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To what extent are we free to make moral decisions?

There are three approaches that argue for varying degrees of freedom when making a moral decision: hard determinism, a view arguing that there is no freedom or moral responsibility; soft determinism, a position taken due to the need to have some accountability for human behaviour and libertarianism, a view that rejects determinism and instead advocates the idea that people are free in making moral choices and so are responsible for their actions. I feel that we are morally responsible for our own actions and so we are free in making moral decisions; however some of our actions are determined. Moreover, I think that the ability to make these decisions relies on a process of moral development which is supported by psychologists such as Kohlberg and Piaget. I feel that this is the extent to which we are to make moral decisions for numerous reasons. Firstly, I do not think that hard determinism is true, it argues that freedom is an illusion if it were, then no one would be rewarded or punished for their actions as no responsibility was taken for actions and they are not to be blamed or credited it is not holistic in the sense that it overlooks efforts and excessive amounts of evil (a choice of people to work hard or to act in such a way e.g. Lance Armstrong/Adolf Hitler). Also, hard determinism is influenced heavily by Newtonian physics which argues that the universe is governed by immutable laws of nature this is classical physics. However, more recently, physicists have developed theories of quantum physics which is, in contrast, not deterministic, but instead probabilistic proves not everything, including morality, is determined. Even so, as Honderich pointed out, principles of quantum physics are based on a subatomic level they cannot be applied to humans as it is a different thing altogether. Indeed, modern versions of hard determinism have been altered to point to our genetic heritage or social conditioning for the point of causation this modification is known as behaviourism. Steven Pinker, inspired by ideas from Darwin and, more recently, Dawkins, suggested that moral reasoning is a product of natural selection but, it is more likely that biology may only act as the predisposition of actually reacting violently as oppose to necessitating the behaviour. Pavlovs Dogs is a renowned study that looks into conditioning, it was found that through a process of classical conditioning the dogs salivated to the sound of a bell although applicable to real life, i.e. children line up the sound of a bell, we are not always conditioned by our environment but we will use it in order to obtain what we desire dogs will eventually go in search of food if none appears. Therefore, this indicates that hard determinism may be incorrect, or at least to some extent. Thus, there must be some freedom of choice/decision in the actions we take. A contrasting view to that of hard determinism is libertarianism which argues that we have the freedom to act; it rejects any concept of the role of determinism in influencing behaviour and moral decisions. This concept of freedom is a main theme of existentialism. Developed in the 19th century, it is a theory that involves a process of becoming ones self to create meaning in our life through freedom, personal responsibility and autonomy to be free is to have a humanly fulfilling life. Jean-Paul Sartre went on to support his theory and reasoned his rejection of hard-determinism. He observed that we have daily experiences as humans of making choices, for example, we choose to have a certain type of cereal at breakfast - we do not simply wait for our choice to be determined. Additionally he went on to articulate his point through illustrating the nature of choosing itself. We can make decisions, i.e. there is freedom in choosing, if we do not already know what we are going to do and we also can make a choice if it is in our power to do what we wish to do. Further, the necessary and contingent argument states that determinists, such as Skinner or Watson, focus solely on contingent truths but not necessary truths. Existentialists go beyond contingent truths, and look at fundamental truths. Freedom is a necessary truth and is at the core of human identity; thus, it transcends contingency. These observations serve as plausible reasoning to reject determinism and show that our choices, and moral choices, are made freely.

Frazer Carr

Libertarianism recognises that people have a degree of responsibility in their decision making and so would allow for punishment or indeed reward for decisions made. A further strength of this view is that the concept of autonomy and responsibility underpins our system of law and therefore is applicable to the real world, which hard determinism contradicts. Also, as David Hume pointed out, hard determinism is further disproved as, even if in nature B follows event A, to say that event A caused event B goes beyond observation. In short, Hume argues that hard determinism is a way of interpreting the events; causation of events is actually not a feature of the events. However, Libertarians insist that free will is the uncoerced power to choose this does not account for ones experiences, emotions and values. While still maintaining the view that it is wrong to think that all the horrible things that happen in the world had to happen (hard determinism) soft determinism does take into account desires and feelings but also argues that we are morally responsible, we have free will, to account for actions dictated by our own desires. Soft determinism argues that freedom, having complete responsibility in making moral decisions, is compatible with determinism (rather than being conflicting concepts). Admittedly, for the soft determinist (which has more parallels with my opinion than libertarianism or hard-determinism), it is hard to decide what exactly can be freely chosen or what is determined given the complexity of human nature. Nevertheless, I feel it is very important not to ignore deterministic factors, including experiences, in making moral choices as it denies the persons circumstances. I feel that despite the influence emotions and experiences, one always has a choice in whether or not to be directed by these influences. As previously stated, I feel that this moral responsibility is a developmental process instead of an innate ability to decide what is right and wrong. Also, this empirical view supports the idea of autonomy too; showing that we are free in making moral choices. Kohlberg stated that our moral reasoning spanned over three levels of developmental process pre-conventional level, conventional level and post-conventional level. Over these levels the reasoning behind our judgements progress from a heteronomous type of morality to an autonomous type of morality. As we age, our morality is firstly shaped by standards of adults which is then begun to be internalised to the standards of valued role models and eventually individuals are dictated by their conscience and become free in choosing what to do. Although this theory was criticised by Carol Gilligan for being bias against women (androcentric) ignoring that the fact that generally men are more duty-based in their choices when women are more emotionally driven, Kohlbergs follow-up study showed moral progression and supported his initial findings. Also, Rests 20-year longitudinal study also seemed to replicate Kohlbergs findings this suggests Kohlbergs theory is correct. Overall, the fact that there is scientific evidence, psychology, combined with the reasoning to reject hard determinism, the reliance on responsibility in our law system and the distinction between necessary and contingent truths shows that there is some degree of autonomy in making moral decisions. However, like the view of soft determinism holds, there must be some accountability for emotions and desires, which libertarianism ignores, which we must be morally responsible for to an extent.

Frazer Carr