The second-to-last episode of Very Bad Wizards features a marathon interview with
Sam Harris that focuses on free will and moral responsiblity. If you have even an ounce of
philosophy in your bones, I can't recommend this highly enough.
In a nutshell, the lads all reject the concept of libertarian free will, but have various
disagreements on the implications of this, at least in terms of moral responsibility and
When you've finished listening to the episode, go and read Daniel Miessler's response. His
reaction was very similar to mine. In particular, he was frustrated that they seemed to have lost
sight of what appeared to be the krux of the issue:
Once we as individuals, or as a society, accept that free will does not exist, what justification
remains for moral responsibility outside of a consequentialist framework?
Since listening to the discussion, I've become more sympathetic to the positions of David and Tamler
(David Pizarro and Tamler Sommers, that is, the wizards), but I still take Sam's
position. I think the part of Tamler's alternative that frustrates me is that the point at which one
draws the line between morally responsible (or blameworthy) and not seems to move based not on
whether an individual accepts that an action was causally determined, but on whether an individual
feels the emotional and intellectual weight of that fact. It bugs me that the position of that line
will change over time (as people increasingly feel the weight of determinism) and also that there is
bound to be some situations, perhaps even the drunk driving situation hypothesized in the
discussion, for which some people will never feel the weight. This distinction feels too squishy
to hang a moral framework on. (But perhaps good moral philosophy is bound to feel squishy. We are,
after all, meat roombas.)
(Note that I'm not at all sure that Tamler would agree that that's where he draws the line. That's
simply my understanding.)
Anyway, when you're done with Daniel's response, go and read Billie Pritchett's summary. It's
incisive and clarifying and provides a rich philosophical backdrop to the discussion. He pegs Sam as
a global consequentialist, Tamler as a virtue ethicists of sentiments, and David as a
deontologist. I'd love to hear whether or not they agree with these labels.
Also in that summary is a lovely little diversion on global consequentialism and the recusive moral
computations it entails:
Harris doesn't say this on the podcast, but he's a consequentialist of a particular type, a global
consequentialist. A global consequentialist is someone who believes that when judging the
consequences of human well-being, we have to take everything into account. This would include
taking judgments into account now and judgments as they would be at some optimal state of the
species. Whatever could contribute to well-being, even perhaps the consequences of accepting the
things that we think would contribute to well-being into well-being, ought to be considered, and
when we do, we will actually improve well-being. Notice the odd but cool (?) recursive quality to
Finally, you should listen to the followup episode of the podcast, the first half is a
continuation of this discussion, the second half is typical VBW goodness.
And jeez, just go and subscribe, you bum.
BTW, I've linked to this episode and the posts mentioned above on Twitter a few times already.
One of those tweets included a quote from the show:
'Ok, but the bridge of "fuck it" doesn't really seem like a philosophically deep argument'
@SamHarrisOrg on latest @verybadwizards
This was said by Sam in response to a throw-away line by a temporarily exasperated Tamler. On the
followup episode Tamler complained about the legion of Twitter brats that threw this line back at
him (presumably as evidence of a hollow argument). To assuage my guilt I just want to say that I
quoted it merely because I thought it was a funny line from the show, not to make a any sort of
philosophical point. Philosophy full of f-bombs is my jam.