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Assess the view that we are free

and therefore morally responsible


for our choices and actions
In Chicago of 1924, a compelling court case saw two intelligent, young men; Richard
Loeb and Nathan Leopold (Loeb and Leopold) escape the death penalty during trial upon
murdering 14-year old Bobby Franks. Although the pair pleaded guilty to the murder of
Bobby Franks, their defence attorney Clarence Darrow, who was not in favour of capital
punishment, defended their case by saying they were doomed before they performed the
crime, ‘this terrible crime was inherent in his organism, and it came from some ancestor’.
Darrow managed to successfully argue that Loeb and Leopold were products of their
privileged upbringing and therefore not entirely responsible for their moral action.
Darrow was able to appeal to the belief among evolutionists (which he himself was) that
a man’s character was derived from external influences. This case raises much debate
over our autonomy. Are we in control of our lives or is there some external influence or
entity determining our lives, such as Darrow suggested in the Bobby Franks murder case.

Morality depends on freedom. Immanuel Kant wrote that ‘ought’ implies ‘can’, and so
moral actions are freely undertaken actions. Most of us believe we are autonomous, free
in all aspects to make decisions. Life is not a one way road in which we have no power
over, it is ‘a garden of forking paths’ in which we may choose to go one way or another.
David Hume describes liberty as ‘a power of acting or not acting, according to the
determinations of the will; that is, if we choose to remain at rest, we may; if we choose to
move, we also may’ (An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding). When it comes to
freedom of will, libertarians hold the position that events originate from the free agent, it
is based around the principle that he/she ‘could have done otherwise’. Plato writes in
Republic ‘Your destiny shall not be allotted to you, but you shall choose it for yourselves’.

Libertarians see it as important to distinguish between a person’s formed character or


personality and his or her moral self. Whilst personality can be seen as an effect of
someone’s upbringing, and it can make us more likely to choose certain kinds of actions,
a person who is aware of the significance of their actions and has an adept moral
understanding, then it is possible that their moral self can counteract the tendencies of
their personality. The moral self is an ethical concept which comes into operation when
we decide what to do in situations of our moral choice. This usually involves deciding
between self-interest and duty and our capability of moral choice is what makes us
human. We should be held liable to our actions because it was us ourselves that chose to
do such a thing. If I decided to cheat on my boyfriend, then I cannot blame another
person because it was my moral choice to give into my irrational desires rather than to
be faithful as was my duty as a girlfriend. C.A. Campbell writes in Philosophy: Paradox
and Discovery ‘ In the act of deciding whether to put forth or withhold the moral effort
required to resist temptation and rise to duty, is to be found an act which is free in the
sense required of moral responsibility’. This is to say that the way we respond to a moral
choice holds ground for the way that we can be judged on it.

Yet how can we be so sure that we are free? Determinists say that freedom is an illusion.
Benedict Spinoza wrote ‘Men think themselves free on account of this alone, that they
are conscious of their actions and ignorant of the causes of them’, what he means by this
is that just because we think we are free doesn’t mean we are. For myself, it reminds me
of Plato’s analogy of the cave, whereby the prisoners could not understand that their
lives were an illusion because they were unaware and in the same way, although we may
believe that we are free, we do not realise the question remains if this belief is a
determined belief. Has it been put into our heads? An alternative Christian view, to the
traditional Judeo-Christian acceptance of free will, is that of predestination. It is the view
that God has already decided who will be saved and who will not be and originates from
St. Paul’s letters to the Romans. The Protestant reformer John Calvin described
Predestination as ‘The eternal decree of God, by which he determined what he wished to
make of every man. For he does not create everyone in the same condition, but ordains
eternal life for some and eternal damnation for others’. The idea that God decides who
receives salvation and who doesn’t at creation suggests that humans do not have free
will with regard to their moral or religious behaviour. It would seem to me that if God has
already chosen for me to be a certain way, surely I cannot battle his omnipotence, if he
has decided that I should have four children it is not possible for me to have five. In
which case it would also seem that people like Hitler are not blameworthy for the cruel
acts that he committed? Maybe this was God’s plan for him to display such evil to the
world and be damned. Are we God’s puppets? Surely this is what predestination
suggests; in fact it raises further questions as to whether there is any meaning to our
lives either. And if we cannot be in charge of the way we are, if God has already
‘ordained’ us in a certain way then why should we be punished for it? Imprisonment
would not give reformation to the one that was not meant to feel remorse; deterrence
would not be possible for those who were meant to commit murder or rape.

