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Freedom of the will vs. determinism

Without freedom of the will, a person could not be responsible for what he does because he would not have the ability to choose freely to perform or not to perform the act. This raises the problem of “freedom of the will” vs. “determinism”. “Determinism” means that all events have causes. “Indeterminism means that some events do not (or may not) have causes. “Causes” is a metaphysical term. However, are “freedom of the will” and “determinism” really all that different? The difficulty of this question becomes apparent in the question “Is ‘choosing’ determined or does it have a cause?” If ‘choosing’ is not caused it would be like a “bolt from the blue”. If that were so, how can a person who chooses be considered responsible for what he chooses? If “choices” have no causes they would be inexplicable. It might seem then that freedom of the will does not exclude determinism. Freedom of the will seems to refer to choices determined by reasons rather than by causes. But, reasons may be just another set of causes. Even if the distinction between “causes” and “reason” were established, it is not sure that the problem of “freedom of the will” vs. “determinism” would be solved. This seems to be an intractable problem. Since this has remained an unsolved problem, it is assumed that most people are responsible for their actions; that moral judgements can be properly made about the actions of people. In other words, it is assumed that people  actually make judgements of right and wrong or about the rightness or wrongness of action.

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What constitutes a morally bad action?

A morally bad action is an action which is wrong and which is done from morally bad motives. The more seriously wrong the action is, the greater the punishment should be if the action is also morally bad (i.e., done from a morally bad motive). Ultimately the person deserves to be punished for doing a wrong act, because in doing a morally bad act a person has done wrong. But, if he deserves to be punished, it would be just to punish him (by someone or other, real or hypothetical) who has the right to punish him. However, any just act is an act of impartiality. Therefore, if a person has done something wrong provided it was done with indifference to its wrongness, it would be an act of impartiality to allocate to him an object of disinterest. If he deserves punishment it would be just to punish him and if he were not punished, that would be unjust.

Are there degrees of wrongness?

There are degrees of seriousness of wrongness. One act can be more seriously wrong than another act. For example, it is considered, by most people, to be a more seriously wrong to kill a person than to kill a dog. Both are considered wrong but not to the same degree. This distinction is reflected in ordinary moral discourse as well as in the fact that a person would be punished more severely for killing a person than for killing a dog.

Are there degree of rightness?

There are no degrees of rightness. An action is either right or it is not right. For example, “It is right to be fair to children” cannot be “half right” or “partially right” or “very right”.

Do people ever act from a morally good motive?

A cynic does not believe that people ever act from morally good motives but that they act purely from the motive of self-interest. To act from self-interest, he implies, is not to act from a morally good motive. For example, when John visits his ailing father regularly in hospital, the cynic would suspect that John is protecting his interests in an inheritance which he expects to receive from his father. The cynic would claim that John does not make those regular visits just because he loves his father. When someone performs his duty faithfully, the cynic would argue that he does so for any number of ulterior motives. He probably wants the approval of others, or avoid the disapproval of others, or he fears punishment. However, the cynic would not say that someone acted from ulterior motives if the cynic could be persuaded that the person acted from a desire to do his duty. This would seem to be the only motive acceptable to a cynic as being a morally ,good motive. This is precisely the motive that, according to the cynic, is absent when people claim they act from morally good motives. It is this motive which he feels people appeal to in order to cover the ulterior motives from which people really act most of the time.

Is ‘love’ a morally good motive?


Suppose a teacher is acting out of love for his students when he helps them after school? Is he acting from a morally good motive?

Love is a motive from which a non-moral agent could act. Insofar as a moral agent acts from this motive he is no different from a non-moral agent. If a non-moral agent acted from the motive of love, the motive could not be regarded as a morally good motive because the non-moral agent is not capable of distinguishing right from wrong, does he have the concepts of  right and wrong, nor does he understand the meaning of right and wrong. But, if love cannot be Judged to be a morally good motive for non-moral agents then it cannot be judged to be a morally good motive for a moral agent. In short, love can be a good motive but not a morally good motive. It would seem that it cannot really be one’s duty to love someone but it may be one’s duty to act in a loving way. What is more, a person probably cannot choose to love someone but, up to a certain point, a person can choose to act in a certain way. That people cannot choose to love probably is the reason for the expression “falling in love”. It still leaves open the question whether a person can act in a “loving way” towards a person whom he does not love. The answer to this question would depend on what is meant by “acting in a loving way” and “love”. It would seem that the word “loving” and “love” in these two situations would not mean the same thing.

The comparison between the moral and non-moral agent in the above example requires a qualification. Since a moral agent is someone who can distinguish right from wrong, he is capable of acting out of love as well as from a desire to do what is right or from a sense of duty. In the case of the teacher who helped the students after school day after day, the teacher, as a moral agent, might well help the students because of love and/or because he wants to do the right thing or his duty towards his students. If he did it also out of a sense of duty he would be acting from morally good motives.

Do people sometimes  desire to do wrong for wrong’s sake?

Sometimes it is argued that people do wrong acts for wrong’s sake in small matters. Some people say that young people sometimes get involved in petty theft “just for kicks” thereby suggesting that they did what was wrong for wrong’s sake. In other words, it is suggested that they do not pursue an object of interest in doing the wrong act. That would seem to be a dubious’ interpretation. “Just for kicks” can just as well mean “test the system” or “for the fun of it’ or “to show that one can do it”.   These motives are not analogous to doing something for wrong’s sake.   In short, it is doubtful that there is such a thing as a desire to do wrong for wrong’s sake.   There is no reason to believe that such a desire is an object of interest for people other than those who suffer from a pathological condition.

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Is a person responsible for his action committed in a fit of anger?


The moral wrongness would depend on whether the person had any control or influence over the special circumstances. If the fit of anger is brought on by failing grades due to lack of effort, then the person could have influenced the special circumstances and therefore he would be responsible. If, on the other hand, the fit of anger is brought on by a malfunctioning of a gland, the person would have no control over the special circumstances and therefore would not be responsible.

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