Without free will, our behaviour would be no different from any other natural phenomenon, Sam Harris and other determinists claim: https://imgur.com/bIrWOJI

“Compare the response to Hurricane Katrina,” Harris suggested, with “the response to the 9/11 act of terrorism.” For many Americans, the men who hijacked those planes are the embodiment of criminals who freely choose to do evil. But if we give up our notion of free will, then their behavior must be viewed like any other natural phenomenon—and this, Harris believes, would make us much more rational in our response

Although the scale of the two catastrophes was similar, the reactions were wildly different. Nobody was striving to exact revenge on tropical storms or declare a War on Weather, so responses to Katrina could simply focus on rebuilding and preventing future disasters. The response to 9/11, Harris argues, was clouded by outrage and the desire for vengeance, and has led to the unnecessary loss of countless more lives. Harris is not saying that we shouldn’t have reacted at all to 9/11, only that a coolheaded response would have looked very different and likely been much less wasteful. “Hatred is toxic,” he told me, “and can destabilize individual lives and whole societies. Losing belief in free will undercuts the rationale for ever hating anyone”

Determinists tend to decry hatred and retribution from my experience. "Love is okay! Hatred is not okay!" they stomp their feet. And if hating and waging wars on the weather were "irrational" or "unjustified", how would hating and waging wars on criminals be "rational" or "justified"?

Are there philosophers that defend hatred and retribution even if "free will" didn't exist? And how would they defend hatred and retribution?

  • Are you asking only about the views of so-called “hard determinists” who think determinism is incompatible with any meaningful notion of free will, or do you also want to know about the views of “compatibilists” who think that even if our behavior is 100% determined by physical laws and prior physical states, there can still be meaningful notions of “free will” compatible with determinism?
    – Hypnosifl
    Jun 24 at 14:07
  • @Hypnosifl why do compatibilists believe that free will and determinism are compatible? My questions centered around hard determinists who don't believe that free will and determinism are compatible
    – ActualCry
    Jun 24 at 18:52
  • They believe free will/determinism are compatible because they define "free will" differently than incompatibilist believers in libertarian free will define it, often primarily in terms of consequentialist notions of which types of situations it's more useful to hold people morally accountable, and which in which situations it isn't (see my comment about Dennett's version of compatibilism here). But if you're just interested in hard determinism this isn't relevant to your Q.
    – Hypnosifl
    Jun 24 at 19:02
  • As @haxor789 notes in more detail: hard determinism means people can't control how they feel or react, since it's all pre-determined. I wasn't sure whether or not to post this comment, but I had to. Jun 26 at 14:07
  • 1
    , Sam Harris is NOT! the posterchild for what is rational.
    – Neil Meyer
    Jun 26 at 19:26

5 Answers 5


If free will is absent because of determinism, hatred and retribution - when they occur - occur inevitably. Any rationalisation and/or justification which takes place is also inevitable.

So, yes, hatred and retribution can be rationalised and justified in the absence of free will, but no-one has any say over whether or not this occurs.

If we talk about the experience of coming to believe that no free will exists, many people will as a consequence likely come to believe that hatred and retribution are irrational, as without free will there can be no moral responsibility.

Retribution and hatred however are deeply embedded human intuitions which have the capacity to exert themselves upon the psyche in the face of logic and reason.

It is quite possible - if not likely - to come to believe we have no free will whilst remaining prone to habitual/instinctive emotional responses which contradict this belief.

  • 1
    "Any rationalisation and/or justification which takes place is also inevitable and illusory." Inevitable sure, but why illusory? Mental justifications can still play a causal role in one's actions under determinism.
    – Hypnosifl
    Jun 25 at 18:20
  • Agreed. I will edit. Thanks. Jun 26 at 3:02
  • Very well said. Thank you for taking the time to answer my question!
    – ActualCry
    Jun 26 at 10:48

Clearly anger at the weather is pointless, but retribution against a (seemingly) self-aware individual may have the effect of changing the future behaviour of that individual, or those associated with them. Anger and vengeance are the emotions that lead us (rightly or wrongly) to exact retribution.

