1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Determinism

DETERMINISM (Lat. determinare, to prescribe or limit), in ethics, the name given to the theory that all moral choice, so called, is the determined or necessary result of psychological and other conditions. It is opposed to the various doctrines of Free-Will, known as voluntarism, libertarianism, indeterminism, and is from the ethical standpoint more or less akin to necessitarianism and fatalism. There are various degrees of determinism. It may be held that every action is causally connected not only externally with the sum of the agent’s environment, but also internally with his motives and impulses. In other words, if we could know exactly all these conditions, we should be able to forecast with mathematical certainty the course which the agent would pursue. In this theory the agent cannot be held responsible for his action in any sense. It is the extreme antithesis of Indeterminism or Indifferentism, the doctrine that a man is absolutely free to choose between alternative courses (the liberum arbitrium indifferentiae). Since, however, the evidence of ordinary consciousness almost always goes to prove that the individual, especially in relation to future acts, regards himself as being free within certain limitations to make his own choice of alternatives, many determinists go so far as to admit that there may be in any action which is neither reflex nor determined by external causes solely an element of freedom. This view is corroborated by the phenomenon of remorse, in which the agent feels that he ought to, and could, have chosen a different course of action. These two kinds of determinism are sometimes distinguished as “hard” and “soft” determinism. The controversy between determinism and libertarianism hinges largely on the significance of the word “motive”; indeed in no other philosophical controversy has so much difficulty been caused by purely verbal disputation and ambiguity of expression. How far, and in what sense, can action which is determined by motives be said to be free? For a long time the advocates of free-will, in their eagerness to preserve moral responsibility, went so far as to deny all motives as influencing moral action. Such a contention, however, clearly defeats its own object by reducing all action to chance. On the other hand, the scientific doctrine of evolution has gone far towards obliterating the distinction between external and internal compulsion, e.g. motives, character and the like. In so far as man can be shown to be the product of, and a link in, a long chain of causal development, so far does it become impossible to regard him as self-determined. Even in his motives and his impulses, in his mental attitude towards outward surroundings, in his appetites and aversions, inherited tendency and environment have been found to play a very large part; indeed many thinkers hold that the whole of a man’s development, mental as well as physical, is determined by external conditions.

In the Bible the philosophical-religious problem is nowhere discussed, but Christian ethics as set forth in the New Testament assumes throughout the freedom of the human will. It has been argued by theologians that the doctrine of divine fore-knowledge, coupled with that of the divine origin of all things, necessarily implies that all human action was fore-ordained from the beginning of the world. Such an inference is, however, clearly at variance with the whole doctrine of sin, repentance and the atonement, as also with that of eternal reward and punishment, which postulates a real measure of human responsibility.

For the history of the free-will controversy see the articles, Will, Predestination (for the theological problems), Ethics.