Morality and determinism

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boomer47's picture
Morality and determinism

The notion of hard determinism is very attractive to me. I accept some genetic and psychological determinism .That the person I am this is the sum to total of everything which has gone before. That there is no such thing as free will.

So far so good . I don't want to get enmeshed in a debate about the freewill/determinism dichotomy. I simply have a question, which someone a lot smarter than I tried to explain to me ;

The person tried to explain to me that hard determinism (no free will) does not mean no moral responsibility . I can't get my head around that idea.

Could someone with some experience in matters metaphysical (apart from the whole god thing) please explain this to me? Speak as you would to a rather dim child.

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Nyarlathotep's picture
cranky47 - The person tried

cranky47 - The person tried to explain to me that hard determinism (no free will) does not mean no moral responsibility.

I don't get it either. Seems that no free would mean everything is beyond your control.

Old man shouts at clouds's picture
@ Cranky

@ Cranky

I'm with you and Nyar...if everything is predetermined then I have no moral responsibility for my actions at all.

If I am constrained in action, but not in thought, then I might find my pre- determined actions immoral and repugnant, but I could not affect the moral responsibility.

Cognostic's picture
I'm with you. If hard

I'm with you. If hard determinism is true, there is no choice. I tend to like the idea that hard determinism, like evolution, mixing with random mutations; random acts of decision making based on significant life events. Just like evolution; as long as things are consistent we have not push to evolve, but remove a food source or experience a natural disaster where groups are isolated and change begins to happen. I think this is just consistent with what we know about life. (Certainly not claiming to be correct. Just one of the ways I look at Hard Determinism). I think choice happens somehow.

boomer47's picture
Pretty much my thinking too

Pretty much my thinking too guys, thanks.

Day to day, I think and feel as if I have free will .So I guess the question of whether in fact I have free will or not remains moot.

Mutorc S'yriah's picture
Ideas are difficult to learn,

Ideas are difficult to learn, some more so than others. The way you think depends on the experiences that you've had. Your parents may have passed on some ideas to you, which your brain will employ in its future actions. Further sources of learning might be . . . other family members, TV, radio, books, politicians, gang members etc. etc. etc.

If you're lucky, your experiences will be those which help you make wise choices, (in view of how humans, societies, nature etc. etc. etc. work). Culture is involved. Different cultures may pass on different ideas, (eg. about morality). A "good" upbringing will have prepared you to survive well in your prevailing culture.

Every experience you have, has the potential for you to learn something, (consciously or not). That learning modifies your brain, and so that is where hard determinism comes in. If you think of all of your experiences, having modified your brain, (ie. the learning), then you can think of it as similar to an ever changing, modified code, like in a computer. Good code up in your brain, will stand you in good stead.

Acting morally in your society, (either local or wider spread), will make your life easier better etc. In democratic societies, people with bad coding, who commit crimes, for example, will be possibly caught, tried and punished or rehabilitated.

How it all works, depends on that history, and those experiences. Using the example of prison, a person may have experiences in that institution which "re-program" them to be more devious, or maybe they get religion there, or are rehabilitated in some way. All that will be altering the brains of the prisoners, which may mean a changed life upon release.

But remember, all the people who are having that influence on the inmate in the prison, also have brains, set up by their own learning, trial-and-error, success-and-failure, altering their brain states, just as happens to us all. Hopefully for society at large, prison does good, in one way or another. The system is attempting to re-wire the brains of the inmates, (hopefully), to be better citizens.

The same considerations apply to all matters of morality or conscience. You act on the sum of all your brain altering learning and experience. Experiences that lead to anti-social behaviour don't excuse the behaviour. It means that members of society at large, with their mental programming, will respond to handle the problem, (maybe prison, maybe revenge, maybe vigilantism, maybe murder). As for me, my brain tells me that I'd like the outcome to be something which protects the innocent, and gets dangerous people off the streets, with the hope of rehabilitating them somehow.

Randomhero1982's picture
I read an interesting article

I read an interesting article a long time ago where it was argued that determinism appeared more likely and that our responses are not free choices but something akin to social/environmental conditioning, over vast stretches of time.

It was an interesting read, I'll see if I can find it again.

NewSkeptic's picture
"It was an interesting read,

"It was an interesting read, I'll see if I can find it again."

whether you do or not is already determined.

Randomhero1982's picture
Pmsl well played! *doffs cap!

Pmsl well played! *doffs cap!*

Chikoppi's picture
I have a coffee maker set on

I have a coffee maker set on a timer. Each morning it bursts into flame and ejects smoldering cinders across the kitchen.

