The problem of Free Will – Compatibilism versus Determinism

In this article I will look at whether Compatibilism is a convincing free will theory or is it just a way of holding onto our intuitive feeling of freedom.

Our ordinary sense of having freedom is usually understood as the ability to choose or act as we like, where nothing is forcing or hindering us from doing so.  If we are being tied up, of course we are not free to do as we wish. In the same sense, if somebody is threatening to harm a loved one if unless we do x, y or z then we feel we have no freedom. An example similar to this can be found in chapter two of Kane’s book A Contemporary Introduction to Free Will. Even though we want to do the action to save our loved one, our freedom is restricted. While we want to save our loved one from harm, what we really want is to not do the action at the same time as not having a love one hurt. In legal cases, coercion, defined as “the relation of the parties is such that one is under subjection to the other, and is thereby constrained to do what his free will would refuse” can be used to argue that a person is not responsible for their actions, and they should not be punished.

Freedom implies you could have done otherwise. There are two different kinds of freedom; surface freedom and deeper freedom. Surface freedom is the power to make our own choices, whereas deeper freedom is the ability to form our own desires. Our free will is manipulated by many factors including television, peer pressure, and celebrities. Advertising is the most obvious example of this manipulation. To influence our decision-making is the whole point behind advertising. Companies spend vast amounts of money on raising awareness of a particular brand or product. In his article Think Tank: It’s the subconscious that makes ads workLaurence Green says “it is our subconscious response to advertising … that is the primary driver of its effectiveness, and not our conscious consumption.” At the point of conscious consumption, we have already been swayed by the advertising.

Determinism is the idea that every event is necessitated by previous events and conditions together with the laws of nature. It is directly conflicting with the Libertarian view. Because the past happened in one way, then the future will be a certain way. If x, then y. If I was trying to choose between going to see a horror movie or a comedy movie, I would choose a comedy movie and that’s always the way it was going to go. In my past I watched a horror movie and I didn’t enjoy it, I do not deal well with blood and the comedy movie has Will Ferrell in, who I like as an actor. These are events in my past that meant I would always choose the comedy movie. If these events were not in my past, it would not be my past, therefore there is no need to talk about this current situation. Naturally, people will always avoid what they find painful or unpleasant. There was only one path leading to the present, and there is only one path leading on from it.

Compatibilism is the view that free will and determinism can coexist. Our future is still determined by the past and the laws of nature. The choices we face now are the cause of the choices we faced in the past. There is one path to the present, which was created by our decisions, and while we do have choices regarding our future, there will only be one outcome.

For compatibilists, freedom is an ability for a person to do what they want and be unrestricted in doing so. The ability to do otherwise means there was a wish to do otherwise, and in that case, the past would have been different. They use a conditional or hypothetical translation of the word ‘can’; “I could have done otherwise” is the same as saying “I would have done otherwise, if I had wanted to.” they seek to replace ‘could’ or ‘can’. However, this only applies to surface freedom, not to deeper freedom. The idea of a deeper freedom is nonsensical to both determinists and compatibilists. They look at the ability to do what we want, and do not question where the wants come from. After all, our desires are what is important. The compatibilists argue that this is one reason why people reject compatiblism; “they have confused ideas about freedom.”

Another reason people may be critical of compatibilism is because they do not fully understand determinism. Compatibilists give us instructions to help us see determinism from the compatibilist point of view (Kane 18-20);

  1. Don’t confuse determinism with constraint, coercion or compulsion
  2. Don’t confuse causation with constraint
  3. Don’t confuse determinism with control by other agents
  4. Don’t confuse determinism with fatalism
  5. Don’t confuse determinism with mechanism


Incompatibilists do not agree with the compatibilists claim “could have done otherwise” because they feel this goes against determinism. If somebody could have done otherwise, then how is the future determined? They say that, for determinism to work, there can be no possibilities regarding the future.

Libertarianism is one form of incompatibilism. It is the view that we do have free will. Our past choices have lead us up to the present, and our decisions now will shape our future. We are responsible for our actions and we have control. We are morally responsible for our actions, and we should be praised or punished accordingly. Believers of libertarianism oppose determinism.

