Metaphysics Term Paper


Determinism, Moral Responsibility, and the Existence of Free Will


Concepts of free will and determinism have been studied and analyzed since the very beginnings of philosophy. The subject itself has been of vast importance in both historic and modern philosophical discussions due to its societal, cultural, and moral implications. Some such as Aristotle and Bradford Dennett may argue against determinism on the grounds that it may fail to leave action, consequence, and responsibility in the hands of the individual. On the opposite spectrum, philosophers such as Peter van Inwagen may argue against the basic existence of free will on the grounds of its incoherent nature, its contradiction with other laws, and its possible incompatibility with determinism. Before either argument can be fully addressed, the concepts of both free will and determinism need to be fully defined and analyzed. Next, and importantly to the concept of free will, the idea of moral responsibility must be carefully analyzed and defined. Next, one must address the concepts of free will and determinism and how they are either compatible or incompatible with one another. Finally, one may more accurately be able to determine and postulate the true existence of free will and the moral consequences that either the acceptance or refutation may have on an individual and a society as a whole. 

The basis of general free will can be explained in seemingly simplistic terms. Philosopher Peter Van Inwagen, among other philosophers, holds that the basis of free will stems from the belief and idea that an individual, or ‘agent’ as he puts it not only has the will and desire to act but the “power and ability” to act otherwise. Simply put, if person A makes choice B, said person had the true freedom to contemplate and act on making choice B and not say choice C or D. The ability to make one decision over another and credence this decision to the individual, and not the laws of nature for example, are what gives free will it’s basis and separates it from deterministic thought. (Inwagen) Long before Inwagen, the philosopher Aristotle was one of the first to discuss the basis of free will in respect to indeterminism. Aristotle firstly argued for a variety of causes that may be in turn referred to in the sense of factors or explanations for a certain individual’s action; or any event at that. He described that any action or event would have to be directly related to the previous cause that would inevitably stem back to the first and initial cause.  Aristotle’s suggested the four known and possible causes would be material, efficient, formal, and final; later adding chance. The material cause is the root material or matter that the thing which said cause has been acted upon is made of. In other words, it is the simplest origination and cause of any object, thing, or decision. If one is presented with say a piece of ancient pottery, the material cause for said piece of artwork is the fundamental and natural material root of the pottery; in this case it would be the clay from which it was constructed. The efficient cause can best be described as the action of an object or individual, and more specifically, that which causes the action. This action can be described as anything ranging from basic movement to speech. The important thing in this cause is to examine what exactly causes things like movement or speech. A simple example of this can be shown with the construction of the piece of pottery artwork. The efficient cause of this pottery would be the artist or sculptor who acts on the clay to sculpt and mold it to desired specifications.  The formal cause can best be described, a little more ambiguously than the others, as the pattern a thing, individual or action may have. An example of this can easily be found in the musical sense. If one takes the top string of a standard guitar and the next below, the precise thickness of the two different strings is what represents the formal cause of the two strings producing completely and noticeably different sounds. The final cause can aptly be described as the reason for a certain thing, action, or individual. It can be described as the argument, and according to Aristotle, does not necessarily require thought. This example can be characterized by an artist sculpting a piece of pottery for the reason of beautifying his home or as possibly a gift. To Aristotle, this was the most important cause for without it, the thing or event could not and would not be or become. The fifth cause, chance, which Aristotle later added in his work, “Physics and Metaphysics”, was best described as accident. Chance is a cause that has no true cause in and of itself. An example of this may be the rolling of a basic sided dye. The side to which the dye may land has no natural cause, except for pure chance and accident itself. These five causes are the initial grounds for the fundamental philosophies of free will. (Cohen)

