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Our Freedom to Make Ethical Choices is an Illusion

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There is much debate that about whether we are free to make ethical decisions or that they are just illusions.

Firstly philosophers have defined freedom as “The liberty of indifference is a genuine freedom to act according to independent choices that are not wholly determined by eternal constraints such as heredity, background and education” or as “The liberty of spontaneity is the freedom to act according to one’s nature, the ability to do what one wishes to do although what they wish to do is determined by their nature which, in turn, is shaped by external constraints such as heredity, background and education”.

A group that would agree with the “our freedom to make ethical choices is an illusion” are determinist. Determinism is the view that every event has a cause and so when applied to moral decisions; we do not have free will. All theories of Determinism is influenced by Isaac Newton’s physics, according to which the universe is governed by immutable laws of nature such as motion and gravity. The world is seen as a mechanism dominated by the law of predictable cause and effect and therefore they agree we have no free will.

In addition determinism can also be seen in some versions of Christian predestination which is the belief that God has decided who will be saved and who will not. The doctrine of predestination was formulated by such theologians as Augustine of Hippo and John Calvin. They would also agree with the statement and we have no free will.

John Calvin developed Christian predestination idea into Calvinism. This belief says that as man is a complete sinner who is incapable of coming to God, and has a sinful free will that is only capable of rejecting God. God is in total control and people cannot do anything to achieve salvation. Calvinism suggests that people have no free will as far as ethical decisions. God simply decides who will be saved because he can, and all the rest will go to Hell. People only do good because God made them that way and the rest are limited by their sinful nature and can only choose to be sinful. They believe that we have no responsibility for actions and they are just illusions.

However many Christians reject deterministic ideas and believe that we do have free will and God has not chosen the elect, such as Pelagius. They state that why bother evangelizing if God has already chosen who he will save and those who will not. Furthermore Jesus died for all of us on the cross not just elect. These are examples which they suggest that proves against deterministic ideas such as Calvinism and that we have free will.

On the other hand the views of Hard determinists would completely agree that “our freedom to make ethical choices is an illusion”. They believe that all or actions had prior causes and we are neither free nor responsible. A person is like a machine when a machine is faulty it needs fixing. A person cannot be blamed for their violence; violence needs fixing or if not imprisoned. They believe that there is no difference with a kleptomaniac and a thief.

In contrast libertarianism would argue against hard determinists. They say that we have complete moral responsibility. They believe determinism is false and we have free will. They say the ideas of cause and effect cannot be applied to human behaviour and choices, a kleptomaniac may steal, but has the choice not to, eg a violent man, may use his violence for good as a policeman. Therefore they would disagree with the statement and say we have freedom.

Furthermore they would argue about our freedom and use the argument of Intuition. They believe that unlike robots we have a mind, and having a mind is necessary to have free will. Peter van Inwagen used the analogy of choosing which branch to go down when travelling along a road, whereas determinism is like travelling along a road with no branches.

Hard determinists would disagree and say would give the example of the Clarrence Darrow case. Darrow a lawyer in 1924 when he defended Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, on charge for murdering a young boy, Bobby Franks. The plan went wrong and the boys were caught. Darrow pleaded that the two young boys were the product of their upbringing, their ancestry and their wealthy environment-“he did not make himself. And yet he is to be compelled to pay”. Darrow was successful and got them just a life sentence. This example shows that the boys had no free will and shows that it is just an illusion.

However libertarians also disagree with Darrow’s argument and we do make our actions. They say that because when asked to defend our actions we blame ourselves whether we could have acted differently. We would only blame ourselves if we believed we had other ways of acting. Therefore we in fact have freedom to make ethical choices.

More modern versions of hard determinism point to our genetic heritage, social conditioning or subconscious influences as prior causes and therefore agree that we have no free will. An example of this is behaviourism. John Hospers gave the blueberry pie example, eg a man who eats a combination of foods eg a blueberry pie and that was the causation for murder. Psychological behaviourism was first discussed by John B Watson who suggested that behaviour can be predicted and controlled. By manipulating the environment people’s behaviour can be altered. This idea is called conditioning and Ivan Pavlov, who conditioned dogs to salivate (dinner time) when they heard the sound of the bell. Operant conditioning is went we are not always conditioned by our environment but often use it to get what we want. Bf skinner claimed that behavioural science develops and psychologists learn to determine and control human behaviour. People cannot be blamed for their Moral behaviour if they had no freedom of choice and could of done nothing else. Bio behaviourism we can make a better person biologically, eg Muller – “make a person moral, eg through eugenics- “it is a genuine warmth of fellow feeling.” All these ideas suggest that we have no freedom to make ethical choices and they are just illusions.

