Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy
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Free will

Fully updated and revised April 19, 2011

1 Compatibilism
2 Incompatibilism
3 Pessimism
4 Moral responsibility
5 Metaphysics and moral psychology
6 Challenges to pessimism
7 Recent work


Galen Strawson

1 Compatibilism

Do we have free will? It depends what you mean by the word ‘free’. More than two hundred senses of the word have been distinguished; the history of the discussion of free will is rich and remarkable. David Hume called the problem of free will ‘the most contentious question of metaphysics, the most contentious science’ (1748: 95).

According to compatibilists, we do have free will. They propound a sense of the word ‘free’ according to which free will is compatible with determinism, even though determinism is the view that the history of the universe is fixed in such a way that nothing can happen otherwise than it does because everything that happens is necessitated by what has already gone before (see Determinism and indeterminism).

Suppose tomorrow is a national holiday. You are considering what to do. You can climb a mountain or read Lao-tzu. You can mend your bicycle or go to the zoo. At this moment you are reading the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. You are free to go on reading or stop now. You have started on this sentence, but you don’t have to ... finish it.

In this situation, as so often in life, you have a number of options. Nothing forces your hand. It seems natural to say that you are entirely free to choose what to do. And, given that nothing hinders you, it seems natural to say that you act entirely freely when you actually do (or try to do) what you have decided to do.

Compatibilists claim that this is the right thing to say. They believe that to have free will, to be a free agent, to be free in choice and action, is simply to be free from constraints of certain sorts. Freedom is a matter of not being physically or psychologically forced or compelled to do what one does. Your character, personality, preferences and general motivational set may be entirely determined by events for which you are in no way responsible (by your genetic inheritance, upbringing, subsequent experience and so on). But you do not have to be in control of any of these things in order to have compatibilist freedom. They do not constrain or compel you, because compatibilist freedom is just a matter of being able to choose and act in the way one prefers or thinks best given how one is. As its name declares, it is compatible with determinism. It is compatible with determinism even though it follows from determinism that every aspect of your character, and everything you will ever do, was already inevitable before you were born.

If determinism does not count as a constraint or compulsion, what does? Compatibilists standardly take it that freedom can be limited by such things as imprisonment, by a gun at one’s head, or a threat to the life of one’s children, or a psychological obsession and so on.

It is arguable, however, that compatibilist freedom is something one continues to possess undiminished so long as one can choose or act in any way at all. One continues to possess it in any situation in which one is not actually panicked, or literally compelled to do what one does, in such a way that it is not clear that one can still be said to choose or act at all (as when one presses a button, because one’s finger is actually forced down on the button).

Consider pilots of hijacked aeroplanes. They usually stay calm. They choose to comply with the hijackers’ demands. They act responsibly, as we naturally say. They are able to do other than they do, but they choose not to. They do what they most want to do, all things considered, in the circumstances in which they find themselves.

All circumstances limit one’s options in some way. It is true that some circumstances limit one’s options much more drastically than others; but it does not follow that one is not free to choose in those circumstances. Only literal compulsion, panic or uncontrollable impulse really removes one’s freedom to choose, and to (try to) do what one most wants to do given one’s character or personality. Even when one’s finger is being forced down on the button, one can still act freely in resisting the pressure, and in many other ways.

Most of us are free to choose throughout our waking lives, according to the compatibilist conception of freedom. We are free to choose between the options that we perceive to be open to us. (Sometimes we would rather not face options, but are unable to avoid awareness of the fact that we do face them.) One has options even when one is in chains, or falling through space. Even if one is completely paralysed, one is still free in so far as one is free to choose to think about one thing rather than another. Sartre (1948) observed that there is a sense in which we are ‘condemned’ to freedom, not free not to be free.

Of course one may well not be able to do everything one wants – one may want to fly unassisted, vaporize every gun in the United States by an act of thought, or house all those who sleep on the streets of Calcutta by the end of the month. But few have supposed that free will, or free agency, is a matter of being able to do everything one wants. That is one possible view of what it is to be free; but according to the compatibilists, free will is simply a matter of having genuine options and opportunities for action, and being able to choose between them according to what one wants or thinks best. It may be said that dogs and other animals can be free agents, according to this basic account of compatibilism. Compatibilists may reply that dogs can indeed be free agents. And yet we do not think that dogs can be free or morally responsible in the way we can be. So compatibilists need to say what the relevant difference is between dogs and ourselves.

Many suppose that it is our capacity for self-conscious thought that makes the crucial difference, because it makes it possible for us to be explicitly aware of ourselves as facing choices and engaging in processes of reasoning about what to do. This is not because being self-conscious can somehow liberate one from the facts of determinism: if determinism is true, one is determined to have whatever self-conscious thoughts one has, whatever their complexity. Nevertheless, many are inclined to think that a creature’s explicit self- conscious awareness of itself as chooser and agent can constitute it as a free agent in a fundamental way that is unavailable to any unselfconscious agent.

Compatibilists can agree with this. They can acknowledge and incorporate the view that self-conscious awareness of oneself as facing choices can give rise to a kind of freedom that is unavailable to unselfconscious agents. They may add that human beings are sharply marked off from dogs by their capacity to act for reasons that they explicitly take to be moral reasons. In general, compatibilism has many variants. According to Harry Frankfurt’s version, for example, one has free will if one wants to be moved to action by the motives that do in fact move one to action (Frankfurt 1988). On this view, freedom is a matter of having a personality that is harmonious in a certain way. Freedom in this sense is clearly compatible with determinism.

Compatibilism has been refined in many ways, but this gives an idea of its basis. ‘What more could free agency possibly be?’, compatibilists like to ask (backed by Hobbes 1651, Locke 1690 and Hume 1748, among others). And this is a very powerful question.

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How to cite this article:
STRAWSON, GALEN (1998, 2011). Free will. In E. Craig (Ed.), Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. London: Routledge. Retrieved April 24, 2014, from http://www.rep.routledge.com/article/V014SECT1



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