Interviewee: Gregg D. Caruso

Interviewer: Zan Boag


Zan Boag: Before we delve into your ideas about free will, I think it would be helpful to clear up a few common misconceptions people often have about what philosophers are referring to when it comes to free will. Would you mind explaining what ‘free will’ means from a philosophical standpoint?

Gregg Caruso: That’s a great question since many people, including many prominent scientists who write about free will, build into their understanding of the notion the very result they want. That is, they define free will in such a way that it directly follows that we either have it or we don’t. I’ve long argued that the variety of free will that is of central philosophical and practical importance is the sort required for moral responsibility in a particular but pervasive sense. This sense of moral responsibility is typically set apart by the notion of basic desert and is defined in terms of the control in action needed for an agent to be truly deserving of blame and praise, punishment and reward. Understood this way, free will is a kind of power or ability an agent must possess in order to justify certain kinds of basically deserved judgments, attitudes, or treatments – such as resentment, indignation, moral anger, and retributive punishment – in response to decisions or actions that the agent performed or failed to perform. These reactions would be justified on purely backward-looking grounds, that is what makes them basic, and would not appeal to consequentialist or forward-looking considerations, such as future protection, future reconciliation, or future moral formation.

I contend that there are several distinct advantages to defining free will in this way. First, it provides a neutral definition that virtually all parties can agree to. Unlike some other definitions, it does not beg the question or exclude from the outset various conceptions of free will that are available for disputing parties to adopt. Second, by defining free will in terms of basic desert moral responsibility, this definition captures the practical importance of the debate. Third, this definition fits with our everyday understanding of these conceptions. There is, for instance, growing evidence that ordinary people not only view free will and moral responsibility as intimately tied together, but that it is precisely the desire to blame, punish, and uphold moral responsibility that motivates belief in free will. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, rejecting this understanding of free will makes it difficult to understand the nature of the substantive disputes that are driving the free will debate.


You and Daniel Dennett are at odds when it comes to whether or not we have free will, although in your debate with him you also note that you may not be as far apart as some may believe. You state that we don’t have free will. What makes you so sure this is the case – that your position is correct?

Dan and I have a forthcoming book where we debate, at length, our respective views on free will, moral responsibility, and punishment. In it, Dan defends a compatibilist account of free will, which maintains that free will and moral responsibility are compatible with determinism – the thesis that facts about the remote past in conjunction with the laws of nature entail that there is only one unique future. According to Dan, even if determinism is true, we have the kind of free will “worth wanting”, as he likes to put it.
I, on the other hand, am a free will sceptic. As such, I maintain that who we are and what we do is ultimately the result of factors beyond our control – whether those factors be determinism, indeterminism, or luck – and because of this we are never morally responsible for our actions in the basic desert sense. I offer two distinct sets of arguments in support of that claim. The first features distinct arguments against the various rival libertarian and compatibilist accounts, and then claims that the sceptical position is the only defensible position that remains standing. It maintains that free will is incompatible with both causal determination by factors beyond the agent’s control and with the kind of indeterminacy in action required by the most plausible versions of libertarianism. Since this route to free will scepticism maintains that free will is incompatible with both determinism and indeterminism, I follow Derk Pereboom in labelling it hard incompatibilism so as to distinguish it from traditional hard determinism. In addition to the arguments for hard incompatibilism, I also present a second, independent argument for scepticism which maintains that regardless of the causal structure of the universe, free will and basic desert moral responsibility are incompatible with the pervasiveness of luck – a view Neil Levy calls hard luck.

While I would never claim certainty about any of my philosophical views, I’m rather confident that the arguments for hard incompatibilism and hard luck provide more than sufficient reason for doubting or denying the existence of free will – defined, of course, in terms of the control in action required for basic desert moral responsibility.

As to how my view compares to Dan Dennett’s, I’ll just add one final point. While Dennett’s compatibilism appears to be fundamentally at odds with my free will scepticism, when you actually drill down into what Dan means by free will, you’ll find that he too rejects what I’m calling basic desert moral responsibility. For that reason, I think he’s more of a free will sceptic than he admits – although he would resist that characterisation.


What implications does not having free will have for us as humans? Does it mean that we are not morally responsible for our actions?

