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Free Will And Determinism A2 Essay Definition

Freewill and Determinism

Saul McLeod published 2013

The determinist approach proposes that all behavior is caused by preceding factors and is thus predictable. The causal laws of determinism form the basis of science.

Free will is the idea that we are able to have some choice in how we act and assumes that we are free to choose our behavior, in other words we are self determined.

For example, people can make a free choice as to whether to commit a crime or not (unless they are a child or they are insane). This does not mean that behavior is random, but we are free from the causal influences of past events. According to freewill a person is responsible for their own actions.


Some approaches in psychology see the source of determinism as being outside the individual, a position known as environmental determinism. For example, Bandura (1961) showed that children with violent parents will in turn become violent parents through observation and imitation.

Others see it from coming inside i.e., in the form of unconscious motivation or genetic determinism – biological determinism. E.g., high IQ has been related to the IGF2R gene (Chorney et al., 1998).

Behaviorists are strong believers in determinism. Their most forthright and articulate spokesman has been B. F. Skinner. Concepts like “free will” and “motivation” are dismissed as illusions that disguise the real causes of human behavior.

For Skinner (1971) these causes lay in the environment – more specifically in physical and psychological reinforcers and punishments. It is only because we are not aware of the environmental causes of our own behavior or other people’s that we are tricked into believing in our ability to choose.

In Skinner’s scheme of things the person who commits a crime has no real choice. (S)he is propelled in this direction by environmental circumstances and a personal history, which makes breaking the law natural and inevitable.

For the law-abiding, an accumulation of reinforcers has the opposite effect. Having been rewarded for following rules in the past the individual does so in the future. There is no moral evaluation or even mental calculation involved. All behavior is under stimulus control.

The other main supporters of determinism are those who adopt a biological perspective. However for them it is internal, not external, forces that are the determining factor. According to sociobiology evolution governs the behavior of a species and genetic inheritance that of each individual within it. For example Bowlby (1969) states a child has an innate (i.e. inborn) need to attach to one main attachment figure (i.e. monotropy).

Personality traits like extraversion or neuroticism, and the behavior associated with them, are triggered by neurological and hormonal processes within the body. There is no need for the concept of an autonomous human being. Ultimately this view sees us as no more than biological machines and even consciousness itself is interpreted as a level of arousal in the nervous system.

However, a problem with determinism is that it is inconsistent with society's ideas of responsibility and self control that form the basis of our moral and legal obligations.

An additional limitation concerns the facts that psychologists cannot predict a person's behavior with 100% accuracy due to the complex interaction of variables which can influence behavior.


One of the main assumptions of the humanistic approach is that humans have free will; not all behavior is determined. Personal agency is the humanistic term for the exercise of free will. Personal agency refers to the choices we make in life, the paths we go down and their consequences.

For humanistic psychologists such as Maslow (1943) and Rogers (1951) freedom is not only possible but also necessary if we are to become fully functional human beings. Both see self-actualisation as a unique human need and form of motivation setting us apart from all other species. There is thus a line to be drawn between the natural and the social sciences.

To take a simple example, when two chemicals react there is no sense in imagining that they could behave in any other way than the way they do. However when two people come together they could agree, fall out, come to a compromise, start a fight and so on. The permutations are endless and in order to understand their behavior we would need to understand what each party to the relationship chooses to do.

Cognitive psychologists are also inclined to attribute importance to free will, and adopt a soft determinism view. However whereas humanists are especially interested in our choice of ends (how each of us sees the road to self actualization) cognitive psychologists are more inclined to focus on the choice of means. In other words for them it is the rational processing of information which goes into the making of a decision which is their main interest.

Conscious reflection on our own behavior is seen as the best way of achieving goals and learning from mistakes. Calculation, strategy, organization etc are interpreted as key elements – not only in governing the choices that we make but also in helping us make the “right” choices in particular situations.

Mental illnesses appear to undermine the concept of freewill. For example, individuals with OCD lose control of their thoughts and actions and people with depression lose control over their emotions.

Ranged against the deterministic psychologies of those who believe that what “is” is inevitable are therefore those who believe that human beings have the ability to control their own destinies. However there is also an intermediate position that goes back to the psychoanalytic psychology of Sigmund Freud.

At first sight Freud seems to be a supporter of determinism in that he argued that our actions and our thoughts are controlled by the unconscious. However the very goal of therapy was to help the patient overcome that force. Indeed without the belief that people can change therapy itself makes no sense.

