Class Four: Soft Determinism and Indeterminism

According to hard determinism, environment, heredity, unconscious impulses, defense mechanisms, and other influences determine people to act the way they do; and because of that, they are not responsible for their actions. But if people are not free and thus responsible for their actions, then how can we be justified in holding people responsible? Perhaps, as the hard determinist suggests, we are justified in holding people responsible only in order to influence future behavior.

However, there are a number of theories that support the claim that human beings are free and can thus be justifiably held responsible for their actions. We will consider four of them (soft determinism, pragmatism/indeterminism, existentialism, and rational-agent theory).

Soft Determinism (also called Compatibilism and Self-determinism):

Though determinism is true, that does not rule out freedom and responsibility. In contrast to hard determinism (which claims that determinism is incompatible with freedom), soft determinism says that we are determined and are nonetheless still free. According to the soft determinist, when the individual is the cause of his or her actions, he or she is said to act freely.

There are two versions of this view: passive self-determinism and active self-determinism. Augustine, Spinoza, and Hume are proponents of the first version; Aristotle is a proponent of the second.

(I) According to passive self-determinism, freedom means being able to do what one wants to do, without (external) coercion or interference from anyone else. What one wants (as expressed by one's personality or character) is determined by external events (e.g., genetics, culture, upbringing), but as long as one is able to act consistent with the choices he/she makes, he/she is free. This position is called Compatibilism or soft determinism because it (like hard determinism) acknowledges that all events, including human actions, have causes; but it allows for free actions when the actions are caused by one's choices rather than external forces.

  • (A) Augustine: freedom refers to being able to do what one chooses to do (even if God knows beforehand what one is going to do). Here freedom means freedom to act. When my act is caused by external forces it is not free. When it is caused by my choice, it is free.
  • (B) Spinoza: freedom is the active acknowledgment and affirmation of one's complete determination. One is freed from the burdens of hopes and fears by recognizing that whatever one chooses to do could not have been otherwise.
  • (C) Hume: What is necessity (or lack of freedom) other than our experience of the fact that things always happen with some form of regularity? We assume that things cause other things insofar as we see that some things happen with regularity before and near other things. In short, a "cause" is nothing other than a kind of event we regularly experience preceding another kind of event. Some things that human beings do are preceded by their choices: these we call free or voluntary actions. Other things are not preceded by choices (for example, as when you slip and fall): these are called involuntary actions.
  • We generally can assume that certain motives or inclinations are behind particular actions precisely because we assume that actions are linked to choices. In fact, our laws, along with the punishments and rewards associated with them, are based on such assumptions. To blame or praise assumes actions proceed from the character of the person. If an action is coerced or done in ignorance, we may say the act is wrong but that the person is not responsible. And if a person repents and reforms his or her personality, we often forgive him or her. But we do so only because we think there is a connection between one's personality (the set of character traits defined by one's choices) and the actions that the person does based on choices. We assume that there is a definite (determining) cause behind "free" actions--namely, one's character, personality, or choices. Without such a deterministic assumption, morality itself would not make sense.

    Of course, human beings often do things that do not occur as a result of their character, personality, passions, or affections. Sometimes external force or violence is the cause of human behavior, and when that happens, we say that the action is not "caused" by anything in the person. Obviously, it would make no sense to reward or punish someone when his or her actions are the result of factors other than of their own choosing, because the purpose of reward and punishment is to change behavior in the future. But if we say (as the hard determinist does) that no one ever acts freely (i.e., as a result of his or her choices), then we would be unable to make sense out of moral praise or blame. In that case, human actions would be neither good nor bad--and that is something that no honest person is willing to accept: no one really lives that way.

    There are two major objections to the passive version of soft determinism:

  • (1) To say that we are not free only when compelled by external forces (e.g., threats) ignores the fact that inner, unconscious coercive forces (e.g., compulsions) can determine our actions just as much.
  • (2) The fact that we choose to act a certain way does not guarantee that our choice is free or that we have had any say-so in the determination of our character or personality. External forces cause the personality or self to be as it is; so how can we really be said to be free?
  • (II) According to active self-determinism, we can ultimately choose independently of culture and past conditioning because we can be self-aware and can engage in a critique of ourselves. In short, we can transcend or "step outside" of ourselves to reflect on what we have become and decide whether we want to remain that way. This self-awareness allows us to be free to make new and creative decisions. This view is the one adopted by Aristotle.

    Aristotle: we are free insofar as we are responsible for our actions, and we are responsible only for those actions that we do voluntarily (that is, as a result of our choices). Insofar as our habits or dispositions are the result of choices we have made in the past, any choices or actions based on them are voluntary and are our responsibility. We are responsible for any action that results from our "culpable" ignorance or negligence if any reasonable person in our circumstances could have avoided such ignorance or negligence. We are also responsible for learning how a "reasonable" person thinks, and that means not allowing ourselves to become selfish or lazy. Ultimately, we are responsible for developing through our actions the character and personality traits that form the foundation on which our actions are based. We are not responsible for involuntary actions, that is, those actions over which we have no control and which result from coercion, constraint, or justifiable ignorance.

    Objections to active self-determinism:

  • (1) Coming to know about oneself reflectively does not make oneself any less determined, for the process of coming to know oneself would presumably be just as determined as other knowledge.
  • (2) Doesn't the sheer fact of self-reflection really mean that self-consciousness is outside the order of deterministic (law-governed) causes? But how is that possible? And how would we know that we are reflecting or "thinking" in a reasonable fashion if we were not following a regular (law-governed) order or sequence of ideas?
  • Indeterminism

    According to Indeterminism, certain decisions and acts (namely, "free" ones) have nothing that causes them to occur; they are pure chance events. They are not causally determined by anything prior to their occurrence. The assumption that all events in nature are determined is unwarranted; indeed, chance events are perhaps even necessary to account for the diversity of things in the universe. In addition, current theoretical physics recognizes that subatomic events occur in completely random and (in principle) unpredictable ways. Since not every event is predictable, and since a completely caused (determined) event would be predictable, not every event is caused. Such indeterminacy opens up the possibility that we can really affect the future; and in this way we can be free and morally responsible.


  • (1) Indeterminism undermines the whole scientific effort to explain nature and human beings, and it makes such an effort a waste of time insofar as it does not guarantee that understanding human behavior will allow us to improve it.

  • (2) If choices and actions are not determined even by one's personality or character, then a so-called "free" act would be one that occurs spontaneously and unpredictably (even to the person doing it); thus no one could justifiably be held responsible for doing an action which not even he/she could have predicted would occur. Pure chance is thus not freedom.
  • William James: Pragmatism

    Since the belief in whether we are free or determined might ultimately be irresolvable in a purely theoretical way, we have to make a practical choice about what to believe. Considering what is at stake--moral responsibility, a reason for trying to improve things in the future, a justification for regretting evil--it is perfectly rational to believe that some decisions might have no absolutely determining causes and that there are genuine options in acting--in short, that we are free. In other words, on "morally rational" grounds, indeterminism (thinking that some human actions have no specific determining causes) is preferable to determinism. At least if we adopt indeterminism (and the freedom it implies), we seem to be able to explain our experience of choice much more convincingly than if we adopt determinism.


  • (1) Even wanting to believe that one is free is itself determined by past events. Besides, wanting to believe something to be true does not make it true.

  • (2) We don't have to assume that we are free in order to hold ourselves and others responsible; holding people responsible is not identical with actually being responsible.