant necessitates the existence of YHWH or or even an uncaused cause or any of that business. In fact, determinism as postulated by naturalists is not all that different from Calvinism, although they would define the Elect differently when they take Geneva. Instead of your possible worlds, you have YHWH create the world and put everything on railroad tracks.

    3. I think we get differentiation and individuality and identity from our biology as organisms. Some combination of individual genetic differences plus physiological separation (monozygotic twins) plus neurological separation (conjoined siblings) plus temporal distinctness (parent-offspring clones) pretty much gets us there, although I’m sure I’ve left out some other exception.

      Those individuals are still embedded in this deterministic universe with each other, but they are individuals.

      Or maybe I don’t understand what you mean by differentiation and identity.

      1. So an organism is exposed to COVID-19. The immune system has never encountered COVID-19. How does it “decide” what to do? How does it “recognize” COVID-19 as not being part of the organism or not a threat? How do you reduce a word in scare quotes to a deterministic natural process (maybe you can but its not obvious). You get back to the intentionality problem and teleology.

        You are better of starting from Heidegger, like Hubert Dreyfus in his critique of the hard AI paradigm. [I don’t think the success of naturalism depends upon the persuasiveness of deterministic metaphysics, it has everything to do with the utility of technology and the superiority of naturalistic explanations of events yielding more reliable results, even if I enjoy philosophy.]

  7. I’m still with Dennett. His sports analogy is a good one. The batter knows that if he/she swings at the ball three times without hitting it, there is a consequence. It is an important aspect of the game and it can’t be eliminated without changing the game entirely. Similarly for crime and punishment.

    Determinism has nothing to do with it, whether true or false. As healthy adults uncoerced by others, we exercise free will and judgement. The results of one’s actions are controlled by the laws of physics and the state of the universe, but they are rules of the game along with those imposed by human culture (eg, the rules of baseball).

    1. You’re simply doing what Caruso says: defining free will in a way that allows us to have it. The baseball analogy, in my view, is lame: what does it do to counter the view that you could have chosen otherwise, which is the real basis for much of our judicial system. Yes, we have laws, but if determinism be true, then people could not have chosen otherwise

      You do realize that most people think that we live in a world with libertarian free will, and, if we didn’t, people would lack moral responsibility. Surveys in four countries say that. That already shows that there’s an intuitive connection between “being able to do otherwise” and “being morally responsible”.

      I’ve read your comment three times and I still can’t figure out what it has to do with the issue of moral responsibilty.

      1. You’re simply doing what Caruso says: defining free will in a way that allows us to have it.

        That isn’t my motivation. I truly want to describe things as they are, not how I would prefer them to be. I do agree to making a choice as to the definition of free will but I don’t stop there.

        That already shows that there’s an intuitive connection between “being able to do otherwise” and “being morally responsible”.

        I do think there’s a connection between being able to do otherwise and being morally responsible. Both are human-level concepts that have nothing to do with determinism.

        I don’t want to go into long-winded explanations of my position here as I know you don’t want them and I have stated them elsewhere.

        Here’s the main difference between my position and yours. I believe that the concepts that matter to a discussion of free will and moral responsibility exist totally at the human cultural level but you want to drag in physics. Human level concepts do depend on the fundamental rules of physics because everything does but it isn’t helpful to mix the two.

        Asking people that chose coffee whether they could have chosen tea is a simple question with a simple answer. Determinism has nothing to do with it. They answer “yes” meaning that if they’d wanted to, and there was no one holding a gun to their head, they could have chosen tea. They are not thinking of the physics experiment. If you throw determinism into the question, it becomes an abstract problem.

        It is difficult to imagine replaying the coffee/tea decision event holding everything (time, space, distribution of matter and energy) constant and I don’t believe those polled are considering the question that way. If you explain it to them, and they understand it, they’ll probably answer “no”. Even then, I suspect most will not be able to wrap their head around it sufficiently. How can one even run the experiment where a decision can be made twice, holding the universe constant in every respect? In short, it can’t unless you get into multiple universes.

        1. To me, the replaying scenario is just a thought experiment to illustrate that the same antecedent conditions will result in the same outcome. But I agree that people don’t mean that when they say “I could have done otherwise.” They just mean there was an otherwise available to them if they had wanted it.

      2. Hegel dealt with free will in his phenomenology in terms of second order desire, the desire of desire. On the first order, one might desire a mate, which would correspond to animal desire in his philosophy. On the second order, one might desire a mate that will be desired by others, which would make you human. The desire here is social. In terms of the will, the will (and the contest of wills) would be caused by individuals desiring the same thing (the mate desired by the others). The character of the will is the negation of the given (winning the mate is the negation of the state of not having the mate desired by others).