The concept and explanation of free will lead one to ponder the interrelated concept of moral responsibility. By definition, moral responsibility entails the consequence or ‘responsibility’ that an individual inherently possess for certain actions whilst performed under the guidance of free will. (Eshleman) Aristotle, one of the first philosophers to give thought to the concept of moral responsibility, said when a ‘moral agent’ behaves or acts in a certain way, it is right and more often than not, expected, to respond in a form of praise or blame; either appositive or negative response. Secondly, Aristotle describes the said ‘moral agent’ as an individual who holds the capabilities and mental capacity for thought, judgment, decision, and a basic sense of right versus wrong. For example, a criminal who fully possessed the mental facilities to know that the crime they were committing was wrong, than they are thus moral responsibility for the consequences of said crime. On the other hand, if and individual inherently contains limited mental facilities, possibly in the form of a mental illness, and commits the same crime, it can be said that due to the inability to truly assess the situation and pass a sound judgment, that individual would and could not be held to be morally responsible for the same crime. Aristotle next discussed two other conditions for the ultimate decision of moral responsibility. First, a moral agent must have voluntarily committed a certain action or behavior. Basically, an individual is morally responsible if the action comes from an internal and not external force. If an individual is for example, being coerced by any means to perform an action or behavior, than the individual would not truly have moral responsibility for the action. Next, Aristotle says that an individual moral agent must be cognizant, mindful, and aware of the possible consequences of the supposed action or behavior. In other words, if an individual performed an action or behavior that brought about completely unintended consequences or results, than such individual is not truly morally responsible. (Aristotle) Moral responsibility as defined as such, ties into free will on the basis that to act freely and clearly, one has some level of responsibility.

According to Peter van Inwagen, the concept of determinism can be best described by two key notions. The first notion is that for every moment of space and time, there is a basic premise or concept that outlines the exact state of the world at this exact moment. This means for every action or thing that exists within the constructs of space and time, there is a basic concept that directly correlates it to the state of the world around it. This being said, the concept of the ‘state of the world’ must be explained as being a state in which the world follows a logical path and any change to this specified state would constitute a change within the state itself. Next, the state of the world must be explained logically by it following the laws of physics. These laws of physics, often referred to as the laws of nature, are those such as gravity or the speed of light which are necessary for determinism and are that which cause the chain of causation in a deterministic universe. In a deterministic world, these laws must be absolutes and nothing less for principles of determinism to function. The second notion of determinism states that, if there are given two premises A and B, and these premises express the laws of physics, which are expressed in the state of the world, at a certain moment in time and space than A conjoined with these laws of physics, must entail B. The fundamental principle behind determinism is that an individual action or event occurs in a certain way and in a certain time which is caused by previous variables which cannot be undefined. In the world of determinism, one may act in a certain way and regardless of infinite consideration orthought for such action or event, it could not have possibly not happened as it had. (Inwagen) Every event in this deterministic world has a certain cause, and that cause has a specific cause, and so on. It can also be said from a deterministic philosophy standpoint that for an event to have no cause it would inherently be an impossible uncaused cause, which more commonly may be referred to as a miracle. Also, the forfeiture of the governance of physical laws on the causation of concepts would inevitably lead to a universe filled with unbeknownst chaos and true misunderstanding of all human actions. (Hoefer)

Now that the concepts of free will, moral responsibility, and determinism have been adequately established and explained, one may begin to ponder the interaction of either. The first school of thought stems from the belief that determinism is able to exist in a world alongside some level of individual free will. This interrelated idea is what modern philosophers refer to as compatibilism. By definition, compatibilism refers to the belief that the reconciliation of free will with determinism is possible and without any logical inconsistencies. One of the first philosophers to discuss concepts of compatibilism was David Hume. Hume discussed three major ideas involving this concept. The first was the idea of actions consisting of free will and thus moral responsibility and actions which were not consistent with free will and moral responsibility differentiated solely by the type of cause.  Specifically, Hume argued that this difference was solely based on an internal versus an external cause. He says that free actions and behaviors are caused by an internal ‘force’, whereas deterministic actions and behaviors are caused by an external ‘force’.  Hume refers to this difference as the, “Spontaneity argument.”  Next, Hume states that referring to an individual ‘liberty’ as “a negation of necessity and causes” would cause the existence of moral responsibility to be impossible. This, ‘antilibertarian argument’, is a refutation of an often claimed definition of moral responsibility and free will that gives rise to the existence of both. Finally, Hume states that the “necessity argument” claims that necessity implies the continual joint interaction of two objects, things, or actions and the conceptual awareness of both. (Brown) Basically put, Hume believes that an individual demonstrated characteristics of free will if an action was caused by an internal force of mental or emotional capacities within the individuals self. Though these actions may be determined, such person still has moral responsibility and freedom because it was the individuals self which determined the casual relation. If an outside force has caused said actions, than they are no longer within the boundaries of freedom and responsibility. To Hume, free will and determination can be reconciled because of the specific type of caused events or actions.

