Example answer – 2001 no 5 – Ethics

See photocopy of Birgitta Cooper’s in file as well.

b) Comment on the claim that conscience allows people the freedom to behave as they wish.

If conscience is an authoritarian force and from God it has implications for man’s free-will. If conscience offers incentives by feelings of satisfaction for good actions and disincentives by guilt and shame for bad actions and ultimately offers punishment or reward by heaven and hell, can man truly be said to have free will?

Freedom is an illusion if our actions are structured this way. Calvin claims that humans have no real free-will, subscribing to theological determinism – that there are two groups of people, the damned and the elect. Although people have freewill in choosing their actions the elect will naturally choose good and the damned bad, and so will go to heaven or hell accordingly, regardless of any illusion of free-will. God is the ultimate decision maker rendering humans mere automatons – they cannot make valid moral decisions and so are not responsible for their actions or sins – God is.

This conflicts with traditional Christian teaching which states that humans were given free-will (and so responsibility and liability to judgment) and conscience to guide them, helping them but not dictating. However, many atheists believe that free-will is the ultimate and humans are autonomous; conscience is linked to empathy and psychology as well as to social factors. This psychological determinism is the opposite extreme arguing that free-will is an illusion and behaviour is determined by psychological and social circumstances; e.g. I may think a decision to dye my hair blonde is an exercise of my free-will but really social pressure to conform to a stereotype of desirability and youth which dictates blonde is ‘beautiful’ has influenced my decision. This is linked to philosophical determinism – that Aquinas’ chain of cause and effect means that past events dictate the future and although choice exists as an illusion it is pre-decided which choice will be made and so free-will is an illusion.

Compatibilists would argue that although there are some situations which past event or psychological factors dictate (influence) people are also autonomous and independent and ultimately free-will can be exercised in addition to either a divinely given or socially programmed conscience, which informs but does not dictate action. From a religious perspective, free-will must exist or sin, judgment, heaven and hell are meaningless concepts as man cannot be held accountable for his actions.


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