Peter Boghossian hangs it up at Portland State

September 8, 2021 • 9:15 am

I’m having a new operating system installed on my computer today, so posting will be light (these things take time!).

But I just got this news from reader Larry, and then from a half dozen others, and thought I’d pass it on. I’ve known Peter Boghossian for some years, and I’ve found him a smart, friendly, and decent guy as well as a great person to discuss philosophy with. But he’s also a big critic of wokeness (in the pejorative sense), and was one of the three perpetrators of the “grievance studies affair” in 2017 and 2018 that exposed the intellectual vacuity of some humanities journals (which, by extension, says something about the intellectual rigor of the fields those journal draw from).  And since he was untenured at Portland State University, with Portland, Oregon being the Mecca of Wokeness, he always told me that he was sure he’d be fired some day, or at least never get tenure. (He’s an untenured assistant professor of philosophy.) He’s also been disciplined by PSU (see below) for a ridiculous reason.

And by all accounts he’s a terrific teacher. He gets a 4.7 out of 5 rating at Rate My Professors, with 95% of applicants saying that’s take a course from him again.  I can believe it: he’s even-tempered, kind, and uses the Socratic method when teaching, his goal always being to get students to think rather than agree with a preordained conclusion. And that’s what having a conversation with him is like, too. When I visited PSU to give a talk to his class, we had a lot of discussion on the side, and he was always challenging my views in a Socratic way. I could barely get him to tell me what he thought!

Well, PSU didn’t fire him. He decided to quit.

You can read about it by clicking on the screenshot below, which takes you to a letter of resignation Peter sent to his provost this morning. It’s published on Bari Weiss’s Substack site:

Here are just a few quotes from the eloquent but sad letter. He begins by describing all the diverse speakers he invited to his classes: flat-earthers, creationists, climate-change skeptics, and of course me (I talked about the incompatibility of science and religion). In every case he was trying to challenge the “conventional” ideas his students had absorbed before college.  And so he describes why he can no longer fulfill his mission as a philosophy teacher.

I never once believed —  nor do I now —  that the purpose of instruction was to lead my students to a particular conclusion. Rather, I sought to create the conditions for rigorous thought; to help them gain the tools to hunt and furrow for their own conclusions. This is why I became a teacher and why I love teaching.

But brick by brick, the university has made this kind of intellectual exploration impossible. It has transformed a bastion of free inquiry into a Social Justice factory whose only inputs were race, gender, and victimhood and whose only outputs were grievance and division.

Students at Portland State are not being taught to think. Rather, they are being trained to mimic the moral certainty of ideologues. Faculty and administrators have abdicated the university’s truth-seeking mission and instead drive intolerance of divergent beliefs and opinions. This has created a culture of offense where students are now afraid to speak openly and honestly.

And, over the ten years he was there, he discovered that PSU was uber-Woke and had no patience for a Socratic-style teacher who questioned not only ideas in general, but the University’s own dictates in particular. One might call it Structural Intolerance:

. . .I began networking with student groups who had similar concerns and brought in speakers to explore these subjects from a critical perspective. And it became increasingly clear to me that the incidents of illiberalism I had witnessed over the years were not just isolated events, but part of an institution-wide problem.

The more I spoke out about these issues, the more retaliation I faced.

He describes some of the retaliation he experiences, which continued right up to the present, but he doesn’t want to dwell on it because, after all, victimization is not his thing.. The Grievance Studies affair was the beginning of the end:

I continued to believe, perhaps naively, that if I exposed the flawed thinking on which Portland State’s new values were based, I could shake the university from its madness. In 2018 I co-published a series of absurd or morally repugnant peer-reviewed articles in journals that focused on issues of race and gender. In one of them we argued that there was an epidemic of dog rape at dog parks and proposed that we leash men the way we leash dogs. Our purpose was to show that certain kinds of “scholarship” are based not on finding truth but on advancing social grievances. This worldview is not scientific, and it is not rigorous.

Administrators and faculty were so angered by the papers that they published an anonymous piece in the student paper and Portland State filed formal charges against me. Their accusation? “Research misconduct” based on the absurd premise that the journal editors who accepted our intentionally deranged articles were “human subjects.” I was found guilty of not receiving approval to experiment on human subjects.

Meanwhile, ideological intolerance continued to grow at Portland State. . . .

You can read about the harassment, which included graffiti and disruptions of his classes and panels, none of which was ever investigated nor were any students disciplined. Finally, he had enough, and resigned out of frustration due to the inability to maintain his own principles (he’d been silenced to some extent):

This isn’t about me. This is about the kind of institutions we want and the values we choose. Every idea that has advanced human freedom has always, and without fail, been initially condemned. As individuals, we often seem incapable of remembering this lesson, but that is exactly what our institutions are for: to remind us that the freedom to question is our fundamental right. Educational institutions should remind us that that right is also our duty.

Portland State University has failed in fulfilling this duty. In doing so it has failed not only its students but the public that supports it. While I am grateful for the opportunity to have taught at Portland State for over a decade, it has become clear to me that this institution is no place for people who intend to think freely and explore ideas.

This is not the outcome I wanted. But I feel morally obligated to make this choice. For ten years, I have taught my students the importance of living by your principles. One of mine is to defend our system of liberal education from those who seek to destroy it. Who would I be if I didn’t?

So he’s voluntarily given up his job and his income. I hope some other school snaps him up, but things being what they are, he’s surely been tainted by opposing the Woke. And the Woke run nearly all the universities.

I doubt PSU realizes what a great professor it’s losing. I’m sure they’re relieved that they’re free of an anti-Woke faculty member who challenged their ideas and was subject to complaints.  Well, it’s their loss. PSU is going the way of Evergreen State, purging “dissident” professors and enforcing intellectual conformity. I know there are some parents and prospective college students who still want a challenging education—who want to learn to think and analyze rather than absorb and parrot whatever dogma their professors feed them.  Those people should avoid PSU like the plague.

Peter Boghassian

The absence of objective morality

June 21, 2021 • 9:25 am

What does it mean to say that there’s an “objective morality”? The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy reports this view as “moral realism” and characterizes it like this:

Moral realists are those who think that, in these respects, things should be taken at face value—moral claims do purport to report facts and are true if they get the facts right. Moreover, they hold, at least some moral claims actually are true. That much is the common and more or less defining ground of moral realism (although some accounts of moral realism see it as involving additional commitments, say to the independence of the moral facts from human thought and practice, or to those facts being objective in some specified way).

This is the stand taken by Sam Harris in his book The Moral Landscape, and it’s a view with which I disagree. Although some philosophers agree with Sam that morality is “factual” in this way—and by that I don’t mean that the existence of a moral code is a fact about society but that you can find objective ways to determine if a view is right or wrong—I can’t for the life of me see how one can determine objectively whether statements like “abortions of normal fetuses are wrong” are true or false. In the end, like many others, I see morality as a matter of preference. What is moral is what you would like to see considered good behavior, but as different people differ on what is right and wrong, I see no way to adjudicate statements like the one about abortion.

