Free Will Is An Illusion Philosophy Essay

In my research I shall be investigating whether individuals can hold full moral responsibility for their actions if free will does not exist. Firstly I shall be exploring why it is claimed that free will is an illusion and looking more closely at the deterministic route. Then I shall be looking more closely at moral responsibility to see if we hold full responsibility through determinism/ causality. I will be looking into different areas of determinism from soft and hard determinism and compatibilism; looking at philosophers such as Kane and Hume. I shall conclude in my research that it is possible to hold full moral responsibility but yet be determined. This argument is supported by analogies such as the Frankfurt argument.

Free will and determinism defined

To investigate whether moral responsibility can exist without free will, we firstly have to explore the arguments of free will and determinism. The first approach that will be examined is libertarianism. Libertarianism states that humans have free will, and that there is a free action, therefore denying the thesis of determinism. Determinism being the opposite branch; denying free will and obtaining that for everything that happens in the universe there are conditions, and given those conditions, nothing else could happen or be changed. Already we can see how they conflict, actions cannot be free, but yet determined. Libertarianism is based on the belief that ‘not all events in the universe are subject to causation’ [1] . After distinguishing both libertarianism and determinism I shall then move on to my next chapter to examine how the both collide with one another; to come to the conclusion that free will is unable to exist because determinism stands to strong. I will now explain what each definition means with philosophers ideas.


Libertarians are revolved around an agent being able to do otherwise. If an agent has the choice and decision to do otherwise, then they are therefore free in their action. Kane is a well-known philosopher who defends the position of free will. In order to define what we mean by free will, he first describes what he means by Will. After distinguishing what Kane means by Will, he moves on to explain how our Will is free. He states ‘to be a self or person or rational agent was to have reason, or the capacity to reason, and this was essential, as they viewed it, for the existence of anything we could call free will’ [2] . In order to have free will, we must be capable to reason, but as Kane explains we also need to recognise the capacity to reason has two kinds; theoretical and practical. Theoretical reasoning meaning intellect and practical reasoning meaning will; this allows us to act rationally as humans. He defines the term rational will as ‘a set of powers defined in terms of a family of concepts whose focal member is practical reasoning or deliberation’ [3] . Kane moves on to explain what he means by practical reasoning; reasoning about what to be done. This means what one ought to do or should do, or what one chooses or decides; which signifies two kinds of judgements.

The Will ‘is a set of conceptually interrelated powers or capacities, including the power to deliberate, or to reason practically, to choose or decide, to make practical judgements, to form intentions or purpose, to critically evaluate reasons for action, and so forth’. Kane describes the meaning of Will, to be rational and to reason. In order to have free will we have to be rational being. We can prove that we are rational beings as we have to have to capacity to reason, which every human attains. Therefore, to have the ability to reason as rational beings enables us to be free in our actions. We are able to look into situations and reason which is the best course of action to take. If we were pre-determined from the beginning of the universe to follow certain actions, then it means our reason would be pointless. Kane claims that being a rational being means we have freedom as humans, because we have the ability to reason.

Humans generally act as if they possess free will. We don’t see ourselves as being robots were we are being told how to function, but we like to believe that we are autonomous. We are able to freely choose what path we would like to take without any external factors influencing our decisions. However, it could be claimed that we are affected by the domino effect, our feelings effect our motives, which then effect our actions and so on, so technically we are always being influenced by something rather than being totally autonomous. Skinner explores this area of argument in later chapters with his behavioural studies. Foot explains, our actions may be determined by our past motives, feelings, or desires, but that doesn’t necessarily prove that humanity has been pre-determined from the beginning of the universe. Foot comes to this conclusion because ‘an action said to be determined by the desires of the man who does it is not necessarily an action for which there is supposed to be a sufficient condition. In saying that it is determined by his desires we may mean merely that he is doing something that he wants to do, or that he is doing it for the sake of something else that he wants. There is nothing in this to suggest determinism’ [4] .

