Freedom and Responsibility
This course is no longer being offered.
We usually think of ourselves as having free will. Although we recognize that we are influenced by factors beyond our control (e.g. our upbringing, culture, and genetics), we tend to think that our choices and actions are ultimately up to us. Your decision to work hard in school speaks to your credit, and not just to your genetics or upbringing. And when a person lies, cheats, or steals, she is ultimately responsible for her actions since she had the power to choose to do something else. But are these ways of thinking of ourselves correct? Do we really have free will? Are we ever actually responsible for any of our actions?
Consider the case of Robert Harris. On July 5, 1978, Harris intentionally shot and killed two 18 year old boys for no apparent reason. At first glance, Harris looks as if he committed murder by his own free will. But when we reflect on the horrible details of his life, we may lose confidence in this verdict. He was born 2.5 months premature when his drunken father kicked his pregnant wife in the stomach. Due to the violent nature of his birth, his mother was permanently injured. She blamed her son for her physical pain and would later admit that she was never able to love him properly. When he turned to her for affection, she would either push him away or kick him. His father routinely beat him. Harris began committing crimes at an early age and eventually wound up in a juvenile detention center where he was often raped and beaten. As a small a child, Harris cared for animals and played with them gently. As an adolescent, he tortured them. A lifetime of abuse seems to have transformed Harris from a loving child into a violent murderer.
Harris’s life raises difficult questions concerning our sense of ourselves as free, responsible agents. Would we have behaved any differently if we had been subject to the same abuse as he was? If not, can we really hold Harris responsible for his actions? How much control does anyone ever really have over who they are and what they do? Does free will require a power to choose that transcends the influences of history and genetics? Or might we possess free will while still being the product of our environment? Just what exactly is free will and how does it relate to being responsible for one’s actions?
In this class, we will discuss cases like Harris’s and read some of the most influential and innovative philosophical writing on free will and moral responsibility written in the last century. In the process, you will learn to use tools of logical reasoning that will help you better understand and evaluate challenging texts. The analytical skills developed in this class will be of use to you throughout your college education. Class sessions will emphasize discussion, facilitated by brief writing assignments and group presentations. The class will culminate in a final paper where you will develop and argue for you own views on free will and responsibility.