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The Problem of Free Will

This lecture will help you

The connection between
responsibility and free will
The Free Will Thesis

Reids defense of Libertarianism

Three Questions
1. In what sense and to what extent are
humans responsible for their actions?
2. In what sense and to what extent are
humans free?
3. How are these two questions related?

Moral Responsibility
If John Doe had no choice but to murder X,
either because he was hypnotized or mad, or
because someone had planted an electrode in
his brain, then we would not be inclined to
blame or punish him.
If Jane Doe had no choice but to save a group
of infants from drowning, we would not be
inclined to praise her, in the same way that we
would not inclined to praise a robot.


Moral Responsibility
Moral responsibility requires that we think of
ourselves as free. As objects in the world, we
are determined; but as conscious, choosing
beings, we are free.

Ought Implies Can

It would not be a duty to pursue a certain effect
of our will (whether it is thought of as completed
or as continually approaching completion) if it
were not possible to do so in experience.
Immanuel Kant

In other words, if we blame someone because

she did something morally wrong, then this
only makes sense if it were within her power
to do the morally right thing, though she
chose not to.

Free Will Thesis

An action is only a free action if the agent
could have done otherwise than perform the

What does it mean to say that you could have

done otherwise?

Super Glue

Psychological conviction that we are free does

not make it true. Perhaps that too is

Question 1:

What is the free will thesis?

A. The thesis that freedom is the power to
act in accordance with ones will
B. The thesis that free will is an illusion
C. The thesis that an act is free if and only if
my act are not determined by the will
D. The thesis that an act is free if and only if
the agent could have done something else

The view that the view that every event has a
cause, and thus everything that happens,
including human actions, simply proceeds
from previous events in accordance with the
laws of nature.
Thus, for every event that happens, there are
previous events which are a sufficient
condition for the occurrence of that event.

Determinism Formula
Past events + Laws of nature = Current event

There is no such thing as free will. Freedom is
an illusion, and people are not responsible for
their actions (though they can be held
responsible for social purposes).
The future is already set in stone.

The Argument
P1 If determinism is true, then every human
action is causally necessitated
P2 If every action is causally necessitated, no
one could have acted otherwise
P3 One only has free will if one could have acted
P4 Determinism is true
C No one has free will

Forms of Determinism
Logical (Stoics)
nothing is ever possible except what actually happens,
therefore, it is never within mans power to do anything
except what he actually does.

Theological (Calvin - predestination)

Physical (Einstein - God doesnt play dice)
Biological (Darwin - heredity)
Psychological (Freud - the unconscious)
Social (Marx class struggle)

Explaining Behavior

Gene inheritance
Innate dispositions
Role models (or their lack)
System or rewards and punishments

Eventually, understand why the person committed a

certain action (e.g., murder) at a certain time.

Question 2:

What is determinism?
A. The thesis what will be, must be.
B. The thesis that prior events in conjunction
with laws of nature are sufficient to
explain what is happening right now.
C. The thesis that a person if given the choice
of soup or salad he really has no choice
but to choose, for example, soup rather
than the salad
D. All of the above

Thomas Reid


Moral Liberty
By liberty of a moral agent, I understand a
power over the determinations of his own
will (IP 303).

Agent Causation
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, 88)

Causation in General
Event causation
E.g., the motion of the first billiard ball is the
event-cause of the motion of the second.

Agent causation
The kind of causation that occurs when an object
or agent, rather than an event, causes a change.
Reid is a proponent of agent causation

P1. Free will is incompatible with
P2. Human beings do possess free will.
C So, determinism is false.

3 Arguments
Reid develops several arguments against
determinism, which he disdainfully refers to as
the great and glorious doctrine of necessity
(IP 326).
1) Natural Conviction
2) Morality
3) Pursuit of Ends.

1) Natural Conviction
All human beings have a conviction of being a
self-determining being. We have a natural
conviction that we are free. Without this
belief we could not act.
The activity of deliberating, of weighing
reasons for and against various possible
actions, proceeds under the assumption that
we have power; if we didnt believe that, then
we would not bother deliberating.

2) Morality
Reid claims that none of our moral practices,
which includes the practice of holding
ourselves and others accountable for their
behavior, would make any sense if we did not
believe ourselves and others to be endowed
with power over conduct.

Brute animals
Brute animals are incapable of moral
obligation because they have not that degree
of understanding which it implies. They have
not the conception of a rule of conduct and of
obligation to obey it, and therefore, though
they may be noxious, they cannot be criminal
(IP 308).

Pigs on Trial?
We, in detestation and horror of the said crime,
and to the end that an example be made and justice
maintained, have said, judged, sentenced,
pronounced and appointed, that the said porker,
now detained as a prisoner and confined in the said
abbey, shall be by the master of high works hanged
and strangled on a gibbet of wood near and
adjoinant to the gallows and place of execution.
(The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment
of Animals. First published in 1906).

3) Pursuit of ends
Reid claims that a person could not engage in
planned conduct if not endowed with power.
Since its obvious, he thinks, that we do
engage in planned conduct, it follows that we
must have power over our actions.

The Argument from Design

According to the argument from design, God must
exist since the world is so complex, and yet so
orderly, that there must have been an all-powerful,
all-knowing being who designed it and made it
according to plan.
Similarly, Reid argues, planned conduct is at once so
complicated and so orderly that there must have
been some author of it. Since it is obvious that we
devise our own plans, we must also be the ones who
implement them. Thus, we must be endowed with

In a stately palace we see the wisdom of the architect. His

wisdom contrived it, and wisdom could do no more. The execution
required both a distinct conception of the plan and power to
operate according to the plan (IP 309).

Every indication of wisdom, taken from the

effect, is equally an indication of power to
execute what wisdom planned. And, if we
have any evidence that the wisdom which
formed the plan is in the man, we have the
very same evidence, that the power which
executed it is in him also (IP, 309)

How can anything be the cause of its own
changes? The idea that something can be selfmoved is entirely unlike anything found in

Common Sense!
Reids response, as always, was that it is a
simple fact that men consider themselves the
causes of their own voluntary actions, and
that we should listen to common sense here
and not science.
Dr. Samuel Johnson (author of Dictionary of the
English Language (1755)) famously said: Sir, we
know our will is free, and there's an end to it!