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VI The problem of free will and determinism

VI.1. Free will vs determinism


Free will vs Freedom

The problem of free will is to be distinguished from the problem of freedom. The former is a
metaphysical problem whereas the latter is an ethical or political problem.
Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) differentiates a "physical freedom", "which refers only
to the power, that is, the absence, precisely, of physical impediments for actions" (EFW). This
concept of freedom consisting in the power to do what one wishes to do is certainly the most
common in our everyday life. In philosophy it is called "negative freedom", "external freedom" or
"freedom of action" and it consists on the idea of freedom as a power to act with no external
obstacles (would them be objects, people, laws...). Freedom of action could be defined as the
capacity to do whatever one has chosen or one wishes to be done with nothing external to the
subject stopping it, a freedom to do.
On the other hand, according to Schopenhauer there is another kind of freedom, "moral
freedom", a freedom to will. The most usual name in philosophy for this concept is "free will"
(from the classic "liberum arbitrium"), but it may also be called "positive freedom", "internal
freedom" or "freedom of choice". This freedom does not refer to the possibility of physically
realizing our actions, but to the possibility that the will that motivates our actions would be as it is
just by virtue of itself, to the possibility of autonomous action. Free will could be defined as the
capacity to choose what to do without being forced to do it by an external determinant, a freedom to
The problem of free will is not, therefore, whether we can act as we wish but, whether
we can wish what we wish. Are we really in control of our own will?

Free will vs determinism

Determinism is the thesis that every event is causally determined: a causally determined
event e occurring at a time t is such that, the proposition that e occurs at t is entailed by some
conjunction of true propositions describing the laws of nature and the state of the world prior to t.
Therefore, according to determinism for any given state of the universe at a time there is exactly
one possible resultant state that comes about because of the laws of nature.
Indeterminism is the thesis that there are events not necessarily (just probabilistically)
produced by their antecedent cause. Antecedent conditions make the occurrence of an event more
probable, but do not determine it, that is, they do not result in it with a probability of 1.
Both theses seem to challenge the existence of free will: determinism because, if true, then
our will seems determined by antecedent conditions and not up to us; indeterminism because, if
true, then our will doesn't seem determined by our previous beliefs and desires and thereby up to us.
The problem of free will and determinism is the problem of reconciling either the truth
or the falsity of determinism with the existence of free will and moral responsibility. The
problem is based on the following claims:
1. Determinism is true, or determinism is false.
2. If determinism is true, then there is no free will.
3. If determinism is false, then there is no free will.
4. There is moral responsibility only if there is free will.
5. There is moral responsibility.
Claims (1) (3) imply that there is no free will, but claims (4) and (5) imply that there is
free will. Claims (1) (5) are thus jointly inconsistent; they cannot all be true. There are
nevertheless good reasons for endorsing each of them. The task for philosophers is thus to explain

which of the claims is false and why the reasons in favor of it are not decisive.

