A little bio: I am an undergrad entering my fourth year, and I am studying philosophy. I plan on going to grad school, but do not yet know where, or what I am specializing in. I realize, that by my fourth year, these are things I should have figured out, but it's difficult to narrow my interest down to one or two fields. So much interests me, but I only have so much time.
1) Does anybody know what a philosophy grad school looks for in a writing sample? I've spoken to prof's about it briefly, and they recommend an exposition of a specific text: say, an in-depth look at a book by Russell or Kant or Nietzsche (or some other respected and known philosopher)
2) Anybody wanna look over this essay? It's for my metaphysics course, and the deadline is aug 1. If you feel like it, any help (style, grammar, content) would be great!
Determinism and Morality
Philosophers have spent an awful lot of time discussing whether or not we are “free” beings, that is, creatures that have the capacity to make choices of our own “will”. Determinism is the position that all actions are not free—everything that occurs necessarily occurs. No other outcomes are possible—all actions are inevitable. The theory of Free Will posits that at least some of our actions are free, while others are not. Free Will under this conception fits with our day-to-day beliefs, while determinism, strangely enough, fits with different but also commonly held beliefs.
Philosophers also spend an incredible amount of time discussing morality; what is it and where does it come from? Often it is claimed that if one accepts determinism and rejects free will, then one must abandon the idea of personal moral responsibility. It is my position that these two beliefs (determinism and personal moral responsibility) are not exclusive and can in fact both be true simultaneously. (D & ~F) > ~M : FALSE
To begin, I will outline why I am arguing for determinism and then I will move on to the moral implications of the theory. Now, it is true that no argument will conclusively prove determinism or free will. As things stand, the truth trees for both are open and we are in the position of “choosing” a side. I choose to argue for determinism.
The argument for determinism is simple: No one chooses to be born. It is our birth that seals our fate. Human beings are born at a fixed place and time. Is nature or nurture that is responsible for our character? The only rational answer is both. Nature lays the framework of what is possible; one cannot fly no matter how well their parents teach them. My genes dictate certain things: I need to eat, and will get hungry when I don’t. I get tired if I don’t sleep. And once I hit a certain age, I will have certain desires (like procreating). My upbringing will also mold me in a certain way. The culture (determined by geographic region and place in time) influences parent and child alike; both are tied to it. Transitive causality applies to actions, cultures and people.
When I was born, it was not a free act. Anything that follows from my birth cannot possibly be a free act, since I had no say in the beginning of the causal chain. Since causality is transitive and my first actions in this world were not freely chosen it is difficult to see how they became freely chosen later in life. The older one gets, the more ingrained the society’s mythos are. In 500 BCE, an individual would not choose to believe “the earth is flat” it would simply be a part of their cultural mindset and it would go without question. All humans carry with them a vast number of unquestioned, unrealized cultural assumptions—these, combined with physiological necessity and early education (via parents or other sociological factors) constitute the causes of all later in action in life.
Determinism is, I believe, far more logical than free will. Determinism is the belief that every event or state of affairs is caused by a previous event or state of affairs. If I am holding an apple in my hand, and I release the apple, then it will fall to the ground. R > F My releasing of the apple caused it to fall (well, my releasing of it and the continual pull of gravity—I work under the assumption that natural laws do not change, if they do, then I’ll revise my position). When we enter into more complex scenarios, it is far harder to offer reasons why (or how) X caused Y, but for every Y (event), there is an X (cause). The cause may be complex, and involve a multitude of factors—that doesn’t change the basic fact that ever event is caused by previous events.
Now, one argument against determinism is the theory of free agents. This theory proposes that some actions are not determined; certain actions are not uncaused but instead caused by a free agent that chose to take action X over action Y. The example in Jubiens Contemporary Metaphysics is about a man at a fork in the road. The action of going left or right on this road is “chosen”; the choice is based off many factors—where the road leads, who the man is, the mood and temperament of the man, and many other factors. What Jubien ultimately ends up with is a theory that “If an agent of type X is in a situation of type Y, then that agent will produce an action of type Z.” (123) This theory is not only deterministic it is perfectly in line with transitive causality. In fact, this is exactly what I am arguing. In a given situation, a given person (who is a product of nature + nurture) will necessarily respond with a given action.
