C. and F. Implications

The implications of predestination/determinism, libertarianism and free will

Sections C and F cover exactly the same issues, as you can see above, so I have put the two together here. When you are asked a part (b) question, you may well be comparing free will and determinism.

The implications of determinism and libertarianism on moral responsibility: the worth of human ideas of rightness, wrongness and moral virtue

This is one of those thorny questions which you don't have to solve as an A level student - great minds have been beaten by this dilemma. You just need to present the different views:

Hard Determinist - if we are determined, we can't have moral responsibility! Things outside of us have made us the way we are. I couldn't have acted otherwise, so no-one can say I ought to have acted otherwise. Kant said ought implies can:

"The action to which the "ought" applies must indeed be possible under natural conditions." Kant, Immauel. Critique of Pure Reason. A548/B576. p. 473

Augustine taught that humanity was made in God's image and had free will, but the fall meant that free choice was "utterly wasted by sin."

Libertarian - in complete agreement with the above (if...). However, they reject determinism and believe in an uncaused moral self. Sometimes I know I ought to do something, but I don't want to. My personality wrestles with my moral self, so they can't be the same thing. My moral self is free, and therefore I can be held morally accountable.

Soft Determinist - if I do something of my own volition, I can be held accountable for it. Nobody forced me to do it, so it's my responsibility. That doesn't mean I caused my own personality (like Sartre claims). How could I? If we were truly a 'blank page' to start with, how would we choose? No, we know that we have been made this way by nature and nurture. Still, now that I am who I am, I am responsible for what I choose to do.

The value in blaming moral agents for immoral acts

If Hard Determinists are right, it seems there is no value in blaming 'moral agents' for 'immoral acts'. The concept of morality is gone. It would be like giving your cat a disappointed look when it 'plays' with a mouse. Your disapproval won't have any effect, and it actually isn't justified - the cat is just doing what cats do. Determinism says we are all like that cat, just doing what we're going to do.

However, there would still be a value in certain 'punishments'. Heavy fines for speeding will reduce the number of deaths on the road. They even say putting a picture of a pair of eyes by the road will stop people letting their engines idle, helping reduce global warming. It seems that, even if the Hard Determinist is right, blaming people can be a good way to change their behaviour.

Libertarians will jump on this sort of argument, because the determinist has tripped himself up - we can't change people's behaviour according to a determinist, because a person can't make any free choices themself. Libertarians have a much more satisfying position, claiming we are undetermined and morally free to choose, and therefore should be held accountable for our bad choices.

Soft Determinists have a clear line of response. You can't blame someone for something they had no choice over, but if it was their free choice, they should be blamed if they get it wrong. Note that 'free choice' here doesn't mean an uncaused choice - all choices are caused. It just means if I'm the cause, I should be held accountable.

Which position is right? When you are evaluating different points of view, it helps to have good examples. Here's one:

In 2007, Abdelmalek Bayout admitted to stabbing and killing a man and received a sentenced of 9 years and 2 months. Last week, Nature reported that Pier Valerio Reinotti, an appeal court judge in Trieste, Italy, cut Bayout’s sentence by a year after finding out he has gene variants linked to aggression. New Scientist magazine, 7 November 2009

Most criminal prosecutions go against Hard Determinism. Even the term 'accused' suggests blame. This particular case may support a Soft Determinist position, because the defendant was still found 'guilty' (another term suggesting blame), but the criminal genes suggested a cause outside his conscious decision-making. The suggestion is that he was 'pre-disposed' towards violence. Hard Determinists could argue back that all of our personality is externally caused, so it doesn't matter whether it's genes or psychology - it's still ultimately out of our control.

