Austin Powers Freedom And Responsibility Essay

Could Have Done Otherwise

The idea that a free agent "could have done otherwise" is a key element in the libertarian argument.

It is seen as a condition for moral responsibility, although freedom in this sense is prior to moral issues. In recent philosophical jargon, it is known as (PAP) the "principle of alternative possibilities."

A person is morally responsible for performing a given act only if he could have acted otherwise.

PAP is under attack by many compatibilists and determinists. It has been twisted by compatibilists into sophisticated logical arguments and "thought experiments" that purport to prove that the ability to do otherwise under identical conditions is impossible.

If such a capability did exist it could only be arbitrary (indeed), capricious (yes), and irrational. And to this day has led even some libertarian thinkers to doubt that an "intelligible" account can be given of free choice.

We will look at some of the arguments, then explain how randomly generated alternative possibilities are all we need to provide the opportunity to do otherwise - and thus be both unpredictable and responsible.

Robert Kane pointed out (Free Will and Values, p.9) that the idea of alternative possibilities, that "one could have done otherwise," began in modern times with the debates between Thomas Hobbes and Bishop John Bramhall.

For Thomas Hobbes, the first modern compatibilist, the idea of a free agent that could do otherwise was a contradiction and nonsense.

"I hold that ordinary definition of a free agent, namely that a free agent is that which, when all things are present which are needful to produce the effect, can nevertheless not produce it, implies a contradiction and is nonsense; being as much as to say the cause may be sufficient, that is necessary, and yet the effect shall not follow." (Of Liberty and Necessity, § 32)

John Bramhall sees no contradiction.

"I cannot see this nonsense nor discover this contradiction. For (a) in these words, 'all things needful' or 'all things requisite', the actual determination of the will is not included. But by 'all things needful or requisite', all necessary power either operative or elective, all necessary instruments and adjuments extrinsical and intrinsical, and all conditions, are intended. As he that has pen and ink and paper, a table, a desk, and leisure, the art of writing, and the free use of his hand, has all things requisite to write if he will; and yet he may forbear if he will.... (b) And indeed if the will were (as he conceives it is) necessitated extrinsically to every act of willing, if it had no power to forbear willing what it does will, nor to will what it does not will, then if the will were wanting, something requisite to the producing of the effect was wanting. But now when science and conscience, reason and religion, our own and other men's experience, do teach us that the will has a dominion over its own acts, to will or nill without extrinsical necessitation, if the power to will be present in actu primo [as a first actuality], determinable by ourselves, then there is no necessary power wanting in this respect to the producing of the effect." (A Defense of Liberty, § 32)

David Hume's compatibilist account of liberty and necessity is similar to Hobbes. Freedom to do otherwise was "unintelligible," a word still very popular with modern compatiblists and even some anxious libertarians.

"I believe we may assign the three following reasons for the prevalence of the doctrine of liberty, however absurd it may be in one sense, and unintelligible in any other. First, After we have perform'd any action; tho' we confess we were influenc'd by particular views and motives; 'tis difficult for us to persuade ourselves we were govern'd by necessity, and that 'twas utterly impossible for us to have acted otherwise; the idea of necessity seeming to imply something of force, and violence, and constraint, of which we are not sensible. Few are capable of distinguishing betwixt the liberty of spontaneity, as it is call'd in the schools, and the liberty of indifference; betwixt that which is oppos'd to violence, and that which means a negation of necessity and causes. (Treatise, Book II, Part III, Sections I-II, p.407)

G. E. Moore argued in 1912 in his Ethics that one could do otherwise, but only if one had chosen to do otherwise. Many later philosophers found this idea to be empty, since under determinism one could not have so chosen.

"It must be remembered that our theory does not assert that any agent ever could have chosen any other action than the one he actually performed. It only asserts, that, in the case of all voluntary actions, he could have acted differently, if he had chosen: not that he could have made the choice. It does not assert, therefore, that right and wrong depend upon what he could choose. As to this, it makes no assertion at all: it neither affirms nor denies that they do so depend. It only asserts that they do depend upon what he could have done or could do, if he chose. In every case of voluntary action, a man could, if he had so chosen just before, have done at least one other action instead. That was the definition of a voluntary action : and it seems quite certain that many actions are voluntary in this sense." (Ethics, p.12)

R. E. Hobart (Dickinson S. Miller) claimed in 1934 that free will involved determination and was inconceivable without it.
'I mean free will in the natural and usual sense, in the fullest, the most absolute sense in which for the purposes of the personal and moral life the term is ever employed. I mean it as implying responsibility, merit and demerit, guilt and desert. I mean it as implying, after an act has been performed, that one "could have done otherwise" than one did.' I am not maintaining that determinism is true; only that it is true in so far as we have free will. That we are free in willing is, broadly speaking, a fact of experience. That broad fact is more assured than any philosophical analysis. It is therefore surer than the deterministic analysis of it, entirely adequate as that in the end appears to be. But it is not here affirmed that there are no small exceptions, no slight undetermined swervings, no ingredient of absolute chance. All that is here said is that such absence of determination, if and so far as it exists, is no gain to freedom, but sheer loss of it; no advantage to the moral life, but blank subtraction from it. Thus it is true, after the act of will, that I could have willed otherwise. It is most natural to add, "if I had wanted to"; but the addition is not required. The point is the meaning of "could". I could have willed whichever way I pleased. I had the power to will otherwise, there was nothing to prevent my doing so, and I should have done so if I had wanted. If someone says that the wish I actually had prevented my willing otherwise, so that I could not have done it, he is merely making a slip in the use of the word "could".

Moritz Schlick reiterated Moore's view, and included the idea of "exactly the same circumstances" in chapter VII of his 1936 book Problems in Ethics. Schlick introduced the terminology of a pseudo-problem into the debate in this chapter entitled When Is A Man Responsible?.

The absence of the external power expresses itself in the well-known feeling (usually considered characteristic of the consciousness of freedom) that one could also have acted otherwise. How this indubitable experience ever came to be an argument in favor of indeterminism is incomprehensible to me. It is of course obvious that I should have acted differently had I willed something else; but the feeling never says that I could also have willed something else, even though this is true, if, that is, other motives had been present. And it says even less that under exactly the same inner and outer conditions I could also have willed something else.

