Free Will and Moral Responsibility


The conditions of moral responsibility

In order for humans to be held morally responsible for their actions, two conditions appear to be necessary:

1. That humans possess the ability to choose how to act

2. That they understand the difference between right and wrong

If either of these two conditions are not met, then it seems unfair rto blame people for their wrong actions or to praise them for their good actions.

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Condition 1: Free Will

  • We should be morally responsible for actions which are freely performed. Most would agree that we should accept the blame for the things we freely do wrong.
  • If I gave freely to a charity than I am worthy of praise, but if I am forced to give money to a charity than I am not praiseworthy.
  • We can only give moral blame or praise to actions which are freely undertaken. Our society and individuals within our society commonly hold this view.
  • Aristotle (384-322 BCE) says are commonly confined to voluntary actions, whilst actions are made non-voluntary by compulson or ignorance. By this, Aristotle is referring to the necessity of understanding the difference between right and wrong in order to be held morally responsible for your actions. 
  • Kant also discusses praise and blame and moral responsibility. Praise and blame are justified because the person chose their actions. It is important to recognise the dignity of the person as a rational agent in such choices.
  • If a person is not in control of their actions because of drug abuse or another disorientating influence, such as severe emotional trauma, then that person is not entirely responsible for their actions. 
  • The person's INTENTION is important.
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Condition 2: Difference between right and wrong

Another necessary condition for moral responsibility is knowing the difference between right and wrong. It makes little sense to blame someone for an act that is held to be immoral if they have no knowledge that it is wrong. It is reasonable to think that if you are unaware that an action is morally wrong, then you do not have moral responsibility fr that action.

A person needs to have some moral discretion, which means they must be aware that what they are doing is right or wrong. They cannot be hindered by psychological and neurological disability.

Some humans do not meet these criteria:

- Babies and young children are not able to tell the difference between right and wrong.

- People with severe learning difficulities.

- Those who suffer from dementia or other serious diseases.

- People who are under extreme stress or pressure in their lives may lack the capacity to think normally and clearly.

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Sources of a person's moral awareness

1. Perhaps we have an innate (bulit-in) moral sense= Some have called this the conscience. Hume calls this innate moral sense the 'faculty of sympathy' e.g. we may feel that it is just the right thing to do to go to the aid of someone in distress. We instinctively know what is right and wrong without having to be told or shown.

2. Perhaps we learn about right and wrong from our parents, teachers and society in general= All of these help to influence us, shaping our understanding of what is right and wrong. This implies that what is right and wrong is culturally conditioned and varies between societies and cultures.

3. Relgion also plays an important role in shaping a person's awareness or right and wrong= Each faith presents its followers with a set of moral principles which set out what is right and wrong and defines the way of life for that group, including social practices such as diet, clothing and day-to-day behaviour. Believers could learn about the difference between right and wrong by reading scripture, or through the instructions of a priest or other religious figure of authority. This is based on the idea that what is right and wrong is defined by God as the creator of the universe. He is the master of morality and we must follow his commands.

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Sources of a person's moral awareness

4. Psychologists like Sigmund Freud= would argue that understanding the difference between right and wrong is learned through experience: we learn to associate what is wrong with feelings of fear of punsihment, so that we feel quilty if we begin to contemplate performing a wrong action. Our parents are thus important in influencing our sense of right and wrong.

Moral dilemmas arise when these levels of moral awareness- personal/innate v social v religous come into conflict.

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Aquinas- difference between right and wrong

Aquinas would call this unknowing choice invincible ignorance. By this he means that if you could not reasonably be expected to know that an action is evil, then you cannot really be blamed. This may lead to someone to think that they are performing a good action when it is actually only an apparently good one.

On the other hand, vincible ignorance is the phrase Aquinas uses to describe a lack of knowledge that is not reasonable. If a person has neglected to find out the risks of an action, even though they know that such risks exist, then they can be blamed if something goes wrong.

For example; if a small child takes some chocolate from a shop because they want that delicious chocolate hit, but doesn't understand the idea of paying for goods, then we should not blame the child for the theft. They did not know that they have to give the shopkeeper money, so they have no awreness that what they are doing is wrong. They are not really responsible for their action.

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The extent of moral responsibility

  • Though we may feel ourselves to be free- we have an intuition that we are- the existence of free will is one of the oldest philosophical problems.It is still closely debated today. A key part of the problem is that the existence of free will seems to come up against the idea of univeral causation, which is the scientific idea that all things must have a cause.
  • This idea that every event has a cause is the basis theory of determinism. The question raised by this theory is wheter we, as human beings, possess free will. If we do not possess free will then we cannot be held morally responsible for out actions. If this were the case, then morality really would become meaningless.
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Freedom is necessity for morality

  • Kant's idea that 'ought implies can'= a moral situation is one in which a individual can choose a particular course of action. A non- moral situation therefore is one in which an individual has no choice, or more frequently has the choice dictated to them by somthing/someone over which they have no control.
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Human actions out of our control?

