Determinism, Morality and
Human Relationships

Leslie Allan shares his perspective on the implications of a deterministic framing of behaviour for morality and human relationships

Citation Information

Allan, Leslie 2024. Determinism, Morality and Human Relationships, URL = <>.

What follows are Leslie Allan's interview notes for a dialogue with Joe Sexton for an episode on the TBD (To Be Determined) podcast. The subject of the episode is the attitude of determinists to life's inevitability, morality and human relationships. The interview was conducted in Melbourne, Australia, in December 2023.

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To what extent do you have a deterministic view of the universe and life?

Leslie Allan:

I'm quite confident that determinism holds at least at the level of macro entities, such as rocks, trees and human beings. Quantum physicists tell us that indeterminate quantum effects average out at the level of macro entities. Deterministic models of physics, cosmology and biology have been incredibly successful in explaining and predicting macro events since the scientific revolution in the 17th century. When it comes to human behaviour, no non-physical forces have yet been found in the brain that help explain our voluntary choices. Conservation laws seem to apply just as universally inside our network of neurons as outside our human skulls. Pharmacology, genetics and the study of patients with brain damage and various forms of mental illness also point to a biological basis for human behaviour.

Let me emphasize that even though I consider determinism to be true at this macro level, I think we can and do exercise free will, at least to some extent. In that sense, I subscribe to a view known as 'compatibilism'. In my essay titled Free Will and Compatibilism, I identify four preconditions for an act to willed freely. In summary, the first two of these are that the agent does not feel compelled by their situation to act in only one specific way (e.g., being forced at gunpoint) and that they are not being controlled by a third party (e.g., via a brain implant). The third and fourth preconditions are that the agent's action is consonant with their character (e.g., not resulting from a brain tumour) and that the agent has the cognitive capacity to deliberate over options and give reasons for their decision (e.g., deciding on which car to buy).

This compatibilist view contrasts with that of the hard determinists who consider the fact of determinism automatically excludes a human capacity for choosing freely. On my view, freedom of the will is a characteristic of an unencumbered autonomous agent who can reason and deliberate about alternative courses of action in a way that reflects their character and highest-order desires.


Do you feel your life could have gone in many different directions or only one?

Leslie Allan:

From a physical and neurobiological standpoint, there is an important sense in which it could have gone only in one direction. If you take the known laws of physics and biology along with a description of the state of the universe from the time of my birth, from that one can theoretically deduce how my life in fact panned out in all its detail. That's one sense in which my life 'could not have been different' or 'could not have been otherwise'.

From a human interest standpoint, there is a second and more illuminating way in which my life could have gone in a different direction. To illustrate my point here, first consider the possibilities for an inanimate object, for example, a tree branch. Following a storm in which a passer-by was killed by a falling branch, a journalist visiting the family of the dead person reported them saying that the falling branch 'could have killed more'. How is that so? Given the nature of the tree branch—its size and weight—if other people had been under the branch at the time of its falling, they also would have been killed. Just as in our ordinary way of speaking we ascribe other possibilities for the futures of deterministic tree branches, we do that also for deterministic human beings.

As an example of the latter, four years ago I bought a new car. That was quite a significant life decision for me. I now go away on long trips to the country. Even though all my behaviours are fully determined, it makes perfect sense to say that my life would have gone in a different direction if I did not buy that car. Given my nature—my character—if some other things had been different, I would not have bought that car. For example, if I had been offered a heavily discounted world tour, or if I had decided it was better to spend the money on a new house. As with my 'tree branch' example, recognizing this kind of possibility is about asking what could have happened given different circumstances and given the powers, capacities and capabilities of the agent or entity in question.


What might be some of the advantages and disadvantages of thinking in such a way? Is it more likely to be a comfort or a source of frustration?

Leslie Allan:

Whether determinism is true or not, seeing yourself as someone who can control the direction of your life to a large extent can bring a deep sense of fulfilment. National and worldwide happiness surveys over the last couple of decades consistently show that people who feel that they are in control of major life decisions have a stronger sense of life satisfaction. From my work and the work of others with people who have escaped high-control religions, we see time and again apostates starting to lead a rewarding life free of artificial constraints. We've all seen the same with refugees who have escaped totalitarian regimes.

Psychologists have also discovered that people with a low sense of self-efficacy are much less likely to lead satisfying lives. In addition, humanistic psychologists (e.g., Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers) spent a lot of time and effort in elucidating the positive relationship between humans' need for autonomy and self-actualization on the one hand and leading a satisfying life on the other. What we see from these different areas of research is that even given that determinism is true, what we don't want is for people to fall into having a sense of fatalism; the debilitating idea that life will dish up what it does no matter what you do.


