Free will and determinism

Overview of the free will and determinism topic. 

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Free will and Determinism

Overview of the topic.

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Libertarianists - G.E. Moore, Robert Kane and Robert Nozick. They believe:

  • We are free and morally responsible for our actions
  • Humans have a sense of decision making - a sense of freedom
  • C.A. Cambell said proof of free will is if "events could always have been otherwise"
  • 'Nurture' may make us tend towards certain actions and away from others but we are free to go against these tendincies
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G.E. Moore

'I am free in performing an action if I could have done otherwise if I had chosen to do so.'

While individual humans might come from a background that predisposes them to a life of crime, they still experience the freedom to choose. It may be that their conscience tells them that an action is wrong, or even simply that they are aware that society 'disproves'. Whatever it is, they can still choose.

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Robert Nozick

As humans we 'weigh-up' what we should do between the options life gives us.

Much like a judge does not merely apply the law but to some degree decides the law using judicial descretion.

This assessing of options is up to us in the sense that it is not determined by causal laws. The options we are given are sometimes determined by causal law, however, we are completely free as to which option to choose.

You may mix this up with soft determinism because it seems that some things are determined and some are not. This is not soft determinism.

We cannot decide to just grow wings and start flying. The fact that we do not have wings is determined much like the options we are given in life. We cannot truely be free, however, we do have free choice in assessing the options given to us.

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Robert Kane

Argues that the two following premises are true:

1. The existence of alternative possibilities* is a necessary condition of acting freely

2. Determinism is not compatible with alternative possibilities

Kane develops the idea of AP into UR (ultimate responsibility)

UR is where "An agent must be responsible for anything that is a sufficient reason (condition, cause or motive) for the action's occuring."

*The principle of alternative possibilities (AP) was created by Harry Frankfurt and it says that:

"A person is morally responsible for what they have done only if they could have done otherwise."

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Key points:

  • We can choose to act despite past events, cultural and environmental conditioning an dbiological influence.
  • Rejects determinism as it denies the possibility of moral responsibility
  • Humans experience freedom in ethical decision making, even is they are physically constrained - For example, I can choose the direction I travel in but I cannot choose to flap my arms and fly there


  • Argues that humans can make moral decisions independant of previous chains of cause and effect. Yet it does not give another explaination as to why we do things. Our actions have to be caused by something.


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Observable events are subject to the laws of nature:

  • Scientific knowledge is based on the premise that events can be predicted by past events
  • Causality governs everything and determinism fits with causality

Any event is caused by a series of causes that coincide to create the conditions for that event to come about.

For example, the police devote considerable resources to 'incident investigation' trying to discover the cause(s) of incidents.

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Case study 1

In February in 2001 a man drove his Land Rover off the motorway into an express train which then derailed into the path of an oncoming goods train. Ten people died in the crash.

Was this an 'accident'?

It was found that the man, Gary Hart, had spent the previous night talking to his girlfriend on the phone. Consequently he fell asleep at the wheel.

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Case study 2

The Bell case:

In 1968 Mary Bell (aged 11) murdered two toddlers. She spent 12 years in prison before being released at 23. She was a difficult inmate - often violent and she self-harmed.

Her mother was a prostitute and Mary was forced to listen to her mother 'entertaining' her clients from behind a curtain.

Was Mary's behaviour predetermined by her upbringing?

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Case study 3

The Loeb case:

In 1924 two teenage boys (Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb) murdered a 14-year-old. They were defended by the famous laywer Clarence Darrow, who argued against the boys being given the death penulty.

The boys were brought up in privileged circumstances which lead to their belief in superiority over the rest of society. Darrwo argued that their actions were so much a result of their upbringing that they were not morally responsible for their actions.

The boys were sentanced to life in prison, to protect the public, but were spared the death penulty because they were not morally responsible.

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Hard Determinism

The basic argument for Hard Determinism->

Premise 1:

No action is free if it must occur.

Premise 2*:

For any event X there are prior causes that ensure the occurance of X in accordance with impersonal, mechanical causal laws. (The Thesis of Determinism)


No action is free.

(*If you doubt P2, try and think of an uncaused event)

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Hard Determinism

Some people argue that P2 does not apply to some human actions; that humans are different from mere things. The hard determinist anticipates this:

P1: No action is free if it must occur

P2: Human actions result from wants, wishes, desires, motivations, feelings etc.