If determinism is true, then what happens to moral responsibility, blame, reward and punishment? If our future is determined, then we are not responsible for our actions. The majority of people believe in punishment and reward as a general way of social behaviour. However, these days the legal systems does seem to reflect that our actions may sometimes not be our fault. For example, if a young teenager is introduced to drugs by an older friend, and she becomes an addict and then a criminal, we recognise that it is not entirely her fault. We tend to think the blame should be put on the older friend, or maybe her parents. While we do not deny that any crime is bad, the punishment is normally less severe if we feel there are other parties to blame.

Many people believe that with determinism, it means that we must abandon our aspirations for the future. Honderich says “We have a kind of life-hope which is incompatible with a belief in determinism. An open future, a future we can make for ourselves.” However, I do not agree that we should give up hoping for things, even if we know the future is determined. For example, we can still hope that we do well in a test or that we like our haircut when it is finished. I think that how we view the weather is reflective of how determinists think we should look at the world; most people will hope for a certain state of weather, and may sometimes try to predict it, but people know that what they hope for doesn’t have any actual influence on the outcome of the weather. If what they wish for ends up not happening, they can shrug it off, while still being happy if does align with their desires. A counter-argument to that may be this; people see the weather as being a trivial matter in their day-to-day lives, and they would not view their life hopes in this way. I understand this but I just believe this is how determinists would prefer us to view our inability to govern our future.

Consequence argument

The consequence argument says that if determinism is true, then we have no control over our actions, because we can’t change our past i.e. what happened before we were born, or the laws of nature. If determinism is true, then nobody has any control over what will happen in his or her future. This works against compatibilism because most believe intuitively believe in free will, and our ability to control how our future turns out.

The compatibilists use the hypothetical translation of can to defend claims against compatibilism.  “I would have done otherwise, if I had wanted to do, and I could have wanted otherwise.” But when we take this statement and try to further analyze it, it turns into “I would have done otherwise, if I had wanted to do, and I would have wanted otherwise, if I had wanted to want otherwise … and I could have wanted otherwise”. The argument has the flaw of infinite regress. This leads incompatibilists to say that the version of can that the compatibilists use must be flawed, and that the compatibilist’s entire defence rests on a version of ‘can’ they made up, so it is not a strong argument anyway.

My view

Personally, I believe in determinism. Compatibilism seems to makes perfect sense when you first look at it, but when you look at the opposing arguments you can see the holes within the compatibilist theory. I believe we are subject to conditioning from our schools, friends, parents and other groups, and our actions reflect the way they have taught us. However, they have been taught by their own parents and schools and so on. Our conditioning is a reflection of their conditioning, and this can lead back many generations. Of course we cannot change the laws of nature, so that stands valid for me. We have no choice over the family or social situation we were born into. My wants and desires are formed because of my own social training. Even though I may want to go out with my friends – a desire formed because of my belief that it would be fun and being social is important, along with my past experiences of other good nights – I know that if I do, I will not be able to get up for my important lecture the next morning. I want and desire two different things, and it would seem I have a choice. I have been taught by my parents that education is very important, I know I can see my friends at other times, and that I would rather not fail the year, so I ‘decide’ to go home. I see these as first-order and second-order desires, relating to long and short term hopes. It is our conditioning that governs our actions, and choice is just an illusion, a testing of our conditioning. As for discipline and reward, people have to be reprimanded for doing things that are deemed socially unacceptable. While they may not be ultimately responsible, they have to be made an example of, in order to influence a person who may have previously had criminal tendencies. With reward, it may influence others who see the praise being received into wanting to act more like that person.

While compatibilism may be semi-convincing, it is hard to stand for the position without recognizing its flaws. As philosophers, logical flaws are a major irritation, and cannot be ignored easily.

  • Kane – A Contemporary Introduction to Free Will
  • SEP / Stanford Encylopedia of Philosophy is a great place for not only definitions of philosophical terms, but for writers on a topic, arguments for and against, and other related topics. Causal DeterminismCompatibilismIncompatibilism,

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