I’ve said all this before, but it came to mind last night when I was reading Anthony Grayling’s comprehensive book The History of Philosophy. (By the way, that book has convinced me that there is virtually no issue in philosophy that ever gets widespread agreement from nearly all respectable philosophers, so in that way philosophy differs from science. That is not to say that philosophy is without value, but that its value lies in teaching us how to think rigorously and to parse arguments, not to unearth truths about the cosmos.)

It’s clear that empirical observation can inform moral statements. If you think that it’s okay to kick a dog because it doesn’t mind it, well, just try kicking a dog. But in the end, saying whether it’s right or wrong to do things depends on one’s preferences. True, most people agree on their preferences, and their concept of morality by and large agrees with Sam’s consequentialist view that what is the “right” thing to do is what maximizes “well being”.  But that is only one criterion for “rightness”, and others, like deontologists such as Kant, don’t agree with that utilitarian concept. And of course people disagree violently about things like abortion—and many other moral issues.

One problem with Sam’s theory, or any utilitarian theory of morality, is how to judge “well being”. There are different forms of well being, even in a given moral situation, and how do you weigh them off against one another? There is no common currency of well being, though we know that some things, like torturing or killing someone without reason, clearly does not increase well being of either that person or of society. Yet there is no objective way to weigh one form of well being against another. Abortion is one such situation: one weighs the well being of the fetus, which will develop into a sentient human, against that of the mother, who presumably doesn’t want to have the baby.

But to me, the real killer of objective morality is the issue of animal rights—an issue that I don’t see as resolvable, at least in a utilitarian way. Is it moral to do experiments on primates to test human vaccines and drugs? If so, how many monkeys can you put in captivity and torture before it becomes wrong?  Is it wrong to keep lab animals captive just to answer a scientific question with no conceivable bearing on human welfare, but is just a matter of curiosity? Is it moral to eat meat? Answering questions about animal rights involves, if you’re a Harris-ian utilitarian, being able to assess the well being of animals, something that seems impossible. We do not know what it is like to be a bat.  We have no idea whether any creatures value their own lives, and which creatures feel pain (some surely do).

But in the end, trying to find a truly factual answer to the statement, “Is it immoral for humans to eat meat?”  or “is abortion wrong?”, or “is capital punishment wrong?” seems a futile effort. You can say that eating meat contributes to deforestation and global warming, and that’s true, but that doesn’t answer the question, for you have to then decide whether those effects are “immoral”. Even deciding whether to be a “well being” utilitarian is a choice. You might instead be a deontologist, adhering to a rule-based and not consequence-based morality.

You can make a rule that “anybody eating meat is acting immorally,” but on what do you base that statement? If you respond that “animals feel pain and it’s wrong to kill them,” someone might respond that “yes, but I get a lot of pleasure from eating meat.” How can you objectively weigh these positions? You can say that culinary enjoyment is a lower goal than animal welfare, but again, that’s a subjective judgment.

By saying I don’t accept the idea of moral claims representing “facts”, I’m not trying to promote nihilism. We need a moral code if, for nothing else, to act as a form of social glue and as a social contract. Without it, society would degenerate into a lawless and criminal enterprise—indeed, the idea of crime and punishment would vanish. All I’m arguing is that such claims rest at bottom on preference alone. It’s generally a good thing that evolution has bequeathed most of us with a similar set of moral preferences. I hasten to add, though, that what feelings evolution has instilled in us aren’t necessarily ones we should incorporate into morality, as some of them (widespread xenophobia, for instance) are outmoded in modern society. Others, like caring for one’s children, are good things to do.

In the end, I agree with Hume that there’s no way to derive an “ought” from an “is”. “Oughts” have their own sources, while “is”s may represent in part our evolutionarily evolved behaviors derived from living in small groups of hunter-gatherers. But that doesn’t make them evolutionary “oughts.”

I’m not a philosopher—and I’m sure it shows!—and I know there are famous philosophers, like Derek Parfit, who are moral realists, but my attempt to read the late Parfit’s dense, two-volume treatise On What Matters, said to contain his defense of moral realism, was defeated.

Dennett on consciousness and other stuff

June 16, 2021 • 2:15 pm

In this 36-minute episode of Closer to Truth, host Robert Kuhn grills Dan Dennett about his views on consciousness, panpsychism, and artificial intelligence. (Click on screenshot below to hear the episode, though you’ll have to register or use your Facebook account.)

The summary of the episode, assuming this is the only one, is a bit misleading:

Daniel Dennett discusses the nature of consciousness, if consciousness is an illusion, artificial intelligence and virtual immortality, and how he covers all of this in his book, Just Deserts: Debating Free Will, co-authored with Gregg D. Caruso.

In act, there’s no reference to free will or to Dan’s book with Caruso, which I briefly evaluated here.

I won’t summarize this, as most readers like to watch the videos, but will say that Dan takes up—and peremptorily dismisses—the idea of panpsychism, the view that every bit of matter in the Universe, from electrons on up, has a form of consciousness. Dan says this theory is “regressive and unfortunate” but “just what one should expect” in a world where “You gotta be different; you gotta have your own theory, so lots of young philosophers are trying to figure out what radical thesis might springboard them into notoriety, which is a path to fame.”

He further characterizes panpsychism as “almost embarrassing” because it doesn’t explain anything at all. In the end, he says it’s not even a theory but “a labored definition of mentality or consciousness.”

Kuhn then asks Dan to explain why he, Dennett, considers consciousness an illusion, and I think Dan’s answer is too quick in this short video to be fully comprehended, but has to do with a collections of neurons collaborating to give an illusion of a single decider, with the whole business having evolved to give us “self control.”

The rest of the conversation is about whether one could download consciousness, or back it up at night, and, if so, what would be the implications. There’s talk of zombies, artificial intelligence, and so on, but, sadly, not a peep about free will.

I’ve had my differences with Dan, especially about free will, but there’s no denying that the guy is a force—a really smart philosopher who has the chops to make his ideas intelligible to the public. And he clearly hasn’t slowed with age. And despite out differences, we both agree that panpsychism is “not even a theory”, but a desperate attempt for its adherents to get attention by standing apart from the pack.

h/t: Paul

A great Stephen Fry interview in the NYT (with free-will lagniappe)

May 6, 2021 • 12:45 pm

Is there anybody who doesn’t like Stephen Fry? He’s so genial, so learned, so witty, so open and honest, and so disarming that I can’t imagine not feeling affection for him. But he’s left Twitter from time to time because of nasty remarks, and I suspect that many religionists don’t like his atheism nor homophobes his homosexuality. But screw them; he’s great!

In this week’s New York Times Magazine, there’s a very good interview with Fry by David Marchese (click on screenshot). Every bit is worth reading, especially if you want to know what a polymath is like (Fry not only absorbs material like a sponge, but also has a compulsion to tell people what he learned).

There are tons of good and revealing things here: his view on the need for humor, his 15-year period of celibacy, an almost-unprintable story of Gore Vidal at the Savoy Hotel in London, and his view on free will. I’ll give just three quotes, one of which is actually pro-woke. Marchese did a great job on this interview; his questions are in bold and Fry’s answers in plain type.