The second major school of thought lies in the belief that concepts of free will and determinism are irreconcilable, in that one is unable to exist alongside the other. This area of philosophy is referred to as incompatibilism. By definition, incompatibilism holds that free will and determinism are completely at opposition to one another and an individual or philosopher must choose one or the other. In traditional philosophy, there are two opposing types of incompatibilists, hard determinists and libertarians. A hard determinist plainly believes that determinism is absolutely fact and as consequence, an individual has no free will or moral responsibility.  If the concept of determinism is held to be absolute, than by conclusion, the concept of free will must be false. The first necessity, as described previously, requires that determinism is unequivocally reliant on the laws of physics. With such a conclusion drawn, behavior A would result in action or consequence B due to the interaction of these laws on the supposed proposition. This consequence of B would be determined through means other than the individual and thus out of the individuals processes all together, thus negating free will. A libertarian on the other hand believes that free will is a fact for all individuals and thus by consequence, determinism is false.  The libertarian stance is subject to a few critical dilemmas. First, the idea that free will is held as an uncaused cause, which in part means that an action has zero reason. (Vihvelin)Certain philosophers, such as van Inwagen, refer to the ability for one to act or perform an action or behavior as an uncaused caused would imply a state of ‘divinity’, or ‘god-ness’. To truly hold true the views of libertarianism, one would have to suppose that free will exists in a world unbounded by the laws of physics and nature. It may be argued that action and behavior that occurs outside of these guidelines would essentially be an act of chance or luck. To counteract this, Robert Kane refers to the general libertarian strategy. This strategy firstly stated that with the existence of free will, an indeterministic nature must be assumed, and thus, one is left with a casual void. It is then necessary to propose something that will fill in the lack of causation which must exist outside the natural deterministic laws of physics. This outside factor is what gives credence to the theory of libertarianism. (Kane) Although at the core of incompatibilism, there lies a fundamental difference whereas free will exists and determinism does not or vice versa, one may agree that one cannot exist simultaneously with the other.

The only thing that remains is the fundamental question of the possibility of the existence of free will. The existence of free will implies a sense of moral responsibility within all individuals and moral agents that act freely. It seems in a world, grounded by the laws of physics and nature, our state of the world is purely deterministic in nature. This view of the deterministic world would then fall into the category of incompatibalism, more specifically, hard determinism. This view of hard determinism, as stated previously, strongly holds that the world in which individuals and things exist in is governed solely by an infinite series of deterministic causes. The two fundamentally discussed arguments against the existence of free will are firstly as stated, the existence of determinism would rule out the existence of free will as the two are incompatible with each other. Secondly, the possibly of uncaused causes in a deterministic world would not in fact be free will in nature, but a sense of chance or luck. Something happening regardless of internal human conditions and by pure chance or coincidence could not be considered to be free will in nature. By nature, to hold determinism to be absolute would also require one to not only negate principles of libertarian free will, but also principles of moral responsibility.  The philosophical theory behind this is in a deterministic world, all individual agents act and behave based on a continual caused chain of events. These events may be influenced, or started, by not only the laws of nature, but by conditions in the state of the world previously to their birth.  Post-conception, the laws that impact the state of the world will continuously impact the said individual. This continual change of causes is what leads to influencing an individual’s true inner self; their desires, thoughts, morals, etc. As such, one may not be held responsible for positive or negative praise for said actions or behaviors due to the cause already being determined prior to the said action taking place. The question then becomes, in a modern and moral society, how the lack of free will and moral responsibility can be reconciled with the way that modern civilization truly is. (Smilansky)

