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Moral Responsibility, Freedom, Determinism
September 28, 2008, 3:11 pm
Filed under: Ethics, Philosophical Anthropology | Tags: , , ,

So I’ve been puzzling over freewill and moral responsibility with some friends in my department.


 Three questions suggest themselves to me:


(1) Do we live in a deterministic world?  (If we know the exact state of all things now, and we know all the natural laws of science, can we know for sure everything that will happen in the future?  Or are there other factors that can cause things to unfold in unexpected ways?)

 (2) Is personal freedom compatible with determinism?

(3) What is required for moral responsibility?


If we live in a completely deterministic world, then somebody smart enough could know for sure what decisions you’ll make tomorrow.  But if those decisions were already determined, even before you were born, how can you be held responsible for them?  You couldn’t do otherwise, right?


Someone will say that you’re responsible for them because those decisions are the result of you acting on your own strongest inclination at the moment of decision.  You are responsible because you chose for your own reasons or because you wanted to.   


But do we live in a deterministic world?  How can we answer this question?  Surely we live in a natural world—a world that unfolds naturally.   At least certain aspects do in certain respects.  But it is not obvious that we live in a completely deterministic world.   From what I understand of quantum physics, even the world of physics is not deterministic.  All we can do is assign various probabilities to various possible outcomes.  We can’t know for sure which of the possibilities will be realized.


But what really matters, when it comes to moral responsibility, is that we are able to consider options and then act for our own reasons, right?  Also, we must be able to cultivate our inclinations such that, with practice and training, choosing rightly becomes agreeable to our wills, right?  


We are responsible both for our choices and for our habits, right?  After all, so much of how our day unfolds depends upon tiny “un-chosen decisions” that we hardly notice.  When someone cuts us off on the road, we don’t normally get a chance to stop and decide whether or not to get inflamed with anger.  Usually we just find ourselves inflamed with anger.  But we can, through training and practice, choose to develop new emotional responses in place of road rage.  We can set out to develop kindness and goodwill toward others, right?  A good person will do this, right?


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