P. H. Nowell Smith, in Mind, 1948, provided a lengthy analysis of "could have done otherwise" in his article Free Will and Moral Responsibility.
The problem arises out of a prima facie incompatibility between the freedom of human action and the universality of causal law. It was raised in an acute form when universal determinism was believed to be a necessary presupposition of science; but it was not then new, because the incompatibility, if it exists at all, exists equally between human freedom and the foreknowledge of God. As it appears to the 'plain man ' the problem may be formulated as follows: "Very often I seem to myself to be acting freely, and this freedom, if it exists, implies that I could have acted otherwise than I did. If this freedom is illusory, I shall need a very convincing argument to prove that it is so, since it appears to be something of which I am immediately aware. Moreover, if there is no freedom, there is no moral responsibility; for it would not be right to praise or blame a man for something that he could not help doing. But, if a man could have acted otherwise than he did, his action must have been uncaused, and universal determinism is therefore untrue." It is evident that one of the necessary conditions of moral action is that the agent 'could have acted otherwise' and it is to this fact that the Libertarian is drawing attention. His case may be stated as follows: " It is a well-known maxim that 'I ought' implies 'I can'. If I cannot do a certain action, then that action cannot be my duty. On the other hand, 'I ought' as clearly implies 'I need not'; for if I cannot possibly refrain from a certain action, there can be no merit or demerit in doing it. Therefore, in every case of moral choice it is possible for the agent to do the action and also possible for him not to do it; were it not so, there would be no choice; for choice is between possibilities. But this implies that the action is uncaused, because a caused action cannot but occur." The fallacy in this argument lies in supposing that, when we say 'A could have acted otherwise', we mean that A, being what he was and being placed in the circumstances in which he was placed, could have done something other than what he did. But in fact we never do mean this; and if we believe that voluntary action is uncaused action that is only because we believe erroneously that uncaused action is a necessary condition of moral responsibility. The Libertarian believes that an action cannot be a moral one if the agent could not have acted otherwise, and he takes no account of possible differences in the causes that might have prevented him from acting otherwise. The Determinist, on the other hand, holds that the objective possibility of alternative actions is an illusion and that, if A in fact did X, then he could not have done any action incompatible with X. If we proceed on the assumption that, to be moral, an action must be uncaused, either we shall find a genuinely uncaused action at the beginning of the chain or we shall not. If we do not, then, according to the Libertarian, there can be no moral praise and blame at all (and it was to account for these that Libertarianism was invented); and, if we do, then we must suppose that, while almost all our actions are caused, and therefore amoral, there was in the distant past some one action that was not caused and for which we can justly be praised or blamed. This bizarre theory has in fact been held; but the objections to it are clear.
C. A. Campbell replied to Schlick and to Nowell Smith in his Mind article of 1951 entitled
Is Free Will A Pseudo-Problem?
It seems to me that many philosophers (and I suspect that Moritz Schlick is among them) begin their enquiry with so firm a conviction that the contra-causal sort of freedom nowhere exists, that they find it hard to take very seriously the possibility that it is this sort of freedom that moral responsibility implies. For they are loth to abandon the commonsense belief that moral responsibility itself is something real. The implicit reasoning I take to be this. Moral responsibility is real. If moral responsibility is real, the freedom implied in it must be a fact. But contra-causal freedom is not a fact. Therefore contra-causal freedom is not the freedom implied in moral responsibility. I think we should be on our guard against allowing this or some similar train of reasoning (whose premises, after all, are far from indubitable) to seduce us into distorting what we actually find when we set about a direct analysis of moral responsibility and its conditions. Let us put the argument implicit in the common view a little more sharply. The moral 'ought' implies 'can'. If we say that A morally ought to have done X, we imply that in our opinion, he could have done X. But we assign moral blame to a man only for failing to do what we think he morally ought to have done. Hence if we morally blame A for not having done X, we imply that he could have done X even though in fact he did not. In other words, we imply that A could have acted otherwise than he did. And that means that we imply, as a necessary condition of a man's being morally blameworthy, that he enjoyed a freedom of a kind not compatible with unbroken causal continuity. In the course of a recent article in Mind, entitled 'Free Will and Moral Responsibility', Mr Nowell Smith (having earlier affirmed his belief that 'the traditional problem has been solved') explains very concisely the nature of the confusion which, as he thinks, has led to the demand for a contra-causal freedom. He begins by frankly recognizing that 'It is evident that one of the necessary conditions of moral action is that the agent "could have acted otherwise" ' and he adds 'it is to this fact that the Libertarian is drawing attention'. Then, after showing (unexceptionably, I think) how the relationship of 'ought' to 'can' warrants the proposition which he has accepted as evident, and how it induces the Libertarian to assert the existence of action that is 'uncaused', he proceeds to point out, in a crucial passage, the nature of the Libertarian's error:
`The fallacy in the argument (he contends) lies in supposing that when we say "A could have acted otherwise" we mean that A, being what he was and being placed in the circumstances in which he was placed, could have done something other than what he did. But in fact we never do mean this.'
What then do we mean here by 'A could have acted otherwise'? Mr Nowell Smith does not tell us in so many words, but the passage I have quoted leaves little doubt how he would answer. What we really mean by the expression, he implies, is not a categorical but a hypothetical proposition. We mean 'A could have acted otherwise, if he did not happen to be what he in fact was, or if he were placed in circumstances other than those in which he was in fact placed'. Now, these propositions, it is easy to see, are in no way incompatible with acceptance of the causal principle in its full rigour. Accordingly the claim that our fundamental moral thinking obliges us to assert a contra-causal freedom as a condition of moral responsibility is disproved.
Nowell Smith published one more criticism of Campbell in his book Ethics in 1954.
Campbell takes as a typical and, by implication, the only case of moral choice to which appraisals are relevant, that of a man who knows what he ought to do but is tempted to do something else. Now this, so far from being the only case, is not even the commonest or most important. For in the great majority of cases of moral difficulty what is difficult is not to decide to do what one knows he ought to do, but to decide what one ought to do. Perhaps the most crucial objection to the libertarian thesis lies in the sharp discontinuity which it presupposes between moral and non-moral choice and between moral and non-moral appraisal. It is not enough to admit that we can, within broad limits, predict what a man of known habits, tastes, and interests will do and to insist that our powers of prediction only break down in the small, but important area of moral choice...For the rigid distinction between 'formed character' (where determinism reigns) and 'creative choice' (which is in principle unpredictable) it would be better to substitute a conception of continual modification of character in both its moral and its non-moral aspects.
A. J. Ayer's essay Freedom and Necessity (published in his 1954 Philosophical Essays) made it clear what determinism or compatibilism requires
"When I am said to have done something of my own free will it is implied that I could have acted otherwise; and it is only when it is believed that I could have acted otherwise that I am held to be morally responsible for what I have done. For a man is not thought to be morally responsible for an action that it was not in his power to avoid. But if human behaviour is entirely governed by causal laws, it is not clear how any action that is done could ever have been avoided. It may be said of the agent that he would have acted otherwise if the causes of his action had been different, but they being what they were, it seems to follow that he was bound to act as he did. Now it is commonly assumed both that men are capable of acting freely, in the sense that is required to make them morally responsible, and that human behaviour is entirely governed by causal laws: and it is the apparent conflict between these two assumptions that gives rise to the philosophical problem of the freedom of the will. "It seems that it we are to retain this idea of moral responsibility, we must either show that men can be held responsible for actions which they do not do freely, or else find some way of reconciling determinism with the freedom of the will." "from the fact that my behaviour is capable of being explained, in the sense that it can be subsumed under some natural law, it does not follow that I am acting under constraint. "If this is correct, to say that I could have acted otherwise is to say, first, that I should have acted otherwise if I had so chosen; secondly, that my action was voluntary in the sense in which the actions, say, of the kleptomaniac are not; and thirdly, that nobody compelled me to choose as I did: and these three conditions may very well be fulfilled. When they are fulfilled, I may be said to have acted freely. But this is not to say that it was a matter of chance that I acted as I did, or, in other words, that my action could not be explained. And that my actions should be capable of being explained is all that is required by the postulate of determinism."
All this talk about "could" and "if" led the ordinary language philosopher J. L. Austin to look closely at what these terms mean in his famous 1956 article "Ifs and Cans". He carefully analyzed both Moore and Nowell Smith, but did not shed the least light on the problem of free will. He suggests that questions about "could have done otherwise" may as well be assigned to grammar as to philosophy.
"It will be clear at once that Nowell Smith, like Moore, is not distinguishing between the contention that 'could have' requires supplementation by an if-clause and the quite different contention that its analysis contains an if-clause. On the whole it seems plain that it is the second (analysis) view that he wishes to argue for: but the argument he produces is that 'could have' is (in important cases) like 'would have,' the point about which is that it needs an if-clause to complete it — as though this, which is an argument in favour of the first view, told in favour of the second view. But it cannot possibly do so: and in any event could have is liable, as we have already seen, to be in important cases a past indicative, so that the contention that it is like would have in requiring a conditional if-clause is unfounded. Nevertheless, it must be allowed that Nowell Smith may still be right in urging that 'could have' means 'would have if' and that, as he eventually adds, 'can' means 'will if.' It is not unusual for an audience at a lecture to include some who prefer things to be important, and to them now, in case there are any such present, there is owed a peroration. Why, in short, does all this matter? First, then, it needs no emphasizing that both if and can are highly prevalent and protean words, perplexing both grammatically and philosophically: it is not merely worth while, but essential, in these studies to discover the facts about ifs and cans, and to remove the confusions they engender. In philosophy it is can in particular that we seem so often to uncover, just when we had thought some problem settled, grinning residually up at us like the frog at the bottom of the beer mug. Furthermore and secondly, we have not here been dissecting these two words in general or completely, but in a special connexion which perhaps no one will hold trivial. It has been alleged by very serious philosophers (not only the two I have mentioned) that the things we ordinarily say about what we can do and could have done may actually be consistent with determinism. It is hard to evade all attempt to decide whether this allegation is true — hard even for those who, like myself, are inclined to think that determinism itself is still a name for nothing clear, that has been argued for only incoherently. At least I should like to claim that the arguments considered tonight fail to show that it is true, and indeed in failing go some way to show that it is not. Determinism, whatever it may be, may yet be the case, but at least it appears not consistent with what we ordinarily say and presumably think. And finally there is a third point. Reflecting on the arguments in this lecture, we may well ask ourselves whether they might not be as well assigned to grammar as to philosophy: and this, I think, is a salutary question to end on.

