The philosophical problem of Free Will and Determinism involves the following three positions: Hard
The philosophical problem of Free Will and Determinism involves the following three positions: Hard
Determinism, Soft Determinism, and Libertarianism. Explain these three competing accounts as they are
provided by the authors included in our course readings. Which account offers the most plausible
response to the problem? Explain why.
INSTRUCTIONS: This assignment consists of a short essay question. The main intent of this question is
to ensure that you have a sound grasp of the fundamentals of the material presented in this unit. To that
end, there is a 4 to 5 page (1250 words) limit for this question. I’m not so concerned with whether you
agree with a particular author or not. The quality of your answer is based on your exposition of the
competing positions, your comparative analysis of those positions and, lastly, your argument in support of
the position you defend.
As with all the assignments in this course, this question is not designed to be a “research” question.
There is no requirement to get material from external sources such as websites like Wikipedia. In fact,
doing so can count against you. The point of your essay is to formulate the course material and develop
your critical response. You can do this by working with the course material and developing your own
ideas about the issue. The essay is simply your opportunity to set that out in paper.
So, the material you need to successfully complete this assignment can be found in the online course
materials available through the course website. There may also be some reading material that is part of
the hard copy course readings package. You can find this information on the course materials section of
the course website.
QUESTION: (This question is worth 100 marks.)
The philosophical problem of Free Will and Determinism involves the following three positions: Hard
Determinism, Soft Determinism, and Libertarianism. Explain these three competing accounts as they are
provided by the authors included in our course readings. Which account offers the most plausible
response to the problem? Explain why.
Introduction to Philosophy PHIL 1200 Unit 6 1
Determinism and the Problem of Free Will
Only two possibilities exist: either one must believe in determinism and regard free will as a
subjective illusion, or one must become a mystic and regard the discovery of natural laws as a
meaningless intellectual game. Metaphysicians of the old schools have proclaimed one or the
other of these doctrines, but ordinary people have always accepted the dual nature of the world.
This unit is an introduction to one of the metaphysical puzzles that has existed in philosophy since its
beginning. The problem of free will versus determinism arises because of a seeming contradiction
between two ideas that, considered individually, seem quite plausible. On the one hand, most of us
believe that human beings are free, at least within the limits imposed by natural physical laws (e.g.,
we are not free to lift one ton), that people can change the way they live, can will themselves to selfimprovement,
can use self-discipline, and so on. In short, we adhere to some never clearly stated
idea that we have freedom of the will or free will. The idea that people have free will is the theory
that people have the power to make choices beyond the control of laws that govern how things must
On the other hand, science provides us with a picture that seems to preclude the possibility of
human freedom. As science acquires more information about natural processes, it seems more and
more that these processes are inevitable. For example, most of us believe that given certain
atmospheric conditions it must rain; given certain structural conditions in a bridge it must collapse;
given certain conditions in an automobile engine it cannot start, and so on. Given the information
provided by science, it looks as though natural events are the necessary consequences of prior
events. It appears, in short, that natural processes and events are determined. With a little
imagination, we can see that if this type of explanation is generalized over all events, including
people’s actions, whatever is happening today is inevitable. The view that all events are determined
according to laws of some kind is called determinism. It seems to follow from determinism that no
person can act in a way that is free from laws that determine how things must happen, given what
has happened in the past.
It is obvious that free will and determinism cannot both be true, since each is the denial of the
other. In the interests of logical consistency one of these positions must be rejected. There is
considerable evidence that many of our psychological states are causally determined according to
psychological and neurological laws. For example, if certain areas of the brain are damaged then
certain skills will necessarily be lost, and if a person is not educated by either peers or self then he or
she will necessarily be ignorant. Since many psychological and neurological laws are known, many
people suppose that all psychological events are determined (including so-called free choices), and
thereby accept determinism. We might be willing to embrace determinism if it were not for the fact
that we commonly believe our moral pronouncements to be valid. If our moral pronouncements are
incompatible with a deterministic view of events, we might prefer to reject determinism.
Many people find determinism too plausible to reject and have attempted to argue that determinism
is in fact compatible with our moral beliefs and practices. In other words, they attempt to show how a
determinist can quite sensibly use moral discourse in more or less the same way that a person
believing in free will would. In so doing they have attempted to show that one can adopt determinism
without giving up notions of moral responsibility.
Upon completion of this unit, you will be able to:
1. describe determinism and indeterminism;
2. explain the distinction between soft determinism and hard determinism;
3. explain the distinction between contra-causal freedom and freedom from compulsion; and
4. describe the relevance of the determinism/free will issue to the areas of ethics, theories of
punishment, and social responsibility.