Compatibilism vs incompatibilism

In the contemporary debate concerning free will and determinism there are two perspectives
defending the existence of free will, compatibilism and incompatibilism (libertarianism), and two
defending its inexistence, hard determinism and hard indeterminism. Concerning the claims
stipulated in the previous section:
- Compatibilist theories try to reconcile free will and moral responsibility with the truth of
determinism. Classic compatibilist theories, for instance, accept claims (4) and (5), but reject Claim
(2). According to them, free will requires the ability to do otherwise, but the ability to do otherwise
can be understood in a way that is compatible with determinism. Contemporary compatibilist
theories, on the other hand, reject the idea that free will requires the ability to do otherwise (as
Frankfurt-style examples suggest, see VI.2.1). Hierarchical theories, for instance, claim that free
will can be accounted for in terms of a hierarchy of higher-order desires, something that does not
require the ability to do otherwise. Capacity-based theories, on the other hand, claim that free will
can be accounted for in terms of the exercise of certain capacities such as capacities for rational
self-governance. Reactive attitude theories claim that moral evaluation depends on social
practices. Since those practices do not depend on the truth or falsity of determinism, we can hold
people morally accountable for their behavior regardless of whether or not determinism is true.
- In contrast to compatibilist theories, libertarian theories try to reconcile free will and
moral responsibility with the falsity of determinism; they reject Claim (3). Simple indeterminist
theories claim that free actions are completely uncaused events, but that we can still be held morally
accountable for them because moral responsibility does not require that we actually bring about the
actions we are responsible for. Causal indeterminist theories, on the other hand, deny that free
actions are entirely uncaused. Free actions are caused by antecedent events, they say, but they are
caused indeterministically. Antecedent events do not determine results; they merely make a certain
result more probable. In addition, like causal indeterminist theories, agent causal theories claim
that free actions have causes, but these causes are not antecedent events; they are instead agents
themselves. There is, in other words, a special kind of causal relation agent causation that differs
from event causation and that is responsible for bringing about actions. Finally, some libertarian
theories affirm the existence of free will and moral responsibility, but deny the possibility of
providing an informative positive account of how free will and moral responsibility are possible,
free-will is a practical postulate. The eighteenth-century philosopher Immanuel Kant argued for
a position along these lines.
In addition to the foregoing theories, there are also some that deny the existence of free will
and moral responsibility. Hard determinism endorses Claim (2) together with determinism. Free
will and determinism are incompatible, it says, and determinism is true; consequently, free will does
not exist. Hard incompatibilists, on the other hand, believe that the truth or falsity of determinism
is an empirical matter something it is up to scientists not philosophers to determine. Like hard
determinists, they endorse Claim (2), and like hard determinists they deny that we are free and
morally responsible, but their denial of free will and moral responsibility is based not on
determinism, but on independent grounds. Philosophers who deny free will and moral responsibility
disagree about the practical implications of this denial. Some think denying the existence of free
will and moral responsibility requires significant changes in our social institutions and practices;
others think it requires few changes if any.
The main argument against compatibilism is called the consequence argument:
(1) If determinism is true, then our actions are necessary consequences of the laws of nature together with
events in the past including events that occurred before we were born.
(2) We are not in control of the laws of nature; what the laws of nature are is not something that is up to us.
(3) We are not in control of events in the past either; changing the past is also something that is not up to us.
(4) If we are not in control of the laws of nature or the past, if neither of them is up to us, then we are not in
control of our actions either; what we do is also not up to us.

(5) Consequently, if determinism is true we are not in control our actions; what we do is not up to us. It follows
that if determinism is true, we are not free. Compatibilism must be false.

Premise (1) follows directly from the definition of determinism: if determinism is true, then
for any given state of the universe at a time, there is exactly one possible state that comes about as a
result of the laws of nature together with antecedent conditions. Premises (2) and (3), moreover,
appear to be empirical matters of fact: it is not within our power to change either the past or the
of nature. The most controversial premise is thus (4). The argument for (4) depends on two further
premises which the philosopher Peter van Inwagen has dubbed Rule Alpha and Rule Beta :
Rule Alpha: What is necessarily the case is not in our control.
Rule Beta: If X is not in our control, and Y is a necessary consequence of X, and it is not in our control that Y
is a necessary consequence of X, then Y is not in our control either.

