Responsibility in Question: Caruso and Dennett's Just Deserts

Tom Clark
Book Title: 
Just Deserts
Book Author: 
Gregg Caruso and Daniel Dennett

Freedom is perhaps the paramount value in the West, certainly in America, which was born in the quest for liberty. But how free are we? What matters most are political and economic freedoms – the wide permissible range of belief, speech, and action that characterize open societies. But people also care about perceived threats to their personal autonomy, to their being responsible originators of action who deserve credit for good deeds and – the obligatory downside – blame for bad. We love to take credit and place blame, so tend to resent suggestions that perhaps we aren’t quite the originators we suppose ourselves to be.

Such concerns are increasingly in play as the debate about free will has gained traction over the past decade in the public square. Articles in mainstream media, blogs, videos, and books have given voice to free will deniers and, unsurprisingly, sparked vigorous replies by free will defenders.[1] The debate is reminiscent of arguments about the death of God, which it turns out was greatly exaggerated. Atheists, although more numerous these days, are still viewed with suspicion in polite mixed company, as are the small but growing number of free will skeptics. This makes sense since arguments about both God and free will can get pretty heated, revealing, as they often do, basic worldview commitments.

In Just Deserts, we have hand-to-hand philosophical combat between a rising star free will skeptic – Gregg Caruso - and a longtime, well known free will defender – Daniel Dennett. The title is apt, since the importance of the free will debate lies in how our concepts of personal responsibility, especially moral responsibility, play out in the arenas of criminal and social justice and in the distribution of wealth and opportunity. Who deserves what sort of punishment, if any, for wrong-doing, and why? Who deserves to get ahead and in what measure? Republicans: did you really build that (bridge, body, business) on your own? Are social policies and institutions giving us what we justly deserve, given the sorts of agents we are?

The disagreement explored in these pages isn’t about the contours of agency. Both discussants are philosophical naturalists who take for granted that human animals are fully subject to, and in principle explicable by, whatever physical, chemical, biological, neurological, psychological, sociological, and economic laws and regularities science shows to hold. They are, in short, determinists, albeit ones who recognize that universal determinism may not hold, perhaps due to quantum indeterminacy. Whatever true randomness exists in nature, they agree that the debate about free will should happen under the assumption of causal determinism, even if we obviously can’t know all the factors that contribute to a person’s development and current behavior.

Such pragmatic (not universal or omniscient) determinism marginalizes the libertarian, contra-causal conception of free will: that we have the ability to transcend our causal histories and situational influences in making choices. Such free will would make us, in effect, little gods who select among alternatives in a way not fully traceable to antecedent and current conditions, including our own character and motives. But uncaused causers are scientifically implausible and being ultimately self-caused (causa sui) a logical impossibility. Although research on free will beliefs suggests a contra-causal conception of agency is widely held outside the academy[2], both Caruso and Dennett dismiss it as a naturalistic non-starter. True, a small minority of philosophers and scientists continue to argue the case for libertarian free will, trying (vainly, in my view) to show how indeterminism in nature might be leveraged to give us more, and not less, control and responsibility than what’s available under determinism.[3] The difficulties in making that case are not at issue here. Rather, the debate in Just Deserts takes place within naturalism and determinism: if we discount libertarian freedom, what if anything counts as free will, and if we have it, what follows?

Caruso, the skeptic, holds that we natural creatures don’t have the kind of free will necessary to ground what he and others[4] calls basic desert moral responsibility, the sort of responsibility that would justify retributive punishment. Retribution entails that offenders deserve to suffer for their crimes whether or not such suffering helps to deter or rehabilitate, and is a primary rationale for punishment in the US, explicitly recognized by the Supreme Court.[5] But what sort of freedom could possibly ground such desert and responsibility? It could only be, Caruso says, the libertarian free will that both he and Dennett deny. Under determinism, we don’t possess the radically originative agency that would make us deserving in the way Caruso believes retribution requires: in actual situations, given all the causes in play, we couldn’t have become otherwise, or done otherwise. Offenders couldn’t have turned out differently given their formative circumstances; they are simply unlucky – not blameworthy – to have been shaped by criminogenic environmental and biological factors beyond their control. Caruso thus advocates that we abandon retributive punishment and reform criminal justice on a public health model: prevent crime to the extent possible by instituting social and economic justice, and instead of punishing wrongdoers, quarantine them non-punitively for reasons of self-defense, public safety, and moral and behavioral rehabilitation.

