Ethics Online

Determinism matters because bound up within it is the whole idea of moral choice. If our every action is determined then it’s a bad day for the moral man – he was always going to die for his friend and he’s not really to be credited. Upbringing, psychological make up, you name it – he was always going to say ‘Take me’ to the sadistic guard. But if he has free will, his action is truly moral. Morality assumes we have that will – the dignity of man appears to depend on it.

There are some philosophers who are unwilling to abandon the idea of human freedom (after all, we think we are genuinely debating our moral choices) while yet agreeing that certainly, many things about human beings are determined. These “Soft Determinists” or “Compatibilists” see that to do away with free will makes an evil man a kind of natural disaster. For a hard determinist, Hitler could not help his actions, he is morally neutral; neither better not worse than Nelson Mandela. The Compatibilists try to reconcile some kind of determinism with free will.

Thomas Hobbes attempted to do this – albeit in a limited form. Man does follow a path that is determined by things that happened to arrive there – he can’t help it. For Hobbes it’s a question of logic. If you say that this event happens because of another then that is true. It does. There are sufficient and necessary reasons to cause it to happen – and it could not happen any other way because if it did, the reasons were neither sufficient nor necessary. Something else would have happened in line with the reasons that were actually sufficient and necessary. The laws of cause and effect means we were always going to make the choices we make. And yet Hobbes is a compatibilist – he does try to reconcile determinism and free will and he does it like this.

Imagine a woman in a shop. She sees a teenager nick some high value meals – they’re laid out in the fridge and he just lifts them up and puts them in his bag. There’s just a few seconds to decide whether or not to alert the security guard (the teenager is raggy and he looks like he could use a good meal) or let him get away with it.
Now – according to Hobbes – the will of the woman (the actual bit that choses) is determined. Her upbringing, sense of fair play, values, compassion all have a hand in causing her to make a certain decision. They are sufficient and necessary reasons. But having made the choice (determined) she then is free to do what she will with that choice as long as nothing restricts her (not determined).

Scenario 1 – she decides to report the boy and opens her mouth to do so but his friend sidles up beside her and says ‘If you report him I’ll flatten you.’ She closes her mouth again.
Scenario 2 – she decides to report the boy and opens her mouth to do so but sees his young sister in the corner and realises he’s stealing for her – and she looks positively starving. She closes her mouth again

In the first scenario she is stopped by the gruesome friend and hence not free. In the second, she is not impeded – and hence free to make her decision. And this is what Hobbes means by compatibilism. So long as her will is not impeded; she is free to use it – even though the will itself is not free. He thought it was like a stream flowing down a river – while the water had to flow within its natural confines, it was free in so far as its path was not blocked or impeded.

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