The fact is we all act as if we have free will, regardless of what we say we believe about it, there are several factors to consider concerning this question, determinism, science, philosophical and theological ideas, compatibilism, moral nihilism etc.
In this essay I shall consider whether humans do or do not in fact have true control of their actions and have “free will” and if not, why not?
We need not enter into a philosophical debate between free will and determinism in order to decide how to act. Either we have free will or it is determined that we behave as if we do. In either case we make choices.
-Fisher and Ury,
“Getting to Yes” page. 53
There’s always been a significant relationship between freedom and moral responsibility; it’s commonly held that we should be morally responsible for the behaviour we perform. As moral agents we should be ready to accept the blame for the things that we choose to do, we should be ready to accept the blame for the things that we freely do wrong, although if we were to have a situation forced upon us where the circumstances would not allow any other choice other than to carry out an immoral action we would not be blameworthy. Vice versa if we were forced at gunpoint to assist a stranger we would not deserve honour or praise because it was an action that was not freely undertaken.
If in ignorance one performs an action which has an unpredictable immoral consequence, then we’re again not blameworthy because there was no way of knowing it could have caused harm or had ill-effect on another.
Unfortunately these situations can get evermore complicated, if someone isn’t entirely in control of their actions (e.g. if they were under the influence of drugs/alcohol or some kind of influence that caused the brain to act outlandishly) and they then commit an immoral action, they would not be fully morally responsible, although someone who has had a few too many may start a fight and things get out of hand, ending up in the victim being hospitalized, they would be partially morally responsible, but they would not have committed as great a crime as someone who intentionally attacked someone.
Now, if we can only blame or thank people for actions they liberally and consciously undertake, then it’s fundamental that human beings have freedom to act. Morality depends on freedom. Moral actions can only be free actions, without freedom we would have moral nihilism. If actions are determined then we can’t be blamed for a single thing we do in our lifetime, and this is the dispute brought about by the Christian idea of predestination (a Protestant view that God has already decided who will be saved and who will not) and the determinist ethical viewpoint.
This idea was used in a very famous court case involving Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb’s desire to commit “the perfect murder” after claiming to be Nietzschean supermen (Friedrich Nietzsche was a philosopher during the late 19th century but he’s unrelated to the topic), the victim was a 14-year old boy called Robert “Bobby” Franks who was kidnapped and then murdered.
Loeb’s family hired 67-year old Clarence Darrow, a well-known opponent of capital punishment, to defend the men against the capital charges of murder and kidnapping.
During the 12-hour hearing on the final day, Darrow gave a speech that has been called the finest of his career. The speech included the following:
“This terrible crime was inherent in his organism, and it came from some ancestor… Is any blame attached because somebody took Nietzsche’s philosophy seriously and fashioned his life upon it?… It is hardly fair to hang a 19-year-old boy for the philosophy that was taught him at the university?”
He famously used determinism in the court to defend their case, claiming that they had no choice and it was always going to happen, he did succeed in the end but both defendants were charged with life imprisonment plus another 99 years for the kidnapping. Loeb was murdered in prison at age 30 by a former cellmate, and Leopold died at age 66 from a heart-attack.
Determinism is the view that the universe and its future are already pre-determined by past happenings and occurrences, this is due to living in a universe of cause and effect, something can only do something else when another thing acts upon it, much like the domino effect, knocking down one will knock every other one down.
The question “Consider the view that humans have no free will” invites candidates to consider the strength of determinism and all the other factors mentioned earlier.
Scientific and philosophical determinism are based in the success of induction and the alleged fixity of the laws of nature; if these apply to the brain also, then determinism seems unavoidable since the laws of causation would suggest that from the first fact of the universe, all other effects must follow inexorably. This might be challenged by an appeal, for example to an exemption in the case of thought, which is sometimes held to work on non-deterministic quantum processes, although it’s not clear whether quantum processes are simply-non computable yet deterministic.
In ethics there are three philosophical approaches to freedom. There are those who maintain that humans can’t be morally blameworthy for their actions because all of their actions are determined, this group of people are called Hard Determinists.
Then there are those who maintain that we are free to act and morally responsible at all times throughout our lives, unless circumstances claim otherwise (referring back to the drugs and alcohol), these people are called Libertarians.
Finally there are those who maintain that some human actions are determined, but that we still have moral responsibility, they are the Soft Determinists, also known as the “Compatibilism” view or “the middle way” between the two extremes.
Hard determinism preserves that all actions have a prior cause; humans aren’t free to act at all. Our actions are determined by a complex set of prior causes. An excellent quote for this was written by Volitaire, in his Dictionaire Philosophique (1764) and reads as this:
Pear trees cannot bear bananas. The instincts of a spaniel cannot be the instincts of an ostrich. Everything is planned, connected, limited.
Some people reject determinism because it rules our moral responsibility, and also because there is a sense that we have self-determination or freedom to act. They are called incompatibilists (because they uphold that free will is incompatible with determinism) or libertarians.
Libertarians believe that we are free and morally responsible for our actions, an important argument for libertarianism is the human sense of decision-making. While we have a sense of freedom, a sense of deliberating over our options, determinists maintain this is all an illusion of freedom.
Although it doesn’t explain human action, yet surely our actions are caused by something? Libertarianism attributes our moral judgement to an objective source, unaffected by environment or the culture we were brought up within, but this is debateable. Just as it’s difficult to show how one thing causes another, it’s difficult to show that there are no causes beyond our control. Libertarianism doesn’t seem to account for human motive, which is caused by something.
Soft determinism allows one to believe that some aspects of human beings are determined, but we are morally responsible for our actions. They claim that determinism doesn’t rule our free will; they believe that determinism and free will are compatible. This midway position suggests that some of our actions are conditioned, while others have so complex a collection of causes that they may properly be described as freely decided or willed.
Soft determinists are criticised by hard determinists for failing to realise the extent to which human freedom is limited, and by libertarians for failing to realise the true extent of human freedom. Sadly, compatibilists have to agree on precisely what is and what isn’t a determining factor. The complexities of physics, metaphysics, genetics and psychology make such a line difficult for them to draw.