Author: Chelsea Haramia
Category: Ethics, Metaphysics
Word Count: 1000
You probably shouldn’t steal. Common sense tells us that stealing is wrong. But sometimes stealing seems less wrong, or not wrong at all, after we discover the cause of the stealing behavior. For example, if the fact that your family is starving causes you to steal a loaf of bread, many would say that you are not as blameworthy as someone who steals out of greed or spite. And imagine a kleptomaniac who cannot control her stealing behavior. We probably shouldn’t blame her for those actions (though we might encourage her to consult a therapist about her condition).
But why shouldn’t we blame the kleptomaniac? That is to say, how are we justified in holding the kleptomaniac morally responsible? One good reason not to blame the kleptomaniac is that she cannot help her behavior. She possesses a psychological problem that is out of her control. That’s why some defendants are acquitted on grounds of insanity. If you are not in control of your actions, you are not responsible for those actions.
But what if every one of our actions is actually out of our control. That is, what if only seems as if we have the freedom to choose between actions, but we are in fact as undeserving of blame as, say, the severely mentally ill?
There are many philosophically interesting answers to this question, and they deal with some famous and famously difficult problems surrounding the concept of free will. The concept of free will brings with it the idea that at least some of our choices are ours alone—we are fully in control of them, and therefore we are fully responsible for them. Free will is the basis for moral responsibility, or so many have argued.
Philosophers commonly say that ‘ought’ implies ‘can.’ So what does this mean? To justifiably tell someone that she (morally) ought to do something, it would also have to be the case that she can do that thing. Suppose I tell you that you ought to cure cancer. If you did cure cancer, you could prevent large amounts of suffering and many premature deaths. It would be a really good thing. Nonetheless, given that, in all likelihood, it would be impossible for you to cure cancer, it seems absurd to say that you have a moral responsibility to do so, or that you ought to. Importantly, then, you are not blameworthy for your failure to cure cancer. It seems that we are only justified in blaming (or praising) people for their actions—or believing that they are responsible for their actions—when they are able to freelychoose one action over others. But as we have seen, this freedom is the subject of extensive philosophical analysis, and our everyday sense of moral responsibility hangs in the balance.1
2. Libertarian Free Will
Those who claim that we have libertarian free will argue that we make free choices when it is possible that we could have done otherwise.2 When this condition obtains, we are justified in blaming (or praising) the person who made the choice. That is, we are justified in holding that person morally responsible for the action. The idea that we possess free will has a lot of intuitive force behind it, but philosophers have struggled with the question of what could allow for free will in the face of concerns about the causal laws of the world.
The determinist appeals to the causal laws of the world in order to challenge the claim that we have free will. Everything that happens can be fully explained by the causal history of what happened before. Though it seems as if we have choices, it is always the case that, for any choice we are faced with, only one of the seemingly available paths will ultimately be taken, and the other paths were never truly available.3 To suggest that we have free will is to suggest that we are somehow outside of and unaffected by the causal chain of events—that we can be the sole source of our actions—but the determinist argues that this is unsupported by facts about how the world works.4
The determinist may then find this to be proof that moral responsibility is an illusion, or she may attempt to retain a viable sense of moral responsibility in the face of determinism. Compatibilists argue for the latter. They claim that determinism and moral responsibility are actually compatible.5 By appealing to claims about an agent’s internal state, the compatibilist will argue that agents can be held responsible when they are acting according to certain sort of disposition. And others have pointed out that we still have strong intuitions of responsibility even about cases that are explicitly deterministic.6
The power of these intuitions of responsibility cause some determinists to argue for a revisionist approach. They accept that appeals to moral responsibility are theoretically unjustified, but they nonetheless assert that we are pragmatically justified in accepting the illusion that people actually have moral responsibility, because practices of praising and blaming are still useful, and abandoning them could lead to chaos.7
Finally, there are those who maintain that determinism and moral responsibility are utterly incompatible. Importantly, both determinists and libertarians about free will may hold this view. The libertarian can then tout this incompatibility as a virtue of his view. If the two really are incompatible, then only libertarian free will allows us to retain our very commonsense intuitions of moral responsibility.8 The hard determinist will bite the bullet and claim that, if the two really are incompatible, then we are being intellectually dishonest by maintaining practices of moral responsibility, given that we can always trace the causes of an action to something that is ultimately fully outside of the control of the agent.9
This is an ancient philosophical problem that has given rise to an expanding and ever more nuanced set of views. But we can all agree that anyone who grapples with the problem of free will must also take seriously questions of moral responsibility.
