Four Reasons Why Determinism is Irrelevant to Ethics & Free Will

Free Will, determinism, moral responsibility and how they work together, or don’t, is an enormously complicated question.  Honestly, it’s probably one of the most intractable and complex questions in philosophy.  In this very short piece I will only be attempting to explain a few ideas that I hope are new to some of the people reading this. (For a beautiful intro to the whole complicated mess read this Literature Review by Levy and McKenna, Recent Work on Free Will and Moral Responsibility, 2009.)

That being said, I have to confess: I don’t actually think determinism is ‘irrelevant’.  Instead I’d like to argue that finding out we live in a deterministic world and don’t have classic free will, i.e. wills that are ‘uncaused’ by anything outside of ‘us’, doesn’t in any way mean that morality is up for grabs or that we are not responsible for our actions.  In other words, when people despairingly say there is no free will and all our actions are determined, I say “so what?”  Let me explain.

Determined? Yes… but by the Right Kind of Things


David Hume (1711-1776): Philosopher, Historian, and Bad ass

My Desires & MotivationsDavid Hume (and, as always, probably some Greek before him) first made this point quite a while ago, but unfortunately it hasn’t filtered down too much into the world of non-academic philosophers.  The basic idea is that for the sake of moral responsibility our will needs to be, at some important juncture, determined by something we identify with as ‘us’.  What specific kinds of things might these be?  Well, the normal things you might imagine: our interests, goals, values, moral convictions, characters, motivations, processes of deliberation, etc.  (And additionally, these things need to be left up to us and not ultimately determined by some other mind with their own interests, goals, etc… among a few other clauses which space won’t permit.)

Importantly, this seems to be how we already think about morality.  For instance, imagine someone who just gave a huge sum to the poor.  If their action is motivated by considerations of reputation, without any concern for the needy, then we wouldn’t think their action was morally worthwhile, even if the effect is good.  But if their charity comes from a compassionate character and a desire to help the needy, regardless of reputation earned, then we would think they are morally praiseworthy.

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Imagination, Deliberation & Uncertainty.  One important “right kind of thing” our decisions should be caused by is our own deliberations and choices.  Though I’m butchering Daniel Dennett’s beautiful book Freedom Evolves, one main point is that actions of our own ‘free will’ are the products of certain processes that occur within us.  Specifically, these processes involve what I like to think of as “imaginative information gathering.”  We can imagine a multitude of possibilities, or models of the way the world could be, and then pick between them based on our personal interests and values a la Hume.

So, even if the future has been determined for all time, we will never be little Laplace Demons who are able to gather every tiny scrap of data and process all of it in time to make real world decisions.  In other words, if there is only one (meta)physically possible future, i.e. the world is determined, there are innumerable epistemically possible futures given our limited information for us to imagine.

What matters for free will is that we are the kinds of things that go through a process of imagining and modeling various possible futures.  Both before and after this modeling we seek out information – are voracious informavores as Dennett says – and piece together a world, however incomplete.  From this range of possibilities we finally choose one based on our interests, moral convictions, etc.

When our actions are dependent on this process, of course parsed out much in more detail, we are freely choosing.  And as Hume pointed out, what matters morally is what in us ended up directing our choice this way or that.

Turning the Tables: Defining Free Will in Terms of Moral Responsibility

Two Kinds of ‘Free Will’.  When defining free will simply (and crudely) as “an uncaused will” or “caused by nothing but ‘myself’”, you get the kinds of tensions that keep some determinists up at night.  However, why define it this way?  Why not define it differently?

We all have a very real experience of free will, of choosing between live ‘options’, and of being morally ‘responsible’.  There is a very real phenomena I seem to be pointing at with these words that begs an explanation.  So it seems that there are really two separate kinds of free wills, or ways in which we use the term free will.  Specifically, ‘free will’ can refer to 1) a concept or definition or 2) a phenomena we experience.


Daniel Dennett: Imagine everyone believes that True Love is caused only by a little god with a bow striking two unwary singles. What happens when we find out Cupid is only a myth? Does this mean the phenomena of Love we experience is only an illusion? Or can be ignored as unimportant?

To understand this think of “Love”.  Love is an very real and powerful emotion, yet there are a thousand definitions and understandings of what it is and causes it.  Psychologists, sociologists, evolutionary biologists, and theologians all understand the term differently and operate on different academic definitions.  So in the first way we could, for instance, simply define “love” as “mutually altruistic pair emotional and social bonding” and then work off of that definition.  Then, in contrast, I could ask: What is this phenomena over here in front of me that we all experience and often call ‘love’? And, further, why accept this definition of ‘love’ as opposed to some other?  How should we define this phenomena and what characterizes it?

