The Compatibility of Free Will and Determinism

Topics: Free will, Determinism, Libertarianism Pages: 6 (1557 words) Published: March 29, 2014

The Compatibility of Free Will and Determinism


The Compatibility of Free Will and Determinism
One of the biggest issues regarding criminal activity is deciding how to assign moral responsibility to each situation. This critical question has caused the world to take a step back, ponder the origination of individual choices, and decide whether people are determined or not. Determinism supports the claim that “all events are the necessary result of previous causes” (Lawhead, 267). Therefore, a determinist would say that our choices are inevitable outcomes of the causal order. Incompatibilism claims that determinism is not compatible with the sort of freedom required to be morally responsible for our behavior. On the other hand, compatibilism refers to the notion that if determinism is true, then free will can still occur. I shall argue that determinism and free will are not compatible, that people do have the freedom necessary to be held accountable for their actions, and that, therefore, compatibilism does not accurately capture the idea of philosophical freedom. I will do this by contrasting metaphysical and circumstantial freedom, explaining why metaphysical freedom cannot co-exist with determinism, and rebutting objections to this theory.

My claim is that people do have the freedom necessary, that is, the ability to freely and consciously make a decision, and therefore, are accountable for their actions. In order to understand this claim, I must first elucidate what it means to be free. Two kinds of freedom are relevant to this issue: circumstantial freedom and metaphysical freedom. Circumstantial freedom refers to our ability to carry out any action we choose. William Lawhead, author of The Philosophical Journey, explains that “circumstantial freedom is a negative condition, because it means we are free from external forces, obstacles, and natural limitations that restrict or compel


our actions” (Lawhead, 266). In this regard, external forces such as being held hostage would cause you not to be free. While we must have circumstantial freedom in order to act, it is a minimal condition compared to metaphysical freedom. Metaphysical freedom is “the power of the self to choose among genuine alternatives” (Lawhead, 266). Metaphysical freedom is the sort of freedom that allows the self to make free and undetermined decisions. The self, therefore, is the originating cause of a decision, rather than one’s determined history. Additionally, this freedom, which holds the self accountable for actions, is required to be morally responsible. The controversy is whether this freedom can coexist with causality.

To assess the compatibilism of free will and determinism, it is important to understand

the term causation. Supporters of causality believe that we are determined and argue that everything that happens in nature and in human behavior is inevitable. In other words, we can not act otherwise, because the past shapes the future. John Stuart Mill, a 19th century philosopher, supports this idea: “given the motives which are present to an individual’s mind, and given likewise the character and disposition of the individual, the manner in which he will act might be unerringly inferred: that if we knew the person thoroughly, and knew all the inducements which are acting upon him, we could foretell his conduct with as much certainty as we can predict any physical event” (Lawhead, 267). On the other hand, other theorists would argue that determinism would strip us of our humanity. The philosophical school of thought which maintains that free will and determinism cannot co-exist is called the incompatibilist approach. There are two categories of incompatible determinism: hard determination and libertarianism. I will explain these two theories to you, in order for you to understand why compatibilism does not accurately capture the idea of philosophical freedom.


Unlike compatibilists, hard...

Cited: William, Lawhead F. The Philosophical Journey: An Interactive Approach. 5th ed. New York,

N.Y.: McGraw-Hill, 2011.
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