Free Will and Moral Responsibility

© 2011 By Paul Herrick

Free Will and Moral Responsibility

Do You Have Free Will?

There are various ways to put the fundamental question. In Philosophical Problems. An Annotated Introduction, Lawrence BonJour and Ann Baker state it this way:

“The main question…is whether human actions are normally—or even ever—the result of genuinely free choices in the way that seems required for those who do them to be morally responsible.”i

As BonJour and Baker note,

“The main reason, after all, that we are reluctant to punish someone who is thought to be insane, even for a crime that is very serious, is that we don’t think that an insane person is really responsible in a moral sense for what he does. And the most obvious reason for this is that we think the insane person is not really free.” But are the rest of us, no matter how “ordinary” we may think we are, any freer?

Some philosophers have argued that nobody has free will. One traditional argument against free will arises naturally out of three considerations. The first is the doctrine of universal determinism.

Universal Determinism

Suppose your car starts making a loud noise. Wouldn't you suppose something must be causing it to do this? If you were to take it to a mechanic, he or she would search for the cause of the noise. This illustrates the fact that when something happens, we naturally suppose something caused it to happen. We may not always know the cause, but that doesn't mean there isn't a cause.

During the nineteenth century, many scientists came to believe that the Principle of Determinism (from the Latin determinare meaning “to set limits or bounds”) is a universal truth proven by science:

Every event in the universe, including the occurrence of each human action, is caused to occur by an immediately preceding event.ii

In support of the principle, it was argued that (a) science finds a cause every time it investigates anything; (b) the principle is therefore confirmed by a great deal of scientific research.

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What Is Causation?

Before we proceed, a word needs to be said about causation. In general, if an event A causes an event B to occur, then B had to occur, B was necessitated, once event A occurred, in the same sense that a normal cube of sugar has to melt after it is dropped into a cup of boiling water. If B has to occur once A has occurred, then nothing else but B can occur once A has occurred. In other words, if A caused B, then once A occurred, B became inevitable.

Causation seems to work like a row of falling dominoes. If things are all lined up so that domino 1 will knock over domino 2, domino 2 will knock over domino 3, and so on, then once the first domino falls, it is only a matter of time before the last domino inevitably must fall. Similarly, if A causes B, and B causes C, and C causes D, then once A happens, D must occur, nothing except D can occur. D becomes inevitable.

Defining Free Will

The second consideration leading to the conclusion that nobody has free will concerns the notion of free will itself. The following statement seems reasonable:

If in a particular situation, a person does something, and the person could not possibly have done otherwise, then that person did not act freely in that situation; that is, the person did not act of his or her own free will on that occasion.

For instance, if a person suffering from epilepsy has a seizure and falls to the ground knocking a table over, the person does not knock over the table of his or her own free will—the person's fall is not a “free action.” For once the seizure occurred, the person could do nothing other than fall to the ground, etc. But this implies:

If a person, on a particular occasion, performs an action of his or her own free will, then that person could have done something else instead on that occasion under the very same conditions.

This means that at the moment at which a person performed a free action, the person had it within his power to do what he actually did, and at the same time, under the same conditions, the person also had it within his power to do something else instead (under the same conditions).

Let us now characterize free will:

A person has free will at a particular time t just in case at that particular moment the person has it within his or her power to do one thing and—also at time t—the person has it within his or her power to do another thing instead.

To say that a person has free will is to say that sometimes, when that person acts, more than one course of action is open, or possible, for the person. More than one course of action is open for a person if the person has it within his or her power to perform one action, and with things just as they are, the person also has it within his or her power to perform a different, incompatible action.iii

It follows that a person does not have free will if it is the case that on every occasion, at each moment, no matter what the person actually does, he or she couldn't have done anything else. If a person lacks free will, then at any moment in time exactly one course of action is possible for the person.

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The third consideration leading to the no free will conclusion concerns the notion of moral responsibility. Suppose Pat is standing in front of a Dale Chilhuly glass sculpture at an art gallery in Seattle when all of a sudden, out of the blue, someone violently pushes her into the sculpture, smashing it to pieces. Is Pat morally responsible for breaking it? (Note: This is a different question than: Is Pat legally responsible for breaking it?) Has Pat done something morally wrong? Surely not, and the reason Pat is not morally responsible is surely that under the existing conditions, at the moment she was pushed, Pat could not have done otherwise (than fall into the sculpture). The principle in this case is so important we should give it a name:

The Responsibility Principle

If a person, on a particular occasion, does something but could not possibly have done otherwise at the time, then the person is not morally responsible for what he or she did.

