Do human persons have free will? I would say so. And I will expound on a fairly common yet powerful argument for the existence of free will, viz., that moral responsibility and duty requires freedom of will.
By “free will” I mean the so-called libertarian definition of freedom where a person alone determines for herself what choice she will make and that at least more than one choice is possible to make in a situation. For instance, if a person goes into a gas station and buys a Zero candy bar and if this person does so by free will then that would entail that the individual alone made the choice to buy and eat the candy bar and that more than one choice was possible at that time. The person didn’t have someone else or something else determining and controlling her decision to purchase the Zero bar. And that lady could have chosen not buy the candy bar or to buy a different type of candy like a Snickers bar. This is what it means to have “free will.”
There are, of course, certain “compatiblist” positions on free will that try to reconcile some form of determinism with free choice. But the problem with those theories is that they seem to imply a contradiction, viz., that it is somehow possible to make free choices while being concurrently predetermined to act a certain way. It would seem to be impossible for instance for a person to make a free, self-determined choice and at the same time be wholly determined and controlled by something else like God or past events in making that choice. To say that person is free to decide on a matter while yet being controlled by some outside force strikes as a contradiction, and as William James would argue, it wouldn’t be a sufficient condition for acting with moral responsibility.
So free will has two aspects to it when relating to everyday decisions. One, a person alone has to be the sufficient cause or reason for why a certain choice is made as such. Something else cannot be controlling the person and making her choices for her if that person is truly free. This is known as the “Principle of Causal Non-Interference.” At the same time, a person can make two or more possible choices in a situation. A person can either take the red pill or the blue pill so to speak! This is known as the “Principle of Alternative Possibilities.” Hence free will has two aspects or principles with it — the Principle of Causal Non-Interference and the Principle of Alternative Possibilities. An individual has the power to be in control of their choices and to actualize one possible choice among several possible ones.
As Roderick Chisholm nicely describes freedom of will, it is a divine or God-like quality in us where we are unmoved movers. A person endowed with the power of free will moves himself to make a certain decision and he has the ability to choose differently from what he decides to do. As God acts as a free, unmoved mover in creating the universe, so an individual acts as an unmoved mover in making a free choice undetermined by other persons and things. This is the essential definition of free will that’s descriptive of human beings acting as moral agents.
Now evidently there are many ideologies out there that either flatly deny free will and/or imply that it does not exist. Materialism in all its forms, for instance, would imply that human free will doesn’t exist. Several reasons can be offered to demonstrate this point. For one thing, if human beings are purely physical beings (the view of physicalism) or even if people are physical substances with a duality of physical and mental properties (the view of property dualism) then free choice would be a myth.
This is because matter follows definite laws of nature and so a person’s choices would be determined by matter and energy acting by laws of nature. But if this is the case then no one would have free will. Each person’s decision would be an uncontrolled result of the body interacting with the surrounding environment and all this would be a physical system governed by natural laws or regularities. It’s no wonder that many materialist philosophers have denied free will like Baron D’Holbach and Karl Marx.
Other philosophies of mind that hold that we have souls like substance dualism can uphold the notion of free will. (One of the major reasons why I believe that we have souls or that the mind is a substance in its own right is because that notion supports the idea of free will.)
There are also ideas from religion that imply that we lack free choice like divine determinism or the notion that God determines and controls every event in the world including our choices. The notion of predestination like in Calvinism would be a classic example of divine determinism, where it is thought that God’s will or knowledge determines the choices of rational creatures. Evidently the problem with having God’s knowledge or will determine and control human choices is that it would imply that persons lack free choice and it would entail that God is responsible for moral evil in the world. Divine determinism in all its forms cannot cohere with free will and moral responsibility.
More to the point, if we do not have free will then we are not morally responsible for anything. As Roderick Chisholm points out, free will is a necessary requirement for acting with responsibility. This is the moral argument for free will in a nutshell. To borrow an example from Chisholm, in order for a person to be responsible for murdering another person that individual alone must be in control of his choices and he cannot be controlled by someone else or something else in performing the action. If the murderer, however, were being completely controlled, mesmerized and manipulated by another person and that person were making the killer shoot down another, then the killer would not be acting with free will and would not be culpable for the murder.
Again, we can illustrate the same point about free will with a different example. It is a fact in life that we sometimes dream at night. And we generally cannot control what we dream when asleep. Now if someone were to say that one had a moral obligation to not dream about blue bears then such a proposition would be absurd. Why? It is because a person cannot control what they dream and so it would be nonsense to suggest that a person has an obligation to not dream about blue bears. No person can be intelligibly obligated on matters she has no control over.
So to say that individuals lack freedom of choice would put every experience under a lack of personal control like the case of dreams. In fact, there would be no such thing as control of one’s self if there’s no such thing as free will. Making a choice to buy a Zero candy bar or choosing to murder someone would be out of one’s control just as dreaming about blue bears would be outside one’s control. If persons are powerless to self-determine their own choices then all talk of moral obligation and responsibility would be pointless and inapplicable.
