Ethics and Freedom


At the root of our discussion of ethics is the notion of freedom. A single proposition which summarizes the idea is this:

If I am to make moral choices, I must be free to do so. If I am not free in some sense to do the thing that I choose, I cannot be responsible for the outcome.

The freedom that I’m talking about is qualified. My choices are limited by physical laws. I cannot fly no matter how hard I wave my arms around. My choices are limited by my natural abilities. Though I may desire to a rock star, the limits of my talent on the guitar are going to have a limiting effect. Finally, my choices may be constrained by legal or social constraints. The choice I make may be possible but I cannot pursue them because they are legally or socially prohibited.

We must also consider two philosophical ideas in order to construct our conclusions. The first is Determinism. In its simplest form, determinism is the notion that everything has a cause. In other words, all events are effects caused by earlier events. If this idea is true, all future events are unalterable and fixed and the agents (us) cannot be held morally responsible for them. We are not free to choose what to do. Reductionism is another idea that is a bit more abstract. If true, reductionism renders the whole idea of personal freedom meaningless because it says that our thoughts and ideas are nothing more than electrical impulses and that freedom of will is an illusion. If moral choices are to make any sense, I have to first believe that a human being is more than just a set of electrical impulses. If not, the impulses win and are their randomness makes them incompatible with moral responsibility.

The first position that you need to come to then is whether or not humans are free to make moral choices, whether for good or for evil. What say you?

Photo by justinbaeder

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