Do you ever wonder where your old friend Christopher Hitchens would fit into things now? 

I do. I loved him. He was adorable company, but I was also quite scared of him. He was a much tougher figure than I. He didn’t mind being disliked. He didn’t mind being howled down even. He seemed to enjoy it. I can quite imagine Hitchens being on the same platform with a Ben Shapiro perhaps. But I can’t imagine him having come out on the side of Trump. Hitchens just had a style that suited America despite his Britishness. It was the swagger. I miss that the culture doesn’t have enough of these sorts of people. Toward the last year of his life, I would visit another one of them, Gore Vidal, in Los Angeles, where he had his house; it was so overgrown in the garden that it was dark inside. He would retell stories of his great rows with Norman Mailer and Susan Sontag and William Buckley. Their arguments could be mordant and full of venom, but they weren’t as unhappy as so many debates now. There was a kind of joy and pleasure in the fight. [Be sure to read Fry’s Gore Vidal story!]

Ben Shapiro? I would like to think that Hitchens deserves a worthier opponent. And so does Marchese:

You mentioned Ben Shapiro.I’m not sure that people would agree that he’s quite the right comparison for Christopher Hitchens.

I mean, yes, I find Ben Shapiro abrasive. This anti-woke nonsense that he — a lot of it is disingenuous at best and malevolently blind at worst.There are people who have been denied any say in the way the world goes or even allowed a voice in expressing their experience, their stories, their lives, and it’s great that this is slowly being put right. It’s a shame that people of my background so often take it in a moaning way, as if it’s an assault on our gender and race.

He has a point, but I don’t think Fry fully realizes the excesses of wokeness. What would he say about Kimono Wednesdays being picketed at Boston’s Museum of Fine Art, for instance? Or the demonization of the n-word to the point that you’re in trouble if you say a Chinese word that sounds like it? Or the accusation that yoga and lattes are aspects of white supremacy?

But let’s move on to free will.

You said earlier you’ve been reading philosophy. Is there a particular idea that you’re tickled by lately? 

I suppose the real biggie is free will. I find it interesting that no one really talks about it: I would say that 98 percent of all philosophers would agree with me that essentially free will is a myth. It doesn’t exist. That ought to be shocking news on the front of every newspaper. I’m not saying we don’t look both ways before we cross the road; we decide not to leave it to luck as to whether a car is going to hit us. Nor am I saying that we don’t have responsibility for our actions: We have agency over the body in which our minds and consciousness dwell. But we can’t choose our brains, we can’t choose our genes, we can’t choose our parents. There’s so much. I mean, look at the acts of a sociopath, which are performed with absolute will in the sense that he means to do what he’s doing, but he’s doing it because he has desires and impulses which he didn’t choose to have. Nobody elects to be a sociopath. The difference between us and them is one of degree. That certainly interests me. But, generally speaking, I suppose ethics is the most interesting. You do wonder if there are enoughpeople in the world thinking about the consequences of A.I. and technology.

Well, yes, lots of us talk about free will. But Fry, it seems, is misinformed, for he doesn’t seem to grasp the Dennettian view (common on this site) that we already have plenty of free will—the only kind worth wanting. Actually, Fry is of course is talking about determinism and contracausal free will here, and I suppose his emphasis on its being in the newspapers reflect the failure of the general public to fully grasp determinism, even though many commenters think that few people accept contracausal free will.

But don’t kvetch at me—Fry said it! Go tell him on Twitter that we really do have free will!

And read the rest of the interview; it’s a pure joy.

I met Fry only once: at the Hay Festival on the border of Wales and England, where I struck up a brief acquaintanceship with Tom Stoppard. I joined Stoppard at the table where he was having a smoke, and couldn’t resist the temptation to bum a smoke from the great playwright. Fry was sitting there, too, but didn’t know me, so I just basked in the Big Man’s greatness. It’s the closest I’ve ever been to such a table full of talent!

Why do we need free-will compatibilism?

April 30, 2021 • 10:45 am

The laws of physics dictate that, from time to time, random thoughts about the free-will debate cross my mind. The latest one, which popped into my brain for no reason this morning, was the question, “Why are we even bothering with compatibilism?”

As you know, “compatibilism” is the philosophical view that even though we cannot control our thoughts and actions beyond what the laws of physics dictate, and therefore have no “free will” in the traditional sense, we have free will in a nontraditional sense.  Those “compatibilistic” varieties of free will vary among different philosophers; Dan Dennett has expounded several versions, and other philosophers still more versions. (This all makes me wonder what we’re supposed to tell people what really constitutes our [compatibilist] “free will.”)

Opposed to compatibilism are the two forms of incompatibilism that see free will as incompatible with physical law:

a.) Contracausal free will. This is the traditional “you could have done/chosen otherwise” free will in which we are agents whose wills can effect, at a given time, two or more different behaviors or choices. It is the kind of free will that most people think we really have, and is certainly the basis of Abrahamic religions whose gods either save you or doom you based on whether you make the “right” choice about God or a savior.

b.) Free will skepticism (sometimes called “hard determinism”). As you must know, this is the view to which I adhere. Though it’s often called “determinism”, with the implication that the laws of physics have already determined the entire future of the universe, including what you will do, that’s not my view. There is, if quantum mechanics be right, a fundamental form of indeterminism that is unpredictable, like when a given atom in a radioactive compound will decay. It’s unclear to what extent this fundamental unpredictability affects our actions or their predictability, but I’m sure it’s played some role in evolution (via mutation) or in the Big Bang (as Sean Carroll tells me). Thus I prefer to use the term “naturalism” rather than “determinism.” But, at any rate, fundamental quantum unpredictability cannot give us free will, for it has nothing to do with either “will” or “freedom”.

And this question struck me, as my neurons chugged through their program this morning:

Why do we even bother ruminating about compatibilism, much less write long books about it?

To me the really important issues are a) vs. b) above, which in principle can be attacked with science, while compatibilism is more or less a semantic issue. If naturalism be true, then we should trumpet it from the rooftops, as it flies in the face of what most people think and (as I note below), does have real and important implications for society.

But why bother so much with compatibilism? The only reason I can think of—and it’s a reason often voiced by philosophers—is that people need to have a definition of free will that comports with their “feeling” that they have contracausal free will, even if the definition itself isn’t contracausal.

But why this need? Even I feel like I have contracausal free will, but I realize that at best it’s an illusion and, at any rate, I have no use for a philosopher-confected definition of some compatibilistic free will. I do just fine, thank you.

But why, according to philosophers, do people need this assurance? It always comes down to the same thing: if people think that their actions and behaviors are determined by the laws of physics, then society will fall apart. People will either become nihilists, refusing to get out of bed because their whole day is determined anyway, fatalists or pessimists, or criminals who think that determinism frees them from responsibility for their acts (it doesn’t, for social mores dictate that we adhere to a form of “agent responsibility” that justifies punishment (or “quarantine”) and praise). Dennett himself has repeatedly said this:

If nobody is responsible, not really, then not only should the prisons be emptied, but no contract is valid, mortgages should be abolished, and we can never hold anybody to account for anything they do.  Preserving “law and order” without a concept of real responsibility  is a daunting task.

