Free Will and Moral Responsibility

FreeWill and Moral Responsibility

Freewill and moral responsibility is a highly contentious issue inphilosophy. Free will refers to notion that human beings have achoice over their actions hence, free to choose their behavior. Forinstance, a person may make a choice whether to engage in certainactivities or not. According to this concept, people are heldresponsible for their actions. This goes handy with moralresponsibility, which refers to actions as worth of praise, blame,punishment or reward with regard to individual’s moral obligations.Moral agents have the capacity to determine how to act. Although somephilosophers agree with the notion of free will and moralresponsibility, there are several skeptics especially determinism,which stipulates that people’s actions are influenced by anexternal factor that people have no control over. Determinism and theproblem of problem of free will try to reconcile the idea thatpeople’s actions are determined by external forces, and the senseof free will in actions.

Freewill and moral responsibility assumes that human beings have the freewill to make their choices and not all behavior is determined. Theterm used in reference to the exercise of free will is personalagency, which argues that people are responsible for their ownactions and the consequences. Freedom is regarded as a very necessaryentity for a functional society. Through self actualization, humanbeings distinguish themselves from other species. Human beings canagree, compromise, make peace and so on. These are some of thechoices that people make in a fully functional society. In this case,one is responsible for his or her actions.

Onthe other hand, determinism sees phenomena as being influenced byenvironmental factors, that is, outside human control. In otherwords, it means that people’s actions are beyond their control.They are either influenced by an internal conscious or an externalfactor that one has no control over. This perspective implies thatpeople are not responsible for their actions whether good or bad. Theenvironment or biological factors influence one’s behavior. Forinstance, violent behaviors in children are inherited from parentsthrough imitation or observation. Other philosophers see this ascoming from the subconscious form such as genetic determinism.Behaviorists such as BF skinner concur with determinism. He claimsthat motivation and free will are often dismissed as illusions thatare behind human actions. More specifically, Skinner emphasizes onpsychological and physical environment as a determinant of behavior(Skinner 30). It is because people are not aware of their environmentthat they think they have the ability to choose. A person who commitscrime does not have a real choice. He is she is propelled to commitcrime by environmental factors coupled with personal historytherefore, breaking the law becomes inevitable. On the other hand,the law abiding people are propelled by positive reinforcementsavailed in their environment. This means that all behavior usinfluenced by a stimulus. Determinism is also supported by abiological perspective. In this case, the behavior of a person iscontrolled by an internal factor. For instance, a child is born withcertain characteristics that are cannot be influenced by free will.Some personal traits such as introversion determine how a person willbehave in a certain environment. Determinism, however, isinconsistent with the ideas of the society and the basis of moral andlegal obligations. It poses a problem of the free will and moralresponsibility. If we were to adopt determinism, there would be orderin the society as people would blame external factors for theiractions. For instance, a man would steal and blame an external factoras being responsible for his actions.

Oneof the best solutions to the problem of free will and determinism iscompatibilism, which lies in between determinism and free will.Compatibilists argues that human freedom and determinism arecompatible. They claim that there is a profound connection betweenthe actions of human beings and their will to make choices. Thismeans that actions are caused by both determinism and free will. Forexample, the actions of a criminal lie between determinism and freewill. This is because a criminal made a choice to engage in criminalactivities and on the other hand, he may have lacked guidance or agood means of earning a living. Such a person made a decision tobecome a criminal because some external circumstances that pushed himto behave in that way existed.

Ingeneral, Neilsen (45) stipulates that human beings are freer to dosome things if the following conditions hold:

  • One could have dome otherwise if he or she wanted to.

  • No one compelled a person to make an action.

  • The actions of people are voluntary if kleptomaniac does not exist.

Thismeans that human beings have the will to choose their actions eventhough they are determined. One has a choice to do one thing overanother if he or she desires. If a person is not forced to dosomething, then he or she has a choice even though there is someaspect of being determined. Nielson says that ordinary thieves andkleptomaniacs are different. In this case, kleptomaniacs aredetermined while common thieves are not. However, when it comes tothe law, both face similar charges. It is, therefore, difficult todraw a line between free will and determinism in some cases. Thesociety views all actions as being the result of free will, whilesome philosophers maintain that these actions are determined.

Compatibilismis also of the idea that people have freedom to make choiceshowever, there are some forms of manipulation. This means that eventhough there is free will, the freedom is a bit constrained. Humanbeings cannot have the entire freedom of making choices because someinstitutions control how choices should be made. The freedoms thatpeople see are not actually freedom if we were to dig deeper. Thereare some powers that make people choose to do what they do.Therefore, this is not total freedom per se. For instance, people maychoose a course of action because some authority demands so. Thesekinds of choice are demeaning as it manipulates people into makingchoices (Kane 3). There may be a will to make a choice, but nofreedom to do so. For instance, one may choose to attend classes, notbecause he or she wants to, but because it is required. In such acase, one has the will to make choices but no freedom.

Frankfurt(831) gives an example that better suits soft determinism orcompatibilism. A man was threatened into taking a certain action. Thequestion in this case is whether it was possible for the man who wasthreatened to take another course of action. It would be easier tosay that the man’s action was determined because he was coercedinto doing the same. However, on a second thought, we realize thatthe man had a choice not adhere to the threats. This means that theman had a free to choose not to listen to the threats. It is notablethat the man is responsible for his actions despite that he may havebeen coerced to do something. He had a choice of not doing what hewas threatened to do. The man’s freedom of choice was manipulatedhowever, he could have taken another course of action. Therefore, thechoice that the man made lies between determinism and free will.

Itis notably evident that hard determinism has been refuted by manymodern philosophers. However, there are some who still believe in it.They claim that there are many aspects where things happen beyond thecontrol of human beings. However, many modern philosophers agree thathuman behavior is a combination of both determinism and free will.Determinism has been refuted in human society. There would becertainly no order in human race if people were to agree thatdeterminism should control the behavior. Free will and moralresponsibility is there to create a sane society where order andresponsibility ensues. It is only reputable that people suffer theconsequences of their own actions by refuting that their decisionswere determined. If determinism were to be observed people would doall form of injustices and not suffer the consequences blamingnature. There may be things that reap off people’s freedom.However, as long as there is an alternative, people must bearresponsibilities of their behaviors. Even though there are factorssuch as the environment that compel people to behave in certain ways,hard determinism has proved to have no place in today’s society.


Frankfurt,Harry. Alternate Possibilities and Moral Responsibility. Thejournal of philosophy66.23 (1969): 829-839.

Kane,Robert. AContemporary Introduction to Free Will.Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. Print.

Nielsen,kei. The compatibility of Freedom and Determinism.

Skinner,B.F. Walden Two: Freedom and the behavioral Sciences.

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