Free Will and Determinism: The Right to Choose

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Throughout history, free will and determinism have been a longstanding debate. The question arises because, as in many other issues in philosophy, two of our basic beliefs about ourselves and the world seem to conflict. While some believe that we do choose our own paths and have free will to choose, others believe our lives are chosen for us based on past events, or determinism. In this essay, I intend to argue that humans are free and have complete control over their lives. Also, that free will and moral responsibility are incompatible with determinism, or the view of Libertarianism.

Free will is defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as, “1. Voluntary choice or decision; 2. Freedom of humans to make choices that are not determined by prior causes or divine intervention.” (“Free Will.” Merriam-Webster). In other words, individuals have the ability to make some decisions independent of their brain structure, genetics, and experiences. While determinism is defined as “a theory or doctrine that acts of the will, occurrences in nature, or social or psychological phenomena are causally determined by preceding events or natural laws.” (“Determinism.” Merriam-Webster). This implies we are not free to choose. Our choices are actually caused by historical events, including the makeup of our brains. We are not really free to engage in acts other than the ones we actually undertake.

Today, there are various philosophical views about the relationship between determinism and free will. The three main philosophical views are; determinists, libertarians and compatibilists. Those who believe that free will does not exist and that much of what happens to us is outside of our control are known as determinists. The opposing view, or libertarians, claims that determinism is false and therefore that free will is possible. Lastly, those who believe determinism and free will are compatible and can both be true are known as compatibilists.

My perspective is similar to those with libertarian views. I argue that humans do have free will and complete control of their actions. We are fully responsible for the decisions we make and the actions we take. However, external and internal factors, subconsciously and ones we are not consciously aware, may influence our decisions, including one’s own desires. For example, the sin by Adam and Eve that occurred in their ‘willfully chosen’ disobedience to God. Adam and Eve exercised their right to free will when they decided to eat the fruit from the tree and disobey God’s wishes. The serpent, or Satan, spoke to Eve; convincing her that she can eat the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and bad. The serpent argued that the fruit from the tree was good for food and desirable for gaining wisdom. Against God’s wishes, they ate the fruit. They both exercised their free will and made the decision to eat the fruit after God told them not to. In addition to eating the fruit against God’s wishes, Adam and Eve decide to cover themselves after realizing their nakedness. Adam and Eve feel shame, and they choose to hide from God when he is in the garden. In both situations, Adam and Eve acted on their own desires and decided not to listen to God anymore. In the end, Adam and Eve chose to eat the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, knowing they would be driven from God’s presence for doing so. Then they chose to obey the commandments and tried to teach their children about the Gospel so they could be happy in this life and exited in the afterlife.

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I argue that each person is the owner of his or her own life, and each is free to make decisions about his or her own life. Consider a woman who is contemplating whether or not to have an abortion. She may tell herself it’s the right decision considering she was raped and doesn’t want to raise the rapist’s child or she isn’t ready to be a mom. Although she knows it’s morally wrong, it’s overall the best decision for her. Thus, free will allows us to make a decision and have free action. According to Aristotle, humans are responsible for the actions they freely choose to do. He believed that humans have free will because they are free to choose their actions within the confines of their natures. In other words, humans are free to choose between the alternatives presented to them by their dispositions. In addition, humans have the special ability to mold their dispositions and to develop their moral characters. We have freedom in two senses: we can choose between the alternatives that result from our dispositions, and they can change or develop the dispositions that present them with these alternatives (“Aristotle”).

Also, free will seems to be required for moral responsibility. If one does not have free will, then one is not morally responsible for her actions. For example, if someone is coerced into doing a morally bad act, we shouldn’t hold them morally responsible for this action since it is not an action that they did of their own free will. In the text “The Objects of Moral Responsibility” by Khoury, it states, “Whenever we act there is an associated mental event, what I have called a willing, and, in the context of action, it is only willings for which moral agents are responsible”. Khoury uses an example of a man moving his finger which flips a light switch, and in which alerts a prowler. He states “The effects of this bodily movement can be captured in the description of the action, but there is just a single action that takes place. His moving of his finger can be described as his flipping of the light switch which can be described as his alerting of the prowler, but each of these descriptions denotes a single event: his moving of his finger = his flipping of the switch = his alerting of the prowler”. If one was coerced or forced to do something, they should not be morally responsible considering they were forced to do so. They could only be held morally responsible if the action was voluntary.

Although, in some cases, some of our actions can be caused by prior events. There are specific situations in which what happens to us is out of our control. Under certain conditions, an event will cause an outcome. For example, while you’re driving down the road, and a person in a car coming toward you is texting on a cell phone. The driver doesn’t see you, and you swerve to miss the car but hit another car. The cause of the accident was not that you swerved but that another driver was on a cell phone while driving. The effect was hitting another car but avoiding hitting the other driver. The actions of the distracted driver were predetermined.

According to Thomas Hobbes, “(…) man was as free as an unimpeded river. A river that flows down a hill necessarily follows a channel, but it is also at liberty to flow within the channel. The voluntary actions of people are similar. They are free because their actions follow from their will; but the actions are also necessary because they spring from chains of causes and effects which could in principle be traced back to the first mover of the universe, generally called God” (“Compatibilism.” Philosophy Now: a Magazine of Ideas). I somewhat agree with this view. In some cases, humans follow a path that is determined by things that have occurred and they can’t help it. There are sufficient and necessary reasons to cause it to happen – and it could not happen any other way because if it did, the reasons were neither sufficient nor necessary. Something else would have happened in line with the reasons that were actually sufficient and necessary. Such as a specific gene or disease that runs through your family bloodline and you are diagnosed, it was destined to happen because of those previous events.

In conclusion, this debate has been an issue because it represents a collision between two opposing, yet equally valid, perspectives. Although many argue that we have no free will or control of our lives, I say otherwise. Certain circumstances may result from prior events but overall, humans have complete control of their decision making.

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