Now, it is true that person X, in situation Y, acting in manner Z will have an effect on others. Thus, some might suppose, person X is a causal agent and negates the position of determinism. This however, fails to recognize that person X is caused to act in manner Z, and thus while person X taking action Z may change how person A acts, X changing A wasn’t free, thus A cannot be said to be free of the deterministic chain.
If Jubiens theory of “free” agents is correct, then every action could be predicted by a person who understood all of the factors. Now, many factors must be taken into account and we run into the epistemic problem of limited human knowledge. Yet as I argue, that problem does not ruin determinism; by gosh it doesn’t even dent it. The “free agent” argument boils down to determinism, albeit determinism that relies upon an omniscient party—which, may or may not be possible.
Some would claim that an omniscient party is impossible and thus we live in a “free” world, since no person can accurately predict the future; yet this is an epistemic argument and not a metaphysical one. While I agree whole-heartedly that no human is capable of having absolute knowledge of everything, this is irrelevant. We do not need to know something is going to happen for it to happen. For example, assume I have a gun. I believe this gun to be empty and contain no bullets, and I pull the trigger. Will my belief (true or otherwise) of the contents of the gun, affect what will happen when I pull the trigger? Actions occur despite our knowledge of why they occur. Another example: 5,000 years ago we did not know why it rained, or why earthquakes happened. Now we do—yet the cause of rain and earthquakes have not changed, we have merely become aware of the reasons. Thus, these epistemic arguments that humans cannot ever become aware of all of the laws of nature (and/or have those laws correctly in our minds) do not negate the metaphysical truth of causation and determinism.
I also wish to support the theory that causation is transitive. If X causes Y, and Y causes Z, then X causes Z. This sort of logic sits quite well with me, and here is why: Say in the above example, I release the apple and gravity works its magic and pulls the apple to the ground. Then, since the apple is on the ground, it picks up bacteria from the surface it fell upon. Thus, my releasing of the apple caused the apple to pick up bacteria from the surface it fell upon. Logically speaking, (A > B) & (B > C), A > C is a valid statement.
How does this tie into morality? Well, many have theorized that a problem with not believing in free will and accepting determinism as true is that morality must vanish. If all people are nothing more than cogs in a machine, then morality disappears. I disagree, and here is why.
Morality is concerned with right and wrong action. A moral person “does the right thing”. Exactly what the right thing is has been a topic of much dispute and disagreement. I will be supporting an ethical system based off intentional actions—which differ from free actions in one critical way: intentions are deterministic in nature. While I do not choose to live in a society where Nike and Wal-Mart are around every corner, I may intentionally go to Wal-Mart (instead of say, the local farmers market) and buy their product. It may be that I act in such and such a manner, due to my upbringing and my needs, but I act in a deliberate manner, as opposed to an accidental manner.
The intent of a person may be said to be similar to their “will”. Arthur Schopenhauer, author of The World as Will and Idea did not believe in freedom of will, but still believed in a moral outcome in a deterministic world. Yet it is not Schopenhauer’s ethics I will be considering here (they are far too dark and pessimistic) but instead the man that Schopenhauer read and built off of: Immanuel Kant. Kant wrote: Nothing can possibly be conceived in the world, or even out of it, which can be called good, without qualification, except a Good Will. (FIND LOCATION—p299 Moral Life, if need be) Thus, the only Good (and thus moral actions) are actions of Good Will.
Yet, before we return to Kant and the good will, let us examine morality under the system of free will. Let us assume a man has a loaded gun to my head, and has recently rigged an elementary school to blow up. He hands me the remote control for the bomb and says, “Push the button or I will shoot you.” Now, given the above situation and the idea that only freely chosen actions can be moral or immoral (as the theory of free will posits), there would be no moral judgment upon my action, since I was forced into a certain action by an outside force. Thus, my blowing up an elementary school would not be immoral. This not only sits poorly with common sense, but also with critical examination.
What happens here is that “free” actions are now “constrained” but the constraint is merely pressure. If the man with a gun to my head, instead of insisting I push the button, tied me to a chair and lifted up my hand and pushed it down upon the button—then, I would be free from responsibility, since I was unable to do otherwise—indeed, I did not intend to push the button, I simply had to. Thus, the argument goes, when a person is unable to do otherwise it is unfair to judge the moral worth of their action.
