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Determined to live or determined life?

Updated on March 22, 2016

The killing argument

In May of 1924, two young men murdered a 14 years old boy. The names of accused were Leopold and Loeb.

The case is incredibly famous and was numerously labelled as a "case of the century".

However, in my opinion, the least shocking and daring aspect of this crime is murder.

I have studied this case during my College Course of Philosophy. There are various ways in which this case encompasses theories of philosophy. However, there is only one particular aspect I would like to embark upon. And that is of determinism.

In the era of Roarring Twenties in the USA, such a cruel and vivid murder, as the one committed by Leopold and Loeb would most certainly, based on rigid legal precedent established by USA courts, end up for the accused being hanged. However, this case was a major landmark, that made jurisdiction of the United States to reconsider their "violent justice" and instead go for a rather passive punishment of life imprisonment.

That fundamental legal reform is of interest in itself. Yet, it is not the result of the case that I would like to draw your attention upon for the sake of this article. It is the reasoning behind defence's argument.

I strongly encourage all readers to go and explore the full details of this case, as I have only used facts considered relevant to this topic.

Parents of the accused hired, an acclaimed at that time, lawyer, known by the name Clarrence Darrow.

Mr Darrow decided not to even attempt to plead guilty, as he wished not to pull such a foolish performance in front of the jury. In stead, he decided to explicitly tackle the very nature of judicial judgment and reasoning.

The main defence that he used for the boys was the fact of determinism.

Loeb and Leopold were both born to wealthy and stable families. They always were in full satisfaction in terms of any needs and desires, and rarely could complain about the lack of anything. They decided to commit a perfect crime, demonstrating a firm and unshakeable dominance and superiority of their class over the rest of society.

Mr Darrow used this to his advantage. He argued, that poor boys' characters and behaviours, and their mentality were shaped and formed by their parents, friends, surroundings, access to expensive and exclusive stuff and constant satisfaction of their whims.

Both have read lots of Nietzsche works on absence of the order in the universe and based their philosophical views around his infamous notion "God is Dead".

From this, it seems reasonable to say, that the boys were affected by all the factors listed above. What is more important, is that they had no part in choosing which family to be born into, which class to be raised in, and which lessons to be taught. Their personalities were to a significant extent pre-determined.

If this is so, can we really hold them accountable for committing this murder?

That was the defence built by Mr Darrow. And it did make a solid and lasting impact on the judge and jury, and the rest of the crowd exposed to his brilliant reasoning.

This argument is a demonstration of the reasoning behind philosophical theory of Hard Determinism.

Hard Determinism

Hard Determinism claims that human beings are determined along their life by a variety of different factors and external forces, that shape our characters and personalities in a certain way.

For instance, Physics consists of stated and verified laws, like the one of gravity. Laws of gravity dictate that an object released from a certain height above the ground tends to fall down every single time without exception, due to a gravitational force of the Earth. Therefore, if we have an empirical evidence of a physical determinism in our world, why not suggesting that there could be a mental or social one too? It sounds like a long shot, but when it comes to philosophy, we need an unrestricted imagination.

Frederic Skinner was a social philosopher and behaviourist. He believed that the concept of Free Will is nothing but an illusion, and that every single action is determined by a different, subsequent action, and therefore a life as whole had a gigantic systemised pattern. Skinner believed that any form of behaviour could be emanated and manipulated by certain motivators, or any behaviour can be changed by engagement with positive or negative methods.

Skinner was a strong supporter of a 'cause and effect' principle, where once an event X has occurred, we can expect event Y to occur with great certainty. I would like to draw upon some examples of that principle.

A dog can be trained to salivate to a bell ringing using Skinner's effect.

At first, if a random bell rang in front of the dog, an animal would have a minor, if no reaction at all towards it.

Then, the dog is presented with food in front of it, which will cause the dog to salivate.

Next step will be to bring food around while ringing the bell for a certain period of time, so that the dog will associate food with the sound of a bell.

Finally, at the end of experiment, no food is needed, and just by ringing the bell, the dog will salivate by expecting a food to appear.

This experiment has been done many different times in many different ways, and proves biological possibility of determinism in animals. Therefore, by applying this principle, it is possible to train humans towards almost any single thing, at least on a subconscious level. Very commonly, children are taught that stealing, or bullying, or harming is wrong, by association those actions with a consequence of a punishment. There are also a lot of known "brainwashing" techniques through torture, in order to change the mind set of an individual, used by terrorists and extremists. There must be a reason, why this method works so well, which means there is a certain extent of determinism behind our existence.

Thus, if humans are susceptible to manual determinism, is it possible, that we owe ourselves to other, external factors? Are we nothing more, than a cocktail, made of genes, social surroundings, political views, religious ideas and parental guidance?

There are two main factors why people seem to reject this notion. First one is quite obvious - absence of free will. If everything is already determined for my personality - even the way I think or react to something - what significance do I have in my life? Do I actually have any impact on anything? Lack of freedom is truly terrifying.

The second factor, which makes this theory unattractive is lack of responsibility. In the case of Leob and Leopold, if they were not liable for the murder - then who should be? If we hold no credibility for our actions, it means we would be free to do anything we want. Or at least be exposed to our violent nature and do that, which our primal instincts and desires tells us to do.

Are we doomed to live under the burden of determination of the world? Or is there a salvation from this depressing sentence of slavery?

Unrestricted imagination gives us infinite amount of theories. And of course there is one that opposes Hard Determinism.


A theory, that would object Hard Determinism is Libertarianism (Incompatibilism). Libertarianism argues, that Determinism in fact is an illusion, and that every single human being has a free choice and a moral responsibility for every single action done no matter the nature or severity of it. The theory itself is very similar to the one of Existentialism, which argues, that human beings are in total control of their lives, and that 'existence precedes essence'. By this quote, Sartre, a famous French existentialist, is trying to explain, that there is nothing in spiritual world at all that could define our physical being. There is nothing before and after our biological existence. And therefore, there is no way we can be either pre-determined or determined to do a certain action. Sartre argued about freedom, saying that ability of freedom is a unique potentiality which places us outside nature, arguably on top of the A-pack of animal kingdom, and defines us as humans. Sartre rejects determinism, saying that it is our choice how we respond to determining tendencies. Therefore, Sartre explained that indeed there are certain factors that could affect us in formation of our characters, but it is our own choice on how we interpret them. Criminals, who are raised in violent environments, failed to analyse their experiences in a right way, and as a result, started their life in a bad faith. Darrow's protection of boys, founded by Hard Determinism cannot be justified in any way - at least not to such a hard extent.

Libertarianism, even though promoting absolute freedom and equality for people, is not as good as it seems. Jonah Goldberg, American philosopher and journalist considered libertarianism "a form of arrogant nihilism", because both are overly tolerant of non-traditional lifestyles (like recreational drug use) and intolerant towards other political views. Goldberg argued, that you don't turn children into responsible adults by giving them absolute freedom. You foster good character by limiting freedom, and by channelling energies into the most productive avenues. Besides his argument, we will never be able to prove, that we are completely free from everything.

Rulers or slaves?

In the light of these well-structured and good-reasoned theories, we yet are to discover the true nature of our personhood. Are we really rigidly determined by factors, that surround us through out our lives, and dictate us which God to believe in, which music to listen to, which sandwich to buy in the shop?

Or are we completely free of any influence and are at the helm of our moral compass, thoughts and rationality? Do we command our lives and actions? Are we truly and completely independent?

Or are we perhaps a bit of both? However, in that case, is this a perfect balance? If so, then how can we define it? And if no equilibrium is established, then which theory prevails humanity's personhood?

What do you believe?


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