Although Steven Pinker was a determinist, by looking at ideas of Darwin and Richard Dawkins such as emotions he developed a theory. This theory said that our moral reasoning is a result of natural selection but he claims that this does not mean the end of moral responsibility. A moral sense is innate in us – “the law of god is written on the hearts of man.” Although he believed that freedom to make choices were illusions he argued that it was not the end for moral responsibility.

Libetarianists would argue against that freedom is an illusion and it is not the case that all events have a cause; some events are uncaused such as human decisions and choices. Modern physics is often used to defend this view and especially Werner Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. This says that we cannot know both location and the momentum of subatomic particles at the same time. Therefore though it was better to refer to probabilities/statistics than formulate general laws, saying determinism is false. However Honderich rejects the claims of quantum physics, saying that they only apply at the subatomic level. The principle of causality is taken for granted when considering freedom as the opposite of causality is randomness. Random events are no freely chosen than behaviour determined by the laws of physics so rejects free will. Modern physics seems to maintain that the most basic laws of nature are not deterministic but probabilistic. Einstein said “God does not play dice” but is apparently wrong.

Ted Honderich also agreed that since everything is physically determined, there is no choice and so no personal responsibility. According to Honderich, there is no room for moral blame and punishment for each action is an effect and there is no room for free will.

In contrast libertarianism would say the complete opposite; the idea of freedom is also seen as a goal of moral action. Jean-Paul Sarte believed freedom is both the goal and measure of our lives. It does not matter what a person chooses as long as he chooses freely. A person who avoids freedom, sees their life meaningless and therefore believe freedom is not an illusion.

John Hospers also agreed with the statement and said that there is always something which compels us both externally and internally to perform an action that we would think was the result of our own free will. So freedom of choice is just an illusion, we may appear to have moral choice but we only think we choose feely because we do not know the causes that lie behind our choice. John Locke gave the example of a man who wakes up in a room that, unknown to him, is locked from the outside. He chooses to stay in the room, believing he has chosen freely. In reality, he has no option. However, his ignorance of this gives him an illusion of freedom. Paul- Henri Thiry also agreed with this view, a “man who thinks himself free, is a fly who imagines he has power to move the universe.” Spinoza also agreed with this view saying a “man who thinks himself free is dreaming with their eyes open”.

Lastly, the libertarinists would use the argument of contingent truths to show that “Our freedom to make ethical choices is an illusion” is false. They say that there are statements that are necessarily true. For example, analytic truths such as “All bachelors are unmarried”. Other truths are no less true – “it is sunny today”. This is true, but it is only contingently true, it could conceivably be false. Contingent truths about the world make the future unpredictable. Something may actually happen in the future, but that doesn’t mean it necessarily had to happen. We cannot know the future from contingent predictions. In conclusion, contingent truths may be fallible but libertarianists are justified in maintaining that our free-will is “beyond reasonable doubt.”

Finally soft determinism would have mixed reviews over “Our freedom to make ethical choices is an illusion”. This is because Soft determinism says that some of our actions are determined but that we are morally responsible for actions. Soft determinists agree that all human actions are caused, since if they were not they would be unpredictable and random.

Lastly Immanuel Kant, who believed that determinism applied to everything which was the object of knowledge, but not to acts of the will. Kant said we have pure and practical reason, pure is knowledge, the mind and practical is concern for actions, the will. Kant says freedom is a postulate of practical reason, he says that our own self awareness without, the world would not make sense to us, forces us the idea that we are free, so we cannot get rid of the idea we are free without seeing ourselves as the originator of our actions.

In conclusion, although there is much debate from the hard determinists, libertarianists and soft determinists about is “Our freedom to make ethical choices is an illusion”, I personally believe that the statement is wrong. I find that we do have freedom but I also think there is a cause and effect which may lead to influences in my choices but at the end of the day I am making my own choice and I feel we are free moral agents with the liberty to act and make ethical decisions using our own free will.

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