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Ethics & Determinism


We only hold people responsible for their actions, if they are in control of their actions. Determinism claims that we never are …

Scholars in the philosophical study of ethics more or less agree on two “individually necessary and jointly sufficient conditions for a person to be morally responsible for an action” (Rudy-Hiller, 2018): a control condition and an epistemic condition. While the control condition requires of moral agents that they autonomously, intentionally and freely control their behaviour, the epistemic condition requires that agents know what they are doing, and fully aware of the values and duties their actions may affect, the harm their actions may cause, and the alternatives that may be available.

If it can be shown that an (otherwise fully morally responsible) agent’s autonomy and free will to control his actions is somehow tarnished, or entirely lacking, for which he bears no responsibility, we accept that his moral responsibility for his actions ought to be mitigated or excused entirely.

Determinism makes a radical claim in respect of the control condition, and argues that we are never in control of our actions, and that the belief in so-called free will is a remnant of an outdated “folk psychological” (Churchland, 1981) belief in a dualistic world, in which one realm is governed by strict physical laws, and another by freely-willed, non-physical laws. In its simplest version, the argument goes somewhat like this (Strawson, 1994 and Burkeman, 2021): we are physical beings, and in the physical world nothing occurs out of nothing. Everything, including human behaviour, is caused by something else, and this causation is governed by fixed natural laws. If nothing can occur without being caused by something else within a strict framework of laws, then not only is there an infinite regress to something like a first cause, there is also nothing free or random about anything happening today. It follows that we don’t control our behaviour. The apparent consciousness that accompanies our physical actions, and the moral autonomy and responsibility we derive from it, is nothing more than a by-product, an epiphenomenon, a ghost in the machine, an after-thought.

Two arguments against determinism are compelling

Firstly, it’s not because we can’t measure free will in scientific, physical terms that it does not exist. Analogous to Christian List’s example of the need for abstract macro-economic concepts to explain individual economic behaviour (List, 2020), we may say that the concept of free will is what emerges from a very complex and large set of physical events, just like patterns about human behaviour emerge from very complicated and large sets of (big) data analysis. We have no hard evidence for claiming that the patterns exist, in a metaphysical manner – at least not without referring to the physical components that constitute and enable them. But we have enough reasons to accept that they do exist epistemologically, and enough empirical evidence for how the application of this knowledge impacts on the physical world around us.

Secondly, a compatibilist view argues that determinism fails to see the difference between being caused to act and being compelled to act. While determinism may have a valid answer for the choices we are being given, which may be the result of a long causal chain, it does not have a valid answer for why we feel compelled to choose this or that option. The compatibilist’s answer is that we are compelled to choose a certain course of action because we respond to the reasons we deliberate for acting this or that way (Levy, 2014).

Reference list
Churchland, P.M. (1981). Eliminative Materialism and the Propositional Attitudes, in Journal of Philosophy, reprinted in 2002 in Philosophy of Mind, Classical and Contemporary Readings, ed. David J. Chalmers. New York : Oxford University Press, p568
Levy, N. (2014). Free Will and its Connection to Moral Responsibility. Practical Ethics Bites, Oxford University. Available at media.philosophy. [Accessed 10 May 2021]
List, C. (2020). Christian List on Free Will. Philosophy Bites, David Edmonds and Nigel Warburton. Available at [Accessed 9 May 2021]
Rudy-Hiller, F. (2018). The Epistemic Condition for Moral Responsibility. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), Available at [Accessed 15 May 2021]