  • 'a man cannot choose to do what he ought to do, but rather does what he must'

-Hard determinists= accept determinism and reject freedom and moral responsibility.

-Libertarians= accept freedom and moral responsibility and reject determinism.

-Compatibilists (soft determinists)= argue that determinism is essential to the notion of free will.

  • For 200 years up until 1900, science maintained a rigid determinsim and a belief in univeral causation, which rejected free will in the same way that it rejected miracles. It saw all observable events as beign subject to scientific laws and therefore completely predictable.

'What does it mean to have free will?'

1. We must have two or more possibilities 'genuinely open to us when we are faced with a choice.

2. Our choice must not be forced. 

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Human actions out of our control?

  • The concept of our free will plays a vital concept to our thinking about the world, particularly in attributing blame and praise and in finding others 'morally responsible' for what they have done. We generally do not hold others responsible for their actions when they are:

1. Under the influence of powerful medication having unexpected psychological side effects.

2. Very young people who are unable to foresee the consequences of actions.

3. People who are delirious.

4. People who are forced into an action.

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  • Libertarianism is the philosophical postion that humans posess free will.
  • Libertarians reject all forms of determinism as false.
  • They argue that we act as free moral agents in all matters of right and wrong.

Most libertarianisms do not deny that the universe is subject to mechanistic and deterministic laws, only that human action is also subject to these laws. Most are mind-body dualists (they believe that the mind and body are seperate substances, which allows the mind to be free from scientific, deterministic laws). Other Liberterians argue that human moral fredom is non-causal, so a completely free choice is possible

They reject determinism as they believe we have complete moral responsibility. The laws of cause and effect cannot be applied to human behaviour and choice. Do not believe we are compelled by outside forces. Moral actions are the result of the values and character of the individual.

When a person is confronted with the choice between right and wrong they are a free agent and freely choose their actions. If a person has been brainwashed or hypnotised, we would say that we are not morally responsible for our actions.

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Compatibilism is the belief that free will and determinism are mutually compatible and that it is possible to believe in both without being logically inconsistent. Compatibilists believe freedom can be present or absent in situations for reasons that have nothing to do with metaphysics.They define free will as freedom to act according to one's motives without arbitrary hindrance from other individuals or institutions. 

They say that freedom to act is doing what you want to do, without any guidance. They say that our own values can determine how we act act 

They say that out own values, desires and prior choices can determine how we act in certain situations, however these 'causes' of our actions are so complex and numerous they are almost completely random in their effects and may not determine a precise or specific action. So they're determined, yet they are not free because there is no external coercion involved.

If someone is abused as a child, they're less likely to abuse their children because they don't want the same impacts on their child that they had.

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The causally undetermined choice

This freedom is what Libertarians call a causally undetermined choice- a free choice. This is a genuine, real choice, one which is not constrained by any factor. We are not compelled to act by any force- it is our moral consciousness that is free and decides.

These decisions result from the character and moral values of the person themselves. We weigh up decisions beforehand and come to a decision based on out values and with reference to the consequences of actions.

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Kane- Libertarian Philosopher

  • Kane says that it is necessary that there are alternative possibilities available to us if we are to be said to have free will, but this is not enough on its own. Something else is required. He argues that humans possess free will and that we are the ultimate creators of our own ends. He also argues that we can carry out what he calls 'self-forming acts'; our actions are not random, as we would not be responsible for them, we have 'ultimate responsibility'.
  • Even if most of our actions are determined entirely by our character, these actions can be free if we at times in the past freely created our own character with 'self-forming actions'.
  • Our actions lie within us rather than in something else, which our outside and beyond our control.
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Peter Van Inwagen- Libertarian Philosopher

  • Is considered to be a Libertarian. He puts forward and argument called the 'garden of forking paths'. By this he means that humans consciously make choices in life. These are like forks in a road or path when we are confronted with the need to go one way or another. We have a choice over which path to choose.
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  • Influenced by Nietzsche's idea that 'God is dead', existentialism is a philosophy that holds that frreedom is both the measure and the goal in our lives. We should aim to act freely and be free. 
  • Sartre argued that from nothing, people make themselves what they choose.There is no human nature. 'Existence precedes essence' - which means that first we exist, there is no in built or God-given nature to humans and we must then go on to define ourselves. There is no intrinsic meaning to life, we just exist. From this, we have the freedom to create our own meanings. We must act according to what we will- to do otherwise is to fail to live authentically. To fail to do so is to suffer from what Sartre calls 'bad faith'- by which he means the failure of humans to resist pressures from society to conform to its norm and adopt false values.
  • Humans are 'condemned to be free'- we have to make a choice about our lives, even though there is no meaning to our existence.
  • This freedom gives us responsibility for our own lives and actions. We are to blame if things go wrong. There is no opportunity for us to pass the blame on to anyone else, like God, as we were not made by God or any other supreme being. 
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Quantum Mechanics

  • Some Libertarians have argued that science can help to explain human free will. This argument begins with quantum physics, which is the study of how matter behaves on a sub-atomic level. A key scientist is Heisenberg, whose uncertainity principle says that we cannot know both the location and momentum of a sub- atomic particle at the same time.
  • If we cannot know both things, then there is uncertainty about the state of any particle in the universe. From this idea, it seems that cause and effect does not apply to sub-atomic particles. It has been argued that this means that not every event needs a cause and that some events are unpredictable. Thus humans do have free will and thus we have moral responsibility.
  • However, not everyone agrees on this. The idea that the uncertainty principle proves that humans have free will is not accepted by all scientists and philosophers. 