J.J.C. Smart tried to refute the idea of free will in his 1961 Mind article Free Will, Praise, and Blame. He explained that "pure chance" (by which he means quantum uncertainty) exists to some extent within the universe. But he does not use it to generate alternative possibilities that would permit one to have done otherwise. Instead he looks for multiple senses of "could have done otherwise."

There are some events that even a superhuman calculator could not predict, however precise his knowledge of however wide a region of the universe at some previous time...It is important to distinguish "pure chance" from "chance" or "accident." Things may happen by chance or accident in a purely deterministic universe...Now there is perhaps a sense of "could not have done otherwise" in which whether or not a person could or could not have done otherwise depends on whether or not the universe is deterministic...But it does not follow that if a person could not have done otherwise in this special sense then he could not have done otherwise in any ordinary sense. Taken in any ordinary sense, within some concrete context of daily life, "he could have done otherwise" has no metaphysical implications. (p.294-296)

Roderick Chisholm, in his 1964 Lindley Lecture Human Freedom and the Self (adapted as his essay Freedom and Action), identified "could have done otherwise if he had chosen otherwise" as a strategem used, among others, by Jonathan Edwards in the early 1700's. Chisholm says it lacks a third step to justify moral responsibility:

The expression
(a) He could have done otherwise.
it is argued means no more or less than
(b) If he had chosen otherwise, then he would have done otherwise.
Chisholm maintains we could not have made an inference to (a) from (b) unless we can also assert:
(c) He could have chosen to to otherwise.
Chisholm concludes that this stratagem to ascribe responsibility conflicts with determinism.

Keith Lehrer thought he could prove that someone who showed he could do something (by doing it) could equally refrain, and therefore establish that he could always do otherwise. Lehrer thought this argument strong enough to constitute An Empirical Disproof of Determinism, published in his 1966 collection of essays, Freedom and Determinism. He said there (p.177)

"I now wish to argue that we can know empirically that a person could have done otherwise. A person could have done otherwise if he could have done what he did not do. Moreover, if it is true at the present time that a person can now do what he is not now doing, then, later, it will be true that he could have done something at this time which he did not do. This, of course, follows from the fact that "could" is sometimes merely the past indicative of "can." What I now want to argue is that we do sometimes know empirically that a person can do at a certain time what he is not then doing, and, consequently, that he could have done at that time what he did not then do. Moreover, we can obtain empirical evidence in such a way that our methods will satisfy the most rigorous standards of scientific procedure."