Clarence Darrow made this point nearly a century ago, a long time before the disccovery of DNA. He was defending two wealthy young men, Leopold and Loeb, who callously murdered a teenage boy for no real reason at all. Everyone thought they would be put to death, and the majority of people in America wanted that to happen. Darrow managed to prevent their execution. This is the start of a speech played a big part in that:

This terrible crime was inherent in his organism, and it came from some ancestor... Is any blame attached because somebody took Nietzsche's philosophy seriously and fashioned his life upon it?... It is hardly fair to hang a 19-year-old boy for the philosophy that was taught him at the university...  Darrow's summation for the defense. University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law

Darrow was arguing against retribution. He thought it was wrong to hate the two boys. Darrow dedicated his life to the law, so he wasn't against the idea of punishing criminals. However, he was against vindictive punishments. He said the judge could hang the boys, but if he did, he would be:

"making it harder for every other boy who in ignorance and darkness must grope his way through the mazes which only childhood knows." ibid.

For Darrow, the 'judgment' and 'blame' goes when we realise that we would have done exactly the same thing in the exact same circumstances.  

The usefulness of normative ethics

Utilitarianism could still be useful in the face of Hard Determinism. If people act to bring about the greater good, the world will be a better place even if everything is determined. However, any such comment is still open to the criticism that it is pointless discussing normative ethics, because people will just do whatever they will do anyway. In fact, Hard Determinism makes all behaviour literally pointless, a series of cause and effect with no point or reason behind it. We're all a complicated arrangement of dominoes, and we will fall where we fall. This said, if the Hard Determinst were to choose a normative ethic, it would probably be Divine Command Theory, which allows for God to command whatever he chooses, and humans have to obey.

Soft Determinism offers a little more hope. As free will occurs when we are not externally coerced, Soft Determinists should be in favour of general freedoms. They may support universal human rights, and adopt ethics like Rule Utilitarianism or Natural Law. Soft Determinists argue that we can choose our actions, so it is useful to have guidelines about which actions are most helpful.

In truth, the Libertarian makes best use of normative ethics. They are not merely a tool for achieving a good outcome, they are a guide to show people which actions are right and wrong. Libertarians support normative ethical theories because they act as a moral guide to decision-making. You could go further and say that most normative ethical theories assume people are free, otherwise it would make no sense to have rules about what people should do.

The implications of predestination and free will on religious belief

This and following sections look at how predesitnation and free will affect religious belief, including what this means about God and his omnipotence and omnibenevolence, evil, prayer and miracles.

Augustine and Calvin have beliefs about God that sound very harsh to modern ears. The belief in predestination means it is entirely up to God whether I go to heaven or hell for eternity. There is nothing I can do now, or could ever have done, to be saved. Jesus died for the sins of a select few, selected by God for his reasons, and not based on any of my actions.If I am saved, I have to accept Jesus' forgiveness, and if I am not one of the elect, I can do nothing to be forgiven.

Belief in predestination seems to go against a large part of the work of the church. There seems no point in reaching out to people, sharing the gospel, even being an example to others. Anything I say will fall on deaf ears, and even if someone hears me, it will have no effect whatsoever on their eternal destiny. The commandments of God seem irrelevant, because humanity is a lump of sin, and those that will become anything more than this will do so through God's irresistible grace and not through trying to follow God's rules. Those who will be saved don't need to do anything to achieve salvation, and those who are damned cannot do anything to be saved.

Pelagius actually believed Augustine's views made people give in to sin, because they were told there was nothing they could do to stop sinning. The idea of original sin seemed unfair, as people were being punished for someone else's sin. Pelagius didn't think God made a mistake by giving humans free will, he believed we needed free will, and to disobey God, to mature into the people God intended us to be.

The link between God and evil

Pelagiuis said:

“this very capacity to do evil is also good – good, I say. Because it makes the good part better by making it voluntary and independent.”

Arminius agreed with Pelagius about free will, arguing that if predestination were true, that would make God responsible for all of the evil in the world. However, he didn't share Pelagius' view that the fall was necessary for our maturity. Arminius was aware of all of the evil in the world, but believed that the Holy Spirit could help us use our free will to resist sin. This is how Arminius was able to claim:

‘God might not be considered the author of all sin’. Arminius 

Calvin disagreed with Arminius about predestination, and the Synod of Dort sided with Calvin. He said that predestination did not make God the author of sin, merely of salvation. The elect were predestined to receive Jesus' forgiveness, but were still capable of sin. Sin is the fault of humanity, not God.