The assigned readings should be read in the following order:
1. Baron D’Holbach. Chapter XI: Of the system of man’s free agency. In The system of nature.
2. C. A. Campbell. Has the self ‘free will’? In On selfhood and godhood
3. David Hume. Of liberty and necessity, Section VIII. In An enquiry concerning human
4. Edwards, Paul. 1992. Hard and soft determinism. In Argument and analysis: An introduction to
philosophy, ed. Martin Curd, 367-371. St. Paul, MN: West Publishing Company
Available in your readings package
5. Nagel, Thomas. 1979. Moral luck. In Mortal questions, 24-38. Cambridge: Cambridge University
Available in your readings package
6. Goldman, Alvin I. 1968. Actions, predictions, and books of life. American Philosophical Quarterly
Available in your readings package
7. Rowe, William L. 1987 Two concepts of freedom. In Proceedings and addresses of the
American Philosophical Association 61: 43-64.
Examined Life Videos: Do We Have Free Will?
• Our concern in this unit is not just a question of sociology but one
which we have a lot of predispositions about. This question will call for
precise definition to get clarity and meaningful discussion of the
Question: What do we mean when we say our actions are free?
How to proceed
1. Complete your readings.
2. View the video when it occurs in the instructional content.
Introduction to Philosophy PHIL 1200 Unit 6 3
3. When you are finished the readings and viewing the video(s), do the self-test questions and
check your responses against the answers provided.
4. Participate in the online discussion. Remember, each unit has a particular focus for the
5. Refer to the comprehensive glossary of key terms whenever you are confused about a technical
6. If you require additional information, consult one or more of the Supplemental readings that are
designed to help you overcome any difficulties you may experience with the unit material.
7. Review the entire unit before and after you sketch a response to the assignment.
8. Complete the unit assignment and submit it online.
Examined Life – Do We Have Free Will? [Length: 30 minutes] ©1998. INTELECOM Intelligent Communications. All rights reserved. No alteration, duplication or downloading is permitted
with authorization. Reproduced with permission from Distribution Access.
Whatever befalls you was ordained for you from eternity. (Marcus Aurelius)
Among mortals there is no man free . . . he is slave to riches or else to fortune. (Euripides)
Determinism is the theory that for everything that happens, there are conditions, such that given
these conditions, nothing different could happen, or, that everything that happens is the inevitable
consequence of antecedent causes. In short, determinism is the view that everything in the universe
is totally governed by causal laws and that everything in the universe behaves in a law-like way. This
view will be referred to as the principle of determinism. For example, if a bridge collapses, there
are conditions (e.g., metal fatigue, stress, etc.) such that if these conditions occur, then the bridge
must collapse. These conditions are said to be sufficient conditions for an event to occur. Given
these sufficient conditions, necessarily the event must occur.
Many of the explanations in science are deterministic causal explanations. When an event happens,
we believe we have explained its happening when we can state those conditions that caused the
event to happen. Accordingly, determinism entails that there are connections and interdependencies
among things and events that hold without exception. Much of science is concerned with the search
for laws that describe such connections. It is easy to understand why, as science progresses and
discovers more laws that predict without exception, determinism becomes more and more plausible.
It is by now commonplace to expect that the world outside us behaves in a law-like way, and few
people suppose there is to be anything like free will in the natural world outside us. That is, trees and
clouds do not have free will.
Many philosophers have come to believe that people’s actions (and decisions) are equally
determined according to laws (of nature, psychology, or of some other kind), and that, just as there is
no free will in the natural world, people do not have free will either. In other words, some
philosophers believe that all human acts, including those that are said to involve choices, are in
reality subject to causal laws.
As you will remember from unit 5, according to materialism all mental activity is to be explained in
terms of physical laws of the brain. It is obvious that a materialist philosopher rejects free will. They
hold that people, like all other physical things that can be explained in terms of physical laws, do not
have free will. It is important to notice, however, that the argument from science for determinism
does not depend upon materialism. Remember that the scientific approach involves observation,
experimenting, testing, postulating hidden causes, and so on. This in no way commits one to
materialism. For example, many dualists believe that people are completely determined by laws that
are to be discovered by scientific method.
Arguments for determinism come from many quarters. According to some, the causes of human
behaviour are unconscious immaterial causes. Other theories attempt to find laws of human
behaviour in terms of sexual drives, economic drives, a social conscience, etc. Although much of the
evidence for Determinism comes from laws of natural events, the free will/determinism debate is not
just another version of the materialist/dualist debate. Determinists do not all share a common
ontology (obviously since some determinists are dualists and others are not), rather they share the
view that there is a necessity that exists in reality between events such that free will is not a
real possibility. Free will is taken to be impossible if the type of causal explanation in question is
taken as correctly describing reality.
Consider that causal explanations entail that, for any event, there are conditions such that, if such
conditions obtain (exist in reality), that event must occur. The determinist claims that the free-will
theorist holds the absurd view that all the conditions sufficient for a person’s performing a particular
act could be present, and the person could still refrain from doing the act. This, claims the
determinist, is a contradiction, since it maintains that conditions might be sufficient to produce a
given effect, without that effect then occurring.
