Free-Will: A Primer on the Philosophical Positions
If you’ve ever taken a course on Metaphysics, or due to some bizarre intellectual fetish have decided to research this area, it is likely that you’ve been exposed to the core triad of philosophical positions that largely constitute the free-will debate (that is, whether we freely choose our actions or not): libertarianism, compatibilism and hard determinism. This short article will give a brief run down over these core positions.
The philosophical debate between whether an individual has an ability to exercise free-will or not, has been a controversial topic for centuries without any side of the debate making any significant progress over the opposing point of view. Despite the protracted stalemate between the arguments of free-will and determinism, recent experiments from the domain of neuroscience and our further developed understanding of how the brain works have potentially suggested that the metaphysics of determinism is more likely to be the correct picture of the universe, entailing that we do not have free-will, at least in the traditional sense of the term.
Here free-will means, simply, I could have done otherwise (than that which I did). For example, suppose at 4.00pm on the 18th November 2015 I decided to buy a strawberry milkshake, I have free-will if, and only if, at 4.00pm on the 18th November 2015 I could have chosen banana milkshake over strawberry milkshake if I so desired. If an individual does not have free-will, then an individual is said to be determined to have acted in the way that they did, for instance, he could not have done otherwise. That is, at 4.00pm on the 18th November 2015 I could only have chosen the strawberry milkshake over the banana milkshake, given those exact circumstances I would be determined to choose strawberry milkshake every time.
The strongest philosophical position in the metaphysical debate that we do have free will is called Libertarianism: they argue that a free decision “must be caused by the agent, and it must not be the case that either what the agent causes or the agent’s causing that event is causally determined by prior events” (Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy) This view is known as agent causation. The most well-known metaphysical position in this debate is called Causal Determinism: this theory states that “every event is necessitated by antecedent events and conditions together with the laws of nature” So, according to causal determinism, human action is not freely chosen, but rather whether I choose strawberry or banana milkshake on November 18th 2015 at 4.00pm has been made necessary by previous events and conditions together with the laws of nature. There is no room left for free decision to choose which drink to have outside of the laws of nature together with previous conditions and events.
It has been suggested throughout the philosophical tradition that the concept of moral responsibility is intimately connected to the notion of free-will, although the significance of free-will is not dependent on the concept of moral responsibility, because it is commonly assumed that to be responsible for one’s own action an individual has to be acting freely. Let’s assume the significance of the free-will debate is closely connected to moral responsibility, and for this reason deserves a closer look at the connection between the two.
Before I give a brief explanation as to why each philosophical position is compatible or incompatible to moral responsibility, I will quickly explain the central condition in what it is to be responsible for an action. It is thought that a central condition in being responsible for an action is having the relevant control over an action, known as the “control principle”, where the mechanism of the action is “up to us” in some sense. This intuitive notion is meant to distinguish between involuntary actions such as having a hand spasm, or slipping on the pavement, compared to voluntary chosen actions such as intentionally picking up the strawberry milkshake over the banana milkshake to drink.
In regards to Libertarianism, Compatibilism and Hard Determinism whether we are morally responsible for our actions depends on whether those theories believe that we have the relevant and necessary control for our actions. In relation to Libertarianism we have full moral responsibility as we have complete control over our voluntary actions since we can freely choose how to act. In regards to Hard Determinism, as our actions are ultimately completely determined we do not have necessary control for our actions, since ultimately our actions are not “up to us” but rather are due to the laws of nature together with antecedent events and conditions. Compatibilism, on the other hand, although it expresses its support of determinist metaphysics it believes that we are still morally responsible for our actions. Even though ultimately we are not in control of our actions, we are still morally responsible as long as we are able to make choices and act upon reasons and be responsive to reasons, in this sense we have local control of our actions.