P3: Human wants, wishes, desires, motivations, feelings etc. are caused in turn by specific prior conditions that ensure their occurence.

C: Human actions are not free 

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The absurd consequences that follow on from the su

Example 1:

Suppose your will were free. This would mean that your actions were not determined by causal laws. This would mean that it would be impossible to predict what you are going to do. But in fact people who know you can predict your actions to a far amount for accuracy.

Therefore, your actions must be controlled by causal laws.

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The absurd consequences that follow on from the su

Example 2:

As put by A.J. Ayer -

Again suppose your will were free. This means that your actions are freely chosen, and you're morally responsible for them. How then do you make choices?

Either it is an accident that you choose as you do or it is not.

If it is an accident, e.g. random choice, then it is just a matter of chance that you didn't choose otherwise. Therefore, how can you be held morally responsible for choosing as you did?

On the other hand, if you didn't choose by accident, then that means there's a causal explanation for your choice, and this confirms hard determinism.

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Hard Determinists

B.F. Skinner - you can create a much better world if you abandon the out-dated notion of freedom:

  • since people are the result of their conditioning, and will get conditioned by their upbringimg and environments anyway, we ought to control people's upbringing and environments as must as possible to ensure that their conditioning is positive
  • You could create a perfect society by conditioning people so they obide the law, make contributions to society and have a happy consciousness
  • Believes that any happy society must take into account what people actually want
  • Social order depends on manipulating people's wants, so that they volentarily choose what they have actually been programmed to choose.
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Hard Determinists

Freud and others such as sociobiologists (e.g. Richard Dawkins) also discount the importance of people's actual desires. Actual conscious human wants are simply data, symptoms, residues of evolution or previous conditioning over which the individual has no control.

I'm sure you've heard of Freud's case study on Little Hans. Freud believed that human wants are caused by strong unconscious forces determining desire. These forces are built into human nature by evolution.

Konrad Lorenz holds that aggression and territoriality and sexual competition are innate instinctive drives. These attributes are determined by evolution. 

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Hard Determinists

Ted Honderich:

  • Everything is determined, both externially and internally
  • Therefore there is no moral responsibility
  • No room for moral blame and subsequently no point in punishing someone just for the sake of punishing them
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Soft Determinism

A.J. Ayer sums up the soft determinist position when he says:

"If I suffered from a compulsion neurosis, so that I got up and walked across the room, whether I wanted to or not, or if I did so because somebody else compelled me, then I should not be acting freely. But if I do it now, I shall be acting freely, just because those conditions do not obtain; and the fact that my action may nevertheless have a cause is, from this point of view, irrelevant. For it is not when my action has any cause at all, but only when it has a special sort of cause, that it is reckoned not to be free." 

In short, freedom and universal causation are compatible. 

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Soft Determinists

Immanuel Kant:

I believe we are free within our own will to preform unimpeded acts, whilst I believe that anything that was the object of knowledge was determined.


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Within Christianity, specifically Protestant Christians, some people believe that God has already determined all things, including those who will be 'saved' at the end of time. This is the idea of predestination which originates with St Paul.

Augustine of Hippo argued that in order to be good we need God's grace. It is up to God to give us grace which means that he predestines who should be allowed salvation.

John Calvin said that man is inherently evil. God saves the select few because otherwise no-one would be saved.

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Influences on free will and determinism

Social Conditioning:

Philosopher Thomas Sowell said that social conditioning is 'the idea that the human self is infinately plastic, allowing humanity to be changed and ultimately, perfected'

This theory suggests that our social learning and placement is what determines our actions and we can do nothing else except follow the sociologically determined path.

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Influences on free will and determinism


Almost all physical and behavioural aspects of humanity are determined by genetics. Some biologists would say that other influences may play a part, such as upbringing (nurture), however you cannot escape the fact that genes control most of what we are.  

If genes do determine your actions, then once again, is it possible to be morally responsible?

Steven Pinker developed the idea that moral reasoning is a result of natural selection, as ideas such as love, jealousy and guilt all have a basis in human biological evolution.

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Influences on free will and determinism


Suggests that geography and climate influence individuals much more than social conditions do. It says that historically our climate contributes to our actions as it affects the behaviour of society.

For example, the less regular weather of Europe supposedly brings about a more determined attitude towards work and working.

If this approach is true, then the weather and environment can affect our actions and possibly determine them. 

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