Philosopher William James nicely illustrates the fact that any kind of fatalism would imply that any prescribed “ought” would be pointless. (I will use the term “fatalism” to simply refer to the idea that free will doesn’t exist and that persons have no real mastery over their choices throughout this essay). He says that, for example, in the case of a murder, should the murderer regret committing the crime or not if human beings lack free choice? If the murderer decides to regret the crime then why do so because he couldn’t have freely chosen to do something else at that time? So regret seems to have no purpose given a fatalistic paradigm. On the other hand, if it should be thought that the murderer ought not regret the killing since he lacks free will, and if he happens to regret the crime anyway then once again an “ought” here cannot be always be fulfilled. So whether the murderer “ought” to regret the crime or not, whatever the “ought” or duty should be, it cannot always be accomplished and it certainly cannot be under the control of the person given the premise of fatalism.
Nonetheless, there’s hardly any way in which a person can live their life without assuming that there are certain duties or “oughts” that he should follow as such. But the denial of free will or fatalism would imply that these duties cannot always be accomplished and are definitely beyond one’s control. Some might respond by saying that we can penalize people without the view that individuals have free will. That we can still use jails and so forth as mere means to prevent future crimes and hopefully condition criminals not make further, unacceptable actions and that we can do all this without the notion of free will. That may be the case, and I suppose one can come up with practical reasons to penalize criminals without the premise of free will. But the problem with that argument is that it’s not at all germane to the logical and moral implications of lacking free will. In a world where (supposing) people always lack free choice and people are only penalized for practical reasons to prevent future crimes and so forth, still, this would be a world where individuals lack any moral responsibility.
As far as we’re concerned, one can incarcerate a tiger, a dangerous robot, or a thoroughly mentally ill person that’s suffering from insanity for the sake of safety or protection but none of these would be cases of imprisoning a genuine moral agent or a person acting with moral responsibility. This is because acting as a moral agent requires one, that the person has the ability to understand timeless moral concepts and moral duties and secondly, that the person can freely control himself and self-determine his own choices. Without any of those conditions, without free will and moral knowledge, no one can act as a moral agent whatsoever. Of course, many countries including the United States, assume that individuals have free will in their legal systems because they figure that free will is essential for accountability.
Some, again might argue that free will is unintelligible because a person (almost) always has a certain, limited set of preferences on how to act and that a person cannot be capable of performing any conceivable course of action. William James mentions this objection and has an excellent response to it. And to quote him in The Dilemma of Determinism, he states (Quoted in Philosophy: The Quest For Truth, Louis Pojman & Lewis Vaughn, 10th Ed., page 406):
A favorite argument against free will is that if it be true, a man’s murderer may as probably be his best friend as his worst enemy, a mother be as likely to strangle as to suckle her first-born, and all of us be as ready to jump from fourth-story windows as to go out of front doors, etc. Users of this argument should probably be excluded from the debate till they learn what the real question is. “Free will” does not say that everything that is physically conceivable is also morally possible. It merely says that of alternatives that really tempt our will more than one is really possible. Of course, the alternatives that do thus tempt our will are vastly fewer than the physical possibilities we can coldly fancy. Persons really tempted often do murder their best friends, mothers do strangle their first-born, people do jump out of fourth stories, etc.
In other words, free will does not indicate that any thinkable action is likely to be chosen by the person. Naturally some actions or choices are likely or tempting for one to perform, other types of action are possible but aren’t very likely for one to choose as such. And other courses of action are practically “psychologically impossible” for a person to do because the incentives just aren’t there at all. What free will entails is not that any imaginary course of action is psychologically possible or just as likely for one to make as such; free will only entails that when two or more options are likely for a person to choose from, more than one option is possible for the person to choose as such.
To summarize the moral case for freedom of will, if we have free will then we are morally responsible. If, however, we do not have free will then we are not responsible for anything; our choices would be beyond our control like dreaming about blue polar bears or having someone else mesmerize and control our actions. Thus, it is entirely unintelligible to speak of us being responsible or in control of our choices if we lack free will. So the implication of any type of fatalism can only be that there is no such thing as a free, moral agent, if correct.
Also another related implication of fatalism would be that there’s no such thing as a “free thinker.” That’s right. If we are not free to choose then we are not free to choose to think for ourselves and critically evaluate genuine evidence and facts. Once again, it would be senseless to say that we have moral obligations to think for ourselves, to search for the truth and to honestly accept the truth if fatalism is correct. Duties to honor the truth would be beyond our power if it were the case that we lack free choice. Isn’t it rather paradoxical whenever one comes across a philosopher like Baron D’Holbach that denies the existence of free will, realizing that this denial implies that there’s no such thing as a “free thinker”?
It can even further argued that the denial of free will is unlivable. As some philosophers like Peter Inwagen have pointed out, it seems practically impossible to live out the premise of fatalism or the denial of free will. People live implicitly under the premise that they are free and that they are answerable for their choices. Even the most staunch fatalists seems to make moral judgments implying that certain actions ought to be performed and other actions to be avoided; that certain choices ought to be praised and other choices disapproved. How is any of this consistent with the denial of free will? And why blame anyone for any wrong doing if no person has control over their choices in the first place? Blaming a person that lacks free will is like blaming a rock for falling down from a volcano. It’s balderdash to speak of a person being at fault for doing an immoral act if the person has no freedom and control over his choices.
I conclude that the traditional moral argument for the existence of free will is a sound one and that free will is necessary for there be any moral responsibility or accountability. Without free will, people would not be real, moral agents and the moral law would either be inapplicable to us or simply non-existent given the absurd premise of fatalism.
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