Free Will and Determinism

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Free Will

  • it is commonly held that we should be responsible for actions that we freely perform
  • if you're forced to commit a moral action you can't be praiseworthy and if you're forced to commit an immoral act you can't be totally, if at all, blameworthy
  • if, in ignorance you are unpredictably immoral are you blameworthy? - eg. if a company sell harmful chemicals becausethey are untested their ignorance is inexcusable
  • intention has some bearing on moral culpability - eg. a shorter sentence is given for manslaughter than premeditated murder


  • for us to praise and blame there must be free will - morality depends on freedom
  • wrote, "'ought' implies 'can" and argued that the worth of an action "consists precisely in human freedom of the principle of action from all influence"
  • has been linked with both libertarianism and soft determinism
  • believed humans are free to make rational choices (animals lack this capacity)
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Free Will 2

Genetics and Environment

  • nature/nurture debate
  • we may be more 'programmed' than we like to believe
  • will could be influenced by dispositions that exist in our genetic heritage and social upbringing
  • genetics may impact our predispositions - eg. the 'gay' gene /  the 'crime' gene
  • science doesn't yet fully understand how genes may affect us and our will BUT even so, you may have the biological disposition to act a certain way but some may have enough will power to restrain that action

Self-restraint and Willpower

  • predisposition doesn't necessarily lead to action - may resist temptation
  • self-restraint may be influenced by genes OR by religious and ethical beliefs
  • B.F. Skinner (wrote: 'Beyond Freedom and Dignity') believed environment affects what we do and is full of factors which exercise degrees of control over humans
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Free Will 3

Living in Society

  • individuals who live together in groups form agreed, perhaps unwritten, rules - a 'social contract'
  • within society tensions can emerge over how much diversity is permitted - eg. is the society tolerant of other religious or political opinions
  • people with different opinions may be under social pressure to change/conform or forced out of the group - eg. National Socialism in 1930's Germany sought a racially 'pure' state. Anyone different was seen as a threat
  • in a Cosmopolitan Society freedoms are only restricted to a minimum and the social contract allows for diversity, difference and creativity (to a 'safe' degree)

Conflict of Free Wills

  • sometimes people's free wills may conflict and who then should take preference? - eg. four emergency service vehicles approach a crossroads at exactly the same time. Who should move aside and who should be allowed to pass?
  • social expectations should not be underestimated - eg. they may motivate a gay man to marry a women to please his family and the community
  • this conflict of wills means we can't always do the things we want to do
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  • Libertarians are incompatiblists - free will is incompatible with determinism
  • you shouldn't act in a way that undermines your conscience

John Stuart Mill

  • 19th century utilitarian - wrote, 'On Liberty'  
  • defended free speech and was concerned that an individual must not be 'crushed' by a society
  • argued, "Whatever crushes individuality is despotism" -moral responsibility requires freedom
  • however humans have limitations - eg. we mustn't harm another person
  • individuality means human development and we must have freedom to act and speak (within reason) because this marks out our personality and moral capacity - personality is an expression of free will


  • shouldn't be forced to act immorally -conscience=central feature of human dignity+integrity
  • the erosion of conscience by society makes people less human + limits our free decisions
  • when someone is forced to act immorally it's a crime against ALL human beings
  • soceity cannot diminish the individual - majority may still be morally wrong
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Libertarianism 2

Religion and Conscience -Christianity

  • conscience in Biblical stories - eg. Joseph was tempted by Potiphar's wife-Genesis 39
  • there are also accounts of how sinful acts have left the sinners with guilt - eg. when David said "take away the guilt of your servant; for I have done very foolishly" (2 Samuel)
  • In the NT Saint Paul describes conscience as an awareness of good and bad but says conscience can be weak and mistaken
  • Saint Augustine saw conscience as a tool for observing God's law: "Men can see moral rules written in the book of light which is called Truth", and described it as God speaking to us which we must seek within ourselves

More Christianity - Aquinas (wrote: Summa Theologica)

  • saw conscience (conscientia) as a faculty for distinguishing right from wrong rather than interior knowledge
  • he thought people usually tended towards good - Synderesis rule (Synderesis=reason)
  •  difficult to deternine what is good so when people sin it is because they have made a mistake - they persued an 'apparent' good and not a 'real' good
  • wrote: "reason bids a man to sleep with another man's wife, to do this will be evil based on ignorance of divine law
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Libertarianism 3

More Christianity - Joesph Butler (C18 Anglican Priest, wrote 'The Analogy of Religion'

  • saw conscience as the final moral decision maker - wrote: "There is a principle of reflection in men by which they distinguish between approvak and disapproval of their own actions"
  • conscience gives us intuitive judgments about what we should do and is a God-given guide to moral behaviour and therefore must be obeyed without considering alternatives/questioning
  • humans are influenced by self-love and benevolence - conscience focuses us on benevolence
  • Catholics often question this view (and side with Aquinas) because it assumes that consciennce is always right and gives it absolute authority BUT conscience could be wrong and could go against the law of God


