Ethical Realism

July 3, 2014

The Compatibilist Conception of Free Will

Filed under: metaphysics — JW Gray @ 11:36 pm
Tags: ,

moral responsibilityI suspect that the main reason there is a debate about determinism and free will in the first place is because people have different conceptions of free will and disagree about the nature of moral responsibility, which will also be discussed. I will briefly discuss the concepts of free will, determinism, moral responsibility, and the compatibilist conception of free will.

What is free will?

My current definition for free will is the following:

free will – The view that ordinary people in certain circumstances are capable of making choices and are morally responsible. In philosophy, free will is often taken to be a precondition to having moral responsibility.

I have taken two philosophy classes that discussed free will in detail: John Searle’s Phiolosophy of Mind class and R. Jay Wallace’s class on free will. I was confused by the discussion of free will, which was often about moral responsibility rather than free will. R Jay Wallace‘s book Responsibility and the Moral Sentiments was used as an argument to conclude that moral responsibility doesn’t require free will (actually libertarian free will). Many people equate free will with what I call libertarian free will, which has the following definition:

libertarian free will – A conception of free will as being incompatible with determinism. Libertarian free will requires causation that resembles that of Aristotle’s prime mover. People need to be able to cause their actions without being caused to make those actions.

I rejected free will for years before realizing that there was another conception of free will, which we can call the compatibilist conception of free will. Now I prefer to say that we have free will, and would even argue that R Jay Wallace believes in free will. For more information about Wallace’s view (and other similar views), go here. I will discuss the compatibilist conception of free will in greater detail down below.

Note that free will seems to obviously exist in everyday life. People make informed choices. They can have a degree of self-control. They are generally morally responsible for their actions. Human children and nonhuman animals somewhat lack the relevant rational capacities and self-control that adult humans tend to have, and we don’t hold them to the same standards of moral responsibility as a result.

What is determinism?

I define determinism as the following:

determinism – The view that everything that happens is inevitable and couldn’t have been otherwise. Causal determinism is the view that the prior state of the universe and laws of nature were sufficient to cause all later states of the universe.

Remember the big bang? If determinism is true, that means everything that happened at that point in time was sufficient to cause everything else that happened afterward. Everyone existing right now had to exist, and every choice we make had to be made the way we made them.

Many people think that determinism is true (or at least mostly true), and then people wonder if we have free will based on that. Scientists can tell us that every molecule in our bodies move based on various laws of nature. They can’t move any other way. We can’t violate laws of nature to make our molecules move some other way. Does this give us a reason to think that we don’t have free will? Many think so.

Some people argue that free will (and moral responsibility) requires that we have alternate possibilities, which says little more than that determinism must be false. The idea is that there are two or more possible futures. If determinism is true, then it could be argued that a crime is determined (can’t be avoided), and we can’t be morally required to do something when we have no way to avoid doing it. So, the criminal could be said to have no real option but to commit the crime. It would be impossible not to do the crime.

I am not convinced by that argument. I think it must be true that we could do something in some sense to be morally responsible for not doing it, but I think that has to do with plausible options we consider prior to action. I know how to raise my arm. If I choose to raise my arm, then I will do it. If determinism is true, then the fact that I choose to raise my arm (or not) is inevitable, but I am still quite aware that I know how to do it and have the skills necessary to do it. If I deliberate about whether to raise my arm or not, it is the thought process, know how, and rational capacities that seem relevant to being responsible for that action rather than the rejection of determinism.

Those who accept only a libertarian conception of free will are incompatibilists. Those who accept the compatibilist conception of free will are compatibilists.

There are two main types of incompatibilists: (1) libertarians (who think we have libertarian free will and that determinism is false), and (2) hard determinists (who reject free will and think determinism is true).

There is only one main type of compatibilist: Soft determinists who think we have free will and that determinism is true. Even so, there are many other possible types of compatibilism: Those who reject free will and/or those who reject determinism. Many compatibilists are undecided about whether the world is deterministic or not.

What is moral responsibility?

My definition for the relevant type of moral responsibility is the following:

moral responsibility – Being in control of one’s moral decisions. A person who is morally responsible can be legitimately praised or blamed for her moral actions. Moral responsibility requires a certain level of sanity, competence, and perhaps free will. It is plausible that small children and nonhuman animals lack responsibility because they might lack the competence required. Additionally, there are excuses that can temporarily invalidate a person’s moral responsibility, such as when a person is coerced into harming others.

I believe that the main concern of the free will debate is actually moral responsibility. The main concern is whether or not we have moral responsibility, and what we need in order to be morally responsible. Some people think determinism is incompatible with moral responsibility.

