Determinism—William James

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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...
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