  • John Geaves suggested that in Islam one must surrender to the will of Allah so the idea of an individual internal moral authority is alien
  • inner workings of conscience cannot be relied upon
  • UMMAH, a muslim community, is where Islamic law is lived out
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Libertarianism 4

Conscience as a Moral Guide

  • RC Church adopted Aquinas' understanding that not following conscience is always wrong
  • Aquinas thought conscience could never motivate you to do something that goes against what is morally right (determined by natural moral law) - ignorance leads conscience astray
  • Cardinal Newman took a 'intuitionist' approach to conscience and believed that to follow conscience is to follow divine law - said, "I toast the Pope but I toast conscience first" 
  • conscience is a 'law written by God'
  • Vatican Council: "All are bound to follow their they may come to God"
  • HOWEVER research suggests RC teaching on artificial contraception is widely ignored suggesting many Catholics are prepared to ignore teaching on the basis of conscience

Conscience Preventing Free Will

  • Freud believed the human psyche was inspired by powerful instinctive desires BUT we soon learn that the world restricts the degree to which these can be satisfied
  • guilty conscience can stop us fulfilling certain desires (eg. violence)
  • since Freud scientists have suggested a 'mature' and 'immature' conscience - the 'mature' is concerned with right and wrong and is forward thinking - the immature presents feelings of guilt and the two may conflict
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Libertarianism 5

The Causally Undetermined Choice

  • Hume ('An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding) described liberty as the "power of acting or not acting according to the determinations of the will"
  • libertarians believe moral actions result from the values and character of the moral agent
  • humans are free but are constrained by the laws of physics
  • A snooker ball is hit and moves accross a table - it has no moral behaviour
  • If I am brought up among theives I may be predisposed to think stealing is acceptable but my moral perception may still present the idea that it is wrong
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The Principle of Causality and Hard Determinism

  • Spinoza (C17 Philosopher) thought we are not free and are ignorant of the real causes of our actions - eg. an infant may think it freely seeks milk BUT is driven by hunger
  • Spinoza wrote: "[men] are conscious of their actions and ignorant of the causes of them"
  • Hard Deterministsbelieve that we are neither free to act nor morally responsible
  • Philosopher Honderich defines hard determinism as the view that: "all our choices...are no more than the effects of other equally necessitated events"
  • our actions are determined by a complex set of prior causes
  • supports the Newtonian view that all physical objects exist in accordance with natural law

Internal and External Causation

  • behaviour may be determined by our social, economic,religious and cultural backgrounds 
  • in 2002 scientists found a gene which predisposed children to bad beaviour
  • case of Darrow, an American Lawyer, who defended two tennage boys guilty of murder by claiming they were products of their upbringing and had diminished moral responsibility
  • there may be internal causes for actions built up by our environment
  • Milgram experiment (1963) - authority figure asked volunteers to 'shock' an actor
  • our moral freedom is illusory and open to external manipulation
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Soft Determinism

  • only some aspect of behaviour are predetermined so we are still morally responsible
  • argue that soft determinism doesn't rule-out free will - free will is acting voluntarily
  • an act is free unless compelled by another person - eg. Rocco and the finger collector
  • free will doesn't mean without influence + free acts aren't uncaused- they're caused by choices
  • our decisions are part of a causal chain of events but it's possible to change our behaviour - eg. someone who suffers anxiety attacks may receive treatment to prevent them in the future
  • Kane (C21 Philosopher) argued that we may have character traits which have developed from our life experiences but these may have formed interdeterministicly - our actions may flow from our character yet still be free from determinism
  • Soft determinists are criticised by hard determinists for 'failing to realise the extent to which human freedom is limited'
  • Soft determinists are criticised by libertarians for not understanding the definition of free choice
  • HOWEVER soft determinists criticise libertarians for not understanding the significance of human psychology and that free choices cannot be undetermined causes
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Religious Perspectives


  • traditional Judeo-Christian view is that humans are free and morally responsible 
  • Genesis- Adam exercises free will to disobey God and is held responsible by God
  • Aquinas wrote: "Man chooses not of necessity but freely"
  • HOWEVER some Protestant Churches (eg. Scottish Presbyterian) believe God has already decided who will be saved = Predestination
  • Saint Paul wrote: "Those he predestined...he also justified"
  • but, for some, just because we are predestined does not mean our freedom is restricted
  • Saint Paul wrote: "Since the fall of man humans have had the stain of origninal sin" - this we cannot freely choose


  • nothing can happen without being in accordance with God's will BUT God does not force every drop of rain even though the rain falls in accordance with HIS will
  • humans have a duty to act as God's regent on Earth so they need freewill to follow their duty
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Religious Perspectives 2

Hinduism and Buddhism

  • role of causality is associated with the law of karma - karma is the consequence of an action
  • human actions cause effects which are felt in the 'next life'
  • freedom in this life may be limited because of consequences from actions in a past life
  • HOWEVER we must have some freedom in order to gain karma
  • Hard determinism challenges the possibility for the religious to lead a 'good life' because human freedom to do good and turn to God is essential
  • Libertarianism also presents challenged as it doesn't fit with the idea that we have religious and moral codes which we should live by
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