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Eye on Ethics

Moral Culpability in Social Work: The Free Will/Determinism Debate
By Frederic G. Reamer, PhD
June 2015

Last Monday I spent time with Alfred B., a 37-year-old prison inmate who's serving a nine-year sentence in my state's correctional system. In conjunction with my work with the Department of Corrections, I interviewed Alfred about his crime, participation in prison-sponsored treatment programs, and plans for the future. I knew from my review of the inmate's prison records that he was convicted of first-degree child molestation. The victim was Alfred's 14-year-old stepdaughter. During our interview, the inmate acknowledged his remorse and his wish to address the complex issues that contributed to his heinous crime:

"I just can't believe I sank so low. I mean, every bone in my body knows that what I did to Tiffany was wrong. But at the time I felt like I had no control. I was a lost soul. It's like I was watching someone else commit this crime. Now that I've been in the sex offender treatment program for almost two years, I have a better sense of how all of this happened. My relationship with Tiffany's mother had fallen apart, and abusing Tiffany was my twisted way to get back at my ex-wife. I know now that at the time my drinking was out of control, which completely impaired my judgment the night I assaulted Tiffany. And now that I'm in the program, for the first time in my life I've acknowledged that when I was 10 years old a camp counselor sexually abused me. That happened the same year I was molested by an older kid I lived with in one of the foster homes I was sent to. I'm beginning to get how all this happened. And I never want it to happen again."

I've spent many years working with prison inmates, and my experience told me that Alfred was earnest in his efforts to address the diverse and significant challenges in his life, or at least so it seemed. Yet, as I walked out of the prison last week, I had difficulty getting Alfred out of my mind. 

I know he represents one of social work's most enduring challenges: reconciling our determined efforts to identify the factors that explain why some clients engage in behaviors that deeply hurt others with our strongly held beliefs that most clients have the capacity to exercise free will and choose their course of behavior. I think this tension is one of the most difficult in a profession that seeks causal explanations at the very same time it recognizes clients' ability to choose how to behave.

The Free Will/Determinism Debate and Social Work
Put simply, on one side are those who argue that human beings are willful actors who actively shape their own destinies and who independently make rational choices based on personal preferences and wishes. From this point of view, Alfred knowingly and voluntarily chose to assault his victim; no one forced him to molest Tiffany.

On the other side are those who claim that human behavior is largely or entirely determined by a series of antecedent events and factors, such that any given "choice" or behavior is a mere product of prior causes, be they psychological, environmental, economic, or physical.

The free will/determinism debate has ancient philosophical roots. Empedocles and Heraclitus, for example, are early sources of pre-Socratic thought on the meaning of determinism in nature and the idea of natural law. Ideas concerning determinism—especially the influence of divine will—were later given prominence in the 4th century B.C.E. by the Stoics, the Greek school of philosophy founded by Zeno.

The origins of modern world debate about free will and determinism ordinarily are traced to the work of the 18th-century French astronomer and mathematician Pierre-Simon, marquis de Laplace. Laplace's claims about determinism in the world as we know it were heavily dependent upon the scientific theory of particle mechanics, according to which a knowledge of the mechanical state of all particles at a particular time together with a knowledge of all other forces acting in nature at that instant would enable one to discover all future and past states of the world. With this information one could, in principle, discover not only all future and past mechanical states in the world, but all others as well, such as electromagnetic, chemical, and psychological. According to determinism, then, problems such as crime, poverty, drug abuse, and mental illness can be traced to historical antecedents that have led progressively to the "victim's" current difficulties.

Proponents of the free will school of thought, alternatively, deny that the thoughts, emotions, and behavior of all individuals are, at all times, a function of prior causes over which individuals have little or no control. Adherents to this point of view—sometimes known as soft determinism or the "mixed view"—generally fall short of claiming that no events are predetermined. Rather, they claim that some events follow from the exercise of free will or choice, and that individuals do in fact have the capacity to behave independently of prior causes, though to varying degrees.

Having spent decades working with offenders, my experience tells me that, without a doubt, how social workers and others who work in the criminal justice system respond to offenders often is a direct function of these professionals' beliefs about the extent to which the offenders sitting before them are (or are not) morally culpable and responsible, in the free-will sense of the term, for their misconduct. Social workers, police, judges, parole and probation officers, and parole board members often react relatively compassionately or punitively, depending on their belief about the offenders' ability to exercise self-control and make free choices at the time they committed their offenses. 

My work with Alfred forces me to struggle with the implications of the free will/determinism debate for me as a social worker. To what extent do I truly believe that his noteworthy trauma history "caused" him to abuse Tiffany, and that he, too, is a victim of toxic circumstances? To what extent do I believe that Alfred made a willful choice to abuse Tiffany, knowing that his behavior was heinous? And most importantly, to what extent do I think Alfred should be held morally responsible for his conduct?

The nineteenth-century Russian philosopher Leo Tolstoy captures this tension quite eloquently at the end of War and Peace:

"The problem of free will from earliest times has occupied the best intellects of mankind and has from earliest appeared in all its colossal significance. The problem lies in the fact that if we regard man as a subject for observation from whatever point of view—theological, historical, ethical, or philosophic—we find the universal law of necessity to which he (like everything else that exists) is subject. But looking upon man from within ourselves—man as the object of our own inner consciousness of self—we feel ourselves to be free."

Frederic G. Reamer, PhD, is a professor in the graduate program of the School of Social Work at Rhode Island College. He's the author of many books and articles, and his research has addressed mental health, health care, criminal justice, and professional ethics.