Harry Frankfurt, in his article Alternate Possibilities and Moral Responsibility (Journal of Philosophy, 1969), formalized the idea that one "could have done otherwise" as the "principle of alternate possibilities," now known as PAP in current jargon.
"A dominant role in nearly all recent inquiries into the free-will problem has been played by a principle which I shall call "the principle of alternate possibilities." This principle states that a person is morally responsible for what he has done only if he could have done otherwise." "But the principle of alternate possibilities is false. A person may well be morally responsible for what he has done even though he could not have done otherwise. The principle's plausibility is an illusion, which can be made to vanish by bringing the relevant moral phenomena into sharper focus."
Peter van Inwagen wrote in his 1983 book Essay On Free Will...
"The Conditional Analysis Argument maintains that statements ascribing to human agents the power or ability to act otherwise are to be analysed as disguised conditionals, which, when their disguise is removed, can be seen to be compatible with determinism. "To deny the existence of free will commits one to denying the existence of moral responsibility. Until a short while ago, most philosophers would have taken this to be obvious. But if any of these philosophers had been asked to defend this obvious thesis, he would almost certainly have appealed to the following principle: a person can be held morally responsible for what he has done only if he could have done otherwise. In a recent remarkable article, however, Harry Frankfurt has presented convincing counter-examples to this principle...Even if Frankfurt is right, it is none the less true that moral responsibility is possible only if we have free will. "By 'the thesis that there is such a thing as moral responsibility', I mean the thesis that someone is morally responsible for something — for some act, some event, some state of affairs, the publication of some scurrilous pamphlet, the currency of some malicious rumour, or the decline of classical studies at some university. By 'the free-will thesis', it will be recalled, I mean the thesis that most people, if not all people, are very often, if not always, in the following position: when they are faced with having to choose among various incompatible courses of action, each of these courses of action is such that they can (are able to, have it within their power to) choose it." (Sounds like Frankfurt's PAP.)
Daniel Dennett devoted chapter 6 of his 1984 book Elbow Room to the "Could Have Done Otherwise" principle. He says
"l have not yet touched the central issue of free will, for I have not yet declared a position on the "could have done otherwise" principle: the principle that holds that one has acted freely (and responsibly) only if one could have done otherwise. It is time, at last, to turn to this central, stable area in the logical geography of the free will problem. I will show that this widely accepted principle is simply false." "The "could have done otherwise" principle has been debated for generations, and the favorite strategy of compatibilists - who must show that free will and determinism are compatible after all — is to maintain that "could have done otherwise" does not mean what it seems at first to mean; the sense of the phrase denied by determinism is irrelevant to the sense required for freedom." "Instead of rising to the defense of any of the earlier analyses — many of which are quite defensible so far as I can see — I will go on the offensive. I will argue that whatever "could have done otherwise" actually means, it is not what we are interested in when we care about whether some act was freely and responsibly performed. There is, as van Inwagen notes, something of a tradition of simply assuming that the intuitions favoring the "could have done otherwise" principle are secure. But philosophers who do assume this do so in spite of fairly obvious and familiar grounds for doubt." "If our responsibility really did hinge, as this major philosophical tradition insists, on the question of whether we ever could do otherwise than we in fact do in exactly those circumstances, we would be faced with a most peculiar problem of ignorance: it would be unlikely in the extreme, given what now seems to be the case in physics, that anyone would ever know whether anyone has ever been responsible. For today's orthodoxy is that indeterminism reigns at the subatomic level of quantum mechanics, so in the absence of any general and accepted argument for universal determinism, it is possible for all we know that our decisions and actions are truly the magnified, macroscopic effects of quantum-level indeterminacies occurring in our brains." (p.131-136)
Robert Kane, in his 1985 Free Will and Values, gives a modern specification for "could have done otherwise," which however threatens to make free will "arbitrary, capricious, and irrational." Kane defines what he calls the Indeterminist Condition. An agent S is free at time t to make a decision J or do otherwise. As Kane puts it,
"(The Indeterminist Condition — Second Form): Given all past circumstances relative to t and all laws of nature, (i) it can be the case that S makes J at t, and (ii) it can be the case that S does other than make J at t." (Free Will and Values, p.33)
Kane calls the ability to do otherwise the dual power of the self or dual rational self-control. But Kane then says that this is an extremely problematic condition.
"There is, first of all, the problem of explaining why such a condition should be regarded as necessary for free will at all. And, second, there is the problem of explaining how a theory of free will can accommodate a condition of this kind without making free choices arbitrary, capricious, and irrational. (p.33) "What sort of an argument lies behind these charges? Assume, first, that the indeterminist condition is satisfied for a free choice. This means that the agent may either make the choice or do otherwise given all the same past circumstances and laws of nature. Assume further that the past circumstances include the entire psychological history of the agent prior to choice (as well as a complete account of his or her physiology and environment) and thus all of the agent's earlier formed character traits, prior decisions, processes of reasoning, experiences, motives, and so on. (p.52) "Some awkward consequences do seem to follow, If the agent might either make a choice or do otherwise, given all the same past circumstances, and the past circumstances include the entire psychological history of the agent, it would seem that no explanation in terms of the agent's psychological history, including prior character motives and deliberation, could account for the actual occurrence of one outcome rather than the other. (p.53) "I can understand how the outcome of my deliberation may have been different, if I had known other facts, considered other consequences, imagined other scenarios, etc. But what I cannot understand is how I could have reasonably chosen to do otherwise, how I could have reasonably chosen B, given exactly the same prior deliberation that led me to choose A, the same information deployed, the same consequences considered, the same assessments made, and so on." (p.57) "This way of stating the argument shows what is at stake in the charges of arbitrariness, irrationality, etc., made against the indeterminist condition. If the choice of A was the reasonable outcome of my deliberation, then the choosing otherwise (the choice of B), which may have occurred given the same past circumstances, would have been "arbitrary," "capricious," "irrational," and "inexplicable," relative to my prior deliberation. Similarly, if the choice of B had been the reasonable conclusion of my deliberation, then the choice of A, had it occurred, would have been arbitrary relative to the prior deliberation, In general, where the indeterminist condition is satisfied, and the outcome is the result of prior deliberation, at least one of the outcomes (choosing or doing otherwise) must be arbitrary or irrational in relation to the prior deliberation." (p.57)
Richard Double, in his 1991 (The Non-Reality of Free Will, p.194) agrees with Kane,
"Kane's point makes one wonder: why bother to deliberate if you are just as likely to opt for either of two contradictory alternatives? "I hope to show that a libertarian account of dual rationality, control, and the ability to choose otherwise also fails. "The most important [condition] for the libertarian is the requirement that free agents have the ability to choose otherwise under the exact conditions that obtain at the moment of choice. The libertarian's interpretation of this requirement signifies the clearest demarcation between the incompatibilists and the compatibilists and is probably incompatibilism's greatest selling point. The compatibilist's argument that the concept of "can choose otherwise" is analytically definable in terms of the hypothetical notion that agents would have chosen otherwise had some condition been different seems dubious to me. Chisholm rejects the hypothetical analysis by arguing that the categorical statement (a) "He could have done otherwise" is not logically equivalent to the hypothetical statement (b) "If he had chosen to do otherwise, then he would have done otherwise". I think that Chisholm is correct in his rejection of the compatibilist's claim when viewed as linguistic analysis. (p.191) "the libertarian's commitment to indeterminism guarantees a dual interpretation of the control and rationality conditions. For the libertarian, free agents not only have the ability to choose in two directions, but they must be in control of either choice. This consequence could be deduced from the demands of moral responsibility. If an agent is to be truly responsible for either choice, A or not A, then both outcomes are under the agent's control. The case is likewise with rationality, although a predictable amount of strain is likely to arise. Libertarians, at the very least, need to show how indeterministic choices can be rational whichever way they turn out. Ideally, libertarians will show us how such a dual ability might be, contrary to appearances, a desirable or even necessary element of rational choices. (p .192)
The simple answer to Kane's point and Double's is that we are not "just as likely" to opt for something different from "rational self control", but as human beings we can and do choose occasionally to be irrational.

Who said just consider the present case of alternative possibilities - "I can do otherwise." Then change that to the past tense once the will has chosen - "I could have done otherwise."?

For Scholars

From David Wiggins, Towards a reasonable libertarianism, 1975, in Essays on Freedom of Action, ed. T. Honderich.

Maybe it is pointless to debate whether the sentence "he could at t have done otherwise at t" does have the sense I have ascribed to it in the incompatibilist demonstration of Section III above until it has at least been shown that that sense is even a possible sense, or that it could do for the libertarian what he wanted. This is often taken to be equivalent to the following question: can the libertarian even specify a possible world, however different from the actual one, in which there are particular responsible actions which people can (in the libertarian's sense) do but do not do? Hume has been followed by a large number of philosophers in holding that not even a possible world of the required sort could be specified. If it were false that every event and every action were causally determined then the causally undetermined events and actions would surely, to that extent, be simply random. So the argument goes. That a man could have done x would mean no more than that it might have turned out that way - at random. It will be asked if it makes any better sense to hold a man responsible for actions which happen at random than for ones which arise from his character. Surely then, if it doesn't, we ought to prefer that our actions be caused? Considered simply as an argument this objection is circular, and flagrantly so.