Should we reflect on our lives as if it were possible they could have been different?

Leslie Allan:

Most definitely, yes. Reflecting on our lives lived so far gives all of us an opportunity to learn from the past; to take those lessons and to use them to shape our future decisions. For example, a father who reflects on why his children are always anxious and oppositional learns that his constant aggressive demeaning of his children leads them to fight back. This moment of reflection allows him to develop new child-rearing skills that eventually lead to a closer, more satisfying relationship with his children.

Now, far from his recognition of the truth of determinism closing off this option for improved relationships, it actually enables it. Recognising that his and other people's reactions to events follow known psychological patterns, the father can be confident in putting in the effort to change those patterns of behaviour. It's the predictability of outcomes that gives him, and all of us, the confidence that our efforts will pay off.

In my own life, reflecting on some unproductive relationships I had at work, led, I think, to me being a better person today compared with 30 years ago. That reflection inspired me to enrol in some people skills and leadership courses that I would not have attended otherwise.


Does such a way of thinking make you feel more connected or remote to others?

Leslie Allan:

This way of thinking that reflects on how our lives could have been different sees human beings as having the capacity to learn from past behaviours, to weigh choices and to consider reasons before acting—in spite of us being deterministic creatures. We are not mindless robots, always reacting instinctively to external stimuli. All of us have hopes and dreams and the capacity to interact, form relationships and influence others. The fact of determinism does not in the least rob us of the richness of our lives and our emotional connection to other human beings. Each of us is not exhaustively described as a vastly complex neural network getting around on two legs. Importantly, each of us is also a sentient being with the capacity to feel great heights of pleasure and the very depths of despair.

Some hard determinists who view their fellow human beings simply as complex robots reacting to external stimuli and mindless internal processing devalue their own humanity and diminish the humanity of their fellow human beings. In an interview with Nigel Warburton, well-known moral philosopher, Jonathan Glover, discusses the case of a wife who discovers her husband has been unfaithful. Instead of reacting with anger, resentment and jealousy, she responds as a committed hard determinist. She tells her husband she doesn't blame him as his actions are just part of the unfolding of the great scheme of the universe. Glover makes the point that with that response, the husband rightly feels dehumanised and demeaned. On the other hand, a compatibilist approach to a deterministic universe preserves and respects the genuineness of our human responses and our deep emotional connection to others.


What do you think have been some of the pivotal moments and challenges in your life? Does it really matter to say they would always have turned out as they did?

Leslie Allan:

One pivotal moment in my life, as with many of us, was my dating of my future partner. If I had not dated her then, my life would have turned out very, very different. Now, from the view of tracing the minute movements of the atoms in my brain and body, my life could only have gone the way it in fact did because of the inexorable play of impersonal physical forces. Recognition of that scientific fact ought not cause us discomfort. Putting into use Sean Carroll's Poetic Naturalism, there is another way of describing my situation. And that is taking the human interest stance I alluded to earlier.

I am a conscious agent with hopes and desires and the ability to affect others. Reflecting on the choices I made way back then when I first met my future partner, I can ask myself whether I made the best choice for myself and for the people I interacted with. I can examine the circumstances of that first meeting, the characters of the people involved, their goals and desires and how all of that would have played out with the different choices I could have made. Reflecting on my past situation then informs how I can best conduct my relationships today and into the future. That is an empowering thought. Seeing myself as an agent creating my own future and not simply as a bunch of molecules buffeted by the mindless forces of the universe is both ennobling and uplifting. This recognition of the possibilities before each of us leads to a deeper sense of who we are and of our significance for others.

Looking over my previous challenges requires, I think, the same kind of mindset. Let me mention one such challenge. Earlier in my career, I was a working as a technical instructor at a college. At the start of one teaching year, the programme co-ordinator lumbered me with additional classes that would have exceeded the recommended teaching load for instructors. Now, I could have not rocked the boat and just gone along with the new timetable. Or I could have objected, which is what I did.

Once again, putting on a physicist's or neuroscientist's hat examining only the interactions of the neurons in my brain, one could say that my objecting was always what was going to happen. There was nothing I could have done about it and so no point me fretting over it. Again, framing the possibilities in that way sets aside the fact that I am a human being interacting with other human beings, engaged in joint enterprises and planning for the future. With the physicist's and neuroscientist's framing of the situation, they have no conceptual tools in their toolkit to allow for my reflection and learning from the experience.

