Class Notes and Reading Schedule - MRFW Spring 2021

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Return to Moral Responsibility and Free Will

1: JAN 20

First Day of Class Information

  • Introduction to the Course
  • Welcome - personal introduction and welcome. (Some student introductions.)
  • About the Course (Overview of course focus. Detail to follow.)
  • Course Websites: SharePoint, Wiki &
  • Overview of Teaching Approach.
  • 1. Student choice in work and grading scheme - Your "grading scheme" (the assignments you will be graded on) has both required and optional elements. You can customize up to 30% of your grading scheme to suite your learning style or motivations in the course.
  • 2. Transparency grade information and student work - You will see most of the writing and scoring for required writing assignments. This will require the use of pseudonyms.
  • 3. Opacity of grade information, peer comments, and student identity - Like blind review in academic life
  • 4. Writing Enhanced - Students participate in reviewing and evaluating student writing. This also requires the use of pseudonyms. (Some student introductions.)
  • Succeeding in the Course:
  • Prep Cycle - view reading notes as you are reading, read, note, quiz, evaluate preparation. Hierarchy of skills and goals.
  • Reading - Keep track of the time you spend reading for the course. Mark a physical text. Contact me if your reading quiz scores are not what you expect.
  • Writing - Try to learn the rubric, read other students' writing and compare scores, discuss your writing with me, especially during office hours.
  • Keep in mind course research questions Course Research Questions - MRFW Spring 2021 (Some student introductions.)
  • Required Assignments and Default Grade Weights for your Grading Scheme
  • 1. Points 45-75% default = 65%
  • 2. Final Paper 25-40% default = 35%
  • More About the Course (Orientation, Content, major research questions)
  • 1st Day Survey of Views about Moral Responsiblity and Free Will - Please take this short survey any time today. It is completely anonymous. You will, of course, see results. I have also asked the Philosophy faculty to take the survey, so we may have some comparative data from them.
  • Why we are discussing moral responsibility today (view course research questions).
  • Major Units.
  • Zoom
  • Video on/off
  • Synchronous attendance. Send excuses for absence prior to class, if possible.
  • If you miss class, please try to view the recorded class within 24 hours.
  • Try think of ways to personalize the virtual experience: examples from last semester - put up a pic for video off. Share something about where you are. Dogs, cats, music, etc.
  • First Day TO DO list:
  • make sure you can find the three course websites and that you understand what information and tools each provides.
  • Browse the top links on the course wiki page
  • Find reading for next class on wiki and pdfs from
  • Buy Daniel Dennett, Freedom Evolves
  • Keep an eye out for Moral Responsibility and Free Will News!
  • Sign up for in person attendance. Feel free to sign up for three or four classes at a time. If that crowds others out we might need limit signups to each next class.

