Free will

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-V014-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 17, 2024, from

Article Summary

‘Free will’ is the conventional name of a topic that is best discussed without reference to the will. Its central questions are ’What is it to act (or choose) freely?’, and ’What is it to be morally responsible for one’s actions (or choices)?’ These two questions are closely connected, for freedom of action is necessary for moral responsibility, even if it is not sufficient.

Philosophers give very different answers to these questions, hence also to two more specific questions about ourselves: (1) Are we free agents? and (2) Can we be morally responsible for what we do? Answers to (1) and (2) range from ’Yes, Yes’ to ’No, No’ – via ’Yes, No’ and various degrees of ’Perhaps’, ’Possibly’, and ’In a sense’. (The fourth pair of outright answers, ’No, Yes’, is rare, but appears to be accepted by some Protestants.) Prominent among the ’Yes, Yes’ sayers are the compatibilists, who hold that free will is compatible with determinism. Briefly, determinism is the view that everything that happens is necessitated by what has already gone before, in such a way that nothing can happen otherwise than it does. According to compatibilists, freedom is compatible with determinism because freedom is essentially just a matter of not being constrained or hindered in certain ways when one acts or chooses. Thus normal adult human beings in normal circumstances are able to act and choose freely. No one is holding a gun to their heads. They are not drugged, or in chains, or subject to a psychological compulsion. They are therefore wholly free to choose and act even if their whole physical and psychological make-up is entirely determined by things for which they are in no way ultimately responsible – starting with their genetic inheritance and early upbringing.

Incompatibilists hold that freedom is not compatible with determinism. They point out that if determinism is true, then every one of one’s actions was determined to happen as it did before one was born. They hold that one cannot be held to be truly free and finally morally responsible for one’s actions in this case. They think compatibilism is a ‘wretched subterfuge…, a petty word-jugglery’, as Kant put it (1788: 189–90). It entirely fails to satisfy our natural convictions about the nature of moral responsibility.

The incompatibilists have a good point, and may be divided into two groups. Libertarians answer ’Yes, Yes’ to questions (1) and (2). They hold that we are indeed free and fully morally responsible agents, and that determinism must therefore be false. Their great difficulty is to explain why the falsity of determinism is any better than the truth of determinism when it comes to establishing our free agency and moral responsibility. For suppose that not every event is determined, and that some events occur randomly, or as a matter of chance. How can our claim to moral responsibility be improved by the supposition that it is partly a matter of chance or random outcome that we and our actions are as they are?

The second group of incompatibilists is less sanguine. They answer ’No, No’ to questions (1) and (2). They agree with the libertarians that the truth of determinism rules out genuine moral responsibility, but argue that the falsity of determinism cannot help. Accordingly, they conclude that we are not genuinely free agents or genuinely morally responsible, whether determinism is true or false. One of their arguments can be summarized as follows. When one acts, one acts in the way one does because of the way one is. So to be truly morally responsible for one’s actions, one would have to be truly responsible for the way one is: one would have to be causa sui, or the cause of oneself, at least in certain crucial mental respects. But nothing can be causa sui – nothing can be the ultimate cause of itself in any respect. So nothing can be truly morally responsible.

Suitably developed, this argument against moral responsibility seems very strong. But in many human beings, the experience of choice gives rise to a conviction of absolute responsibility that is untouched by philosophical arguments. This conviction is the deep and inexhaustible source of the free will problem: powerful arguments that seem to show that we cannot be morally responsible in the ultimate way that we suppose keep coming up against equally powerful psychological reasons why we continue to believe that we are ultimately morally responsible.

    Citing this article:
    Strawson, Galen. Free will, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-V014-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
    Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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