Are We Free to Make Moral Decisions?

by Sophie Locke-Cooper

The relationship between human freedom and moral behaviour is a crucial one since it is mostly accepted that our freedom to perform a morally good action or to refrain from a bad one, is a vital part in the way we evaluate an action. If we believe that every act is determined then we cannot blame someone from wrong doing as they were not free to make that choice, however it is easily believable that free will does exist and we are free to make our own choices nonetheless there could be contributing factors that form how we come about these choices.

A hard determinist would simply state that everything is determined by prior cause and that everything requires a sufficient reason to occur as it does. So we are theoretically not free as everything is already set out for us. If we are to have a moral choice then to a hard determinist it merely means that we are under the illusion of freewill and we do not actually obtain. John Locke also backed this up and concluded that we may believe we have free will and have the ability to pick any option, when, in reality our moral choices are determined by many factors beyond our control. In the end we make decisions believing that we have freely done so when the truth is that we have not. Milgram also did a psychological experiment in which supports determinism; two actors would pretend to be a scientist and a volunteer tied to a chair supposedly linked to electronic currents. Volunteers were asked to participate in a memory test experiment. They had to deliver electronic shocks to the person in the chair every time they got the answer wrong, the shocks were fake. 65 percent went up to the highest voltage in which if they were real could have killed the person in the chair. Milgram argues that the experiment demonstrates that ordinary people would do evil things if asked to do so by an authority figure. This lends weight to the determinist argument that our moral freedom is illusory and open to manipulation. However few would question that we are not strongly influenced by out nature and nurture but it may be wrong to state that we have no freedom at all; many would claim that social science have proved disappointing in their predictive ability. If one is to think positively about an illness they can initially help cure it, so our free thought can have effect on our lives. A hard determinist would rely on a perfectly predictable universe, which simply is not true proven with Quantum mechanics which suggests the universe is rather more chaotic than science likes to make out, which gives the possibility that in some occasion we will be free to make a choice.

On the other hand Libertarianism is the belief that we can choose to act despite past events, cultural and environmental conditioning and biological influence. People, who reject that concept of determinism, because it denies the possibility of moral responsibility, believe that humans have self-determination and free-will. So to act freely implies that future is genuinely open to a person and that they can actually choose one way or another despite nature and nurture. However absolute freedom is not a possibility, i.e. we cannot fly and we cannot jump over a car. Instead what is being argued is that we have the freedom where one can genuinely decide and for which one can be held morally accountable. Though Libertarianism often distinguishes between a person’s personality and their moral self. A personality would be shaped by genetics and the environment, which in itself sets limits on the choices we can make. 

The moral self is an ethical idea which operates when we have to make a moral decision. Usually this means deciding what our moral duty is. For example if we are hungry and have the chance to steal some food without being caught, we are faced with the decision on whether we should do it or not. A libertarian would say that although our personality might make us inclined to steal the food, it is our moral self that is capable of making a casually undetermined choice. On the contrary it is argued that absolute free will does not create moral responsibility, rather the revers occurs: people become irresponsible. Also humans are not free moral agents, it is evident that they are hard-wired by their DNA or by evolution to behave a certain way and that free will is just an illusion. However each of us has the experience of being a self-determining person- e.g. to drink tea rather that coffee. Thus experience is common to us all. All of us participate in various acts of decision making. The fact that we all do this demonstrates that each of us possess the power of free-will. A libertarian asserts that since we all make decisions, we must all believe that we can make choices and therefore we our free. It is apparent that we do make simple free choices that are not controlled by others, it’s the idea of choice, and we are enabled to make choices.

