What is the nature of moral responsibility? How do we make moral choices? Are moral choices possible? When we get into ethical debates, we always assume that humans are morally responsible agents. We assume that humans make their own choices. While these choices are often influenced by external pressures, we still assume that, at the end of the day, people are responsible for what they choose to do.
This idea is very important to us. It is not just that we want to be able to blame others when they do things we do not like; it is also that we want to believe that when we do the right thing, we deserve the praise we get. Praise and blame are two sides of the moral coin, but both depend on the belief that our actions are chosen freely. If they were not—for example, if we were robots programmed by a mad scientist and limited by our programming—then we could neither take pride in what we do, nor be ashamed of what we do. Neither would be our choice.
Not everyone accepts the idea that humans are fully responsible moral agents. They point to the fact that there are many things in life about which we have no choice. We cannot choose for ourselves where and when we were born, whether we were born male or female, how tall we are, or what our natural eye colour is. We do not choose the members of our family, nor the conditions of our environment. We do not choose the chromosomes with which we were born, or many of the events that will shape our character. We certainly cannot choose how others’ decisions or characters will affect our lives. In many ways, life is a given, not something we choose.
Determinism and Freedom
Some philosophers insist that we are not free at all. We may think that our choices are self-made, but they are not—they are nothing other than the impact of forces outside ourselves. These philosophers are known as determinists, and they have some very compelling arguments. The ancient Greek and Roman stoics were philosophers who believed that everything was controlled by fate and the only thing that humans could control was their own attitude to the irresistible cosmic forces acting upon them. For the stoics, nothing ever happened by accident or chance, and human decisions had no power to change the world.
Another version of determinism comes from theology.It argues that if there is a God, then, by definition, He is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-controlling since He both created everything in the universe and causes everything to happen according to His will. He created all human beings, every molecule in their bodies, and every force that would ever act upon them. He even controls every flash of electricity in the human brain. Therefore, however we may feel about making choices, it is really not a matter of choice at all; God controls everything. One version of this theology is called ultracalvinism, after John Calvin (1509–1564), the theologian who is credited with originating it. (Whether Calvin himself would have liked it is another matter.)
A different version of determinism comes from an absolute form of naturalism: the belief that natural laws are all that is at work in the universe. Imagine a game of pool or billiards. If you have ever played pool or billiards, then you know that getting the balls into the pockets is rarely a straightforward matter. Often, the balls do not line up with the pockets. However, any good pool player knows what to do. You have to calculate the mathematical angle between the cue ball, the coloured ball, and the pocket, and then strike the cue ball so that it contacts the coloured ball at precisely the right point to send it into the pocket.
Pool tables are designed to minimize friction, to eliminate any variable but the speed and angle of the ball, and thus allow easy prediction of the results. We might say that a pool table is a “law-governed” surface, since nothing but physical laws and matter are supposed to be at work on it. Of course, this is never the reality, but it is what pool-table builders aim for.
Now, imagine the world as a giant pool table. In it, the only forces at work are matter, energy, speed, and so on—only physical laws. Instead of a cue, let us have the first movement on the “table” introduced by something we will call “The Big Bang.” At the beginning of the universe, this force is unleashed on all the billions and billions of molecules in the universe. Imagine that, like little billiard balls, each molecule can only go where the laws of physics direct and can only interact with other molecules in the ways that the laws of chemistry allow. Everything is controlled by natural laws and nothing else. Just as we could predict the angle of a billiard ball on a pool table if we could do sophisticated enough mathematics, we could predict, in principle, the angle, direction, and speed of every molecule, as well as the interactions that each molecule might have with all the other molecules. Granted, no person or even the best computer could ever do this math. Nevertheless, in principle, it should be possible.
If our description of the universe is right, then, at the moment of The Big Bang, it was already predestined that you would be sitting reading this textbook today. You might feel as though you had a choice about coming to philosophy class or going to the cafeteria, but, in truth, you did not. The feeling of choice is an illusion, just another effect of molecules acting on molecules. You actually have no free will at all.
This version of determinism is called scientific determinism, because it supposes that scientific laws account for everything. Whichever form one takes, determinism removes moral responsibility from the equation, because human beings are products of forces greater than themselves and can neither be praised nor blamed as a result.
Perhaps the biggest problem with deterministic views is that we find them morally offensive. Ultracalvinism, for example, makes God responsible for all evil. Scientific determinism makes our wishes, desires, feelings, hopes, and dreams nothing more than the collision of molecules. Both are anti-ethical, since they do not allow us to assign praise or blame to human actions. Interestingly, it is the people who believe in strict determinism who are often the quickest to argue for it; but why does arguing matter, if our judgments are all predetermined anyway?
The alternative to determinism is some form of belief in the reality of free will. Libertarians, in the context of the free will debate, assume that when we feel as though we are making our own choices and decisions, we really are. These choices can have an impact on the world, changing it for better or for worse. While admitting that we cannot control everything in the world, libertarians nevertheless argue that much is under our control, and we are responsible for what we choose to do.
To libertarians, the future is not a closed system of cause-and-effect, but rather a more open field of possibilities, in which each decision that an agent makes is only one option among many. In fact, for libertarians, no matter what action a person actually chooses, she or he could have chosen a different one. Whatever pressures a person may have felt, she or he had the power to act contrary to inclination, and to do other than what she or he did. Thus, praise and blame can justly be assigned to action
Existentialism is an interesting variation on the previous themes of fate and freedom. Associated with the Christian philosopher Soren Kierkegaard and, later, French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, existentialism holds that human beings are “condemned to be free”—they are determined by forces they cannot control to accept the burden of making genuinely free decisions. Humans are born into a world that is already beyond control, and hence “absurd.” People have a choice about accepting this fate or choosing to move beyond it by consciously deciding to “make meaning” out of the essentially meaningless universe. Thus, human responsibility is absolute; if there is any point to existence, it has to come from the decisions that humans make about the way they engage reality.
Praise and blame are two important products of ethical judgment. However, how much praise and blame we assign to people depends a great deal on how much choice we think people have about their actions. Some things in life are clearly determined, but some are also likely to be free. Is a blending of these two logically possible? Most people seem to live as if it is. What do you think?