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Determinism, simply put, is the idea that all events have been predetermined since the beginning of the universe, which implies that the human will does not have control over its actions. More formally, if we fully understand both the laws of nature and the total state of the universe at some time , determinism implies we would be able to know the state of the universe at some other time with complete certainty.

This idea might seem intuitive. Although we currently do not understand all of the laws of physics, conceivably, we might reach a point where we do understand the complete laws of physics. With that information, we could theoretically predict all of the interactions between the atoms that build the universe, and we could figure out exactly what state these atoms would be in at any time in the future.

Free Will

Determinism itself makes no claims to the existence or non-existence of free will. However, many philosophers accept determinism as true, and then show that determinism either implies that we have free will or that we do not have free will.

The argument for why determinism implies we do not have free will, I think, is intuitive. Philosophers who argue that determinism implies no free will are called hard determinists. If the entire future of the universe is predetermined, that means nothing we can do can change that future state. In essence, nothing we do not have the power to change anything in the future because the future was already predetermined. Thus, we cannot exercise free will because we are not free – all of our actions, including our future ones, have already been predetermined.

Moral Responsibility

Some philosophers further argue that if we do not have free will, we are not morally responsible for our actions. Consider the scenario where somebody is holding you at gunpoint, forcing you to rob a bank. After you rob the bank, most people would not consider you morally responsible for the crime because you were being coerced into doing it – you had no choice in the matter. If you accept the premise that determinism is true and that we do not have free will, you could argue that this means we are not morally responsible for our actions.

Debate Applications

Technical Note: In debate, "determinism" is often used to refer to the conclusion of the syllogism; that we are not morally responsible for our actions. In reality, "determinism" is only the concept that all actions have been predetermined.

In debate, determinism is ran and justified to prove that agents are not morally responsible for their actions. This triggers permissibility, since if nobody is morally responsible for their actions, the resolution fails to be either a moral or immoral action. Since permissibility often negates, determinism is almost always read by the negative.

Importantly, in order to win on determinism, you must prove all three points of the syllogism as mentioned above. You must prove that determinism is true, that determinism implies we do not have free will, and that not having free will implies that we are not morally responsible for our actions. If you do not win even one of the parts of the syllogism, you would not reach the conclusion that agents are not morally responsible for their actions.

Strategic Value

Determinism is largely strategic because without understanding the nuances of the syllogism, most debaters answer it the wrong way. The most common response to determinism in debate is to disprove the first part of the syllogism, that all events have been predetermined from the start of the universe. However, this part of the syllogism may very well be the strongest part. It seems likely true that with a full understanding of the laws of physics, we could determine all future actions. A more strategic way to answer determinism would likely be to disprove either the second or third point of the syllogism.

Secondly, determinism allows you to not get caught up in the nuances of the framework debate. Imagine that the affirmative is reading an AC with four minutes of framework justifications. The negative could read determinism, without directly responding to any of the AC's framework, because the AC framework presumes that agents have moral responsibility for their actions. There is a great time tradeoff for the negative, since they can avoid answering the AC framework directly and spend time on other matters.

Finally, determinism is probably easy to intuitively understand and justify to your judges. Provided that your judge is competent and willing to vote on most arguments, determinism is not some dumb trick but an actual philosophically warranted position that could win you the round.

Responding to Determinism

Answering the Syllogism

The most direct way to answer determinism would be to disprove one, or multiple, parts of the syllogism. The syllogism makes three claims:

  1. Determinism is true.
  2. Determinism implies we lack free will.
  3. Lacking free will implies we are not morally responsible for our actions.

By disproving any one part of the syllogism, you would answer that we are not morally responsible for our actions. From personal experience, I think that answering (2) or (3) will be easier than answering (1).

Answering (1)

Answering this part of the syllogism is likely the most common response to determinism. With that said, I think it is the hardest part of the syllogism to actually challenge.

One argument says that we do not know if determinism is true. However, if you have properly justified your NC, you will have a card that argues why determinism is true based upon the laws of physics. Unless your opponent is attempting to disprove science, this response will likely not fare well.

Another argument attempts to prove that since there is randomness in the universe, which quantum mechanics gives evidence for, the universe cannot be deterministic. Although this response does disprove determinism, it simply proves that we live in a universe governed by randomness. This does not show that we have free will, for if our actions were governed by randomness, we would not have any choice in what we do, either.

Answering (2)

Conceivably, determinism could be true, but we could still have free will. Philosophers who believe in this view are called soft determinists, or compatibalists.

Partially, the notion of having freedom depends on how we define the concept of freedom. You might argue that although determinism means all actions have been predetermined, in the spur-of-the-moment, we are still able to make a decision on what we want to do. It might be true that this action was already predetermined, but you still effectively chose it. Imagine that you are watching a movie, and you paused it. If you take the characters to be real, they are still exercising freedom to make their choices, even if you could theoretically fast forward and see what happens later.

You can read more about compatibilism here.

Answering (3)

Here, you would argue that we might lack free will, but we are still morally responsible for our actions. To make such an argument, you would have to argue for some criterion which lays out what it means to be morally responsible for one's action. In debate, people typically assert that one is morally responsible for their action if and only if they had the freedom to take that action. However, by providing some alternative criterion, you could argue that people are still morally responsible.

P.F. Strawson argues that we determine moral responsibility based on reactive attitudes. That is, we deem somebody morally responsible for the action that they take based on the reaction that we have to that action. Even if determinism is true, we would still have the same reactive attitudes when somebody does wrong, which would mean that they are still culpable for the actions that they take.

See more here.

Contesting the Role of the Ballot

Determinism, arguably, requires a truth testing role of the ballot to operate. Since "ought" in the resolution means to prove a moral obligation, if moral obligations cannot exist, the resolution cannot be true. In this case, you would need to prove an alternative role of the ballot, like comparative worlds, and show why determinism is not relevant under comparative worlds.

However, the determinist might argue that their argument is relevant under comparative worlds, too. For if we cannot have moral obligations, no world could be "better" or "worse" than the other, since that requires a subjective moral interpretation as to the desirability of one world.

Other Responses

There are some options if you wish to respond to determinism less substantively.

You might argue that determinism is morally repugnant since it cannot assign moral blame. While this argument might seem viable, you are effectively saying your opponent is being immoral for running determinism. But if determinism is true, your opponent wouldn't be morally responsible for their action of reading determinism. The viability of these types of arguments, I think, are dependent upon the judge.

Another argument might say, in debate, we are simply proving whether the resolutional action is moral or immoral. This doesn't require asking people to take any moral action, but rather, we are simply judging whether a statement is moral or not. Therefore, the normal determinism arguments would not apply since a particular body isn't responsible for an action or not.

On a similar note, if the resolution is state based, you might argue that determinism only applies on an individual level, and show that your opponent has not proven why determinism would be relevant for state actors.

Sample Cases

File:JF22 - NC - Determinism.docx