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RS 163 - Gregg Caruso on "Free Will and Moral Responsibility"

Release date: July 10th, 2016

Gregg Caruso

If people don't have free will, then can we be held morally responsible for our actions? And what would happen to society if we were to collectively shed our belief in free will? In this episode Julia talks with philosopher Gregg Caruso, who advocates a position of "optimistic skepticism" on the topic. Skepticism because people don't have free will as a sense of moral responsibility, but optimistic because society would be better off if we accept that we do.

Gregg's 1st Pick: "Living without Free Will" by Derk Pereboom

Gregg's 2nd Pick: "Against Moral Responsibility" by Bruce Waller

Podcast edited by Brent Silk


Full Transcripts 


Reader Comments (10)

"A deterrence person might say, 'Yeah, let's go for public caning if it is effective.' They may argue that there are reasons to think it's not effective, but if it turned out it would be, then that should be their preferred proposition."

You got it! Qatar and Indonesia have a lower incarceration rate than Norway. Last year, Indonesia executed 14 people for drug trafficking, 12 of them foreigners. Sends the message, don't even think about dealing drugs in Indonesia.
July 13, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterMax
Can I believe I don't have free will and also care about consequences? If I consider the consequences of my actions, aren't I explicitly saying "I believe I have free will"?
July 13, 2016 | Unregistered Commenteranonymous
Thanks so much for your podcast! I have been enjoying Rationally Speaking for years, but this particular episode is the one I have been (unknowingly) awaiting since I began listening.

About ten years ago, I had an initially casual discussion with my wife about the idea of merit, particularly in regard to income inequality. I wondered aloud to her about what we, as individuals, could really claim credit for in our lives, since so much seemed contingent upon forces outside our control — our intelligence, our ability to choose wisely, our physical abilities, our natural talents, our inclination to work hard, our ability to recognize our own flaws, our inclination to fix our flaws, when and where we were born, our race etc. These attributes are not something we seem to be able to choose — surely we would all choose to be intelligent and good looking if we could. She replied that it depended on how one sees free will. This floored me, because I hadn’t intended to discuss the idea of free will, just the idea of merit. But of course she was right. I kept thinking about the issue and haven’t stopped thinking about it since.

It seemed at the time, and it still does, that any choice I make is ultimately shaped (to the point of being determined) by forces that shape “me" — my experience, my genetics, my predisposition to be industrious or not, fair-minded or not, violent or not, my ability to discern, to empathize, etc.— none of which I chose. I couldn’t locate, and still can’t, any obvious self-created acts (SCAs) or moments in which I could shed my (unchosen) character traits in order to choose completely freely, unfettered by those same traits. In short, we make choices, but from options limited by our history and circumstances. Some people might be able to resist bad choices, some , through no fault of their own, might not have what it takes.

Which brings me to my question. My understanding, from your discussion with Gregg Caruso, is that he feels there are no SCAs in life. Our lives, and therefore our choices, are completely circumscribed by factors we did not choose. Even our previous choices are circumscribed and contingent. (Yes we chose X or Y, but that choice was dependent upon our personality, our character, which were shaped by forces we didn’t choose.) If I have understood your response correctly, you seem to find room for the individual to, at some point, in some way, choose “freely,” unbound by his or her character and its attendant blind spots, to the degree that he or she can (must) take ultimate responsibility (or credit) for his or her life. This is a common sense perspective, and it’s the way we all proceed in the world, but is it ultimately valid unless there are, in fact, SCAs?

David Perry
July 14, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterDavid Perry
This guy is a human paradox, and he not even notice... in fact I am pretty sure he never will... very funny guy
July 14, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterTaylor Lewis
I also believe there's no free will, and that behavior is shaped by various factors, and rewards and punishments are two of those factors.
And punishment for the sake of deterrence can look a lot like retribution, which is probably why we evolved the feeling of vengeance.
July 14, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterMax
I have really appreciated the clean way in which Julia puts the problem of free choice and morality. But I don't agree with her, and neither does Gregg Caruso, but it seems to me that he fails in providing the most convincing counter-argument (while keeping citing other people's works)

Julia says:
at time t my choice depends on:
1. the environment, which i do not control (including DNA and such)
2. my past choices
3. some residual freedom (if it exists)
Then, she says, one is morally responsable (or accountable, or whatever) since one, at each instant (or second, etc..), consciously chooses inside that freedom and builds up, instant by instant, the conscious-self.

