Can We Only Wish What We Must?

June 1, 2021   •   By David Voron

Just Deserts: Debating Free Will

Gregg D. Caruso

WERE BERNIE MADOFF, Harvey Weinstein, and Lori Loughlin morally responsible for their misdeeds? Did they deserve to be punished? “No” and “no,” says Gregg Caruso. “Yes” and “yes,” says Daniel Dennett. These two professors of philosophy — Caruso at SUNY and Dennett at Tufts — engage in a spirited debate exploring multiple aspects of free will, moral responsibility, and punishment in their co-authored book Just Deserts, which grew out of a 2018 conversation at a rooftop bar in Beirut. In the book, Dennett and Caruso forcefully defend their opposing viewpoints, and the reader becomes engrossed in the twists and turns of the competing arguments.

Caruso begins the debate with this bold assertion:

[W]hat we do and the way we are is ultimately the result of factors beyond our control, and […] because of this we are never morally responsible for our actions in the basic desert sense — i.e. the sense that would make us truly deserving of blame and praise, punishment and reward.

The “factors beyond our control” to which Caruso refers are the interactions of genetic and environmental inputs beginning at the moment of conception. We didn’t choose our parents — the source of our genetic endowment — and although it may seem to us as if we control some aspects of our environment, that seeming control is itself the cumulative product of trillions of preceding gene/environment interactions operating below the level of consciousness. Our thoughts appear to us to be spontaneous and uncaused because we are not aware of their unconscious precursors. We therefore have the mistaken impression that we are initiating new causal chains.

In multiple experiments going back to the 1980s, neuroscientists have been able, using EEG recordings and fMRI, to predict the decisions of test subjects before the subjects themselves were aware of them. We have no introspective access to the operation of our mental machinery. We have the feeling that we generate our beliefs, thoughts, and feelings, but actually they generate us. Both the self and free will are mental constructs. Free will is a cognitive illusion somewhat analogous to an optical illusion in that it is not what it appears to be. Even after an optical illusion is explained to us (e.g., identical shades of gray appearing to differ in darkness when displayed on different backgrounds), we still see the illusion the same way. Likewise, even when we intellectually understand that free will is an illusion, the illusion persists. We can’t turn off the mental processes that produce the illusion, and we can’t help believing that we are responsible beings.

Dennett considers Caruso’s conception of free will a reductio ad absurdum and proposes his own version, which he calls “free will worth wanting.” This free will turns out to be the non-controversial everyday free will we all think we have and that Dennett also thinks all neurotypical adults have. Dennett simply starts with the assumption that free will is something we “grow into” in a gradual process beginning in infancy. He conflates free will with the unconstrained reason-responsiveness of intellectual and emotional maturity. He coins the term “sorta responsible” to denote an intermediate stage we go through on the path to “full responsibility.” The problem with this argument is that, as we mature and learn, we continue to be completely subject to the influence of our genes and environment. In fact, the self, as Caruso explains, is at base a cognitive construction, the continually evolving by-product of gene-environment interactions.

In any debate, it never hurts to have Albert Einstein in your corner. Caruso quotes from a 1929 interview published in The Saturday Evening Post in which Einstein makes clear his stance on free will:

I do not believe in free will. […] I believe with Schopenhauer: We can do what we wish, but we can only wish what we must. […] My own career was undoubtedly determined, not by my own will but by various factors over which I have no control. […] I claim credit for nothing. Everything is determined, the beginning as well as the end, by forces over which we have no control.

In his 1932 “Credo,” Einstein said,

Schopenhauer’s words […] accompany me in all situations throughout my life and reconcile me with the actions of others, even if they are rather painful to me. This awareness of the lack of free will keeps me from taking myself and my fellow men too seriously as acting and deciding individuals, and from losing my temper.

In several other essays published during his lifetime, Einstein affirmed that his denial of free will was a source of consolation in the face of hardship and prompted him to more easily forgive both himself and others. Guilt, resentment, and anger were all mitigated, he felt, when one gave up the illusion of free will.

Nevertheless, we find it difficult to accept the Caruso/Einstein argument that we do not have free will despite its logical coherence, because we intuitively want to hold others morally accountable for their actions. We are attached to the moral anger we feel toward wrongdoers and want to believe that this anger is justified. The tenacity with which we hold to our belief in free will is a reflection of the power of this intuitive emotion. As Hume taught us, reason is “the slave of the passions.” We spontaneously respond to behavior that we perceive as morally wrong with anger, and then we find a reason to justify that anger. The immediate impulse to blame precedes the attribution of moral responsibility.

Rule-breaking is a form of wrongful behavior that particularly arouses our indignation. Although there is some question regarding the validity of group selection theory, it seems reasonable that groups with the highest ratio of rule-followers to rule-breakers have had a survival advantage. Forceful sanctioning of rule-breakers was in the evolutionary interest of the group. We are descended from rule-followers; ostracizing and punishing rule-breakers comes naturally to us. Even Einstein, despite his denial of free will, could not overcome an innate antipathy toward wrongdoers. In the same Saturday Evening Post interview noted above, Einstein said, “I know that philosophically a murderer is not responsible for his crime; nevertheless, I must protect myself from unpleasant contacts. I may consider him guiltless, but I prefer not to take tea with him.” We can guess that Einstein would probably not have wanted to take tea with Bernie, Harvey, or Lori.

A rule-breaker is a cheater or free rider who hurts our individual and collective interests; our spontaneous reaction is to strike back. We share this powerful survival-promoting emotion with many other animals, including rats and chimps. We cannot, however (again acknowledging the wisdom of Hume), derive “ought” from “is.” Although the desire to strike back at the wrongdoer is natural, it is justified only if she actually deserves to be punished. And she only deserves to be punished if she is morally responsible for her behavior. But as Caruso and Einstein have repeatedly told us, our choices and actions are ultimately the result of factors beyond our control.