J.J.C.Smart (Mind 1961)seems to argue this

One cannot prove that determinism is a precondition of free will by an argument which employs as a premiss everything is either causally determined or random. This is nothing other than a form of the conclusion, that whatever is undetermined is random. This is what had to be shown. But in the form of a challenge something in the objection can stand. If an event is undetermined, if an event of different specification might have taken its place, then what does it mean to deny that the event is simply random? What is it justifiably to ascribe the action identical with the event or comprised of the event to an agent whom one holds responsible for that action? In the unclaimed ground between the properly or deterministically caused and the random, what is there in fact to be found?

Normal | Teacher | Scholar

1. Rational Deliberation

1.1 Free Will as Choosing on the Basis of One's Desires

On a minimalist account, free will is the ability to select a course of action as a means of fulfilling some desire. David Hume, for example, defines liberty as “a power of acting or of not acting, according to the determination of the will.” (1748, sect.viii, part 1). And we find in Jonathan Edwards (1754) a similar account of free willings as those which proceed from one's own desires.

One reason to deem this insufficient is that it is consistent with the goal-directed behavior of some animals whom we do not suppose to be morally responsible agents. Such animals lack not only an awareness of the moral implications of their actions but also any capacity to reflect on their alternatives and their long-term consequences. Indeed, it is plausible that they have little by way of a self-conception as an agent with a past and with projects and purposes for the future. (See Baker 2000 on the ‘first-person perspective.’)

1.2 Free Will as deliberative choosing on the basis of desires and values

A natural suggestion, then, is to modify the minimalist thesis by taking account of (what may be) distinctively human capacities and self-conception. And indeed, philosophers since Plato have commonly distinguished the ‘animal’ and ‘rational’ parts of our nature, with the latter implying a great deal more psychological complexity. Our rational nature includes our ability to judge some ends as ‘good’ or worth pursuing and value them even though satisfying them may result in considerable unpleasantness for ourselves. (Note that such judgments need not be based in moral value.) We might say that we act with free will when we act upon our considered judgments/valuings about what is good for us, whether or not our doing so conflicts with an ‘animal’ desire. (See Watson 2003a for a subtle development of this sort of view.) But this would seem unduly restrictive, since we clearly hold many people responsible for actions proceeding from ‘animal’ desires that conflict with their own assessment of what would be best in the circumstances. More plausible is the suggestion that one acts with free will when one's deliberation is sensitive to one's own judgments concerning what is best in the circumstances, whether or not one acts upon such a judgment.

Here we are clearly in the neighborhood of the ‘rational appetite’ accounts of will one finds in the medieval Aristotelians. The most elaborate medieval treatment is Thomas Aquinas's.[1] His account involves identifying several distinct varieties of willings. Here I note only a few of his basic claims. Aquinas thinks our nature determines us to will certain general ends ordered to the most general goal of goodness. These we will of necessity, not freely. Freedom enters the picture when we consider various means to these ends, none of which appear to us either as unqualifiedly good or as uniquely satisfying the end we wish to fulfill. There is, then, free choice of means to our ends, along with a more basic freedom not to consider something, thereby perhaps avoiding willing it unavoidably once we recognized its value. Free choice is an activity that involves both our intellectual and volitional capacities, as it consists in both judgment and active commitment. A thorny question for this view is whether will or intellect is the ultimate determinant of free choices. How we understand Aquinas on this point will go a long ways towards determining whether or not he is a sort of compatibilist about freedom and determinism. (See below. Good expositions of Aquinas' account are Donagan 1985, MacDonald 1998, Stump 2003, ch.9, and Pasnau 2002, Ch.7.)

There are two general worries about theories of free will that principally rely on the capacity to deliberate about possible actions in the light of one's conception of the good. First, there are agents who deliberately choose to act as they do but who are motivated to do so by a compulsive, controlling sort of desire. (And there seems to be no principled bar to a compulsive desire's informing a considered judgment of the agent about what the good is for him.) Such agents are not willing freely. (Wallace 2003 and Levy 2007, Ch.6, offer accounts of the way addiction impairs the will.) Secondly, we can imagine a person's psychology being externally manipulated by another agent (via neurophysiological implant, say), such that the agent is caused to deliberate and come to desire strongly a particular action which he previously was not disposed to choose. The deliberative process could be perfectly normal, reflective, and rational, but seemingly not freely made. The agent's freedom seems undermined or at least greatly diminished by such psychological tampering (Mele 1995).

1.3 Self-mastery, Rightly-Ordered Appetite

Some theorists are much impressed by cases of inner, psychological compulsion and define freedom of will in contrast to this phenomenon. For such thinkers, true freedom of the will involves liberation from the tyranny of base desires and acquisition of desires for the Good. Plato, for example, posits rational, spirited, and appetitive aspects to the soul and holds that willings issue from the higher, rational part alone. In other cases, one is dominated by the irrational desires of the two lower parts.[2] This is particularly characteristic of those working in a theological context—for example, the New Testament writer St. Paul, speaking of Christian freedom (Romans vi-viii; Galatians v), and those influenced by him on this point, such as Augustine. (The latter, in both early and later writings, allows for a freedom of will that is not ordered to the good, but maintains that it is of less value than the rightly-ordered freedom. See, for example, the discussion in Books II-III of On Free Choice.) More recently, Susan Wolf (1990) defends an asymmetry thesis concerning freedom and responsibility. On her view, an agent acts freely only if he had the ability to choose the True and the Good. For an agent who does so choose, the requisite ability is automatically implied. But those who reject the Good choose freely only if they could have acted differently. This is a further substantive condition on freedom, making freedom of will a more demanding condition in cases of bad choices.

In considering such rightly-ordered-appetites views of freedom, I again focus on abstract features common to all. It explicitly handles the inner-compulsion worry facing the simple deliberation-based accounts. The other, external manipulation problem could perhaps be handled through the addition of an historical requirement: agents will freely only if their willings are not in part explicable by episodes of external manipulation which bypass their critical and deliberative faculties (Mele 1995, 2003). But another problem suggests itself: an agent who was a ‘natural saint,’ always and effortlessly choosing the good with no contrary inclination, would not have freedom of will among his virtues. Doubtless we would greatly admire such a person, but would it be an admiration suffused with moral praise of the person or would it, rather, be restricted to the goodness of the person's qualities? (Cf. Kant, 1788.) The appropriate response to such a person, it seems, is on an analogy with aesthetic appreciation of natural beauty, in contrast to the admiration of the person who chooses the good in the face of real temptation to act selfishly. Since this view of freedom of will as orientation to the good sometimes results from theological reflections, it is worth noting that other theologian-philosophers emphasize the importance for human beings of being able to reject divine love: love of God that is not freely given—given in the face of a significant possibility of one's having not done so—would be a sham, all the more so since, were it inevitable, it would find its ultimate and complete explanation in God Himself.

2. Ownership

Harry Frankfurt (1982) presents an insightful and original way of thinking about free will. He suggests that a central difference between human and merely animal activity is our capacity to reflect on our desires and beliefs and form desires and judgments concerning them. I may want to eat a candy bar (first-order desire), but I also may want not to want this (second-order desire) because of the connection between habitual candy eating and poor health. This difference, he argues, provides the key to understanding both free action and free will. (These are quite different, in Frankfurt's view, with free will being the more demanding notion. Moreover, moral responsibility for an action requires only that the agent acted freely, not that the action proceeded from a free will.)

On Frankfurt's analysis, I act freely when the desire on which I act is one that I desire to be effective. This second-order desire is one with which I identify: it reflects my true self. (Compare the addict: typically, the addict acts out of a desire which he does not want to act upon. His will is divided, and his actions proceed from desires with which he does not reflectively identify. Hence, he is not acting freely.) My will is free when I am able to make any of my first-order desires the one upon which I act. As it happens, I will to eat the candy bar, but I could have willed to refrain from doing so.

With Frankfurt's account of free will, much hangs on what being able to will otherwise comes to, and on this Frankfurt is officially neutral. (See the related discussion below on ability to do otherwise.) But as he connects moral responsibility only to his weaker notion of free action, it is fitting to consider its adequacy here. The central objection that commentators have raised is this: what's so special about higher-order willings or desires? (See in particular Watson 2003a.) Why suppose that they inevitably reflect my true self, as against first-order desires? Frankfurt is explicit that higher-order desires need not be rooted in a person's moral or even settled outlook (1982, 89, n.6). So it seems that, in some cases, a first-order desire may be much more reflective of my true self (more “internal to me,” in Frankfurt's terminology) than a weak, faint desire to be the sort of person who wills differently.

In later writings, Frankfurt responds to this worry first by appealing to “decisions made without reservations” (“Identification and Externality” and “Identification and Wholeheartedness” in Frankfurt, 1988) and then by appealing to higher-order desires with which one is “satisfied,” such that one has no inclination to make changes to them (1992). But the absence of an inclination to change the desire does not obviously amount to the condition of freedom-conferring identification. It seems that such a negative state of satisfaction can be one that I just find myself with, one that I neither approve nor disapprove (Pettit, 2001, 56).

Furthermore, we can again imagine external manipulation consistent with Frankfurt's account of freedom but inconsistent with freedom itself. Armed with the wireless neurophysiology-tampering technology of the late 21st century, one might discreetly induce a second-order desire in me to be moved by a first-order desire—a higher-order desire with which I am satisfied—and then let me deliberate as normal. Clearly, this desire should be deemed “external” to me, and the action that flows from it unfree.

3. Causation and Control

Our survey of several themes in philosophical accounts of free will suggests that a—perhaps the—root issue is that of control. Clearly, our capacity for deliberation and the potential sophistication of some of our practical reflections are important conditions on freedom of will. But any proposed analysis of free will must also ensure that the process it describes is one that was up to, or controlled by, the agent.

Fantastic scenarios of external manipulation and less fantastic cases of hypnosis are not the only, or even primary, ones to give philosophers pause. It is consistent with my deliberating and choosing ‘in the normal way’ that my developing psychology and choices over time are part of an ineluctable system of causes necessitating effects. It might be, that is, that underlying the phenomena of purpose and will in human persons is an all-encompassing, mechanistic world-system of ‘blind’ cause and effect. Many accounts of free will are constructed against the backdrop possibility (whether accepted as actual or not) that each stage of the world is determined by what preceded it by impersonal natural law. As always, there are optimists and pessimists.

3.1 Free Will as Guidance Control

John Martin Fischer (1994) distinguishes two sorts of control over one's actions: guidance and regulative. A person exerts guidance control over his own actions insofar as they proceed from a ‘weakly’ reasons-responsive (deliberative) mechanism. This obtains just in case there is some possible scenario where the agent is presented with a sufficient reason to do otherwise and the mechanism that led to the actual choice is operative and it issues in a different choice, one appropriate to the imagined reason. In Fischer and Ravizza (1998), the account is elaborated and refined. They require, more strongly, that the mechanism be the person's own mechanism (ruling out external manipulation) and that it be ‘moderately’ responsive to reasons: one that is “regularly receptive to reasons, some of which are moral reasons, and at least weakly reactive to reason” (82, emphasis added). Receptivity is evinced through an understandable pattern of reasons recognition—beliefs of the agent about what would constitute a sufficient reason for undertaking various actions. (For details, see Fischer and Ravizza 1998, 69–73, and Fischer's contribution to Fischer et al. 2007.)

None of this, importantly, requires ‘regulative’ control: a control involving the ability of the agent to choose and act differently in the actual circumstances. Regulative control requires alternative possibilities open to the agent, whereas guidance control is determined by characteristics of the actual sequence issuing in one's choice. Fischer allows that there is a notion of freedom that requires regulative control but does not believe that this kind of freedom is required for moral responsibility. (In this, he is persuaded by a form of argument originated by Harry Frankfurt. See Frankfurt 1969 and Fischer 1994, Ch.7 for an important development of the argument. The argument has been debated extensively in recent years. See Widerker and McKenna 2003 for a representative sampling. For very recent work, see Franklin 2009 and Fischer 2010 and the works they cite.)

3.2 Free Will as Ultimate Origination (Ability to do Otherwise)

Many do not follow Fischer here, however, and maintain the traditional view that the sort of freedom required for moral responsibility does indeed require that the agent could have acted differently. As Aristotle put it, “…when the origin of the actions is in him, it is also up to him to do them or not to do them” (NE, Book III).[3]

A flood of ink has been spilled, especially in the modern era, on how to understand the concept of being able to do otherwise. On one side are those who maintain that it is consistent with my being able to do otherwise that the past (including my character and present beliefs and desires) and the basic laws of nature logically entail that I do what I actually do. These are the ‘compatibilists,’ holding that freedom and causal determinism are compatible. (For discussion, see O'Connor, 2000, Ch.1; Kapitan 2001; van Inwagen 2001; Haji 2009; compatibilism; and incompatibilism: arguments for.) Conditional analyses of ability to do otherwise have been popular among compatibilists. The general idea here is that to say that I am able to do otherwise is to say that I would do otherwise if it were the case that … , where the ellipsis is filled by some elaboration of “I had an appropriately strong desire to do so, or I had different beliefs about the best available means to satisfy my goal, or … .” In short: something about my prevailing character or present psychological states would have differed, and so would have brought about a different outcome in my deliberation.

Incompatibilists think that something stronger is required: for me to act with free will requires that there are a plurality of futures open to me consistent with the past (and laws of nature) being just as they were—that I be able ‘to add to the given past’ (Ginet 1990). I could have chosen differently even without some further, non-actual consideration's occurring to me and ‘tipping the scales of the balance’ in another direction. Indeed, from their point of view, the whole scale-of-weights analogy is wrongheaded: free agents are not mechanisms that respond invariably to specified ‘motive forces.’ They are capable of acting upon any of a plurality of motives making attractive more than one course of action. Ultimately, the agent must determine himself this way or that.