Compatibilism could be defended by ruling out Rule Beta, or giving a different notion of
control, or finally denying that free will is necessary for moral responsibility.
One classical argument against libertarianism is called the Master Argument. This
argument was apparently first formulated by Diodorus Cronus (4th century BCE) and was later
developed by Aristotle in his logic treatises. The stoic philosopher Epictetus reconstructs the
Master argument as a contradiction between three propositions:
(1) Every past truth must be necessary.
(2) An impossibility does not follow from a possibility.
(3) Something is possible which neither is nor will be true.
Given (1) and (2), apparently (3) is false, therefore nothing is possible which is not true and
never will be. But if any event was true before taking place, that means that it was not merely
possible, but necessary. If human actions are events, they could never haven been otherwise, theyre
This argument was central to the Hellenistic debates about free will and determinism
between stoics and epicureans. It would prove that the actual outcome is and always was the only
possible outcome, therefore that there are no alternative possibilities (or no possibilities at all) and
free choice is an illusion. Most critics of this argument deny (1), since it conflates the notions of
empirical and logical necessity.
The problem of free will wouldnt be so compelling, given its metaphysical nature,
provided it wasnt related to morality. Nevertheless it seems that if we require the existence of free
will it is precisely to be able to make moral judgments on our actions. Or could we hold someone
responsible for her actions if her will were not free? Our notion of responsibility is, at least
partially, a causal notion: to judge that someone is responsible for A is, among other things, to judge
that she is, at least partially, a cause or origin of A. But which kind of cause? A deterministic cause
or an undetermined cause? However, when we say of an agent that she is morally responsible for
A, we are not saying that she was a cause or origin of A. [...] If moral responsibility ascriptions are
to be justified, the agent truly has to deserve them, and true desert [in philosophy it means the
condition of being deserving something] requires her having genuine, ultimate control over that for
which she is held morally responsible. (MRWS) The true requisite for moral responsibility is
control. Control has been understood as self-determination, and therefore incompatible with
determinism (and with indeterminism?), but maybe the requisite of control doesnt depend on free

VI.2. Moral responsibility

Historically it has been assumed that the question of whether we are morally responsible or
not depends on the existence of free will, and that the existence of free will depends on the truth or
falsity of determinism, and thereby on the existence or not of alternative possibilities. Nevertheless
some contemporary theories (in a compatibilist "new wave") offer accounts of free will which set
aside the problem of the existence of determinism. While we wont study any of the individual
theories, well examine some of the main components of the movement.

Does moral responsibility require alternative possibilities?

The issue of moral responsibility is, itself, framed within a yet more general topic regarding
the nature of persons. All morally responsible agents are persons, persons who have achieved a
certain sophisticated level of development.
What is it to be a morally responsible agent? A morally responsible agent, it might be said, is
one who is capable of complying with the demands of morality, who is an appropriate target of the
"morally reactive attitudes" (as philosopher Peter F. Strawson (1919-2006) named them):
sentiments of moral approbation and disapprobation, gratitude and resentment, guilt and pride.
What are the propriety conditions for morally responsible agency? Aristotle suggests two
conditions: the "epistemic" condition and the "freedom" condition.
The epistemic condition is quite uncontroversial: for an agent to be morally responsible for
what she has done, she must have had some understanding of (or at least she must have been able
to understand) the moral significance of her behavior.
The freedom condition remains quite uncontroversial at its surface: it seems natural to hold
that an agent must, in some way, have been in control of what she did if she is to be morally
responsible for it. If what she did, she did not do freely, it is hard to see how she could have been
expected to comply with the demands of morality. But as we have seen in the previous section what
is to be understood as "free" or "in control" remains controversial. Traditionally the freedom
condition has been interpreted as the possibility to act otherwise, so apparently the freedom
condition requires a second condition, the principle of alternative possibilities (PAP):
PAP: A person is morally responsible for what she has done only if she could have done
This simple moral principle appears so obvious and unimpeachable that it is hard to imagine
how it could be challenged: if I'm driving and suddenly an imprudent child appears in front of me
and I must swerve violently to save him and accidentally I hit a parked car, apparently I could never
be held morally responsible for it, since I could not have acted otherwise.
Nevertheless in a 1969 seminal paper "Alternative Possibilities and Moral Responsibility",
Harry Frankfurt (1929) challenged the received conception of the freedom condition for moral
responsibility as expressed in PAP presenting scenarios in which and agent can be said to act freely,
on her own, and hence is morally responsible for what she has done, even though she could not
have done otherwise. Therefore, PAP is false. Let's take a look to Frankfurt's intriguing thoughtexperiment:
Suppose someone - Black, let us say - wants Jones to perform a certain action. Black is prepared to go on to
considerable lengths to get his way, but he prefers to avoid showing his hand unnecessarily. So he waits until
Jones is about to make up his mind what to do, and he does nothing unless it is clear to him (Black is an
excellent judge of such things) that Jones is going to decide something other than what he wants him to do. If it
does become clear that Jones is going to decide to do something else, Black takes effective steps to ensure that
Jones decides to do, and that he does do, what he wants him to do. Whatever Jones' initial preferences and
inclinations, then, Black will have his way... Now suppose that Black never has to show his hand because Jones,
for reasons of his own, decides to perform and does perform the very action Black wants him to perform.

