Free Will and Determinism


Key Points

Theory in detail

Hard Determinism

Hard determinists argue that all human action is causally determined, and that therefore we never act freely and cannot be held morally responsible for our actions. The different arguments for determinism come from a number of perspectives:


The theory of Universal Causation maintains that everything in the universe (including human action) has a cause which precedes it.

e.g. A = friction, B = heat occurs

or A = rubbing hands together, B = hands warmer

This is the basis of science - if it wasn't the case that one event or set of circumstances lead to another, scientific observation, and the conclusions drawn, would be pointless and meaningless.

If a doctor cannot explain the cause of a set of symptoms, he doesn't presume that they have no cause, but that the cause is unknown.

John Locke

Locke gave the example of a man who wakes up in a room that, unknown to him, is locked from the outside. He chooses to stay in the room, believing he has chosen freely. In reality, he has no option. However, his ignorance of this gives him an illusion of freedom.


Let us suppose it were established that a man commits murder only if, sometime during the previous week, he has eaten a certain combination of foods—say, tuna fish salad at a meal also including peas, mushroom soup, and blueberry pie. What if we were to track down the factors common to all murders committed in this country during the last twenty years and found this factor present in all of them, and only in them? The example is of course empirically absurd; but may it not be that there is some combination of factors that regularly leads to homicide?

Someone commits a crime and is punished by the state; ‘he deserved it,’ we say self-righteously—as if we were moral and he immoral, when in fact we are lucky and he is unlucky—forgetting that there, but for the grace of God and a fortunate early environment, go we.

Ted Honderich

Honderich claims that everything is determined, both internally and externally. He denies that we have any choice, and therefore disagrees that we have any moral responsibility. Whatever I do, I could not have done otherwise - I was determined. If I could not have done otherwise, I cannot be held responsible for my actions, and should not be punished just for the sake of it (although it does make sense to punish people as a deterent or to protect society from someone who is dangerous).

Honderich sounds like an incompatilist, but he actually claims that the very idea of free will is meaningless, so it doesn't make any sense to claim that free will is incompatible with determinism. He says both compatibilism and incompatibilism are incoherent and meaningless.


Since Newton, a 'scientific' view of the world has been one of 'universal laws' - of motion, thermodynamics etc. A famous 'thought experiment' was put forward by La Place. He imagined a demon capable of knowing the position and movement of every particle in the universe. He was seeing the world like a huge snooker table. As long as we know the strength and direction of a shot, we could accurately predict in advance whether it would sink the pot.

Over the last century, quantum mechanics and chaos theory have thrown some doubt over this. Quantum Mechanics theorises an uncaused, or random, event. The Hard Determinist would argue that a random event is no more free than a causally determined event. Quantum Mechanics also suggests that we cannot know the position and movement of even a single particle (the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle). It is worth noting, however, that Einstein himself thought that we would one day find the laws that govern quanta, and that 'God does not play dice'. The world he looked at, even from his unique perspective, was still one where every event was causally determined.


Psychology makes two claims: to be able to predict (and explain) behaviour, and to be able to control behaviour. What we do is the result of the things that happen to us.

Classical conditioning

John Watson, a psychologist and behaviourist, famously boasted:

Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I'll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select – doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and, yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors.

The theory is that humans will respond in a certain way to certain stimuli, and if you can control the stimulus, you can control the response. Hence the response is conditional.

Operant conditioning

BF Skinner's approach is more credible than Watson's. Watson tried to show that you could control a child's behaviour using fear, but Skinner did not agree. Instead, we need to use incentives. Many modern economists have followed in Skinner's footsteps, explaining human behaviour in terms of our response to incentives ('Predictably Irrational' is a great example of this and a superb read).

Skinner showed that by rewarding certain behaviour, it is possible to control behaviour, as people will behave in ways that tend to lead to the reward. This is called 'Positive reinforcement'. You can use 'negative reinforcement' as well, although Skinner found this less effective in controlling behaviour.


Libertarians accept that universal causation would apply to a mechanistic world, but that this would not influence human choice. A kleptomaniac may be inclined to steal, but has the choice not to.

There is a difference between the empirically analysable personality and one's moral self.

e.g. A youth in a ghetto may be likely to become a gangster because it is in his interests, however, his moral self may override this and he might become a policeman.

The act of decision making

All of our actions are based on the assumption that we are free. We can only make decisions about what to do if:

Necessary and contingent truth

There are statements that are necessarily true. For example, analytic truths such as "All bachelors are unmarried". Other truths are no less true - it is sunny today. This is true, but it is only contigently true, it could conceivably be false.

Michael Palmer, in 'Moral Problems', gives the example of three runners. A is faster than B, B is faster than C. What would happen if they raced? The answer is that we cannot know for certain - when we say "A is faster than B" this is a contingent truth. It means that in the past, A has run faster than B. It doesn't mean that A will necessarily run faster than B in the future.

The argument here is that contingent truths about the world make the future unpredictable. Something may actually happen in the future (A may actually beat B), but that doesn't mean it necessarily had to happen. We cannot know the future from contingent predictions.

Soft Determinism/Compatibilism

Soft Determinism accepts that all of our actions are determined. However, there is a difference between Ghandi choosing to fast, and a man being locked up without food. In both cases, the actions are determined, and the men could not do otherwise. However, what determines Ghandi's actions is internal, where as the man locked up has been externally caused to be without food.

A compatibilist, who believes that determinism and free will are compatible, would draw a distinction between actions caused or determined by our personalities ('free' actions) and actions with external causes (where we are 'co-erced')

Compatibilism, unlike hard determinism, allows for moral responsibility. If X does not save a drowning child because X cannot swim, he is not morally responsible. However, if he chooses not to because of his personality, a combination of his conditioning, an event in his childhood etc, then he is to be held responsible.

David Hume

 "All men have ever agreed in the doctrine both of necessity and of liberty...  By liberty, then, we can only mean a power of acting or not acting, accordingto the determinations of the will; that is, if we choose to remain at rest, we may; if we choose to move, we also may (1). Now this hypothetical liberty is universally allowed to belong to everyone who is not a prisoner and in chains. Here, then, is no subject of dispute.

It is universally allowed that nothing exists without a cause of its existence (2), and that chance, when strictly examined, is a mere negative word, and means not any real power which has anywhere a being in nature (3)...  Liberty, when opposed to necessity, not to constraint, is the same thing with chance; which is universally allowed to have no existence...

Actions are objects of our moral sentiment, so far only as they are indications of the internal character, passions, and affections; it is impossible that they can give rise either to praise or blame, where they proceed not from these principles (4). (read more here)

Hume is a soft-determinist. He is saying that all things are necessary (2). In the passage above he dismisses the idea that some things are uncaused or happen as the result of mere chance (3). He also believes we are free (1). Hume goes on to say that we don't blame people for things they do ignorantly, and blame them less for things that are not premeditated. In fact, any sense of moral blame can only come if something we do is the result of our character (4). Free will, and moral responsibility, require determinism.

About Us | Site Map | Contact Us | ©2015