Freedom can be seen as the underlying assumption of all the various schools of ethical thought, both secular and religious. Freedom is what we need to have—or, at the very least, must suppose we have—if we’re to make meaningful moral decisions. If we have no freedom, if we’re little more than automata, then it becomes impossible to judge people’s actions in any meaningful sense.
No matter how reprehensible we may find someone’s actions, we cannot reasonably subject them to moral censure if they had no freedom in what they were doing. If we see people as being nothing more than the product of their genetic inheritance or their immediate environment, then we are no longer in a position to exercise any judgment on people’s behavior.
A moment’s reflection should alert us to the potentially catastrophic consequences of the abandonment of freedom in the realm of ethical thought. If we are deemed not to have the freedom to make choices in our lives, then how can society possibly hold anyone accountable for their actions? What becomes of the criminal justice system when individuals who commit crimes are deemed not to be in possession of free will? How can we possibly punish someone for a crime if they effectively had no choice in the matter?
Even at the most superficial level, then, freedom is essential to ethics. Those who advocate determinism, who argue that there is no such thing as free will, still support the idea of having a criminal justice system that punishes those who transgress society’s norms, laws, and standards. The difference, however, is that they put aside their philosophical beliefs and proceed on the basis that freedom is a legal fiction necessary to maintain stability and order in society. In other words, for the good of society, determinists are prepared to treat criminals as if they had freedom, even if they believe they don’t really have such freedom.