Determinism refers to the philosophical principle that all actions are pre-determined by a series of causal events and laws of nature. The theory pre-supposes that human decisions are a product of the conditioning of various factors.
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This presents several challenges to the concept of free will or moral responsibility. It would appear that, if all human decisions are pre-determined and caused by various laws of nature, then there is nothing like free will. However, these seemingly contradictory concepts of determinism and free will continue to co-exist today.
One group of philosophers is convinced that determinism and moral responsibility are compatible (Pink, 2004). Another group believes that the two are inconsistent and thus, ought to not co-exist. The purpose of this paper is to show that determinism and moral responsibility co-exist and that human decisions or actions cannot contradict the pre-existing laws of nature.
Determinism is generally described by philosophers as the concept of every event having a cause. This causation applies the quantum physics laws of cause and effect (Williams, 1980). A popular kind of determinism is the social determinism.
It asserts that human behavior is influenced by, and is therefore a result of, social interactions and environment. Social determinism is one of three explanations for human behavior; the other two being free will and biological determinism.
Free will as an explanation for human behavior depicts that human beings consciously choose to act the way they do and are responsible for their actions, whether good or bad. Biological determinism school of thought claims that human behavior is a result of heredity and genetic makeup (Kattsoff, 1965).
In order to present how determinism and moral responsibility are compatible, it is essential to state several assumptions. The first assumption is that determinism is a materialistic worldview (Williams, 1980). This is especially in the respect to free will.
What this means is that human beings have no control over the actions of quantum physics both in the world around them or in their own brains. Secondly, moral responsibility in this case is based on the theory that the concept of goodness is an objective fact (Williams, 1980).
This means that goodness cannot be regarded as a product of language and is thus not subjective but is universal. In other words, the choice between what is moral or immoral is subject to an objective standard of good or bad which is outside the person making that choice.
The first example to illustrate the compatibility between moral responsibility and determinism is the concept of punishment. This paper will show why it is not against the laws of logic to punish a person for their action while still holding on to the claim that we live in a deterministic world. First of all, punishment achieves two main goals.
The first goal is to prevent the person from repeating the action again while the second goal is to deter others from doing the same. This means that, even though the person’s present actions were determined by the current state of affairs or laws of nature, the future actions of the same person under the same laws of nature will be different.
While one may argue that the punishment is a deterministic factor for the future behavior of the person being punished, the fact that the punishment acts as a deterrent to people other than the one being punished indicates a sense of moral responsibility in the unpunished people.
Secondly, a closer look at moral responsibility indicates that there exist compatibilities between moral responsibility and determinism. It is essential to appreciate the fact that the laws of nature do not necessarily cause actions such as human decision and other free-will choices (Honderich, 2005).
They do, however, influence how interactions between the mind and the physical world take place. The actual cause of human actions is the natural interactions that happen within their brain, as opposed to the world around them. The primary cause of one brain state is earlier brain states.
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However, all these brain states are a result of previous inputs. Therefore, the moral or legal responsibility of a person making a decision is actually a resultant effect of the collective responsibilities of his teachers or the people that influenced him.
The person, however, bears the greatest responsibility because it is only at his point that the thoughts are translated into action (Honderich, 2005). This does not disprove human responsibility, it only points to the concept of shared responsibility, which is already a reality even in the present legal systems.
For example, while one person may actually be responsible for pulling the trigger, his accomplices also share in the responsibility and part of the punishment.
The above example clearly shows that human behavior is a complex subject. Social determinism would have people blame behavior on the environment one is exposed to, especially one they are brought up in and their social interactions (Honderich, 2005).
For instance, young people living in poverty areas are more likely to engage in crime compared to those living in the suburbs. Adults who have had humble and poor backgrounds are likely to turn out more ambitious and put more effort in their studies and talents compared to those who never lacked.
However, when it comes to social determinism, determinism is used to predict, rather than cause behavior. The evidence is not definitive proof. There are countless people who are brought up in ghettos and slums and still grow up to be responsible adults.
There are just as many brought up in slums who eventually engage in crime. Crime cannot be blamed on poverty exclusively or even partially, since poor people make up a very high percentage of the population (Pink, 2004).
Social interactions, especially during childhood, are responsible in large for attitudes, beliefs and values inherent in human beings. This is not to say that values and beliefs instilled during one’s childhood are cast in stone. They often change as one matures, but not easily.