When a person could have done otherwise, we may or we may not hold him or her responsible, depending on the presence or absence of extenuating circumstances, etc. Now, a challenging argument arises out of these three considerations:

A Determinist Argument Against Free Will

Every event in the universe, including the occurrence of each human action, is caused to occur by an immediately preceding event. If every human action is caused to occur by preceding events, then nobody can ever do otherwise than what he or she does. If so, then nobody is ever responsible for what he or she does, and nobody ever acts of his or her own free will. Therefore, nobody is ever responsible for what he or she does and nobody ever acts of his or her own free will. Free will and moral responsibility do not exist.

If the premises of this argument are all true, then the conclusion must be true, for the argument is logically valid. (Can you prove this symbolically?) Since one does not deserve praise or blame for an action if one could not have done otherwise, it also follows, if the premises of the determinist argument are true, that nobody ever deserves either praise or blame.

Baron Henri d’Holbach (1723-1789), a famous eighteenth-century French intellectual, advocated this view:

In whatever manner man is considered, he is connected to universal nature, and submitted to the necessary and immutable laws that she imposes on all the beings she contains…. Man’s life is a line that nature commands him to outline upon the surface of the earth, without his ever being able to swerve from it, even for an instant. He is born without his own consent; his organization does in nowise depend upon himself; his ideas come to him involuntarily; his habits are in the power of those who cause him to contract them; he is unceasingly modified by causes, whether visible or concealed, over which he has no control, which necessarily regulate his mode of existence, give the hue to his way of thinking, and determine his manner of acting. He is good or bad...without his will counting for anything in these various states.iv [4]

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Some philosophers have argued that the determinist argument against free will can be defeated if we deny the principle of determinism and hypothesize instead that (a) some events ultimately have no cause, and (b) among the things that have no cause are free human actions. In other words, we hypothesize that a free human action is one that traces back in the end to an uncaused event in the brain and the fact that the initial event is uncaused is what makes the action a free action.

Let us call this the “no cause theory of free will”: An uncaused event occurs in your brain, and then your neurons start firing, and this sets a train of events in motion which ultimately causes you to do something. Perhaps you raise your hand or you say a word, etc. What you do qualifies as free will in virtue of the fact that it stems ultimately from an uncaused event. It must be emphasized here that according to this theory, when the initial brain event associated with a free action happens, that brain event has no prior cause whatsoever. Nothing brings it about or determines it. It just happens out of the blue; it happens spontaneously, and then the free action follows.

Determinism is the view that every event has a cause. Indeterminism is the denial of determinism. Thus, indeterminism is the view that not all events have causes. If determinism is false, then indeterminism is true. The No cause theory is an indeterminist theory of human action.

Evaluating the No Cause Theory

If the no cause theory is true, do we really have free will? That is, does the no cause theory make sense of free will? Is being ultimately uncaused sufficient for true free will? Philosophers generally agree that the answer is no. As far as free will is concerned, things seem no different when we switch from the determinist view to this indeterministic viewpoint. For if the no cause theory is true, then in the case of each supposedly free action you have ever performed, the action can be traced back to a neuronal event in your brain which itself had no cause. The neuronal event simply happened—out of the blue—and then your body moved in certain ways as a necessary consequence. On the no cause hypothesis, it seems to follow that when you do something, you could not have done anything else, for you have no power over the occurrence of an uncaused neuronal event inside you. Such an event would be something happening to you, not something you do. It seems you are no freer under this no cause scenario than if your action had been determined in accord with the principle of determinism. It therefore still seems to follow, on the no cause theory, that you are neither free nor responsible for your actions and, consequently, that you deserve neither praise nor blame for them. But many philosophers have believed that the no cause theory is the only alternative to determinism. They believe, in other words, that the no cause theory exhausts the logical space of indeterminism.

The discussion up to this point suggests the following classic philosophical argument, one of the most debated arguments in the history of philosophy:

The Dilemma of Determinism

  1. Either determinism is true or indeterminism is true.
  2. If determinism is true, then nobody has free will.
  3. If indeterminism is true, then nobody has free will.
  4. Therefore, free will does not exist.

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A Third Way to Make Sense of Free Will:
Agent-Causation Theory

Is there any alternative to the two dismal views on free will just examined? Some philosophers argue that the no cause theory is not the only possible indeterminist theory. “There is another indeterministic way, they argue, to understand free will, another alternative to determinism.” The view these philosophers have in mind is known as agent causation theory. Although the roots of this idea can be traced back to Aristotle, this indeterminist theory of free will was first systematically stated in its modern form by the philosopher Roderick Chisholm.v Richard Taylor has explained Chisholm's theory in these words:

The only conception of action that accords with [what we know about ourselves] is one according to which men…are sometimes…self-determining beings; that is, beings which are sometimes the causes of their own behavior. In the case of an action that is free, it must be such that it is caused by the agent who performs it, but such that no antecedent conditions were sufficient for his performing just that action. In the case of an action that is both free and rational, it must be that the agent who performed it did so for some reason, but this reason cannot have been the cause of

Let us make Taylor’s idea more specific. Suppose Charlie, who will be referred to as the "agent," performs an action. According to agent causation theory, an action performed by an agent is a free action just in case:

(a) the chain of cause and effect inside the agent that leads to the action (a chain presumably consisting of physiological events within the agent's body) stems from a first event which will be called event E;

(b) event E was not necessitated or caused by a prior event;

(c) event E did not originate out of nothing;

(d) event E was caused or brought about by the agent.