So, if a determinist believes in the type of law we have been discussing, then he must reject ideas of
free will, because they are incompatible with his position. Remember also that according to
determinism all things obey laws, including whatever underlies human action, and so one cannot be
a determinist with respect to some events, and a nondeterminist or indeterminist with respect to
other events. Determinism is a universal thesis, intended as applying to all things. (As we shall see
shortly, some people are indeterminists with respect to the voluntary operation of the mind and
hence are not determinists).
If we take determinism seriously, we are committed to the somewhat startling view that there is no
possibility that the world could have been the slightest bit different from the way it actually is. This
implies that every event is ultimately unavoidable, and hence that it is false to claim that people are
free in the sense of being beyond the complete “control” of laws that determine how everything will in
fact happen. In other words, people, no less than robots and mousetraps, are ultimately determined
by laws such that they do as they must do. This view has a number of significant ramifications, one
of which is that the free-will solution to the problem of evil (see unit 2) is unacceptable. If our actions
are the necessary effects of prior causes, we could not possibly have freely chosen to do evil acts.
At this point it is important not to fall into the fatalistic view that because the world is as it must be,
one might as well give up trying because things cannot be changed. This is obviously false in one
sense, as things do change in accordance with the events that precede them. Indeed this is one of
the seemingly paradoxical things about determinism: that as we discover more laws and hence more
evidence for determinism, we enhance our power to change our environment and ourselves. In order
to change the world we need to know which conditions are sufficient for an event of the desired type
to occur. Physical laws give us this information; knowledge of the laws is part of the means whereby
we change our world to conform with our desires. Thus, according to determinism it is false to say
that if determinism is true, then nothing a person does can make a difference to the way the world
However, if all events are determined, then there is a sense in which a person cannot change the
way things are going to turn out. This is because he or she will not be able to change what actually
will happen, nor what he or she actually will do. However, it is still false to assert that no matter what
people do, it will make no difference to what will actually happen. So, do not be seduced into
adopting a fatalistic attitude towards life. As we have just shown, fatalism as a theory is false. What
you do will make a great difference to your future and to your surrounding world. To see this you
need only consider how your various acts affect your environment. Your acts will have the same
effect on the environment whether they are causally determined or freely chosen. The money you
donate to the poor helps them just as much, whether you are causally determined to make the
donations, or make them according to a free choice.
Introduction to Philosophy PHIL 1200 Unit 6 5
Determinism and prediction
Many people have argued that determinism must be false because we do not have complete
knowledge of the laws by which we could predict with accuracy when an event of a certain type will
occur. The argument runs as follows: If we cannot predict, then we do not have evidence that nature
obeys laws. We must be careful here not to confuse epistemological with metaphysical
considerations. It may very well be that we cannot know a certain thing, and hence cannot make
predictions from it. However, it in no way follows that the thing in question does not in fact obey laws.
For example, quantum mechanics tells us that we cannot simultaneously know the velocity and
position of an electron. However, we should not infer from this that electrons do not obey laws. This
is not to say that they do obey laws, but merely to point out that the epistemological considerations
do not allow us to infer that they do not obey laws. It may be that our knowledge of the world is
limited because our knowledge obeys certain laws. (The determinist claims this is the case.) Thus
do not be too sanguine in supposing that epistemological considerations entail metaphysical
distinctions without fail.
To repeat, determinism is the view that for everything that happens, there are conditions such that
given these conditions, nothing else could have happened. It implies that given the conditions prior to
current behaviour, we could not have chosen to do otherwise. (Including your decision to take this
course!) In short, we differ from robots only in degree of complexity (and perhaps ontology if one is a
dualistic determinist). We can causally affect the world, and increasingly so with more knowledge of
laws, but we do not have wills that are free in the sense of not obeying laws, be they physical,
psychological, economic, sexual, etc.
Determinism and statistical laws
It has been supposed that since some physical events may be determined only by statistical laws,
that there is an allowance for a “looseness” in what happens such that what a person does is not in
principle predictable, and hence that people’s actions are not the inevitable result of antecedent
conditions. For example, if it is a statistical law that 75 percent of all people will commit murder in a
certain type of environment E, then we cannot on this basis alone predict for any individual whether
he or she will commit murder in situation E. Our laws do not enable us to predict what any specific
person will do, but only what he or she will probably do.
Some have thought that this means that, for any individual, since we could not predict what he or she
would do, that person could have acted differently. Notice, however, that this is an error, confusing
the question of what is predictable with the question of what a person could have done. If
determinism is true, a person is determined to either murder or not murder in situation E, whether the
laws are statistical or not.
Analysis of common moral discourse (the moral discourse that we use in our daily lives), reveals an
implicit assumption that people have free will. (This is not true in all cases. As we shall see, since as
our views on human nature change, so do our views on morality.) For example, when we either
praise or blame a person for having committed a particular act, we suppose (unless we are
consistent determinists) that they could have chosen to act differently. When we award medals for
acts of bravery, we do not at the same time hold that the honouree could not have helped but
perform the heroic act. In other words, we do not believe that the hero is like a robot in not being able
to have chosen to have acted differently. Also consider that when a criminal is sentenced to
punishment for having committed a morally wrong act, it is held that the criminal could have chosen
to have acted differently. We do not condemn the criminal and at the same time hold that the
criminal acted in the way that he or she had to.