—Dan Dennett, “Reflections on Free Will” (

That’s not true at all; you don’t need “moral responsibility” that, says Dennett is only provided by compatibilist free will, to have this kind of “responsibility”.

And then there’s the supposedly dire social consequences that flow from naturalism/determinism

There is—and has always been—an arms race between persuaders and their targets or intended victims, and folklore is full of tales of innocents being taken in by the blandishments of sharp talkers. This folklore is part of the defense we pass on to our children, so they will become adept at guarding against it. We don’t want our children to become puppets! If neuroscientists are saying that it is no use—we are already puppets, controlled by the environment, they are making a big, and potentially harmful mistake.

. . . we [Dennett and Erasmus] both share the doctrine that free will is an illusion is likely to have profoundly unfortunate consequences if not rebutted forcefully.

—Dan Dennett, “Erasmus: Sometimes a Spin Doctor is Right” (Erasmus Prize Essay).

As I’ve argued, I don’t believe that a society inculcated in naturalism, and one that rejects contracausal free will, will be profoundly dysfunctional. After all, if nothing else we still retain the feeling we have free will. That alone would get us out of bed every day.

So if you can consider people responsible in some sense for their actions, as you can under naturalism, and there is no social downside to accepting naturalism, why do we need sweating philosophers to produce version after version of compatibilist free will? If you think we do, riddle me this: How would society be palpably worse if we didn’t have philosophers confecting versions of compatibilism?

Finally, I won’t dwell at length on the upside of naturalism, as I’ve mentioned it before. There is the deep-sixing of retributive punishment, a drive to reform the penal system (yes, people say that compatibilism and humanism dictate the same thing, but it’s the free-will skeptics who take it the most seriously), the elimination of the “Just World” theory in which people get what they deserve, and the elimination of the guilt that comes from thinking that you made wrong choices in the past. Naturalism breeds empathy.

In the end, I don’t think that we have a philosophical lacuna that needs to be filled with a variety of compatibilist versions of free will (which, ironically, are incompatible among themselves). To me, at least, there are better things for philosophers to worry about.

A Guardian “long read” on free will

April 27, 2021 • 9:15 am

Several readers sent me a link to a new Guardian piece on free will by journalist Oliver Burkeman (some added that I’m quoted a couple of times, which is true). It’s a “long read” for those with a short attention span, but I have to say that it’s a very good piece, covering all the bases: the definitions, the consequences of contracausal free will, the “solution” of compatibilism, the implications for moral responsibility and for judicial punishment; yes, it’s all there.  And although Burkeman’s personal take, given at the end, is a bit puzzling, it’s a very good and fair introduction to the controversies about free will.

Click on the screenshot to read:


As I said, I have mostly praise for Burkeman’s piece, as he’s clearly done his homework and manages to condense a messy controversy into a readable piece.  So take my few quibbles in light of this general approbation.

First, though, I must note Burkeman’s opening, which, surprisingly, shows the hate mail philosophers have received for promulgating determinism. (Burkeman notes, correctly, that even compatilists who broach a new kind of free will are still determinists.) Although I was once verbally attacked by a jazz musician who said I’d taken away from him the idea that he had complete freedom to extemporize his solos, I’ve never received the kind of mail that Galen Strawson has:

. . . . the philosopher Galen Strawson paused, then asked me: “Have you spoken to anyone else yet who’s received weird email?” He navigated to a file on his computer and began reading from the alarming messages he and several other scholars had received over the past few years. Some were plaintive, others abusive, but all were fiercely accusatory. “Last year you all played a part in destroying my life,” one person wrote. “I lost everything because of you – my son, my partner, my job, my home, my mental health. All because of you, you told me I had no control, how I was not responsible for anything I do, how my beautiful six-year-old son was not responsible for what he did … Goodbye, and good luck with the rest of your cancerous, evil, pathetic existence.” “Rot in your own shit Galen,” read another note, sent in early 2015. “Your wife, your kids your friends, you have smeared all there [sic] achievements you utter fucking prick,” wrote the same person, who subsequently warned: “I’m going to fuck you up.” And then, days later, under the subject line “Hello”: “I’m coming for you.” “This was one where we had to involve the police,” Strawson said. Thereafter, the violent threats ceased.

Good lord! Such is the resistance that people have to hearing that they don’t have “contracausal” (you-could-have-chosen-otherwise) free will. Regardless of what compatibilists say, belief in contracausal free will is the majority view in many places (see below).

There are only a few places where Burkeman says things I disagree with. One is how he treats the issue of “responsibility”. My own view, as someone Burkeman calls “one of the most strident of the free will skeptics,” is that while we’re not morally responsible for our misdeeds, which implies we could have chosen a different path, we are what Gregg Caruso calls “answerably responsible”. That is, as the agent of good or bad deeds, whatever actions society deems appropriate in response to our acts must devolve upon our own bodies. Therefore, if we break the law, we can receive punishment—punishment to keep us out of society where we might transgress again, sequestering us until we are deemed “cured” and unlikely to transgress again, and punishment to deter others. (Caruso, also a free-will skeptic, disagrees that deterrence should be an aim of punishment, since it uses a person as an instrument to affect the behavior of others.) Caruso holds a “quarantine” model of punishment, in which a transgressor is quarantined just as Typhoid Mary should be quarantined: to effect possible cures and protect society from infection. Burkeman describes Caruso’s model very well.

What is not justified under punishment (and most compatibilists, including Dan Dennett, agree) is retributive punishment: punishment meted out by assuming that you could have chosen to behave other than how you did. That assumption is simply wrong, and so is retributivism, which is largely the basis of how courts in the West view punishment.

As for praise or blame, or responsibility itself, Burkeman somehow thinks they would disappear even under a hard-core deterministic view of society:

Were free will to be shown to be nonexistent – and were we truly to absorb the fact – it would “precipitate a culture war far more belligerent than the one that has been waged on the subject of evolution”, Harris has written. Arguably, we would be forced to conclude that it was unreasonable ever to praise or blame anyone for their actions, since they weren’t truly responsible for deciding to do them; or to feel guilt for one’s misdeeds, pride in one’s accomplishments, or gratitude for others’ kindness. And we might come to feel that it was morally unjustifiable to mete out retributive punishment to criminals, since they had no ultimate choice about their wrongdoing. Some worry that it might fatally corrode all human relations, since romantic love, friendship and neighbourly civility alike all depend on the assumption of choice: any loving or respectful gesture has to be voluntary for it to count.

But no, praise and blame are still warranted, for they are environmental influences that can affect someone’s behavior.  It is okay to praise someone for doing good and to censure them for doing bad, because this might change their brains in a way to make them liable to do less bad and more good in the future. (Granted, we have no free choice about whether to praise or blame someone.) The only thing that’s not warranted in Burkeman’s list is retributive punishment. Gratitude, pride, guilt, and so on are useful emotions, for even if we had no choice in what we did, these emotions drive society in positive directions, reinforcing good acts and discouraging bad ones.

