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The term “moral action” is so commonly used in our everyday life, and people put such varying meanings on it, that it may be useful to start by proposing a working model for the purpose of this essay: Moral actions are action that:
A person behaves morally if he consistently takes moral actions in important matters. People who do not believe in free will run into some problems making sense of moral behavior. First, they struggle with the question of choice, which seems to underpin the whole notion of morality. They say that if every action a person takes is determined (an increasingly compelling position to take in light of modern science, sociology and psychology), there really is no space for deliberate choice, and hence the whole idea of choosing to behave morally or immorally is meaningless. Second, they question the validity of moral rules. They point out that a person never has alternative courses of action, he can only do what he actually does, and therefore it is quite meaningless to say that a person ought to have done anything other than what he actually does. In this way they argue that if we do not believe in free will, we cannot uphold moral rules. So, they question, can a person who doubts the existence of free will still be sincerely committed to behaving morally?
Let me also mention here what this essay will not discuss. It will not discuss whether determinism, or free-will, or some sort of compatibilism is the most reasonable position to take. Rather than getting caught up redefining or quibbling about free will in an attempt to rescue it, it will limit itself to the implications of determinism on an agent’s actions and attitudes related to morality. It also will not deal with the very important but quite separate problem of reconciling moral accountability with a lack of free will. More specifically, it does not explore whether or not it is justifiable to hold an agent morally accountable for his actions if free will does not exist, i.e. whether blame and praise, reward and punishment, are rational concepts, or should they be rejected in favor of something else.
Determinism holds that every physical event is the result of past events and can be predicted if we have enough data about these antecedent events and enough computing power to process the relationships between them. The same is true of human actions. When a person finds himself in a particular situation, the decisions he makes and the actions he takes are inevitable because his will to choose is itself a result of the laws of causality manifesting themselves via his brain’s chemicals and synapses. There is no alternate choice possible other than the choice that is actually made. In this sense, determinists argue, alternative possibilities and agent choice are illusions. So, where does this leave our free will skeptic? Mired in indifference and resignation?
Fortunately for us, how the world is, and how we (even determinists) experience it, are two very different things. A person may truly believe that his conscious choice and the course of action he will take are already determined by antecedent factors, but because he has no way of knowing what those factors are and what the determined action is, the reality is that they are, in essence, not determined as far as he is concerned.
At the same time, and also at the time of action, every person has very definite desires, preferences, and fears. Although these too can be reduced to chemicals, neurons, and past conditioning, they are nonetheless very real to him, and he is interested in gratifying or allaying them (respectively) if he can. At the time of action, a person also understands, especially if he is a determinist, that his choice will have shape ensuing events, i.e. it will have consequences, it will help or hinder in the attainment of his aims, it will cause harm or benefit to others. So, when faced with deciding a course of action, he has no option other than to ponder the possibilities, evaluate, and choose. Thus, he experiences reality in the form of making choices on a minute-by-minute basis. He experiences a very real sense of possibility and agency, and the truth of determinism does not render it any less necessary for him to “strive”, even it may render it futile.
If we accept that doubts about free will in no way weaken a person’s perceived sense of voluntariness or his conviction that his actions have consequences, and therefore do not lessen the need for him to strive (with the key element of striving being the element of deliberation on and choosing from the different possibilities open to a person, however illusory these alternative possibilities may be), then the question that must be addressed next is: when such a person does strive, does his skepticism about free will in any way diminish his propensity for choosing the “good” course of action over the “bad”, from among all the choices open to him? To answer this, we need to explore whether belief or skepticism in free will changes how a person defines “good”, and whether it changes the mechanism of choosing between different alternatives.
According to John Stuart Mill, “The creed which accepts as the foundation of morals, Utility, or the Greatest-Happiness Principle, holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain, and the privation of pleasure.” From a strictly utilitarian viewpoint, a right action is an action that, directly or indirectly, from among all the other actions open to an agent at that time, maximizes happiness – which is the ultimate “good” The narrowest kind of good is good solely for oneself. As long as no harm is done, and no rules are broken, it seems that a preference for this kind of good (for oneself) – sensory gratification, material gain, avoidance of punishment, etc. – permeates all of humanity, free-will believers and skeptics alike, and we all are willing to choose it. The more farsighted among us may even be willing to trade off near-term benefit in favor of greater but delayed gain (e.g. spending the entire weekend writing a philosophy essay instead of having fun with friends), and this too is a choice free will believers and skeptics are equally able to make if their personal calculation of self-interest and maximum happiness dictates so. Then there are situations when a person has to choose between maximizing utility (good) for oneself and maximizing it for (one or more) others. People may choose differently in such situation, depending on their understanding of the situation and the feasible alternative choices open to them, and differences in their individual value preferences – i.e. their notion of balancing self-interest with the broader interest, their desire for societal approbation, their commitment to fair-play, justice, or the social contract, or the agreement with the greatest happiness principle, or pure altruism, or a myriad of other evaluative considerations. These differences no doubt exist, but they do not arise from differences in beliefs about free will. The point here is not what drives these differences in perceived value – whether they are results of differences in antecedent experiences, psychological and social conditioning, genetics, or something else. The point is that for any individual, these preferences are what they are, and both free will believers and doubters are equally capable of reflecting and choose the best course of action according to their calculations, if they are so inclined. In that sense, they are all equally capable of meeting the “good action” condition of moral behavior.
