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Self-determination vs. Determinism

Updated on April 12, 2017

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary free will is defined as” voluntary choice or decision I do this of my own free will; freedom of humans to make decisions that are not determined by prior causes or by divine intervention” (Merriam-Webster, n.d.). When most people speak of free will they speak of self-determination. “Self-determination free choice of one's own acts or states without external compulsion” (Merriam-Webster, n.d.).

Many people today would say they have free will. They make their own decisions. But do they really? This paper will cover some ideas on this concept including true free will as in self determination to determinism. This will by no means be complete. The goal is to express an idea or shine a light on the complexities of modern decisions. (I will not argue disorders and illnesses that effect decisions. Such an argument goes beyond my understanding and in some cases, such as drug addiction or pedophilia the disorder drives the decision-making process.)

Our decisions are based on our needs, wants, culture, society, government, education, age, gender, family, friends and other (circumstances outside of the norm). Self-determination as in independent decisions are based on these variables making free will conditional to them. Our decisions while being our own are also built on conditions and decisions made by others connected and seemingly unrelated.

Wants and needs (but you can’t always get what you want)

The most basic process in decision making are needs and wants. If an individual needs something (such as food, housing etc.) his or her decisions are directed toward those needs. The same is true with wants. People who want to be famous (or infamous) will make decisions to help become so. Basic needs and wants are built on other factors from culture to society.


Culture, Society and Nationality (decisions by committee)

Every day individuals make decisions. From what to eat to what to wear individuals decide on their own. Except, do they? Take for example what a person eats. There is a cultural as well as a society component to what an individual eats at what meal. An individual’s culture will define the style of breakfast such as the traditional full English breakfast which includes baked beans. Traditional in the U.K. but unconventional in other countries such as United States. An individual accepts that his or her decisions are guided by cultural connections without thinking about them.

Society also influence decisions. This can be seen in the low-fat movement to extreme diets such as Adkins or Veganism (which could be considered a lifestyle rather than diet). In large multi-ethnic societies, the cultural and society influences can clash where as in mono-cultural societies (Japan) society and cultural are almost one in the same. In the southern part of the United States a high fat diet such as a traditional breakfast clash with the national movement toward a healthier diet. Many the southern US and UK will choose the traditional breakfast rather than going with what society deems acceptable.

Cultural influences develop over time. They are based on religion, race, location, interactions with people in the culture and outside influences. Southern US culture is built on several different cultures from the Scotch-Irish, German, Spanish, Native American, French and African slaves. Each of these cultures are divergent of each other. This divergence is also true within regions of a larger society. The southern US has a seemingly different from the rest of the country. The nation has in the past seen the south as backward outside of the national societal norms. Many of these norms are however are just the cultural tendencies of regions were the nations media is stronger.

In the US, the media markets of New York (city) and California (Los Angeles) influence the national societal norms. The culture of California is based on several variables including Spanish to the Chinese influences and location. The abundance of fresh produce to the yearlong outdoor activity helped create an outdoor culture built around healthy (or pseudo healthy) lifestyle. This Californian lifestyle is not true to the entire state but to the rest of the country it is what many think of as California culture.

New York City is built on multiple cultures from around the world. The social norms of New York in some cases work against cultural norms. These conflicts become more evident a larger community. The needs of the many as well as the need to control the many has developed a society that is government dependent. These dependencies also influenced such concepts as political correctness.

Nationality also plays into self-determination. A person’s nationality is built on many factors including location, culture and society. A person in southern US will make decisions different from the California and New York City, but their overall decisions will be (for the most part) based on being from the US. A person from a small village in France may have a different culture and society as a person from Paris but he or she will have more in common with each other than a person from the US or the UK. A person born and raised in a culture such as the U.K. will invariably make decisions based on that culture even if he or she moves to another country (culture). This nationality will in time lessen with exposure to a new culture (country or society). The children of such immigrants tend to hold more to the new culture rather than the original one of the parent. However, in many some cultural identification still survives this acculturalization.

Friends, family and enemies (and the people who are all three)

Much of the cultural and social norms are from our friends and family. In particular family influences the decision making process through shared history and cultural heritage. A family in a culture such as the southern US will guide an individual toward social norms that fit said culture. The decisions made by that person can be biased by these cultural influences. This is also true where the individual openly goes against their predetermined cultural influences. Choosing to buck social norms inevitably mean that the individual is being influenced by those norms.

Friends as well as enemies also influence our decisions through social pressures such as peer pressure. “Peer pressure a feeling that one must do the same things as other people of one's age and social group in order to be liked or respected by them” (Merriam-Webster, n.d.). The need to fit in is compelling to the individual and weighs heavily in his or her decisions. This peer pressure in most cases is based on social and cultural norms including micro societies such as cliques, gangs, sororities/fraternities and seemingly undefined groups. People in such groups from the KKK (Ku Klux Klan) to high school cliques are influenced by and influence these groups. These groups such as the KKK can magnify the worst elements of an individual and lead to horrible decisions.The larger the group the more intense the social pressures influence the individual’s decisions. They can be as small as two people or as large as political parties. The cultural norms enforced by these groups (society, friends, family and enemies) help develop an individual’s core beliefs. These core beliefs direct decisions.