Dennett, like Caruso, is appalled by the iniquities (e.g., prolonged solitary confinement) inflicted on offenders by the US criminal justice system, and thus a strong advocate of reform. But he contends that punishment is deserved under determinism, and that indeed desert, based in free will, has nothing to do with determinism. Free will, on his account, is simply the normal capacity for self-control that most of us possess having reached the age of reason, or, as he puts it, when we become morally competent. It simply doesn’t matter that, under determinism, you couldn’t have done otherwise when you robbed the bank: you knew it was wrong, and the implicit bargain you strike with society is that you’re allowed your political and economic liberty so long as you respect the rules. To deserve punishment for rule breaking is simply the price paid for being a fallible, frequently tempted moral agent living according to a social contract from which you manifestly benefit. Punishment is the necessary evil by which the contract gets enforced. Without the threat of it, and making good on the threat, malefactors would quickly multiply, and we’d be living in a failed state.[6] Desert, then, is not a matter of naturalistically impossible libertarian agency, but imputed to normal adults as a hard-won, culturally evolved policy that reaps the forward-looking, consequentialist benefits of holding morally competent (free in Dennett’s sense) agents accountable. Such desert-based accountability is thus a variety of moral responsibility, one compatible with determinism.

Dennett, a free will and moral responsibility compatibilist, accordingly wants to retain talk of moral desert, including “just deserts,” while not wanting to be lumped in with retributivists, who he sees as enablers of punitive excess. The problem here, Caruso points out, is that desert talk has strong retributivist connotations. To receive your just deserts (get your comeuppance) suggests that your suffering is the main point, not any good consequences. Such language inevitably engages our hard-wired retaliatory inclinations, which often overshoot their naturally selected function: to promote social stability by punishing cheaters.[7] If your objective is to reform criminal justice along consequentialist lines and rid it of retributive overshoot, keeping “just deserts” in the lexicon seems a bit self-defeating. Caruso, the radical reformer, has a hard time seeing the need to retain it. But such talk is obviously more consistent with commonsense intuitions underlying current law, which, like our moral psychology, cares a lot less about the wider causes of crime than the imperative to punish wrongdoers.

In keeping with his more conservative approach, Dennett takes Caruso to task for supposing we can live without punishment qua punishment to enforce good behavior. How (details please!) can the latter’s non-punitive quarantine regime, applied across the board, keep wrongdoers in check? Although Caruso distrusts punishment as deterrence since it’s been used justify draconian sanctions (3 strikes law leading to life imprisonment) and punishment of the innocent (at least in theory), he nevertheless acknowledges that the loss of liberty involved in quarantine can produce deterrence as a side-effect. Dennett is not impressed, and advocates real punishment as deterrence (it has to hurt to deter), but calibrated to minimize collateral damage to offenders (a dicey proposition). Both he and Caruso therefore broadly agree on the need for substantial criminal justice reform along anti-retributivist, consequentialist lines, but disagree on the role of desert and punishment in a reformed system. As Dennett notes at book’s end, the reader will have to decide whether his relatively conservative (but still progressive) proposal or Caruso’s far-reaching public health approach best passes muster, both conceptually and practically.

To buttress his case for desert, Dennett’s tactic is to highlight our evident capacities for self-control and self-improvement, while downplaying the role of causal luck in the formation of agents. What’s important, he says, is the local, present action control most of us have, something consistent with determinism, not the fact that we don’t have ultimate libertarian control over ourselves. This keeps the agent front and center as the essential, reasons-responsive cause of behavior and thus motivates our intuitions of desert. Don’t look too hard at the distal and situational causes of someone’s character, motives, and action. Instead, realize that in being morally competent, the person in front of us is the consequentially justifiable target of reactive attitudes such as admiration and respect, or anger and resentment. Such emotions, triggered by good and bad acts, are the natural basis for judgments that the agent deserves – merits, is owed – praise or blame, that then function to “guide goodness,” law scholar Stephen Morse’s locution.[8]

Of course, some folks end up morally competent (know right from wrong, are basically rational) but also morally flawed: they habitually or occasionally do the wrong thing. Are they blameworthy for ending up that way? Dennett says yes since most biologically normal humans develop self-making capacities and can be held responsible – blamed – for not exercising them correctly. Even those growing up in tough environments have a good chance, he says, to eventually possess sufficient competence for correct self-formation: “…it is worth reminding ourselves that in some cases – maybe most cases – the very hardships and injustices and assaults they endured hastened their achievement of self-control and responsibility.” (74, emphasis added). Data from many sources contradict this claim: trauma, violence, and abuse in childhood and adolescence often compromise the brain-based capacities for impulse control while modeling anti-social behavioral styles often adopted by victims as coping strategies.[9] Are such individuals really to blame for their deficits in self-control and for having imbibed defective moral norms? You decide.

Against Dennett, Caruso argues, correctly on my view, that as Galen Strawson puts it, “luck swallows everything.” Caruso reminds us that although we have self-making capacities, these capacities and how we exercise them are not ultimately of our choosing. The agent can only act with what’s she’s already been given at each and every stage of development, starting from birth. There’s complete causal continuity, the details of which, if we care to look, can explain how we self-formed (to the extent we did) and ended up as either law-abiding or not.[10] Some are lucky, some unlucky, in their causal histories and current circumstances. This is the determinism that Dennett would have us ignore, even though he’s a determinist.

