Free Will and Love

Posted on October 4, 2013 by

I have argued in the past that Sam Harris needs to read more philosophy. I have said this because Harris, in his book Free Will, failed to respond to compatibilist criticisms to the view he was arguing for, criticisms that have been around for quite some time. Harris’ arguments  attempt to prove the thesis that we lacked the sort of free will necessary for desert-based moral responsibility. I stand by my claim. The free will problem was not solved by Harris, nor has it been since the release of his book. In this article I will not be arguing for or against the view that we have free will, rather, I would like to call into question some new claims made by Harris. He has recently argued that hatred and the reactive attitudes associated with blame (i.e. resentment, indignation) are not appropriate in our world because we lack free will. Free will grounds “true hatred” according to Harris because “[such] hatred requires that we view our enemy as the ultimate author of his thoughts and actions”. To be the “ultimate author” of our actions is another way of saying that we must be free to act with respect to the act in question but also that we are free from refraining to act as such. Though I disagree that we have sufficient proof to deny such authorship, I will grant that we do not for the remainder of this post. I will also assume, for the sake of argument, that Harris is correct about hatred. It is never appropriate to hate another because the appropriateness of hatred depends on us having the free will that Harris denies. I grant these points in an effort to show an inconsistency in Harris’ view. To see this we must look briefly at some of the remarks he made regarding another moral emotion or attitude, love.

Harris has claimed that “seeing through the illusion of free will does not undercut the reality of love”. A lack of free will does not make love inappropriate because, according to Harris, “loving other people is not a matter of fixating on the underlying causes of their behavior”. To be clear, Harris is claiming that on the one hand hatred requires that a certain metaphysical position hold: that the agent we hate be the ultimate author of her actions, that she has basic-desert moral responsibility for her actions. On the other hand Harris is claiming that love, unlike hatred, does not require that the beloved is the ultimate author of her actions: the object of our love need not have free will. Here is the source of my disagreement with Harris (and philosophers like Derk Pereboom who claim that life without a belief free will would likely be better). Though Harris might be right that certain kinds of love do not require free will or morally responsible agency for them to be appropriate, one important kind of love seems to, mainly, “the sort of love which two adults can sometimes be said to feel reciprocally, for each other”. Let’s call this kind of love reciprocal love. Arguably, this love is the love we share in our most cherished relationships. Recently, Justin Coates has argued, that such a love has an essential connection to moral responsibility. I agree with Coates and you can find his argument here. I also have independent arguments for the claim that reciprocal love requires that the agents involved have basic-desert grounding moral responsibility which itself requires the sort of free will that Harris denies. My arguments will be forthcoming in my dissertation, chapter 4 as it were.

For the remainder of this post I would like to pose some motivations for thinking that such love, reciprocal love, requires that the agents involved be morally responsible agents, that they have basic-desert moral responsibility. Now, to be clear, there are other kinds of love such as paternal love that may or may not require such free will. For now, let’s bracket the love one has for their new born child. I want to focus on reciprocal love, the love we share with our spouses or partners and our closest friendships,

Harris claims that the love we share in the above mentioned relationships would not be affected if it turned out that the agents involved did not have free will. To put a little pressure on this claim I’d like you to consider just few points:

(i) Harris claims ” [we] don’t hate storms, avalanches, mosquitoes, or flu. We might use the term “hatred” to describe our aversion to the suffering these things cause us—but we are prone to hate other human beings in a very different sense”. I’d like to say that we can the same thing about love. We may love ‘Breaking Bad’ or ‘the Wire’ and we use the term “love” to describe our penchant for the joy we get while watching these shows—but we are prone to love other adult human beings in a very different sense. The relationships that give rise to the reciprocal love we have for another seem to be adequately described by Tim Scanlon (1998) and others as relationships of mutual regard. Such relationships seem to involve shared expectations and obligations. But, as I have argued before, these sorts of obligations (understood as “wider scope moral obligations”) themselves require the sort of free will denied by Sam Harris. If this is true then via transitivity we could argue that such relationships could not be maintained, or at best would be damaged. This is so because such obligations seem to play a necessary role in maintaining the reciprocal loving relationship.

(ii) If it turned out that your loved one only loved you because they had no other live option to love someone else would this change your relationship? There is empirical data suggesting that a belief in a world lacking agents with free will negatively affects people’s ethical behavior. Why think that such a belief would not negatively affect the way you understand the dynamic of your loving relationships?

(iii) If it turned out that your beloved only loved you because they were manipulated by a neuroscientist to do so (assume the scientist planted a chip into the head of the person claiming to love you and THAT chip was foundation of the love you share) would you feel that the love shared was generic or inauthentic in any way? If so, how is a determined universe different in any meaningful way than the neuroscientist?

At the end of the day it at least seems plausible to assume that reciprocal loving relationships implicitly assume morally responsible agency of the basic-desert variety. If this assumption can be instantiated then it would follow that Harris would be wrong once again. Love, at least one important variety of it, seems to involve free will. The sort of free will that assumes “ultimate authorship”







Coates, D.J. 2013. “In Defense of Love Internalism”, The Journal of Ethics.

Harris, Sam. 2012. Free Will. Free Press: New York.

Pereboom, Derk. 2001. Living Without Free Will. Cambride University Press.

Scanlon, T.M. 1998. What we owe to each other. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.