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Free Choices and Moral Responsibility in the Physical Universe

Updated on December 22, 2018
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Patrick has been working as a freelance writer on fiverr for the past 2 years.

The physical universe



For the most part, a majority of people will agree that the physical universe is causally determined. This means that everything that occurs in this universe (a physical one that can be seen and experienced) is the result of some other action/force. This then leaves us with the question; can we make, or claim to make free choices and be morally responsible for what we do despite the fact that everything in the physical universe is causally determined? Given that everything in this universe is causally determined, it would appear that we do not make choices and therefore should not be held responsible for our actions given that we had no choice in the matter. That is, being part of the physical universe, our actions are not our own but rather the result of the factors that influenced us to act in a given way.

Think and reason

compared to other aspects of the physical universe, human beings can reason, agree and make rules etc at a much higher level. This is particularly important given that it means that human beings have a better understanding of the consequences of different actions/behavior etc. This means that before acting, human beings have a range of options to choose from with proper understanding (for sane human beings) of all the consequences. Therefore, human beings are judged and thus held responsible for the decisions they make as sane human beings with knowledge of the consequences. A good example of this, despite its disturbing nature, is with regards to sexual intercourse with a minor. In society, it is generally agreed that an adult should not engage in sexual intercourse with a minor (under the age of 18 in most cases) given that they are still minors and cannot be treated as adults. While an adult may find a 16 or 17-year-old sexually attractive, they have knowledge (and understanding as to why), as sane human beings, that engaging in sexual interactions with the minor would amount to some form of sexual assault for which they can be charged with a crime.

Here, a sane individual, despite finding a 17-year-old sexually attractive, would know better than to actually try and engage in such acts with the minor. Here, despite the fact that the individual lives and exists in a physical universe that is causally determined, they have a choice to make as free beings with the ability to reason and make a choice on how to proceed. Here, we can compare the individual to other creatures that have been shown to have some level of intelligence. For the human being, some level of thought and reason (that considers the benefits of the action and its consequences) go through the mind of the individual before committing the act. In a majority of the cases where individuals have been punished for the crime of engaging in sexual intercourse with minors, such punishment is given simply because they, as adults, had knowledge that they should not have done so and had the option of not engaging in such acts. That is to say that, they should have done otherwise (not engage in sex with minors). This is the main reason as to why there is often public outrage when such incidents are exposed to the public.

Here, free will to make a choice does not refute determinism. However, even with determinism, one is held responsible for the choice they make as free agents. For instance, for a sane individual adult, any decision made is influenced. That is, one understands from experience that sexual intercourse with the 17-year-old may be pleasurable (and they can get away with it) and thus proceeds to do so. At the same time, from knowledge, they understand that doing so will result in punishment. Therefore, despite all decisions made being determined by other factors, the individual is still a sane adult with the freedom to choose to make the decision with full knowledge of possible outcomes for all decisions.



Are you free?

Apart from considering the actions of a sane human being capable of thinking and reason, it is also important to consider whether the individual is acting of his own free will in a given situation. That is to say that, the individual is not being forced/coerced by given external factors to act in a given way and could have acted otherwise if the said factor did not exist (not locked in a room or threatened to act in a certain way etc). Here, the individual should be free to choose from existing option despite the fact that such options are also as a result of determinism. Here, Hume holds that "A person’s action is free if, and only if, had the person wanted to do otherwise than the act, the person would have had the power to do otherwise than the act.” For instance, imagine an individual standing at the edge of a cliff contemplating suicide by jumping. However, as the individual stands there to finally decide whether or not they want to go ahead with the act, another person comes along and pushes them off the cliff. In this particular scenario, it was not the decision of the individual to jump off the cliff. That is, the individual had no decision in the matter.

This is similar to several other circumstances in society such as being coerced and forced to act in a given way, an individual with a given mental condition that cannot help but act or behave in a given way (be very aggressive, cuss etc) or regions/countries where people are prevented from practicing given religions etc. In all these cases, individuals are not free to act otherwise given that such decisions have been taken away. Therefore, whatever decisions they make are not free but rather directed by others. For instance, in a murder case, a sane individual would be treated differently to a deranged individual with psychosis by the criminal system. This is simply because of the fact that while the sane individual was free to act otherwise (having understood what they were doing and the consequences) an individual with psychosis, or such mental conditions, are not necessarily in control over their actions and behavior. Whereas the sane individual would be taken to prison, the deranged person with mental disordered is likely to be taken to a mental institution to receive treatment while at the same time being isolated from other sane people in society. Here, it is possible to see a significant difference between sane human beings, who have full knowledge and understanding of their actions and insane/deranged people with mental disorders who are unable to think logically and act differently.

Determined and free


In conclusion

Based on the arguments presented here, it becomes evident that despite living in a physical universe that is causally determined, we make free choices based on available options/choices. Though the choices known to us are also determined, they are still choices and we are free to make them without being forced or coerced. With proper knowledge of the consequences of these actions and freedom to chose, human beings are and should be responsible for their decisions given that it is our choices and decisions to act in the ways that we do. As mentioned, an individual with mental issues cannot be treated in the same way as one without such disorders given that the individual with mental disorders (psychosis in this case) was not in control of their decisions and the choices they made. However, given that a sane person has their freedom to make free decisions without being controlled, then they are morally responsible for what they do. This is similar to a sane person who clearly understands that touching a hot surface will hurt and proceeds to do so. As sane individuals with such understanding, they cannot place blame on anyone else and would be personally held responsible by others for their actions. However, is an infant or a person with less mental capacity does the same; they cannot be personally blamed given that they do not know any better. Here, the blame would be directed to those tasked with the role of caring for such people.


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