Parents, while raising their children, can instill in them values such as honesty, confidence, hard work, integrity and ambition through training and disciplining. On the other hand, they can also end up encouraging negative values such as laziness, low self-esteem and pessimism.
The environment also affects attitudes and values. For instance, a person living in a war zone or a hostile homestead is more likely to exhibit traits of melancholy or paranoia compared to a person living in a peaceful and happy environment (Widerker, 2006).
It has been proven that human beings are well aware of the difference between what is right and what is wrong. They also are not pre-conditioned to think and act in a certain way but have the capacity to learn and to improve. Their actions therefore, whether right or wrong, boil down to choice and free will.
Determinism can be viewed as influencers of behavior and choice, but not the causes. For instance, a positive environment is likely to contribute to an individual’s moral decision not to hurt other people. A hostile and poor environment is likely to greatly influence an individual’s decision to steal.
Therefore, biological determinism factors such as one’s level of intelligence and temperaments and social determinism factors such as attitude, values and beliefs – though not causal factors of human behavior – are major influencers of choice (Widerker, 2006).
Among the reasons determinism cannot be used to explain away human behavior is its implication that human beings act based on uncontrollable environmental conditions and animal instincts inherent in them.
If human beings were preconditioned and could not control the effect their environment had on their character and individuality, then it would be pointless to punish and to advocate for moral responsibility. Determinism would have humanity question the aspect of decision making by implying that individuality is preconditioned (Widerker, 2006).
This also questions the causation theory which would make what one perceive as a cause not to be a real cause but a subjective effect of previous causes. The second reason determinism does not hold water, is the fact that there is no way of proving that human behavior in a particular environment would not be the same in a different environment.
It also does not explain why two individuals placed in the exact same environment with similar social conditions and interactions would have very different individualities and perceptions. If determinism was a valid explanation for human behavior then it would be expected that individuals with similar backgrounds would exhibit similar individualities.
Free will depicts that human beings are free to choose how to act regardless of their environment and socialization and are in control of their behavior. It however does not negate the possibility of being misled, coerced or brainwashed which would make it harder to make a rational choice based on will.
These conditions, however, do not necessarily mean that the individual is not in control of their actions (Honderich, 2002). Moral responsibility is acquired as an individual matures through disciplining, experience, teaching and learning.
It is almost an obligation especially in relation to acts carried out towards other people. Moral responsibility bases its principles on the fact that an individual’s actions are not based on natural causes but on a brain process that the individual is responsible for, hence the concept of punishment.
Punishment, especially in regards to children is intended to instill morals, to make the child see the error of his ways and refrain from making the particular mistake again. Punishment in regards to adults is also intended to prevent the offender from repeating the particular mistake they are punished for as well as to dissuade other people from making that particular mistake.
Sometimes punishment is a form of attaining justice for the wronged party and to ensure the wrongdoer pays for his actions. If determinism was a reliable explanation for behavior, it would not make sense to punish people for wrong deeds or to praise or reward individuals for commendable actions.
The very fact that human beings feel the need to reward and appreciate good deeds and to condemn and punish wrong deeds means they are conscious about their actions and that they recognize that choosing to be morally responsible in spite of the worldly factors that would influence us to act otherwise is commendable.
In conclusion, human behavior and actions is a product of conscious choice and free will. These choices and their intensity, their moral standards and frequency may or may not be influenced by social and biological factors.
However a couple of other valid factors, such as lack of proper instruction by teachers and parents to their children, could cause tendencies of moral irresponsibility. Sometimes repetitive wrong choices and undisciplined behavior and morals could cause an individual to continually make wrong choices without conscience.
Even then, they would be making these decisions consciously aware that they are wrong and therefore would have to be held responsible for such actions. The extent to which determinism can be considered a cause of human behavior is yet to be established but the aspect of choice and free will whatever the circumstances is proven.
Honderich, T. (2002). How Free Are You?: The Determinism Problem. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Honderich, T. (2005). On determinism and freedom. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Kattsoff, L. O. (1965). Making moral decisions: An existential analysis. Hague: M. Nijhoff.
Pink, T. (2004). Free Will: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Widerker, D. (2006). Moral responsibility and alternative possibilities: essays on the importance of alternative possibilities. Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate Publishing.
Williams, C. (1980). Free will and determinism: A dialogue. Indianapolis, In: Hackett Publishing.