People are not free to make moral decisions

Custom Student Mr. Teacher ENG 1001-04 11 November 2016

People are not free to make moral decisions

Is it right to say that our actions are determined, or are they free? Hard determinists argue that when we make a moral decision, we have no free will. This is significant because if we do not choose our actions we cannot be held morally responsible. Given our experience of decision making this determinist position is hard to accept and perhaps the compatabilist approach of soft determinism is more valid. Soft Determinists recognise that we can make a decision freely that is coerced but the choices in themselves may be determined themselves.

This contrasts with libertarianism, which states that we freely choose our actions and rejects determinism. To fully examine whether we are in fact free or not to make moral decisions, we must first analyse what particular factors affect our decision making. When we debate over a decision we consider/ weigh up our options, we know that we have a choice and only we can make that choice, this is known as a libertarian view.

Libertarians believe that we have full responsibility of our actions and nothing else affects our decision, however genes, environment, lifestyle and our upbringing affect or sometimes might determine our choices. Determinism objects libertarianism and believes that our choices are influenced by factors other than the will of the individual, events and actions are predetermined by other events therefore freedom of choice is an illusion. Free will is the term made up of ‘autos’ meaning self and ‘nomos’ meaning rule.

Many philosophers such as Kant say that you can only be responsible for actions that you undertake of your own will, this is opposed to Determinism. Libertarianism is the belief that humans are free to make moral choices and therefore morally responsible. “By liberty we can only mean a power of acting of not acting according to the determinations of the will”. David Hume. In the definition of libertarianism a distinction between the persons character or personality and his/or her moral self. It is this moral self or will that is free.

“Your destiny is allotted to you, but you shall choose it for yourselves”. Plato. There are many arguments that support libertarianism, the most predominant of these being the argument from experience, this states that we all experience making choices, such as the very fact that I am sat here writing this essay is the result of a choice, I did have another option so I could’ve chose otherwise. We are also aware of going through a decision making process, we can weigh up our options and act upon this.

Libertarians also believe in the necessary cause stating that for Y to happen X must have caused it, without X Y will not happen. This is a determinist understanding, However Libertarians recognise that causes are contingent and not necessary, they may or may not cause Y, this is a libertarian view. However opposed to this Determinists would argue that if free will exists then what actually causes our actions, surely our actions are caused by something, for example what about our past experiences and emotions?

Also a determinist would argue is it part of human nature to assume that we are free and what exactly is moral responsibility, and how is this separate from our personality. If it comes from the soul then what causes the soul. Hard determinism states that people do not have free will to act in moral situations. It also states that everything has a prior cause which precedes it; everything is a product of the cause which is unchangeable and fixed. Therefore we cannot be held morally responsible or blameworthy for their actions because their actions are determined.

When we think that we are making a moral decision, hard determinists believe that this is an illusion that we are free but in fact we are not and the decision that we made was already determined. John Locke’s example of the man in the locked room shows that we believe that we are free but we are actually not. However libertarians would argue that we had the choice whether or not to go into the locked room. Psychological determinism is another form of Hard Determinism. This suggests that our characters are determined by our upbringing and experiences.

There are many influencing factors on human behaviour such as hereditary, society, culture and environment. Freud taught that our early years have impact on our actions in the future, there is also much evidence to support this view such as Pavlov’s dogs which operant conditioning demonstrates that we can mould our behaviour through rewards and sanctions, it also demonstrates how our behaviour is determined. However a libertarian would argue that just because you can condition one element of decision making doesn’t mean that all behaviour is determined, we always have a choice.

Theological determinism is also another form of hard determinism. This is the view that the causal chain can be traced back to an uncaused causer, as shown in Aquinas’ Cosmological argument, and this uncaused causer is God. If God is, as suggested by Calvin through his predestination view which suggests that God has already determined a plan for us so we are either damned (going to hell) or elect (going to heaven) , an omnipotent and omniscient God then we cannot have free will as our actions must be predetermined because of this.

There are many criticisms for this view that Libertarians would address as it conflicts with biblical teachings as in Genesis it states that God gave us free will and also for theological determinism to be accepted, libertarians would also argue that there is no proof of this God, so in their view we still have a choice. A form of Hard Determinism that contrasts and argues this view is scientific determinism; this approach states that science tells us that for every physical event there is a physical cause.

If we consider the mind to be material activity in the brain, so then our thoughts are also pre determined. Another form of hard determinism is Biological determinism which states that our characters are determined by our genes, this is partly true as genes do give us our characteristics such as what we look like, even our IQ, all this can determine our behaviour for example the violent gene as evidence can be traced back to the genome (e. g. a violent gene recognised by the Italian supreme court).

However libertarians would argue that because there is only 0. 2% variation in our DNA, so this doesn’t seem efficient enough to explain all the variations in human behaviour, it’s not just our genetic makeup that influences our behaviour, and they would argue that we always have a choice. Soft determinism states that we are morally responsible for our actions; this approach allows libertarianism and hard determinism to be compatible. It states that as long as no one forces you to make a decision then you are free, this can be described as internal freedom.

However soft determinists make a distinction between internal and external causes, these explain why freedom and Jeremy moral responsibility are not only compatible with determinism but actually require it. Soft Determinism, unlike hard determinism, allows for moral responsibility, for example if person A does not save a drowning child because person A cannot swim, he is not morally responsible. However, if he chooses not to because of his personality, a combination of his conditioning, an upbringing and so forth, then he is to be held responsible.

Soft determinists believe that all human actions are caused and when we say that a person acted freely we are not saying that there was no cause but rather they were not forced to do it, here they act as free agents even though their actions are still caused. A main philosopher associated with soft determinism is Hume whom was a soft-determinist. He stated that all things are necessary and believed that some things are uncaused or happen as the result of chance.

Hume also believed that we are free, he goes on to say that we don’t blame people for things they do ignorantly, and blame them less for things that are not premeditated, and any sense of moral blame can only come if something we do is the result of our character. Hume believed that free will, and moral responsibility, require determinism. Soft determinists are criticised by hard determinists for failing to realise the extent to which human freedom is limited and also by libertarians for failing to recognise the true extent of freedom.

Whilst Soft determinism offers a ‘middle ground’ between hard determinism and libertinism an agreeable account of moral freedom, a line still has to be drawn between that which is determined and that which is open to choice. The major fault with soft determinism is that they have to try and agree on what is a determining factor and what is not and the complexities of genetics, psychology makes such a line difficult for them to draw.

So In conclusion, through the arguments expressed in this essay, I believe that perhaps a Soft Determinist approach is more susceptible towards moral decision making, as although it allows us to make our own decisions, they are to an extent determined due to numerous factors such as our upbringing, environment and culture, however it also allows us to accept responsibility for our actions whatever they may be.


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  • University/College: University of Chicago

  • Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter

  • Date: 11 November 2016

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