Putting on the human interests hat, on the other hand, yields possibilities for learning and growth. With this hat on and this way of looking at possibilities, I now have the conceptual tools to ask: Given my character and capacities at the time, what were the options open to me that would lead to the best results for all concerned? I can ask which actions, if I had taken them, would have most probably led to me achieving my objectives of lessening my workload without compromising the relationships with my manager and peers. This scenario planning, once again, leads to lessons that I can apply today and into the future. Seeing ourselves as agents of our own destiny with the capacity to reflect on and redirect our desires and goals, and not simply as a bunch of neurons dancing to a beat outside of our control, is what makes us human.


What do you think have been some of the achievements in your life? Does it really matter to say they would always have turned out as they did?

Leslie Allan:

One achievement that I'm proud of is earning a High Distinction for every one of my university subjects. Again, putting on a physicist's and neuroscientist's hat, you could say that it was always the case that I was going to get High Distinctions. But to leave it at that may give some the impression that I had no hand in the matter—that I would have got High Distinctions no matter what I did. And, of course, that's not the case. Even though determinism is true, fatalism is false.

Even so, on the assumption that students will always receive the scores they were always going to get, some hard determinists want to do away with praising people for their achievements and, conversely, blaming people for their failures. I see this again as denying the humanness of our deep connections with others. For these hard determinists, the successes of our friends and loved ones are simply the desired endpoints of our manipulations of their behaviours.

Let me illustrate the consequences of this kind of hard determinist framing. My daughter excelled in her set of exams. Anyone who has children realizes the value of praise and blame in this context. Imagine me telling my daughter that she didn't deserve my praise for her excellent results because she would have got those results anyway. Imagine telling your son or daughter that they didn't deserve any accolades because the excellent results they got were the outcome of the mindless interplay of genes and social environment that they had no hand in forming.

With my daughter, it was she who put in the effort in not going to those parties with friends, staying up late studying and staying home on weekends. It was she who was the agent of her actions. Telling her that her excellent results were just the result of the mindless forces of the universe playing out is completely disempowering and dispiriting. Not to mention how such impersonal declarations fracture any loving bonds that exist between me and my daughter. So, I urge hard determinists to leave their deterministic pronouncements for the physics and biology classrooms where they belong. In our human interactions with our loved ones, our peers and all others we share community with, it matters greatly how we talk about the inevitability and possibility of achievements.


If we really believe in a deterministic universe, are we ethically compelled to change anything about our current society?

Leslie Allan:

This is a controversial question. Some determinists make the claim that once we realize that all our voluntary actions are necessitated by prior causes beyond our control, we are obligated to take a more sympathetic view of wrongdoers. For example, Spinoza, in his The Ethics, wrote: 'This doctrine teaches us to hate no one, to despise no one, to mock no one, to be angry with no one, and to envy no one.'

However, in spite of Spinoza's confidence, I don't think the connection between the thesis of determinism and the requiring of a more tolerant way of judging those who wrong us is so clear cut. A descriptive theory of reality, which is what the thesis of determinism is, cannot on its own entail any prescriptions for how we ought to treat others. If you think it can, let me show you how determinism can, using the same kind of reasoning, lead us to the opposite conclusion: that it's permissible to be far less tolerant of those who do us wrong.

The determinist's original argument for tolerance goes like this. If the voluntary harmful actions of a person are completely causally determined by prior factors beyond that person's control, then they had no real agency in their action.

If they had no real agency in their action, then it's wrong to blame them and seek their punishment. This wrongness of blaming is Spinoza's teaching moment.

Now consider the case of Bertie. Bertie robs a grocery store at gun point and that store happens to be owned by my best friend. I feel angry at Bertie and want him to suffer for the grievous harm he caused my friend. Using this argument, the determinist enjoins me to suppress my feeling of anger, my need for blame and my desire for punishment.

However, I can use the self-same argument to justify the permissibility of my outpouring of anger, my moral outrage and my infliction of punishment on the armed robber. With this same determinist's argument, now replace Bertie with me and replace his wrongful armed robbery with my misplaced anger and wrongful desire for revenge. Using the same appeals as Bertie to avoid moral responsibility, I can equally lean on how my expression of anger, my moral outrage and my infliction of punishment on the armed robber were completely causally determined by prior factors beyond my control. According to the second step in the determinist's argument, my lacking of real agency means that I cannot be blamed for my judgmental attitude and desire for retribution. I have done nothing wrong in feeling angry and wanting revenge. That's just the inexorable and impersonal forces of the universe being played out without my input.

