Determinism is the belief popularized by John Stuart Mill that choice and free will are unreal. In determinism, every event is the outcome of previous causes and nature is believed to be uniform. Moreover, the notion of chance is merely a concept incorrectly used by those unaware of all previous causes.
This differs from the idea of fatalism, where things unavoidably happen but not necessarily from previous causes. For instance, with fatalism a sovereign transcendent power or powers could arbitrarily decide what will happen to mere mortals. This is a widespread idea, not particular to recent religions. For example, the Homeric Fates were able to have power over the future.¹
The distinction between determinism and fatalism is further outlined at Wikipedia:
Fatalism is normally distinguished from “determinism”. Fatalism is the idea that everything is fated to happen, so that humans have no control over their future. Notice that fate has arbitrary power. Fate also need not follow any causal or otherwise deterministic laws. Types of Fatalism include Theological determinism and the idea of predestination, where there is a God who determines all that humans will do. This may be accomplished either by knowing their actions in advance, via some form of omniscience or by decreeing their actions in advance.²
This quotation raises some difficult philosophical questions. For instance, does God knowing in advance what we will do mean the same thing as God determining what we will do? Some say yes, and others no. On the yes side, we could say that God created everything in the first place, and having full knowledge (omniscience) not only knows but also is responsible for what we do. On the other side, the no side, we could say that God creates us with free will. Although God knows how we will choose, we are totally free to go any way we wish. This latter argument is usually held by Christian theologians while the former crops up among agnostics and atheists (atheists do not believe in God but may use the argument to try to lampoon the whole idea of God).
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John Stuart Mill (1806-73) was an English empiricist philosopher best known for On Liberty (1859) and Utilitarianism (1863).
In the latter, Mill follows David Hume‘s principle of utility by saying
Actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness; wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.
Mill critiques Immanuel Kant‘s categorical imperative. Put simply, the categorical imperative means that we should do those actions which are morally good in every circumstance.
Mill believes the principle of utility amounts to the same thing as the categorical imperative because moral actions are defined as good and bad through a cost-benefit analysis of their results.
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