1See Jonah Nagashima’s 1000-Word Philosophy essay “Free Will and Free Choice” for more philosophical analysis of freedom of the will, and for the metaphysical details underlying some of the views discussed here.
2See Robert Kane’s The Significance of Free Will (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996) for more information on libertarian free will.
3Some interpretations of quantum-mechanical results suggest that the outcomes of some measurements are indeterministic, but it is difficult to argue that (1) decisions are quantum-mechanical measurements and (2) wholly random events count as “free” choices.
4See Baron d’Holbach’s System of Nature (translated by H.D. Robinson, New York: Burt Franklin, 1970)or Galen Strawson’s “The Bounds of Freedom” (in The Oxford Handbook of Free Will, edited by Robert Kane, Oxford University Press: New York, 2002) for more information on the determinist position.
5See Daniel Dennet’s “I Could Not Have Done Otherwise—So What?” (in Free Will, edited by Robert Kane, Blackwell Publishing: Malden, MA, 2002) or John Martin Fischer’s “Compatibilism” (in Four Views on Free Will. Blackwell Publishing: Malden, MA, 2007) for more information on the compatibilist position.
6These are commonly referred to as “Frankfurt-style cases,” made famous in Harry Frankfurt’s “Alternate Possibilities and Moral Responsibility” (in the Journal of Philosophy 66: 829-39, 1969). See also John Martin Fischer’s “Frankfurt-style Examples, Responsibility and Semi-Compatibilism” (in Free Will, edited by Robert Kane, Blackwell Publishing: Malden, MA, 2002).
7See Saul Smilansky’s “Free Will, Fundamental Dualism, and the Centrality of Illusionism” (in The Oxford Handbook of Free Will, edited by Robert Kane, Oxford University Press: New York, 2002) and Manuel Vargas’ “Revisionism” (in Four Views on Free Will, Blackwell Publishing: Malden, MA, 2007) for more information on the revisionist position.
8See Peter van Inwagen’s An Essay on Free Will (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983) for more information on the libertarian incompatibilist.
9See Derk Pereboom’s “Hard Incompatibilism” (in Four Views on Free Will, Blackwell Publishing: Malden, MA, 2007) for more information on the determinist incompatibilist position, also known as “hard incompatibilism” or “hard determinism.”
About the Author
Chelsea is an assistant professor of philosophy at Spring Hill College. She has a Ph.D. in philosophy from CU Boulder, a graduate certificate in gender and women’s studies from CU Boulder, and a B.A. in philosophy from the University of Illinois at Chicago. She is currently interested in metaethics, population and procreation ethics, environmental ethics, bioethics, and feminist philosophy. She once did sixteen back flips in a row, but these days she mostly practices mental gymnastics. Website: https://sites.google.com/site/chelseaharamia
Essay/Term paper: Free will versus determinism
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Free Will Versus Determinism
The controversy between free will and determinism has been argued
about for years. What is the difference between the two? Looking in a
dictionary, free will is the power, attributed to human beings, of making free
choices that are unconstrained by external circumstances or by an agency such
as fate or divine will. Free will allows free choice. Yet, determinism is the
total opposite. Determinism has this definition: The philosophical doctrine
that every event, act, and decision is the inescapable consequence of
antecedents that are independent of the human will. Determinism states that
humans have no free will to choose what they wish. That seems real extreme and
harsh. Even though this is what determinism is, doesn't mean that the
determinists are trying to steal your freedom. It's only what they believe
because of religion and cause and effect. In religion, many people believe in
the existence of a god supports determinism. The basis of god is that he is
all-knowing and all-powerful. If free will is allowed, there would be
decisions and actions in which God could not know due to the person's choice.