For me, the denial of free will has real-world implications for our moral and legal practices. It entails, for instance, that one of the most prominent justifications for legal punishment, retributivism, is unjustified. The retributive justification of legal punishment maintains that, absent any excusing conditions, wrongdoers are morally responsible for their actions and deserve to be punished in proportion to their wrongdoing. Unlike theories of punishment that aim at deterrence, rehabilitation, or incapacitation, retributivism grounds punishment in the blameworthiness and desert of offenders. It holds that punishing wrongdoers is intrinsically good. For the retributivist, wrongdoers deserve a punitive response proportional to their wrongdoing, even if their punishment serves no further purpose. This means that the retributivist position is not reducible to consequentialist considerations nor in justifying punishment does it appeal to wider goods such as the safety of society or the moral improvement of those being punished.

But if agents are never morally responsible for their actions in the basic desert sense, as free will sceptics maintain, then they never deserve to suffer for the wrongs they have done in the purely backward-looking sense required for retributivism. This is not to say, of course, that other conceptions of responsibility cannot be reconciled with determinism, chance, or luck. Nor is it to deny that there remain good reasons for incapacitating dangerous criminals and engaging in forms of moral protest in the face of bad behaviour. Rather, it is to insist that to hold people truly or ultimately morally responsible for their actions – i.e., to hold them responsible in the basic desert sense – would be to hold them responsible for the results of the morally arbitrary, for what is ultimately beyond their control, which is fundamentally unfair and unjust. Free will scepticism therefore presents a powerful challenge to retributivism since it does away with the idea of basic desert.
This, of course, is just one example. But on the whole, I’m generally optimistic about the practical implications of free will scepticism – hence, I consider myself an optimistic sceptic. As an optimistic sceptic, I maintain that prospects of finding meaning in life or of sustaining good interpersonal relationships would not be threatened. And although retributivism and severe punishment, such as the death penalty, would be ruled out, incapacitation and rehabilitation programs would still be justified. I contend that life without free will and basic desert moral responsibility is not only possible, but, on balance, preferable.


Could you elaborate more on this, on your alternative to retributivism?

Sure. If we reject retributivism, either because we come to doubt or deny the existence of free will or for other reasons, we need an ethically defensible and practically workable alternative. In Rejecting Retributivism: Free Will, Punishment, and Criminal Justice, I develop and defend what I believe is the most promising, humane, and justified alternative: the public health-quarantine model. The core idea of the model is that the right to harm in self-defence and defence of others justifies incapacitating the criminally dangerous with the minimum harm required for adequate protection. Yet the model does not justify the sort of criminal punishment whose legitimacy is most dubious, such as death or confinement in the most common kinds of prisons in our society. In fact, the model is completely non-punitive and requires special attention to the wellbeing and dignity of criminals that would change much of current policy. Perhaps most importantly, the model also develops a public health approach that prioritises prevention and social justice and aims at identifying and taking action on the social determinants of health and criminal behaviour.

The model begins with Derk Pereboom’s quarantine analogy, which draws on a comparison between treatment of dangerous criminals and treatment of carriers of dangerous diseases. In its simplest form, it can be stated as follows: 1) Free will scepticism maintains that criminals are not morally responsible for their actions in the basic desert sense; 2) plainly, many carriers of dangerous diseases are not responsible in this or in any other sense for having contracted these diseases; 3) yet, we generally agree that it is sometimes permissible to quarantine them, and the justification for doing so is the right to self-protection and the prevention of harm to others; 4) for similar reasons, even if a dangerous criminal is not morally responsible for his crimes in the basic desert sense (perhaps because no one is ever in this way morally responsible) it could be as legitimate to preventatively detain him as to quarantine the non-responsible carrier of a serious communicable disease.