Pretty much everyone thinks we can be morally responsible. In everyday life I think it seems obvious that people can be morally responsible. Consider the following:

  • Children and nonhuman animals generally should not be blamed for their actions to the same extent as adults. They tend to lack the rational capacities and self-control that adults have.

  • A person who borrows your money should be personally required to pay it back. Some type of consequence could be appropriate when they don’t pay it back. It’s not like some random stranger should be obligated to pay for someone else’s debts. We tend to know someone borrowed the money and that person in particular is obligated because she is responsible for her own actions.

  • If you trip over a rock and fall onto someone, then it’s not your fault. You weren’t responsible and shouldn’t be held accountable for what happened. Such an action would have no bearing on our rational capacities, self-control, or choices. However, if you punch someone out of anger, then that is your fault, and you should be held accountable for the action. You could still have the rational capacities and self-control required to be morally responsible.

Note that R Jay Wallace is considered to be a compatibilist because he thinks moral responsibility is compatible with determinism—even though he does not argue that free will is compatible with determinism. The idea seems to be that the debate is mainly really about moral responsibility, and he does think that moral responsibility is compatible with determinism. Perhaps he believes that there is a compatibilist type of free will (which is compatible with determinism), even if he does not actually say he believes in free will. (He has libertarian free will in mind when he uses the term ‘free will.’)

What if we have moral responsibility, but we lack free will? In that case a person seems to be equating ‘libertarian free will’ with ‘free will.’ Perhaps the person even rejects the compatibilist conception of free will for some reason.

The compatibilist conception of free will

Does the compatibilist conception of free will even make sense? I think so. A compatibilist can argue that a person can have certain rational capacities and a degree of self-control that’s required to make informed moral choices (and have moral responsibility as a result). These things seem like they are the requirements for having free will. If we have all these things and don’t have free will, then I’m not sure what else free will would require (and that issue will be set aside for now).

Well, some people will wonder if the compatibilist’s arguments could be persuasive. Can we really be morally responsible, have rational capacities, have self-control, or make informed choices without free will? I will briefly discuss this issue, but I can’t discuss this issue in the detail that it deserves here given time constraints and the intended limitations of this essay.

I personally think it can make a great deal of sense to say that we can be morally responsible, even if determinism is true. Even if determinism is true, I see no reason to think it would be impossible to think about my options and to make choices based on which option seems best. That’s the main idea behind practical rationality—we want to know how to figure out what we should do. We know a bit about our physical capacities. I know my body is able to get water when I choose to get water. When I am thirsty, I know that I can get up, get a glass, fill it with water in whatever way seems appropriate, and drink from the cup. The choice of getting water when I’m thirsty is often an easy choice to make with few to no drawbacks, and I know how to do it.

Some choices are a lot harder to make and require deliberation. I can consider if I should vote for one person for president or another. I can consider the reasons I think one president would be better than another, and I am likely to decide that one person is a better candidate than another after thinking about it for a while. The choice is motivated based on various consierations. It would be strange to insist that free will requires that I could end up voting for a candidate that I have no interest in and think would do a worse job in every conceivable way.

If determinism is true, it still makes sense (to me) that I would deliberate about these issues and make a choice based on which option seems best. It also makes sense that humans would have evolved the capacity to deliberate and make informed choices because it can be quite advantageous and help us act in intelligent ways given a great variety of situations we could be in. It makes us adaptable.

There are also thought experiments that are relevant to knowing if determinism is incompatible with moral responsibility. For example, Frankfort cases.

Note that there are philosophers who focus on moral responsibility rather than free will perhaps in part to avoid a discussion about the compatibilist conception of free will. R Jay Wallace, John Martin Fischer, and now Daniel Dennett have decided to discuss moral responsibility rather than spend their time arguing about the compatibilist conception of free will (and whether we have free will based on that conception). John Martin Fischer calls his position “semicompatibilism” precisely to emphasize that his interest is about whether or not we have moral responsibility (and if moral responsibility is compatible with determinism), and he takes no stance on whether we have free will.



first edition

On an unrelated note, I have a Kickstarter for a fantasy card game I made—Crazier Eights, which is ending in less than two days. It is a lot like Crazy Eights or Uno, except all the cards can be played for an effect. With enough funding, various rewards will be given out (including the game itself). If it does not reach the funding, no one who makes a pledge will lose any money for dong so. Go here to check out the Kickstarter Campaign for Crazier Eights


Leave a Comment »

No comments yet.

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at

%d bloggers like this: