It is likely that debate as to the true nature of an individual’s responsibility for their behaviors and actions numbers among the first philosophical issues ever addressed. Human beings do not merely behave; human nature has always demanded some form of accountability, as evidenced by the earliest divine worships. To that end, an ongoing war of ideologies has been waged between those who believe that free will is the primary agent in behavior, and those who hold that the multiplicity and force of external circumstances, environments, and preexisting conditions render free will moot, at best.
Ultimately, however, only one valid approach links the two ideologies, necessarily interdependent in terms of allocating responsibility. Once the irrefutable influence of determinist components is rightfully acknowledged, it may then be seen that free will dominates, not in opposition to these components, but upon a foundation of them. Determinism provides the platform for the exercise of free will which, in most circumstances and expanded to incorporate this platform, is the true determinant of human responsibility.
The concept that free will and determinism are not mutually exclusive ideologies is hardly new, and philosophers have gone to great lengths to unite the two principles in efforts to isolate a single agent of human responsibility. One of the more successful of these is Kant who, like Hume, endorsed compatibilism. Unfortunately, psychological determinism, or human thinking as created by external factors and consequently lacking in authentic free will, was an ancillary consideration he dismissed (McCarty, 2007, p. 54). This is no minor impediment to conpatibilism; if it is acknowledged that external factors actually shape processes of thought, then it seems reasonable to assert that determinism is more emphatically in place, or that “free will” itself is then a specious concept. Then, if the nature of choice is predetermined, moral choices themselves do not actually exist (Wallace, 2006, p. 163). There is today a general acceptance that there are inherent limits to biological determinism, in that it is inevitable that environments influence even the most potent genetic determinants (Ellis, 2006, p. 14). To embrace determinsm due to both biological and evironmental factors, however, enables a psychological abnegation of responsibility as evident as when biological determinism alone is held to be primary. The more external forces are deemed causal, the less the individual is obligated to consider consequences of action, and determinism then eviscerates ethics. In plain terms, no one may be to blame if no one has the power to truly choose.
It is reiterated that determinism is to an extent an irrefutable reality, and that free will remains the more active agent in human affairs when this reality is accepted as a foundation for it. The problem then becomes one largely of semantics. This is supported by philosophical skepticism regarding the inestimable potentials of free will and determinism as governing forces, and as too loosely defined. Perhaps more than any other modern philosopher, Hume is admirably impatient with the limits of language in this arena. He goes so far as to declare that any philosophical assessment is no more than a “palliative remedy,” essentially unable to fully satisfy the inquiry (Stroud, 1977, p. 144). This is no evasion, or obfuscation of the conflict; rather, Hume’s skepticism profoundly underscores the need to expand understanding in regard to both agents.
Clearly, before there can be any valid assertion of free will as dictating responsibility of human behavior, it is essential to comprehend the term in its entirety. Too often, free will is perceived only as intentionality, but this is a far too constrained definition to explain causality (Hayes, 2000, p. 16). Purpose is important as indicative of human ambitions, but it does not reveal bases for those ambitions. Moreover, even adherents of free will accept that humans may not be aware of the forces generating individual choice: “Motives and influences that do not rise to consciousness can exert a powerful influence on thought and behavior” (Caruso, 2013, p. 71). Added to this are the potential ramifications of free will so perceived. If free will is the primary causal agent, individual responsibility becomes untenable; it is as vast and daunting as the absence of accountability generated by strict determinism. Psychologically, in fact, such a view of free will requires the constraints of moral law, as asserted by Kant (Callender, 2010, p. 180). In plain terms, the ideology that frees human behavior defies comprehension, rendering it utterly incompatible with social existence.
The question then persists: how can anything not be the result of determinism? Incalculable elements go into forging the individual mind, from infancy on and also in terms of genetics. It would appear reasonable to hold, then, that determinism must “determine” that behavior. If, however, it is necessary to view determinism in an expansive way, in order to fully appreciate its potentials and variable elements, so too must free will be viewed. More exactly, and given the undeniable power of deterministic influences, it is necessary to redefine free will in a way more accurately reflecting its capabilities and, consequently, greater responsibility. In plain terms, it is fallacious to assign any literal meaning to the term, “free will,” as evidenced by the weight of external influences. A more proper definition would hold that free will is the product of a determinist base. It exists as an individual force generated by those influences, yet removed from them by its capacity to interpret, combine, refute, or ignore. Certain philosophers such as Aquinas allocate to morality a potent force here, in that the individual’s knowledge of what is good beyond their own sphere of influence must exist to direct free will (Levi, 2004, p. 53). Nonetheless, the crucial point is that the very dependence on determinism enables free will, paradoxically. When it is accepted that all are powerfully influenced by deterministic elements, it is then possible to see that free will operates apart from them.
This expanded concept of free will is validated by reason. When an individual’s actions are questioned, there is a reflexive inquiry as to influences and circumstances of any relevant bearing. This occurs in virtually every instance when an action commands attention, from the overtly criminal to the casually social. Consequently, the blatant appreciation of the influences, or “determinism,” reinforces the individual will, for the assessment is made to judge degree of impact, and this presupposes a free will to be so impacted (Campbell, 2002, p. 40). The critical factor here is that there would be no such inquiry if determinism alone could be rationally held as solely dictating responsibility. However it happens, human beings have an innate awareness of an independent power of choice. Free will is then validated as primary due to its mere existence as confirmed by human behavior, as well as by the logical process of perceiving influences as foundations common to all, which then enable choice.
Historically, determinism and free will consistently provide a rich field for ideological debate. This is in fact ironic, as the two forces must be to some extent compatible. Nonetheless, there remain those who negate free will simply because determinist elements are so inherently varied and influential, and it is then relatively easy to discard any concept of choice. This is erroneous. Free will exists and is the ultimate barometer of individual responsibility because, on one level, no such concept could exist in the minds of human beings if determinism were indeed the sole force governing behavior and action. On another, and equally importantly, determinism only provides the foundation for the exercise of free will which, in most circumstances and expanded to incorporate this platform, is the true determinant of human responsibility.
Callender, J. S. (2010). Free Will and Responsibility: A Guide for Practitioners. New York: Oxford University Press.
Campbell, C. A. (2002). In Defence of Free Will: With Other Philosophical Essays, Volume 4. New York: Psychology Press.
Caruso, G. D. (2013). Exploring the Illusion of Free Will and Moral Responsibility. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.
Ellis, D. G. (2006). Transforming Conflict: Communication and Ethnopolitical Conflict. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.
Hayes, N. (2000). Foundations of Psychology. Belmont: Cengage : Learning.
Levi, A. (2004). Renaissance and Reformation: The Intellectual Genesis. New Haven: Yale University Press.
McCarty, R. (2009). Kant’s Theory of Action. New York: Oxford University Press.
Stroud, B. (1977). Hume. New York: Psychology Press.
Wallace, R. J. (2006). Normativity and the Will : Selected Essays on Moral Psychology and Practical Reason. New York: Oxford University Press.