No Free Will, No Law And Order?

In a long review of Sam Harris’ Free Will, Daniel Dennett squirms at the practical, political consequences of full-throated determinism:

Harris, like the other scientists who have recently mounted a campaign to convince the world that free will is an illusion, has a laudable motive: to launder the ancient stain of Sin and Guilt out of our culture, and abolish the cruel and all too usual punishments that we zestfully mete out to the Guilty. As they point out, our zealous search for “justice” is often little more than our instinctual yearning for retaliation dressed up to look respectable. The result, especially in the United States, is a barbaric system of imprisonment—to say nothing of capital punishment—that should make all citizens ashamed. By all means, let’s join hands and reform the legal system, reduce its excesses and restore a measure of dignity—and freedom!—to those whom the state must punish. But the idea that all punishment is, in the end, unjustifiable and should be abolished because nobody is ever really responsible, because nobody has “real” free will is not only not supported by science or philosophical argument; it is blind to the chilling lessons of the not so distant past. Do we want to medicalize all violators of the laws, giving them indefinitely large amounts of involuntary “therapy” in “asylums” (the poor dears, they aren’t responsible, but for the good of the society we have to institutionalize them)? I hope not.

Harris shrugs off the complaint:

These concerns, while not irrational, have nothing to do with the philosophical or scientific merits of the case. They also arise out of a failure to understand the practical consequences of my view. I am no more inclined to release dangerous criminals back onto our streets than you are.

In my book, I argue that an honest look at the causal underpinnings of human behavior, as well as at one’s own moment-to-moment experience, reveals free will to be an illusion. (I would say the same about the conventional sense of “self,” but that requires more discussion, and it is the topic of my next book.) I also claim that this fact has consequences—good ones, for the most part—and that is another reason it is worth exploring. But I have not argued for my position primarily out of concern for the consequences of accepting it. And I believe you have.