In such cases, we do allow that factors of genetics and environment play an important role in
shaping people’s behaviour. However, in those cases where it is perceived that such factors entirely
determine behaviour, we refrain from passing moral judgement. This is true of the criminally insane,
who are not punished but are sent for treatment. It is also true in crimes of passion where it is
accepted as a law of human nature that when a person’s passions are inflamed, they are not in
control of themselves and therefore are not to be held morally accountable. It seems that, in general,
moral discourse commits us to the reality of free will, and that in those cases where free will is seen
to be inoperable (as in those cases of the criminally insane and crimes of passion, for example), a
person is not held morally responsible. In other words, the more law-like a person’s behaviour is
perceived to be, the less we hold them responsible for their actions. If this is so, consider what this
entails when taken in conjunction with determinism. According to determinism, all human behaviour
The implication of determinism for ethics
If determinism is true, then it would seem that people do not in fact have free will, and hence that
they are never morally responsible. Accordingly, it is either senseless or false to make moral
evaluations of people, just as it would be to morally evaluate a robot or a mousetrap. Hence notions
of determinism and moral responsibility are incompatible; both cannot be true.
This has struck those philosophers who believe in free will (the libertarians, to whom we shall turn
shortly) as a reduction to the absurd (reductio ad absurdum) of determinism. Others (the hard
determinists) have decided so much the worse for moral discourse, and others (the soft
determinists) have searched for a middle ground, a way to show that moral discourse is compatible
with determinism. We will now consider all three of these reactions to the free will/determinism
To summarize, libertarians and hard determinists both believe that determinism and moral discourse
are incompatible. The libertarians believe in free will, thus rejecting determinism. The hard
determinists reject free will and moral discourse. The soft determinists reject free will but believe that
moral discourse (or at least some part of it that is considered worth keeping) is compatible with
determinism. Hence the libertarians and the hard determinists are sometimes called
“incompatibilists,” and the soft determinists “compatibilists.”
Men are deceived because they think themselves free . . . and the sole reason for thinking so
is that they are conscious of their own actions, and ignorant of the causes by which those
actions are determined. (Spinoza)
Hard determinism is the view that determinism is true and that determinism is incompatible with moral
discourse, and so in the interests of consistency, moral discourse should be dropped from our
worldview. The argument is as follows:
1. Determinism is true. Everything that happens is the inevitable consequence of antecedent causes.
(This is the principle of determinism.)
2. If an act is determined then it is not free, the person could not have chosen not to do it. There
are no free acts.
3. A person is morally accountable only for free acts.
4. Therefore, people are not morally accountable.
As discussed under determinism, scientific laws explain or describe how things are causally
determined to happen. As such, scientific laws serve as evidence that determinism is true. This, of
course, amounts to a considerable amount of evidence.
Freedom in general may be defined as the absence of obstacles to the realization of desires.
Soft determinists find hard determinism objectionable because it strikes them that moral evaluations
are no less justified or valid than is determinism itself. Although soft determinists believe in
determinism, they have not taken the step of jettisoning moral discourse, as have the hard
determinists. The soft determinists believe that much of moral discourse is in fact compatible with
determinism, and hence they try to show that determinists can sensibly be committed to moral
judgments. Soft determinists do admit that some notions in the common moral discourse will have to
be dropped (some of it after all does depend upon ideas of free will), but they see no difficulty in
maintaining both that determinism is true and that people are sometimes morally accountable for
Introduction to Philosophy PHIL 1200 Unit 6 7
their actions. Referring back to the argument for hard determinism, we can see that the soft
determinist must reject one of the premises in order to reject the hard determinist’s conclusion.
Soft determinists accept (1), as (1) is the principle of determinism. Since they are determinists, they
cannot reject (2), as rejecting (2) is incompatible with being a determinist. They in fact reject (3).
Soft determinists will agree that people are not free in the sense of “free” used in (2), but they
maintain that there is another sense of “free” that will allow us to maintain determinism and the
reality of moral responsibility. For that reason soft determinism is called a compatibilist position. It is
an attempt to argue that the notions of determinism and moral responsibility are logically compatible.
According to soft determinism, “free” is an ambiguous term. In one of its senses (meanings), our
moral discourse can be said to be true at the same time as determinism is said to be true. (Hard
determinists and libertarians deny this, of course. They claim that if determinism is true, then talk of
moral responsibility is senseless or false.) Let us now consider the two meanings of “free,” keeping
in mind that understanding the distinction between these meanings is essential to understanding soft
Two senses of freedom
This is one of man’s oldest riddles. How can the independence of human volition be
harmonized with the fact that we are integral parts of a universe that is subject to the rigid
order of Nature’s laws? (Arthur Eddington)
In one sense, the libertarian sense, “free” as used in “free will” means free from causes, or selfcaused.