The counter argument is the following: What happens if I go back in time to my *first* choice, what determined it? My conscious-self? If so, what determined how my conscious-self is wired when i was born?
This argument is very similar to Galen Strawson Basic Argument, and i cannot escape it: it seems to me an unavoidable contradiction to the very notion of free-choice.
July 16, 2016 | Unregistered Commenterdeltasun
Julia does or does not accept the causal closure principle? I felt like these two were talking past each other for a good part of the episode. Julia seemed "conscious choice" to mean something above a folk-psychological way of subjectively describing deterministic processes.
August 3, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterDarren
This post shows I have free will
August 6, 2016 | Unregistered Commenteriamerskine
Interesting commentary on commentary on the free will debate:

“Daniel Dennett is Wrong About Free Will”.

He is, is he?

This is the real problem with the field of Philosophy; the fact that laypeople, amateurs, dilettantes, fanboys, dittoheads, bloggers who are infatuated with the notion that they don’t have free will often feel entitled to clash their little plastic horns with the actual experts and professionals of the field – people who have thought deeply about their subjects for decades- and pretend that they are philosophy experts themselves – a pretense that extends even to the area of the philosophy of the mind (one of the most recondite and obscure areas of human investigation). Not only does the fact that the large majority of the experts in the field (including one of the world’s leading and most acclaimed experts in the philosophy of the mind) hold the view that free will and determinism are quite ‘compatible’ fail to give these pretentious dilettantes any pause for consideration, but they even indulge themselves in slinging mud at these very people for daring to propose (and hold to) a theory that goes against their personal interests and flies above the capabilities of their brains to fathom. Given their failure and inability to understand the ideas that make compatibilism what it is, and their absolute refusal to budge an inch from their cherished determinist-driven dogma, such people have no cards available within their sight other than to impugn the motives of these experts and claim that they are merely “doing semantics in order to appease common folk sensibilities”. In other words, accusing the majority of academic philosophers of being dishonest or not knowing what they are talking about. This is an amazing charge given that not only is it painfully obvious that it is precisely these dilettantes and dittoheads who do not really know what they are talking about, but they are clearly the ones whose attitude and dogmatic position with regards to this topic (as some of them have occasionally confessed) is both anchored and driven by personal agenda and emotion: the desire to be free of any feeling of personal responsibility.

What is especially hilarious is the way these people impetuously paster the internet with their ‘responses’ to a written critique giving by a leading philosopher of the mind briefly explaining and outlining the philosophy of compatibilism to someone who is apparently their hero (in superficial thinking). In these ‘responses’ (usually in the form of blog-posts), they begin by pretending that they have read and understood the critique that they are responding to. They then, either deliberately or inadvertently, display/express their anger and displeasure at its author for propounding a position that happens not to sit well with them (and their champion whose misguided book they adore). They then go on to say how much they ‘disagree’ with the author of the dissertation and his points (which they obviously didn’t actually understand) and declare (rather comically) that the author is “wrong”. Why? Because they say so. This of course is usually accompanied by all the other mudslinging accusations about ‘playing semantics’, ‘changing the subject’, ‘being dishonest’ (again, because they, in their all-knowing wisdom, say so).

The first dead-giveaway that these dittoheads and dilettantes have no idea what they are talking about or any true understanding of the position they pretend to be criticizing is the very fact that they invoke the accusation of ‘semantics’ in the first place. In other words, the depth of their confusion is sharply illustrated by the fact that these people think (or at least talk as if they think) that the compatibilist position is exactly the same as the (hard) determinist position but merely expressed differently. They fail to see (or simply do not want to accept) that there is a real conceptual difference in the two ideologies that has real consequences. These people think (or at least like or pretend to think) that compatibilists do not really actually believe in the existence of free will in any way at all but merely pretend they do. Of course, one probably has no choice but to embrace such a view if one is simply unable (or unwilling) to understand how free will can still be a very real phenomenon in human nature despite the reality of a world ultimately governed by deterministic forces. Such people are simply unable (or unwilling) to perceive that the peculiar traits of the human mind that distinguish it from most other living organisms – such as self awareness and subjective consciousness, the ability to reason, introspect, plan and make judgments and informed decisions – have given humans the ability to supersede blind deterministic forces in important ways and to act essentially as free agents (in the same way they’ve being able to overcome many other laws of nature). They insist on continuing to see people as merely robots (largely because that is how they like to think of themselves and partly because of their conceptual difficulty in understanding compatibilism). Of course, in a trivial sense, humans still operate under the laws of determinism given that they are part of nature, and thus one could, in principle, predict everything people would do if one had omniscient information. The conceptual difficulty that these ‘hard determinists’ have is understanding that an entity can still act as a free agent (in a way that is relevant both to itself and to all other entities) even though the course of its life could theoretically be predicted by an omniscient being.