In modern society, the lack of free will and moral responsibility may possibly lead one to characterize ‘immoral’ behaviors as a non-issue as it, “wasn’t their fault”. This leads to an obvious dilemma within a law abiding society. Without the presence of real individualistic freedom with the state of the world, how can one be responsible for their actions? The philosopher Smilansky raises two important questions with regards to this ‘lack of freedom and responsibility’. First, he raised the issue of the possibility of morality. By this, he meanshow can an indiviudal contain ideas of morality and self-esteem without this existance of moral responsibility. He states that a solution lays in the existance of a determinisitc pure morality as ipposed to free will morality. Pure morality refers to the separate distinction of substantive morality and accountability morality. The first is a sense of morality from within that is based on previous causation that has afected will, behavior, etc. The second, accountability morality is the idea that morality exists because of the resulting consequence of said aciton. To hard determinists, pure reason lies solely in the substantive morality.  The second are of concern for Smilansky is the ‘personal problem.’ By this, he refers topersonal action and behavior without any anntetion or consequence. He states that in this problem, an individual need only act regardless of assumed praise. One should act and behave based on their interna pure reason facilities. (Smilansky) Based on these characterisitcs, one can start to recover for the lack of moral responsibility within society.

Other philosophers have justified the possible existance of moral responsibility outside of free will by referencing the difference between internal and external causes. The first, internal, would refer to any cause that exists and is infulenced by yourself. This act or behavior would resinate within the indiviudal identity, and thus give rise to moral responsibility. The opposite, external causes would be any cause that is determined by an outside force that is completely out of the control of an individual. This cause could be something as simple as a care breaking down, which in turn, caused an individual to be late for an appointment. The moral responsibility for this action does not reside within the indiviudal since, in theory, they had zero affect or influence on the outcome of this certain chain of causation. The philosopher who described this best was aristotle. As stated earlier, these two different types of causes are the ultimate binding factor in determining moral responsibility for an action. With these guidelines, it allows for society to function in a senseable and moral way. (Aristotle)

Although this model for hard determinism, lack of free will, yet a sense of moral responsibility dependent on various causes is sound, it does have a few holes. Although these questions may truly be unanswerable, one may ponder their curiosity anyways. Firstly, in regards to the two causes of moral responsibility, how does one factor for conditions such as genetics or mental disabilities. These factors, which are deterministic in nature, may cause an individual to in an immoral way. Based on the guidelines above, an internal force would follow by moral responsibility for actions, but what of this case. The individual may truly not know the difference, not realize what they are doing, or truly be unable to stop themselves. If this is so, one may be forced to say they are not moral responsible. In the same aspect, how would a past of childhood trauma or abuse affect a sense of current moral responsibility? Some may say that childhood trauma may cause an unbreakable chain of causes that may affect future actions and behavior. On the other hand, some may say that although to a sense it is external, with time, the actions become internal and one is still morally responsible. These are just two cases, but one can see some of the dilemmas still remaining in a deterministic world with moral responsibility. Although it is not perfect, a deterministic world seems to not only be unwavering and truthful, but the most accurate solution to responses of free will and responsibility.


Works Cited

Aristotle. The Nicomachean Ethics. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1999.

Brown, Charlotte Randall. Starting with Hume. London: Continuum International Publishing, 2012.

Cohen, S. Marc. The Four Causes. 26 November 2006. <>.

Eshleman, Andrew. Moral Responsibility. 18 November 2009. <>.

Hoefer, Carl. Causal Determinism. 21 January 2010. <>.

Inwagen, Peter van. "The incompatibility of Free Will and Determinism." Beebee, Helen and Julian Dodd. Reading Metaphyiscs. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2007. 62-74.

Kane, Robert. "Agency, Responsibility, and Indeterminism: Reflections on Libertarian Theories of Free Will." Campbell, Joseph Keim, Michael O'Rourke and David Shier. Freedom and Determinism. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2004. 70-88.

Smilansky, Saul. "The Ethical Advantages of Hard Determinism." PhiPhilosophy and Phenomenological Research (1994): 355-363.

Vihvelin, Kadri. Arguments for Incompatibilism. 1 March 2011. <>.