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The Concept of Free Will and its Relationship with Moral Responsibility

The question of free will and determinism has raided the minds of the philosophers for so long. While the differences in views have been embraced by some philosophers, others have realised that a third way of soft determinism suits them best. We, as humans, have no knowledge of the future and thus, it is viable for each of us to have our own opinions about the debate between the free will and determinism along with the additional theory of soft determinism (List, 2014). Therefore, before deciding on any one theory, it is pertinent to compare all the theories so that the most appropriate theory can be considered. Keeping this in mind, this paper will analyse and compare the theories of free will and determinism against the possible solution of soft determinism.

Free will can be simply described as the control of an individual over their actions. This theory has been questioned by many philosophers like Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Augustine, Descartes, and Kant, who have also linked this concept with metaphysics and ethics (Dilman, 2013). This is mainly because the theory of Free will is directly related to the concepts of causation, ontology, motivation, laws of nature, relationship between causal and reason-based explanations, and other related concepts (List, 2014). Free will is directly related to moral responsibility (Dilman, 2013). Free will give an individual the choice over their actions, which would also give them some responsibility over their actions (Dilman, 2013; Timpe, 2013). Thus, the individual has the moral responsibility for their actions. This can be understood when the individual wilfully ignores an injured person on a deserted road, denying their moral responsibility. Free will also endorses an individual with a freedom to do other actions, which is denied in the theory of determinism. In determinism, the person should have stopped because the people were watching him, but in this instance, the person had the freedom to do otherwise because no one else was observing their behaviour. This concept has two variables, which can be understood through the simple conditional analysis and categorical analysis (Campbell, 2013). In simple conditional analysis, the individual has the choice to do any action, yet they chose not to do it (Campbell, 2013). However, in the categorical analysis, certain possibilities influence the action of the individual (Campbell, 2013). Suppose the individual has to rush off to hospital since their family member was also injured, would render their action as inability to help.

The third concept in the theory of Free Will can be understood through the Frankfurt cases, which can be further understood through the example of Mr X and Blue (Sartorio, 2016). Mr X is staunch supporter of team Red who will be contesting elections with Blue in a few months. Blue has put a chip in the mind of Mr X so that he only supports Blue. Before the elections, Mr X had a fight with Red and thus, wishes to support Blue. Blue also changes his mind about using the chip and decides against using it. In the end, votes for Blue on the day of the election (Sartorio, 2016). This raises the question of free will about the Mr X’s decision whether his action of choosing Blue was really from his choice or because of the chip that was put by Blue. In my opinion, Mr X’s decision was affected by other factors, rendering his actions as out of his control. Thus, free will is supported and contested by many other factors.

The Theory of Determinism and Pre-determination

Determinism is a theory that postulates that all the events are already determined by other existing factors. According to determinism, each individual actions stems out of its influence from a chain of events (Müller & Placek, 2018). Each human decision and actions, as seen by this theory, is inevitable and out of the control of an individual (Müller & Placek, 2018). The opposite of determinism is indeterminism which represents total randomness rather than the concept of free will. This theory can be understood as the reason behind the causation of actions. When an individual makes a certain decision in any circumstance, there are chances that this decision has formed out of the million other decisions taken by the individual (Müller & Placek, 2018). Philosophers who outrightly deny the existence of free will are called “hard” determinists (Weatherford, 2017). The basis of this theory was first formed by Socrates who believed that any agent would be obliged to commit a good action based on the idea conceived by their mind. In the modern philosophy, this has been supported by John Locke and Baruch Spinoza (Weatherford, 2017). John Locke supported the view by believing that at birth, the mind is a blank slate, and the knowledge is learned and determined through experience, also called as empiricism (Locke, 2019). Spinoza believes that an individual is only able to be conscious of their actions but does not realise that they are unconscious of all the factors that influences their actions (Deleuze, 2021).

