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I see people extensively debate over whether deterministic beings should be held responsible for their actions if there was no moral agency or free will involved in it. But is that even a relevant question? Like who is it going to be that is arguing about holding them responsible? Yeah deterministic beings with no free will or moral agency. At least that's what proponents of hard determinism believe, right?

So in other words the whole concept of morality, moral agency, responsibility and whatnot becomes completely irrelevant once you remove the agency of the individual.

It's not just that you couldn't blame them for being a cog in the cosmic machine, with no agency. YOU as well would be a cog in that cosmic machine and whether you'd blame them or not would also not be your choice either.

So ethics, at least in the sense of a universal set of rules for how people should act, would be completely meaningless, because other then doing exactly that by chance there's no way someone could abide by or violate them. So it would be at best descriptive (describing what is), but not prescriptive (arguing what should be).

Or if it would be prescriptive then it would need to not be a universal and it would not require consent, but it would be an expression of an individual's "desire", that is just manipulating other's to their "will". Where "desire" and "will" are just meant as intrinsic goals of the individual that are set by their environment and their genetic code.

So idk think about a tower defense game where attacking zombies "want" (are programmed to) go from A to B and you put blocking/guiding objects in their way to make them take a different path. That would be what ethics is (those blocking/guiding objects). And the "reason" you'd do that is probably simply because you yourself want to go from A' to B' and they interfere with that or whatnot.

Meaning that ironically "ethics" is something that you should (or rather would) be trying to avoid, as it's a road block between you and your goal (so as it's "not good" to be blocked, you're trying to get around it to find something "good"). Unless it's, by chance or correlation between goals, guiding you to that goal.

And the same applies for morality. It would simply be a subjective thing that argues whether the state of being is in agreement with your desire(s) (good) or whether it's lacking (bad). It would not be an overarching theme of "good" or "bad" that you could adhere to or that would work for others as well, but it would simply be answered by the question: "Do I like it?".

So would deterministic beings act moral? Well no. Because they don't know what that is. At least not before they experience it. And while YOU could definitely judge their morality:

"Stupid people eat vanilla ice cream when they could have strawberry... morons. And they even waste resources that could be used for strawberry ice cream... EVIL!!! STOP IT, NOW!"

That has no bearing on the question whether they themselves act moral. Most definitely try to. But what they consider "moral" would/could also deviate from what you think morality means.

Again reminder that "judge", "blame", "consider" and whatnot are not active actions but deterministic calculations in "pursuit" of a goal. It's purely trial and error in terms of what "works". But still, the whole concepts of "morality" and "ethics" would be moot. On the contrary you should blame yourself for being wrong about them. But likely that makes you "feel bad" which would be "immoral" (not in agreement with your desire). So you couldn't blame people for blaming people and the whole concept of coming up with a universal moral and a prescriptive ethics is moot.

Or alternatively you could argue that through memory, long and short term planning, delayed gratification, loops and learning and whatnot. We've developed such complex systems that we are essentially able to manipulate our own desires and give ourselves agency.

Like we're essentially able to run simulations of the world on our hardware and make up expectations from that. If we are trapped in loops we can make slight deviations, rank the results of it and save that in memory and do something else the next time. That's a kind of learning that even machines are capable of. To the point where we can teach ourselves things, where we can manipulate our desires, trick ourselves into liking, disliking and doing things. Where we can even ignore or transform basic desires, like if everything about you is build for combat you could still become a peaceful person or whatnot. Where we compare and contrast our concepts of morality and ethics with other people and find common ground or conflict. Where we try to come up with ideas of a universal moral and ethical frameworks that are universally beneficial.

At which point you'd be at a point where you'd again would have so much agency over so many aspects of your life that this argument of hard determinism that argues it's not your fault kinda only applies in rather immediate situations of being incapacitated or forced to make split second decisions based on shaky grounds and can't plan much ahead. Or in situations where you're ability to do these things has been otherwise severely disturbed by trauma or whatnot.

While in most other situations you WOULD be able to convince yourself that the rules are mutually beneficial (if they actually were). So in other words it's either a problem with the rules not being in agreement with your morality or you could frame it as your morality being the problem because it's not in agreement with the rules.

