Free Will and Determinism
Richard Loeb and Nathan Leopold talking during their trial.
What you need to know about on this topic:
Free will and determinism.
The views of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ determinists and libertarians.
The implications of these for moral responsibility.
The way in which the religion studied (Christianity) contributes to debates about human free will and moral responsibility.
Books used in putting together this revision/course booklet:
‘Ethical Studies’ by R. A. Bowie
‘Moral Problems’ by M. Palmer
‘Moral Problems In Medicine’ by M. Palmer
‘Ethics & Religion’ by J. Jenkins
‘Ethical Theory’ by M. Thompson
‘The Puzzle Of God’ by P. Vardy
‘Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong’ by J. L Mackie
& KEY TERMINOLOGY &
Autonomous/Autonomy/Free Will: Self-rule or self-government. The term is made up of ‘autos’ meaning ‘self’ and ‘nomos’ meaning ‘rule’. Many philosophers, such as Kant, hold that you can only be responsible for actions that you undertake of your own will. This is opposed to:
Determinism: The belief that choices are influenced by factors other than the will of the individual. (In other words events/actions are predetermined by other events therefore freedom of choice is an illusion.)
Hard Determinism: The belief that people do not have free will to act in moral situations and that all moral actions have uncontrollable prior causes. Humans therefore cannot be morally blameworthy for their actions because their actions are determined.
Libertarianism: The belief that humans are free to make moral choices and are therefore morally responsible.
Moral Responsibility: our blameworthiness or praiseworthiness for actions.
Predestination: The belief that God has decided who will and will not enter heaven.
Soft Determinism: The belief that some actions are determined but we still have moral responsibility.
There exists an important relationship between freedom and moral responsibility, as it is commonly believed that we should be morally responsible for actions, which are freely performed. Most would agree that we should accept the blame for the things we freely do wrong. If I walked into a supermarket and freely stole money from the cashier I should accept the blame for doing this since I did so freely. If however, I am FORCED to commit an immoral act then I am not blameworthy. (If I stole the money because someone held a gun to my head then I am not blameworthy.)
In the same way, if I gave freely to a charity then I am worthy of praise but if I am forced to give money to charity then I am not praiseworthy. We can only give moral blame or praise to actions, which are freely undertaken. Our society and individuals within our society commonly hold this view.
Praise and blame, according to Aristotle (384-322 BCE) in ‘Nicomachean Ethics’ are commonly confined to voluntary actions, whilst actions are made non-voluntary by compulsion or ignorance.
If in ignorance, I perform an action that has an unpredictable immoral effect, then again, in most cases, I am not blameworthy. If a teacher was to take a group of pupils on a visit to an area which he/she believes to be safe, they are not blameworthy if there is a sudden bombing in that area, assuming that they could not have known what was going to happen. On the other hand, if the teacher sends the pupils on the visit knowing there could be a risk in the area, or does not make appropriate checks then they WOULD be blameworthy, indeed they would be incompetent!
Furthermore, if a person is not in control of their actions because of drug abuse or another disorientating influence, such as a severe emotional trauma, then that person is not entirely responsible for their actions. The drunk who kills a pedestrian may be morally blameworthy, but he has not committed as great a crime as a sober person who deliberately runs down an innocent pedestrian, because the person’s INTENTION is important.
This can become a little more complicated the more you delve. For example, if I was spiked in a bar and in a disorientated state hit a pedestrian whilst driving home, then I am attributed less blame than the drunk and the sober person who committed the same crime. The law punishes criminals who intend to commit their crimes more heavily than those who commit unplanned crimes. The questions: ‘Did they mean to kill or was it an accident?’ and ‘Was it premeditated?’ come into the law courts often.
If we can only blame or praise people for actions which they freely and knowingly undertake then it is vital that human beings have freedom to act. Morality depends upon freedom. We cannot blame a person for not doing what they could not do. If human actions are caused by external influences, then people cannot be morally responsible for their actions.
Look at the following 5 situations, which I have taken from R. Bowie’s ‘Ethical Studies’ and consider the following:
In which situation is the policeman the most and least
Is the policeman morally responsible for the death of
the civilian in each case?
Should there be any difference in the way the
policeman is punished and why?
