Interview: Tamler Sommers

By JON GARELICK  |  March 25, 2010

IN THE WHOLE FIRST SECTION ABOUT FREE WILL, YOU SEEM TO AGREE WITH GALEN STRAWSON THAT FREE WILL IS AN ILLUSION, A FICTION, AND THAT EVERYTHING IS DETERMINED BY GENETICS AND ENVIRONMENT. WOULD YOU SAY THAT’S TRUE?
I still believe that our behavior is a product of our genetics and our environment, and that there is no free will that can stand over and above that. I don’t think that this is really even that disputable. Whether that completely removes all of our moral responsibility — as Galen Strawson thinks and as I used to think and sometimes still am tempted to think — that’s something, that, for complicated reasons, I am less sure about.

SOMETIMES THE ARGUMENTS ABOUT WHETHER PEOPLE ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR THEIR OWN BEHAVIOR SOUND LIKE THE INSANITY DEFENSE . . .
Except, applied to everybody.

SO HOW DO WE MAKE PEOPLE ACCOUNTABLE? ESPECIALLY IF WE ACCEPT THAT FREE WILL IS A FICTION? WHAT’S THE PRACTICAL APPLICATION OF THIS PHILOSOPHY? EVEN STRAWSON SAYS HE CAN’T LIVE HIS DAILY LIFE THINKING THAT HE HAS NO FREE WILL.
I think there are a couple of possible practical applications. The first is that you get out of the business of trying to assign punishments based on how much people deserve the punishment. Because you’re no longer thinking that anyone deserves blame or punishment for anything. So that can no longer be a justification for punishment. So one common response is to take a more utilitarian approach to punishment. You punish exclusively for the function of benefitting society. Not for “justice” in this abstract sense, which really is fueled by this fiction of free will. So that would be one huge, possible, practical implication of denying moral responsibility.

But the other thing is, on an individual level, it seems like we spend a lot of our life seething in resentment and indignation and being mad at some co-worker or mad at someone who gave us a bad review or who stopped us from getting the job that we wanted. It seems like if you really internalized the idea that no one is responsible for their character, then they can be a bastard, they can be a bad guy, but it’s not their fault that they are that way. Now, this is very hard to do and its exactly the kind of thing that William Ian Miller would be appalled by. But if you can really internalize that perspective I think you’d end up you being more laid back and less bitter, and more easygoing about the struggles that people put you through in life.

PHILIP ZIMBARDO’S RECOLLECTION OF HIS STANFORD PRISON EXPERIMENT — WHICH HE RECENTLY APPLIED TO ABU GHRAIB IN THE LUCIFER EFFECT — IS ESPECIALLY SHOCKING. EVEN THOUGH IT WAS HIS EXPERIMENT, HE FELT HIMSELF COMPLETELY SUCKED INTO HIS ROLE AS “WARDEN” AND BECAME A MANIPULATIVE, EVIL GUY.
And not only that, but what’s so awesome about that story is that the way he does it is by playing on exactly what he is fighting against — the human tendency to attribute things to a character rather than a situation. So he says to the mother and father, “Oh yeah, what’s your boy’s problem? Don’t you think your boy can handle it?” What’s the father going to say? “My son’s a sissy”? “He can’t handle it”? But Zimbardo knows that the whole experiment is trying to demonstrate that it’s not about the character traits of the boy. It's about the situation. And he used his knowledge of the illusion that people succumb to as a way of manipulating them.

ONE OF MY OTHER FAVORITE PHILOSOPHICAL ARGUMENTS IN THE BOOK IS OVER WHO IS “OBJECTIVELY HOTTER” — CATHERINE ZETA-JONES OR DREW BARRYMORE.
I hope it came out that the right answer is Drew Barrymore.

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