The first thing to note about the theory is that although one might justify quarantine, in the case of disease, and incapacitation, in the case of dangerous criminals, on purely utilitarian or consequentialist grounds, Pereboom and I resist this strategy. Instead, we maintain that incapacitation of the seriously dangerous is justified on the ground of the right to harm in self-defence and defence of others. That we have this right has broad appeal, much broader than utilitarianism or consequentialism has. In addition, this makes the view more resilient to a number of objections and provides a more resilient proposal for justifying criminal sanctions than other non-retributive options. One advantage it has, say, over consequentialist deterrence theories is that it has more restrictions placed on it with regard to using people merely as a means. For instance, as it is illegitimate to treat carriers of a disease more harmfully than is necessary to neutralise the danger they pose, treating those with violent criminal tendencies more harshly than is required to protect society will be illegitimate as well. In fact, the model requires that we adopt the principle of least infringement, which holds that the least restrictive measures should be taken to protect public health and safety. This ensures that criminal sanctions will be proportionate to the danger posed by an individual, and any sanctions that exceed this upper bound will be unjustified.

Second, the quarantine model places several constraints on the treatment of criminals. First, as less dangerous diseases justify only preventative measures less restrictive than quarantine, so less dangerous criminal tendencies justify only more moderate restraints. We do not, for instance, quarantine people for the common cold even though it has the potential to cause you some harm. Rather, we restrict the use of quarantine to a narrowly prescribed set of cases. Analogously, on this model the use of incapacitation should be limited to only those cases where offenders are a serious threat to public safety and no less restrictive measures were available. In fact, for certain minor crimes perhaps only some degree of monitoring could be defended. Secondly, the incapacitation account that results from this analogy demands a degree of concern for the rehabilitation and wellbeing of the criminal that would alter much of current practice. Just as fairness recommends that we seek to cure the diseased we quarantine, so fairness would counsel that we attempt to rehabilitate the criminals we detain. Rehabilitation and reintegration would therefore replace punishment as the focus of the criminal justice system. Lastly, if a criminal cannot be rehabilitated and our safety requires his indefinite confinement, this account provides no justification for making his life more miserable than would be required to guard against the danger he poses.

In addition to these restrictions on harsh and unnecessary treatment, the model also advocates for a broader approach to criminal behaviour that moves beyond the narrow focus on sanctions. In my book, I situate the quarantine analogy within the broader justificatory framework of public health ethics. Public health ethics not only justifies quarantining carriers of infectious diseases on the grounds that it is necessary to protect public health, it also requires that we take active steps to prevent such outbreaks from occurring in the first place. Quarantine is only needed when the public health system fails in its primary function. Since no system is perfect, quarantine will likely be needed for the foreseeable future, but it should not be the primary means of dealing with public health. The analogous claim holds for incapacitation. Taking a public health approach to criminal behaviour would allow us to justify the incapacitation of dangerous criminals when needed, but it would also make prevention a primary function of the criminal justice system. So instead of myopically focusing on punishment, the public health- quarantine model shifts the focus to identifying and addressing the systemic causes of crime, such as poverty, low social economic status, systematic disadvantage, mental illness, homelessness, educational inequity, exposure to abuse and violence, poor environmental health, and addiction.

Since the social determinants of health and the social determinants of criminal behaviour are broadly similar, or so I argue, the best way to protect public health and safety is to adopt a public health approach for identifying and taking action on these shared social determinants. Such an approach requires investigating how social inequities and systemic injustices affect health outcomes and criminal behaviour, how poverty affects health and incarceration rates, how offenders often have pre-existing medical conditions including mental health issues, how homelessness and education affects health and safety outcomes, how environmental health is important to both public health and safety, how involvement in the criminal justice system itself can lead to or worsen health and cognitive problems, and how a public health approach can be successfully applied within the criminal justice system. I contend that just as it is important to identify and take action on the social determinants of health if we want to improve health outcomes, it is equally important to identify and address the social determinants of criminal behaviour.

Furthermore, the public health framework sees social justice as a foundational cornerstone to public health and safety. In public health ethics, a failure on the part of public health institutions to ensure the social conditions necessary to achieve a sufficient level of health is considered a grave injustice. An important task of public health ethics, then, is to identify which inequalities in health are the most egregious and thus which should be given the highest priority in public health policy and practice. The public health approach to criminal behaviour likewise maintains that a core moral function of the criminal justice system is to identify and remedy social and economic inequalities responsible for crime. Just as public health is negatively affected by poverty, racism, and systematic inequality, so too is public safety. This broader approach to criminal justice therefore places issues of social justice at the forefront. It sees racism, sexism, poverty, and systemic disadvantage as serious threats to public safety and it prioritises the reduction of such inequalities.