Burkeman goes on, emphasizing the danger to society of promulgating determinism—a determinism that happens to be true. As the wife of the Bishop of Worcester supposedly said about Darwin’s view that we’re descended from apes,

“My dear, descended from the apes! Let us hope it is not true, but if it is, let us pray that it will not become generally known.”

This appears to be the view of not only Burkeman, it seems, but also of Dan Dennett. As Burkeman notes “Dennett, although he thinks we do have [compatibilist] free will, takes a similar position, arguing that it’s morally irresponsible to promote free-will denial.”

Morally irresponsible to promulgate denial of contracausal free will? Morally irresponsible to promulgate the truth? Or does he mean morally irresponsible to deny compatibilist notions of free will like Dennett’s? Either way, I reject the idea that we must hide the truth, or quash philosophical discussion, because it could hurt society.

Burkeman goes on about morality:

By far the most unsettling implication of the case against free will, for most who encounter it, is what it seems to say about morality: that nobody, ever, truly deserves reward or punishment for what they do, because what they do is the result of blind deterministic forces (plus maybe a little quantum randomness). “For the free will sceptic,” writes Gregg Caruso in his new book Just Deserts, a collection of dialogues with his fellow philosopher Daniel Dennett, “it is never fair to treat anyone as morally responsible.”

The operant word here is “deserves”—the idea of “desert” that’s the topic of a debate between Caruso and Dennett that I recently reviewed.  If you mean by “deserve” the fact that you’re deemed “answerably responsible,” and thus can undergo punishment for something bad you did, or can justifiably be praised, then yes, there is good justification for holding people answerably responsible for their good and bad deeds, and taking action accordingly.

There is much to argue with in the piece, not with Burkeman, but with some of the compatibilists he quotes. One of them is Eddy Nahmias:

“Harris, Pinker, Coyne – all these scientists, they all make the same two-step move,” said Eddy Nahmias, a compatibilist philosopher at Georgia State University in the US. “Their first move is always to say, ‘well, here’s what free will means’” – and it’s always something nobody could ever actually have, in the reality in which we live. “And then, sure enough, they deflate it. But once you have that sort of balloon in front of you, it’s very easy to deflate it, because any naturalistic account of the world will show that it’s false.”

Here Nahmias admits that determinism reigns, and implicitly that contracausal free will is nonexistent. But what I don’t think he grasps is that the naturalistic view of will, determinism, while accepted by him and his fellow compatibilists, is flatly rejected by a large majority of people—and in several countries (see the study of Sarkissian et al., though I note that when presented with concrete moral dilemmas, people tend to become more compatibilistic). Contracausal free will is the bedrock of Abrahamic religions, which of course have many adherents. Those who proclaim that everybody accepts pure naturalism and the deterministic behavior it entails—that denying that is “an easily deflatable balloon”—probably don’t get out often enough.

Likewise, though who say a society grounded on determinism will be a dreadful society full of criminals, rapists, and murderers are wrong, I think. This is for two reasons. First of all, know quite a few free-will skeptics, including Caruso, Alex Rosenberg, Sam Harris, myself, and others, and if free-will skepticism had a palpable effect on someone’s behavior, I can’t see it. It’s an unfounded fear.

The other reason is that there’s an upside in being a determinist. We still have our illusions of free will, so we can act as if our choices are contracausal even if, intellectually, we know they’re not. Hard determinists like myself are not fatalists who go around moaning, “What’s the use to tell the waiter what I want? It’s all determined, anyway.”

And there’s the improvement in the penal system that comes with accepting deteriminism: there’s a lot to be said for Caruso’s “quarantine” model, which is more or less in effect in places like Norway, though I still adhere to the value of deterrence. And, as Burkeman says eloquently, a rejection of free will paradoxially makes us “free” in the sense that we can be persuaded to give up unproductive retributive attitudes and overly judgmental behavior:

In any case, were free will really to be shown to be nonexistent, the implications might not be entirely negative. It’s true that there’s something repellent about an idea that seems to require us to treat a cold-blooded murderer as not responsible for his actions, while at the same time characterising the love of a parent for a child as nothing more than what Smilansky calls “the unfolding of the given” – mere blind causation, devoid of any human spark. But there’s something liberating about it, too. It’s a reason to be gentler with yourself, and with others. For those of us prone to being hard on ourselves, it’s therapeutic to keep in the back of your mind the thought that you might be doing precisely as well as you were always going to be doing – that in the profoundest sense, you couldn’t have done any more. And for those of us prone to raging at others for their minor misdeeds, it’s calming to consider how easily their faults might have been yours. (Sure enough, some research has linked disbelief in free will to increased kindness.)

. . . . Yet even if only entertained as a hypothetical possibility, free will scepticism is an antidote to that bleak individualist philosophy which holds that a person’s accomplishments truly belong to them alone – and that you’ve therefore only yourself to blame if you fail. It’s a reminder that accidents of birth might affect the trajectories of our lives far more comprehensively than we realise, dictating not only the socioeconomic position into which we’re born, but also our personalities and experiences as a whole: our talents and our weaknesses, our capacity for joy, and our ability to overcome tendencies toward violence, laziness or despair, and the paths we end up travelling. There is a deep sense of human fellowship in this picture of reality – in the idea that, in our utter exposure to forces beyond our control, we might all be in the same boat, clinging on for our lives, adrift on the storm-tossed ocean of luck.

I agree with this. And there’s one more benefit: if you are a free-will skeptic, you won’t always be blaming yourself for choices you made in the past on the grounds that you made the “wrong choice.” You didn’t have an alternative! This should mitigate a lot of people’s guilt and recrimination, and you can always learn from your past mistakes, which might alter your behavior in a permanent way. (This is an environmental influence on your neural program: seeing what worked and what didn’t.)

In light of Burkeman’s paean to free-will skepticism, then, it’s very odd that he says the following at the end:

Those early-morning moments aside, I personally can’t claim to find the case against free will ultimately persuasive; it’s just at odds with too much else that seems obviously true about life.

The deterministic case against contracausal free will is completely persuasive, and I think Burkeman agrees with that. So exactly what “case against free will” is he talking about? Is he adhering to compatibilism here? He doesn’t tell us. What, exactly, is at odds with what seems “obviously true about life”? But so much that “seems obviously true” is wrong as well, like the view that there’s an “agent”, a little person, sitting in our head that directs our actions. I would have appreciated a bit more about what, after doing a lot of research on the free-will controversy, Burkeman has really come to believe.

h/t: Pyers, David

A time-travel game

April 26, 2021 • 11:00 am

I was reading Anthony Grayling’s new (2019) history of philosophy last night. I’m only 70 pages in, and had to plow through all those boring pre-Socratic philosophers (he deals at the end with philosophy outside the Western tradition), but Anthony is smart enough and a good enough writer to make it all interesting. I’m looking forward to reading all 500-odd pages (click below to see the Amazon link):

And while I was reading about the early conception of atoms, I fantasizd about going back and telling people like Democritus that yes, there are atoms, but they are different from what he thought they were, and that they combined in molecules, and so on.  And then I thought about how much I could impart to the ancient Greeks if I had just one day to tell them what we’d learned by the 21st century. But then I realized that it would be useless, for I don’t speak ancient Greek and they wouldn’t understand English. It would be a futile exercise, and they’d probably kill me as a demon. Besides, there’s that effect of altering the future by imparting such stuff, an effect that was the subject of a science-fiction story I read as a kid but whose name I can’t recall.