An individual’s decision making is mainly affected by the inheritance, life history, and the present stimuli. In hard determinism, motives remain unconscious as people will always have an innate commitment towards a certain option that would be inexplicable (Broad, 2016). This could be explained through the example of a person who wishes to visit the aquarium while travelling to a new city. While they think their decision is only for recreation, they might have held a liking for watching sea animals in their childhood which has come to existence in the present day. The decisions can also be affected by neurological factors present in the mind (Broad, 2016). For instance, a person with depression might decide to slit their hands, not because of free will but because of their state of mind. Hard determinism has also brought seminal effects in the philosophical world. The philosophers supporting determinism reject ethics as the individual has no moral responsibility and thus, exist in the world of moral nihilism (Broad, 2016). Thus, determinism believes that each decision or action is pre-determined.

There is a raging war between the philosophers of free will and determinism, however, this has also led to the development of the theory of soft determinism. Soft determinism, also known as soft determinism and compatibilism, stems out of the confluence of free will and determinism (Nadelhoffer et al., 2020). The philosophers of soft determinism focus that at the time of events predetermined by other events, the individual holds some free will to control their decision (Nadelhoffer et al., 2020). The philosophers continue to believe in the terms of predictability and fate, which has given rise to this philosophy. Soft determinism has objected to the Frankfurt cases. In the Frankfurt cases, the person was being influenced by others, however, in the end, they acted on their own. While the philosophers of free will would contest that this decision was made by others and thus, not free, soft determinism emphasises that this decision was made out of the individual’s desires and thus, would be considered as actions under control (Nadelhoffer et al., 2020). All the actions that are influenced by factors that are out of the control of an individual would be considered as the cause of the determinist behaviour.

This theory has been criticised for its focus on the concept of free will. Objections of this theory focus on the meaning of free will. They insist that even though the compatibilists insist on a human’s apparent free will over actions, free will does not exist completely (Nadelhoffer et al., 2020). They assert that it is the individual’s “freedom to act” rather than complete and absolute free will, which will allow random decisions. Kant has criticised the concept of compatibilism as “the world is an empirical place, where all events must come from determinist causes (Scholten, 2022). However, the human thought has their own thought regarding how the world “ought to be” and thus, have the capacity to think and conceive what they want (Scholten, 2022). Nonetheless, Kant believes that the spontaneity of an action could create new events without changing the events that are already determined (Scholten, 2022). In my opinion, while the philosophers of free will believe that an individual has control over their actions, I believe in compatibilism. While the events are pre-determined, all the actions that are not influenced by other external factors, would leave the individual with the freedom to act on their own.

To conclude, the debate between free will and determinism has been raging for a long time. While the theory of free will believes that each individual has the choice to change or choose a particular action, decision, or event. On the other hand, determinism believes that each action is determined by a pre-existing chain of event that influence the possibility of each action, decision, or event. While both theories have their stipulations and objections, a possible outcome has been sought through the theory of compatibilism or soft determinism. This theory postulates that while most of the actions are pre-determined, the individual sometimes has the freedom to do as they wish or desire under the circumstance that there are no other external factor influencing the situation.

References

Broad, C. D. (2016). Determinism, indeterminism, and libertarianism. Cambridge University Press.

Campbell, C. A. (2013). In defence of free will: with other philosophical essays. Routledge.

Deleuze, G. (2021). Expressionism in philosophy: Spinoza. Princeton University Press.

Dilman, I. (2013). Free will: An historical and philosophical introduction. Routledge.

List, C. (2014). Free will, determinism, and the possibility of doing otherwise. Noûs, 48(1), pp. 156-178. https://doi.org/10.1111/nous.12019

Locke, W. W. J. (2019). John Locke from An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. The Broadview Introduction to Philosophy, 173.

Müller, T., & Placek, T. (2018). Defining determinism. The British journal for the philosophy of science, 69(1), pp. 215-252.

Nadelhoffer, T., Rose, D., Buckwalter, W., & Nichols, S. (2020). Natural compatibilism, indeterminism, and intrusive metaphysics. Cognitive Science, 44(8), e12873. https://doi.org/10.1111/cogs.12873

Sartorio, C. (2016). Causation and free will. Oxford University Press.

Scholten, M. (2022). Kant is a soft determinist. European Journal of Philosophy, 30(1), pp. 79-95. https://doi.org/10.1111/ejop.12634

Timpe, K. (2013). Free Will 2nd edition: Sourcehood and its Alternatives. A&C Black.

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