A policeman, who is a poor shot, shoots dead an innocent civilian by mistake.
A policeman intentionally shoots dead an innocent civilian.
A policeman, hallucinating after unintentionally taking drugs, shoots dead an innocent civilian.
A policeman, believing it is his duty to obey the orders of the state, is commanded to shoot dead an innocent civilian and does so.
A policeman, threatened with execution if he does not obey orders, is commanded to shoot dead an innocent civilian and does so.
The theory of determinism states that every event has a cause. The question raised by this theory is whether we as human beings possess free will. If we do not possess free will then we cannot be held morally responsible for our actions. If this were the case then morality really would become meaningless.
You will remember Kant’s famous words of ‘ought implies can’. A moral situation is one in which an individual can choose a particular course of action. A non – moral situation therefore is one in which an individual has no choice, or more frequently has the choice dictated to them by something (or someone) over which they have no control. I am not to blame if I cannot breathe underwater, it being physically impossible, nor am I to blame if I am forced to commit a crime at gunpoint. In this case the law courts would recognise that I am, in a special sense, less free than the normal citizen and sentences are adjusted accordingly. (Think of how many times on law programmes you have seen people who have pleaded ‘insanity’ or have ‘diminished responsibility’).
What if we could show that ALL human actions are caused by things outside of our control?
It is this question, which raises the philosophical and ethical problem of determinism and free will. People certainly behave as if they were free, as if they had a real series of choices open to them and nowhere is this more apparent than when we make moral decisions. We frequently ‘choose’ between two or more courses of action and weigh up the options. But suppose this is not the case? Suppose that behind these choices lies a whole range of other things, which compel us to act in the way we do. In that case we should have to conclude that none of us is free, none of us responsible for our own actions and that moral decision-making is an illusion. In all matters of human choice, so the argument runs, a man cannot choose to do what he ought to do but rather does what he must.
Philosophers have reacted to this problem in a variety of ways. First there are so called hard determinists, who accept determinism and therefore reject freedom and moral responsibility. Then there are so called libertarians, who accept freedom and moral responsibility and therefore reject determinism. Then there’s the group in the middle of these who argue that determinism is essential to the notion of free will. These are called soft determinists or compatibilists.
For two hundred years up until about 1900 science maintained a rigid determinism and a belief in universal causation, which rejected free will as it rejected miracles. It saw all observable events as being subject to scientific law and therefore completely predictable.
You may ask the question, ‘what exactly does it mean to have free will?’ Well to have free will at least two conditions must apply:
We must have two or more possibilities ‘genuinely’ open to us when we are faced with a choice and
Our choice must not be forced.
The concept of free will plays a vital part in our thinking about the world, particularly in attributing blame and praise and in finding others ‘morally responsible’ for what they have done. We generally do not hold others responsible for their actions when they are:
Under the influence of powerful medication having unexpected psychological side effects.
Very young people who are unable to foresee the consequences of their actions.
People who are delirious.
People who are forced into an action.
he list has grown considerable over the years. Recently in a court case a man was found not guilty of murder on the grounds that he was sleepwalking during the killing.
The traditional Jewish and Christian view is that human beings are free, autonomous agents who are responsible for their own actions. In Genesis for example, Adam and Eve exercise free will in choosing to eat the forbidden fruit. They are then held responsible for their actions and punished by God. Eve to bear pain in childbirth and Adam to toil.
St Thomas Aquinas, the Christian theologian (1224-1274) in ‘Summa Theologica’ wrote ‘…man chooses not of necessity but freely’. The main Christian denominations also hold the view that we are free to do good or sin.
There also exists however, within Christianity the view of predestination. This idea originates in St Paul’s letter to the Romans where it states,
‘We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified’ (Romans 8: 28-30 – NIV)
This clearly states that God has already decided who will be saved and who will not, suggesting that humans are not free to secure salvation. This view is held by SOME Protestant Churches. The belief has strong support from several Christian groups, and remains one of the 39 Articles of Faith of the Church of England:
Predestination to Life is the everlasting purpose of God, whereby (before the foundations of the world were laid) he hath constantly decreed by his counsel secret to us, to deliver from curse and damnation those whom he hath chosen in Christ out of mankind, and to bring them by Christ to everlasting salvation, as vessels made to honour. (Article 17, Articles of Religion, Book of Common Prayer)
The Protestant reformer, John Calvin (1506-1564) described predestination in his work ‘Institutes’ as,
‘The eternal decree of God, by which he determined that he wished to make every man. For he does not create everyone in the same condition, but ordains eternal life for some and eternal damnation for others’.