But I also thought, “Wouldn’t it be cool to be in the agora in Athens and actually see Socrates engaged in a dialogue with someone?” He was described by Grayling as ugly, snub-nosed, and with bulging eyes, but I’d want to see that for myself. And I’d want to see Pericles and the whole of Athens in full flower. I’d love 24 hours in Athens around 440 B.C.

And so I propose a game, similar to one I’ve proposed before, but this one restricted to human history. Here are the rules:

1.) You are given 24 hours to be any place in the world during human history, but you have to specify a place and a date (or an event). You cannot go further back than ancient Egypt.

2.) You will be invisible, so you can run around at will and observe everything, but you cannot interact or communicate with anyone.

3.) You cannot have a tape recorder or a camera, but you are allowed a notebook and a pen to record what you want. You will not be able to understand the language unless you’ve learned it beforehand or already know it.

4.) At the end, you’re transported back to the present.

There are two ways to regard your journey: as a way to gather information about the past that is missing to historians, or as a way to satisfy your own curiosity. What you do is up to you.

Now think of all the choices! Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address (how did his voice sound?). The death of Julius Caesar! Charles Darwin, either on the Beagle or at home in Downe. Watch Michelangelo paint the dome of the Sistine Chapel. See Shakespeare at work! The possibilities are endless.

Think about this for a few minutes, and put your answer below. Although I’m drawn to Darwin, I couldn’t talk to him but could only see and hear him. And the idea of seeing Socrates (would I be able to know who he is?) still entices me. . . .


A new comparison of transgender and transracial identities

April 26, 2021 • 9:20 am

The question of how we compare someone like Rachel Dolezal, who assumed the identity of an African-American although she was white, with someone like Caitlyn Jenner, who transitioned from a male to a female, is a philosophically interesting ethical question that, unfortunately, has been declared almost taboo. If you even raise it, as Richard Dawkins or  philosopher Rebecca Tuvel did, you’re subject to a mass pile-on on social media and deemed a “transphobe”.

But regardless of how awkwardly you’ve asked the question, it’s still one worth pondering. If you change gender because you have a strong feeling that you’re in the wrong body, how does that differ from changing race if you have a strong feeling that you’re also in the wrong body, but one with the wrong pigmentation rather than the wrong gonads?  Just arguing that the former is “biological” and the latter is not doesn’t satisfy me, for in both cases you have neurological wiring that compels you to assume an identity other than the one you’re born with. (I’m assuming that these are genuine feelings.)

Nor does it help to say that you have to dissimulate being black if you’re white, so it’s deceptive to be “transracial”, and that is the relevant difference from being transsexual. But that doesn’t convince me, either. One could argue, for instance, that it’s also being “deceptive” to be transsexual if you don’t tell people that you’ve transitioned. And frankly, I don’t care if a transsexual person is open about it or not; it’s their decision and I’ll respect it, as well as using their chosen pronouns.

Further, I doubt that the people who raise the “deception” argument would fault a black person who tried to “pass for white” to escape oppression, or a person who is, say, one-quarter black—and on those grounds seen as “black”—pretend to be fully white, or just not say anything.

This is an interesting but a tough issue, yet it’s a question that progressives aren’t supposed to ask, as somehow it’s supposed to make you “transphobic.” But it’s not—it simply asks whether the same rationale that deems transsexuality perfectly fine can be used to justify transracialism.  I haven’t fully come down on either side, though I think that some people—and Dolezal may be one—are so invested in the idea that they’re of a different race that we might at least consider regarding them of that race. Many may not, particularly African-Americans in Dolezal’s case, but we still need to know why we think one is okay and the other flat wrong. If we decide that the arguments for regarding them as different are not convincing, we may have to change our opposition to transracialism. Again, I’m assuming that the feeling of being of the “wrong” race is genuine, strong, and persistent.

So when a reader pointed out an argument in the Boston Review about why these two cases are different, and why we should accept transgenderism but not transracialism, I read it carefully. You can, too, by clicking on the screenshot below:

The argument and article are long, and I don’t want to be long-winded here, so I’ll try to summarize their take. But there’s no substitute for reading the original piece.

The authors begin by attacking the argument that there’s such a thing as being a “real” member of a race, or of a “real” sex. This they reject as “essentialism” because there’s no trait that, they say, absolutely defines either one’s race or one’s sex. But they err here, for they conflate sex with gender. Their argument is that sex is not essentialist because there is no one character that pins down people as members of one sex or another. But there is: gamete size. In humans, as in other animals and many plants, sex is indeed virtually binary, although there are cases like hermaphroditism that are intermediate. These cases, though, are vanishingly rare, and biologists have no problem classifying nearly every human, just as we classify fruit flies or cats or birds, as “male” or “female”. Evolution has created this binary as a way to allow sex to take place, presumably for adaptive reasons. Thus Caitlyn Jenner, in her former incarnation as an athlete, was indeed a “real” biological male.

Race, on the other hand, is more subjective for many reasons: mixing of different groups, gene flow between groups, and a lack of discrete races the way we have discrete sexes. So the authors are correct that you cannot specify whether someone is a “real” Asian or a “real” black person. But they err when they say that essentialism crumbles when it comes to sex. And they move so swiftly from “sex” to “gender” in their paper that you barely notice it. Yet sex is important, for what does “transsexual” mean if not the transition from one sex to the other? Of course the transition is one based on something that is malleable: gender—your self concept.

But this is largely irrelevant, because the authors dismiss the “reality” argument in favor of another one that they consider strong.

The main reason they think that transracialism has no merit while transsexualism does is because they see both race and sex (conflated with gender) as not only socially defined, but socially malleable over time. Most important, they see making judgments about whether one category can be accepted and other other (transracialism) should rest on consequentialism or utilitarianism—whether the overall effect on society is good or bad. Allowing people to be transsexual, they argue, has no detrimental social consequences, while allowing people to be transracial does. (All quotes are indented):

Let us make one methodological comment at the start. When considering whether to revise rules for gender or race classification, we think that there are important considerations at both the population level and the individual level. While it is important and good to value a person’s autonomy and respect their identifications, we also think this good must be weighed against the population-level effects of revising our classifications. In cases where revising a classification would have a negative sociopolitical impact that outweighs the good of respecting how an individual identifies, we think that the classification should not be revised. And we think that revising the rules of race classification to accommodate transracial identification into Blackness is a case like this.

The main reason they see transracial identification as socially detrimental is because of reparations. If we want to make amends to a group because they’ve been oppressed for centuries (and I agree that we have to do something like this for groups like African-Americans), you have to identify the people who qualify for reparations.

