Does freedom exist? What does “freedom” mean? Philosophers asked these questions when on the topic of freedom. There are many different types of determinism. Types of determinism are hard determinism, soft determinism, indeterminism, and libertarianism. Philosophers had different ethical traditions. Three ethical traditions that we are going to look at are utilitarianism, virtue ethics, and existentialism. Each of these have arguments against them. Sartre was able to defend his existentialism the most.
Determinism is the thesis that everything that occurs happens of necessity (Palmer, chapter 6). It first started with Leucippus and Democritus around 460 BCE. Democritus believed that existing things are composed of atoms in motion (D2L, chapter 6). He also said that “Naught happens for nothing but everything from a ground of necessity.” This idea did not get very popular until later. Baron Henri D’Holbach believes that the same principles that apply in the physical world would apply in the brain and thoughts (D2L, chapter 6). Laplace had a very similar view. He believed that if we could perfectly know any specific moment in the world in its entirety, we would know all that had happened and would happen (D2L, chapter 6). There are different types of determinism. Two types include soft determinism and hard determinism.
Soft determinism are philosophers who affirm the truth of determinism and deny that their deterministic views prevent the existence of freedom and responsibility (D2L. chapter 6). Compatibilism (soft determinism) started in the first century. They ask, “what do we mean by freedom.” (Palmer, chapter 6) The response is we are free because we are able to do and get what we want. For compatibilist, freedom is being able to act how we want.. There are critiques against soft determinism. One critique is that will and capacity is not a very robust conception of freedom. Another argument challenges the libertarian assumption that moral true responsibility is possible only if there are general alternatives (D2L, chapter 6). This means that if someone believes that they can have different options and goes through with the one that is possible (even if the other one wasn’t), the person was still free to do what they wanted.
Hard determinism is the view that determinism is true and that its truth rules out the possibility of freedom (Palmer, chapter 6). Nothing is considered free if everything is necessary. One person that defended hard determinism was BF skinner. He stated, “The escape route for freedom is slowly closed as new evidence of the predictability of human behavior is discovered.” (D2L, chapter 6) Skinner associated freedom with the teleological explanation. He believed that the teleological model needs to done away with and replaced with a casual explanation. Sigmund Freud believed that significant actions are unfree. The argument against this is that free will is undetermined, uncaused or caused by the individual.
Indeterminism claims that determinism is false. There are several versions of indeterminism. The arguments include there are only random events, there are some random events, there are some uncaused events, or some caused events are not necessary events (Palmer, chapter 6). Indeterminism involves the idea that some acts could be different from what they are. Heisenberg believed that the subatomic level (causal model) did not work. He then said that the casual model should be replaced with a statistical. The principle was adopted by physicist and indeterminism is well respected because of Heisenberg.
Heisenberg used his indeterminism to defend libertarianism. Libertarianism is the view that determinism is false, and that freedom does not exist (D2L, chapter 6). Heisenberg hoped in fact that some of the events in the brain are uncaused might be the scientific basis for a theory of freedom (Palmer, chapter 6) He had critiques point out that these cannot be called “free” but more as “random” events. Inwagen used Freud’s and skinners argument to point out a flaw in determinism. Peter Van Inwagen pointed out that there cannot be “soft determinism”. There was a problem with this because an attempt to defend freedom is associated with Cartesian dualism.
Utilitarianism is a tradition that focuses on pleasure (D2L, chapter 7). In the nineteenth century, utilitarianism was put forth. Utilitarianist follow the greater happiness principle. Individuals that follow this principle should do “the greatest good for the greatest number of people”. “Utilitarianism calculus” was created by Jeremy Bentham to determine the amount of pleasure. He believed that this seven-step process was reflective of how we have moral decisions (D2L chapter 7). Things included in the “utilitarianism calculus” are intensity, duration, certainty, propinquity, fecundity, purity and extent. Bentham thought that all pleasure are equal in value, but John Stuart mill did not. Mill believed that some pleasures were qualitatively better than others (D2L, chapter 7). There are problems in utilitarianism. The problems are that it is a consequentialist tradition and bad actions can result.
Virtue ethics dates back to Aristotle. Aristotle believed that there are two types of virtue, which include intellectual and moral. A “golden mean of moderation” was called for between excess and deficiency (D2L, chapter 7). Aristotle believed that females have an incomplete soul. He would always be talking about men when he said men. There are many female ethicists now. Virtue ethics has an attack against utilitarianism (D2L, chapter 7). They believe that we can pretend to predict fate of man. Aristotle says that moral acts are to be performed with the “right feeling” (D2L, chapter 7). The argument against Virtue ethics is that we can not know who to imitate. Virtue is learned by imitation (D2L, chapter 7)
Paul Sartre’s existentialism challenges the possibility of any moral or code system (Palmer, chapter 8). An example that can be used to demonstrate Sartre’s view is if a child needs to choose in between staying with his sick sister or go off to college. Sartre believes that there is no right or wrong thing to do in this situation. Sartre prioritized freedom while Kant did not. The individual will make a correct choice either way. Sartre prioritized freedom while Kant did not. Although, they both held similar views. Sartre accepted Kant’s idea that human are free and autonomous (D2L, chapter 8). His conclusion was that we are bound by freedom not duty. This is the best argument because people should not be bound by duty. They should be free to choose what they do. There were many arguments against Sartre’s existentialism. Critics would say that he focused too much on choices. Unlike others, he was able to defend his existentialism by using terms differently than they had usually been used. Words like abandonment or despair had different meanings to him.
Philosophers view freedom in different ways. There are many questions about freedom. Some include “does freedom exist” and “what is meant by freedom”. Determinism is a view that everything happens for a reason. There are 4 types of determinism, which include soft determinism and hard determinism.Three ethical traditions are virtue ethics, utilitarianism, and existentialism. One tradition was able to be defended better than the others. This one was existentialism.
- Palmer, Donald. Does the Center Hold?: an Introduction to Western Philosophy. McGraw-Hill Education, 2016.
- Berkey Abbott. “Instructors Notes.” D2L, https://bconline.broward.edu/d2l/le/content/354757/home
- McKenna, Michael, and D. Justin Coates. “Compatibilism.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Stanford University, 25 Feb. 2015, plato.stanford.edu/entries/compatibilism/.