2: JAN 25 Unit One: Introduction to MRFW problems


  • Discuss Philosophical Methods

Radio Lab Episode on Blame and Moral Responsibility

  • Segment 1: Story of Kevin and his wife, Janet. Kevin is arrested for child pornography.
  • 15 years earlier. Epilepsy seizures returned after surgery two years earlier. Can't drive so he meets Janet from work, who drives him to work. Romance... Still more seizures. Another surgery. Music ability in tact. But then his food and sexual appetite grew, played songs on the piano for hours. Disturbing behavior. Really disturbing behavior.
  • Reporter tries to get at who it was who did it. Kevin claims compulsion. downloads and deletes files.
  • Orin Devinsky: neurologist testified in court that it wasn't Kevin's fault.
  • Neurological dive: deep parts of our brain can generate weird thoughts, but we have a "censor". Maybe Kevin lost that part of his brain. Observed in post-surgery monkeys.
  • Lee Vartan -- Can't be impulse control. porn at home, but not at work. He must have known that it was wrong. Teret's can be circumstantially triggered even though it is clearly neurological. Poignant exchange with Janet about staying in the relationship. Kluwer-Bucy. Months before sentencing. Medication makes him normal, but eliminates his libido. 5 yrs. - home arrest. Judge ackn. prosecutor's point. You could have asked for help. (Reflect on this a bit.) 26 months federal prison 25 months of house arrest. 2008-2010.
  • 4 minute discussion questions: Do you agree with prosecutor's Vartan's point? Why or why not? What would your sentence have been?
  • Segment 2: Blame - person or brain.
  • Nita Frahany - neurolaw professor (law and philosophy!). Might be lots of cases. (argument: isn't this just like blame everything else for what you do wrong? Isn't it too easy?). Thought experiment: deaf person, child in burning building. "emotional inability" would also be damage to a physical structure (as in the ear).
  • David Eagleman, neuroscientist - makes critical point: neuroscience isn't so precise. New technologies will show us how experience is written in our brain. (Back to Descartes. wrong.) Slippery slope, the brain is always involved. Blameworthiness might be the wrong question. Person vs. biology doesn't really make sense anymore. The "choosey" part of the brain (the homonculus!). 36:00 minutes. Funny exchange. Self-modification comes up.
  • Claim: Legal system should drop moral blame. Adopt utilitarian approach. Predict recidivism. Point system exists. Better than people (50% accurate). System 70%. Currently there is appearance bias for example.
  • A point system might be very predictive, but you might not want to convict someone of a future crime. Would it be?
  • Frahany - Blame might serve social function of articulating norms.
  • 4 minute discussion questions: Frahany thinks there are lots of cases of the criminal justice system punishing unfairly. Are you persuaded? If so, does a utilitarian approach (with or without the point system) make sense?
  • Segment 3: Dear Hector
  • Bianca Giaver (producer) - Hector Black. Hector's backstory - joins civil rights movement, adopts Patricia, a neglected child. Patricia's story (becomes a beautiful and productive person) -- Patricia is murdered. Hector considers whether he wishes the death penalty for him. Hector's statement -- 48min. Writes a letter of forgiveness to the murderer. Ivan's story - son of schizophrenic mom, beat him, horror. Do we still blame Ivan the same way. Hector tells his story. Many letters exchanged. A strange bond. Hector has self-doubts - sending care packages to Ivan???. (Maybe he's just a weird guy.)
  • Ivan tells the original story of Patricia's murder. Ivan hears a voice that sometime comes to him. Commits the murder. Can't make sense of it.
  • 4 minute discussion questions: Does Ivan's story change your view of the kind of threat he poses -- one from choosing evil/failing a responsiblity vs. compulsion?

3: JAN 27


  • RQ1: Reading Quiz #1
  • Sapolsky, Robert. Chapter 16: Biology, the Criminal Justice System, and (Oh, Why Not?) Free Will (580-613)
  • Henrich, Joseph, "Hell, Free Will, and Moral Universalism" from The WEIRDEST People on Earth p. 146-148, (2)

Sapolsky, Chapter 16: Biology, the Criminal Justice System, and (Oh, Why Not?) Free Will

