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The Problem

Let's say I am debating my friend Jake who believes that morality exists. But I am a hard determinist who believes that all actions are predetermined by some act or event beforehand. Jake responds to my position by arguing that by that logic I am making racism, slavery, abuse, murder, violence, and etc morally permissible.

Then now I wonder, how would a determinist respond to this? Because there isn't such thing as morality underneath determinism per se but the determinist would be framed as a racist for making it seem permissible.

  • Hi, welcome to Philosophy SE. Please visit our Help Center to see what questions we answer and how to ask. Broad questions such as yours are not really suitable for our format. The response is an entire philosophical subject, and learning about it is best started by reading articles in online encyclopedias rather than asking here, e.g. SEP's Compatibilism. We take more pointed questions that can be more or less objectively answered within reasonable space – Conifold Aug 18 '18 at 20:34
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Your friend Jake appears not to understand the logic of your position. If as a hard determinist you accept that :

Determinism: The past determines a unique future (given the past and the laws of nature, the future is determined in every detail) (Peter Van Inwagen, 'Moral Responsibility, Determinism, and the Ability to Do Otherwise', The Journal of Ethics, Vol. 3, No. 4, The Contributions of Harry G. Frankfurt to Moral Responsibility Theory (1999), pp. 341-350 : 342)

then the idea of 'permissibility' lapses and has no application. It is not that conduct currently described as 'heinous' becomes permissible under determinism, it is merely (and presumably has always been) inevitable. As does conduct currently described as 'good', 'duty', 'courageous', 'morally neutral', 'intrinsically wrong' and the rest. All these descriptions imply some commendation or proscription of choice, motivation or intention. Hard determinism does not rule out choice, motivation or intention; it simply sees choices, motivations or intentions as inevitable, as necessitated by the past and the laws of nature. One cannot permit, prescribe or proscribe the inevitable.

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Let's say I am debating my friend Jake who believes that morality exists. But I am a hard determinist who believes that all actions are predetermined by some act or event beforehand.

If you're a hard determinist then you're probably against moral responsibility. I write probably because the term isn't entirely clear, and there's debate on which concept we should employ.

This doesn't necessarily have to mean that you're also against morality. There are a bunch of publications that discuss with this. One that comes to mind is Pereboom's Living Without Free Will. A SEP article has a short bit about it as well. (Although, the whole article is sort of relevant.)

Jake responds to my position by arguing that by that logic I am making racism, slavery, abuse, murder, violence, and etc morally permissible.

As such, you could argue that all those things are not morally permissable, even if moral responsibility doesn't exist.

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Existentialism addresses this question directly. Morality and determinism do not have anything to do with one another, the one is a psychological fact, and the other is a physical theory. Freedom and responsibility are parts of the nature of humanity whether or not determinism forces us to alter their definitions or interpret them in arcane ways.

From Sartre's point of view, we do not have moral responsibility on the basis of any observed external reality, we have moral responsibility on the basis the nature of consciousness, which creates our need to remain authentically connected to our genuine emotional states or become incompatible with ourselves and end up either destructively uncomfortable or mentally ill. No physical fact makes anything morally acceptable.

For example, the argument for not oppressing gay folks is not that nature creates the inclination toward homosexual pairing. It also creates natural motives for rape and mass murder. Applying this notion that realities of neurology or physics determine your ethics is entirely a 'naturalistic fallacy'. Your ethics are the result of a psychology and cultural evolution, to demand that they reflect your physics is a pretense.

The generally accepted cultural argument that we must find acceptable what comes naturally is nonsense. It is easy to make, but it applies just as strongly to pedophilia and to narcissistic sociopaths committing violence for attention. And we just don't apply it there. (In fact, when we do and do not apply it shifts at our cultures' convenience. For instance, feminism is rolling back the 'boys will be boys' naturalistic argument that we require a certain level of rehearsed culturally-narcissistic sociopathy of those we intend to send to war, and thus must accept the social damage that results from traditionally prescribed male roles.)

What is really being applied is the Existentialist notion of authenticity itself. Inauthenticity is a personal cost, and if we wish to impose it on people socially, we need a reason. We can observe the fact that pretending not to be gay imposes a form of inauthenticity, and the social benefits, now that the population is already too high, do not offset it. That is totally different from pretending that the neurological facts dictate a policy of acceptance.

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