Hard Determinism, does not have to involve a God but does work under the requisite
belief that we have external influences controlling us. Hard determinism says that our
choices, decisions, intentions and other mental events and our actions are no more than
effects of other equally necessitated events. There is no effect without cause, and this is
an aspect that libertarians have overlooked. Determinism draws on the Newtonian view
(whose birthday it is today!) that all physical objects, living or otherwise, must exist in
accordance with natural laws. There are several prior causes which determinism
suggests as being factors in the lives that we lead, prior causes such as religio-cultural
background, socio-economic background and experience of life. One new popular
thought on prior causes is that of genetics. Many scientific investigations have led to the
case that something like obesity is a product of your genes, and scientists are now
finding that sexuality could be rooted in genetics too, with much controversy over what
has been dubbed ‘the gay gene’. If someone belonged to a religion that condemned
homosexuality but they themselves were a homosexual and this was due to the gay
gene, it is not as if they could suppress it because it is a part of them. If this were true
then they cannot be blamed for a trait that is inherent within them and could not be any
other way. They are not responsible for an action that they can’t help.

Though, Libertarianism is still not exempt from the argument of moral responsibility. Like
it has been argued that Determinism presents no moral responsibility, but what makes
Libertarianism any different, so to speak? Is it not true to say that a decision made by
random choice and uncaused is no better than one that is determined? However, the
Libertarian would argue that genuine free choice isn’t ‘uncaused’ but a product of the
self; we make our own choices based on rationality and through contemplation and
sifting through of a number of reasons. Most things in our lives where we are able to play
an active role are not left to chance. But it should be noted that these reasons and
considerations do not cause the choice. So when you ask a libertarian to explain why
they choose a certain thing, they can’t because accounting for a free act is a
contradiction. A free act should have no prior cause or explanation because freedom is
innate in every being, and they do things because they can.

Choice seems to be the deciding factor in all this. If we are forced to commit an immoral
action, then we are not blameworthy or even in committing to a moral action such as
giving to charity- if we are forced then we are not praiseworthy. When we take the choice
out of an action, morality no longer applies. We cannot blame someone for an action if
they are not free and the choice of making a moral decision is denied to them. Indeed,
we find that the law considers people who have limited control over their actions because
of extreme psychological or emotional difficulties as having ‘diminished responsibility’,
but what if, like Darrow argued, we all suffer from diminished responsibility because our
actions are determined by prior causes? Intention too, along with choice, plays an
important part. If someone is not control of their actions due to drugs, alcohol, emotional
trauma or psychological condition (diminished responsibility) then they are not entirely
morally responsible for their actions, for example, a person who has a sleep-walking
disorder and runs over a person may not be considered morally blameworthy and would
not be seen to have committed as great of a crime as a person who deliberately runs
over an innocent person.

How might we come to an agreement about the autonomy of humankind? Soft


determinism offers a midway position and seeks to resolve the debate on human
freedom. Soft determinists argue that determinism doesn’t entirely rule out free will, that
they are, in all essentials compatible. For this reason, soft determinists are also known as
Compatibilists. Hobbes and Hume, who took this train of thought, both maintained that a
person is free when they are not coerced to do something against their will. When I am
looking in the fridge for some food, I find Activia yoghurt and also a double chocolate
indulging gateau cake, whilst I may be free to choose which to have, there is the choice
between the two available to me, due to my inclination for the sweeter things in life, I
choose to have the cake because my life has conditioned me in such a way that I was
unable to exercise some restraint in this case. The soft determinist says that the
distinction between internal and external causes explains why freedom and moral
responsibility is not only compatible with determinism but actually requires it. When a
cause is internal it means you acted out of your own free will and this was due to your
wishes or desires but when a cause is external and had nothing to do with your wishes
and desires then you did not act voluntarily. Soft determinists believe that when we say a
person acted freely we do not mean there was no cause but we mean that the cause is a
result of their wishes and desires and they brought it about. The fault we find with soft
determinism is that they haven’t agreed on exactly what is and what isn’t determined in
human action, and so how can we know when a person in responsible for their actions?
For example, am I writing this essay because I am free to do so and it is because of my
desires and wishes to succeed or is it because I have to because homework is a must? I
would say both are factors in my decision to attempt this essay. So do we give a person
the benefit of the doubt or persecute them at every corner?

In my opinion, the question of freedom is a complex one to be able to answer. While I


lead my life, I see that I could have chosen to go a certain way, yet here I am going in a
very set direction that I’d like to go. At the same time I see that a lot of decisions I make
are influenced by my religion, my parents, and my upbringing which as a result has
disposed me to doing some things and not others. I could easily say that I was an
autonomous agent, yet it is a fair argument of the determinists about how can I be
assured of this? How do I know that it is not an illusion that has been placed inside me? It
is this argument by the Hard Determinists which strikes a very distinct form of paranoia
inside me and provokes a lot of thought. As for freedom shaping morality, or vice versa, I
agree that if you are free to make a decision then you should face the consequences for
it.