These people are doggedly fixated on using nonsensical strawman definitions and notions of ‘free will’ which they pretentiously project unto the ‘common folk’ and which enables them to assert triumphantly that “free will doesn’t exist” and to serve whatever internal satisfactions they derive from making that assertion. In doing so, they fail to see that ‘free will’ is simply a complex human trait like many others which are neither time independent or consistent and are not possessed by everyone to the same degree. Yet, when it all comes down to it, when you strip away all the fluff and feathers, the entire position of these “no free will” enthusiasts rests upon a single red-herring that they regularly invoke as a ‘trump card’: “Where does a person’s will (at any time) come from?” [The word often used is “desires”, but it would allow much more clarity if it were expressed more generally as “will”.] In other words, the entire argument of these people is predicated upon the single notion that a person’s ‘will’(at any time) is ultimately due to factors beyond his/her control or choosing. Of course, they will typically cement this argumentative trick with another sleight of hand in the form of some kind of infinite regression: “where did the will that led to that will come from; and the will that led to that one; and the one that led to that one…” and so on and so on. Thus, according to these not very bright but obnoxiously pretentious dormroom philosophers, the luxury of being able to act in accordance with one’s ‘will’ and sense of self interests is not enough to qualify as ‘freedom of will’; one also has to be able to snap one’s fingers and conjure into the driver’s seat of one’s psyche an arbitrary will straight out of thin air, one that they had no prior inclination whatsoever to conjure (otherwise it wouldn’t be ‘free’). And it mustn’t be a random event either, or it still wouldn’t be ‘free’. Therefore, this arbitrary will must be both willed and unwilled at the same time. Only then can someone have ‘free will’. Only then can someone ever have any responsibility for any of their actions. This is the kind of tomfoolery that occupies the base of these people’s minds when dabbling in this subject.

Of course, they can always fall back on the very notion of ‘determinism’ itself (if the ‘trump card’ doesn’t work) and what it seems to them to mean: that human beings are simply robotic automatons of nature whose thoughts and actions are determined by a domino effect of causes and who merely labor under the illusion that they enjoy what they call ‘free will’ when they really don’t. It is the sort of conclusion that makes the chests of dormroom (and beer parlor) philosophers swell with pride and pat themselves on the back for ‘seeing’ something so ‘insightful’. Human beings, thus, are merely (at least when they enjoy this ‘illusion’) puppets that like their strings. (Incidentally, is a puppet that likes its strings essentially ‘free’, or isn’t it?) Meanwhile, these self-congratulating retards fail to see that their position is every bit as obtuse as saying that a canvas is not really a beautiful painting featuring a lovely scenery with humans and various objects…Why?...Because if you look very closely at it, it is made up of tiny little dots.

Typically, ‘hard determinists’, especially these dilettante types, are usually people who have come to some personal realization about a basic fact about the world and biological life (including human beings) that has long been trivial and obvious to other people and feel as though they have discovered something revolutionary (and personally exhilarating). This, for some reason, gives these amateurs a tendency to feel entitled to browbeat the works of much more thoughtful minds that have explored the subject long before they even knew that such a subject existed. This tendency may be attributable to the sensation of ‘discovery’ and conclusiveness that such people tend to feel about the concept of ‘determinism’ as it swims around in their heads, and a naïve and presumptuous belief that they have reached some kind of plateau of knowledge about the nature of the human mind – rather than just the foot of a long steep.
November 7, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterVictor Stephens
Here's how I understand free will:

It helps to think about the brain as a machine and consciousness as observing what the machine is doing. Like watching a dishwasher. It's easy to understand that a simple machine can only do determined, designed things or purely random things. How ever it is, you can't change it just by looking at it.

Then, complexity of the brain doesn't change that and the same applies; complexity only makes the machine able to do more intelligent things. The nature of the environment doesn't matter.

Even more, allowing the observation to affect the machine can be thought just as becoming part of the machine. It's still a machine.

Fundamentally, it about the necessity that any stuff must have some laws - chaotic or neat, doesn't matter.

This makes too much sense to me. I feel like people don't just get it. Alarming, really.
January 17, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterET

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