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.
But Dennett does not here admit the half of it. It means that no moral arguments can be advanced against any behaviour at all.
The sort of people attracted to Harris and Dennett are highly moralist puppets, actually; their selfish genes seem forever to hoist their joints in the direction of denouncing this traditional moral belief or that one (while advancing, of course, a new one).
Richard Dawkins, one of the four horsemen of the new atheist apocalypse (no, really!), discovered this the hard way when he implied that some moral lapse, not usually seen as a big deal, wasn’t a big deal (yes, yes, the elevator of evil, remember?) So Dawkins, who was not even in the elevator at the time, ended up in the doghouse with many of his own fans. Like we said, they are highly moralist puppets.
One suspects that for some, the worst part of taking no free will seriously is not losing a sense of control or letting thugs run free. They might adapt quickly to all that. The problem is, they can no longer strike moral poses with the accustomed enjoyment of their own righteousness.
Yes, it is true. The death of free will is the death of righteousness. For the typical new atheist, that spells the death of self-righteousness when attacking others.
Harris can live with that:
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.
Dangerous what? The only way to make a no-free-will society work is to incarcerate everyone, the way a chem lab stores all chemicals safely. Release safely as needed. Neither the thug, nor the social reformer, nor the chemicals attract any praise or blame, only monitoring and intervention when needed. Harris goes on:
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.
Just think: These people are our moral and intellectual superiors. 😉
See also: I will means something after all
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Hat tip: Andrew Sullivan