Free will and determinism

These revision cards will help you revise free will and determinism

HideShow resource information

What is determinism?

Most would agree that people are morally responsible for their own actions they carry out freely and deliberately only which they have freely chosen. 

Determinism states that there are laws of nature which govern everything which happens and that all our actions are the results of these scientfic laws and that every choice we make was determined by the situation, an that situation was determined by the situation before it and so on far back as you want to go. 

1 of 19

Determinism continued...

It makes it difficult to make sense of the idea that people are to be held morally and legally responsible only for actions carried out freely and deliberately. 

We do feel responsible for our actions even if we did not choose this. 

For example, a driver kills a child who runs out in front of his car would blame himself for the boys death even if it was not his fault. 

2 of 19

Different types of determinism...

Philosophers have responded to this problem in different ways;

Hard determinists accept determinism and reject freedom and moral responsibility

Libertarians reject determinism and accept freedom and moral responsibility

Soft determinists or Compatibilists reject the two previous views that free will and determinism are incompatible and argue that freedom is not only compatible with determinism, but actuallly requires it.

3 of 19


Determinism states that everything in the universe has a prior cause, including all human actions an choices. 

This means that all our decisions, viewpoints and opinions can be best understood when translated into the neutral language of natural science. 

4 of 19


The belief that God has decided who will be saved and who will not. 

The doctrine of predestination was formulated by Augustine of Hippo and John Calvin. It is based on the idea that God determines whatever happens in history an that man has only a limited understanding of Gods purpose and plans. 

5 of 19

Augustine of Hippo

According to Augustine people need the help of Gods grace to do good and is a free gift from God, regardless of individual merit. But only God will determine who will receive the grace that assures salvation. 

6 of 19

John Calvin

Many christians rejected any deterministic ideas, But determinism was formulated by John Calvin. 

It is the belief that man is a complete sinner who is incapable of coming to God and has a sinful free will that is only capable of rejecting God, so predestination must occur or nobody could be saved. 

God is in total control and people cannot do anything to achieve salvation. 

According to Calvin, people are not all created with a similar destiny. 

It is the idea that people have no free will. God makes choices about who is to be saved independantly of any qualities in the individual.

God does not look into a person and sees something good, he only decides who can be saved because he can. All the rest go to hell. People only do good because God made them that way. Therefore, if we have no control over our actions, we have no responsibility for them. 

7 of 19

Hard determinism

Hard Determinists are called 'hard' because their position is very strict. 

According to hard determinism all our actions had prior causes- we are neither free nor responsible. All actions are caused by prior causes  so we are not free to act in any other way. (we have no free will or moral responsibility)

Example- A person is like a machine, if the machine is faulty it need fixing. The same applies to a person, a person cannot be blamed for their violence as they need fixing. 

8 of 19

John Hospers

Was a modern hard determinist who said that there is always something which compels us both externally and internally to perform an action that we would think was the result of our own free will. 

9 of 19

Clarence Darrow

He defended two young men Leopold and Loeb on a charge for murdering a young boy, Bobby Franks. 

The perfect crime the two men planned went wrong. Their defense lawyer Darrow pleaded for the death penalty to be changed to life imprisonment as the two young murderers were the product of their upbringing, ancestry an their wealthy environment. 

Darrow was successful in his plea and the case makes us question whether criminals are morally responsible for what they do. 

10 of 19


The most extreme modern version of hard determinism is behaviourism. 

Psychological behaviourism was first discussed by John Watson who suggested that behaviour can be predicted and controlled, as people live and act in a determined universe so that all human behaviour including ethical decisions is controlled by prior causes which are in principle knowing. 

According to Watson behaviour is influenced by heredity and environment- nature and nurture. By manipulating the environment peoples behavior can be altered. This is called conditioning and was influenced by the work of Pavlov. 

Pavlov conditioned two dogs to salivate as if they were about to be fed when thye heard the sound of a bell. 