This would limit God's omnipotence, which is unacceptable to some. The other
argument for determinism is causation, or causes and effects. This argument
depends on relationships that should happen with the same results every time,
such as a baseball breaking a window, breaking the window. Basing on this,
everything in the universe has a cause. And if all the causes and the events
were known, then it would be possible to easily predict the future. If
everything can be foreseen, then this proves that nothing that anyone does can
change the courses of the future. This, of course, is not possible.
Determinism says that what you do can be the cause of what your life turns out
to be. This can be true. Yet, you can act otherwise that would steer you off
that path of where your life was heading. Common sense tells us that we can
change, which determinism opposes to. It also says that if we feel we are not
forced, we could have acted differently. That is why I choose to side with
free will. Determinism has too many extremes and limits that, already shown,
is not possible in this world.
Free will is the mind's ability to choose with intelligence. That
doesn't mean that our choice has all the freedom in the world. Our choices
cannot and obviously should not be totally free from our knowledge, values and
perceptions of everyday life and the things around us. Our choices are not
free from past thoughts and decisions or from outside influences. The freedom
in freewill is not the dismissal of these influencing factors: our self
awareness, our imagination, our ability to seek out knowledge and project the
future, and our awareness of and observing our own thinking. This is our
source of freedom. This makes us self-determined, being aware of what we want.
The proper understanding of free will is that choices are not free from
influences, but free to make intelligent choices.
If determinism were true, no person would be able to change his
actions, therefore no one could ever be held morally responsible for his own
actions. Common sense says that we can change our actions by our own choice.
Everyone in this world has common sense. In this argument determinism is
definitely not true. One can want to do something, but from past experiences,
can stop and not do the actions he had planned. A thief, who finally got
caught and suffered two awful years in prison, can decide to not steal after
seeing a desirable pair of pants lying openly on a rack. He can restrain
himself from doing wrong, after realizing from past consequences. This leads
to the next argument. We can and have overcome our desires and inclinations.
Both common sense and fact show that we can actively change our behavior. Yet
a determinist would say that we only perceive that we can change our actions
and behavior. But, that too, is false. Before, I wanted an expensive shirt
that I really, really liked, but I, then, remembered the last time I bought a
shirt that expensive, begging on my knees to my mom to buy it for me, and I
rarely wore it. That made my mom really mad. This would leave me to not buy
that desirable shirt, changing my actions ( I really have not bought an
expensive shirt, after that incident ). Free will states that we do not feel
forced to act. At the time of a decision, we feel we have other choices. A
determinist would say to this that such feelings of control are illusions, that
we are just ignorant of all the irresistible forces acting upon us. Again, I
would have to disagree to that. Noticing the consequences of an action could
cause the individual to not act. The feeling of control is not an illusion; we
see the actions and think about what may happen if we acted. Free will says
that at a certain time we feel that we could have chosen to act differently. A
determinist reply to that is that our behavior is already determined by
previous events. Therefore we can not change our behavior. Previous events do
affects us; we cannot ignore that. But, like the previous examples, if the
previous events' consequences were not good, we would mostly likely change,
unless that individual was deranged. These arguments on free will definitely
does not pertain to all people. Everyone is different. Yet mostly likely,
individuals think towards free will.
An implication to determinism is that man becomes nothing more than
a puppet. That may sound cruel, but it is true. Under the rules of
determinism, man must go by past events, doing the same thing he did in the
past, right or wrong. He can not change his behavior, unable to let out his
emotions. The man has become a puppet, being controlled and restricted. And
in everyday life, determinism does not exist in most lives.
It is logical and reasonable to say that the all of free will is a
measure of our humanness. Whatever we choose will effect our future. But we
will base our decisions on what we feel is right, taking in our moral feelings.
Free will is a measure of self-determination that people feel themselves to
possess and by which they make moral judgments.
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