Calvin taught that God is omnipotent (all-powerful) and omniscient (all-knowing). The idea that God decides who receives salvation and who does not at creation suggests that humans do not have free will with regards to their religious or moral behaviour.
The omniscience of God can be seen here. We are not omniscient, as we are finite beings; this means that we are ignorant beings. If God knows all then there cannot be any future, free human actions as:
If God is omniscient he knows all that will be true in the future.
If God knows that some future event will come to pass, the event in question will be such that it cannot but come to pass.
We are told in the Bible that God has numbered every hair on our heads and knows every sparrow that falls.
The idea of predestination has significance in the debate about whether human beings can save themselves or whether they are saved by God’s grace alone.
$ HARD DETERMINISM
Hard Determinists maintain that everything in the universe, including all human actions and choices, has a prior cause. Humans therefore are not free to act. This argument, in philosophy, is also known as the theory/doctrine of UNIVERSAL CAUSATION and brings with it the proposition that all events are in principle predictable. The Hard Determinist would assert that if I am to be responsible for my actions, surely I have to be free to choose those actions? If I am to do something because it is pre-ordained for me to do, is it really my decision? Many would say not. Hard determinists are not interested in so called ‘human desires’ as the motivation of our actions; rather, they look at the causal factors BEHIND such desires.
The determinist case has gained strength with modern disciplines such as sociology, psychology and anthropology. Charles Darwin (1809-82) in biology, Karl Marx (1818-83) in sociology and Sigmund Freud (1865-1939) in psychology all began advancing causal explanations of life, which led to many people questioning traditional Christian ideas about the purpose and meaning of life. With their increasing ability to account for human feelings and emotions, the belief has grown that we, like everything else in the world, act in accordance with causal laws. Human beings are seen as complicated bits of machinery, the workings of which are governed by other factors such as genetics, the environment around us, culture, society etc.
It follows that once a person appears to have a moral choice, this appearance is an illusion. The philosopher John Locke (1632-1704) gave the following example to explain this in his ‘Essay Concerning Human Understanding’: (Taken from ‘Moral Problems in Medicine’ by Michael Palmer)
Suppose that a sleeping man is placed in a locked room. On awakening he decides to stay where he is, not knowing that the room is already locked. This is a real decision taken by him, it is freely made and he might have decided to leave; but in reality he has no choice and it is only his ignorance of his true condition, which made him think otherwise. So it is with our moral choices. We think we are free when we decide to do X and not Y, but in fact we are not. These decisions are causally determined; they are effects of previous causes and these causes of still earlier causes, and so on.
Hard determinism has some ethical similarities to predestination. Ted Honderich summarises it as the view that ‘…..all our choices, decisions, intentions, other mental events, and our actions are no more than effects of other equally necessitated events’.
The film ‘Swoon’ (1992) recounted the real-life notorious murder committed by two boys and its aftermath. Clarence Darrow (Famous male American Attorney, 1857-1938) defended the two boys (Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb) who murdered a 14-year-old called Bobby Franks. The two murderers were rich and intelligent and had planned the perfect crime to show their superiority over society. The plan went wrong and they were quickly caught and confessed to the murder. They were brought to trial and faced the death penalty. Darrow argued SUCCESSFULLY for their sentence to be reduced to life imprisonment because the boys were products of their upbringing (nurture).