Jeremy Bentham and Michel Foucault both looked at prison systems, albeit in very different ways: Bentham from the perspective of how to control prisoners, famously through his Panopticon model, while Foucault looked at the effect of prisons on prisoners; their purpose, if you like. You’ve done a lot of work looking at prisons – what do you see as the purpose of prisons, and what are the greatest flaws in the current model in the US?

The criminal justice system in the US is fundamentally broken. Consider, for instance, the number of people incarcerated the US and the typical conditions in which they are incarcerated. With only 4.5 per cent of the world’s population, the United States imprisons twenty-five per cent of the world’s prisoners – far more than any other nation in the world. The US imprisons roughly 700 prisoners for every 100,000 people, whereas Scandinavian countries such as Sweden, Finland, and Norway hover around 60 per 100,000. And not only does the US imprison at a much higher rate, it also imprisons in notoriously harsh conditions and for longer periods of time. American prisons are often cruel places, using a number of harsh forms of punishment including extended solitary confinement. Such excessively punitive punishment not only causes severe suffering and serious psychological problems, it does nothing to rehabilitate prisoners nor does it reduce the rate of recidivism. In fact, the US has one of the highest rates of recidivism in the world. Norway, by contrast, has one of the world’s lowest recidivism rates. One of the big differences is that the Norwegian systems aims at rehabilitation and reintegration and prepares inmates for life after incarceration by providing them with educational opportunities and work training. It also encourages guards to cultivate friendships with the inmates, for inmates to interact with each other, and for inmates to exercise maximal autonomy. Treating inmates humanely helps them develop the interpersonal skills needed to successfully reintegrate back into society. US prisons, on the other hand, tend to isolate inmates and control every aspect of their lives – e.g., when they eat, when they sleep, what they do, and where they go. This can instill a kind of learned helplessness that makes it extremely difficult for individuals to readjust to life on the outside.

In Rejecting Retributivism, I argue that we need to reject our current reactive and punitive approach to crime and replace it with a preventive public health approach – one that identifies, prioritises, and targets the social determinants of crime. Of course, my public health-quarantine model provides me with the justification needed to incapacitate those seriously dangerous criminals who are continued threat to society, but the focus, I contend, should always be on prevention. When incapacitation is absolutely required, those individuals would need to be housed in non-punitive environments designed with the purpose of rehabilitation and reintegration in mind. Since most prisons in the US, UK, and Australia are inhospitable and unpleasant places designed for punitive purposes, we would need to redesign our institutions so that the physical environments and spaces we incapacitate people in better serve the goal of rehabilitation and reintegration. In my book, I examine several innovative, humanitarian, and rehabilitative prison designs from Norway, Australia, and Denmark, that indicate how this can be done.


From your perspective, do you think that life has a purpose for humans – whether that’s for each one of us as individuals, or collectively as a community or society?

As a naturalist, I don’t believe in any divine or cosmic purpose in life. In Neuroexistentialism: Meaning, Morals, and Purpose in the Age of Neuroscience, Owen Flanagan and I argue that existentialisms are responses to recognisable diminishments in the self-image of persons caused by social or political rearrangements or ruptures, and they typically involve two steps: a) admission of the anxiety and an analysis of its causes, and b) some sort of attempt to regain a positive, less anguished, more hopeful image of persons. With regard to the first step, existentialisms typically involve a philosophical expression of the anxiety that there are no deep, satisfying answers that make sense of the human predicament and explain what makes human life meaningful, and thus that there are no secure foundations for meaning, morals, and purpose.

We argue that there are three kinds of existentialisms that respond to three different kinds of grounding projects – grounding in God’s nature, in a shared vision of the collective good, or in science. The first-wave existentialism of Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, and Nietzsche expressed anxiety about the idea that meaning and morals are made secure because of God’s omniscience and good will. The second-wave existentialism of Sartre, Camus, and de Beauvoir was a post-Holocaust response to the idea that some uplifting secular vision of the common good might serve as a foundation. Today, there is a third-wave existentialism, neuroexistentialism, which expresses the anxiety that, even as science yields the truth about human nature, it also disenchants.