We may distinguish two broad families of ‘incompatibilist’ or ‘indeterminist’ self-determination accounts. The more radical group holds that the agent who determines his own will is not causally influenced by external causal factors, including his own character. Descartes, in the midst of exploring the scope and influence of ‘the passions,’ declares that “the will is by its nature so free that it can never be constrained” (PWD, v.I, 343). And as we've seen, he believed that such freedom is present on every occasion when we make a conscious choice—even, he writes, “when a very evident reason moves us in one direction….” (PWD, v.III, 245). More recently, Jean-Paul Sartre notoriously held that human beings have ‘absolute freedom’: “No limits to my freedom can be found except freedom itself, or, if you prefer, we are not free to cease being free” (567). His views on freedom flowed from his radical conception of human beings as lacking any kind of positive nature. Instead, we are ‘non-beings’ whose being, moment to moment, is simply to choose:

For human reality, to be is to choose oneself; nothing comes to it either from the outside or from within which it can receive or accept….it is entirely abandoned to the intolerable necessity of making itself be, down to the slightest details. Thus freedom…is the being of man, i.e., his nothingness of being. (568–9)

The medieval philosopher Scotus and mid-twentieth century philosopher C.A. Campbell both appear to agree with Descartes and Sartre on the lack of direct causal influence on the activity of free choice while allowing that the scope of possibilities for what I might thus will may be more or less constricted. So while Scotus holds that “nothing other than the will is the total cause” of its activity, he grants (with Aquinas and other medieval Aristotelians) that we are not capable of willing something in which we see no good, nor of positively repudiating something which appears to us as unqualifiedly good. Contrary to Sartre, we come with a ‘nature’ that circumscribes what we might conceivably choose, and our past choices and environmental influences also shape the possibilities for us at any particular time. But if we are presented with what we recognize as an unqualified good, we still can choose to refrain from willing it. As for Campbell, while he holds that character cannot explain a free choice, he supposes that “[t]here is one experiential situation, and one only, … in which there is any possibility of the act of will not being in accordance with character; viz. the situation in which the course which formed character prescribes is a course in conflict with the agent's moral ideal: in other words, the situation of moral temptation” (1967, 46). (Van Inwagen 1994 and 1995 is another proponent of the idea that free will is exercised in but a small subset of our choices, although his position is less extreme on this point than Campbell's. Fischer and Ravizza 1992, O'Connor 2000, Ch.5, and Clarke 2003, Ch.7 all criticize van Inwagen's argument for this position.)

A more moderate grouping within the self-determination approach to free will allows that beliefs, desires, and external factors all can causally influence the act of free choice itself. But theorists within this camp differ sharply on the metaphysical nature of those choices and of the causal role of reasons. We may distinguish three varieties. I will discuss them only briefly, as they are explored at length in incompatibilist (nondeterministic) theories of free will.

First is a noncausal (or ownership) account (Ginet 1990, 2002; McCann 1998; Pink 2004; Goetz 2002). According to this view, I control my volition or choice simply in virtue of its being mine—its occurring in me. I do not exert a special kind of causality in bringing it about; instead, it is an intrinsically active event, intrinsically something I do. While there may be causal influences upon my choice, there need not be, and any such causal influence is wholly irrelevant to understanding why it occurs. Reasons provide an autonomous, non-causal form of explanation. Provided my choice is not wholly determined by prior factors, it is free and under my control simply in virtue of being mine.

Proponents of the event-causal account (e.g. Nozick 1995; Ekstrom 2001; and Franklin forthcoming) would say that uncaused events of any kind would be random and uncontrolled by anyone, and so could hardly count as choices that an agent made. They hold that reasons influence choices precisely by causing them. Choices are free insofar as they are not deterministically caused, and so might not have occurred in just the circumstances in which they did occur. (See nondeterministic theories of free will and probabilistic causation.) A special case of the event-causal account of self-determination is Kane (1996 and his contribution to Fischer et al., 2007). Kane believes that the free choices of greatest significance to an agent's autonomy are ones that are preceded by efforts of will within the process of deliberation. These are cases where one's will is conflicted, as when one's duty or long-term self-interest compete with a strong desire for a short-term good. As one struggles to sort out and prioritize one's own values, the possible outcomes are not merely undetermined, but also indeterminate: at each stage of the struggle, the possible outcomes have no specific objective probability of occurring. This indeterminacy, Kane believes, is essential to freedom of will.

Finally, there are those who believe freedom of will consists in a distinctively personal form of causality, commonly referred to as “agent causation.” The agent himself causes his choice or action, and this is not to be reductively analyzed as an event within the agent causing the choice. (Compare our ready restatement of “the rock broke the window” into the more precise “the rock's having momentum M at the point of contact with the window caused the window's subsequent shattering.”) This view is given clear articulation by Thomas Reid:

I grant, then, that an effect uncaused is a contradiction, and that an event uncaused is an absurdity. The question that remains is whether a volition, undetermined by motives, is an event uncaused. This I deny. The cause of the volition is the man that willed it. (Letter to James Gregory, in 1967, 88)

Roderick Chisholm advocated this view of free will in numerous writings (e.g., 1982 and 1976). And recently it has been developed in different forms by Randolph Clarke (1993, 1996, 2003) and O'Connor (2000, 2005, 2008a, and 2010). Nowadays, many philosophers view this account as of doubtful coherence (e.g., Dennett 1984). For some, this very idea of causation by a substance just as such is perplexing (Ginet 1997 and Clarke 2003, Ch.10). Others see it as difficult to reconcile with the causal role of reasons in explaining choices. (See Feldman and Buckareff 2003 and Hiddleston 2005. Clarke and O'Connor devote considerable effort to addressing this concern.) And yet others hold that, coherent or not, it is inconsistent with seeing human beings as part of the natural world of cause and effect (Pereboom 2001, 2004, and 2005).

3.3 Do We Have Free Will?

A recent trend is to suppose that agent causation accounts capture, as well as possible, our prereflective idea of responsible, free action. But the failure of philosophers to work the account out in a fully satisfactory and intelligible form reveals that the very idea of free will (and so of responsibility) is incoherent (Strawson 1986) or at least inconsistent with a world very much like our own (Pereboom 2001). Smilansky (2000) takes a more complicated position, on which there are two ‘levels’ on which we may assess freedom, ‘compatibilist’ and ‘ultimate’. On the ultimate level of evaluation, free will is indeed incoherent. (Strawson, Pereboom, and Smilansky all provide concise defenses of their positions in Kane 2002.)

The will has also recently become a target of empirical study in neuroscience and cognitive psychology. Benjamin Libet (2002) conducted experiments designed to determine the timing of conscious willings or decisions to act in relation to brain activity associated with the physical initiation of behavior. Interpretation of the results is highly controversial. Libet himself concludes that the studies provide strong evidence that actions are already underway shortly before the agent wills to do it. As a result, we do not consciously initiate our actions, though he suggests that we might nonetheless retain the ability to veto actions that are initiated by unconscious psychological structures. Wegner (2002) amasses a range of studies (including those of Libet) to argue that the notion that human actions are ever initiated by their own conscious willings is simply a deeply-entrenched illusion and proceeds to offer an hypothesis concerning the reason this illusion is generated within our cognitive systems. Mele (2009) and O'Connor (2009b) argue that the data adduced by Libet, Wegner, and others wholly fail to support their revisionary conclusions.

