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One of the questions I feel is most commonly asked about determinism is "how can people be responsible for their actions if they were following a determined fate? is it right to punish people for bad actions, or praise people for good ones?" I feel like while everything is determined, our experience seems free. We FEEL like we could have done something other than what we did. So couldn't you hold someone morally responsible for their actions if they thought there was a possibility of not doing what they did, but they chose to do what they did anyway?

I'm new to philosophy, so feel free to tell me if I made any mistakes in my thinking.

  • Emotions are no longer considered structurally opposed to reason. So I wonder why we should so commonly feel as if we possess freewill, if in reality we do not. The following link may help to sort out some of the confusion surrounding the topic of feelings: plato.stanford.edu/entries/emotion Experiencing something, unlike thinking about it, has a certain “feel” to it. So we must also try to sort out our emotions or feelings from our illusions or hallucinations: plato.stanford.edu/entries/perception-problem/#ArgHal – Bread Oct 15 '18 at 10:20
  • If everything is determined, then the decision to punish a crime is also determined. So, people, who want to punish are not 'really' want, but determined to want to punish a crime. – Josef Klimuk Oct 15 '18 at 10:29
  • @JosefKlimuk Just because you’re determined to “want” something doesn’t mean you don’t “really want” it. I was determined to reply to your comment, and I “really” do want to reply. If I want to erase it before submitting, then you would never know; and you could not possibly want to reply- because there would be nothing to reply to. If you randomly replied to nothing, that would be random. If you don’t reply at all, and use your time to do something else, then that’s what you really want to do. The people who “really want” to “punish” other people- believe they have a free will. – anonymouswho Oct 15 '18 at 14:17
  • They are determined to believe, as they are determined to punish. – Josef Klimuk Oct 15 '18 at 14:26
  • You state (in my reading) 2 different questions, one in the title - would arguing against determinism using moral responsibility work; and the other in the description - does determinism allow free will. I wish you would've elaborated on the first question in the description, instead of going for the second one, as this would make this question highly interesting to me (a more general question may be - can ethics be used in metaphysical arguments). Anyway, welcome to Phil.SE! – Yechiam Weiss Oct 16 '18 at 2:43
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This argument is mixing up two different scales, as well as factual and ethical reasoning.

It is entire possible to subscribe to both "In reasoning about phenomena of individual behaviour and daily life, we should assume free will to be an applicable concept." as well as "On a fundamental physical level, the universe is deterministic.".

We would have a problem justifying the pretense of free will simultaneously with determinism on the daily life level, ie if we could realibly predict how a human will act based on their prior experience of their surroundings. We encounter these issues when we are dealing with circumstances such as "mental illness" or "bad childhood" in criminal trials.

However, on a fundamental physical level, we cannot even make proper sense of an indiviuum is. Even fully embracing materialism, there is no direct line from "quantum non-determinism is real" to "here is how to make sense of personal responsibility".

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There are really several questions here:

Is the question of moral responsibility a valid one against determinism?

That depends what you think moral responsibility is based on and whether you think it exists. If you think a person can only be held morally responsible if that person has libertarian free will, and you think moral responsibility does exist, then you have to hold that determinism can't exist. The argument would be of this format:

  1. Moral responsibility can only exist if libertarian free will exists. (assumed)
  2. Moral responsibility does exist. (assumed)
  3. Therefore, libertarian free will exists. (by 1 & 2)
  4. If libertarian free will exists, then determinism is false. (definition)
  5. Therefore, determinism is false. (by 3 & 4)

However, not everyone agrees with the assumptions in 1 and 2. Compatibilists deny that moral responsibility requires libertarian free will. Moral non-realists (of many different stripes) deny that moral responsibility exists.

I feel like while everything is determined, our experience seems free. We FEEL like we could have done something other than what we did.

I'm not sure we do "feel" it as much as either a) live with the assumption or b) not think about this issue much at all. And unpacking exactly what we mean by "done something other than what we did" is not easy; Daniel Dennett devotes many pages to this in Freedom Evolves.

So couldn't you hold someone morally responsible for their actions if they thought there was a possibility of not doing what they did, but they chose to do what they did anyway?

Well, how does this consideration on the person's part change anything? If determinism is true, s/he still had no ability to do otherwise. In fact, s/he also had no ability to do anything other than pause and reflect about what s/he was about to do, consider the morally preferable alternative--and then do the less moral act anyway.

  • @MarcoAltieri I think it is correct. Notice it's an "only if" in 1. See: criticalthinkeracademy.com/courses/2514/lectures/51574 – Chelonian Oct 16 '18 at 20:53
  • @MarcoAltieri No, you have swapped them: what point 1 states is that for existence of moral responsibility, free will is necessary (which is an assumption, but a common one). In the article, “A only if B” = “If A then B”. Here, A is moral responsibility and B is libertarian free will. It's like saying "A match will burn only if there is oxygen. The match is burning. Therefore, there must be oxygen." That's valid. But in this case it's "Moral responsibility exists only if there is free will. Moral responsibility does exist, therefore there must be free will." Also valid. – Chelonian Oct 19 '18 at 12:10

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