        In terms of conflict, the one who pursues their desire of desire even at the expense of their extinction either dies or overcomes others. The one who chooses defeat and life is the slave, the one who is not free. Now its much more complicated than that in Hegel, but freedom of the will cannot be understood outside the context of slavery of the will. In many parts of the world, there is no slavery, but you have lots of coercion and manipulation, as well as addictions and compulsions.

        I think the philosophical discussions around free will miss the point entirely. The libertarian individual with his or her free will could exist alone in the universe, as could the deterministic hand puppet, yet neither could experience the desire-of-desire and be human. However, the will, and its freedom or slavery, can only exist in a social system, and only in a system where some are free and some are slaves, and in a relative way. Whether that system is all reducible to physics or not is separate question.

        I think it would be very valuable to scrap the discussion in the analytical tradition in favor of a Hegelian approach to the question, or at very least, an ordinary language approach.

        1. Of course, I missed the point:

          Freedom in Hegel is the ability to imagine and desire what you don’t have, that is, the ability to reject the given, and even to choose death, the ultimate negation of the given, over life in the face of denial of your desire. That freedom exists whatever metaphysical superstructure we elide upon.

  8. The term I have the most trouble with is “moral responsibility.” I am willing to entertain the idea that determinism precludes morality and therefore moral responsibility. If we have no meaningful choices, what is the point of assigning a moral weight to any action? It seems to me the idea of morality requires that people can meaningfully choose between possible actions, even if the process of choosing is compatible with determinism. Without such meaningful choice, there can be no moral responsibility, just nihilism.

    But I believe most here are not nihilists. I expect most here have a moral code, perhaps not the same code for all because moral codes are a mixture of social convention and acquired personal beliefs, but we do consider consequences and the right and wrong of our actions. Given a moral code, it seems to me there must be moral responsibility.

    My moral code, and I suspect those of others, says that it is wrong to steal. Now suppose for some reason I do steal, even though I am fully aware it violates my moral code, and is thus “wrong”. The temptation was just too great. Then am I not morally responsible for stealing, even though my decision is made by some deterministic process that does not violate any law of nature? I am not a small child who does not know that stealing is wrong. If I have a moral code and I take an action knowing the consequences of that action and that it violates my moral code code, then am I not morally responsible?

    The short form of my question, does not morality imply moral responsibility?

    1. Not to me! I have no objection to saying there’s a “moral code” that you get punished for transgressing. But when you transgress it, while you’re responsible, you’re not MORALLY responsible. For, to the huge majority of people surveyed “moral responsibility” means, “you could have chosen otherwise.” Perhaps we should just change the name of “moral code” to “ethical code” or, better yet, “the law.”

      1. If one argues there is simply “the law” and no morality, then I see no inconsistency. But if one holds that there is morality even in a deterministic universe (and I personally believe that to be true), then there must be moral responsibility. Perhaps it is as simple as “the law” and morality being different and unrelated things. Moral responsibility is a personal thing, not a societal thing.

      2. The problem of attempting to reduce morality to law is that it elides the distinction between legitimacy and legality.

        Moral arguments and sentiments are the arbitrators of legitimacy, and legal arguments and decisions are the arbitrators of legality. Further, the law, while a positive, formal, phenomenon (laws are codified, decisions published), is subject to change depending upon the winds of morality and legitimacy.

        If I say you “should” do the honorable thing, it means that if you were a good person with a proper sense of honor, you would do what I ask. If I say the law requires you to do X, it means that if you don’t do X, you will receive some kind of sanction or punishment.

        But note, one can say that the law “should” do the honorable thing, which is basically saying that if judges or legislatures were good persons with a proper sense of honor they would do what I ask. And to the extent that moral arguments carry weight with judges, legislatures, or the electorate, the laws change. Trying to eliminate morality is like trying to eliminate legitimacy. The positivists tried and failed.

        1. Whatever political take one wants to take on the Nuremberg trials, the defense of the Nazi war criminals was that they were following positive law. It was clearly an instance of the triumph of legitimacy over legality.

          Now its one thing to say legality trumps legitimacy, but to say legitimacy doesn’t exist or shouldn’t exist (a moral appeal against permitting morality), that is a howler.

          Morality and legitimacy certainly does exist, and is important, even if they are not reducible to positive phenomena like codified laws or judicial decisions. So the arguments against morality are of the nature of moral arguments, that morality should not exist, or should not be important, and such arguments appear either confused or disingenuous.

          1. I suppose one way of unpacking moral claims is that in a completely just world, acting contrary to my moral norm would result in legal punishment, and if you were a good person, you would act as if the world were just, even in the absence of positive legal sanction. This amounts to a moral fiction as we obviously don’t live in such a world, and it opens up an interesting question about the ontological status of the byproducts of the creative imagination. Can you imagine the impossible?