At this point, someone could object and claim that a person who does not believe in free will, could reason that his choice is illusory, and therefore be more cavalier or selfish in how he acts? Actually, the reverse is equally likely to be true. A determinist understands that just as his actions are caused by prior events, they are themselves the causes of subsequent events, and he is therefore likely to scrutinize his alternatives more thoroughly and responsibly.
So far, we have shown that doubts about his freedom do not diminish a person’s sense of voluntariness as far as his actions are concerned. And if his sense of voluntariness is preserved, a person’s mechanism of evaluating utility is no different than it would have been if he did believe in free will. So, from a strictly utilitarian standpoint, doubts about free will do not create any barrier for taking actions that are consistent with attaining good. In fact, determinism can actually result in a stronger awareness of causality, and can actually encourage a more holistic evaluation of the alternatives – thereby resulting in an increased likelihood of making the best choice.
But acting morally goes much deeper than maximizing utility. According to Kant, “A good will is good not because of what it effects, or accomplishes, not because of its fitness to attain some intended end, but good just by its willing, i.e. in itself; and, considered by itself, it is to be esteemed beyond compare much higher than anything that could ever be brought about by it in favor of some inclinations, and indeed, if you will, the sum of all inclinations.”
According to Kant, morally good action must originate not from considerations of what is valuable or desirable, but from deeply held notions of duty and obligation, of intrinsic right or wrong. This comes from “internally” believing in and being motivated by higher, more absolute, moral laws. In response to the question, “Who is the giver of these laws or from where do they draw their authority?”, philosophers like Kant assert that these laws can be discovered through pure reason, and every rational person can discover them through the diligent exercise of his rational faculty, regardless of his antecedent conditioning. Because the exercise of pure reason by any rational individual will lead to the discovery of the same fundamental moral laws, they seem to be implying that our reason is free – i.e. it transcends our character and inclinations, which are determined by our past. They further hold that this “pure reason” can become the driving force for a person’s will, independent of anything antecedent. In this sense, they believe we can have free will.
Now, a determinist may not buy into this (or any other) construction of free will and, consequently, not be comfortable accepting “ought”-based moral rules, but it seems there is nothing in these moral laws themselves (e.g. Kant’s different formulations of his categorical imperative) that would be inherently objectionable to a him. In fact, it seems that a determinist could easily resynthesize them in accordance with his own philosophical leanings, without sacrificing their essence. If he has utilitarian inclinations, he could accept Kant’s categorical imperative on the grounds that it leads to a system of rules that have maximize consequent utility. For example, in cases of conflict of interest, following the universal law formulation (“Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law”) requires us to give equal weight to each person’s wellbeing, thereby leading to the best overall outcome. Similarly, following the respect for humanity formulation (“Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end”) leads us all to act as just and compassionate beings, which is conducive to overall happiness. He can also, with undiminished conviction, accept the categorical imperative because it accords with the sort of person he wants to be (a virtuous person), and following these rules is necessary to maintain his integrity, self-worth and self-respect, which are essential for happiness. Other examples are possible, but the bottom line is that while a person who doubts the existence of free will may not intellectualize and internalize the categorical imperative in a free-will dependent, deontological way, he can arrive at it from utilitarian reasoning and practice it with conviction.
Ben Vilhauer offers another basis for moral principles that does not depend on free will. He combines Aristotle’s concept of virtue, with Hume’s view that “…the ultimate ends of human actions can never, in any case, be accounted for by reason, but recommend themselves entirely to the sentiments and affections of mankind, without any dependence on the intellectual faculties” – in other words, our will is driven by our desires rather than by reason – to develop what he calls a “virtue-based, Humean approach to moral reasons,” wherein “moral reasons are practical reasons which are based on desires to act virtuously….If an agent has a desire to act virtuously and believes that to act in some particular way would be to act virtuously, then that agent has a Humean moral reason to act in that way.”
Vilhauer lays out how a desire to act virtuously can motivate a person without introducing the concept of duty or “ought”. Furthermore, what it means to be virtuous does not have to be explained in terms of duty, or what a virtuous person ought to do – it can simply be described by referring to the things virtuous people actually do. For example, take the principle of not stealing. This can be stated, from a deontological perspective, that virtuous people follow the principle that one ought not to steal, whereas from a Humean perspective, it would simply be stated that virtuous people do not steal. It may seem like a fine point, but it is a crucial one. One great advantage of this approach is that it helps preserve the ideas of vice and virtue, without getting bogged down in the debate about blame and praise.
In summary, doubting the existence of free will does not change anything in the experience of choice and agency. Nor does it, by itself, change anything about how a person goes about choosing and pursuing the best future. And it does not prevent a person from developing a coherent set of moral principles. Hence we can conclude that a person can doubt their freedom, but still be sincerely committed to acting morally.
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