This insight has been taken up by several neo-Freudians. One of the most influential has been Erich Fromm (1941). In “Fear of Freedom” he argues that all of us have the potential to control our own lives but that many of us are too afraid to do so.

As a result we give up our freedom and allow our lives to be governed by circumstance, other people, political ideology or irrational feelings. However determinism is not inevitable and in the very choice we all have to do good or evil Fromm sees the essence of human freedom.


Psychologists who take the free will view suggest that determinism removes freedom and dignity, and devalues human behavior. By creating general laws of behavior, deterministic psychology underestimates the uniqueness of human beings and their freedom to choose their own destiny.

There are important implications for taking either side in this debate. Deterministic explanations for behavior reduce individual responsibility. A person arrested for a violent attack for example might plead that they were not responsible for their behavior – it was due to their upbringing, a bang on the head they received earlier in life, recent relationship stresses, or a psychiatric problem. In other words, their behavior was determined.

The deterministic approach also has important implications for psychology as a science. Scientists are interested in discovering laws which can then be used to predict events. This is very easy to see in physics, chemistry and biology. As a science, psychology attempts the same thing – to develop laws, but this time to predict behavior If we argue against determinism, we are in effect rejecting the scientific approach to explaining behavior

Clearly, a pure deterministic or free will approach does not seem appropriate when studying human behavior Most psychologists use the concept of free will to express the idea that behavior is not a passive reaction to forces, but that individuals actively respond to internal and external forces.

The term soft determinism is often used to describe this position, whereby people do have a choice, but their behavior is always subject to some form of biological or environmental pressure.


Bandura, A. Ross, D., & Ross,S.A (1961). Transmission of aggression through the imitation of aggressive models. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 63, 575-582

Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment. Attachment and Loss: Vol. 1. Loss. New York: Basic Books.

Chorney, M. J., Chorney, K., Seese, N., Owen, M. J., Daniels, J., McGuffin, P., ... & Plomin, R. (1998). A quantitative trait locus associated with cognitive ability in children. Psychological Science, 9(3), 159-166.

Fromm, E. (1941). Escape from freedom.

Maslow, A. H. (1943). A Theory of Human Motivation. Psychological Review, 50(4), 370-96.

Rogers, C. (1951). Client-centered Therapy: Its Current Practice, Implications and Theory. London: Constable.

Skinner, B. F. (1957). Verbal Behavior. Acton, MA: Copley Publishing Group.

How to reference this article:

McLeod, S. A. (2013). Freewill and determinism in psychology. Retrieved from www.simplypsychology.org/freewill-determinism.html

Free will and determinism is one of the larger topics of the A2 ethics course but it's quite straight-forward... there's basically one group who love free will and hate determinism, one group who love determinism and hate free will and a sit-on-the-fence group who say both can work together. So if you get the age-old question of assessing whether they are compatible or whether one or the other is right or wrong, the structure is pretty easy.

For almost any free will and determinism essay, starting off with the following quote would make sense to highlight a love of hard determinism and a seething hatred of soft determinism, courtesy of Honderich:
"Determinism is true, compatibilism is false."
Or you could use this John Locke quote, which draws from his analogy of a man being a locked room that he does not know is locked (and thus assumes he can leave whenever he likes):
"Freedom of choice is an illusion." 

Hard Determinism

Hard determinism is at one end of the scale. Hard determinists accept that our lives are completely determined by other factors and that we subsequently have no genuine freedom over our lives. What we do is not in our control, even if we think it is. This also means that we cannot possibly be held responsible for our actions seeing as we have no control over them.

Spinoza states that
"there is no absolute or free will"
and argues that
"the mind is determined to wish this or that by a cause."
 Spinoza is arguing that our lives are basically the result of various causes going back in a chain of infinite regress. This notion is quite similar to the premise of the cosmological argument for God's existence (no need to mention that in the exam, though).

John Hospers argues that there is always something which compels us - either internally or externally - to do what we do. He simply says that
"it is all a matter of luck."
Basically, if you have a good life it's not down to you. You've just been lucky. You've just been fortunate enough to have certain determining factors influencing you.

Voltaire supports this view, and argues that we can only be who we are, arguing the following:
"Pear trees cannot bear bananas."
"Everything is planned, connected, limited."
Therefore Voltaire would argue that it is unfair of us to expect someone to change who they are, because it is not their fault for being who they are.

  • Potential weakness: would this give people an excuse to go against society, only to justify their actions with the notion that they cannot change who they are?