Unlike the previous two waves of existentialism, neuroexistentialism is not caused by a problem with ecclesiastical authority, nor by the shock of coming face to face with the moral horror of nation state actors and their citizens. Rather, neuroexistentialism is caused by the rise of the scientific authority of the human sciences and a resultant clash between the scientific and humanistic image of persons. Neuroexistentialism is a 21st century anxiety over the way contemporary neuroscience helps secure in a particularly vivid way the message of Darwin from 150 years ago: that humans are animals – not half animal, not some percentage animal, but a hundred per cent animal. Every day and in every way, neuroscience removes the last vestiges of an immaterial soul or self. It has no need for such posits. It also suggest that the mind is the brain and all mental processes just are (or are realised in) neural processes, that there is no ghost in the machine or Cartesian theatre where consciousness comes together, and that death is the end since when the brain ceases to function so too does consciousness.

Where does all of this leave us with regard to the second component of the existentialist project – the attempt to regain a positive, less anguished, more hopeful image of persons? Well, if mind, morals, and the meaning of life are to be understood as problems inside the naturalistic view of things, not problems that require transcendental sources, we will need to seriously grapple with the following three-part question: 1) How do we combine and harness the growing knowledge and insights of the human sciences with 2) the universal existential concern with meaning and flourishing in order to yield 3) a truthful, liberating, enlightening picture of our problems and our prospects as meaning-finders and meaning-makers? One promising approach for doing this is to pursue a kind of descriptive-normative inquiry into the causes and conditions of flourishing for material beings living in a material world whose self-understanding includes the idea that such a world is the only kind of world that there is and thus that the meaning and significance of their lives, if there is any, must be found in such a world.


In philosophy, and for many people throughout history, a common quest has been the search for the meaning of life, or perhaps just for meaning in life. Is there a meaning of life? And how can one find meaning in life – a purpose to our lives?

The search for the meaning of life is a fool’s errand. There is no singular, universal, all-encompassing meaning to it all. There is, however, meaning in life. We create meaning through our roles as players in the game of life.


You’re a professor of philosophy, but that is only part of what makes you who you are. Aside from your work, what is it that gives your life purpose?

I find purpose first and foremost in my relationships with my wife and daughter, my family and friends, my students and colleagues, and the community of philosophers I’ve gotten to know over the years. The kind of foundational meaning and purpose you’re asking about, at least for me, can only be found in my connection to others. Purpose, like identity, is largely relational. When philosophers discuss self-identity they too often focus on episodic memory, psychological continuity, biological makeup, or some brute physical relation. I wouldn’t be me, however, if I weren’t also Maya’s dad, Elaini’s husband, the brother of Louis, Larry, Bobby, Peter, and Thomas, and the son of Louis and Dolores Caruso. Those relationships are essential to who I am. They also provide me with purpose in life.

Beyond my relationships, my professional work also gives my life purpose. I know that’s a cheat, since you explicitly set aside work in your question, but I would be remiss not to mention it. I find it extremely difficult to separate who I am from what I do. That may not be a good thing, but there’s no denying that I find purpose in what I do. If I were to win a large sum of money, for instance, I would still likely spend my days reading, writing, teaching, and discussing philosophy.

Beyond those things, I also have a few hobbies and passions that I really enjoy. I don’t know if they ‘give my life purpose’, but they do bring me some degree of happiness. I’m obsessed, for instance, with collecting fossils. Since I live in central New York State, most of what I hunt and find myself comes from the Devonian period – a geologic period of the Paleozoic, spanning roughly 60 million years from the end of the Silurian, 416 million years ago, to the beginning of the Carboniferous, 358 million years ago. The fossils in the Devonian rocks of New York have attracted the attention of serious and casual collectors for nearly 200 years. I am very lucky to live in such a fossil-rich part of the country! At the start of the Devonian, the North American protocontinent was located at the equator, with much of what would become New York covered by a shallow tropical sea. The fossils in this area provide a nice snapshot of the rich diversity of life in the ancient Paleozoic waters. I sometimes joke and say, “I collect seashells, they just happen to be 390 million years old.” The most common fossils in this area are brachiopods, gastropods, cephalopods, and various species of sponges and coral. If you’re lucky, however, you may also find eurypterids – ancient sea scorpions – and trilobites – ancient arthropods that look like little alien bugs.