Jean- Paul Sartre has an interesting view of human freedom; he argues that human actions usually tend to be something new, something they have never done before, a new experience. They think about going from present, to think about future actions that do not yet exist. Sartre argues that in this sense, humans are capable of standing part from the world, they are conceived and moved by the future that they see which does not exist yet. Sartre states that ‘human-reality is free becauseaˆ¦it is perpetually wrenched away from itself and because it has been separated by a nothingness from what it is and from what it will beaˆ¦freedom is precisely the nothingness which is made to be at the heart of man and which forced human reality to make itself instead of to simply be’ [5] . Although we may believe this is true, every action we tend to take is a new experience. But this new experience has to have been brought on by past experiences; it can’t just be a random act that has never been thought about before. Such as, I want to go on holiday to America. A new experience, I have never been there before. But at some point in my life, past experiences have led me to come to this conclusion of wanting to go to America. Whether relatives have gone before, or someone has recommended it to me. A random thought cannot just appear in our heads, it had to be brought on by past acts/experiences. Therefore, we are under the illusion that we are free, but actually looking beyond the illusion, we see that in reality we are determined in some way or another; environment, heredity, experiences etc.

Hard Determinism/ Causality

However, determinism stands at the opposite end to free will. Determinism states that every event in humanity; decisions, actions, feelings is a consequence of state of affairs. Therefore, we are unable to be autonomous in our actions. Determinism can be placed into two different categories; Hard and Soft determinism.

The basic outline of hard determinism is that humans have no free will. This is an incompatible position that both free will and determinism cannot exist. But this raises issues; if hard determinism is true then no one can possible be responsible for their actions? This is my area of investigation which will be explained later in more depth. Hard determinism holds 3 theses; ‘1) free will is incompatible with determinism and 2) free will (in an incompatible sense) does not exist because 3) determinism is true’ [6] . Hard determinism leaves no room for decisions and choice, as our lives have been determined for us. We may believe that we have choices and free will, but this is an illusion. Determinism ‘lies within the idea of reductio: every action or event is the strict effect of a cause, and because this cause is itself the necessary effect of a previous cause, and convincing explanation requires a return to the very first cause, in other words the prime mover. Whatever its nature’ [7] .

Determinism/Causality is the relationship between cause and effect. It is the thesis that ‘every event is causally determined by previous events in accordance with laws of nature’ . It is a view that mankind has a say in determining its fate and choices of the agents future. If the agent was free to choose otherwise, then they must be free. They had the decision and to choose otherwise, but also the natural laws is unable to change. The past is fixed and out of anyone’s control, to say that if I had done that, the past would have been different (natural laws would have been different). However, the past cannot be changed, and therefore we are not free to choose, as we are always been influenced, determined by our past and natural laws. Determinism is what I shall be arguing for; we are able to hold full moral responsibility through determinism, which again will be explained in later chapters.

Soft determinism

Soft determinism differs from hard determinism. Hard determinism is one strict belief that free will cannot exist, but we are totally determined in our ways. Our choices, decisions, desire have all been determined for us, we are unable to prevent or change these. However, soft determinism is the belief that determinism and free will are compatible with one another. It is possible to believe in both without them conflicting. Compatibilists believe that it is possible to believe in both determinism and free will without being logically inconsistent. Freedom can be present or absent in situations; it’s about acting free in according to one’s determined motives. Augustine and Hume have different ideas on their view of soft determinism, but yet still sum up the same conclusion that both determinism and free will are compatible.

Augustine is a soft determinism but is also referred as a compatibilist too; we are still determined but nonetheless we are also free. Augustine is a prime philosopher of soft determinism, although his determined differs as he follows the route of theological soft determinism; events are caused by a higher power, known as God, yet we still obtain free will. St Augustine argued that ‘just because God is omniscient does not mean that we do not have free will. God has foreknowledge of our choices and the decisions we will make. This does not mean man doesn’t make decisions freely; rather it emphasizes God’s omnipotence’. Augustine argued for three type of events; those that appear to be caused by chance, those caused by God (such as birth and death), and those caused by us (whether or not we take the decision to lead a morally good life).

Whereas Hume didn’t believe there was a higher power affecting agents, but believed that ‘soft determinism operates through the mind and allows for flexible response. But it is still deterministic, because the way the various circumstances that constitute moral causes operate is to establish a set of motives or reasons that ‘render a peculiar set of manners habitual’ [8] . What he means by this view is that soft determinism is about human nature that our morals sentiments are aroused by the characters of agents; where he claims that ‘nature has made the minds of all people similar in their feelings and operations’ [9] . Soft determinism overall is belief in both determinism in some aspect, and a belief that we still hold free will. They still hold the view of universal causation (hard determinism), that everything is caused by a series of casual events. But it is also possible to hold freedom too, such as we are able to be moral responsible agents. One is able to act in accordance with one’s nature, which has been determined by factors such as heredity, family or the environment.

