Dennett on Free Will and Moral Responsibility

Reported by Raleigh McElvery ’16

PortraitDennettphotoByAlonsoNicholsTuftsU

Photo credit: Alonso Nichols, Tufts University

Daniel Dennett’s favorite Dilbert cartoon proclaims that humans are nothing more than “moist robots,” devoid of free will. But don’t let that fool you, says the philosophy professor and co-director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University. Free will does exist – if not in an absolute sense – and humans should be held accountable for their actions.

During a recent lecture at Bowdoin, Dennett examined what it means to be a member of society’s “Moral Agent Club.” Findings in neuroscience are often misinterpreted to mean that society’s deviants are simply “wired wrong” and can’t be blamed for their actions, Dennett said. He argued that within biological boundaries there is always room for choice – not absolute free will, but what he calls “practical” free will – and that punishment for wrongdoing is necessary for a functional society.

“If your brain, at the relevant time, has the competence required of a moral agent, you will be held responsible,” Dennett said. “If through no fault of your own you lose that competence, then you are no longer morally responsible.” He also noted that although we shouldn’t be writing off all our actions to wiring, we should be paying attention to whether certain circuitries predispose moral responsibly more than others.

Dennet’s lecture was sponsored by the Philosophy Department with support from the Departments of Psychology and Neuroscience.

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