We can refer to this type of freedom as contra-causal freedom, or categorical freedom.
In this sense, choices are free if they are not caused according to any laws. The soft determinist, as
a determinist, agrees with the hard determinist that there is no freedom in this sense, but claims that
there is another sense of “free” that is compatible with our practice of attributing moral responsibility.
People are only held morally responsible for an act if there is no external compulsion (or restraint)
that causes them against their wishes to perform a certain act. For example, if a person has a gun
held to their head and is forced to commit a crime, they are not considered culpable for that crime.
They are said to have been forced against their desire or will to commit a crime. Taking such facts
as their cue, the soft determinists suggest that another sense of “free” is free from external
compulsion to perform acts in accordance with one’s desires. This sense of “free” is freedom from
compulsion or constraint, or circumstantial freedom of self-realization, as opposed to “free” in the
sense of being uncaused or self-caused. We might say that in the soft determinist’s sense, a person
can be free in the same way that an undammed stream is said to flow freely, or in which freely falling
bodies are bodies that meet with no impediments as they fall.
According to soft determinism there is a distinction between acts done according to one’s desires (or
will) and acts done against one’s desires (or will). This distinction hinges on the idea of compulsion,
and it is felt to explain why we say that a person is morally responsible for some of her or his actions
but not for others. According to soft determinism, lack of compulsion rather than lack of cause, is the
mark of a free act, and this type of freedom is all that moral accountability calls for.
The morality of soft determinism
It will again be asked: Why then are the wicked punished? For they act according to their own
nature and the divine decree. I reply that it is also in accordance with the divine decree that
they should be punished: and if only those whom we imagine as sinning by virtue of their own
freedom were to be punished, why do men try to exterminate poisonous serpents? For they sin
only in accordance with their own nature, and cannot do otherwise.
Soft determinists reject the principle that to be morally accountable one must be free in the contracausal
sense of freedom. Their reply to the hard determinist and libertarian claim that a meaningful
or true use of moral discourse depends upon the reality of free will is that both hard determinists and
libertarians hold a wrong-headed theory of morality. They claim that the important moral distinctions
can be made at a different place. The soft determinists, as determinists, hold that events can be
controlled and predicted if we know the relevant laws (economic, psychological, physical . . .). Their
view is that it makes sense to reward and punish people only because rewards and punishments can
cause desires in individuals that will affect their subsequent behaviour. They claim that moral praise
and blame serve as rewards and punishments and so can influence behaviour. If we desire a world
without crime, and if punishment deters crime, then it makes sense to punish criminals. If we desire
a world where people perform acts of altruism, then it makes sense to praise and reward acts of
altruism. With regard to the view that acts are free only if caused by a free will, it does not make
sense to punish or reward morally relevant acts, because by hypothesis such moral evaluation does
not influence the subsequent behaviour of the free will. (After all, a free will is free from all causes.)
On the libertarian view, an act is rewarded simply because it was a good act as a result of the free
will, and an act is punished simply because it was a bad act as a result of the free will. The view
seems to be that a person is rewarded or punished simply because their wills have caused either a
good or bad act, or perhaps for the fact that they may have enjoyed or endured what others did not.
In other words, it is as though an imbalance has been created, such that justice seems to require
either reward or punishment, no matter what. The punishment is said to be retribution for having
committed a morally wrong act, and is enforced by our legal system.
The soft determinist finds the use of punishment for such reasons to be barbaric, and to the extent that
our legal system is retributive, it too is barbaric. Punishment should only be dealt out in so far as it has a
deterrent value; it should never be retributive. In other words, according to the soft determinist, people
are caused to behave a certain way, there is no free will, but punishment is appropriate (including moral
chastisement), because it serves as a deterrent to that individual and to others. This, claims the soft
determinist, is what moral discourse is really all about: we are not punishing others because their free will
made them act badly; we are punishing them because of the deterrent value of punishment. Of course,
people cannot help themselves when they act badly, but punishment can cause them to steer away from
behaviour of a similar kind in the future, and it will serve as an example to others and thereby deter them
Notice that the soft determinist is not committed to the view that punishment is always effective. It is
well known that some people do not respond to punishment. In such cases, the soft determinist
would advocate some kind of medical or psychological treatment. It is not essential to a soft
determinist that people be punished, but simply that there is some attempt to reform them. Only
those people for whom punishment or reward would make a difference in future behaviour (ours or
theirs) should be held morally accountable according to soft determinism. The soft determinist
admits that such a view is not compatible with all of our common moral discourse, but so much the
worse for moral discourse, as long as it is compatible with the major principles.
