Determinism, Responsibility and Free Will

"If we affirm one single moment, we thus affirm not only ourselves but all existence. For nothing is self-sufficient, neither in us ourselves nor in things; and if our soul has trembled with happiness and sounded like a harp string just once, all eternity was needed to produce this one event—and in this single moment of affirmation all eternity was called good, redeemed, justified, and affirmed." (Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power, 1880s)

Is determinism true, and if so, what does it mean for free will and responsibility? The answer is that there is a kind of freedom that does allow for the concepts of free will and responsibility to be retained, even though determinism is largely true. It might therefore be better to emphasize the word "will" rather than the word "free" in the concept of free will to point to voluntarity, rather than causality.

The deterministic philosophy of mind consists in a certain realistic view of the nature of mental events. A mental event and a simultaneous neural event constitute what can be called a psychoneural pair. Such a pair is a single effect of antecedents and a cause of subsequent events.

The deterministic hypothesis, simply stated, is that each psychoneural pair is the effect of a causal sequence whose initial elements were of two kinds. These were either neural or other bodily elements just prior to the very first mental event in the existence of the individual in question, whenever that was, or they were environmental elements then and thereafter.

Determinism conflicts with a number of traditional views of the mind which may be described as asserting Free Will. They attempt a fundamentally different account of the explanation of mental events, or such mental events as decisions. The governing aim of these views is to give an account of an individual's decisions such that she can in a certain strong way be held morally responsible for them. Thus it is said of an individual's decision at a time that she could have decided otherwise than she did, given all things as they then were, and given all of the past as it was.

It is no longer the case that these traditional views can ignore the brain and neuroscience, but they take account of it in a particular way. At this point, the best of them would make use of a certain common interpretation of Quantum Theory, thereby drawing the conclusion that the mentioned neural events are made probable but not necessitated by antecedent events. One big problem of such views, is that about the best that has ever been said, is that "I stand to my decision in such a way that I could have made a different decision given things as they are and have been."

There has often been discussion of the consequences of such a determinism for morality. If such a determinism is true, what follows for morality? Moral responsibility for an action does indeed presuppose that the action was freely chosen, but an action can be freely chosen even if determinism is true -- freedom and determinism are logically compatible.

This is so, since freedom consists in voluntariness. The central idea is that a voluntary choice is one that is according to the desires and the nature of the individual, which is to say not forced upon her by something external, notably other persons or a constraining environment.

The opposite is the idea that if determinism is true, none of us can be held morally responsible for our actions, or be credited with responsibility for them. That is because moral responsibility for an action presupposes that the action was freely chosen, but free not only in being voluntary.

Determinism has consequences for moral feelings or attitudes and for what we do as a result of holding persons responsible. Punishment is central here, but far from the only such fact. Also, determinism has consequences with respect to our claims to knowledge, our confidence of laying hold on truth.

What it comes to is that determinism neither wrecks moral responsibility nor leaves it untouched. We must give something up but we can keep something. Further, what we can keep is worth having. I remain capable of moral credit for my actions. I can have a kind of moral credit which has to do with wholly human or exemplary desires and intentions.

We are capable of two sorts of attitude, and thus we may respond to determinism with dismay or intransigence. But we can also attempt to respond in another way. We can attempt to change our feelings. We can see what we must give up, and what we can keep, and the value of what we can keep.

(Source: Professor Ted Honderich, 2015)