  • If events are random, then they are still not chosen by humans and cannot be said to be the result of the exercise of free will. It seems unfair to hold someone responsible for an action that was set in motion by a random sub-atomic event in their brain.
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Evaluating Libertarianism


  • Our experience of everyday life tells us that we do appear to have choices in life. We can choose different things, whether this is what to have for breakfast, what clothes to buy or which universities we want to study it.
  • This means that our freedom is experienced in acts of will that do seem to originate within us.
  • Plenty of people from violent backgrounds with ancestors who have been murderers have gone on to be good people. Our genes might influence us, but they do not control our behaviour.
  • It allows us to attribute praise an blame to people so that they can be rewarded or punished as appropriate.
  • This makes our system of criminal justice possible, as it relies on us having the ability to choose.
  • The feelings of guilt we experience arise because we realise that we have made a wrong moral choice, supporting free will's existence.
  • From a religious perspective, it allows believers to beliece in a God-given soul, which explains our freedom and specialness.
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Evaluating Libertarianism


  • Determinists criticise Libertarians and maintain that free will and decision- making is an illusion created by the great complexity of mental processes.
  • The mind is just as subject to causal laws as physical matter, so there is no way for free will to exist.
  • Universal causation seems to mean that the human will cannot be free. If humans are made out of atoms that follow scientific laws, it follows that our thoughts and desires are also subject to this control. There is no way for free will to exist.
  • Libertarians make many assumptions about the existence of free will, such as Descarte's flawed arguments for the seperation of mind and body.
  • Our personalities seem to be determined by factors such as our genes and the way we have been brought up, making our 'choices' merely the product or prior causes outside our control.
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Hard Determinism

  • This is the theory that human behaviour and actions are wholly determined by a range of internal and external factors, and therefore humans do not have genuine free will or ethical accountability. It rests on the idea that every event or action has a prior cause. This makes everything that happens, including human actions, subject to determinism by these prior causes. It is the theory of universal causation.
  • Hard determinists maintain that everything in the universe, including all human actions and choices, has a prior cause. Humans therefore are not free to act. 
  • There are several supporting views for this belief which can be summarised under the following 'banners':
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Biological Determinism

  • Our characters are determind by our genes.
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Scientific/physical determinism

  • Science tells us that for every physical event there is a physical cause. We're made of matter which obeys the laws of physics, such as gravity. If we consider the mind to be material activity in the brain, chemical impulses, then our thoughts and desires are also pre-determined. Ultimately everything has a physical cause, so free will does not exist. There is a long chain of causation stretching back to the Big Bang and forward from here and now into the future. 
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Scientific/physical determinism

  • Science tells us that for every physical event there is a physical cause. We're made of matter which obeys the laws of physics, such as gravity. If we consider the mind to be material activity in the brain, chemical impulses, then our thoughts and desires are also pre-determined. Ultimately everything has a physical cause, so free will does not exist. There is a long chain of causation stretching back to the Big Bang and forward from here and now into the future. 
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Philosophical Determinism

  • The theory of universal causation is the belief that everything in the universe has a cause. The illusion of moral choice is a result of our ignorance of what causes these choices, leading us to believe they have no cause.
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Psychological determinism

  • Nature/nurture. According to psychological determinism our characters are determined by our upbringing and experiences. There are many influencing factors on human behaviour, such as: hereditary, society, culture and environment.
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Theological determinism

  • This is the belief that the causal chain can be traced back to an uncaused causer, and this is God. Furthermore, if God is omniscient and omnipotent, as suggested by classical theism, then we cannot have free will and our actions must be predetermined.
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John Locke (Hard Determinism)

  • Suppose that a sleeping man is placed in a locked room. On awakening he decides to stay where he is, not knowing that the room is already locked. This is a real decision taken by him, it is freely made he might have decided to leave; but in reality he has no choice and it is only his ignorance of his true condition, which made him think otherwise. So it is with our moral choices. We think we are free when we decide to do X and not Y, but in fact we are not. These decisions are causally determined; they are effects of previous causes and these causes of still earlier causes, and so on.
  • Locke argues that are the idea of free will is incoherant. He says that the will is the power to intend to do something. 
  • Human actions are constrained by the existence of reason. We are not free to act outside the boundaries of reason. We will always choose the option that is most reasoned: we will choose the best over the better, the better over the merely good. The greater good imposes itself on our will.
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