When Darrow defended person’s accused of murder, he used a standard argument. He argued that his clients were not morally responsible for their actions. Darrow thought that criminals should still be brought to justice to protect society, but argued that it should not be assumed that they are responsible for their actions. Darrow was one of the most skilful attorneys of all time. Using arguments like these, he was able to convince every jury before whom he argued that his clients were not deserving of the death penalty. The following argument was used by Darrow:
‘Nature is strong as she is pitiless. She works in her own mysterious way, and we are victims. We have not much to do with ourselves. Nature takes this job in hand, and we play our parts……What had this boy to do with it? He was not his own father; he was not his own mother; he was not his own grandparent. All this was handed to him. He did not surround himself with governesses and wealth. He did not make himself. And yet he is compelled to pay…To believe that any boy is responsible for himself or his early training is an absurdity……. If his failing came from his heredity, I do not know where or how. None of us are bred perfect and pure; and the colour of our hair, the colour of our eyes, our stature, the weight and fineness of our brain, and everything about us could, with full knowledge, be traced with absolute certainty to somewhere. …If there is a responsibility anywhere, it is back of him; somewhere in the infinite number of ancestors, or in his surroundings, or in both. And I submit, your Honor, that under every principle of … and of law, he should not be made responsible for the acts.’ (Moral Problems, M. Palmer).
If Leopold and Leob were not morally responsible for their behaviour, it was because of what others had done to them. But these others, in turn, were not morally responsible for what they had done, since they were products of what had earlier been done to them. And so on.
The law considers people who have limited control over their actions because of extreme psychological or emotional difficulties as having ‘diminished responsibility’. The emotionally distraught woman who kills her husband is not acting in total moral freedom. Her emotional state has distorted her judgement and she is treated differently in court from the cold, calculated killer. But what if we all suffer from diminished responsibility, because our actions are determined by prior causes?
The contemporary determinist, John Hospers held this view:
Let us suppose it were established that a man commits murder only if, sometime during the previous week, he has eaten a certain combination of foods – say tuna fish salad at a meal also including peas, mushroom soup and blueberry pie. What if we were to track down the factors common to all murders committed in this country during the last twenty years and found this factor present in all of them, and only in them? The example is, of course, absurd; but may it not be that there is some combination of factors that regularly lead to homicide? … When such specific factors are discovered, won’t they make it clear that it is foolish and pointless, as well as immoral, to hold human beings responsible for crimes?
Genetics may have an influence over how we respond in a certain situation. Our economic, religious, cultural backgrounds and experience of life may affect us in such a way that our behaviour is determined rather than free. For example:
In 1968 Mary Bell (aged 11) was convicted of the murder of two toddlers. She spent 12 years in secure units, before being released as a 23-year-old. Her mother was a prostitute who specialised in sado-masochism. Mary would be forced to listen to her mother ‘entertain’ clients from behind a curtain.
Venables and Thompson who were convicted for the abduction, torture and murder of Jamie Bulger also had a violent and unstable background/upbringing.
If a child is brought up knowing only violence, abuse and selfish adult behaviour, can they be responsible for their own violent actions?
Bentham, and many other utilitarians have argued that the purpose of punishment is deterrence, but it is only intentional actions that people can be deterred from performing. Hard Determinists such as Darrow and Locke are not saying that criminals should not be punished, since society must be protected from them, however, they do question whether criminals (or anyone) are morally responsible for their actions.
The Cosmological argument for the existence of God is another example of how there are causes for things. The term ‘cosmological’ derives from the word ‘cosmos’ meaning ‘the universe’. This argument states that there must be a first cause for the universe to come into existence, just as there is a cause for drinking a glass of water. The argument infers the existence of God from the existence of the cosmos, on the principle that nothing causes itself. Plato and Aristotle had used this argument but the most famous Christian application of the argument is found in Aquinas.
Lets just think about drinking a glass of water for a moment. What causes us to drink a glass of water? Thirst? What caused us to be thirsty? Exercise? What caused us to exercise? Lose weight? And so on…..
Morality is concerned with what people ought to do and what they ought not to do. If however, they could not have done otherwise, or if they do not possess the freedom to choose, then it does not really make sense to tell them that they ought to have done differently or to punish them for what they did. The challenge of determinism therefore, is that it speaks of the illusion of freedom and therefore the absence of any moral blame.
Hard Determinism-A Brief Overview
This is the theory that human behaviour and actions are wholly determined by external factors, and therefore humans do not have genuine free will or ethical accountability. There are several supporting views for this belief which can be summarised under the following ‘banners’:
Physical determinism: we’re made of matter which obeys the laws of physics, such as gravity.
Biological determinism: our characters are determined by our genes.
Scientific determinism: Science tells us that for every physical event there is a physical cause. If we consider the mind to be material activity in the brain, chemical impulses, then our thoughts and desires are also pre-determined.
