Re: Very Bad Wizards 59 – Tumors All the Way Down

Thu 08 January 2015

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 blameworthiness.

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 the position.

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.

© 2018 John Martin