Category: morality

HARD DETERMINISTS (obviously not as hard as Sam)

Hard determinists think that free will is an illusion. They think that all the choices, decisions and actions of human beings are determined by prior physical causes. Just like the atoms that form the rest of the physical world we are subject to the forces of cause and effect, we cannot do other than what we do do: we are subject to causal necessity. We are no more in control of our lives than an autumn leaf tumbling on the wind. (Ooh, lovely image!) As Baron d’Holbach put it

Man’s life is a line that nature commands him to describe upon the surface of the earth, without his ever being able to swerve from it, even for an instant … he is unceasingly modified by causes, whether visible or concealed, over which he has no control, which necessarily regulate his mode of existence, give the hue to his way of thinking, and determine his manner of acting. . . . Nevertheless, in despite of the shackles by which he is bound, it is pretended he is a free agent, or that independent of the causes by which he is moved, he determines his own will, and regulates his own condition.”

The problem that this brings about is that if we are without free will, then we cannot be held responsible for our behaviour. How can we justify praising or blaming anyone for anything if they could not have done anything else. Clearly this view has profound implications for our notions of morality and justice.

The whole point of morality is that it implies a choice: we can choose to do ‘the right thing’. We know that we ought to do the right thing. But it make no sense to say we ‘ought’ to do something if we have no free will? The word ‘ought’ implies that we can, but we can’t! See?

Free the animals.

Please leave a comment if you’ve read this.


Sartre was an existentialist. He believed that existence comes before essence’; this means that we are not born with a particular ‘nature‘ but must ‘create’ ourselves as we go along. We respond to our experiences of the world, but we are not determined by them, we are free to choose who we are and how we live. Sartre claims that ‘man’ isn’t simplywhat he conceives himself to be, but he is what he wills.’ (my emphasis).

Roughly speaking Sartre believes that the very nature of consciousness is what enables human beings to have free will. He thinks that being conscious of (imagining) the different possible futures that might come about from different actions enables us to choose our path.

THE GAP: For Sartre, being conscious of the world seems to allow us to stand back from our lives and interpret them in different ways. This seems to open up a distance between our consciousness and the rest of the ‘physical’ world. This is what Sartre call ‘the gap’ and it is the gap that allows us to have free will. Easy.

Although sympathetic to Marx’s political philosophy, Sartre reverses Marx’s belief that ‘life determines consciousness’, claiming instead that ‘consciousness determines life.’

Whereas Marx believed that the way we think about the world and how we act is determined by our experience of the world, Sartre believed that we choose our experience of the world by the way we think about our place and role in the world.

For Marx the world makes us who we are. For Sartre we make ourselves who we are, and by doing so we make the world. Because he thinks that human beings have free will Sartre can be described as a libertarian, but we should be clear that he is a libertarian for different reasons to Descartes and Thomas Pink.

Sartre is rather hard on determinists, he says,

Those who hide from this total freedom … with deterministic excuses, I shall call cowards. Others, who try to show that their existence is necessary … I shall call scum.

He claims that there two kinds of ‘beings’: humans are ‘beings for themselves’, everything else, rocks, trees are ‘beings in themselves.’ (He doesn’t mention animals!). More of this next year possibly, for now the fact that he thinks consciousness gives us free will is enough.

Please leave a comment if you’ve read this.