  • Yep! Determinists claim their arguments are inputs that can change anger to apathy or "compassion". If so, the same can be said about those who commit immoral actions. Our anger and threat of punishment are inputs that change the people we are angry with. They'd be more likely to refrain from their actions
    – ActualCry
    Jun 26 at 10:55

I mean at the risk of either playing captain obvious or saying something really stupid. But isn't he defeating his own statement? Like if you were to accept determinism and reject a free will and a personal agency, wouldn't that also mean that you lack the agency to act coolheaded? That the hatred and the retribution is also the only response that you were able to give? Because it was determined?

  • Suppose you have a group of deterministic AIs whose behavior can be causally affected by sensory inputs from their environment, including persuasive verbal arguments. If a lot of them are doing something you consider bad, and you think that making the right argument can shift at least some of their behavior in a direction you'd consider positive, from an instrumental perspective it may make sense to put forward that argument even if you don't think these AIs have "free will".
    – Hypnosifl
    Jun 24 at 19:53
  • But in that scenario you'd assume that the AIs are just basically more complex tools and that "you" are an agent (either with free will or at least with a motivation). However determinism would mean that you're one of those AIs so these machines would have to muster the motivation to change their own behavior. And at that point you'd either call that something like free will or it would have been inevitable (determinism).
    – haxor789
    Jun 24 at 20:22
  • Why would their being deterministic make them mere "tools" or lead to the conclusion that they were lacking "motivation"? Even today we can design simple AIs that pursue goals of some sort, if they increased in complexity to pursue goals as complex as those of humans, I see no problem speaking of their behavior in terms of motivation. Likewise if you are such an AI, why should the abstract knowledge that your behavior is deterministic prevent you from preferring courses of action that you predict (based on internal simulations of some kind) will lead to better results in terms of your goals?
    – Hypnosifl
    Jun 24 at 20:29
  • I think you're falling too much for the AI hype. What current AI is doing is pretty much take inputs and combine them with parameters, use them to make a guess. Compare target value and guess and adjust the parameters by something proportional to difference of guess and target. So yeah over time and with lots of data/target pairs it's going to refine the parameters which you could call "learning" and that let's it solve problems which you could call "intelligence" but it's not really that you can call calculating the difference between target and guess "motivation",
    – haxor789
    Jun 24 at 21:04
  • The thing is if you attribute things to AIs like "motivation", "preferences", "abstract knowledge", "self-consciousness", "internal simulations", beyond the semantic level but at a comparable level to human beings, you might as well ask whether or not you're describing an agent with free will. Or if determinism could entail all these, why we should think of it as a force of nature when it could go way beyond that. Also again if you're just following a script (determinism) then you'd either do or don't do something you wouldn't be able to convince yourself of something, would you?
    – haxor789
    Jun 24 at 21:43

It's unlikely you'll find philosophical positions that rationalize hatred and retribution; I certainly can't think of any. Philosophy as a field aims at individual wisdom and social harmony. Those terms may be disputable and ill-defined, but few if any people would hold that hatred and retribution are wise and harmonious. People argue that these are natural human inclinations — a pragmatic realpolitik that we must acknowledge, control, and occasionally excuse — but no one assumes they are part of 'the good' that we strive for as individuals and communities.

When we get to Sam Harris and the other prominent secular determinists, we have to remember that they are pundits more than philosophers: they are not following reason to discover any underlying wisdom, they are yoking reason to a specific agenda and trying to drive it. Harris is notably intelligent by pundit standards, granted, but he's conflating issues here to get to the point he wants, and it doesn't really hold water. I mean, consider this passage by itself:

But if we give up our notion of free will, then their behavior must be viewed like any other natural phenomenon — and this, Harris believes, would make us much more rational in our response.

In effect, he's saying that if we think of the 9/11 attackers as objects without free will, no more evil or culpable for the destruction they caused than a major hurricane then we can have a 'rational response'. But what does 'rational response' mean here, except that:

  1. we consciously choose (as an act of free will) to behave in more moral fashion, or...
  2. our deterministic response to the event will be more 'rational' if we consciously choose (as an act of free will) to see the 9/11 attackers in this different light.

