Free will and Determinism

A2 level religious ethics topic. Some notes on soft determinism, hard determinism and libertarianism. 

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Introduction and key words

Do we have free will to chose what we want or are all our acts determined already? If so can we be held responsible for what we do?  This topic covers 3 veiws on if we have free will or are determined, they are...

soft determinism - the idea that human beings' actions are to some extent controlled by external forces, but they are still held accountable for their choices.

libertarianism - the idea that human beings are able to exercise free will when making decisions and is completely determined by the individual.

hard determinism - the idea that human beings are controlled by external forces and have no choice in making decisions as the decision has already been made.

The main forces that control our decisions, as some people think, are the divine or nature. Whatever controls us it makes us a bit like puppets on string. Some people believe that free will is an illusion. 

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Thomas Reid (1710-1796) put forward common-sense philosophy. This centres on the idea that humans have free will, nature does limit humans but it doesnt effect their free will.

Free will is subject based, meaning you are free to make a choice and have the freedom to follow that through. Free will is the ability to control his/her's own life.

This allows us to develop and to be morally responsible for our own actions. Free will brings with it reponsibilty. 


Some scientists believe that we are hard-wired to behave in certain ways by our genes.

Critics argue that absoulte free will does not create moral responsibilty, that human free will runs wild and it needs to be controlled.

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Religious determinism and free will

Martin Luther attatcked the Catholic Church for the importance it placed on good works. It seems that people who do good are guaranteed a place in heaven. This isn't the case, the more good they do the more they are destined for hell. The reason is simple. The more good they do the more they feel good about themselves and this is arrogance. Salvation comes only from acceptance of God and a realization that the individual can do nothing to ensure being saved.

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John Calvin

He noticed in the Bible that the faithful were few and the majority were faithless. God calls the few and damns the many. Calvin accepted that God is omnipotent, but how can an omnipotent God allow the faithful to be defeated by the many ungodly people? 

Simple; God predestined the vast majority of people to be damned, while few are selected by God to be saved. 

The problem with this is that human beings appear to have no moral responsibility for being good. If the person is predetermined to be saved, it follows that the individual will be saved irrespective of his or her actions.

Arminians (Reject predestination and asserted the importance of human responsibility for moral actions) disagree with Calvin's views. 

Antinomians (the idea that chosen Christians are free, by God's grace or predestination from the obligation to observe moral laws) thought that those who will be saved could do what they want.

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Soft determinism and John Locke

The idea that human beings have limited free will within the constraints of the laws of nature

John Locke  Humans develop morality in their lives. Spoke of the tabula rasa: the mind as a blank slate filled by life experiences that create each person's moral framework. Void of all characters 'with all the materials of reason and knowledge' derived from experience. 

What fills that slate are sensory reactions to the external world. These are not random experiences, they are determined. An able bodies person won't experience the life of a person in a wheelchair. 

What fills your blank slate is therefore determined by nature.

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Soft determinism and David Hume

It was not God who determined the limits of human beings' free will. It is nature that is in ultimate control of human destiny. Humans cannot control events.  

Hume argued that events are determined because of a causal link between objects. For example, in 2010, travellers were prevented from flying as a result of ash from a volcanic eruption. This causal link Hume called the constant unity of objects. The causal links which are predetermined, lead on to human free will. The response to the situation produces free will. Predetermined events that you cannot control, create free choice.  Hume calls the link between predetermined events and what you decide the inference of the mind

A spontaneous decision is one that cannot be predetermined and therefore you have free will to choose. Hume calls this choice the liberty of spontaneity. By linking predetermined events with free will Hume rejects three particular ideas; libertarianism, hard determinism and the idea of chance or what ethicists sometimes call moral luck. 

Luck is non-sense. Events are determined they are not random. Whatever decision you make it is calculated. We are responsible for how we chose to act.

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Criticisms of soft determinism

If human actions are determined by events, then free will is a mirage. You are determined by the situation. 

You cannot separate causal connections and ultimate actions. Once you are part of a chain you cannot decide to break free. You have no choice. (Hard determinism).

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Hard Determinism

Clarence Darrow was a defence lawyer for Loeb and Leopold in 1924, who commited a murder. The evidence was overwhelming and they confessed however they were only given life sentences and not the death penalty thanks to Darrow. 

Darrow argued that the 2 men were predetermined by their upbringing and interests to commit the crime. Darrow blamed everything in the boy's lives but he did not blame the youths. The trail raised the issues of whether humans are predetermined by nature or nurture to act in a certain way? and whether morality can exist if this is the case?...

Honderich- Was not concerned with the way in which individuals are affected by circumstances.He believed that nothing happens without reason, and the reason for everything is out of control of humans. Events are determined and anything a human does is a result of what has already happened. Humans are not responsible for their actions, since what they do is part of a chain of events, which is already set in motion.

He uses the idea of quantum physics (QP) to speculate that determinism may not be simple. QP gave a more complex picture to the world that before. This is the same as with hard determinism, it is not a simple as we first thought and there may be a more complicated view. He illustrates this by showing that cultural values seem to endure irrespective of changes in circumstance. This raises the question about whether determined events do actually cause behavioural changes. 

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Strengths and Criticisms of hard determinism

Criticisms: The fundamental problem with hard determinism is that humans cease having any responsibility for their actions.

What is the point of making decisions/choices if we have everything mapped out in front of us. 

Our emotions get in the way - we all feel responsible for our decisions even if they are determined. We all consciously feel like we are making decision so how can they be determined? 

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Genetic determinism

The way the brain functions is increasingly seen as important in determining human behaviour. The effect of chemicals on the brain, it is argued, play a vital part in determining what people do and what their attitudes are. 

Some argue that the hard wiring of the brain may determines moral sensitivities and actions. However most argue that the environment plays an important factor in the way in which human beings develop, and that it is a combination of both nature and nurture, that determine who we are.

Bryan Caplan estimates on the influences of the 3 things below on determining who we are...

1) Genetic make-up of individual = 40%
2) Shared family environment =  10%
3) Non-shared environment = 50% 

Some scientists argue the social conditioning creates moral attitudes (Stanford experiment). They say we learn moral behaviour from our surroundings

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Caplan's argument

If you are acted upon you have no free will and therefore you cannot be responsible for your actions. Your actions are value free; they have no moral basis. This removes a sense of blame

When you make choices you have free will and so must be responsible for those choices. 

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