    2. “Then am I not morally responsible for stealing, even though my decision is made by some deterministic process that does not violate any law of nature? I am not a small child who does not know that stealing is wrong.”

      I once heard an elementary school student offer as an excuse for his misbehavior, “I’m a child.” This struck me as disingenuous and calculating. I wondered how much older he’d have to get before he’d feel embarrassed by that excuse, perhaps during middle/high school graduating to “I’m a juvenile,” and then at the university level, “I’m coddled.”

      1. Yeah, children can be more calculating than we imagine. I meant that at some young age, a child is not yet able to distinguish right and wrong. That, of course, means that right and wrong are learned, and I believe that is correct. We have the capacity to learn right and wrong because our brains are advanced enough to “put ourselves in the shoes of others.” I doubt that any other animal has that capacity. Maybe chimps.

  9. Dennett has a problem with his compatibility. He starts with an assumption about a moral responsibility system and ends with it as a conclusion.

    “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).”

    1. I haven’t read the link yet, but I’m familiar with Dennett’s view. Maybe you are interpreting Dennett as giving a deductive argument when he is only giving a hypothesis-and-supporting-evidence one? Hypothesis: the moral responsibility system. Implications: society should do A, B, and C. Observations: we do A, B, and C, and find it good. Tentative conclusion: we generally agree with the moral responsibility system.

  10. It’s not at all obvious that Caruso’s definition of basic desert “provides a neutral definition that virtually all parties can agree to”.

    Caruso says that basic desert

    reactions would be justified on purely backward-looking grounds, that is what makes them basic, and would not appeal to consequentialist or forward-looking considerations, such as future protection, future reconciliation, or future moral formation.

    A lot depends on how we are supposed to read those lines. Is it saying that we cannot give an offender “what he deserves” while paying attention to future protection of society from this person? Then that’s ridiculous, and almost no one believes in “basic desert”; it becomes a straw man.

    OR – is it only saying that there’s a component to punishment that is purely backward looking – “Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time” to quote a famous philosopher? So for example, there could be a minimum sentence for each crime, but while the offender is detained we can still attempt to reform him and improve his – and our – future prospects? And moreover, when we set these minimum punishments in the law, a democratic people should consider what’s best for society? In that case, it’s a no brainer, and I’m all for “basic desert” – but I have no idea how incompatibilism is supposed to follow from this.

  11. Please forgive me for joining this discussion as I haven’t the philosophical (or scientific) knowledge needed to discuss on your levels. However, we seem to be assuming that all of us are born into and, live in, the same world with the same rules. We don’t. The “rules” for living in affluent vs. impoverished areas are different. This is so in many parts of the world. I’m sure you all are aware of such community disparities.

    However, most of us have not grown up tracking calendar dates for when the welfare checks are distributed and know how long they’ll last, or what has to be done to survive after it’s gone. Most of us aren’t familiar with the illegal activities (drug sales, for example) in our community by taking part in them to provide additional income for family after the welfare check is used up. There’s so much more to consider in terms of social expectations and interactions in such an environment than what most of us know.

    I don’t have answers to the inequities but they must be resolved. Until there is “equal opportunity”, we will continue to face illegal behaviors, inequitable incarcerations and punitive behaviors in prisons. Chronically mistreated people might find it hard to modify their behaviors to fit into the culture they haven’t ever had complete access to and acceptance in.

    1. Good points. My definition of morality tends to incorporate ideas about “acceptable behaviour in the social environment you find yourself”.

      I suspect inequalities are pervasive but the answer is far more complex than providing “equal opportunity”.

          1. That would change my availability set, but not my wants and what I do. I detest Earl Grey.

            There is a claim to the effect that we can choose what we want, but we can’t choose our wants. I’ve always wondered about that, but not with respect to Earl Grey.

            1. It changes what you choose in the morning. Availability is but one contribution to the decision. You seem to imply that this doesn’t count but I wonder why.

              “we can’t choose our wants”

              Sure we can. What we choose in the future depends very much on what we choose now. If I move to France now, it is likely going to change what I desire for lunch three months from now. We can’t change all the contributing factors, of course. Many of them come from being a human which we can’t change. Some depend on the weather, the actions of others, and so on.

        1. It is an interesting point.
          A wind-up toy car is started which topples a lamp, then turns and gets stuck on the edge of the sofa (couch, chesterfield). Another wind-up toy car is started which glances off the baseboard and bumps the first car free. They then both continue through the kitchen doorway and have a nice hot cup of Earl Grey tea and some Pecan Sandies.

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