Free Will, Determinism and Moral Responsibility
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Free Will, Determinism and Moral Responsibility

it is significant to keep in mind that mutually, compatibilism and incompatibilism are debates founded on the prospect of possibility. According to the compatibilist, it is possible for an individual to be both entirely determined and yet free. The incompatibilist, on the other hand, maintains that such a status of associations is not possible

Free Will, Determinism and Moral Responsibility

The unique ability that each and every individual possesses that enables him/her to control their actions or choose his or her route of action without coercion is known as free will. Free will is directly connected to two other vital philosophical issues: freedom of action and moral accountability, which is the main reason why the debate on determinism and free will is so vital. Simply stated, a person who has free will refers a person who has free will is able to choose his or her route of action. However, animals also appear to be in possession of the same ability, further adding to the debate because typically only human beings are thought to possess free will (Broad 1990).

Over the years, there has been an ongoing controversial debate as to whether free will truly needs an agent to possess an unobstructed or unlimited ability of will, or whether the term “free will” is simply a term used to describe features enabling people to act out of choice, which leads to the controversy of whether free will really does exist.

If rational human actions are assumed to arise from free will, then that would mean free will is dependent on those events. That leads to the belief that the opportunity of free action depends on the leeway of free will: to state that a person acted freely is simply to say that the individual was victorious in acting out of free choice (Van Inwagen 1983).

Philosopher Thomas Hobbes asserted this theory by stating that all free will actions were based or influenced by external factors compelling a person to act. However, one might dispute this approach because it is conceptualized based on two different types of distinct types of freedom namely: freedom of will versus freedom of action.  This distinction is aggravated by the fact that agents can have free will with no freedom of action (Pereboom 1997). For example, if a person thinks of walking his/her dog, it can be assumed that He chose this action based on his own free will. However, according to Hobbes’ theory, it can also be assumed that an external factor, which in this case could be that the dog needs exercise and hence needs to go for a walk, has influenced the individual and therefore the action taken, because the decision did not arise from that individuals free will. Still, if there is a difference between freedom of will and self-determination, it would appear that the notion free will is essential for the performance of free actions.

A fundamental question propelling this debate is why an individual has to be responsible for his/her action when these actions do not arise out of his/her own free will but from environmental factors which he/she cannot have control over. The simple answer would be that individuals are not responsible for their actions, however unpopular this may be. According to this view, while it may be of immense moral value to hold people liable for their actions, and to utilize systems of rewards and punishment, no one is really deserving of  blame or praise for anything they do (Honderich 2002).

However, an exception to this theory lies in the premise of determinism proposed by the British analytic philosopher Galen Strawson. The premise implies that the future is predetermined, because every event has a cause and the causes stretch back to time immemorial (Strawson 1994). From this school of thought, the theory of incompatibilism arises, where determinism is thought to rule out free will. There are three types of determinism, namely: theological, logical and causal determinism. Theological determinism is the thesis that God exists and has infallible information of all present knowledge as well as those about our upcoming actions. This asserts that free will cannot be exercised if God, who is all knowing and cannot make mistakes knows what is going to happen, or what action that we are ultimately going to take. Religious traditions hold that God has the ultimate responsibility for everything that happens (Anglin 1990).

Logical determinism on the other hand espouses the view that what is going to happen in the future is unavoidably going to happen, and therefore supposes that whatever any individual intends to do in the future, already has a truth value and will inevitably happen. For instance, if an individual intends to go to the park on the weekend, this situation is already true seeing as the action was already intended for a long time ago. However, in the view that the individuals’ actions were already determined a long time ago, it is impossible to say that the individuals’ decision to walk the dog arose from his/her free will (Ekstrom 1999). Causal determinism is the idea that the course of the future is totally determined by the combination of the precedent and the laws of his/her environment.

 Compatibilists believe that individuals can possess free will even if causal determinism is correct because they assert that it is likely for an individual to be strong-minded in all their choices and actions and still make some of their choices freely.

However much determinism may imply that our choices and efforts may be predetermined but this does not mean that we are indecisive or cannot make our own choices (Honderich 2002). Instead, determinists are unswerving in their belief that our thoughts, choices and labors are part of the contributory process whereby we cause further effects in the world. Debates about incompatibilism are based on the premises that:

  • Arguments that preserve the claim that determinism make it not possible for us to cause and manage our actions. 

Those who believe that determinism makes it impossible for us to cause and manage our actions, worry that determinism rules out the kind of causation that we invoke when we attribute actions to people further than ourselves, for example, when we blame another for an action we committed. In short, we do not have the right to judge or even discipline the actions of others because it would be incorrect to imply that they had any choice in the action taken. This is further reinforced by the idea that moral liability requires autonomy of, that is, our actions are completely controlled by ourselves.