The effect of concentrating on the causal story of personal development is two-fold: it can soften (not eliminate) our reactive attitudes by subtracting the spurious libertarian agent who supposedly deserves ultimate credit or blame (what I call the mitigation response), and it draws our attention to the factors that actually account for moral character. As a result, we’re in a better position, individually and socially, to guide goodness. Getting explicit about causal determinism is the informational basis for Caruso’s prevention-based criminal justice model – if we’re serious about reducing crime we must intervene intelligently in criminogenic environments – and it undercuts a major justification for our retributive emotions: that offenders could have turned out otherwise, but culpably chose not to. Dennett claims that determinism doesn’t matter much to our moral discourse: if we don’t have libertarian free will, so what? (14, 180). But Caruso shows that challenging it in light of determinism can improve us, morally and practically; not to do so neglects a significant source of cultural progress.

I’ve given just a rough outline of some of the main disagreements aired in this book; there’s plenty of nuance and informed exposition on both sides that fills out the conversation. Whichever side you end up on (and you can of course agree with elements of both), Just Deserts is an instructive example of naturalistic, empirically grounded philosophical investigation, one with important practical implications, carried out in a largely respectful but entertainingly adversarial mode. There are occasional moments of incredulity and exasperation the editors wisely left in for spice. Newcomers will get a good introduction to one aspect of the growing free will debate, that between naturalist-determinists who differ on how we should define free will: is it compatible with determinism (Dennett), or not (Caruso); and what are the ramifications for responsibility of not having libertarian freedom: are they consequential (Caruso) or not (Dennett)? Along the way are close analyses of classic arguments (e.g., Peter van Inwagen’s “consequence argument”) and thought experiments (manipulation by evil neuroscientists) that connoisseurs of the free will literature will appreciate. Although the discourse inevitably gets us into the philosophical weeds from time to time, the language is not too technical, plus there’s a helpful glossary of terms up front. The book also includes an extensive, up-to-date bibliography if you want to explore further, and philosopher Derk Pereboom (an ally of Caruso in the quest to undermine basic desert moral responsibility, see note 4) provides a thoughtful, non-partisan introduction.

It’s encouraging (to me anyway) that the premise of Just Deserts is that, when considering human agency, we should operate under the plausible assumption of a naturalistic, pragmatic determinism. Both parties agree that the libertarian conception of free will is conceptually and empirically forlorn, and, says Caruso in particular, positively harmful. When we let it go, we access a realistic, practically effective, and morally tenable (not nihilistic) picture of ourselves. As Just Deserts illustrates, the naturalization of agency can motivate a more humane system of criminal justice and more enlightened social policies, those informed by a science of human nature. Given that nature, we will always have our retributive instincts to deal with, and disagreements about how they should be dealt with. But acknowledging that we are entirely within, not outside, the causal order is an essential step in getting them under control for the common good.

TWC, February 2021



[1] See for example Sorry, But Your Soul Just Died by Tom Wolfe; Do You Have Free Will? Yes, It’s the Only Choice in the New York Times; There’s No Such Thing as Free Will in The Atlantic; Sam Harris’s Free Will, Free Will?: A Documentary, forthcoming; You Don’t Have Free Will by Jerry Coyne; and Free Will: Recent Work on Agency, Freedom and Responsibility by Robyn Repko Waller.

[2] Sarkissian, Hagop, A. Chatergee, F. De Brigard, J. Knobe, S. Nichols, and S. Sirker. 2010. Is belief in free will a cultural universal? Mind & Language 25 (3): 346–358.

[3] See for example Robert Kane, 2014. New arguments in debates on libertarian free will: responses to contributors. In Libertarian Free Will: Contemporary Debates, ed. David Palmer, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 179–214; Peter Tse, 2013. The Neural Basis of Free Will. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press; and Mark Balaguer, 2004. A coherent, naturalistic, and plausible formulation of libertarian free will. Noûs 38 (3): 379–406.

[4] Derk Pereboom is a notable ally of Caruso in denying such moral responsibility, see his book Free Will, Agency, and Meaning in Life.

[5] “The two purposes that sustain the death penalty as nonexcessive in the Court's view are general deterrence and retribution.” From Gregg v. Georgia, 1976.

[6] See this account of the chaos following the 1969 Montreal police strike.

[7] See John Darley, 2009. Morality in the law: the psychological foundations of citizen’s desire to punish transgressions. Annual Review of Law and Social Science, 5 (1): 1-23.

[8] Morse, Stephen. J. 2000. Guiding goodness: practical reason and criminal responsibility. Paper presented at the 2000 Congress of the International Academy of Law and Mental Health

[9] See for example Bessel A. van der Kolk et al. 2005. Disorders of extreme stress: The empirical foundation of a complex adaptation to trauma, Journal of Traumatic Stress, and Arthur R. Rademaker et al., 2008. Self‐reported early trauma as a predictor of adult personality: a study in a military sample, Journal of Clinical Psychology,

[10] Robert Sapolsky explores in detail the causal provenance of poor decisions in his book Behave, reviewed by Richard Wrangham in the New York Times.