Frankfurt's argument, if sound, has enormous implications: overall for our understanding of
the sort of freedom pertinent to moral responsibility, and more specifically for incompatibilism
since the success of Frankfurt's argument would undercut a classical argument for the
incompatibility of freedom and determinism which rests crucially on PAP.

Incompatibilists argue that:

(1) An agent is morally responsible for what she has done only if she could have done otherwise.
(2) If determinism is true, no agent can do otherwise.
(3) Therefore, if determinism is true, no agent is morally responsible for what she does.

Frankfurt's thought-experiments are counterexamples of premise (1) and undermine the

argument, but they remain controversial. Some philosophers have defended PAP against Frankfurt's
attack claiming the existence of flickers of freedom within Frankfurt's scenarios (the question is,
do those flickers represent robust alternatives?), others signal that those scenarios presuppose the
existence of determinism through the instantiation of prior-signs of the agent's future action. Carlos
Moya has developed an interesting Frankfurt-style example to rescue the flicker strategy from
charges of "absence of robust alternatives" within those flickers: Activist 1.
Imagine (no strenuous effort required) a country ruled by a dictatorial government, where some clandestine
opposition groups operate. The government wants these groups to be discovered and dismantled. Police officers
sometimes capture members of some of these groups and attempt to force them to reveal the identities of their
comrades. In the past, the police used to employ torture, when necessary, for this purpose. Now, however, they
do not, and the government is pleased about this, because it improves the regimes image in the eyes of foreign
and domestic observers. The reason is not that they have become human rights champions , but that a research
group has recently discovered a drug that, if taken by someone, makes it virtually impossible for her to lie. After
taking it, the subject will say everything she knows about any question that she is asked. The truth drug (TD), as
we may call it, has some harmful, though not fatal, side effects on the recipient's health. All this is by now
common knowledge, specially among members of clandestine opposition groups. One day, Helen, a member of
one of these groups, is arrested by the police during a political demonstration and taken to police headquarters.
As is now usual , she is given a choice by police officers: she can voluntarily reveal the identities of her
comrades; but, if she refuses, TD will be administered to her and she will give them the information anyway.
Suppose that, fearing the harmful side effects of TD, and thinking that in any case the police will obtain the
information they want from her, she chooses the first alternative and voluntarily and on her own revels the
information that, had she refused to do so, she would have revealed involuntarily and unintentionally.
A hard choice, to be sure, but sometimes life confronts us with hard choices. Now, my intuition is that
Helen did something morally wrong, that she did so voluntarily and with all the freedom (not much, to be
honest), including freedom to do otherwise, that was available to her in the circumstances, that the only
alternative course of action she had was to do involuntarily and unfreely what she did willingly and freely, that
she is morally responsible for what she did, and that this moral responsibility is, at least partly, explained by the
fact that she ought to, and could have done otherwise, even if "otherwise" only means here to do unfreely what
she actually did freely and on her own. (MRWS)