Gender and Sexual Identity

Gender identity has become a hot topic in the mainstream society. How an individual identifies him or herself greatly determines their decisions. As before this identification is influenced by culture, society family, friends and biological imperatives (not trying to make an argument about sexual persuasion at birth or by choice). Biological imperatives (not including the three basics Food/Shelter/Security) include the need to mate (or reproduce) to the need for romantic attachments. His or her choices in companionship are complex and built on factors including biological imperatives and society pressures.

Social factors including peer pressure also play a factor. In many western societies men and women have assigned standards. Boys are supposed to like blue and play sports; girls to like pink and play with dolls. These gender rolls also include gender preference. Individuals that fall outside of social norms were for many years (and to some extent still are) ostracized. In this societal shunning, these individuals either stay on the outliers of society (closeted) or join likeminded groups and new cultural norms. These new norms influence choice.

Core Beliefs (what we think we know is right)

An individual’s core beliefs are the principles he or she follow which are determined by his or her past, cultural heritage, social standing and society pressures. A person with a Catholic upbringing will have in their core beliefs built on Catholic dogma that he or she follows or dismisses. Family, friends and education all play apart in these beliefs. People use these beliefs in conjunction with and subjective to society and cultural pressers. Even those people who choose to go against traditional social norms are themselves subjective to those norms. People who decide not to make a choice are also making a choice (See Rush’s song Freewill).

Governmental and Political influence (big brother is influencing)

Governmental influence can be seen in laws and regulations meant to control society. These laws include anything from speed laws to the attempts to outlaw larger than 16oz cups of soda. Government influence is open to interpretation and capable of changing as the larger society norms change. At one time, interracial marriage was illegal as well as homosexuality. With a large group, it becomes necessary (somewhat) for government to help define social norms. Places such as New York city laws governing social norms become inevitable. Much of these laws are politically influenced.

Politicians influence laws and social norms for good and bad. Politicians are people. People bring with any decision their culture (including nationality), beliefs, biases, prejudices, and personnel identifications. Political correctness (PC) is a byproduct of this. Merriam-Webster defines politically correct as “conforming to a belief that language and practices which could offend political sensibilities (as in matters of sex or race) should be eliminated” (Merriam-Webster, n.d.). These beliefs are based on culture, race, social dynamics (rich or poor), gender (including gender identification) and location (including size and density of population).

A location such as New York City with its dense population will develop a stronger political correctness culture than a small town in another part of the country. This is to counteract the cultural differences between minority and majority groups. That political correctness will be (even if slightly) different from other parts of the country. Large population centers such as New York or Los Angeles with bigger media markets will have a larger cultural and societal effect. This effect includes both the people who follow political correctness and those who choose to go against it. Social dynamics that subvert popular political correctness are in effect working on a form of political correctness.

Determinism (who is to blame when things go wrong)

Determinism “a theory or doctrine that acts of the will occurrences in nature, or social or psychological phenomena are causally determined by preceding events or natural laws.” (Merriam-Webster, n.d.) Concepts that expresses this idea are conspiracy theories. These theories (not all) suggest that outside forces influence all variables making an individual’s decisions limited. Religion can also be considered in this concept. Many religions have at their core a belief that a higher power has a plan for them. Politics both social and sexual also play a role. A biological component can also be derived. People with family members with cancer are considered more likely to develop cancer than those who don’t (this is also true with heart issues). The children of alcoholics are considered more likely to develop addictions. Science every day is finding pre-determination in genetics. DNA can be used to rate a person’s chances to develop diseases. Society could one day use this information to limit a person’s choices (see movie Gattaca).

Conclusion (ish)

People’s decisions are built on many different variables including gender, social pressures (friends, family etc.) and others. This makeup makes up who people are including their process of decision making. People’s decisions while influenced by these variables are also influenced by the decisions themselves. Circumstances also play into any decisions. A parent with grown children will make decisions differently than one with underage children still living at home. Free will in the decision-making process is limited to a person’s ability to overcome these variables both overt and hidden.

Note from writer

I am writing this as a first part in a multi-part series dealing with current society and a rationalist view of it. This should include such ideas like determinism in sexual politics and political correctness vs cultural beliefs. As in anything I write will based on my opinion. Thank you for taking the time to read this.

"Determinism." Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 8 Apr. 2017.

"Free Will." Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 6 Apr. 2017.

"Peer Pressure." Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 7 Apr. 2017.

"Politically Correct." Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 8 Apr. 2017.

"Self–determination." Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 6 Apr. 2017


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    • HeadlyvonNoggin profile image

      Jeremy Christian 2 months ago from Texas

      I think it can be determined rather simply. It certainly seems that we are making the decisions. We experience a mind and participate, at least it seems, in a decision making process, evaluating memories, imagining potential outcomes, all of that. And we now understand that what evolved is what served a meaningful purpose in our survival. So for the mental experience to evolve as it did, making it seem to us as though we're actually making the decisions when in actuality we're not, would serve no purpose.

      Everything the brain does seems to be to influence the will. The self. It'll make you feel fear to influence an action or decision.

      So my money would be on free will. Not a determined illusion that makes it seem as though we're actively steering when we're not. That's my thoughts on it, anyway.

    • threekeys profile image

      ThreeKeys 2 months ago from Australia

      I look foward to your future articles on this topic as I am still undecided in my view/philosophy. We may have the ability to choose but it can be within very confining circumstances.

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