We have now distinguished what we mean by free will, and the different aspects of determinism. In order to answer this research question to find out whether moral responsibility can exist through determinism, we must first prove that free will is an illusion; which is my next chapter.

Free will and determinism compatible?

Free will and determinism collide with one another. My aim in this chapter is to conclude that free will is an illusion; it is unable to be compatible with determinism. My reason for arguing that free will is an illusion is so I am able to investigate whether it is possible for determinism alone (hard determinism) is able to be compatible with moral responsibility. As agents, do we have we the right to take praise and punishment, if our actions that we act upon weren’t our choice? However, I first have to disprove free will existing. As Kane states, we would like to believe that ‘we feel it is ‘up to us’ what we choose and how we act; this means we could have chosen or acted otherwise’ [10] . But is this the case? My argument is that agents are unable to act otherwise, as there is always an influence of determinism which limits their choices and decisions. I shall be exploring arguments from a free will view, but defending the determinism approach by claiming we are misled to believe that we have free will, it is an illusion.

In Kant’s critique of Practical Reason and Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals he argues that we must admit that we are free, otherwise morality cannot exist. Reconstruction of Kant’s main argument of free will goes as follows;

‘1) we accept morality on intuitive grounds. 2) Morality implies rationality. 3) Rationality implies free will. 4) Therefore we conclude we have free will’ [11] . In order for us to maintain morality as agents we must also maintain free will. Kant argues that; ‘Firstly, morality involves a law-a moral law-that commands me to act in a certain way. Secondly, this moral law is universal in that we conceive of it as binding on everyone without exception. Since that moral law binds everyone, I cannot, or at least ought not to, excuse myself or a friend for any crime. Evidently, then, morality as a moral law, and indeed, the moral law, is an imperative in that it demands something of every person, and in particular, each persons will’ [12] .

Moral law according to Kant is an act in accordance with the demands of practical reason, it is a categorical imperative (commands us to act in accordance to reason) rather than a hypothetical imperative (action required for a personal motive or desire). Our rationality needs to come from both reason and morality; ‘we can use a priori reason to derive necessary actions or duties, the basis on which we are to act, from one of the several formulations of the categorical imperative’ [13] . Kant defends his claim that rationality implies freedom. This is because; rationality must appoint rules of both reason and morality. The categorical imperative as an imperative of rationality gives us a command to act in a certain way. It acknowledges us to use our priori reason in order to come to a conclusion of our actions and duties on what we act upon. Kant claims that ‘of these formulations, the one that accords best with the conception of freedom is the formula of autonomy’ [14] . According to this formula, it means that the categorical imperative instructs the Will to act in a way that it both legislates law for itself, and at the same time subjects to those same laws. But these laws must conform to reason and reason is universal to every rational being. Therefore, Kant concludes that ‘when the will acts accordance to this formula of autonomy, it is the autonomous will’ [15] , resulting that we must be free as rational beings. However, Spinoza flaws Kant’s argument; ‘rationalism takes place the most strict identity between ’cause, reason and nature’ in which cause is the same thing as reason, reason is the same thing as cause, and cause is the same thing as a necessary causality or determinism. From a given determinate cause there necessarily follows an effect’ [16] . This results in the opposite of Kantian approach, as rationality is incompatible with freedom. This is because determinism results in the same causes producing the same effects, like a chain.

Instead of looking at a philosophical approach on free will and determinism, let’s take a look at the psychological approach too. Such as B.F Skinner, instead of using analogies Skinner uses hard and reliable evidence of studies and experiments to conclude that we are determined as humans. Skinner was a psychologist but also a very important proponent when it came to the debate of free will and determinism, he was well known for his behaviourist approach. Skinner stands as a hard determinist by stating that;

‘If we are to use the methods of science in the field of human affairs, we must assume that behaviour is lawful and determined. We must expect to discover that what a man does is the result of specifiable conditions and that once these conditions have been discovered, we can anticipate and to some extent determine his actions’ [17] .

