Free will is a fundamental aspect of modern philosophy. This sample philosophy paper explores how moral responsibility and free will represent an important area of moral debate between philosophers. This type of writing would of course be seen in a philosophy course, but many people might also be inclined to write an essay about their opinions on free will for personal reasons.
History of free will and moral responsibility
In our history, free will and moral responsibility have been longstanding debates amongst philosophers. Some contend that free will does not exist while others believe we have control over our actions and decisions. For the most part, determinists believe that free will does not exist because our fate is predetermined. An example of this philosophy is found in the Book of Genisis.
The biblical story states God created man for a purpose and designed them to worship him. Since God designed humans to operate in a certain fashion and he knew the outcome, it could be argued from a determinist point of view that free will didn’t exist. Because our actions are determined, it seems that we are unable to bear any responsibility for our acts.
Galen Strawson has suggested that “in order to be truly deserving, we must be responsible for that which makes us deserving.”
However, Strawson also has implied that we are unable to be responsible. We are unable to be responsible because, as determinists suggest, all our decisions are premade; therefore, we do not act of our own free will. Consequently, because our actions are not the cause of our free will, we cannot be truly deserving because we lack responsibility for what we do.
Defining free will
Free will implies we are able to choose the majority of our actions (“Free will,” 2013). While we would expect to choose the right course of action, we often make bad decisions. This reflects the thinking that we do not have free will because if we were genuinely and consistently capable of benevolence, we would freely decide to make the ‘right’ decisions.
In order for free will to be tangible, an individual would have to have control over his or her actions regardless of any external factors. Analyzing the human brain’s development over a lifetime proves people have the potential for cognitive reasoning and to make their own decisions.
Casado has argued“the inevitability of free will is such that if one considers freedom an illusion, the internal perspective – and one’s own everyday life – would be totally contradictory” ( 2011, p. 369).
On the other hand, while we can determine whether or not we will wake up the next day, it is not an aspect of our free will because we cannot control this. Incidentally, determinism suggests everything happens exactly the way it should have happened because it is a universal law (“Determinism,” 2013). In this way, our free will is merely an illusion.
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The determinism viewpoint
For example, if we decided the previous night that we would wake up at noon, we are unable to control this even with an alarm clock. One, we may die in our sleep. Obviously, as most would agree, we did not choose this. Perhaps we were murdered in our sleep. In that case, was it our destiny to become a victim of violent crimes, or was it our destiny to be murdered as we slept? Others would mention that the murderer was the sole cause of the violence and it their free will to decide to kill.
Therefore, the same people might argue that the murderer deserved a specific punishment. The key question, then, is the free will of the murderer. If we were preordained to die in the middle of the night at the hand of the murderer, then the choice of death never actually existed. Hence, the very question of choice based on free will is an illusion.
Considering that our wills are absolutely subject to the environment in which they are articulated in, we are not obligated to take responsibility for them as the product of their environment. For example, if we were born in the United States, our actions are the result of our country’s laws. Our constitutional laws allow us the right to bear arms and have access to legal representation. In addition, our constitutional laws allow us the freedom to express our thoughts through spoken and written mediums and the freedom to believe in a higher power or not. We often believe we are free to act and do what we want because of our free will.
Harris (2012) has agreed that “free will is more than an illusion (or less), in that it cannot even be rendered coherent” conceptually.
Moral judgments, decisions, and responsibility for free will
Either our wills are determined by prior causes, and we are not responsible for them, or they are a product of chance, and we are not responsible for them” (p. 46). This being the case, can we be deserving if we can so easily deflect the root of our will and actions? Perhaps, our hypothetical murder shot us. It could be argued that gun laws in the United States provided them with the mean to commit murder.
Either the murderer got a hold of a gun by chance or he or she was able to purchase one. While the purchase is not likely, one would have to assume that someone, maybe earlier, purchased the weapon. Therefore, it was actually the buyer’s action that allowed this particular crime to take place. Essentially, both would ‘deserve’ some sort of punishment.
According to The American Heritage Dictionary (2001), the word “deserving” means “Worthy, as of reward or praise” (p. 236), so it regards to punishments, it seems deserving has a positive meaning.
Free will and changing societal views
However, the meanings will change depending on our position. For example, some would suggest that the murderer acted with his or her own free will. However, once they are caught and convicted, they are no longer free in the sense that they can go wherever they want. On the other hand, they are free to think however they want.
If they choose to reenact their crimes in their thoughts, they are free to do so. Some many say, in the case of the murderer, he or she is held responsible for his or her crime, thus he or she deserves blame. However, if the murderer had a mental illness and was unaware he or she committed a crime, should we still consider that the murderer acted with his or her free will? With that in mind, it seems that Strawson’s argument is valid because the murderer was not acting of his or her free will.
Many would consider Strawson to be a “free will pessimist” (Timpe c. Compatibilism, Incompatibilism, and Pessimism, 2006, para. 5). Strawson does not believe we have the ability to act on our own free will. However, he does not believe our actions are predetermined either.
Specifically, in his article “Luck Swallows Everything,” Strawson (1998) has claimed that “One cannot be ultimately responsible for one’s character or mental nature in any way at all” (para. 33).
Determining when free will is not applicable
While some would agree young children and disabled adults would not hold any responsibility, others would claim that criminals should bear responsibility when they commit a crime. What if the actions are caused by both nature and nurturing of the parents? Or, what if they’re caused by prior events including a chain of events that goes back before we are born, libertarians do not see how we can feel responsible for them. If our actions are directly caused by chance, they are simply random and determinists do not see how we can feel responsible for them (The Information Philosopher Responsibility n.d.).
After all, one would not argue that murderers are worthy of a positive reward; however, Strawson has argued that we, whether good or evil, do not deserve any types of rewards. Instead, our actions and their consequences are based on luck or bad luck. In order to have ultimate moral responsibility for an action, the act must originate from something that is separate from us.
We consider free will the ability to act or do as we want; however, there is a difference between freedom of action and freedom of will. Freedom of action suggests we are able to physically act upon our desire. In a way, some believe that freedom of will is the choice that precedes that action. In addition to freedom of act or will, free will also suggests we have a sense of moral responsibility. This moral responsibility, however, is not entirely specified. For example, is this responsibility to ourselves or those around us? While this is a question that may never be answered, no matter how many essays are written on the subject, it is one that many consider important to ask, nonetheless.