When “Whatever Happens, Happens” is Problematic

Ryan Heshmati

August 26, 2022

If someone murders another individual, are they morally responsible? Many who approach life with a laid-back attitude, reciting utterances like “whatever happens, happens,” may not think about the profound implications of the statement and its connection to philosophy. The mindset it follows, which can be interpreted as maintaining that events are out of one’s control, summarizes, at least to an extent, the doctrine of determinism, a philosophical school of thought dating back to Greek philosophers of pre-Socratic times. The way the causal chain operates is most certainly related to the concepts challenged by this way of thinking. Questions, when examining the perspective more closely, arise regarding free will.

Determinism, which stands in opposition to the holdings of the philosophical school of thought known as libertarianism, argues all events are determined in a causal chain of only one course of events. As an example, under this way of thinking, if one murders another, this action is determined by past events before it even occurs. Even among determinists, there is a split, however, regarding the implications of such a reality on the possibility of free will.

Hard Determinists subscribe that if all events are determined and there is no other course of events that could or can occur, then free will cannot exist. The causal chain, these philosophers believe, leaves no room to chance or more than one decision potentially being reached by individuals. What makes this view so difficult to accept for many is how it impacts moral responsibility. If hard determinists are correct, a lack of free will makes holding individuals accountable for their actions illogical, which is in stark contrast to how society runs today. 

Compatibilists, who follow soft determinism, seek to reason that even if no decision other than the one an individual settles on could have been chosen, this does not necessarily invalidate the possibility of free will. Arthur Schopenhauer contends, “Man can do what he wills but he cannot will what he wills.” Through the position that free will comes from acting in line with one’s motivations, determinism and free will are explained to logically be compatible with each other. For instance, even if one was always going to commit the aforementioned murder, what matters is that it is in line with their own motivations. As a result of this holding, compatibilists, unlike hard determinists, feel moral responsibility is not necessarily absolved just because an event was going to happen anyway.

Even if the main holding of determinism is determined to be true, the question of free will and moral responsibility will not be without further consideration. Compatibilists are often criticized for arguing that two seemingly contradictory ideas are not mutually exclusive. Alternatively, hard determinism proves to be a tough pill to swallow for many: in a society where individuals are not held accountable, as a result of a rejection of moral responsibility, anarchy would become the status quo. It is unlikely philosophers will reach a consensus on this one, but it is interesting to examine beyond the surface of the three words, “Whatever happens, happens.”