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Updated January 27, 2021

Moral Responsibility and Free Will

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Moral Responsibility and Free Will essay
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Are we morally responsible for our actions? Does moral responsibility require free will? These questions remain one of the central philosophical issues in the books “Existentialism is a Humanism” by Jean-Paul Sartre and “Freedom and Necessity” by Alfred Jules Ayer.  Also, since these two authors are contemporaries and Europeans, so neither time nor social conditioning has influenced the diversity of their beliefs.

Sartre’s Definition of Existentialism

Sartre states that to defend existentialism against some charges that have been made against it and respond to the criticism. Critics saw existentialism as a doctrine that can only lead to “quietism of despair”, namely, they claim, that existentialism is a contemplative inactive philosophy.

Others blame the existentialists for being overly pessimistic. Another line of criticism came from those who saw existentialism as justification for all crimes in the name of free existential choice. Since existentialists refuse God-given moral laws, it seemed to follow that “everyone can do what he likes, and will be incapable, from such a point of view, of condemning either the point of view or the action of anyone else”. But the author claims that the problem is society’s misperception of existentialism, not philosophy itself.

So then Sartre puts forward the following arguments in favor of existentialism. For Sartre, existentialism is a deeply optimistic doctrine: it argues that people are capable of moral improvement because they freely choose their actions and are responsible for their choices. This contrasts with opposing doctrines that lay the blame for wrong actions on forces outside people’s control, thereby suggesting that people are powerless to overcome their weaknesses and moral failings.

Then Sartre defines existentialism for his audience: the main idea is that “existence comes before essence”. Unlike a manufactured object, such as a paper-knife, whose essence define before it is made, people come into the world before they have certain values, goals, or characters. While the essence of the paper-knife precedes its existence, the existence of man precedes its essence. The consequence of this fact is people’s freedom to define themselves through actions. Man is nothing but what he makes of himself.

Also, Sartre gives us an example of his pupil, who had a difficult choice between staying with his elderly mother and going to war and serving the common cause. This example shows that while moral codes often seem to be consistent guidelines for action, they cannot serve as a guide in many real-world situations where people have no choice but to break a moral rule.

Making difficult choices, he first tries to find a doctrine that will tell him what to choose, then tries to measure his passions to determine what he loves more, but ultimately he realizes that there is no pre-existing formula for his moral choices; rather, he must “invent” a Moral code through his own choices. Thus, the fact of free choice allows people to build their individual moral compasses, but it also makes them fully responsible for the results of their actions.

Ayer’s Definition of Existentialism

Ayer as a compatibilist has a slightly different point of view. Compatibilism is the belief that determinism and free will are compatible. In other words, both moral responsibility and determinism can exist simultaneously. Since determinists believe that the opposite of freedom is also conditioned by determinism, Ayer proposes a compatibilist solution to the problem of determinism, in which he argues that the opposite of freedom is a limitation, not a cause.

This freedom is no longer opposed to cause, but instead it is now seen as caused and limited. Caused is certain conditions obtain and something happens. Constraints is certain conditions obtain and something is compelled or forced to happen. Ayer uses the example of a common thief and kleptomaniac to illustrate his point. He claims that a thief makes his own decisions when he steals.

A thief can stop himself from committing such a crime and choose not to steal. The thief is then faced with having to deal with a cause where Agency and moral responsibility apply. Whereas the kleptomaniac suffers from a disease in which he has no choice when it comes to stealing. Then he has to deal with restrictions where free will and moral responsibility do not apply.

Then Ayer claims that we may be said to have acted freely if the following conditions are fulfilled. The first is that in order to be free, person must make a choice. Second, the choice must be voluntary, as opposed to a kleptomaniac. Thirdly, no one and nothing can force a person to make this choice.

He says that only then will three conditions be fulfilled and person will be completely free. So people acting under the influence of circumstances, whether it is the pressure of society or mental disorder, do not have free will and therefore are not responsible for their actions. We can find a confirmation of this view in legal sphere: persons with mental disorders are not subject to criminal detention, as well as crimes committed in a state of passion is punished by a shorter prison term.

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