Ergo, the reason why transracial people like Dolezal shouldn’t have their identities respected is that they should not qualify for any reparations to blacks because they haven’t experienced the historical oppression of being black, i.e., being seen as a member of the black community. (This, they say, is not a form of essentialism.) Why, then, should they benefit from assuming the identity of a black person? The authors conclude that accepting transracialism is detrimental to society.

From the article:

Now return to race. Being Black in the United States is similar to being a person who qualifies for IRSSA [Canadian “Indigenous Residential Schools Settlement Agreement] reparations in at least one important respect: being Black isn’t simply a matter of internal identification; it is also a matter of how your community and ancestors have been treated by other people, institutions, and governments. Given this, we think that race classification should (continue to) track—as accurately as possible—intergenerationally inherited inequalities. More directly, we need conceptual and linguistic tools for identifying those who are entitled to reparations for racial wrongs, where by “reparations” we mean institutional correction of intergenerational inequality. These might include, but are not limited to: affirmative action in employment and education; compensation for past economic and personal exploitation; debt-cancellation for affected populations; medical, home buying, and college aid; institutional apologies for past harms; and the creation of a standardized curriculum which explicitly addresses the role of racial oppression in state-building.

Central to this argument, then, is the observation that in the case of Blackness, inequality accumulates intergenerationally. For example, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Black women born in the United States are three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related complications than white women. What explains this? Arline T. Geronimus, public health researcher and professor at the University of Michigan’s Population Studies Center, has argued using a series of empirical studies that the intergenerational effects of racism explain a number of decreased health outcomes for Black Americans, including lower birth weights and higher rates of pregnancy-related complications for Black women. Geronimus famously termed this phenomenon “weathering,” a term that refers to the idea that “Blacks experience early health deterioration as a consequence of the cumulative impact of repeated experience with social or economic adversity and political marginalization.”

This assumes of course that there must be compensations or reparations of a sort, and I have no quarrel about that, though others might.

Now I’m not sure about their claim that “inequality accumulates generationally,” for surely it does not. While there is clearly inequality between blacks and whites that is largely a holdover from slavery, I don’t see the inequality as increasing or “accumulating”.  Legal separation, for example, is completely gone. The fact that there is inequality, and that it’s a holdover, is sufficient to make a good argument for some form of reparations (I see affirmative action in colleges as one form of this). And yes, it does seem wrong that if there are reparations for black people, that Rachel Dolezal should be included.

But shouldn’t she? I’m not going to argue that point strongly, but by becoming a member of the black community she has subjected herself to same historically-inherited racism that devolves upon all members of that community. And she has done so without coercion by others. (She was indeed seen and accepted as black.)

You might be asking yourself at this point, “Well, women have experienced the same historical discrimination, so aren’t some reparations are in order here as well.” (I agree again, in that there should be some attempt to compensate for historical sexism.)

So what’s the difference? If a transracial person doesn’t deserve reparations because their original race wasn’t historically oppressed, doesn’t that apply to transsexual women as well? If Rachel Dolezal shouldn’t benefit from affirmative action because her “group” is wrong, should transsexual women be able to benefit from reparations given to biological women, like those assured by Title IX?

Dembroff and Payton don’t seem to think so, because, unlike racism, they see sexism and oppression of women as different—because sexism does not accumulate intergenerationally:

Notice that this argument does not apply in the case of gender and gender inequality. Gender inequality, unlike racial inequality, does not primarily accumulate intergenerationally, if only for the obvious reason that the vast majority of households are multi-gendered. While parents often are responsible for ingraining patriarchal ideas and rigid gender norms in their children (it is extremely difficult to avoid!), this is not a “passing down” of socioeconomic inequality itself but, rather, of a socialization that perpetuates gender inequality.

This seems to me a distinction without a difference. If one passes down socialization that perpetuates inequality, is that really different from the passing down of socioeconomic inequality itself, which after all is said to derive from racist attitudes? In both cases (and I think Kendi would agree with me for race), there are social attitudes passed down that perpetuate oppression. And in both cases the inequalities need to be rectified. The authors go on to explain the difference further, but it doesn’t convince me any more:

Notice that this argument does not apply in the case of gender and gender inequality. Gender inequality, unlike racial inequality, does not primarily accumulate intergenerationally, if only for the obvious reason that the vast majority of households are multi-gendered. While parents often are responsible for ingraining patriarchal ideas and rigid gender norms in their children (it is extremely difficult to avoid!), this is not a “passing down” of socioeconomic inequality itself but, rather, of a socialization that perpetuates gender inequality.

Perhaps I’m missing something, but whether or not inequality accumulates intergenerationally or arises anew each generation because of attitudes that carry on intergenerationally seems irrelevant.

I’ll draw my discussion to a close with just a few remarks. Yes, it does seem wrong for someone like Rachel Dolezal to benefit from reparations. But is it okay for transsexual people to benefit from reparations? After all, a transsexual woman like Caitlyn Jenner never experienced misogyny like many biological women do.

It may be the case that society would be worse off if everyone were allowed to assume the race they wanted than if transsexuals were allowed to become the gender they wanted, but I’m not talking here about mere “I feel like I’m black” transracial folks. Presumably the feeling would have to be honest, persistent, and deep-seated—just as people who want to switch genders are examined by psychiatrists and doctors before they are allowed to transition. It’s never a matter of mere assertion; it has to be something that is real and embedded in one’s persona and psychology.

Dolezal may be a genuine case of transracialism. Nobody accepts her as black, but if we reject her blackness, I think we need reasons for it that are better than, “she’s not a real black person” or “she shouldn’t be qualified for reparations, because she’s claiming to belong to a group in which inequality accumulates over generations.”

I got the sense from this article that the authors had a preordained conclusion they wanted to support, and then adduced some unconvincing arguments (at least to me) to arrive at this conclusion. But given that much of society has reached the conclusion that, for sex, you are who you feel you are, it’s incumbent upon us to find relevant differences between that attitude and one that allows the same possibility for race—or even other characteristics.

As I said, I remain open to arguments for accepting transsexualism but not transracialism. I just don’t think that this article is that home run argument. There are surely deep gut feelings behind our drawing distinctions here, but I don’t think these authors have brought those feelings to light, nor do I know what they are. They need to be aired.

If you want to read further about this, have a look at the paper that got Rebecca Tuvel in trouble. Click on the screenshot below:

Short take on a book: Dennett vs. Caruso in “Just Deserts”

April 19, 2021 • 10:15 am

This is not a book for everyone, for it’s rather hard-core philosophy (albeit written in an accessible way), and is about one question: do we have free will or not? Since a lot of us have engaged in free-will debates here over the years, it’s appropriate for many of us. I’m really glad I read it.

And so to the Rumble in the Ivory Tower:

In one corner is Gregg Caruso, described on his page as “Professor of Philosophy at SUNY Corning, Visiting Fellow at the New College of the Humanities (NCH London), and Honorary Professor of Philosophy at Macquarie University. He is also Co-Director of the Justice Without Retribution Network housed at the University of Aberdeen School of Law.”

