I understand Utilitarianism to be the ethical theory which states that "we should choose to do those things that cause the most happiness".

As soon as I see the word "choose" in the above definition, I recall the free will vs determinism debate, in which people question the very notion of whether humans can really choose to do things.

So, does that mean that determinism (the lack of free will) undermines utilitarianism? Does determinism undermine ethics ('what should we do?') in general?


If we assume determinism to be true, whatever answers you arrive at to this question were the ones you were always going to arrive at.

My current view is that if you are capable of concerning yourself about the impacts of a belief in determinism on ethics, you are very likely to be the kind of agent who will at various times continue to feel like there are moments in your life where you have to choose between what seems to be right and wrong, regardless of whether you develop a belief in the reality of determinism or not.

Given this probability, it seems likely that you will be drawn to take seriously some kind of ethical framework or other. Perhaps a conviction in determinism will in fact crystallise rather than undermine your commitment to a particular ethical framework.

I regard this as an extremely interesting but potentially intractable issue. I know I want answers and certainty in my life, and it is possible a belief in ethics will bring more certainty than otherwise, especially if I come to believe that this belief in ethics was in itself determined.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.