The implications for God’s omnipotence and omnibenevolence

Believing in predestination fits better with belief in God's omnipotence, because an all-powerful God would be in control and decide on each person's destiny, rather than giving over some of the power to humanity. If humans had power over their eternal faith, this would suggest that God was not all-powerful. However, believing in free will fits better with God's omnibenevolence, as an all-loving God couldn't condemn some people to hell and save others, especially if it was nothing to do with what those people deserved. The challenge for Christians is to find a way to believe in both God's love and his power.

Calvin believed in unconditional election. He wasn't saying that God knew in advance who would choose to accept Jesus' salvation, but that he decided who would. This election wasn't based on merit, and as such Calvin was affirming God's omnipotence, and this was agreed by the Synod of Dort. They also said that atonement was limited to the elect. Augustine believed that humans shared the guilt of original sin (concupiscene), and deserve damnation, so he shows his omnibenevolence by saving some people. Augustine and Calvin seem to be compromising on the concept of omnibelevolence, because God's grace appears to be limited to only some people.

Arminius believed in universal atonement. He taught that God's love for all humans preceded their decision making (prevenient grace). As such, Arminius' beliefs fit perfectly with belief in God's omnibenevolence, and with what John wrote about Jesus:

He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world. 1 John 2:2

Some people believe only Arminius' views are compatible with both God's omnipotence and omnibenevolence. Arminius thought Pelagius was wrong to say that humans could choose to do good without God's help, as this would compromise his omnipotence. Arminius believed we need God to choose good and to be saved. Arminius also believed in the elect, although he thought God merely foresaw who would freely choose salvation. So Arminus believed in an all powerful God who knew who would be saved, and loved humans enough to help them find salvation, but that he wouldn't force anyone to accept his grace. This seems to fit with an all-loving God.

The use of prayer

It is hard to see what the point of prayer would be for hard determinists like Calvin and Augustine. Belief in predestination seems to make it pointless to ask God for anything. If a child thought that their parents had already bought their Christmas presents, it would be pointless to ask their parents for the things they wanted. Why would anyone ask God if they truly believed God had already decided on the future and this was fixed?

Calvin would agree that prayer couldn't change God's mind. However, for those who would be saved by God's irresistible grace, it would make sense that they would pray and ask God for forgiveness. They aren't praying to change God's mind.

Those who believe in free will could point to stories from the Bible where God responded to people's prayers. An excellent example is when the people of Nineveh wore sackcloth and ashes and begged God's forgiveness. To Jonah's dismay, God changed his mind and spared the people of Nineveh.

The existence of miracles.

Miracles are inconsistent with a deterministic world view, because Hard Determinism is built on the assumption that causal laws always apply. If there were random events that didn't follow the laws of nature, this would undermine determinism. From a religious point of view, though, Hard Determinism fits in with an omnipotent God who could do anything he chooses. A religious determinist could accept miracles, but it would be difficult to see why God would perform them. As discussed above, determinists hold that God is unlikely to answer prayers. He would only do a miracle if that was his plan all along. If God controls everything else in the universe, he would have no need of miracles.

A religious belief in free will fits much better with miracles, because libertarians would support the idea of God responding to prayer. They would also believe that God might send wonderous signs to help people make the right choices. The story of God taking the Jews out of Egypt repeatedly shows God forgiving the Jews and giving them another chance.

Hard Determinist

Everything I do is determined. Determinism is incompatible with free will. Therefore I am not free.


The very act of choosing, weighing up options, presupposes freewill. If we were not free, we'd be like someone with an empty purse deciding whether she would go shopping. If there was only one thing that could happen, there would never be any choice. There is choice, so we can't be determined.