Philosophical determinism: The theory of Universal Causation is the belief that everything in the universe has a cause. The illusion of moral choice is a result of our ignorance of what causes these choices, leading us to believe they have no cause. John Locke’s sleeping man is an example of this type of hard determinism.
Psychological determinism: Nature-Nurture. According to psychological determinism our characters are determined by our upbringing and experiences. There are many influencing factors on human behaviour, such as: hereditary, society, culture and environment.
Theological (Divine) determinism: This is the belief that the causal chain can be traced back to an uncaused causer (cosmological argument-Aquinas), and this is God. If God is omniscient and omnipotent, as suggested by Calvin, then we cannot have free-will and our actions must be predetermined.
EVALUATING HARD DETERMINISM
It has a number of consequences. It puts us in doubt of praise and blame. How do we consider the morality of others if they are not morally responsible for their actions?
We cannot be held morally responsible for our actions if they are causally determined and not a result of our own moral choice. The implication thus is that Adolf Hitler is no more culpable for his actions than the good-doing Christian church-goer.
Determinism means that we are mistaken to praise someone for being good and blame those who are bad. The whole notion of moral responsibility is called into question. Murderers murder because they have the wrong genes, poor upbringing, poor parents or even poor teachers. This would have a huge impact on our notion of punishment, as it seems wrong to punish others if they are not responsible for their actions.
Libertarians (looking at next) argue that determinists confuse things and that a mechanical view of the world is incorrect.
We are all a product of our genes, upbringing and surroundings. Determinists take this into account and to some extent the justice system does this also. It seems true that there is a prior cause for everything, including our actions and our choices, since our character is a product of other causes.
When a person is confronted with the choice between right and wrong they are a free agent and freely choose their actions. David Hume (1711-1776) described liberty in his ‘Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding’ where he said:
‘by liberty, then, we can only mean a power of acting or not acting, according to the determinations of the will; that is, if we choose to remain at rest, we may; if we choose to move, we also may’.
Libertarianism believes that we are free to act and we are also morally responsible for those actions. As Plato (428-347 BCE) said in ‘Republic’,
‘Your destiny shall not be allotted to you, but you shall choose it for yourselves’
In presenting their argument Libertarians often distinguish between a persons formed character or personality and his or her moral self. Personality is governed by causal laws, which are capable of scientific explanation and prediction. The personality one has is formed by heredity and environment and limits the choices one has, thus making us more likely to choose certain kinds of actions and not others. A youth who is brought up surrounded by violence and crime is more likely to decide on a career of violence and crime but this is not inevitable. If the youth is aware of the significance of his/her actions it is possible that their moral self will counteract the tendencies of his/her personality and cause him/her to do something else, perhaps become a police officer instead!
The moral self is an ethical concept, which comes into operation when we decide what to do in situations of our moral choice. Most often this involves deciding between self-interest and duty. This is what distinguishes humans from animals, the former is capable of moral choice, and the latter are not. C A Campbell in ‘Philosophy: Paradox and Discovery’ writes,
‘In the act of deciding whether to put forth or withhold the moral effort required to resist temptation and rise to duty, is to be found an act which is free in the sense required of moral responsibility; an act which the self is sole author, and of which it is true to say that ‘it could be’ (or, after the event, ‘could have been’)’.
The libertarian assumes that we have free will in situations of moral choice. (For the determinist this is very unsatisfactory). The libertarian commonly uses three additional arguments, these being:
Experience: we have the direct and certain experience of being self-determining. We may drink coffee, or tea, choose RE or Sociology, wear a denim jacket or a leather one and so on. This experience is common to everyone and even extends to those whose moral choices are sometimes restricted. (E.g. drug addict). We all have the immediate experience of decision, of making a choice, of deciding.
The Act of decision-making: all of us do this at one time or another and this demonstrates that we possess free will. This is because we can only make decisions about what to do if we do not already know what we are going to do and if it is in our power to do what we are thinking of doing. For example a university student may be considering whether to pay a certain amount of money for a room. The student may take into consideration the size of the room and so on. If the student has decided to pay they have made that decision by weighing up the pros and cons. They are capable of doing either A or B and if they cannot do either A or B (I.e. got no money so couldn’t afford room anyway) then there is no choice. The student could not make a choice if only one option was open to them. The libertarian here is stating that since we all make decisions we must believe that we can make choices, that we are free. We can only make a decision however, if we have more than one option open to us.