  • Discusses professional interaction between biologists and legal scholars that may have started “neurolaw”.
  • Radical claim: Current criminal justice system needs to be replaced. (Not talking about policing, right?)
  • Things outside his focus: science in courtroom, min IQ for death sentence, cognitive bias in jurors, cognitive privacy.
  • 583: historic example of scientific evidence disrupting criteria for guilt in witches trials, mid-16th century. Older women might not be able to cry.
  • Three Perspectives
  • no one now disputes that we sometimes are not free (epilepsy example). Yet medieval europe tried animals for guilt. (Sounds weirder than it is. Just imagine it's about the act, not criminal intent.)
  • Drawing Lines in the Sand 586
  • endorses a broad compatibilism and the idea of “moral failure”. He develops the competing concept, “Mitigated free will,” but ultimately, Sapolsky will try to show that this view doesn’t hold up, in part because it depends up arbitrary use of a “homonculus” to explain things. But he's still a compatibilist on free will.
  • 1842: M’Naghten. Rule at 587. Mentally ill murderer. Many objected to his not being found guilty. John Hinckley.
  • "mitigated free will" homonculus view: we all more or less think this way and then the problem of responsibility comes down to figuring out what to expect from the humunculus. What is it capable of or should have been capable of.
  • Age, Maturity of Groups, Maturity of Indidividuals
  • 2005 case Roper v. Simmons. Age limit of 18 on executions and life terms. Follows debates on this. 590.
  • 2010 and 2012 cases on rehab for juvies. age related bounds on free will (in the justice system).
  • ”grossly impaired rationality”.
  • Gazzaniga’s view: responsibility compatible with lack of free will. Responsibility is a social level concern. Time course of decision making.
  • disputes about the maturity of adolescents: APA has spoken both ways in court: not mature enough for criminal resp., but mature enough to make an abortion decision.
  • Causation and Compulsion -- not everything that causes us to act is a compulsion, but for some, it is.
  • works through example of schizophrenic hearing voices. Not all cases would be compulsion. "If your friend suggests that you mug someone, the law expects you to resist, even if it's an imaginary friend in your head." “thus in this view even a sensible homunculus can lose it and agree to virtually anything, just to get the hellhounds and trombones to stop.” 593
  • Starting a behavior vs. halting it. ("free won't")
  • Libet experiment, 1980s, EEG disclosure of “readiness potential” — activity measured before conscious awareness of will. .5 second delay might just be artifact of experiment design. Time it takes to interpret the clock. Libet says maybe the lag time is the time you have to veto the action your body is preparing you for (“free won’t”)
  • Sapolsky’s view is that these debates reflect a consensus about the interaction of biology and free will, whatever that is.
  • ”You must be smart” vs. “You must have worked so hard”
  • research of Carol Dweck, 90s, saying that a kid worked hard to get a result increases motivation.
  • 596: we tend to assign aptitude to biology and effort and resisting impulse to free will. Sapolsky seems very skeptical that we can justify assigning character (impulse control anyway) to non-biological factors (fairy dust). Read at 598.
  • some evidence that pedophilia is not freely chosen or easily resisted.
  • chart showing how we divide things between biology and “homoncular grit”. — Long list of ways out biology influence the items on the right.
  • Conclusions: “worked hard/must be smart” are equally grounded in our physical nature.
  • But does anything useful actually come of this?
  • Grounds for skepticism about using neuroscience in the courtroom: Stephen Morse. Neurolaw sceptic, ok with M’naugton, but thinks cases are rare. Reviews valid criticisms he makes: 1. Juries might overvalue neuroscience images, 2. Descriptive vs. Normative.
  • Morse supports a strong distinction between causation and compulsion. Causation is not itself an excuse. But Sapolsky argues that this still involves walling off a “homonculus” and that’s not plausible.
  • Acknowledges an apparent problem. Neuroscience typically can’t predict individual behavior very much. Fictional exchange with prosecutor. 600
  • Explaining lots and Predicting Little
  • But is the lack of predictive power a problem in the argument? S. works through some cases in which probability of prediction decreases, but no less likely that it could be a case of compulsion. 601
  • 602: Important methodological point: There's no less biology in the leg fracture vs. the other disorders, but level of biological explanation is different. Leg fractures are less connected to culture. Behavior is multifactorial and heavily cultural. (Oh god, another Henrich digression. Free will has a history.) Example: how much does biology predict depression? Factors are diverse biological mechanisms, including cultural factors. (But, point is, someone can be disable by depression, just like the leg fracture.)
  • Marvin Minsky, “Free will: internal forces I do not understand”. Sapolsky adds “yet”.
  • Neat charts showing historic trend to connect social behavior and biology in research journals. 604-605.
  • If you still believe in mitigated free will:
  • case of Dramer and Springer and the spiritual explanation for epilepsy. Biblical version with Jesus.
  • Sapolsky imagines an Inquisitor (witch burner). Must be puzzled occasionally by fact pattern. Mom has epilepsy.
  • growth of knowledge argument 607-608. read list. Most likely option is that our kids will look at us as idiots about moral responsibility and culpability.
  • 608: practical outcomes. Not about letting violent criminals free. On the biological view, punishment can’t be an end in itself (restoring balance). Retributive punishment is an end in itself.
  • Brain imaging suggests culpability judgements activate the cool and cognitive dlPFC, but punishment judements activate more emotional vmPFC. “A frothy limbic state”. Makes sense that punishment is costly. But we need to overcome our attachment to punishment. It is involved in a lot of unjustified suffering.
  • Recaps the transition we've made with epilepsy 610.
  • Car free will. A kind of reductio argument.

Henrich, Joseph, "Hell, Free Will, and Moral Universalism"

  • This excerpt from The WEIRDEST People in the World comes in the context of a section on "universal moralizing gods" which characterize the major world religions (though Buddhism requires some discussion). H's theory is that this cultural innovation in religions allows societies to grow, solving the problems associated with living with so many strangers, something our evolved psychology did not really prepare us for.
  • The three innovations of moralizing religions are:
  • contingent afterlife:
  • free will: encouraged follower to believe they could comply with moral code by acts of choice and will.
  • moral universalism:
  • The rest of the excerpt goes into evidence of the effects of each feature on social life. The research related to free will is at top of p. 148.
  • What consequences, if any, does this research have for our thinking about the modern problems of free will and moral responsibility?
  • Maybe -- Cultural variants on ways of thinking about agency make real differences in social morality...
  • Maybe -- Free will has its origins in psychological adaptations that allow us to live in large societies.
  • Maybe -- The philosopher's concern with the metaphysical problem of free will is hard to reconcile with the cultural utility of a belief in free will.
  • Maybe -- We have more reason now to separate what we tell our kids (You can do it if you try. Don't let other people control your decisions. What do you want to do with your life?) from what we know (?) about the ways that agency can be compromised or broken. The first way of talking seems justified even if the reality is that our failures are often the result of forces we have marginal control over.
  • Does this research tell us that punishment (and one modelled on hell?) is atavistic or useful in shaping our thinking and policy?
  • Do these lines of thought strengthen or weaken (or leave unchanged) our commitment to moral responsibility as retribution?