In fact, while i can see Harris trying to be kind here — he wants to encourage a less violent response by getting people to shift from the 'evil' model to the 'natural disaster' model — he's actually setting up the context for genocide. We endure natural disasters like hurricanes with grace and compassion because we don't believe we can do anything about them. But consider a natural disaster like a swarm of locusts. We don't think locusts are evil, and we are happy to assume that they are just deterministically doing what locusts do. But that understanding doesn't stop us from extirpating locusts as brutally and efficiently as possible. If we remove the concept of will from those who commit acts of terrorism, they become nothing more than a plague of vermin that we might 'rationally' stamp out without remorse.

What Harris misses — or possibly merely avoids as an inconvenience — is the point that hatred and retribution are de facto dehumanizing moments. The act of dehumanizations implies removing the capacity for choice and imputing a disposition to bad behavior. It makes no difference whether we conceive of that dehumanization as 'deterministic' or 'evil'; in either case the other becomes a robot-like cipher bent on doing what we consider wrong. Only by imputing the capacity for free choice to others can we ever hope to find non-violent solutions to such tragedies.

  • Lots of philosophers have historically believed in eternal punishment in hell and tried to justify it--wouldn't this be justification of retribution? As for locusts, part of the reason people feel ok about just killing them is the belief that they have a very low order of consciousness--if some more intelligent animal like a primate was getting into conflicts with humans encroaching on their territory, and there was a more humane way of reducing conflict than killing them, wouldn't a lot of people prefer that for reasons unrelated to questions of whether the animals have "free will"?
    – Hypnosifl
    Jun 24 at 20:35
  • "The act of dehumanizations implies removing the capacity for choice and imputing a disposition to bad behavior" Continuing with the point about religious belief in retributive justice, if belief in the righteousness of eternal suffering for sinners leads an inquisitor to feel they are carrying out God's will by torturing or burning at the stake heretics who have "chosen evil" and are doomed to hell anyway if they don't repent, would you say this is not "dehumanization"? If it isn't, that'd suggest that dehumanization is not a necessary condition for doing horrific things to other humans.
    – Hypnosifl
    Jun 24 at 20:41
  • @Hypnosifl: Yeah, but... Hell is never envisioned as part of 'The Good'. In the Abrahamic tradition all people are supposed to go to heaven; that's 'the Good'. but to go to heaven one has to do certain things, and those who don't have to go somewhere not-good. Hell isn't meant as retribution, and god doesn't hate those who go there. It's more in the realm of "You knew the rules; told you so." Not to say that some Christians, Muslims, and Jews don't think of hell as retribution, but those kind of people are (by their own teachings) likely to miss out on heaven themselves. Metaphysical irony... Jun 24 at 21:20
  • @hypnosniff: and I think the current conservation status of gorIllas, chimpanzees and Bonobos (not to mention rhinos and tigers, and certainly not to mention enslaved humans) should tell us all we need to know about human treatment of beings with high orders of consciousness. Jun 24 at 21:24
  • @Hypnosifl: I would certainly see torturing or burning a heretic as dehumanizing. One can only do such things under the pretext that the person is incapable of choosing right behaviors, so that the flesh (which causes wrong behavior) must be destroyed in such a way that the soul retains no attachment to it and progresses to heaven. that isn't to say that one cannot fight with someone 'human', only that such fights are carried out with a sense of honor and respect. That's why public executions are always such formal affairs. Jun 24 at 21:31

When anything is done to us, there will be a repertoire of possible reactions. We should pick the one that makes us feel best in the long term. Irrational hatred, or irrational fear, or stupidity, can restrict that repertoire and affect our choice of the best reaction.

Then it depends on the actual case. Shooting bullets at a hurricane is quite stupid (but may make us feel better). In the case of terrorism, looking for a peaceful solution may be better in the long term, maybe not. Blind hate might make us fight terrorism in a non-optimal way. And it may be rational to pretend to be full of hate and respond in an exaggerated way if the opponent doesn’t want to be at the receiving end of that response again.

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