Some critics may bite the bullet and say that she may have acted freely, but that nevertheless
she is not morally accountable on the ground that what she could have done as an alternative is not
robust enough: it is not explanatorily relevant to our ascription of moral responsibility to the
agent for his actual choice. Or was it?
Harry Frankfurt offers and account of moral responsibility with no need of alternative
possibilities, he understands freedom and responsibility in terms of a hierarchy of higher-order and
lower-order desires. A higher-order desire is a desire for other desires. We can desire things: food,
drink, sex, money, health, and so on. But we can also desire to have certain desires. Suppose, for
instance, that I desire to be a generous person. Being a generous person involves having certain
kinds of desires (generous people desire to help other people, for instance). Consequently, if I
desire to be a generous person, I desire to have other desires; in particular, I desire to have a desire
to help other people. A desire to help other people is a first-order desire, so my desire to be a
generous person is a second-order desire; it is a desire to have certain first-order desires. Peoples
higher-order and lower-order desires can be in harmony. Truly generous people, for instance, not
only want to help others; they also want to be the sort of people who want to help others. But
higher-order and lower-order desires can also conflict. Consider an unwilling drug addict.
Hierarchical theories understand free will in terms of relations between higher-order
and lower-order desires. The addicts behavior is compulsive; he cannot control his first-order
desires. The addicts behavior is therefore not free. According to hierarchical theories, then, agents
have free will exactly if they act in accordance with the first-order desires that they want to

be effective, the ones that actually influence or govern their behavior, that conform to a secondorder desire for these first-order desires to be the effective ones. If free will consists of this kind of
harmony between higher-order and lower-order desires, say exponents of hierarchical views, then
free will is compatible with determinism, for all of an agents desires (first- and second-order)
might be determined.


Deliberation and excuses

In Freedom and Resentment (FR) P. F. Strawson (1919-2006) argued against

metaphysical conceptions of moral responsibility which lay apart the role of what he calls reactive
attitudes such as gratitude or resentment which, from his standpoint, allow human beings to hold
each other morally responsible and therefore define the boundaries of moral responsibility.
For Strawson, both the incompatibilist and the classical compatibilist overintellectualize
the problem of moral responsibility. The concept of moral responsibility should be studied instead,
turning directly to the fact that normally we do function morally attributing responsibility to others
and to ourselves. And Strawson, when asking himself what do we do when we attribute
responsibility, finds that most commonly our attributions of responsibility come together with
certain sentiments which he calls reactive attitudes. Those sentiments always come along with
judgments about intentions (since they are attributions of responsibility) and occur when people
engage themselves in adult interpersonal relationships. Those attitudes arise in us as reactions to a
particular action performed by a certain agent whenever we consider that she performed that action
intentionally, that is: reactive attitudes come up when we find someone responsible for some good
or evil that was brought to us voluntarily. In case of good we feel positive attitudes like gratitude or
admiration; in case of wrong we feel attitudes like resentment or indignation. As previously said, it
is only correct to feel those attitudes when a judgment about intentions takes place (feeling those
attitudes constitutes the judgment itself): I could hardly feel resentment against someone who
ruined my gardens fence with her car when evading a careless child, just as I should not feel
gratitude for my absent-minded neighbour who fixed it thinking it was her own. In none of these
cases it was the agents intention doing me some good or wrong, both occurred accidentally.
Reactive attitudes go together with judgments about intentions because they rise from
expectations that we all have whenever we engage ourselves in interpersonal relationships.
More specifically we expect that everyone should have some sort of basic good will when acting
(unless we know a rational and reasonable motive for doubting it), we expect other people to have
good intentions towards us (or at least that they have no hate without any reason). When this
expectation is fulfilled we feel gratitude and the like, when not we feel resentment or indignation. In
the same way, when we do fulfill someone elses expectations we feel pride, and when we dont we
feel shame or guilt. Participating in that social game of expectations, that is, being in the normal
state of an agent when meeting other agents is what Strawson calls the participant attitude.
The problem with this theory so far, is that saying that we should feel gratitude when
someone acts with a good intention and resentment when she does it with a bad one is not saying
much about the situations in which our reactive attitudes are justified (since the quality of intentions
is not always easy to evaluate). On the other hand, it is very illuminating to take into
consideration the boundaries from where we deem not appropriate to feel them, to study what
leads us to stop holding someone morally responsible. We get, then, a set of conditions that
makes us modify, or even reject completely, our reactive attitudes, and adopt an objective attitude
(to see the agent perhaps, as an object of social policy; as a subject for what, in a wide range of
sense, might be called treatment; as something certainly to be taken account of (FR)). Strawson
divides this set in two groups: conditions that excuse us, and conditions that exempt us from
Excuses do not invite us to view the agent as one in respect of whom these [the reactive] attitudes are in any
way inappropriate. They invite us to view the injury as one in respect of which a particular one of these attitudes is
inappropriate. They do not invite us to see the agent as other than a fully responsible agent. They invite us to see the
injury as one for which he was not fully, or at all, responsible. (FR)

