I was just listening to a great philosophical podcast about moral responsibility (see link to the podcast above, and link to the blog featuring the podcast below), where I was introduced to the following pseudo-syllogism related to determinism:
1st Premise: What you do is determined by who you are.
2nd P: If you can’t control who you are, you can’t control what you do.
3rd P: You can’t control who you are.
Conclusion: Therefore, you can’t control what you do.
I’m not sure whether this is an entirely accurate quote, because I’m too lazy to go back and check, but I do believe I’ve got the gist of it (it certainly works, at least in my head). I just wanted to put this up because I like how concisely it outlines the theory put forth by determinism. As an example, imagine a person who is brought up in a devout Christian community by Christian parents, who later on in life starts writing an anti-LGBT blog (in this example, I’m thinking of a traditional, slightly extremist Christian community – there are of course many Christians today who fully accept non-heterosexual people). Now, we might say that this person had bad moral character. But, really, a reasonable person would have to admit that the individual in question is opposed to the LGBT lifestyle not because hse (sic) is evil, but because hse’s been raised in a particular way.
So there are two things I’d like to talk about related to this. First of all; if we accept determinism (which, of course, we don’t necessarily have to do), then what conclusions can we make regarding ethics? If people aren’t really in control of what they do, then surely there’s no such thing as a moral or immoral action? For someone to be considered a moral agent, they need to have free will – the ability, in the case of ethics, to choose between right and wrong. Here’s what I think; on some level, we can say that an action is wrong even if we do accept determinism, by applying certain tests/moral theories such as utilitarianism. Just because people can’t really choose between right and wrong doesn’t mean that the distinction doesn’t exist. However, what we can’t do is judge people because of their actions.
The second thing I’d like to talk about, quite briefly, is the idea that determinism is somehow an unpleasant theory. Generally, whenever determinism pops up (as in the aforementioned podcast), the discussion immediately turns to how horrible it would be if it were true. No free will! We’d be slaves to fate, incapable of making choices, shackled to causal chains that we have no control over whatsoever. People tend to shy away from this. It’s intimidating. We don’t want it to be true. However (and this is my point), freedom isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Sure, it’s a wonderful concept. On paper, it sounds terrific. But if you look at the work of Jean-Paul Sartre (who thought that we were all most definitely free), you’ll find that he was kinda fond of saying that we’re all condemned to be free. He saw freedom as something that was, in a way, unpleasant. His reason for this was, essentially, that with freedom comes responsibility. If we’re free, we have to take responsibility for every conscious action that we take. That can be pretty heavy at times, especially if we’re unsuccessful or unhappy. If life doesn’t go the way we want it to, it’s our fault. In a way, if determinism is true, we have another kind of freedom. In a deterministic world, we’re free of freedom (or responsibility, if you wish). It’s the sort of freedom an animal, plant, or mineral has. The freedom to simply be, and “go with the flow”.
The above may be interpreted in such a way as to promote anarchy. But sometimes we have to ignore “deeper” truths for the greater good of ourselves and society (in other words, it’s all fine and dandy to not believe in personal responsibility, but it’s probably best if you pretend that you do). And, of course, we can’t be sure; determinism may well be incorrect.
Also, I have to admit that I didn’t listen to the entire podcast, so I might be repeating some of the things that were said towards the end of it. I’ll probably finish listening to it soon (it was very interesting), and if I find this to be the case, I’ll come back and edit what I’ve written here – probably.
Hse: he/she. Pronounced like “see” but with a really husky voice. The Finnish have a word for man/woman (hen), why shouldn’t we? Makes life easier.
- Notes on freewill & moral responsibility (thethirstpodcast.com)