4: FEB 1


  • Nadelhoffer, Thomas. "Introduction - Moral Responsibility has a Past - Has it a future?" (16)
  • Waller. Bruce. "Moral Responsibility is Morally Wrong" (15)
  • Rubric Training

Nadelhoffer, Thomas. "Introduction - Moral Responsibility has a Past - Has it a future?"

Waller. Bruce. "Moral Responsibility is Morally Wrong"

5: FEB 3


  • SW1: Preliminary Assessment
  • Sie, Maureen. "Free Will, an Illusion?" (15)

Sie, Maureen. "Free Will, an Illusion?"

6: FEB 8


  • RQ2: Reading Quiz 2
  • Dennett, Daniel. Chapter 1. Freedom Evolves. (15)

Dennett, Daniel. Chapter 1. Freedom Evolves

  • Chapter 1: Natural Freedom
  • introduces evo perspective on consciousness.
  • problem of science and det. as possible threat to f.w.
  • 10: free will evolved. still evolving. contingent. 13: as real as other human creations.
  • 14: story of Dumbo the elephant the feather that makes him believe he can fly. Origin of "Stop that crow!" 15: naturalism introduced; anti-naturalism; Lewontin and anti-determinists (19);

7: FEB 10 Unit Two: Traditional Approaches


  • Nagel, Thomas. "Moral Luck" (1979) (10)
  • Frankfurt, Harry. "Alternative Possibilities and Moral Responsibility" (1969) (10)

Nagel, Thomas. "Moral Luck"

Frankfurt, Harry. "Alternative Possibilities and Moral Responsibility" (1969)

8: FEB 17


  • RQ3: Reading Quiz 3
  • Strawson Galen. "The Impossibility of Moral Responsibility" (1994) (23)

Strawson Galen. "The Impossibility of Moral Responsibility" (1994)

9: FEB 22


  • SW2: Assessing Traditional Approaches
  • Today's class will be a "summit" on these three approaches. We may hear from class presenters about additional literature on this work. Here are some samples, recommended for browsing, but not assigned for everyone to read:
  • Widerker, David. "Libertarianism and Frankfurt's Attack on the Principle of Alternative Possibilities" (13)
  • Frankfurt, Harry. "Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person" (15)
  • Caruso, Gregg. "A Defense of the Luck Pincer" (18)

10: FEB 24 Unit Three: Contemporary MR Skepticism


  • Waller, Bruce. Chapter 1. "Moral Responsibility," Against Moral Responsibility (16)

Waller, Bruce. Chapter 1. "Moral Responsibility," Against Moral Responsibility

11: MAR 1


  • Waller, Bruce. Chapter 2. "The Basic Argument against Moral Responsibility," Against Moral Responsibility (23)

Waller, Bruce. Chapter 2. "The Basic Argument against Moral Responsibility," Against Moral Responsibility

12: MAR 3


  • Begin Small Group Assessment of Waller
  • Dennett, Daniel. Review of "Against Moral Responsibility, (10)
  • Clark, Tom. "Exchange on Waller's 'Against Moral Responsibility"(12)

13: MAR 8

  • Review Group Assessments of Waller

14: MAR 10: Free Will and Culture


  • Dennett, Daniel. Chapter 2: "A Tool for Thinking about Determinism" Freedom Evolves. (300) (25-63)

Dennett, Daniel. Chapter 2: "A Tool for Thinking about Determinism" Freedom Evolves.

  • Chapter 2: A tool for thinking about determinism
  • people go wrong in thinking about determinism.
  • toy version of determinism problem: Laplace's demon -- first modern expression of scientific determinism, idea of being able to predict all future states of a system from knowing the position and movement of everything at some moment.
  • 29: starts to complicates the possibility implicit in Laplace's demon
  • a democratean universe -- but only some versions of this are deterministic. How would you know? You can sort them into deterministic and non, but only on the basis of regularities that have probabilities at (det) or below (non) 1.
  • Brings in Conway's Life World simulations to show that a deterministic universe can have a design level which instantiates "evitability" and other properties.
  • 43: the birth of avoidance 46: there are life worlds in which there are Universal Touring Machines.
  • 53: A process with no foresight can invent a process with foresight.
  • 59: we change "anticipated" outcomes, not real ones.
  • 60: determinism is the friend of those who dislike inevitability.