In the other corner is Dan Dennett, whom most of us know; he’s “the co-director of the Center for Cognitive Studies and the Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy at Tufts University.”

Both men have published extensively on free will. Caruso is a self-described “free will skeptic”; he thinks that because none of us can control our actions in a way that would change what we do at any given moment, we are not morally responsible for our acts, though we are “answerably responsible” or “causally responsible”. That is, if we do something good or bad, then we must be held accountable by society for our act in some way. Caruso adheres to a “pubic health” model of punishment: if you transgress, you are quarantined for possible cure and to keep you from hurting other people. You are not quarantined to deter others, as we don’t do that with carriers of infectious diseases. Ergo Gregg doesn’t see deterrence as a valid reason for “punishment” (or “quarantine”).  Caruso also sees no concept of “free will” that makes any sense, much less the historical one of “dualistic” free will—the one in which at any time we could have willed our choices and behaviors to be other than what we chose.

Dennett, like Caruso, is a determinist, agreeing that at any moment we have no free choice about what we do. However, he believes in a form of free will different from the traditional one; a form that, he argues, is the only kind of free will worth wanting. He thus sees his form of free will as compatible with determinism, so he’s a “compatibilist.”

What is Dennett’s form of free will? For him “freedom” consists of what we do when we’re members of the “Moral Agents Club”: that group of citizens who have been properly brought up and are responsive to reason and guidance by other responsible people. So for Dan, though free will isn’t “free” in the traditional sense, he sees it as “the concept of responsible, reliable self-control.”  In other words, people do things—make “choices”, if you will—that conform to the strictures of society. And so Dan says members of the Club have “moral responsibility.”

The screenshot below links to the Amazon order site.

I’ll briefly describe the Battle of the Heavyweights. You already know whose side I’m on! But let me say first that I greatly enjoyed the book, as it shows two top-notch philosophers arguing about a topic dear to my heart, and although the back and forth is civil (it’s a conversation, with each person writing between a paragraph and a few pages before the other person responds), it’s also hard-nosed, with each man querying and parrying the other, trying to find holes in their defense. 

As the title says, the argument is about “Just Deserts”, which to Dan means that people deserve to be praised or blamed for their actions because those actions are taken in a state of moral responsibility. Gregg sees no real reason for people to deserve their praise or blame, and so praise and blame must be allotted according to whether these actions help society or not (with some limitations). Blame should be limited, though, as it’s not really deserved; and “quarantine” rather than moral shaming is the best way to proceed.

In general, both Caruso and Dennett are consequentialists: they think the system of reward and (especially) punishment are largely justified by the consequences these systems have on society. To Dan, punishment is warranted by its effect on sequestering bad people and preventing them from hurting others, by its ability to help effect reformation of the criminal (if that’s possible), and to deter others from committing similar acts. Caruso, however, differs from both Dan and me in arguing that deterrence should not be a goal of punishment, because it uses people as means to control other people’s behavior, which he sees as fundamentally immoral. For example, one might say that in Dan (and my) society, even if someone is innocent of a bad deed that’s been committed, you might want to frame them to deter others from doing that deed. But that doesn’t seem right, does it? My answer would be that the consequences of punishing the innocent would be detrimental in general. But perhaps they need not be! The issue of deterrence is one I’m still thinking over.

So what is the difference between Dan’s views and Gregg’s? Gregg in fact spends almost all his time trying to answer that question, and he presses Dan on whether Dennett’s views are retributivist (which both men abhor: punishing someone simply to get back at them for bad deeds). But Dan sometimes comes close to saying that with his view of “moral responsibility”. At one point, frustrated by Dan’s apparent rapid changes of view during the conversation, Gregg compares Dan to a slippery eel. (There are moments of palpable frustration like this, though both guys behave civilly, like members of Dan’s Moral Agents Club.)

In the end, I would say Gregg won, simply because Dan doesn’t seem to make a good case for people deserving the punishment or praise they get just because they’re member of the “Moral Agents Club”. As Gregg (and I) have pointed out before, you have no choice about whether you’re a member of the Moral Agents Club: circumstances beyond your control have determined whether you are responsive to reasons and adhere to the social contract that makes you “morally responsible.” You might not have had the right upbringing, for instance.  Both Dan and Gregg agree, though, that strenuous prison reform is needed, and largely along similar lines. So to me, the debate either comes down to a difference in semantics or to an opacity of views on Dennett’s part that makes parsing his ideas very difficult.

But it’s great to see these two intellectual heavyweights slug it out. There are no knockouts, but I judge Caruso the winner on points.  And I have to do some thinking about deterrence. Right now I still think that deterrence is a valid aim of punishment.

Regardless of whether you’re a compatibilist or a free-will skeptic (or somewhere in the middle), this book will stimulate your thinking. Do read it if you’re interested in the free-will debate that’s occupied so much of our time. And I really do wish that we could have more debates like this: real back-and-forth conversations in more or less real time. That’s one reason I’m debating Adam Gopnik on whether science or its methods are the only way of gaining knowledge.

Oh, and after you read the book, you can vote on who you think made the best arguments; the voting site is here. Do not vote unless you’ve read the book!

An interview with Dan Dennett on his work and life

March 19, 2021 • 9:00 am

From the philosophy section of Institute of Art and Ideas, we have a new 30-minute interview with philosopher Daniel Dennett. It’s basically about “the arc of his life”, and has some interesting revelations. I’ll just touch on a few points, but you should listen to it yourself.

  • Dan’s father was a spy who worked for the OSS, but Dan didn’t learn that until his dad died.
  • Dan says that most of his good ideas came from his Ph.D. thesis and postdoc, and since then he’s been largely “turning the crank” on (i.e., working out the consequences of) his early ideas.
  • Those good ideas involved “the intentional stance”, how learning takes place, and views about consciousness and the evolution of the brain. He doesn’t talk much about consciousness, though, and doesn’t mention free will once during the interview, much to my relief.
  • In new work, Dan says he and a colleague are extending the intentional-stance view down to the level of the cell, visualizing development as the consequences of “what the cell wants.” This isn’t like panpsychism, for Dan isn’t dumb enough to think that cells really have desires, but he’s looking at it as Dawkins looked at the metaphor of the “selfish gene”, gaining insight by imagining how genes would behave if they were selfish even though he realizes (and has repeatedly emphasized in the light of misinterpreters) that genes don’t have desires.
  • In my hearing of this interview, Dan doesn’t admit that he ever had a wrong idea. But he does say he’s worked to prevent misuses of his ideas.
  • Dan decries the truth-denial aspect of postmodernism as “intellectual vandalism,” but also ponders the question of whether some ideas or truths are too dangerous to impart to the world. I’ll leave you listen to that bit yourselves.
  • There’s a lot about religion at the end, with Dan arguing that it’s time for the world to “grow up and leave religion behind”. And he thinks many faiths are in fact doing this, stripping out the false claims and injurious morality and leaving the ceremonial bits—bits that he has no quarrel with.

Click on the screenshot to go to the interview.