  • Arguments that protect the claim that determinism deprives us of the authority to do or choose what we want to do. 

However, proponents of the latter focus on choice. They assert that to have choice, is the avenue to options and alternatives of the different ways we can act, and that the free will we have can only exist if we have a real option about what actions we carry out, which is made possible by having many actions we mean to carry out. For example an individual may be faced with many tasks that he/she must perform at one given time such as, cooking, talking and standing all at the same time. This premise thus states that an individual can choose which action to take based on their ability to perform them.

Ultimately, we can arrive at the conclusion that both of these premises accept that both our ability to cause and manage our actions and consists in the fact that we have the power to do or at least choose to do from an array of actions.

  • Arguments of intuition 

The most common argument that supports incompatibilism is that of our intuitions. According to this debate, if determinism is not a fallacy then we are just like puppets, controlled by our brain into performing actions and we therefore don’t have free will just like animals. However this debate has been inconclusive.

Some incompatibilitists think that determinism is accurate of the real world, and thus no person in the real world possesses free will but other believes that the real world is not deterministic and some of the individuals in the real world actually possess free will.

Free will pessimists concur with the incompatibility and suppose that free will is not likely if determinism is true. However, unlike the incompatibilists, pessimists do not consider that the indeterminism actually has a role to play. In effect, they maintain that rather than helping maintain free will, indeterminism undermines it. Think of an individual contemplating taking their dog for a walk. According to the pessimist, an individual cannot be free so long as determinism is true. But if determinism is false, then indeterminacy will be present at some point preceding their action. The pessimist argues that it is hard to see how indeterminacy could advance the persons free will, because the event of her reasons is indeterministic, and then it is beyond the power of an individual to possess these reasons. However, if the person were to make a decision on the basis of whatever reasons he/she does have, then her choice is based upon on external influences beyond the person’s control. It is founded instead on probability (Chisholm 1967). Thus, pessimists suppose that the accumulation of indeterminism makes people unable to fully control their actions and thus free will. While pessimism might seem to advocate the same ideology as those that deny that free will exists, it is important to not that they have a very big difference, with pessimists having a stronger claim.

 Those that do not believe in the existence of free will assume that although free will is possible, it just isn’t real: people actually have free will. Pessimists, however, possess a more convincing thought, thinking that free will is not possible (Ekstrom 1999). Not only do people not possess free will, there is no way that they could have it. For the pessimist, the only way to defend moral responsibility is to decline that free will is an imperative state for moral responsibility.

There are two types of incompatibilists. The first type believe that possessing free will is a issue of possessing a number of choices to choose from in terms of our actions, and that possessing an option is a matter of having alternatives of the actions we can choose to take. The second type of incompabilitsts base their argument on the idea that the legitimacy of determinism would mean that we as individuals don’t cause our action. The certainty of determinism would signify that we don’t initiate our actions significantly and our actions are not, ultimately, controlled by us (Murphy 2007).

Arguments for Incompatibilism

Consequence argument

The most well acknowledged and prominent argument for incompatibilism is the Consequence argument which is based on the elementary dissimilarity between the past and the future. However, the past seems to be fixed and unalterable whereas the future seems to be open. This can be illustrated by the fact that we do not deliberate the actions of the past in the same way we deliberate about the future (Fischer 1984). An individual can influence what will occur in the future through their actions but cannot change the actions that have already occurred in the past. An individual can contemplate about their actions in the past and ponder whether it was the best action to be taken whereas the same individual can question what future actions should be taken. In this case, when a person is using their free will, they are in fact choosing from an assortment of diverse options for the future. The Consequence argument argues the future is not open if determinism is involved and the future would be as fixed as the past (Fischer 1984).

Origination argument

The Origination argument is founded on the significance of the starting place of a decision for free will. According to this argument, a person has free will only when his/her decisions come from the person him/herself. Proponents of this argument claim that a person has to be the ultimate source of their actions.  From this argument, the assumption that we are morally responsible for our actions is disputed in the cases of coercion and manipulation because the coerced or manipulated individual is not the originator of his/her actions (Strawson 1994). In the case of walking the dog, for example, we may assume that the individual decided to walk the dog out of their own free will arising from their beliefs and desires. However, we need to put into consideration that these same beliefs are the inevitable products of years of events that are out of the individuals’ control. Thus, a determined person is at most a source, but not the ultimate source for his/her actions. Therefore, the proponents of this argument, the truth for determinism would mean that people are not the ultimate source of their actions in the way needed for free will and therefore if determinism is true, no person has free will.


Arguments for compatibilism are founded on the freedom prerequisite for moral responsibility.  If one can show that moral responsibility is attuned with the accuracy of determinism, and if free will is mandatory for moral responsibility, one will have absolutely shown that free will is itself well-matched with the legitimacy of determinism.

