Free Will
O'Connor (Timothy)
Source: Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, 2002-10
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Author’s Abstract

“Free Will” is a philosophical term of art for a particular sort of capacity of rational agents to choose a course of action from among various alternatives. Which sort is the free will sort is what all the fuss is about. (And what a fuss it has been: philosophers have debated this question for over two millennia, and just about every major philosopher has had something to say about it.) Most philosophers suppose that the concept of free will is very closely connected to the concept of moral responsibility. Acting with free will, on such views, is just to satisfy the metaphysical requirement on being responsible for one's action. (Clearly, there will also be epistemic conditions on responsibility as well, such as being aware—or failing that, being culpably unaware—of relevant alternatives to one's action and of the alternatives' moral significance.) But the significance of free will is not exhausted by its connection to moral responsibility. Free will also appears to be a condition on desert for one's accomplishments (why sustained effort and creative work are praiseworthy); on the autonomy and dignity of persons; and on the value we accord to love and friendship. (See Kane 1996, 81ff. and Clarke 2003, Ch.1; but see also Pereboom 2001, Ch.7.)

Philosophers who distinguish freedom of action and freedom of will do so because our success in carrying out our ends depends in part on factors wholly beyond our control. Furthermore, there are always external constraints on the range of options we can meaningfully try to undertake. As the presence or absence of these conditions and constraints are not (usually) our responsibility, it is plausible that the central loci of our responsibility are our choices, or “willings.”

I have implied that free willings are but a subset of willings, at least as a conceptual matter. But not every philosopher accepts this. René Descartes, for example, identifies the faculty of will with freedom of choice, “the ability to do or not do something” (Meditation IV), and even goes so far as to declare that “the will is by its nature so free that it can never be constrained” (Passions of the Soul, I, art. 41). In taking this strong polar position on the nature of will, Descartes is reflecting a tradition running through certain late Scholastics (most prominently, Suarez) back to John Duns Scotus.

The majority view, however, is that we can readily conceive willings that are not free. Indeed, much of the debate about free will centers around whether we human beings have it, yet virtually no one doubts that we will to do this and that. The main perceived threats to our freedom of will are various alleged determinisms: physical/causal; psychological; biological; theological. For each variety of determinism, there are philosophers who (i) deny its reality, either because of the existence of free will or on independent grounds; (ii) accept its reality but argue for its compatibility with free will; or (iii) accept its reality and deny its compatibility with free will. (See the entries on compatibilism; causal determinism; fatalism; arguments for incompatibilism; and divine foreknowledge and free will.) There are also a few who say the truth of any variety of determinism is irrelevant because free will is simply impossible.

If there is such a thing as free will, it has many dimensions. In what follows, I will sketch the freedom-conferring characteristics that have attracted most of the attention. The reader is warned, however, that while many philosophers emphasize a single such characteristic, perhaps in response to the views of their immediate audience, it is probable that most would recognize the significance of many of the other features discussed here.

  1. Rational Deliberation
    … 1.1 Free Will as Choosing on the Basis of One's Desires
    … 1.2 Free Will as Deliberative Choosing on the Basis of Desires and Values
    … 1.3 Self-mastery, Rightly-Ordered Appetite
  2. Ownership
  3. Causation1 and Control
    … 3.1 Free Will as Guidance Control
    … 3.2 Free Will as Ultimate Origination (Ability to do Otherwise)
    … 3.3 Do We Have Free Will?
  4. Theological Wrinkles
  5. Bibliography
    Other Internet Resources
    Related Entries

Comment:

First published Mon Jan 7, 2002; substantive revision Fri Oct 29, 2010; see Link.

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