Free Will Vs Determinism: Are We Responsible?

February 20, 2013 6:30 pm

free will At first glance this title may seem obscure, because, on a purely scientific basis, of course we’re responsible for our actions. On the metaphysical side of things, however, different assessments may lead to different answers. Theories about absolute freedom are the main factors which may cause variation between answers.


Determinism is one of the fundamental beliefs that may ‘explain’ that we don’t have freedom. This philosophical idea decides our fate in a premeditated course, and we cannot do anything about it and that the causal factors of our history would have always had the same outcome. For example; a man desires food (causal factor), acts on the desire and eats (effect).

There are a number of variations of determinism, some involving that we are, essentially, subconsciously obsequious to God’s power and that he predetermines our ultimate fate.

Free will

On the other hand, free will suggests that we are completely in control of our actions. This is the most plausible theory that explains why we act as we do. The only problem that free will faces is the absurd theory of unfalsifiability, e.g. it is a theory that is unable to be falsified.

Free will seems to be the most widely accepted idea, for it is one of our rights to be free, although I’m not entirely sure that politics accepts the metaphysical. In saying that, is free will metaphysical, or is there a scientific basis for it? Surely brain scans that show decisions being made as they are happening prove that it is the most scientifically sound idea?

Free will and morality

Assuming free will is the most realistic theory, we still don’t have complete free will, because of laws, moral duties and social norms/conventions. If we choose to transgress these laws of society, it can be deemed incredibly offensive. An archetype of this civil disobedience is racism, where we upset our moral duties to not discriminate. But why might one not suggest that this offensive behaviour was predetermined but a powerful deity? Again, one can bring in the falsifiability theory and, therefore, by suggesting a belief in determinism, they cannot be blamed for their actions.

Compatiblism as a solution

Compatiblism is a theory that lies half way between free will and determinism. It suggests that while our desires are predetermined, our actions aren’t. This implies that we are responsible for what we do, as we all have the capability within us to overcome even our most powerful desires. Schopenhauer famously stated “Man can do what he wills, but he cannot will what he wills”, explaining that only our desires are out of our control.

Hume suggested that, from a compatiblist’s perspective, we are responsible for our actions. He qualified this by saying that actions are only judged “so far as they are indications of the internal character, passions and affections”. This explains how our actions reflect our character, e.g. a stronger man may resist his temptation where a weaker man would submit to his.  

Problems of compatibilism compatibilism

The problem with this, however, is that by accepting Hume’s idea that actions reflect our character, we are accepting that we are also shaped by our desires. These are two sides of the same coin. If we assert this idea, then how can we distinguish between a murderer and a responsible adult who gives in to his/her desires? If they both submit to their desires, then surely their characters are identical?

The debate in practice

A more real life scenario of the free will against determinism debate is that our moods and mental state change, so how can there be a constant string of events in our life that are predetermined? Well, quite simply, the moods and mental states are also predetermined. It is not too unreasonable to think this, is it? I hate to include it again, but unfalsifiability can be relied on. I disagree thoroughly with this, though, because it can encompass such a broad range of things, ranging from religion, to the current topic. It essentially accepts anything metaphysical that cannot be proved right as true, because it cannot be falsified.


Finally, I’d like to summarise my thoughts by saying that yes, we are responsible for every action we do. My reasoning for this is that I feel most comfortable with accepting compatibilism, therefore we have a conscious choice to decide what we do and don’t do. This must mean that we can be to blame for our actions, as there was always a different possible action. For example; if a youth stole from a supermarket, resulting in him being caught and prosecuted, he must be responsible for his action, because he had the conscious option not to steal. The fact of compatibilism is that there is always a morally better option, so we are always to blame for any immoral act we may commit.

  • Stam

    That’s a good starting point! Here’s some material I wrote recently, maybe you’ll find it useful.

    What is the will?

    Brains are complicated in their mechanisms and almost hopelessly obfuscated in their instances (i.e., actual brains inside actual people) such that many things they produce appear spontaneous (which is why belief in libertarian free will is still widely popular).

    This complicates social problem solving, and so what we’ve commonly done is call that “spontaneity” (which is actually just “unexpectedness due to the ignorance and stupidity of would-be predictors”) a person’s “will,” and the more observable/predictable/tangible causal contributors to behavior “external to the will,” especially if they’re alterable.

    Let me explain what I mean.

    * Dave murders Bob. We do a scan on Dave’s brain and find out that he suffers from misanthropalia, which gives sufferers an irresistible urge to murder. This disease can be cured by eating 5 cucumbers. It’s possible that we wouldn’t even incarcerate Dave, we’d just give him the cure and monitor his recovery.

    * Dave murders Bob when he arrives home to find Bob sleeping with Dave’s wife. Being a crime of passion, with such an obvious and specific catalyzing context, Dave receives a softer sentence than if the murder were cold-blooded.

    Dave murders Bob because Bob was moving in on his gang’s territory. We don’t have an obvious way to change Dave such that we know he wouldn’t do this kind of thing again. This is socially terrifying; we lock Dave up and try a scattershot of things over a long, long time period. Hopefully it will work.

    * In the first scenario, we say that the disease was responsible; it wasn’t Dave’s will in control. In the second, we say that it was Dave, but also the maddening passion of the specific context, which mitigates Dave’s responsibility somewhat; it was only partially Dave’s will in control. In the third, we say that it was entirely Dave’s will in control.

    We say these things even though Dave’s behavior is ultimately caused by antecedent things beyond his control.

    What if we didn’t know about misanthropalia? Well, we’d likely do to Dave in the first scenario what we did with Dave in the third. The further reinforces the claim that the “will” is a catch-all nickname for those things in the brain that mystify us (they are unexpected and/or uncontrollable and/or incomprehensible). And the more we learn, the less mystifies us, and the fewer things we’ll attribute to “the will.”

    * Even though choicemaking is a deterministic process, we can recognize that some choices should be prevented; that some choicemakers should be changed so that they make different choices in the future. We find that useful because it helps prevent people from making choices we don’t like.

    * Furthermore, we want to reinforce and encourage choices that we find profitable.

    * Thus, dolling out responsibility (blameworthiness, creditworthiness, etc.) is useful for anything that COMES DOWN TO those specific decisionmaking processes of an individual over which we have little control or understanding, i.e., the “will,” that disappearing “mystery zone” of confusing and surprising neural activity. As soon as we discover that a murderer has misanthropalia, for instance, we no longer hold him as an individual truly responsible for his murders; we treat the condition as external because we can understand/control it.

    Responsibility doesn’t need to be any more complicated than that at its fundaments.

    Of course, recognizing responsibility and the variety of “flavors” in which it can come is less simple. Responsibility can be mitigated, transferred, shared, we fault not only for committed damage but for failure to appreciate risk (recklessness), etc.

  • Talpo

    You are further along than I was in regards to philosophy when I was your age. If you are concerned with metaphysics, more specifically free will, then there are quite a few authors I would recommend so you could further develop your thoughts. Chisholm, O’Connor, Pereboom, Frankfurt, Wolf, and Kane are some to begin with. Also don’t be afraid to delve into more classical texts. They will be extremely difficult to read, but if you push through you find some really interesting stuff in the end. A good way to start off if you don’t feel comfortable reading these texts, or if you are confused (we all are sometimes) read some critiques or reviews regarding these texts as well.

    Happy Philosophizing!

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