But even in that case it's more or less only a "moral question" in the sense of "what works better". So the idea of "we can't do that because they had no choice" still wouldn't make sense, unless that is a framework that we've adopted because it works. But if we adopted a framework of thinking of ourselves and others as having free will because we can plan out the future, change our desires and whatnot. Then what would hard determinism change about that and wouldn't the question about moral responsibility be still moot? Like there is no moral responsibility in hard determinism. Either it is moral (liked by) the individual or it isn't. They cannot be held accountable on a logic basis for the moral frameworks of others, at the same time holding them accountable for those moral frameworks is just a matter of force not morality so of course some want and will do that, because to them it's moral.

So what's the point in pretending that would be an issue in hard determinism while simultaneously assuming a scenario where it wouldn't? I hope that wasn't too confusing of a read.

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  • It's really better not to even think about free-will vs. determinism. IMO, these are the least useful concepts in the entirety of philosophy. Believing that people make "free choices" removes responsibility from society for creating situations in which people see bad choices as good choices, and hard determinism is just a bit depressing. We don't have any choice in whether we experience free will or not anyway. So best to look at morality without tackling this issue.
    – philosodad
    Jul 31 at 13:34
  • This feels more like a long winded rant than a question. Hope OP got to blow some steam off.
    – armand
    Jul 31 at 16:21
  • @philosodad My problem is that often times people who believe in determinism draw moral and ethical conclusions from it, but as far as I can see, you can draw all kinds of conclusions from it or .... well not do that. Like no free choices do not remove responsibility from society, as free choices under unfree conditions are still free choices but society might be responsible for unfree conditions aso. Similarly arguing that we should answer with compassion to the lack of agency might be good advice, but logically invalid as we'd also lack that agency. So are there any valid argument for that?
    – haxor789
    Aug 1 at 13:14
  • No. There is no coherent and reasonable way to talk about free will or the lack of free will. We feel like we have free will, and whether we do or not doesn't ultimately matter in terms of the consequences of actions, which is what morality is chiefly concerned with.
    – philosodad
    Aug 1 at 18:02

1 Answer 1

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Yes, under hard determinism, everything is inevitable. Any ways in which we respond to the acceptance of hard determinism are therefore inevitable.

Under hard determinism, we are experiencing a 'ride' over which we have no control; merely enduring and/or enjoying a series of events that were always going to happen.

As far as 'mootness' goes though, we still experience ideas and realisations and change. We still experience a conflict of ideas and opinions. Therefore, we may still have the experience - illusory as it may be - of 'realising' hard determinism (if we accept for a moment that it is true), and of coming to investigate the consequences of hard determinism in relation to the ways in which we view the world.

In this way, talk of hard determinism is no more moot than anything else. It is a process that we go through. And - determined or not - our experience of this process has consequences for how we experience things in the future.

In short: Technically, the question is moot. Experientially however, the question has important ramifications.

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  • There is no concept of acceptance in determinism. If determinism were true, you could not accept anything. Free will is not a matter of belief. Someone must have it anyway. If we cannot decide what we do, someone else must decide for us. Jul 29 at 16:13
  • Of course there is a concept of acceptance in determinism. If determinism is true, it explains all human experience, including acceptance. Jul 29 at 16:28
  • @Futilitarian Why should the self be the observer? Like it wouldn't interfere with hard determinism if they were the actor. Like programs act they just don't do it on their own but follow an algorithm even if that one is written on the fly. But being the observer kinda gives it a vibe of being a free will just in a trapped environment.
    – haxor789
    Jul 29 at 21:09
  • I'm not sure I completely understand your comment, but the last part seems to be referring to the illusory experience of free will, a compatibilistic 'vibe' free will. I'm not sure what you meant by "Why should the self be the observer?'. Is there a particular part of my answer you're referring to? Jul 30 at 2:13
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    After having read the SEP on compatibilism I'm still confused about what compatibilism is. I don't mean conceptually, it's the idea of a free will compatible with determinism, but what that means and where they are coming from. Like do they propose how their could be free will emerging from determinism, how you can call determinism free or how a "free will" in a deterministic world (brain in a vat/simulation) could still be free. But for them it's not a mere illusion of free will. And how can you experience beyond mere "perception as an input" within determinism? What's the process?
    – haxor789
    Aug 3 at 10:44

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