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Nielsen’s Free Will and Determinism: An Analysis and Critique Essay


The issue of moral luck has always been quite debatable. According to Nielsen, the case of moral luck takes place once the outcomes predetermined by luck create a moral dilemma.

Despite the proof that Nielsen provides for the fact that determinism and freedom can actually coexist and, moreover, complement each other,

Nielsen makes it clear that the existence of moral luck defines the boundaries of people’s free will; however, Nielsen also states that moral luck can make a difference in the moral responsibilities of a person.

Although Nagel’s position on moral luck and the consequent moral responsibilities of a person can be interpreted in several ways, which the paper by Nielsen, and especially such supposition as “we can say when it is true or probably true to assert that a man is free” (Nielsen 45), shows, Nielsen obviously sees the fact of the agent having control over the situation as the key obstacle to the compatibilist approach providing the solution to the famous dilemma.

According to Nielsen, the basic problem with the paradox of moral luck suggested by Nagel is that the two statements that follow the principle of moral luck clearly contradict each other. As Nagel explains, the idea of Moral Luck leads to the following conclusions:

  1. People can only be held responsible for the consequences of the events, the key factors of which were under people’s control;
  2. In a number of cases, people are also responsible for many things that are beyond their control.

Since the two statements provided above clearly contradict each other, as Nielsen points out, it can be considered that in the determinist settings, the concept of free will can barely exist.

Another question that stems from the above-mentioned dilemma concerns the way in which luck affects a person’s moral worth.

According to Nielsen, peopled use the idea of determinism as an obstacle to bearing responsibilities for certain situations in order to avoid being blamed for negative outcomes.

At the given point, it will be reasonable to mention that Nagel considers different kinds of moral luck in order to compare and contrast them and finally come to a certain conclusion concerning moral responsibilities of a person.

Nielsen, however, takes the concept of moral luck as a whole, without splitting it into specific types. Herein lies the difference between the approach that Nielsen analyses, i.e., the one suggested by Nagel, and Nielsen’s own interpretation of how morally responsible for specific events people are.

According to Nagel, luck plays a great part in determining people’s responsibility; in fact, the amount of factors that are at a person’s disposal at the moment of a specific event can practically predetermine the rates of the given person’s responsibility, according to Nagel’s train of thought (Nielsen ).

Nielsen, however, states that “’freedom’ has a definite contrast and application. Basically it contrasts with constraint. Since this is so, we can say when it is true or probably true to assert that a man is free, and when it is false or probably false to say that he is free” (Nielsen 45).

It is quite peculiar that, to prove his point, Nielsen resorts to discussing the specifics of the English language; to be more exact, Nielsen considers the implications of the modal verb “must,” specifying that it can denote either an obligation, as in “one must do something because it is predetermined by the existing rules or a person’s code of conduct/moral principles/etc,” or a certainty (strong supposition), as in “if you cut off his head, he must die” (Nielsen 41).

Therefore, Nielsen stresses that the line drawn between the concept of necessity and the idea of supposition is very vague. The lack of clarity between necessity and supposition, therefore, shows that there is a possibility of free will in determinist setting.

Thus, according to Nielsen, even in the determinist settings, free will can exist; therefore, the two elements are fully compatible, even though the fact that they can coexist might be considered a paradox.

That being said, it is important, however, to keep in mind that the given approach does not solve the issue in Nagel’s moral luck, i.e., the dilemma between the fact that the instances of moral luck should be prevented and the obvious fact that they cannot be prevented.

According to Nielsen’s explanations, “Even in a determinist world we can do other than we in fact do, since all ‘cans’ are constitutionally iffy. That is to say, we are all hypothetical” (Nielsen 45).

By stating the hypothetical origin of every single element of the universe, including people, Nielsen shows that the compatibilist approach cannot [possibly provide the answer to the famous dilemma.

Another issue that Nielsen touches upon in his article concerns the problem of the thief and the kleptomaniac.

According to the author of the article, there is a huge difference between a thief and a kleptomaniac as moral agents and, therefore, their moral responsibilities are practically incomparable.

According to Nielsen, a thief makes a conscious decision concerning whether (s)he should take what does not belong to him/her or not. Therefore, (s)he is solely responsible for what (s)he does and well deserved the punishment that (s)he is going to get according to the existing law.

A kleptomaniac, on the contrary, cannot act according to his/her moral principles, since the urge to steal has a purely psychological origin.

With the help of the given example, Nielsen specifies the difference between the free will settings (a thief) as opposed to the settings of pure determinism (a kleptomaniac).

Although the given case can be considered an isolated case, it still shows in a very graphic way that the issue concerning the use of free will (to steal or not to steal) in determinist settings (kleptomania) is much more complicated than one might think it is.

With the help of the given example, Nielsen finally tips the scale towards the idea that in the determinist settings, acting on behalf of one’s free will is impossible.

Although the argument has not been closed yet, it is still obvious that determinist settings define the boundaries of free will and personal choice greatly.

Therefore, according to Nielsen, the example of a thief and a kleptomaniac is a perfect proof of the fact that the amount of factors that a person is capable of influencing predetermines the level of a person’s responsibility for a certain action.

When thinking about what Nagel would say about the given example, one might suggest that Nagel would be vaguer about the responsibility of people in both examples.

Since Nagel makes it clear that people’s judgments often depend on the factors beyond our control, he would, probably, defend the kleptomaniac as the person who is completely powerless to control his/her urges and is, therefore, is highly dependable on outer factors.

A rather solid viewpoint to hold, the given position, nevertheless, is still very debatable, which shows the depth of the problem of free will and determinism.

Works Cited

Nielsen, Kai. “The Compatibility of Freedom and Determinism.” In Thomas Nagel (Ed.) Moral Questions. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. 1991. 3945. Print.

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IvyPanda. 2020. "Nielsen’s Free Will and Determinism: An Analysis and Critique." July 1, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/nielsens-essay-on-free-will-and-determinism-an-analysis-and-critique/.

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IvyPanda. (2020) 'Nielsen’s Free Will and Determinism: An Analysis and Critique'. 1 July.

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