Hard determinists would argue that determinism is only determinism as we know it if we don't know the consequences - if we knew which way we are compelled to take, the whole thing would fall apart.

Clarence Darrow was an American lawyer who famously had the job of defending the 1924 Leopold and Loeb case. Leopold and Loeb, two intelligent university students, had been charged with the murder of a fourteen-year old boy after desiring to commit the 'perfect crime'.

Darrow used hard determinism in his defence in order to try and save Leopold and Loeb from capital punishment. This is a great example if an essay asks whether determinism is useful/useless in the world.

Darrow argued that the boys had diminished responsibility because they were merely products of their upbringing. They could not possibly be blamed for who they were always going to be and for what they were always going to do.

"All of his was handed to him."
"He did not make himself. And yet he is compelled to pay."
"Punishment as punishment is not admissible unless the offender has the free will to select this course."
Darrow was successful (depending on how cynical you are) in his case, and the boys were sentenced to life imprisonment as opposed to facing the death penalty.


Behaviourism supports determinism as a sort of mini-theory, and suggest things like genetic heritage, social conditioning and subconscious influences as prior causes. If an exam question asks about whether our lives are purely the result of social conditioning (I'd hate a question like that but I know for many people it would be the ideal question), behaviourism would be a brilliant thing to mention; it actively suggests that social conditioning accounts for who we are, putting evidence behind such an assertion.

Behaviourism basically argues that factors leading to behaviour can be manipulated or changed to make someone behave in a certain way.

Pavlov is the easiest person to remember when talking about behaviourism. He argued that people can be 'trained' to act in certain ways under certain circumstances, and attempted to show this in an experiment with dogs. When he rang a ball to feed his dogs he noticed that the sound of the bell alone would make the dogs salivate, because they associated the bell with food. Pavlov later got rid of the food and found that the sound of the bell alone, even without food, would make them salivate. He suggested that perhaps we could do something similar to manipulate human behaviour.

  • However, a possible weakness of this is that human behaviour is far more complex than the behaviour of dogs

Because behaviourism is such a small part of this topic, mentioning Pavlov should be enough. If you feel the need to expand it further, though, you could mention John Watson (and even Sherlock Holmes if you want to look stupid) and his example of how feral children show that our environment can influence our behaviour.

Steven Pinker is also a behaviourist who takes influence from Darwin's work. He argues that natural selection determines what we are like morally.

Strengths of hard determinism/behaviourism:

  • Behaviourism offers evidence for how causal factors can influence our behaviour
  • It is logical to think that certain influences actually determine us

Weaknesses of hard determinism/behaviourism:

  • Responsibility is taken away from those who commit the worst crimes
  • Many of us feel morally free to make our own decisions
  • Hard determinism is a pessimistic view of the world we live in - it would argue that certain events such as the holocaust were always going to happen and that nobody can really be blamed for it
  • Blame and praise are rendered pointless
  • The evidence of behaviourism may not apply to human behaviour


Predestination is probably my least favourite aspect of the whole ethics course, so it's a good thing that you don't really need it for the exam. It's sort of part-determined, part-free. It depends on your view of it. 

Basically, the Judaeo-Christian view is that we are free and autonomous because of Adam and Eve's freedom in the Garden of Eden. 

Some Presbyterian churches, however, argue that that God has already chosen who will be saved and subsequently who will go to heaven.

Aquinas supports the typical Judaeo-Christian view, stating plainly:

"Man chooses not of necessity but freely."
In Romans 8, the Bible hints at the idea of predestination:
"For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son."
Arguably, our actions in this life are irrelevant as God - being omniscient - has already decided who will be saved and who will not be saved.

  • This is not the case, though. God chooses people who he knows will want to act morally
John Calvin is the biggest name for predestination. He said:
"Eternal life is fore-ordained for some, and eternal damnation for others."
Behaviour isn't predestined, belief is. Basically, the following paragraph sums up predestination in one go:

Because of God's omniscience, he already knows what we're going to be like and whether we want to be moral. He can therefore identify which morally willing people will be predestined to go to heaven and vice versa with hell. By wanting to be moral, we earn God's grace. God knows you, he doesn't make you act or think in a certain way.


Libertarianism is directly opposite to hard determinism, and states that we have complete moral responsibility. We are totally free and are influenced by nothing and no-one. The idea of causal factors cannot be applied to human behaviour, libertarians would argue. This point could be used to criticise Pavlov's behaviourist experiment.

