Arguments Against Moral Determinism

The premise of determinism is that, just as the physical laws of the universe prescribe all matters of cause and effect (past, present and future), by extension, morality is predetermined. We do not exercise free will, rather, we act according to baked-in moral principles (known or unknown), that mechanistically trigger consequents based on given antecedents.

Robichaud captures this with his observation that ‘I’m not free if I can’t act but a certain way.’

I agree with the tenet of determinism that many of the choices we are presented with are the outcomes of mechanistic principles. Some, however, are the outcomes of cognitive processes. On the table, then, are two sets of choices. I would argue that it’s that later set that is not deterministic and that we cannot—nor need we—assert categorically that all decision making is devoid of free will.

The philosopher Harry Frankfurt complements the above objection…

His opening gambit is that we perceive or surmise a set of choices that are the antecedents to our moral responses.

To paraphrase his language, we have “wants” to act upon these choices. These present what he calls “First Order Desires.” ‘I want to go to the movies’ or ‘I want to eat’ are examples. The human mind has evolved to act upon First Order Desires in the making of “Second Order Desires.” The latter are choices, rankings and/or prioritizations—cognitive acts of will—that constitute our capacity for agency in making decisions.

In separating the set of choices (and for the sake of argument lets contend naively in accordance with the determinist’s camp that the choices were mechanistically determined) from the process of decision making and choosing, we have in effect identified a complementary mechanic that is commensurate with “free will.” Note that the mechanic might entail a coin-toss, adding a random element that is certainly not deterministic and in fact, decidedly capricious.

We have, then, added to the initial set of choices—whose origins might have been mechanistically determined—a set of choices that were intentionally determined. The outcome is a mix of naturally determined and intentionally determined antecedents to further acts of decision making. The mechanics of their origins are, in fact, not necessary attributes to consider in moral decision making. This characteristic vacates the need to naively ascribe determinacy to the antecedent set. The consequents—outcomes of our Second Order decision making—by nature of their being intentional (or even capricious)—further detaches determinacy from the process (other than basal cases, such as instincts to withdraw from immanent threats such as burning or other bodily harms).

To strengthen the argument, I would add that the origins of the choice set may not be given or substantiable a priori. If they are known, and known to have been objectionable, those facts are then a part of the choice set. They are, prima facia, the facts at hand in a naive, bare-bones, declarative sense.

I add to the above argument that many natural processes are exceedingly complex. Though behaving according to “natural laws” they are not characterizable by analytic expressions. They are identifiable by norms. For example, spectral analyses of the light emanating from distant stars allow us to identify the fingerprints of their constituent elements. They are matched in computer analyses in the manner that criminals are pulled out of a line-up. There is no analytic decision function—just matching sets of archetypes and a process of pattern matching.

Moreover, there is a whole science of stochastic analysis used to characterize processes that, even if naturally determined, are too complex to characterize canonically. Even when an analytic function can be described, there are cases where they are non-computable, thus computationally undecidable. The Halting and Tiling problems are the classics among these.

We should also mention the Sartrean catechism, ‘Not to act is to act. Not to make a decision is to make a decision.’ Thus, consequents arise out of inaction—passive aggression—if you will, as if aggression was at the heart of non-deliberative acts. Non-deliberative acts are to determinism as the null set is to all sets. It would, in the very least, be hard to ascribe them to either the determinist or free will camps.

Circumstance and luck also play a part in our praiseworthiness or blameworthiness for our moral responses. This puts pressure on moral determinism, because we might have no control over situational dynamics that cause us to act.

Also in the marketplace of ideas is the Bayesian notion that probabilistic reasoning is not strictly random. In fact, predictive models are refined on the basis of subsequent observations, such as refining one’s aim to hit a bullseye—a little higher or a little lower, accordingly. Implicit in that is an indication of intent.

The notion of Stare Decisis is another manifestation of a sort of Bayesian process at work in litigation and the evolution of law.

The final nail in the coffin is Godel’s Theorem, which proved that there are true statements about sets that are not derivable from the axioms of the set. These are branded “undecidable.” In the moral realm, this implies that there may be praiseworthy responses that are not derivable from moral cannons, in that they too are subject to incompleteness.

There might be some salvation in the argument that there exists some enormously complex mechanic, unbeknown to us, that determines all behaviors, but the Occam’s Razor argument as a last resort renders that highly unlikely.

Thus, arguments for determinism fail broadly on multiple fronts.


Comments are closed.