Frankfurt’s Argument against “the Ability to Do Otherwise”

 The initial of these opinions for compatibilism discard the perception of having a choice as concerning the capability to do otherwise. Frankfurt provides an example in which a person commits an action in conditions that pilot us to consider that the person acted freely. Yet, unbeknown to the individual, the situations consist of some method that would convey about the action if the person did not act upon it on their own (Frankfurt 1997). For example, when an individual has a small computer chip that can control their actions. Say, for example, an individual contemplates whether or not to walk their dog. If the person decides that they do not want to walk their dog, the chip is activated and thus influences their decision, and eventually performs that act of walking the dog. In such a case, Frankfurt asserts that the individual would be morally responsible for their actions because the presence of the chip plays no role in the decision. This is because, he asserts, that the individual was morally responsible for taking care of the dog in the first place and the chip was only there to ensure that the moral responsibility is carried out. If Frankfurt is right and his argument that such situations are possible, then even if the reality of determinism is unsuited with a kind of freedom that needs the capacity to do otherwise, it is compatible with the sort of freedom indispensable for moral responsibility (Frankfurt 1997).

Strawson’s Reactive Attitudes

In a prominent article, Peter Strawson asserts that many of the conventional debates between compatibilists and incompatibilists are erroneous. He asserts that the focus should instead be on reactive attitudes, that is, the attitudes that we have toward others based on their attitudes and treatment towards us (Strawson 1994). Reactive attitudes are fundamentally natural human reactions to the good or ill intentions or lack of sympathy of others toward us, as viewed form their attitudes and actions. He argues that these attitudes are vital to the interactions between people, and that they offer the foundation for holding individuals morally responsible. Strawson then argues for two claims. The first of these is that a person’s reactive attitudes would not be exaggerated by a conviction that determinism was not a fallacy. Furthermore, Strawson also argues for a normative assertion that the non-fallacy of determinism shouldn’t challenge our reactive attitudes (Strawson 1994). He further asserts that there are two types of situations where it is fitting to defer our reactive attitudes. One involves people, such as mentally disabled people and young children, who cannot be moral agents and Strawson asserts that we should not have reactive attitudes toward non-moral agents. The second kinds of cases are those in which while the person is a moral agent, his/her action toward us is not associated to their actions in any kind of way. For example, if an individual was to have feelings of resentment toward a person that had cut him off on the highway, and if they were to then find out that the person was forced to do so in a time of a medical emergency, the individual would have no justification to still hold the same resentment. Thus, Strawson thinks, the legitimacy of determinism ought not to weaken our reactive attitudes. Strawson argues that moral responsibility is well-matched with the certainty of determinism since moral responsibility is founded on the reactive attitudes, and if free will is a necessity for moral responsibility, Strawson’s argument offers support to compatibilism (Strawson 1994).

In conclusion it is significant to keep in mind that mutually, compatibilism and incompatibilism are debates founded on the prospect of possibility. According to the compatibilist, it is possible for an individual to be both entirely determined and yet free. The incompatibilist, on the other hand, maintains that such a status of associations is not possible. From this short paper, we can therefore assume that free will touches on important issues in philosophy of human nature, metaphysics, action theory, the philosophy of religion and ethics. Furthermore, it has been noted that there are contending opinions concerning nearly every part of free will including whether there is, or even could be, such a thing. 


Anglin, W. S. Free Will and the Christian Faith. Clarendon Press, 1990.

Baron, Robert A. "The Sweet Smell of... Helping: Effects of Pleasant Ambient Fragrance on Prosocial Behavior in Shopping Malls." Personlaity and Sociology Bulletin, 1997: 498.

Broad, C. D. Determinism, Indeterminism, and Libertarianism. Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1990.

Chisholm, Roderick. "He Could Have Done Otherwise." Journal of Philosophy, 1967: 409-417.

Ekstrom, Laura Waddell. Free Will: A Philosophical Study. HarperCollins Publishers, 1999.

Fischer, John Martin. "Power Over the Past." Pacific Philosophical Quarterly, 1984: 335-350.

Frankfurt, Harry. "Alternate Possibilities and Moral Responsibility." Pereboom, 1997: 156-166.

Honderich, Ted. How Free are You? Oxford University Press, 2002.

Murphy, John M. Doris: Dominic. "From My Lai to Abu Ghraib: The Moral Psychology of Atrocity." Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 2007: 25-55.

Pereboom, Derk. Free Will. Hacket, 1997.

Strawson, Galen. "The Impossibility of Moral Responsibility." Philosophical Studies (Philosophical Studies), 1994: 5-24.

Van Inwagen, Peter. An Essay on Free Will. Clarendon Press, 1983.

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Comments (1)

Again, thatks for the interesting and thorough exposition. It brought to mind an interesting little novelette by Isaac Asimov called "The End of Eternity"