However, we are not always conditioned by our environment but will use it to get what we want. as even dogs will go to search for food when they need it. This is known as operant conditioning. This is linked to Skinner's work. 

11 of 19


Skinner investigated behavior modification through reward and punishment. 

He claimed that behavioural science develops and psychologists learn to determine and control human behaviour, it is highly probable human behaviour is not free but most likely determined. 

Moral behaviour is about what people ought and ought not to do, but if they could not do anything else then they had no freedom of choice and cannot be blamed for their actions. 

12 of 19

Steve pinker

He looked at determinism from another angle by looking at the ideas of Darwin that emotions such as guilt, anger, sympathy and love all have biological basis. 

He developed this theory that our moral reasoning is a result of natural selection but claims that this does not mean the end of moral responsibility. 

E.g. evolution might lead men to sleep around or use violence but this does not excuse such behaviour. 

13 of 19


All theories of determinism are influenced by Newton's physics according to which the universe is governed by immutable laws of nature such as motion and gravitation. 

The world is seen as a mechanism dominated by the law of predictable cause and effect.

Freedom of choice is just an illusion- we may appear to have moral choices but we only think we choose freely because we do not know the causes that lie behind our choices. 

It is illustrated by the philosopher John Locke who describes a sleeping man in a locked room on awakening he decides to stay where he is, not realizing that the door to the room is locked. 

The man thinks he has made a free decision but in reality he has no choice. So it is with our moral choices we think we make free decisions simply because we do not know the causes. 

14 of 19

Overview of hard determinism

-All human actions have a prior cause

- We do not make free moral choices 

-We are not morally responsible for our actions

15 of 19

Evaluating hard determinism

- Hard determinism means we cannot blame or praise people for their actions

- If hard determinism were true than people would not be morally responsible and so would not deserve blame for even the most cold blooded an calmly performed evil actions. 

- All choices we make are just illusions- they are determined.

- Hard determinsim rejects the idea of punishment as retribution, but does not reject any other views about the justification of punishment. 

For example, deterrence, self defence or moral education. 

-Classical physics is deterministic, but modern quantum physics is not deterministic and so it makes no sense to worry about determinism in the 21st century. Modern physics maintains that the most basic laws of nature are not deterministic but probabilistic.

-If determinism is true then all the horrible things that happen in the world had to happen- this is a very pessimistic view of the world. 

16 of 19

Libertarianism or Incompatibilism

They reject determinism and say we have complete moral responsibility.

They believe determinism is false and we have free will. 

Libertarians say that the ideas of cause and effect cannot be applied to human behaviour an choices; we do have freedom to act and we are morally responsible for our actions. 

They do not believe that we are compelled to act by outside forces but that moral actions are the result of the values an character of the individual. 

This view means that we have free choice and can choose different ways to act, whereas determinism means that we do the only thing we can do and so never really have a choice about anything. 

The most common argument for libertarianism is that it appeals to our intuitions- we see ourselves as free agents, able to make moral choices, not as puppets on a string or robots. Unlike these we humans have a mind, and it seems reasonable to conclude that having a mind is necessary in order to have free will. 

17 of 19

Libertarians continued...

Libertarians also argue that we do not 'make ourselves' but we do 'make our actions' and we could have chosen to do something else. 

They argue this is clear because when asked to defend our actions we blame ourselves or wonder if we did the right thing- we evaluate our action by asking ourselves whether at that time, we could have acted differently.

We would only blame, criticize or regret if we believed we had alternative ways of acting. 

From our observation of the world around us we know that things can always go wrong. 

The priniciple of causality is presupposed when considering freedom, as the oppostie of causality is randomness.

A universe where there are random events is not one in which we have free will. Behaviour caused by a random event is no more freely chosen than behavior completely determined by the laws of Newtonian physics. 

18 of 19


19 of 19


No comments have yet been made

Similar Ethics resources:

See all Ethics resources »See all resources »