William James wrote, “Determinism leads us to call our judgments of regret wrong, because they are pessimistic in implying that what is impossible yet ought to be. ” (1) I intend to make an argument against James, on the basis that determinism does not consent human beings to completely neglect moral responsibility. I shall first briefly define determinism. Determinism means that for every event that takes place, the preceding events are determined. Given prior events and the laws of nature, it had to happen in that way and no other way.
I will now cover why James is right, in a way, to say that regretting an action is wrong when having a deterministic view. I will then argue against the use James made of his claim. If determinism was true, we should, by right, not feel any remorse, grief or regret due to the determinist’s belief that in no circumstance could we have acted in another way given the situation. Since our actions are fixed by the natures of law, then we have no free will in our doings or events that took place. Or at least no free will that requires moral responsibility or culpability.
In a determinist’s view, when given situation A the only way forward to deal with the problem is with action B. Not C/D/E or F. This action B maybe good or bad in the ethical sense, but it does not matter to the hard determinist because it has to be in this natural order. However, the judgment of regret is a person’s way of reflecting one’s actions and regret is the first step in the conditions that determine his future conduct. It is commendable and justified and this “judgment of regret” paves the way for a moral direction of action for the future, not because one realizes that the past could have happened in a different way.
The recognition of a wrongdoing is an innate response to what we have done. It is not a form of punishment we inflict upon ourselves. It is only through regret or remorse that we learn to make amends. James also wrote, “And what sense can there be in condemning ourselves for taking the wrong way, unless we need have done nothing of the sort, unless the right way was open to us as well? I cannot understand the willingness to act, no matter how we feel, without the belief that acts are really good or bad.
I cannot understand the belief that an act is bad, without regret at its happening. I cannot understand regret without the admission of real genuine possibilities in the world. ” (2) The sense of achievement and doing good is always gratifying no matter how the world is construed, deterministically or not. The point in condemning ourselves after doing wrong, is to correct our mistakes to do better the next time. It is of course true for each and everyone of us that one cannot understand that an act is bad, without regret at its happening. One must happen for the other to take place.
It is true that we would not have the willingness to act unless we feel that the act brings about good or bad. Also, it is true that regret entails genuine possibilities. With the arguments said above, these possibilities connected to human conduct relate to the future and not past occurrences. Were it otherwise, the sense of possibility would be meaningless. I would now like to point out that moral responsibility and determinism, if true, can coexist. In the determinist’s point of view, he should not be held accountable for his actions because things happened the way it should have been.
The determinist would not expect liability for an exemplary moral act nor blame from a wrongdoing. He can be either seen as selfless or selfish because a determinist would perform an action out of his own interest without expecting any praise or having to worry about blame. He would be doing the right thing for his own sake unlike the non-hard determinists who would be fishing for praise from others. He does the right thing without thinking that the act might be worthy of praise or blame. In this way, we can say his actions are more honorable than the non-hard determinists.
To conclude, determinism does give a non-determinist the idea that they are self-centered and indifferent to rights and wrongs, the very laws that keep society in order. I have covered why determinists do not agree with these judgments. However, in this paper I have argued that there could be good in the deterministic view. A determinist brings about a purer form of morality. An act of goodness that is carried out not to seek consent from the public but done out of moral obligation. (1) William James, The Dilemma of Determinism (2) William James, The Dilemma of Determinism