Now that I have been collecting for a number of years, I really prize the ‘big finds’ – which for me are full trilobites. They are very hard to come by because most of the time you just find bits and pieces – e.g., a part of the head shield, a segment of the thorax, or a tail piece. It is also hard to find fully outstretched ones since trilobites when scared would tuck in their legs and antennae and roll themselves into tight little balls. Collectors call these “rolly pollies” and I have at least a dozen of them. My most prized fossils, however, are the fully outstretched trilobites I have collected myself.


Philosophers have long written of eudaimonia, or “human flourishing” . Is eudaimonia always just out of reach for humans, like Tantalus’s fruit tree, or is it something we can in fact attain? And what might get in our way, be it structural, psychological, biological, or something else?

For me, human flourishing – or human wellbeing – is only possible when those social, political, and economic conditions are in place that allow for individuals to achieve those dimensions of wellbeing that are of special moral urgency because they matter centrally to everyone, whatever their particular life plans or aims. In Rejecting Retributivism, I defend a capabilities approach to social justice, along the lines of Martha Nussbaum and Amartya Sen, according to which the development of capabilities – what each individual is able to do or be – is essential to human wellbeing. For capability theorists, human wellbeing is the proper end of a theory of justice. And on the particular capability approach I favour, social justice is grounded in six key features of human wellbeing: health, reasoning, self-determination – or autonomy – attachment, personal security, and respect. While I’m not dogmatically attached to this list and would consider revisions and additions, I do think each of these six dimensions is an essential feature of wellbeing such that a life substantially lacking in any one is a life seriously deficient in what it is reasonable for anyone to want, whatever else they want.

The key idea of capability approaches is that social arrangements should aim to expand people’s capabilities – their opportunities to promote or achieve functionings that are important to them. Functionings are defined as the valuable activities and states that make up human wellbeing, such as having a healthy body, being safe, or having a job. While they are related to goods and income, they are instead described in terms of what a person is able to do or be as a result. For example, when a person’s need for food – a commodity – is met, they enjoy the functioning of being well-nourished. Examples of functionings include being mobile, being healthy, being adequately nourished, and being educated. The genuine opportunity to achieve a particular functioning is called a capability. Capabilities are thus the substantive opportunities a person has to lead the kind of life he or she has reason to value.

Thinking in terms of capabilities raises a wider range of issues than simply looking at the amount of resources or commodities people have, because people have different needs. For instance, just providing cars to people will not be enough to increase the functioning of being mobile if you are disabled and unable to drive a car or prohibited from driving a car because of sexist social norms in your society. A capabilities approach to social justice therefore requires that we consider and address a larger set of social issues. On the capabilities approach, when asking normative questions, we should ask what people are able to do and what lives they are able to lead. The approach is concerned with aspects of people’s lives such as their health, the education they enjoy, the support they receive from their social networks, and much more. Hence, for me, human wellbeing, or eudaimonia, cannot be achieved without first addressing various issues of social justice, especially those capability failures that are the result of discrimination or marginalisation.


Must one have purpose in one’s life to lead a flourishing life?

Yes, I think so. But let me qualify that by adding that I’m not an elitist about purpose. I strongly want to resist the idea that the only way to lead a flourishing life, or to achieve a sufficient level of human wellbeing, is to become a philosopher or dedicate oneself to the life of the mind. That’s nonsense. Too often philosophers see themselves as representatives of the ‘worthwhile life’ and assume others should live as they choose to live. Instead, I think that people can find purpose and meaning in all different life plans and aims. I would like to think my father led a meaningful life and he was a carpenter who found purpose primarily in his family.

Gregg D. Caruso is Professor of Philosophy at SUNY Corning, Honorary Professor of Philosophy at Macquarie University, and the Co-Director of the Justice Without Retribution Network (JWRN) at the University of Aberdeen School of Law. His books include Rejecting Retributivism: Free Will, Punishment, and Criminal Justice,Just Desserts: Debating Free Will (with Daniel C. Dennett), Free Will and Consciousness, ​and Exploring the Illusion of Free Will and Moral Responsibility.