This seems reasonable at first glance. Two things must be noted:
a) presuming free will exists, there are almost no situations where a person is entirely unable to do anything otherwise—it may just be that the other action has less desirable results than the “forced” action would.
b) simply because moral responsibility and free will are coherent together does not entail that moral responsibility and determinism are not compatible. Only under the theory of free will are forced actions amoral. It is the theory of free will that posits that determinism and moral responsibility are exclusive—determinism does not necessarily hold such a position (though some determinists may)
Given the idea that all actions are determined from birth, we are left with the (seemingly difficult) problem of how moral responsibility can exist. I assert the following: moral responsibility is held by the person who performs an action intentionally, not freely. An intention, as I define it, is an action taken with a specific goal in mind. I may intentionally smoke cigarettes, even though it is because of cultural conditioning that I do so. No action is free, but many actions are deliberately taken.
Given that all actions are determined and necessarily going to occur it is the intention, the will of the person that creates actions of moral worth. In the above situation given the school and the bomb, I am not intending to harm people I am simply a victim of the man with a gun, whose intent is to harm people. Now, intentions are brain-states, and brain states are not freely chosen—they are biology + environment. I would argue that it is not forced (in the weak sense) actions that are amoral, but accidental actions. Let us say that I am walking down the street, and find what looks like a remote control. I pick it up, and out of curiosity, I push the buttons. Little did I know this remote was rigged to a bomb in a school. My intention was not malicious and thus my action was not immoral. It would be difficult to claim my action is moral, since the outcome is so tragic, but I certainly should not be shamed for my curiosity. This seems to be common ground between free will theorists and determinists—accidental actions are not morally right or wrong, but neutral.
What must be noted here is that intentions are not choices. I cannot choose to intentionally lie or tell the truth—it would seem like I can, but I cannot. If a woman asks me, “Do I look fat in this dress?” my speech seems deliberate, and chosen; it appears as if I can lie or tell the truth (or give some sort of grey answer) but ultimately, my response to her question, is nothing more than what Jubien proposed in his theory of free agency: I will respond to question A, in situation B, with response C. Included in C is my intention—I may wish to flatter the female in question, and thus intentionally lie to her. Actions are always motivated by some sort of desire. Which desires we follow, is not a choice, it is simple programming. I may deliberately take path A over path B, but my action is motivated by beliefs about the world—in the above example, it would be my belief that lying would get me in less trouble (assuming the dress does make her look fat) than speaking the truth.
Returning now to Kant and the theory of the Good Will, it should be clear that intentions while determined, are also moral. Kant’s famous Categorical Imperative states: Act only on that maxim whereby thou canst at the same time will that it should become a universal law. This requires that people act in a manner, where they intentionally act in a manner that others can also morally act in. Thus if my intention is to take your money without you knowing it, that maxim, if willed to universal law leads to chaos. Whereas, if my intention is to help those in need, that maxim, willed to universal law leads to goodness and decency. Once more it is a person’s will (though not their free will) that makes an action moral or immoral.
Lastly, determinism as an excuse for crime is absurd. Some people would attempt to argue that if all action is determined, how is it fair for us to punish murderers, thieves and arsonists? After all, they didn’t choose to be the way they were. They didn’t choose their fate. Well, no, they didn’t. But the judge didn’t choose his either. Neither did the jury, prosecutor or police officers. Neither did the people harmed by murder, thievery and arson. Hence it is quite pointless to argue in a court of law that determinism prevents morality or punishment from being dished out. Not to mention legality and punishment are cultural, and even if all actions are determined it is not law's job to say if an action was moral, but to put a law in place that punished an illegal action thereby (as the theory of laws goes) reducing the chances of someone murdering.
It seems as if determinism and moral responsibility (as well as legal liability) are not incompatible and indeed coherent with one another. The key factor being that intention is what makes an action moral, and intention is nothing other than a brain state. Just like emotions and thoughts, intentions are pre-determined from birth and unavoidable. They are also however, the proper criteria for judging an actions moral worth.