It can be said that what we do is determined but we should be held responsible for a certain event, in this case it is soft determinism. With the complex web of environmental, social and genetic prior events, there is a limited amount of choice for human beings. For a soft determinist they maintain that they are free when they are not coerced to do something against their will. An action is free if it is caused by a psychological state of affairs internal to the agent such that the situation is one in which it was in the agent’s power to have acted differently is s/he had wanted to or chosen to.  However if an action was external it would not be considered free, for example if I wanted to read something in my own time, I would be free to choose what I wanted to read, but if I was at school and took English Literature and the school gave me a book to read it would not be voluntary thus it would have not been a free choice. So to a certain extent for a soft determinist they would believe that we are free to make moral choices if it was caused by an internal act. Also they would think that when a person acts freely they do not mean that there was no cause it simply means that he was not forced to do it. Soft determinism offers an acceptable account of moral freedom as moral responsibility and judgement is possible but they have not agreed on precisely what is and what is not a determining factor inn human action. For David Hume it can be said that he partly belongs to soft determinism, with the same idea that you have external and internal factors, he argued that there was a casual link between objects and he called this the casual link of constant union of objects, for example in 2010, air passengers were prevented from flying because of volcanic ash, for hum the casual links in this are predetermined which lead on to free will. E.g. If the volcano erupts in Iceland and resulting in the prevention of flights, these are things which are out of control of the individual (external) however the response to this situation would be free will, you could either chose to stay where you are or take the channel link back to the UK, it is completely up to you. Collectively for Hume without these predetermined events you would not have freewill. He calls the link between predetermined events and your decision the inference of your mind. He would reject Libertarianism as that states humans are totally free and he would reject a hard determinist as that states that everything is predetermined, so he would fall into a soft determinist group. He would expect your decision to be thought through but such a spontaneous decision cannot be predetermined; he called this choice liberty of spontaneity.   

Contrastingly it is hard for a soft determinist to decide what exactly is determined and what is freely chosen, they seem to ignore the fact that there is a complex nature of humans and the role of physics, genetics and psychology make deciding what exactly is or is not a determining factor, very hard.  Thomas Reid would also interfere and say that all humans have free will and that humans are limited by nature but this does not affect our free will, you may be limited by nature to how you achieve your goal but you are free to act, this completely disregards the external and internal ideology, as he would believe that we have the ability to control our life all the time. However it does agree that moral responsibility is important in our society but it is not responsible to hold a person who acted with external factors, so if s/he has no choice about having them. Soft determinism also allows for creativity in our choices, so not all our choices are the result of existing desires and habits.

For religious believers they believe that God by his nature limits freewill. This because God is omniscient, then he knows the future, therefore the future is already determined, thus humans are not free to make choices; predetermination. Augustine acknowledged that people had freewill and chose to be sinful by nature. As a result people cannot choose to freely respond to God nor can they achieve moral perfection because they are sinners. Salvation is technically available to all who wish to choose it but God knows who they will be. However Pelagius disagreed with him over predestination as he believed that it was unjust that humans would go to Hell for doing what they could not avoid and that predestination took away the ability for humans to be free and moral responsibility, he believed humans were able to choses whether to obey God or not and do good and have full moral responsibility. Contrastingly many theologians and philosophers e.g. Augustine have been determinists, they believed in Divine Determinism. They were not physical determinists but metaphysical determinists, which means they believed that God was the sovereign author of all events. God is the ultimate cause of every event but uses secondary causes, i.e. laws of nature and the decisions of an individual. John Hick devised an argument which justifies evil in the world, he calls it reconciliation; Gods ways our fundamentally higher than our ways, God causes everything thus evil events and decisions are only an apparent evil. For John the most satisfactory proposition there may be is that in Gods omnipotence he has freely choses to restrict the exercise of that power so as to provide humans with the logical space to make their own decisions. This means that he has given humans free will and he is given up control of his universe, hence why evil does exist. This also raises that God is omniscient, therefore he knows our future and what decisions we choose, and God knows for instance that you may go for a walk tomorrow. 

However does this mean you are free? Yes, just because God knows what you are going to do, does not mean he is controlling your decision, he just knows you are going to do that. Many people would argue and say that you are not free, but it is abrupt that God is not controlling you he just has the knowledge of what your freewill will chose. However Brian Davis stated a logical problem, I am free to make a choice if, and only if, there are two possible things to choose between. If God knows that I can choose freely then surely he would only know two possible outcomes. Therefore God cannot know which outcome I chose without denying me my freedom. Evaluating this however heightens the problem that it completely deducts the idea that God is omniscient, so he must know what you are going to choose. So as a religious believer to a certain degree you are not free to make a moral choice.

Bodily the idea on whether you are free to make a decision is truly questionable. It is ambiguous to say that you have complete freedom as events are caused by other events, however depending the situation, it can be justifiable to say that you are free to make a choice. Soft determinism holds a strong case basing on the fact that you have internal and external factors, because you do. Some actions you do will be prior to something else making you do it (external) and other actions will be completely your own choice. It is possible to void the whole idea of God determining every action you, as it raises too many problems and contradictions, especially the concept of him being omniscient and whether this makes you truly free or not.