Free will

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-V014-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved June 24, 2024, from

2. Incompatibilism

Those who want to secure the conclusion that we are free agents do well to adopt a compatibilist theory of freedom, for determinism is unfalsifiable, and may be true. (Contemporary physics gives us no more reason to suppose that determinism is false than to suppose that it is true – though this is contested; for further discussion see Determinism and indeterminism.) Many, however, think that the compatibilist account of things does not even touch the real problem of free will. They believe that all compatibilist theories of freedom are patently inadequate.

What is it, they say, to define freedom in such a way that it is compatible with determinism? It is to define it in such a way that a creature can be a free agent even if all its actions throughout its life are determined to happen as they do by events that have taken place before it is born: so that there is a clear sense in which it could not at any point in its life have done otherwise than it did. This, they say, is certainly not free will. More importantly, it is not a sufficient basis for true moral responsibility. One cannot possibly be truly or ultimately morally responsible for what one does if everything one does is ultimately a deterministic outcome of events that took place before one was born; or (more generally) a deterministic outcome of events for whose occurrence one is in no way ultimately responsible.

These anti-compatibilists or incompatibilists divide into two groups: the libertarians and the no-freedom theorists or pessimists about free will and moral responsibility. The libertarians think that the compatibilist account of freedom can be improved on. They hold (1) that we do have free will, (2) that free will is not compatible with determinism, and (3) that determinism is therefore false. But they face an extremely difficult task: they have to show how indeterminism (the falsity of determinism) can help with free will and, in particular, with moral responsibility.

The pessimists or no-freedom theorists do not think that this can be shown. They agree with the libertarians that the compatibilist account of free will is inadequate, but they do not think it can be improved on. They agree that free will is not compatible with determinism, but deny that indeterminism can help to make us (or anyone else) free. They believe that free will, of the sort that is necessary for genuine moral responsibility, is provably impossible.

The pessimists about free will grant what everyone must: that there is a clear and important compatibilist sense in which we can be free agents (we can be free, when unconstrained, to choose and to do what we want or think best, given how we are). But they insist that this compatibilist sense of freedom is not enough: it does not give us what we want, in the way of free will; nor does it give us what we believe we have. And it is not as if the compatibilists have missed something. The truth is that nothing can give us what we (think we) want, or what we ordinarily think we have. All attempts to furnish a stronger notion of free will fail. We cannot be morally responsible, in the absolute, buck-stopping way in which we often unreflectively think we are. We cannot have ’strong’ free will of the kind that we would need to have, in order to be morally responsible in this way.

The fundamental motor of the free will debate is the worry about moral responsibility (see Responsibility). If no one had this worry, it is doubtful whether the problem of free will would be a famous philosophical problem. The rest of this discussion will therefore be organized around the question of moral responsibility.

First, though, it is worth remarking that the worry about free will does not have to be expressed as a worry about the grounds of moral responsibility. A commitment to belief in free will may be integral to feelings that are extremely important to us independently of the issue of moral responsibility: feelings of gratitude, for example, and perhaps of love. One’s belief in strong free will may also be driven simply by the conviction that one is or can be radically self-determining in one’s actions (in a way that is incompatible with determinism) and this conviction need not involve giving much – or any – thought to the issue of moral responsibility. It seems that a creature could conceive of itself as radically self-determining without having any conception of moral right or wrong at all – and so without being any sort of moral agent.

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

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