Exemptions invite us to suspend our ordinary reactive attitudes toward the agent, either at the time of his
action or all the time. [] They invite us to view the agent himself in a different light from the light in which we should
normally view one who has acted as he has acted. (FR)
When excused, an agent is a responsible agent, she is able to participate in normal adult
interpersonal relationships, but in that particular case she acted carried by some external force or
ignorant of what she was doing (force majeure and ignorance are the traditional major subsets
of excuses since Aristotle, they violate the freedom condition and the epistemic condition). We
adopt, then, an objective attitude toward the agents action. Excuses correspond to the use of such
expressions as He didnt mean to, He hadnt realized, He didnt know; and also all those which
might give occasion for the use of the phrase He couldnt help it, when this is supported by such
phrases as He was pushed, He had to do it, It was the only way, They left him no alternative,
etc. (FR)
As for exemptions, they occur when the agent cannot be considered (temporarily or
permanently) a fully responsible being, most commonly because of some sort of mental illness or
lack of moral maturity, or maybe because of external manipulation. It is in those occasions when we
must turn our participant attitude into the objective attitude concerning the agent. This happens
when we make such statements as He wasnt himself, He has been under very great strain
recently, He was acting under post-hypnotic suggestion; [] Hes only a child, Hes a hopeless
schizophrenic, His mind has been systematically perverted, Thats purely compulsive behaviour
on his part. (FR)
Excuses, then, do not suggest that the agent is in any way an inappropriate object of that
kind of demand for goodwill or regard which is reflected in our ordinary reactive attitudes (FR),
but exemptions do.
What would make of an agent an appropriate object of demand for goodwill or regard
which is reflected in our ordinary reactive attitudes? Capacity-based theories of free will and
moral responsibility take motivational states to be tied to the exercise of various psychological
capacities. People act freely, they say, when their behavior arises from exercising capacities of the
right sorts (capacities for rational decision) making, say. The first capacity-based theory in history
was Aristotle, and he called the capacity for rational decision deliberation.
Exponents of a capacity-based theory of free will might claim, for instance, that free action
involves acting in accordance with reasons in accordance with what an agent believes to be best,
and not merely with what the agents appetites move him or her to do. Free behavior is behavior
that is governed by my beliefs about what is best. Notice that if free will consists in the exercise
of capacities in this way, then free will is compatible with determinism since the exercise of an
agents capacities might be determined.
Schopenhauer, Arthur. Essay on the Freedom of the Will . New york: Dover, 2005. (EFW)
Moya, Carlos J. Moral responsibility. The ways of scepticism . Oxon: Routledge, 2006. (MRWS)
Wirdeker, David & McKenna, Michael (eds). Moral Responsibility and Alternative Possibilities. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2003.
Jaworski, William. 2011. Philosophy of Mind: a comprehensive introduction. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell. The first part of this unit follows the structure
of the 13th chapter of that book.
Strawson, P. F., 1962. Freedom and Resentment, Proceedings of the British Academy, 48: 125. (FR)