Skinners system was based on operant conditioning, where an agent’s behaviour is modified by its consequences – such as reward and punishment. Rather than our ‘free will’ of choice and desire, we are instead determined or conditioned by our environment. Skinners aim of operant conditioning was to prove that our past experience does determine our actions in the future. If an individual finds something pleasant from their past experience, then their behaviour is likely to be repeated in the future. And vice versa- if the behaviour is followed by an unpleasant consequence then it is unlikely the individual would not repeat it- this is known as Law of effect. In order to prove his hypothesis of determinism skinner used an experiment called the ‘skinner box’. The Skinner box was created in order for an animal in the box to manipulate a lever that they can press to access food or water- a type of reinforcement. There was a light on the lever, and only when the light was on the food would be realised by pressing the lever. Through this form of learning the animal was able to realise that the lever they pressed released food when the light was on rather than off, therefore the likelihood was the behaviour of the animal would repeat when the light was on, as it was a positive reinforcement. The animal learnt that the lever would not release any food if the light was off. Skinner relates this to our physical and social environment- the idea that we learn from our behaviour. When we find a positive consequence, we will repeat the behaviour, a negative response, we won’t repeat the behaviour. For example, we learn from our peers when the best time is to ask them for a favour. If they are miserable, you know not too. But if they are cheerful you know that is the best time. The reason for this is because we have learnt from our past experience. We have learnt that persons facial expression and emotions when the best time is to ask for a favour wanting a positive reinforcement. Skinner also gives different scenarios in which we learn from past experience which now determined our behaviour today; ‘you also know that your professors are more likely to respond to your raising your hand if they are facing you than if their backs are turned. A green traffic light, another type of discriminative stimulus, signal that driving though an intersection is likely to be reinforced by a safe passage’ [18] . Skinner’s studies shows that we are affected as humans by our past experiences, through reward and punishment, bad and good affects. But these past experiences now determine us as agents, they are constantly influencing us in what we do. The past cannot be escaped and no matter how much someone claims they have free will they will constantly by determined by early/past experiences. We can never be totally free in choice or decision making, it is impossible.

However, Kane recognises this conflict that Skinner picks up on. That we cannot be free because we are always being influenced by external factors, such as heredity, our environment and past experiences. Therefore, to defend the libertarian approach Kane forwards an example linked to B.F Skinner. ‘Suppose a young man is on trial for an assault and robbery in which his victim was beaten to death. Let us say we attend his trail and listen to the evidence in the courtroom. At first, our thoughts of the young man are filled with anger and resentmentaˆ¦But as we listen daily to how he came to have the mean character and perverse motives he did have-parental neglect, child abuse, sexual abuse, bad role models- some of our resentment against the young man is shifted over to the parents…We wonder whether some residual responsibility may not belong to him’. Was he determined this way through his upbringing and environment, or was his choice totally free? Kane would claim he was totally free in his decision making, with no influence or deterministic route. To explore the understanding of free will and Skinners claim more Kane elaborates on the idea of ‘garden of forking paths’. To illustrate ‘suppose Jane has just graduated from Law school and she has a choice between joining a law firm in Chicago or a different firm in New York. If Jane believes her choice is a free choice (made of her own free will) she must believe both options are open to her while she is deliberating’ [19] . Therefore, there is more than one path available to her in her future and she believes this choice is entirely her own free will. We can see how determinism threatens the picture of free will but Kane carries on to defends the libertarian view; if we stopped believing in free will then we would lose our sense of morality/ responsibility so free will must exist. But we can’t just claim we have free will because we are under the illusion we have more than one choice. There could be a million choices, but the matter of the fact is only one of those choices is going to happen because we are determined. We are unable to choose otherwise. However, it could be argued that our reasoning is just an illusion. We like to believe we have a choice and be able to reason in situations, but it is possible that we have been pre-determined to make choices, but we just reason because we like to believe we are free. It’s an illusion. We could deny determinism throughout our past and present future, but it doesn’t mean we are not pre-determined.

Pereboom reacts to Kane’s argument and re-examines the libertarianism arguments. He argues that ‘event-causal libertarianism cannot secure responsibility-conferring control’ [20] . He proves this through his own analogy. A business woman; Anne, who is in a dilemma to either decide to stop and help an assault victim, or she can refrain from so deciding. Pereboom argues that ‘relevant causal conditions antecedent to this decision-agent-involving event, or, alternatively, states of agents-would leave it open whether this decision would occur, and she has no further causal role of the antecedent conditions already given, whether the decision occurs or not then settled by anything about the agent- whether it be states or events in which the agent is involved, or the agent herself’ [21] . Pereboom’s argument is that the agent has limited control required for her to be morally responsible. She cannot choose, nor have the desire to act upon this situation by helping the assault victim. She has no choose to do otherwise, and free will collides with this.