As might be obvious, the free will/determinism debate has important implications for the philosophy
of law. If the arguments for determinism are convincing, then we will be forced to reconsider the
whole question of punishment as retribution in the legal system, in favour of the deterrent value of
punishment. In fact, during this century, most philosophers of law argue that the only grounds for
punishment lies in its deterrence value, and notions of retribution are viewed with a jaundiced eye.
If a man referred to his brother or his cat as “an ingenious mechanism,” we should know that
he was either a fool or a physiologist. No one in practice treats himself or his fellow man or his
pet animals as machines; but scientists who have never made a study of Speculative
Philosophy seem often to think it their duty to hold in theory what no one outside a lunatic
asylum would accept in practice. (C. D. Broad)
I can either will myself to sleep until 10:30 a.m. and get my ass beat, or I can will myself to get
up at 6:30 a.m. and become president. (Jimmy Carter)
Libertarianism is the view that people’s decisions to perform morally accountable acts are acts of the
will, and that acts of the will are not causally determined by upbringing, physiological, volitional
states, etc. They are not the inevitable consequences of causes; they are said to be uncaused,
spontaneous, original, or self-caused. There are many fine distinctions to be made here. For
example, it will no doubt strike you as obvious that being self-caused and being uncaused cannot be
the same thing. However, for our purposes we will gloss over these distinctions. What is important
for our purposes is that all these views amount to a rejection of determinism.
Introduction to Philosophy PHIL 1200 Unit 6 9
According to libertarianism a person is solely responsible for his or her acts of the will. People are able
to choose whether they will act morally or immorally, and for these decisions they have no claim to
blame either biology, upbringing, economic situations, etc. The libertarian does not claim that this is
true of all states of a person, but that it must be true of those acts for which one is morally
According to libertarianism law-like explanations are inappropriate when it comes to acts of the will.
Such acts cannot be reduced to causes, and human behaviour and decision making is therefore not
completely subject to causal explanation. Acts of the will are not explained in terms of conditions
such that, given these conditions, an act of the will had to be a certain way (e.g., a choice of a certain
type had to be made). Acts of will do not obey any laws, be they psychological, physical, economic,
Many people are inclined towards libertarianism because they think that the soft determinist
distinction between acts done in accord with one’s desires and acts done against one’s desires does
not warrant a relevant distinction between good and bad acts. If, as the determinist admits, even our
desires are caused by factors beyond our control, how can we hold a person responsible for his acts
when they are merely a consequence of facts over which he has no control?
It is important to understand that libertarians reject determinism because of what they think to be the
requirements of morals. The libertarian, no less than the hard determinist, rejects the soft
determinist’s compatibilist account of morality. The argument is that free will is central to our
common sense morality, and it is this morality to which our theories must remain faithful. We are not
at liberty to merely redefine “free” and “moral responsibility,” as does the soft determinist, in order to
allow determinists to sensibly use moral discourse. According to the libertarian and hard determinist,
what the soft determinist has done does not even come close to capturing what we mean by “moral
responsibility,” and therefore does not show that moral responsibility and determinism are
compatible. Either we preserve ordinary moral discourse and accept libertarianism or, if we are
determinists, then we should renounce ordinary moral discourse. If we are determinists, then we
might want to talk of behaviour modification by means of rewards and punishments, but we should
not confuse the use of rewards and punishments with notions of morality.
When libertarians reject determinism, they must reject any deterministic theory of psychology.
Libertarians reject any theory of psychology that entails that all human behaviour obeys laws (be
they dualistic, physiological, sexual, economic, etc.). Libertarians argue that all deterministic theories
of psychology are too mechanistic in their views of human psychology. As an example, take the
simple deterministic model according to which people always act on the strongest desire; in other
words, given the existence of a strongest desire, a person will inevitably act in accordance with that
desire. The libertarian will argue that this is false, that many people often act against their strongest
desire. Suppose that a person’s strongest desire is to commit adultery. According to the determinist
they must commit adultery (because of the laws governing human behaviour). The libertarian claims
that this is not so, the person can, in spite of that strongest desire, still decide not to commit adultery.
They could decide not to on account of the knowledge that adultery is wrong. In other words, they
could resist the temptation because of a belief that adultery is wrong.
At this point, the determinist will counter that in those cases where people do not act on their desire
to commit adultery, there must have been a stronger desire not to commit adultery, (or some
stronger desire to do something incompatible with committing adultery). The libertarian reply here is
the obvious one that it begs the question to argue that one’s strongest desire is the one that a person
acts on, and that a person always acts on their strongest desire. Libertarians argue that our moral
experience shows us that we do not in fact believe that we are psychologically determined.
For example, when we commit an act wrongly we believe that we could have chosen not to. The
evidence for this is that people generally feel guilt or shame after having done a morally wrong act. It
would make no sense to feel guilty over having acted wrongly if we believe that we could not have
acted otherwise. Feeling guilt is a sign that we believe in our responsibility for our decision to commit
a wrong act. We believe that we are free because we are able to imagine ourselves truly able to
perform any of a number of different acts at a given time. To believe of each and every one of our
actions that we could not have done otherwise given the same conditions, is quite a different thesis.
