Determinism and Libertarianism

Determinism can be defined as the philosophical belief that every event or action is the inevitable result of preceding events and actions. Therefore, every event or action can be predicted in advance. Determinists do not believe in the notion of free will. Determinists would say that every human action is associated with a causal series of events that go back indefinitely into the past. Determinism and moral responsibility are in no way related. If humans are determined by “atomic” events, then they are surely not free. If they are not free, then there is no amount of moral responsibility present.

Libertarianism can be defined as the belief of protecting the notion of free moral choice by denying determinism, and also that free will exists in a way that is neither causally determined or just an event that occurred randomly. Libertarians agree that moral responsibility is an important concept for society.

Determinists believe that everything has a sufficient cause. The sufficient cause is a cause, which ensures that the event in question will actually happen. Determinists also believe that the facts about the state of the universe together with the laws of nature imply the state of the universe at any given later time. Under the deterministic view, if an individual knew a great deal about the state of the universe and the laws of nature at a particular time, and if that individual also had advanced computational power, than he could predict the state of the universe in the future. Stated briefly, determinists argue that every event has a cause, and human actions are events. Therefore, human actions are all caused, so determinism must be true and exist. (Kane) “Proponents of determinism sometimes claim that free will is an illusion, and that beings are no more able to control matter with their minds than any other soulless matter (such as a robot) can. The chief objection to determinism is that a universe in which people do not really make their own choices has no morality.”

There is some evidence that supports the idea of determinism. Modern science seems to find a cause for all things eventually. Civilization continues to advance because the world operates on deterministic ideas. In everyday life, people assume that everything must have a cause. The evidence against determinism includes the idea that people know they can change simply by common sense. If individuals do not feel motivated to change, then they could act in a different way. Libertarians argue that most events in the world are determined by antecedent causes, but some events are not. The libertarian model adds the notion of the self to the equation. “Before a desire necessitates an action, the self holds the final judgment of whether to act, or not.” These events are not determined by causes that are antecedent to them. Libertarians believe that free will is the power by which events come into the world and change its progression, and free will is a power that belongs to all people. Since people can do otherwise when they make a choice of free will, they are responsible for the outcomes of those choices. Free will suggests that all of the options associated with that choice are possible. According to determinism, there is only one possible end result. (Hacking)

When asked whether humans are free or determined, most people who have not given the issue a great deal of thought will give a libertarian-type answer to the question. Libertarianism is quite a popularly accepted doctrine; and it is easy to believe because it makes the most sense to the majority of people. “It is also more attractive to believe that each person is the maker of his own future than to believe that we are all predetermined to some existence or another, for better or for worse.” (Hacking)

Strict determinists, such as Baron Holbach, see the idea of free will as an “illusion due to the determined outcomes that could be predicted by the right knowledge of the causes that affect us.” On the other hand, libertarians such as Roderick Chisholm, for example, perceive freedom as needing a self, which intervenes in the decision making process. The ideas of determinism can be further broken down into the differing notions of hard determinism and soft determinism. Under hard determinism, determinism is true and free will entails the ability to do otherwise. However, the ability to do otherwise is not compatible with determinism. Therefore, free will and determinism are incompatible and consequently there is no free will.

Under soft determinism, also known as compatibilism, determinism is true and free will is acting as one wishes, without external constraints. The issue is not whether or not actions are caused, but whether they are caused or prevented by external constraints. Therefore, determinism and free will are compatible.

Here is an example to further illustrate the differing ideas of determinism and libertarianism: Suppose you woke up on a Sunday morning and had nothing planned for the day. You decide you would like to go to the mall in the early afternoon. However, it is a warm, beautiful day outside and you might opt for the beach instead. After thinking about the two possibilities for a few minutes, you decide to head to the beach for a day of sun filled fun. After all, you can go to the mall anytime. The shopping trip will be saved for a rainy or cold day.

The Sunday afternoon example illustrates the notion of using free will.A decision was consciously made after thinking about the choices. Ifno choice was made, then free will was not used. The process people gothrough leading up to the choice is also properly considered the use offree will or volition. That process is called decision making ordeliberation. So before you chose to go to the beach for the day, you weredeciding, or deliberating. Deciding involves some degree of weighing outoptions, even there were only two options to weigh out. This exampleis consistent with the ideas of libertarianism. Using the same example, under deterministic views, there would be no choice to be made between the mall and the beach. Everything that happens is predetermined, and individuals are not in control of their fate. So, if you happened to end up at the beach on that Sunday afternoon, it was due to predetermined events or causes that you were there. You did not choose or take moral responsibility for being at the beach.

It is clear that there are inherent differences between determinism and libertarianism. More specifically, they seem to be polar opposites. The most significant factor that enters into the debate is the notion of free will. Then the question that must be asked is: Do we really have free will or not?

It is my belief that we do have free will. However, I do believe some events are predetermined. Therefore, I would side more with the libertarians. Individuals make many conscious choices every day of their lives. They make choices that are very complex and some that are so simple as the choice of what kind of cereal to have in the morning. To say that these events are predetermined is quite silly. I believe that determinism and free will both exist.


Hacking, Ian, The Taming of Chance, Cambridge University Press, New York, 1990.

Kane, Robert, The Oxford Handbook of Free Will, Oxford University Press, New York, 2002.

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