While Caruso focuses on what he sees as the unfairness of retributive punishment — because, he maintains, we are not morally responsible for our actions — Dennett frames the issue in consequentialist and contractual terms. Our primary goal should be maintaining a just, stable, and secure society. Over time, societies evolve rules to ensure the safety and security of their members. These rules are transmitted from one generation to the next. Inevitably there will be rule-breakers whose transgressions must be addressed if social stability is to be maintained. Rule-followers will justifiably assert that rule-breakers deserve unpleasant consequences. It seems intuitively obvious: if rule-breakers are not punished, rules will not be obeyed and social instability will ensue. Rule-followers will see rule-breakers “get away with it,” and will become resentful or will break the rules themselves. Citizens will lose faith in the rules and the rule-makers. In other words, punishing rule-breakers is necessary to uphold the social contract. Therefore, as Dennett says, “[P]eople do really and truly and non-instrumentally deserve to be punished for their crimes because they have accepted a bargain — a promise, a contract — that stipulates that they will be treated thus.”

Dennett sees societies as analogous to athletic games: players understand that the rules must be followed and that, if they disobey those rules, they will deserve the penalties imposed by the referees.

Caruso, on the other hand, opts for what he calls the “public health quarantine model.” In this model, wrongdoers are treated as if they were carriers of infectious disease and incapacitated only to the extent necessary to protect others. This incapacitation entails the loss of individual freedom, which Caruso sees as a form of harm to the individual justified on the basis of the right to harm in self-defense and defense of others. Caruso maintains that a “principle of least infringement” must be maintained and that any sanction imposed be proportionate to the continuing danger posed by the individual and not to the gravity of the crime itself. In some cases, for example, monitoring with a GPS-tracking ankle bracelet could be sufficient; in others, confinement may be necessary. In all situations, the prisoner should be treated with dignity and respect, with a focus on rehabilitation and reintegration into society. As soon as the prisoner is no longer a threat, he should be released. Caruso agrees with Kant that an individual should not be manipulatively used as a means to an end, and therefore does not believe that deterrence of others is a justification for punishment. Using the treatment of prisoners as a message to the public that “this is what will happen to you if you break the rules” is unjustifiable manipulation, according to Caruso.

Dennett, of course, favors a tougher approach, but does not object to the quarantine model so long as it is enforced by punishing those who do not comply. Punishment might include loss of licenses, fines, confiscation of property, and involuntary institutionalization. The alternative proposals suggested by Caruso just postpone the compliance problem, according to Dennett. Dennett also views shaming as a justifiable deterrent and suggests obligatory publication of the names of those punished and the nature of the punishment received. He says to Caruso: “When you propose to abolish blame and responsibility outright, you deny to everyone the respect due to an agent who undertakes to live a moral life and obey the laws of her society.” While Caruso sees the focus on punishment as myopic, Dennett maintains that “a world without punishment is not a world any of us would want to live in.”

The significance of luck and how it relates to free will and moral responsibility is another area of disagreement between Dennett and Caruso. Caruso maintains that the pervasiveness of luck undermines notions of free will and moral responsibility: “Since our genes, parents, peers, and other environmental influence all contribute to making us who we are, and since we have no control over these, it seems that who we are is at least largely a matter of luck.”

Caruso goes on to distinguish two types of luck: “constitutive” and “present.” Constitutive luck is the luck of who you are and how you are: your personality, capacities, character traits, and dispositions. Present luck is the totality of circumstances surrounding a given action and includes situational influences such as the mood you’re in, what thoughts come to you, and the salience of each of these thoughts. You do not control the interaction of all these inputs. Constitutive luck and present luck together dominate all of your thoughts and actions.

Dennett vigorously disagrees with Caruso on this score, opining that “[t]he thing about luck that makes it a poor player in the free will discussion is that we all know about luck, and hence can be held responsible for making allowances, making plans, and remembering about luck when we decide who is responsible and who isn’t.”

What Dennett does not grasp, however, is that “knowing about luck” is not helpful because the intrinsic nature of luck is that it is unforeseen and unpredictable. Dennett tells us to “seek out and identify flaws in our own past” and to “take steps to institute repairs” to address constitutive bad luck. To minimize the effects of present bad luck, he suggests that we plan our daily activities and long-term projects carefully. He unhelpfully advises us to “decline to play Russian roulette” and to “take our meds.” Dennett does not directly respond to Caruso’s persuasive argument that the qualities we have (e.g., determination, perseverance) and the efforts we make (e.g., acquisition of skills) are themselves attributable to luck. In other words, any actions we might take to avoid bad luck and benefit from good luck are themselves the result of constitutive luck (how we are) and present luck (current local circumstances).

Dennett would no doubt be partial to the cliché that we “make our own luck.” He claims that you can overcome bad luck with good luck — if you just try harder! But how hard you try is itself a matter of luck, even though it certainly does not seem that way to us. Indeed, the dominant role luck plays in our lives significantly weakens the conceptual validity of free will and moral responsibility. In a sense, the presence of luck and the absence of free will are two sides of the same coin. Since there is no such thing as free will, luck swallows all, and the lottery of life rules!

Just Deserts forcefully confronts the profoundly counterintuitive notion of free will. How things seem is not how they are. (As Samuel Johnson put it, “All theory is against the freedom of the will; all experience is for it.”) The central question is whether how things seem is more important than how they are. Neither Dennett nor Caruso provide an ultimately satisfying answer, but their fierce debate is nevertheless illuminating.


David Voron is a Clinical Professor Emeritus at the Keck University of Southern California School of Medicine. He has contributed to Skeptic magazine, e-SkepticThe Secular Web, and Internet Infidels.