Compatibilist Freedom

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This is the 44th post in my Theories of Knowledge and Reality series. The last post presented some arguments for compatibilism. This post will examine some more specific compatibilist suggestions of what freedom consists of. Compatibilists need to offer an account of what free will is that will be consistent with determinism but fit with our ordinary sense of freedom. The libertarian view says an action is free if you have the ability to do it but also the ability to do otherwise. Compatibilists have to replace the second condition with something else, since determinism doesn't allow for the possibility of doing otherwise. Only one future is possible if the future is predetermined.

The Stoics provide a good example of the kind of thing most compatibilists think freedom requires. What's most important for them is that your actions are caused by the right kinds of causes. The ultimate causes of our actions do indeed trace back to things outside of our control, indeed things that occurred before we even existed. Yet what we want to be true of our actions is that they're caused by the right kinds of causes within us. To use an example from my last post in this series, there's a difference between someone fasting out of political protest and a desert wanderer fasting because there's no food around. This is so even if the person is fasting out of protest is protesting because of certain desires and beliefs, and those desires and beliefs are present because of prior circumstances that eventually trace back to things outside the person's control. One involves the person's own inner self in the line of causation, and the other does not.

It's difficult to get a precise notion of what kinds of inner causes these need to be. Obviously a neurological condition that causes you to do things you don't want to do isn't sufficient for freedom, even though it's internal to you. Also, it doesn't seem to be enough that you want to do what you do, because an evil neuroscientist might reprogram you to want things you might not otherwise have wanted, and then you might still argue that your actions aren't free if they're based on the artificially-modified desires. Similarly, my wanting to do well on an exam leads me to study, and that desire seems sufficient to explain freedom. Yet my desire not to die explains why I hack into a bank's computers at gunpoint to siphon money into someone's Swiss bank account. Yet the second case doesn't involve freedom, even though it involves acting according to a desire of mine.

But most compatibilists don't restrict the internal causes that are important to freedom to anything as narrow as just desires. Freedom isn't so much being able to act according to my desires but more acting based on who I am in general. This includes my desires but also my beliefs, emotional states, moral sensibilities and intuitions, history of interactions with people and the world, and so on. We could call these things my character, not meaning moral character, though that would be part of it. This is basically all my psychological properties, who I really am as a person.

This helps with external stimuli that cause us to do out-of-character things like being coerced at gunpoint. It allows us to excuse such actions because they don't stem from what's central to the person. It also deals with the neuroscientist case, since that involves someone artificially changing my inner character so I'll prefer to do things that I otherwise wouldn't want to do. This relies on some notion of natural development in human character, but that's something we do have some sense of.

Someone with a mental illnesses would consider that part of who they are but might not always consider it part of their conscious decision-making process, and thus it might not be part of them in the right way. Alternatively, a compatibilist might argue that we're really free in the end even with a genetic predisposition. After all, our choices (caused or not) do affect the way we are later. We can overcome bad tendencies and develop good ones (or the reverse) by living certain ways, filling our minds with certain beliefs, and reinforcing behavior or ideas through other people's involvement in our lives. But these are hard cases when our ordinary judgments aren't clear to begin with. If we're not sure whether to count it as freedom, it makes sense that our account of freedom is also going to have a hard time classifying it as free or not. That's actually a good sign for the compatibilist account.

So it looks as if the compatibilist can put together a general account of freedom that generally fits with our intuitions of what freedom is, accounting for cases that we would call free and excluding cases that we wouldn't. While there are some difficulties along the way, the compatibilist does have some resources for clarifying the account to handle the problem cases. A die-hard libertarian who insists on alternative possibilities isn't going to accept such an account, but that's not the goal. The purpose was to find an account that explains why the cases we usually call freedom are free and the cases we don't call freedom are not, all the while allowing for determinism to be true. It does seem as if the compatibilist can do that.

The next post will move away from freedom itself to examine a related problem with moral responsibility called moral luck.



Love the Theories of Knowledge and Reality series.

What works would you recommend to somebody beginning to study the issue of the nature of freedom and the question of free will?