The third argument is about what is necessarily true and what is contingently true. Take the following statement ‘all bachelors are married’. This is necessarily true because it could not possibly be false as an ‘unmarried’ man is precisely what is meant by the concept of ‘bachelor’. This is true by definition. The statement ‘Miss Lugsden has hazel eyes’ however is said to be contingently true as it could be false as your eyesight could be deceiving you, as the possibility of error always exists. This argument was given by libertarians in response to the determinist’s view that just because people believe they are free that is not to say they actually are as many people can believe, on the evidence of certain experiences that things are true, but they are not necessarily so. For example one can say ‘my wife is faithful’ believing this to be true, but it may not be so.
Determinists maintain that decision-making is an illusion and surely to some extent it is as our personality etc. is determined by other factors and so will our decisions. Surely actions are caused by something? Just as it is difficult to say that one thing causes another, it is just as difficult to say that there are no causes beyond our control.
We do have choices in life and we can choose different things. Plenty of people from violent backgrounds with ancestors who have been murderers have gone on to be good people. We have choices in life, we have free will.
This is the view that some aspects of human action are determined but at the same time we are morally responsible for our actions.
Soft determinists reject the assumption that determinism is inconsistent with free will. Soft determinists argue that determinism does not rule out free will. They believe that determinism and free will are compatible.
This midway position suggests that some of our actions are conditioned, while others have so complex a collection of causes that they may properly be described as freely decided or willed.
Take the following statement: ‘Gandhi fasted because he wanted to free India’. This would conform to what the libertarian would call a free action however at the same time is a cause not actually stated? Now look at ‘Gandhi’s desire to free India caused him to fast’. Couldn’t we say that this desire was a result of other causes such as his education, upbringing, the teaching of the Hindu faith and so on?
The soft determinists say that a precise causal explanation may be possible and that if known we would find out why Gandhi did what he did.
According to soft determinists the distinction between internal and external causes explains why freedom and moral responsibility are not only compatible with determinism but actually require it. If you leave the county because you want a holiday, you leave of your own free will but if you leave because the authorities expel you, then you are obviously forced to leave. In each case your action is caused. In the first you desire a holiday, in the latter you are forced to go. When the cause is internal (i.e. result of your own wishes or desires) you acted of your own free will but when the cause is external (i.e. not your wishes or desires) you did not act voluntarily. (Remember what Aristotle said about praise and blame? – see page 3).
Soft determinists believe that all human actions are caused and when we say that a person acted freely we are not saying that there was no cause but rather they were not forced to do it. Here they act as free agents even though their actions are still caused.
Soft determinists are criticised by hard determinists for failing to realise the extent to which human freedom is limited and by libertarians for failing to recognise the true extent of freedom. Whilst soft determinism offers an agreeable account of moral freedom a line still has to be drawn between that which is determined and that which is open to choice. Soft determinists have to try to agree on what is and what is not a determining factor and the complexities of genetics, psychology and physics makes such a line difficult for them to draw.
PAST/POSSIBLE EXAMINATION QUESTIONS
Examine critically the claim that free will and determinism are incompatible.
‘It is impossible to reconcile any kind of determinism with the concept of free will.’ Discuss.
Explain determinist understandings of human freedom.
‘People who have been brought up badly should be given lenient punishments for offences.’ Discuss
‘People are not free to make moral decisions.’ Discuss.
‘People are not free to make moral decisions.’ Discuss.
Candidates could discuss what is meant by hard determinism, moral freedom and libertarianism and whether humans are ever free to make moral decisions. They could compare these with compatibilism (soft determinism).
Some candidates might consider theological determinism, Calvin and predestination and religious teachings on free will.
Candidates should consider the implications for ethics if we are not free. They should consider the implications of the above statement in terms of human accountability and responsibility. If we are not free then how does this impact on our system of reward and punishment?
They might consider whether we are free or just feel free and the idea that freedom is just apparent – we may feel free but we are not (Locke). In addition, they may introduce the teaching of Kant when he said that to be moral we must be free.
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