The coffee maker isn't a moral agent. It is nonetheless "responsible" for creating a hazard to well being. To avoid these ill effects I need to intercede to mitigate the potential damage it can cause.

I can make a judgement about how much operational freedom the device should have based on a reasonable prediction about the harm it may cause, as assessed through observations of past behavior. I can predicate any future degrees of freedom granted to the device based on whether or not I have good reason to believe that its predeliction for harmful behavior has been corrected (say, if I repair frayed wiring).

If assessment of morality is viewed as impact on the well being of others, then each individual is a "responsible" agent (in the passive sense) even where hard determinism is concerned. Like most philosophical concerns, I think the answers are found in how we choose to define the words in the question.

David Killens's picture


"If assessment of morality is viewed as impact on the well being of others, then each individual is a "responsible" agent (in the passive sense) even where hard determinism is concerned."

Which comes too close to the christian dogma that everyone is born a sinner. Which I reject.

For me, if I cannot affect the outcome of any action, then I am not responsible for that outcome.

Chikoppi's picture
Are you defining the word

Are you defining the word "responsible" as "caused by" or are you assuming some other definition?

You would agree that your actions have consequences, even in the absence of "free will," I assume.

Cognostic's picture
@Chikoppi: "The coffee

@Chikoppi: "The coffee maker isn't a moral agent. It is nonetheless "responsible" for creating a hazard to well being."

How is the coffee maker responsible for you purchasing it, plugging it in, or turning it on and setting the timer? It did not ask to be purchased, plugged in, turned on, or have its timer set. For that matter it did not even ask to be built as a coffee maker. How then is it responsible for anything?

Individuals may or may not be responsible agents depending on their acceptance or rejection of "Well Being." (An ill defined concept.) I submit to you that the natural state of human existence is dead. Dead is the ideal state of well being. Most humans that have lived throughout history are dead. Dead is the only consistently natural state and it relieves all pain and suffering of existence. The ultimate state of well being is dead. A state free of all earthly turmoil, pain, and suffering. When the toaster is on and sputtering smoke and flame it is in fact acting in accordance with well being. By trying to stop it, you are engaged in amoral activity that will prolong suffering on this planet.

Just Say'in.... :-)

Chikoppi's picture
As I said, it depends how the

As I said, it depends how the word(s) is defined.

The coffee maker is "responsible" in the passive sense that it is the point in the causal chain that must be disrupted to avoid harm.

You also seem to agree that one might intercede appropriately by not "turning it on" or "setting its timer" in order to avoid the unwanted consequences.

A person who habitually acts violently may not have "free will" to do otherwise, but the consequences manifest nonetheless. The person is the operative agent "responsible" at the point of harm being caused.

Reasonable people can disagree about which particulars constitute the greatest relative well being, but most will agree on principles such as avoidance of suffering, freedom from deprivation, and the mutual promotion of personal autonomy.

Given the definition of well being you propose above, I can only wish you continue to be deprived of it for many years to come. :)

xenoview's picture
I think we have free will. We

I think we have free will. We have control over what we do. We have morals, we know that our actions can be either good or bad.

Nyarlathotep's picture
xenoview - I think we have

xenoview - I think we have free will.

I've never met anyone who doesn't. I've met a few that paid lip-service against freewill. But when off guard they quickly return to speaking in such a way as to endorse freewill: lamenting choices, considering options, etc.

/e I suppose it is possible that every single person has been fooled. But if that is the case; then what?

Cognostic's picture
@xenoview: "we know that

@xenoview: "we know that our actions can be either good or bad." I don't know that we can know that at all. I know we can label our actions good or bad based on some sort of subjective criteria. The action itself is fairly neutral absent a defining situation and a judgment.

xenoview's picture
@Do you believe that morals

Do you believe that morals are subjective?


Cognostic's picture
@xenoview: The frame for

@xenoview: The frame for morality is subjective. Culture, Church, Legal, Free will, Will, etc.... Once the framework is applied, morality is about as objective as it gets. Neither Religious morality, Cultural morality, Legal Morality or Free will morality can resolve moral dilemmas. In my profession we have an "Ethical Code" and violation of the ethics can result in disciplinary actions and even a loss of license. It is a separate moral code that anyone in the profession is expected to follow. All violations are published in the professional journals for everyone to see. The framework is clear and violations are met with consequences. There is no objectivity without an agreed upon framework.

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