A good, inexpensive introduction to the philosophical issues is Free Will and Determinism: A Dialogue, by Clifford Williams. I've used that in my classes several times, and it's probably been the most helpful treatment at that level.

Jonathan Bennett's online "translation" of Jonathan Edwards' Freedom of the Will is excellent a much more accessible than the original. He cuts out some of the specifically biblical and theological stuff in order to focus on the philosophical arguments, which I think is unfortunate in some ways, but the site is designed as a teaching aid for teaching philosophy, so his decision makes sense given the purpose of the work he's doing.

Are you going for the record for the slowest running series in the blogosphere? I hope not, and that it will not be more than a year again before the next post.

Yet my desire not to die explains why I hack into a bank's computers at gunpoint to siphon money into someone's Swiss bank account. Yet the second case doesn't involve freedom ...

Is this something you do regularly? ;-) This sentence seems a bit strange without more context.

I also think that this does involve freedom, a free decision whether to do what you are told to do at gunpoint, or to refuse to do so either because you decide your principles are more important than your life or because you think, or decide to take the risk, that the gunman or gunwoman won't shoot or the gun is a fake. I suppose this is partly what you mean by broadening "desires" into "character". As in pretty much any situation there are constraints in the situation, but that does not imply lack of freedom to decide what to do. So there is no clear line between free and constrained decisions, only a continuum, surely.

And I suppose the same applies in cases of mental illness, or of addictions and compulsive behaviour which are surely analogous. An alcoholic has a free choice whether to drink or not, however strong the urges are, but also really has less complete freedom than someone who is not addicted.

And surely the same applies to the specific example of freedom which interests me most, the freedom to turn to Christ and be saved. Some Calvinists might argue that unbelievers do not have this freedom. I would suggest that they do have this freedom, but find it very hard to exercise it, without outside help, because they are attached to sin in a way analogous to an addiction. I might even say they find it impossible, but not because of a lack of freedom. Would you agree with this way of putting it? On this kind of understanding I might accept a compatibilist version of Calvinism.

Peter, it shouldn't be a year. This post needed a thorough reworking The next post will be almost a direct lift from my notes, I expect, so there won't be so much disincentive to get back to it.

One of the debates within compatibilism is whether you can legitimately talk of abilities and possibilities given that there is one outcome determined by prior events (or by God, depending on how the determinism goes). Most compatibilists historically did not like to talk of alternative possibilities as allowable. David Hume, for instance, insisted that if you're predetermined then there's no other way things could go. The Stoics have my preferred model, however, and they give a different account of possibility according to which it is possible for you to do it. It's just not actually the one you're going to pick, and the explanation for why is deterministic. But other possibilities are a real part of how this sort of compatibilist thinks of the world.

Thomas Aquinas' way of thinking about freedom is that you're free when you consider options and then pick one. He doesn't say that your choice isn't explainable by the way you're caused to be, just that your choice involves options you genuninely consider. Whether it's a possibility depends on whether you can really consider it. But a determinist would say that only one of those possibilities is within the deterministic outcome, and a compatibilist determinist would say that you're still free even with only one fixed outcome. My preferred variety of compatibilist would still call those choices outcomes, but it's not the same kind of possibility as libertarians envision. They want nothing to cause them to do anything, and I don't find that view plausible. Does that make sense of it enough for you?

Thank you, Jeremy. That helps. But I suppose I am struggling with ideas of moral (and criminal) responsibility. Am I responsible for an action if it is predetermined? Am I less responsible if the constraint is an external one than if it is an internal one? There is a disturbing modern trend for wrongdoers to blame their upbringing and circumstances for their crimes, and so claim that they are not personally responsible. Are you saying that they are right to do so? Or only in the first part of this?

No, compatibilists are happy to admit that there are external influences that don't fully cause you to do things. Your character can certainly impact how you respond to your circumstances. That point is independent of this issue. Libertarians and compatibilists both recognize that.

Wait until the moral luck stuff. Those issues are truly disturbing, and the issue you're pointing out is part of that, but some of the other ones are, I think, even more disturbing if you come at it from the view that you're only responsible for what's completely in your control.

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