Libertarianism in Moral Philosophy

Free Will and Decisions
Free Will and Decisions. Jorg Greuel/DigitalVision/Getty

In philosophy, libertarianism is a position which stands opposite of determinism. According to libertarianism, humans have free will and their actions are not determined by prior physical states. According to libertarians, human freedom is not possible if the universe is wholly deterministic - some amount of indeterminism in human choices and actions must exist, otherwise human freedom is an illusion.

A range of beliefs exists under the label "libertarianism." The most extreme viewpoint holds that human actions aren't determined by anything at all, not even by a person's character, beliefs, or values. Even some libertarians reject this position, arguing that without some strong connection to a person's character and values, it would be difficult to conclude that a person is responsible for their actions.

If indeterministic chance were the complete and sole explanation for all our actions, then we would be free but we would not be responsible - which, ironically, is exactly what libertarians typically fight against. According to them, if our decisions have been determined, then we cannot be held responsible for them - our actions are just the product of physical forces beyond our control.

This means that some minimal amount of determinism must exist so that we can take responsibility and be responsible - especially when it comes to ethical and moral issues.


Ethical Libertarianism

In moral philosophy, the concept of libertarianism refers to the idea that human free will is a necessary precondition of moral responsibility and, in fact, humans do have this free will. According to the standard libertarian position, human acts cannot be wholly determined by prior states or natural laws.

It is granted that such states and laws may have an influence upon human decisions, but nevertheless those decisions are, in principle, not predictable by reference to those states and laws. Thus, determinism (or at least "hard" determinism) is not true and humans have moral responsibility for their actions.


God and Libertarianism

Traditionally, most forms of libertarianism have been promoted by theists who advocate mind/body dualism. Rene Descartes is a famous advocate of this position.

First, the existence of a non-physical mind means that the locus of decision-making is removed from the realm of physical causality and determinism. Second, they argue that the free will which the mind or spirit possessed is a gift from . At the same time, though, these theists have also often believed that their god has sufficient knowledge of the future to know what everyone's "free will" decisions will be - so, somehow, human decisions are entirely free, yet at the same time also unalterable.

Non-religious and non-theistic advocates of libertarianism have offered different explanations for how free will and free choice can exist in the context of a physical, causal universe. One common explanation is that not all events are completely determined, or at least completely pre-determined.

They are still caused, but causation and determinism are not the same thing. A particular event might, for example, only be statistically likely.

Such a situation is often referred to as "soft causality" and if the brain is a system which can be described in such a way, then brain states are not pre-determined. If the mind is simply the overall state of the brain when it is alive, then the mind is also not predetermined and, therefore, some degree of free will exists because our choices, decisions, and actions are not predetermined. There is no need for any god or soul to provide any explanations here.

A third position that is sometimes adopted is to claim that causality simply doesn't apply to human decisions. According to advocates of this position, our decisions may be influenced by "reasons" and "values" and "desires," but none of these things are causes of our actions or decisions.

A reason or desire can only influence, not cause, which means that our actions are not determined.

Granted, our reasons and desires might themselves be caused and perhaps even determined, depending on what one thinks of the relationship between the physical brain and the mind, but the final decisions which we make have been removed from that problem. Once again, there is no need for any god or soul to explain anything here - it's a completely naturalistic explanation which does not necessarily exclude belief in any gods or disprove any gods, but gods just aren't relevant.