The real lesson here is that relying solely on a true deterministic account of how our actions arise from prior causes to advocate for tolerance for wrongdoers can and does backfire. The self-same appeal to the absence of true agency can equally be used to protect the most cruel and vindictive of people wanting revenge. The thesis of determinism used on its own can be just as much brought to bear for conserving vengeful judicial and penal practices as it can be for reforming them.

One response a determinist can make here is to push back and implore the blaming and vengeful me to put in the effort to develop my character so that I become more tolerant. However, once again, this approach cuts both ways. The vengeful and intolerant me can push back, questioning why it is that it is me who needs to change. I can implore my determinist objector to put in the effort to mould their character to be more vengeful and unforgiving. The thesis of determinism on its own does not tell us in which direction we ought to mould our characters.

The determinist can make an additional appeal here. They can point to the harm my anger, blaming and desire for revenge causes. Such attitudes are vestiges of a crueller time in history when ordinary people's pains and sufferings were ignored, they will say. But here again, I can appeal to the fact that my lack of empathy for Bertie and others is beyond my control, and so I am doing nothing wrong in wanting revenge. I can push back with the retort that it is my determinist objector who needs to mould their behaviour in a less empathetic direction.

I think what this line of reasoning illustrates is that an appeal to the truth of determinism alone is logically insufficient for impelling us towards a more sympathetic and tolerant attitude. For the argument to carry through, we need to marry a belief in determinism with a moral theory that elevates human welfare, well being, happiness, or some such.

Historically, especially from the 18th Century onwards, the legal and penal reform agenda has been prosecuted by utilitarian thinkers, such as Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. Utilitarian moral reformers adopting a particular kind of determinism have led many nations slowly but surely towards less retributive responses to wrongdoing. I mean by retributivism the view that wrongdoers deserve punishment independently of the good consequences for the wrongdoer and for other members of society. Through their efforts, we have seen many radical reforms in our legal systems. For example, with vagrancy and vagabond laws up until recent times, the poor were seen as a threat to society and put in jail. Even today, being poor is seen as a moral failing by neo-liberals and evangelists. Initially with the help of sociological surveys carried out in England in the late 19th Century, the social determinants of poverty were becoming more and more evident. Regrettably, the plight of the poor took a massive turn for the worst with the rollout of the eugenics programme in the United States and Germany in the early- to mid-20th Century. Proponents of the eugenics programme claimed poverty to be a result of bad genes. Coupled with the malignant ideology of white supremacist nationalism, genetic determinism set back moral and legal reform for decades. This social regression illustrates starkly how the thesis of determinism on its own does not entail the requirement for reform.

There have been many other reforms resulting from seeing human beings as both living out their human nature and being behaviourally constrained by the social structures they find themselves in. These reforms include the decriminalization of homosexuality and the abolition of cruel and unusual punishments. Cruel and unusual punishments were practices such as flogging, locking people in stocks and solitary confinement.

Today, many countries mitigate or exculpate the crimes of the mentally ill where it is judged that their mental illness caused or contributed significantly to their actions. Sadly, I see the United States has not caught up with other developed nations in how they try the mentally ill within the legal system.

Here in Australia, we are also, state by state, increasing the age of criminal responsibility. We now recognize that children's and young adolescents' brains have not yet formed sufficiently to be able to assess risks and weigh up the consequences of their actions.

A naturalistic form of determinism also gives us reason to push back against the cruel and inhumane punishments advanced by some theistic views. These are the views that see a divine being creating human beings with an immaterial and immortal soul for the purpose of testing them here on earth. On this theology, people who wilfully fail the grade deserve cruel punishment on earth and an eternity in hell. By seeing human beings as embedded within the natural world and subject to the same laws of nature, the thesis of determinism, I think, impels us to campaign against uninformed and cruel religious beliefs and practices. On this more tolerant view, the religious crimes of apostasy, blasphemy and homosexuality are not seen as moral failings at all, but as legitimate expressions of our right to freedom and diversity.

The variety of religious belief, again, shows us how not all forms of determinism corral us in that more tolerant direction. For example, Calvin's predestinarianism has God determining from before the creation of the world who is to be saved and who is to be thrown into the pit of eternal fire. Calvin's version of determinism was extremely intolerant and cruel. The lesson here is that it is, in particular, a naturalistic conception of determinism wedded to a moral theory based on compassion for all that drives social change in the right direction.

Copyright © 2024

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