Schopenhauer expressed that ‘every man, being what he is and placed in the circumstances which for the moment obtainaˆ¦can absolutely never do anything else than just what at that moment he does do. Accordingly, the whole course of a man’s life, in all its incidents great and smell, is as necessarily predetermined as the course of a clock’ [22] . A man is able to desire what one wants to do, but his actions are predetermined for him, and isn’t able to choose otherwise. To explain this, Schopenhauer implies that determinism relies on two factors of an agent; their motive and their character. Our motive is causality that passes through our cognitive side; one’s attention, memory, their reason. And a situation that happens at a particular time in particular circumstances ‘depresses the switch on the detonator causing the explosion. This presupposes the nature of electricity and of the materials used for combustion’ [23] . Another word, motivation from one’s action is rooted from their personal character. This is known as their nature of the will. But what makes an agent determined, Schopenhauer explains is a reaction to the same motive will always differ in every individual. This alternatively makes up their individuality of their character. Schopenhauer calls this the empirical character as ‘it is by its means that the way in which various motives affect the given man is determined’ [24] . An individual’s character, their mental and physical attribute is constant throughout their life, no matter what it is always immutable. ‘On looking back over our past, we see at once that our life consists of mere variations on one and the same theme, namely our character, and that the same fundamental bass sounds through it all. This is an experience a man can and must make in and by himself’ [25] . It could be argued that one is always changing, their character, and their physical and mental individuality. But no matter what we adapt to, or change our views, our character is always constant throughout our life because it roots back to our motive, which is our character.

It is clear that free will is a weak position, and it could be claimed it is an illusion. Determinism can follow off into many routes, as Skinner has proved- a psychological approach, and Schopenhauer through an approach of our character and motive. But it is clear that determinism holds a very strong stance. Kane recognises the conflict of determinism and free will, but doesn’t do much to hold his argument. To claim that just because we feel we can debate about a choice, and we think we can do otherwise does not prove we have free will. It’s an illusion that we think is happening, but in reality, we have been determined. As Skinner and Schopenhauer have proved, our environmental, and character determined who we are today and who we will be. Now we have proved free will to be an illusion, this raises another issue. If we are totally determined in our actions then how are we expected to take full responsibility for our actions. If our actions have been pre-determined from the beginning of the universe, or through our character of environmental basis, then how could we possibly take responsibility for our actions? We have no freedom in choosing our actions, therefore why shall we be punished for them?

Is Determinism/ Causal determinism compatible with moral responsibility?

After establishing that the libertarianism view cannot exist, the deterministic route now has to be examined in more depth. Free will is an illusion, admitting this means everything is determined; either through a theological, psychological, behaviour or environmental path. But this raises a significant and relevant issue within philosophy which has been evolved for many centuries; can moral responsibility exist if everything has been determined? How can we claim we have responsibility or take responsibility for our actions e.g. punishment and reward, if we have been determined this way as an individual? Firstly I shall be exploring what I actually mean by moral responsibility so the argument is more specific and clear. Then I shall be deepening my argument to see whether hard determinism can exist with full responsibility of our actions; concluding that through the hard deterministic route it is possible to have full moral responsibility.

Defining moral responsibility and determinism

Concentrating on the issue of moral responsibility, I first have to define what I mean by this. Moral responsibility refers to whether an individual holds full responsibility of their actions and morals they act upon. As Pereboom explains the term meaning ‘for an agent to be morally responsible for an action is for it to belong to her in such a way that she would deserve blame is she understood that it was morally wrong, and she would deserve credit or perhaps praise is she understood that it was morally exemplary’ [26] . If we take to definition of moral responsibility and link it with determinism (holding that determinism is true and in no form can be compatible with free will) we now start to build an argument. If our lives our determined for us, then why are we held responsible for our actions if our actions are not a choice we can make, they can’t be prevented or chosen. Can moral responsibility exist?

Ogletree and Oberle examine whether we have the right to hold individuals responsible for their actions; blame and punish them, if they could not have done otherwise. In a research study by Nahmias, Morris, Nadelhoffer and Turner (2005); ‘examining people’s thoughts on moral