4. Theological Wrinkles

A large portion of Western philosophical writing on free will was and is written within an overarching theological framework, according to which God is the ultimate source and sustainer of all else. Some of these thinkers draw the conclusion that God must be a sufficient, wholly determining cause for everything that happens; all suppose that every creaturely act necessarily depends on the explanatorily prior, cooperative activity of God. It is also presumed that human beings are free and responsible (on pain of attributing evil in the world to God alone, and so impugning His perfect goodness). Hence, those who believe that God is omni-determining typically are compatibilists with respect to freedom and (in this case) theological determinism. Edwards (1754) is a good example. But those who suppose that God's sustaining activity (and special activity of conferring grace) is only a necessary condition on the outcome of human free choices need to tell a more subtle story, on which omnipotent God's cooperative activity can be (explanatorily) prior to a human choice and yet the outcome of that choice be settled only by the choice itself. For important medieval discussions—the period of the apex of treatments of philosophical/theological matters—see the relevant portions of Aquinas BW and Scotus QAM. For an example of a more recent discussion, see Quinn 1983.

Another issue concerns the impact on human freedom of knowledge of God, the ultimate Good. Many philosophers, especially the medieval Aristotelians, were drawn to the idea that human beings cannot but will that which they take to be an unqualified good. (Duns Scotus appears to be an important exception to this consensus.) Hence, in the afterlife, when humans ‘see God face to face,’ they will inevitably be drawn to Him. Murray (1993, 2002) argues that a good God would choose to make His existence and character less than certain for human beings, for the sake of their freedom. (He will do so, the argument goes, at least for a period of time in which human beings participate in their own character formation.) If it is a good for human beings that they freely choose to respond in love to God and to act in obedience to His will, then God must maintain an ‘epistemic distance’ from them lest they be overwhelmed by His goodness and respond out of necessity, rather than freedom. (See also the other essays in Howard-Snyder and Moser 2002.)

Finally, there is the question of the freedom of God himself. Perfect goodness is an essential, not acquired, attribute of God. God cannot lie or be in any way immoral in His dealings with His creatures. Unless we take the minority position on which this is a trivial claim, since whatever God does definitionally counts as good, this appears to be a significant, inner constraint on God's freedom. Did we not contemplate immediately above that human freedom would be curtailed by our having an unmistakable awareness of what is in fact the Good? And yet is it not passing strange to suppose that God should be less than perfectly free?

One suggested solution to this puzzle begins by reconsidering the relationship of two strands in (much) thinking about freedom of will: being able to do otherwise and being the ultimate source of one's will. Contemporary discussions of free will often emphasize the importance of being able to do otherwise. Yet it is plausible (Kane 1996) that the core metaphysical feature of freedom is being the ultimate source, or originator, of one's choices, and that being able to do otherwise is closely connected to this feature. For human beings or any created persons who owe their existence to factors outside themselves, the only way their acts of will could find their ultimate origin in themselves is for such acts not to be determined by their character and circumstances. For if all my willings were wholly determined, then if we were to trace my causal history back far enough, we would ultimately arrive at external factors that gave rise to me, with my particular genetic dispositions. My motives at the time would not be the ultimate source of my willings, only the most proximate ones. Only by there being less than deterministic connections between external influences and choices, then, is it be possible for me to be an ultimate source of my activity, concerning which I may truly say, “the buck stops here.”

As is generally the case, things are different on this point in the case of God. Even if God's character absolutely precludes His performing certain actions in certain contexts, this will not imply that some external factor is in any way a partial origin of His willings and refrainings from willing. Indeed, this would not be so even if he were determined by character to will everything which He wills. For God's nature owes its existence to nothing. So God would be the sole and ultimate source of His will even if He couldn't will otherwise.

Well, then, might God have willed otherwise in any respect? The majority view in the history of philosophical theology is that He indeed could have. He might have chosen not to create anything at all. And given that He did create, He might have created any number of alternatives to what we observe. But there have been noteworthy thinkers who argued the contrary position, along with others who clearly felt the pull of the contrary position even while resisting it. The most famous such thinker is Leibniz (1710), who argued that God, being both perfectly good and perfectly powerful, cannot fail to will the best possible world. Leibniz insisted that this is consistent with saying that God is able to will otherwise, although his defense of this last claim is notoriously difficult to make out satisfactorily. Many read Leibniz, malgre lui, as one whose basic commitments imply that God could not have willed other than He does in any respect.

On might challenge Leibniz's reasoning on this point by questioning the assumption that there is a uniquely best possible Creation (an option noted by Adams 1987, though he challenges instead Leibniz's conclusion based on it). One way this could be is if there is no well-ordering of worlds: some worlds are sufficiently different in kind that they are incommensurate with each other (neither is better than the other, nor are they equal). Another way this could be is if there is no upper limit on goodness of worlds: for every possible world God might have created, there are others (infinitely many, in fact) which are better. If such is the case, one might argue, it is reasonable for God to arbitrarily choose which world to create from among those worlds exceeding some threshold value of overall goodness.

However, William Rowe (2004) has countered that the thesis that there is no upper limit on goodness of worlds has a very different consequence: it shows that there could not be a morally perfect Creator! For suppose our world has an on-balance moral value of n and that God chose to create it despite being aware of possibilities having values higher than n that He was able to create. It seems we can now imagine a morally better Creator: one having the same options who chooses to create a better world. For critical replies to Rowe, see Almeida (2008), Ch.1; O'Connor 2008b; and Kray (2010).

Finally, Norman Kretzmann (1997, 220–25) has argued in the context of Aquinas's theological system that there is strong pressure to say that God must have created something or other, though it may well have been open to Him to create any of a number of contingent orders. The reason is that there is no plausible account of how an absolutely perfect God might have a resistible motivation—one consideration among other, competing considerations—for creating something rather than nothing. (It obviously cannot have to do with any sort of utility, for example.) The best general understanding of God's being motivated to create at all—one which in places Aquinas himself comes very close to endorsing—is to see it as reflecting the fact that God's very being, which is goodness, necessarily diffuses itself. Perfect goodness will naturally communicate itself outwardly; God who is perfect goodness will naturally create, generating a dependent reality that imperfectly reflects that goodness. (Wainwright (1996) is a careful discussion of a somewhat similar line of thought in Jonathan Edwards. See also Rowe 2004.)

Further Reading

Pereboom (2009) samples a number of important historical and contemporary writers on free will. Bourke (1964) and Dilman (1999) provide critical overviews of many historically-significant writers. Fischer, Kane, Pereboom, and Vargas (2007) provide a readable while careful debate that sets out some main views by four leading thinkers. For thematic treatments, see Fischer (1994); Kane (1996), esp. Ch.1–2; 5–6; Ekstrom (2001); Watson (2003b); and the outstanding collection of lengthy survey articles in Kane (2002, with an updated version due to appear in 2011). Finally, for a topically comprehensive set of important contemporary essays on free will, see the four-volume Fischer (2005).


  • Adams, Robert (1987). “Must God Create the Best?,” in The Virtue of Faith and Other Essays in Philosophical Theology. New York: Oxford University Press, 51–64.
  • Almeida, Michael (2008). The Metaphysics of Perfect Beings. New York: Routledge.
  • Aquinas, Thomas (BW / 1945). Basic Writings of Saint Thomas Aquinas (2 vol.). New York: Random House.
  • ––– (SPW / 1993). Selected Philosophical Writings, ed. T. McDermott. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Aristotle (NE / 1985). Nicomachean Ethics, translated by Terence Irwin. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1985.
  • Augustine (FCW / 1993). On the Free Choice of the Will, tr. Thomas Williams. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing.
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