15: MAR 15


  • Dennett, Daniel. Chapter 3: "Thinking about Determinism" Freedom Evolves. (300) (63-97)

Dennett, Daniel. Chapter 3: "Thinking about Determinism" Freedom Evolves

  • Chapter 3: Thinking about Determinism
  • 63: introduces "possible worlds" as a way of making sense of talk about the way things "could have gone" (wants to sever the implication we draw between this talk about indeterminism)
  • 64: thesis: Det. compatible with the assumptions that govern out thinking about what is possible.
  • introduces poss. worlds defs for necessary, posibile,
  • 70: causation -- in poss. worlds language. 71: linguistic analysis of what we mean by "inevitable" "unavoidable" to cash out "causal sufficiency"
  • 75: Three major confusions about poss and causation have prevented a good account of free will.
  • 1. Fear that determinism reduces our possibilities. Austin's putt. Seems about determinism limiting poss, but not if you use p-world talk.
  • 2. The determinism implies that we could not do otherwise. 84: Determinism is about causal sufficiency, not necessity.
  • 85: coin flip is, in one sense determined, but has no necessary cause, only sufficient.
  • 86: false assumption that the only way for an event not to have a cause is for it to be strictly undetermined, to have no sufficient condition, no matter how complex and uninteresting (like the coin fliP)
  • 89: our thinking about causation is connected to anitcipation and avoidance, not to
  • 3. That every event has a cause and that our natures are fixed. 91: in some deterministic worlds a thing's nature changes over time.

16: MAR 17


  • Dennett, Daniel. Chapter 4: "A Hearing for Libertarianism" Freedom Evolves. (300) (63-97)

Dennett, Daniel. Chapter 4: "A Hearing for Libertarianism" Freedom Evolves.

17: MAR 22


  • SW3: Assessing claims about determinism and free will.
  • Dennett, Daniel. Chapter 5: "Where Does all the Design Come From?" Freedom Evolves. (300) (141-170)

Dennett, Daniel. Chapter 5: "Where Does all the Design Come From?" Freedom Evolves

18: MAR 24


  • Dennett, Daniel. Chapter 6: "The Evolution of Open Minds" Freedom Evolves. (300) (170-193)

Dennett, Daniel. Chapter 6: "The Evolution of Open Minds" Freedom Evolves

19: MAR 29


  • Henrich, Joe. "The Dark Matter of History" The WEIRDEST People on Earth. (469-489)

Henrich, Joe. "The Dark Matter of History" The WEIRDEST People on Earth.

20: MAR 31


  • Dennett, Daniel. Chapter 7: "The Evolution of Moral Agency" Freedom Evolves. (300) (193-221) (28)
  • Dennett, Daniel. Chapter 8: "The Evolution of Open Minds" Freedom Evolves. (300) (221-259) (38)

Dennett, Daniel. Chapter 7: "The Evolution of Moral Agency" Freedom Evolves

Dennett, Daniel. Chapter 8: "The Evolution of Open Minds" Freedom Evolves

21: APR 7


  • Today we may have some reports from students on Dennett and/or a general assessment of naturalism and cultural evolutionary theory for our research questions.

22: APR 12: Proposals and Applications


  • Start work on final paper.
  • Greene, Joshua and Jonathan Cohen. "For the Law, neuroscience changes nothing and everything" (20)
  • Vargas?

Greene, Joshua and Jonathan Cohen. "For the Law, neuroscience changes nothing and everything"

23: APR 14


  • selection from Moore, Placing Blame? Other retributivists?

24: APR 19


  • Cavadino, Michael and James Dignan. "Penal policy and political economy". (17)

Cavadino, Michael and James Dignan. "Penal policy and political economy"

25: APR 21


  • Caruso, Gregg. "The Public Health-Quarantine Model" (22)

Caruso, Gregg. "The Public Health-Quarantine Model"

26: APR 26


  • Shaw, Elizabeth. "Justice Without Moral Responsibility" (15)

Shaw, Elizabeth. "Justice Without Moral Responsibility"

27: APR 28

Last Class Meeting

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