Redefining Free Will.  Let’s now approach free will and responsibility via this second route in which the phenomena of choice is taken as ‘a something’ to be explained.  If we start here, then free will’s relationship to moral responsibility becomes not a difficult problem but an important bit of data.

Here we can instead redefine free will, i.e. the phenomenon of choice we experience, in terms of responsibility.  Stephen White describes this in The Unity of Self: instead of using metaphysics to ground ethics, i.e. defining free will and then figuring out how it relates to moral responsibility and whether the latter exists, we should instead use ethics to fix what our metaphysical criterion is.  White states that

An agent could have done other than he or she did just in case the ascription of responsibility and blame to that agent for the action in question is justified (p236).

Blame/praise worthiness, a responsiveness to blame/praise, the capacity for moral reasoning, and so forth, then, are what are important for an action to be free.  Why does a child or animal (or maybe even sociopath) not fully have free will?  Why are they not responsible for their actions?  Because moral blame and praise do not describe or cannot affect their choices.  They cannot engage in moral reasoning, which might include things like perspective taking, understanding others’ differing interests, empathy, universalizing rules, etc.

The important thing to glean from this perspective is focusing first on the reality of responsibility.  Further, in addition to this, holding people responsible, morally blaming wrong doers, praising the upright, and so on simply works.  Moral blame and praise (very different from punishment and rewards, btw), holding people accountable for their actions, and other moral considerations daily effect how we think about our choices and make our decisions.  So arranging the problem in the first way just doesn’t seem to make any real world impact on how we should live, and live together.

To Recap

  • Being caused by me is what is important for ‘free will’ and responsibility – my desires, intentions, motivations, character, values, and so on.
  • The universe may be determined, but who cares – it doesn’t and won’t ever appear that way!  Just because things are (meta)physically determined doesn’t mean there aren’t a huge number of epistemic possibilities left open to us.
  • Even if there are causes in the background, the process of deliberating between the future possibilities we constantly are imagining is very real.  How we engage in deliberation is morally significant.
  • Even if ‘free will’, crudely defined, creates problems for moral responsibility, again, who cares?  Holding people morally responsible, promoting moral values, etc still has tangible and valuable effects on peoples’ conscious and subconscious deliberations and life choices.
Paul Chiariello (Chief Editor, Rutgers & Yale University)
DSC_0484Paul Chiariello graduated from Rutgers in 2009 after studying Philosophy and Anthropology and has been running around the world ever since. Currently he is on the Board of Directors of the Rutgers Humanist Community, Co-founder of the Yale Humanist Community, and Director of the Humanism & Philosophy Curriculum for Camp Quest, Inc.  Paul has a MSc in Comparative Education from Oxford, completing his field research in Bosnia on ethno-religious identity and conflict, and has spent a year studying philosophy of ethics and religion at Yale on a PhD fellowship.  He has also worked with research organizations at the UN and in DC, as well as schools abroad in Uganda, Kenya, India, Indonesia and Germany.

11 responses to “Four Reasons Why Determinism is Irrelevant to Ethics & Free Will

  1. While I agree with the general thrust of the argument I’d consider it being a could starting point for any other conversation about any of the premises. Like how premise 1 may bring up self as a summation of those thing caused deterministic, but what is that set.


  2. “The universe may be determined, but who cares”

    Well, seeing that wrongdoers are fully determined to become who they are and act as they do might bear on our responsibility practices, making us less likely to indulge our retributive impulses. We’ll see they don’t deserve punishment in the way they do if we supposed they could have done otherwise in actual situations – what determinism rules out.


    • They’re responsible if, for instance, their actions were caused by certain kinds of values, processes of deliberation, etc and so forth we identify with them. Answering your comment is what the post is about.


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  4. Thanks for the thought-provoking piece!

    It’s very hard to find essays about free will that aren’t biased by desire, either the desire for it to exist (or for morality to be a meaningful idea) or the desire to obliterate it.

    It’s as if thinkers either start from the premise of “I’m upset by the ideas determinists have brought up, so how can I salvage free will?” or “I’m sick of free-willers making their woo-woo claims! How can I prove to them that it doesn’t exist?” I sympathize with both these views. The subject is bound to evoke strong feelings, as it collides with issues of justice and agency.

    But if you’re looking for a writer who calmly says, “I don’t know whether free will exists or not—or whether moral reasoning makes sense without it. Let’s see …” it’s devilishly hard to find one.

    I’m not sure where you stand. This is a much more even-keeled essay than many I have read. My problem is that much of the language you used is (maybe unintentionally) biased.