The most common argument in favour of libertarianism is that it appeals to our intuitions; we prefer to see ourselves as free individuals as opposed to puppets on strings.

Peter van Inwagen gives the following analogy of libertarianism v. determinism: libertarianism is like travelling down a road and choosing which turnings to take, whereas determinism is like travelling down a road with no turnings - just one fixed path.

Libertarians argue that because we blame ourselves and feel guilty for our actions, we must therefore be free to choose freely. If we were determined, libertarians argue, we wouldn't feel guilty about choosing certain things. Hard determinists would criticise this point, drawing on Locke's analogy of the man in the locked room.

Heisenberg supports libertarianism using physics: he argues for the uncertainty principle showing how events are random and not necessarily caused. The uncertainty principle refers to the nature of how we cannot know both the location and the momentum of sub-atomic particles. He argues that it is better to see events as statistical probabilities as opposed to general laws. Some events, Heisenberg states, are simply unpredictable.

  • Honderich criticises Heisenberg's argument, saying that such randomness only works on a sub-atomic level and does not apply to human behaviour


Existentialism is like the opposite of behaviourism, by which I mean it's the by-theory of libertarianism that doesn't need to be mentioned in great detail.

Proposed by Sartre, existentialists argue that freedom is both the goal and measure of life. Everything in life depends on the individual and the meaning they give to their life (life being ultimately meaningless, Sartre argues). If people try to avoid freedom they simply end up conforming to what is decided by others. Sartre said the following quotes, which can be used to support existentialism and, on a wider scale, libertarianism:

"Man is responsible for the world and himself."
"To be free is to be condemned to be free."

Strengths of libertarianism:

  • It recognises that humans have an intuition of decision - we feel like we can act freely
    • this is of course criticised by hard determinists - particularly Locke
  • Personal responsibility underpins our main systems of ethics and law
  • Hume argued that even if event B consistently follows event A, we cannot deduce that A causes B - that is just our interpretation. Hard determinism, therefore, is simply an interpretation of what we observe

Weaknesses of libertarianism:

  • Locke's analogy of a man locked in a room without knowing he is locked there - just because we feel free, it doesn't mean we are. Feeling free is not really a strength of the theory at all
  • If we have the power to choose, how do we choose? What criteria should be followed when making a decision?
  • Very few of us would argue that past experiences, emotion, beliefs and values have no influence on us whatsoever

Soft Determinism

Soft determinism is the mid-way theory. It states that while we are compelled by external factors, we still have ultimate freedom in making moral choices. Soft determinism is also known as compatibilism

Soft determinists simply state that the existence of determinism does not rule out free will, and that the two can work alongside one another and so are compatible. 

Certain determining factors, such as upbringing, may influence someone, but ultimate decisions are theirs and theirs alone. 

Kant accepted soft determinism. He said that determinism applies to everything which is the object of knowledge but does not apply to the individual will - the two are too radically different to both operate on just one theory.

Kant noted the two 'types' of reason:

  1. Pure reason - knowledge and the scientifically explicable world (external)
  2. Practical reason - actions of the will (internal)

Kant attacks hard determinism and states that there is no reason behind an act of will. He stated, as do most soft determinists, that pure reason is determined by external factors while practical reason is not determined and allows us to make decisions freely.

Hard determinists, of course, would criticise soft determinists, arguing that our personalities are so because of a myriad of external causes.

Michael Palmer criticised soft determinism, saying:

"Among the factors that determine our actions, we count our own choices and desires."
Palmer is basically saying that there is no differentiation between internal and external causes, and that everything is determined.

Soft determinism also allows for moral responsibility. For example, if Bob doesn't save a drowning child because he can't swim, he's not morally responsible. That's not his fault. If, however, he can swim, and he chooses not to save the child due to his personality/past experiences etc., he is morally responsible.

John Searle argued for soft determinism. He noted that there is
"a gap between having reasons to do something and actually doing it."
This implies that because there is a gap in our minds between thought process and action, we switch from being determined to acting freely.

Hobbes also argues for soft determinism.

Strengths of soft determinism:

  • Most of us accept that certain elements of our lives are determined but that we have ultimate free will
  • It provides a fair and logical case for separating internal and external causes
Weaknesses of soft determinism:

  • Hard determinists would argue that soft determinism fails to understand the degree of determinism in our lives
  • Libertarians would argue that soft determinism fails to understand the degree of freedom in our lives
  • If desires are determined, how can we have total freedom of choice?

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