Do we really believe that we have no choice in how we behave, ask libertarians? Libertarians thinks
that we disbelieve determinism, and further, they maintain that we are right to disbelieve it.
Sometimes the libertarian argument takes the following form: We have evidence that we are free,
and this evidence is the fact that we feel free. The determinist will agree that we do feel free, but will
disagree as to this being reliable evidence for our being free. After all, he might point out, feeling free
is simply the same as believing we are free, and so it is circular to suppose that the feeling is
evidence for the belief.
In reply to such arguments that we feel free or that we believe that we really could have acted
otherwise, the determinist argues that we have been misled into our belief because of the way that
desires “compete” against each other. The determinist points to the fact that we often desire to do
two or more incompatible things. When this occurs, there is nothing to be done until one or the other
of our desires becomes stronger than the others. At this point we act according to that strongest
desire. In other words, we may have a desire to do the right thing, which is incompatible with our
desire for something that can only be obtained by theft. In such a case one of the desires wins out
over the other, and in this case we either steal or refrain from stealing. If we refrain from stealing we
explain this fact by referring to the fact that we know that stealing is wrong. This gives us the
impression that we decided not to steal, whereas what really happens is that one of our desires, in
accordance with certain deterministic psychological laws, becomes a stronger desire, and so we act
on that stronger desire. Thus, argue the determinists, the false belief that we are free arises because
desires compete until one becomes strongest, and we misperceive what is going on.
Perhaps the most significant point that can be made against libertarianism is the empirical fact that
whether we behave morally or not is to a very great extent a result of our upbringing, and even to a
very great extent a result of our current physiological states (whether we have taken drugs, alcohol,
whether we are sleepy, etc.). Of course, the libertarian will reply that we are free to knowingly avoid
such situations, and, even if such evidence shows that we cannot will ourselves to overcome the
effects of drugs, etc., it does not show that we have no free will.
The determinist’s reply is that if our behaviour is a result of our upbringing, then our so-called
decisions are ultimately caused by environmental factors and therefore are not free acts of the will at
all. If moral character is a result of upbringing and training, and if such factors are not as a result of
free choice, then we are not responsible for our moral character, and hence not morally responsible
for our actions and decisions. The determinist thinks it irrational of the libertarian to ignore the fact
that most of our criminals have led disadvantaged lives, and to suppose that their criminal behaviour
was caused by their free decisions to become criminals, rather than by their having led
disadvantaged lives. Sociologists believe that they can find the social factors that cause people to
become criminals, and that there is ample correlation between being raised in a disadvantaged
environment and becoming a criminal to warrant the claim that becoming a criminal or not is
determined by sociological laws. The libertarian would have to deny the significance of the
correlation, and claim that these people ultimately decided of their own free will to become criminals.
This is a difficult point for the libertarian, who seems forced into saying that our decisions to do the
right or wrong thing are not totally determined by our upbringing.
Libertarianism and chance
The claim that people are free in some kind of sense that puts them beyond the control of laws
presents certain philosophical difficulties. Suppose that some decisions are caused by acts of the
free will, and hence are not completely determined by the desires and motives that we have as a
result of our upbringing. It is not at all clear in what sense we can say about persons that they have
controlled their behaviour. It has been argued that if the will acts independently of motives and
desires, it seems to be nothing other than a random happening, a mere matter of chance. It seems
to have nothing to do with individual character; it lacks direction. Why does it cause the person to act
one way rather than another? It seems that the libertarian buys contra-causal freedom at the price of
either randomness, chance, or mysticism.
At this point, determinists have argued that if a person’s acts of will are a matter of chance or
randomness, then a person cannot be held responsible for them. Being a matter of chance entails
that an act was no more within a person’s control than it would be if it was determined. Thus, if the
libertarian is pushed into saying that acts of the will are chance or random events, he or she cannot
defend the view that people are morally responsible.
Introduction to Philosophy PHIL 1200 Unit 6 11
Secondly, if libertarianism entails that acts of the will are random, then libertarianism is false, as can
be discovered empirically. Acts of the will in fact are not random, since people generally have
relatively stable personalities and behave consistently. When a person acts out of character we look
for other causes (perhaps intoxication, depression, fear, etc.), but never attribute out-of-character
behaviour to a random act of the will.
Thirdly, if acts of the will are a matter of chance, how can we ever hope to find an explanation for
why people act as they do? Saying that acts of the will are a matter of chance is admitting that the
behaviour cannot in principle be explained. So if libertarianism entails randomness, then it entails
that the behaviour of people is a complete mystery.