    I don’t blame you. Wether or not free will exists (which I realize isn’t what you’re arguing), our language “assumes” it does, and it’s very hard to avoid phrases that refer to it or imply it. Still, if we’re trying to work out the truth of the matter, we should work hard to scrub these biases out of our language. Otherwise, we wind up claiming “free will isn’t required for morality” while, at the same time, implicitly creating a framework in which free will exists.

    (I don’t believe in free will, and yet, in my last sentence, I wrote, “we should work hard…” as if implying we have a choice. Even our thoughts assume free will exists. My “disbelief” in it is an intellectual construct. I think it’s correct, but I have to work to remember it.)

    A technique I sometimes use is to talk about people in extremely mechanistic terms. That can be unpleasant, but if you react to it in an extreme way—if it deeply upsets you—it’s worth asking whether that reaction could be tarnishing your thinking.

    My mechanistic metaphors might obscure the truth just as much as “humane” ones, but, if so, they obscure in different ways, and if we switch back and forth between the frameworks, perhaps we’ll learn something from the process.

    You wrote, “One important ‘right kind of thing’ our decisions should be caused by is our own deliberations and choices. … actions of our own ‘free will’ are the products of certain processes that occur within us. … We can imagine a multitude of possibilities, or models of the way the world could be, and then pick between them based on our personal interests …”

    Though this doesn’t seem biased at first glance, it’s packed with words like “choice,” “imagine,” and “pick” which skirt close to evoking free will, even in an essay that claims free will is beside the point. I doubt this in intentional. It’s just the way we all talk. But I think it tends to bias our thinking.

    (Yes, I understand that “choice” doesn’t literally mean “free choice,” and that we can say that a totally deterministic chess program “makes a choice,” but in practice its hard for most people to think this way. The moment the word “choice” enters the discourse, they (myself included) start imagining a being with free will.

    And does a chess program really “make a choice”? Sure, its processing is much more complex than, say, the processing involved in causing a light to go out when its connection to electricity is stopped, but the outcome—given the inputs from the chess board—is just as inevitable.

    It’s hard to remember (with chess programs) that “it made a choice” is really a kind of metaphor. What the program actually did was behave the only way it could possibly have behaved, given its inputs.

    When we recognize something has done that, we don’t tend to use the word “choice” when referring to it. Our metaphor, in this case, probably stems from the fact that the chess program’s processing is too complex for us to follow. As Arthur C. Clarke said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”)

    Try this:

    “Actions are caused by processes in the brain. Brains construct simplified models of the world and then use those models to simulate various outcomes. They use the results to cause the body to act in a particular way.

    The particular simulations a specific brain runs are wholly determined by that brain’s structure, which was determined by the genetic and environmental forces that shaped it. In other words, if simulations A, B, and C are theoretically runnable by brains in general, a particular brain may only be able to run A and B, due to the way it’s built.

    Having run its simulations, a brain will discard all results except one, which it will use to direct actions. Given the same starting conditions (inputs) and simulations A and B, a particular brain will always discard A and keep B (or the other way around). Due to determinism, there is no possibility, given those conditions, that it will ever do otherwise. In that exact situation (given those exact inputs), there’s now ay it could have discarded B and kept A.

    So, in a sense, this whole process is a way of generating a determined action from a particular set of inputs. Given those inputs, there is no way any other action could have resulted.”

    If I know a writer or philosopher has painstakingly gone through this process—has applied this sort of mechanistic language—I am much more apt to take him seriously when he proposes, “Even given all that, it’s useful for us to think in terms of right and wrong actions, because….”


    • The issue of language that you bring up is taken care of in my second main section.

      When using words like will, choice, imagine, pick, etc, which you mention, they can be considered either as definitions/concepts or as phenomena. I’m using them as the latter.

      I suggest reading some of the resources I link to in that section since they explain it much better than I possible could.


      • Thanks. I’ve read most of them. I guess I’m left sort of in a “God of the gaps” situation. When I’m extremely careful to describe things mechanistically, I’m not sure what role morality plays.

        It seems well poised to exist as a metaphorical way of thinking when you purposefully don’t look too closely. That’s how I use it, anyway. I simply feel as if free will exists most of the time. When I consider the fact that it doesn’t (according to my beliefs) and then drill down to a mechanistic level, I still feel moral sentiments, but they don’t seem connected to anything.

        Liked by 1 person

        • When I describe the geology of a land formation politics and national identities aren’t hidden in the details. Describing biology wouldn’t tell you anything about sociology. Your problem with ethics seems to be the same to me.

          In another post I briefly discuss three possible explanations for Naturalistic Ethics. .

          Thanks Marcus,


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  7. Olá, adorei muito do seu web-blog! achei o teor muito bem
    escrito. estou escrevendo uum website no mesmo tipo de conteúdo e gostaria de ver se você teem alguma sugestão para quem está começando a escrever sobre este tema.



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