Are humans free to choose how they will act or are their actions determined by other factors out of their control? Two perspectives that attempt to answer this question are determinism and free will.
In general, determinism is the view that all events and actions in the universe are the effects of other causes. Thus, every event has a cause that makes this event inevitable. For example, many believe that the laws of physics show that our universe is operating in a mechanical way so that the world can act in no other way than it does. In regard to humans, determinism is the view that the choices, thoughts, and actions of all people are determined by outside causes and factors of which a person has no control. Thus, when you ate cereal this morning, the reason you did so was because of outside factors and not because you freely chose to eat cereal. The two primary causes of human behavior believed to influence people are genetics and environment. Determinism can have a religious aspect, too, as some believe that God predetermines everything that will happen. Some forms of Calvinism, for example, assert that God’s decrees and predestination plan determine all actions and events in the universe, including those of human beings.
An extreme form of determinism called “hard determinism” holds that no human thoughts and actions are ever truly free since they are all determined by genetic makeup and environmental factors. Because no actions are free, no person can truly be held accountable or responsible for acting as he or she did. Nor can someone truly be told, “You should have acted otherwise.” Hard determinism appears to challenge traditional views concerning morality and responsibility. If people only think and act as they do because of other factors, then in what sense can people be held morally responsible for their actions? Generally, most people agree that people can only be held accountable for actions that they were truly free to make. If a murderer had no real choice but to kill his neighbor how can we hold the murderer responsible? Critics of hard determinism claim that this view not only destroys morality and responsibility, it also undermines the importance of relationships. It also affects how one views the future since the determinist view holds the future to be as fixed as the past.
Another form of determinism is soft determinism. This perspective asserts that all human actions are determined, but it differs from hard determinism in claiming that there is a sense in which humans are free to make certain choices. Freedom, though, is redefined to include those actions which a person volitionally wanted to commit; a non-free act would be a coerced action. According to soft determinism, a person can truly be held accountable for those actions he or she wanted to do.
Free will, on the other hand, is the view that human choices are free—they are not determined solely by other factors. Although genetics and environment play into how a person will think or act, a person has the ability to rise above these factors and choose which option he or she will do. Thus, free will is the real ability to choose between two or more different options. Those who hold this view of free will are often called libertarians. Some who believe in free believe that the immaterial part of a person—or soul—is able to rise above factors such as genetics and environment and make truly free choices.