Accordingly, if libertarianism needs chance or randomness in its defence of free will, then either:
1. Libertarianism is obviously false.
2. People are not morally responsible.
3. The behaviour of people is inexplicable.
The libertarian is obviously not committed to the view that people must behave in a way that can be
considered random in order to be morally responsible. With respect to freely made decisions, all the
libertarian means by “undetermined” or “indeterminate” is that decisions are not subject to laws in the
same way that other things are. If the determinist wants to use “chance” or “random” in this same
way, then this is a somewhat misleading use of such terms. The libertarian does not mean to imply
that some decisions are caused whether one wishes it or not, but merely that they are not causally
determined by other conditions. If we mean by “chance” or “random” merely “undetermined” or
“indeterminate,” then all we say when we say that an act of the will must be random or a matter of
chance, if a person is to be held responsible, is that the act of the will was not determined according
to any laws. This, of course, is merely another way of stating what the libertarian and hard
determinist have always agreed upon, and so could hardly be considered to be a problem for
libertarianism. It is merely a fallacious criticism that trades upon an ambiguous use of the words
“chance” and “random.”
Against the argument that acts of the will are inexplicable if they are not determined, the libertarian
need only give an account of acts of the will, such that they are in some way explicable even if they
are not explicable in terms of how they were causally determined. Up to now, we have assumed that
to explain something is to break it down into those conditions that causally determined its
occurrence. The libertarian is not taking issue with this type of explanation, but only with its supposed
scope. A defence of libertarianism depends upon a defence of explanations of human acts that do
not give the conditions that determine an act’s occurrence. Many philosophers have attempted to
give an account of acts whereby desires and beliefs act in conjunction with a will. For example, a
person wants to do something that is believed to be wrong, but it is an act of the will that makes the
final decision. This decision is not determined by any conditions, rather it is an act that was in the
power of the individual to do or to refrain from doing, and so the person responsible for whichever
way he or she finally decides to act. According to the libertarian we cannot give an explanation in
terms of how the person was determined to act, but this does not mean that the person’s behaviour
was inexplicable or in any way mysterious.
Consider the following case,
1. Tom desires to steal some money.
2. Tom believes that doing so would be wrong.
3. Tom refrains from stealing the money.
According to determinists an explanation of (3) would require an account of what determined Tom to
refrain from taking the money: anything less would not serve as an adequate explanation. According
to the libertarians, though, it would be enough for an explanation of (3) to we say that, although Tom
wanted the money, he refrained from taking it because he knew that taking it would be wrong. It was
an act of Tom’s will that he was able to overcome his temptation to take the money. It is here that
much of the work has to be done in way of a defence of libertarianism. A great deal of work has yet
to be done on such types of explanation, but they do show that libertarianism does not entail that the
acts of people are inexplicable and must remain a mystery. If we are committed determinists we
might claim that we do not understand the libertarian explanation of Tom’s behaviour. The libertarian
can quite rightly reply that such a determinist is merely feigning that such libertarian explanations do
not explain. Certainly we know perfectly well what the libertarian means by his explanation of Tom’s
behaviour. We may not believe it to be a true account, but we certainly have to acknowledge that it is
an account we can understand. All of us know what it is like to fight temptation, to do what is right
because it is right, to believe that we can choose to do whatever we want to or whatever we believe
is right. This means that the libertarian can explain human behaviour, contrary to what some
determinists might argue. The big question is whether or not the Libertarian account is true, not
whether it makes sense.
In this unit we have considered the positions of hard and soft determinism, and libertarianism. The
essential claim of libertarianism is that people are not determined by laws of any kind such that,
given certain conditions, a certain behaviour must follow as specified by those laws.
Hard determinists reject common moral discourse as being incompatible with determinism, and soft
determinists try to show that common moral discourse is to some extent compatible with
determinism. This is done at the expense of not being entirely faithful to common moral discourse.
The libertarian and hard determinist argue that the moral discourse of soft determinism is not
essentially moral at all, but is really a form of behaviour modification that operates on the principles
of reward and punishment. It is important therefore, to be clear on exactly what the various positions
mean by “free” and “morally responsible.” One way of assessing how well you understand these
difficult distinctions is to study the course readings carefully. The selections were chosen to provide
you with dedicated arguments from contrary positions.
As already stated, how well you are able to understand these required readings will serve to let you
know how well you understand the fundamental issues. Given that you do understand the issues,
these readings will spark ideas of your own as to which position seems the most plausible.
Look for assignment 6 located in the assignments section. Check the schedule for the due date.
Campbell, Neil. Ed. Freedom, Determinism, and Responsibility Readings in Metaphysics. Upper
Saddle River NJ: Prentice-Hall, 2003. A good collection of Readings.
Dennett, Daniel C. Elbow Room: The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting. Cambridge, MA: MIT
Press, 1984. A contemporary look at the problem, by a prominent contemporary philosopher,
that is both readable and fun.
Honderich, Ted. How Free are You? The determinism problem. 2nd Ed. Oxford: OUP, 2002. A more
advanced discussion of the problem, although it is still accessible to the introductory reader.
Taylor, Richard. Metaphysics. 3d ed. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1983. A good introduction
to metaphysics, with a very readable section on the free will/determinism debate.