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.
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.