(e) the agent was not caused to cause the event E, that is, nothing caused the agent to cause E.vii

In short, a person performs an action (for instance, raising a hand or saying a word) of his or her own free will if the person himself or herself causes the action without being caused to cause the action. In causing a free action, a person acts as an uncaused cause, for the person causes without being caused to cause. Free will, on this view, is the power to cause something without being caused to cause it.

When you think about it, this is an amazing idea. Normally, causation involves one event being caused to occur by a prior event and causing, in turn, the occurrence of a subsequent event, all in accord with a law of nature. The ordinary type of causation, studied in the natural sciences, is called “event causation” because when it is analyzed, it involves one event causing another event.

However, according to agent causation theory, when a person performs a free action, there is some first event E inside the agent occurring at the start of the series of cause-effect events leading up to the action, and this event E is not caused by a prior event; E is instead caused by the person, i.e., by the agent bringing about the action. The person, or agent, who is performing the action wills or decides to bring about event E, without being caused to do so by preexisting conditions, events, or causes, and then this causes the next event, which causes the next event, and so on, until the action happens (the hand moves, the arm lifts, etc.). Since the agent, rather than an event, causes E, the causing of E is called “agent” rather than “event causation.” A person—an entity that is not an event—causes E to occur, and no event prior to the person's inner act of choice causes the person to cause E.

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The Theory of the Originator

According to agent causation theory, free will is a power to cause an action without being caused to cause it. In other words, free will is a power to originate one’s actions. If agent causation theory is true, then somewhere inside a human being is the power to originate a choice without being caused to do so. The question arises: What is this “originator”? It seems that it cannot be a physical or material part of us, it cannot be a physical organ within the body, such as the brain or a cell within the brain, since the behavior of any physical object is always wholly determined by the laws of nature and by prior cause and effect. So, what is the originator of an act of free will? What would have this contra causal power—the power to operate outside the laws of cause and effect governing matter and thereby to cause without being caused to cause? Some agent causation theorists answer: An immaterial soul is the only thing that could operate in this way, outside the sway of universal determinism, since only an immaterial entity like this would be capable of the contra causal causing required for true free will. On this view, each person is, or has, an immaterial soul which has the power to cause without being caused to cause. In short, on this interpretation of agent causation theory, free will is a special, contra causal power possessed by an immaterial soul.

Free Will as an “Image of the Divine”

A number of philosophers have pointed out a sense in which a person's free will—when it is characterized in terms of agent-causation—exhibits a shadow of the image of God. Aristotle called God the "First Cause" or the “Uncaused Cause” because God, he argued, causes the world to exist without having been caused to do so by a prior cause; God's act of causation is the first in the great series of causes making up the physical universe. Similarly, according to agent causation theory, when a person acts freely, the person is also a “first cause” or an “uncaused cause,” since the agent causes without being caused to cause. The person's act of free will is the start of a causal chain but isn't caused by a prior chain of causes. Thus Chisholm has written:

If we are responsible, and if what I have been trying to say is true, then we have a prerogative which some would attribute only to God: each of us, when we act, is a prime mover unmoved. In doing what we do, we cause certain events to happen, and nothing more—or no one—causes us to cause those events to happen.

Agent cause theorists argue that our dignity as free and responsible beings—a dignity that distinguishes us from rocks, clumps of mud, and other bits of passive, nonliving matter—has its basis in our capacity to introduce by an act of free will something new into the world, something that was not written in the script of nature billions of years ago, something that was not caused by preexisting conditions billions of years ago, something we brought into being on our own. Perhaps this is the sense in which rocks and inanimate things are passive members of the universe while free persons are active members. Persons initiate causal chains; rocks and inanimate things are the products of causal chains.

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Objection 1

How, according to agent causation theory, is the act of origination to be explained? How does the self cause without being caused to cause? An act of origination cannot be explained as an effect of a prior cause, for nothing causes it. So it cannot be given a cause-effect explanation. But this means it cannot be given a scientific explanation. Free will sounds like a miracle on the agent causation view. The whole idea is too mysterious, too unexplained, too miraculous.

In reply, defenders of agent causation have argued that an individual act of free will, that is, an individual act of agent causation, does have an explanation, a perfectly adequate explanation: it is explained teleologically, in terms of the goal or purpose of the action. To explain a free action, we say: The person performed action A in order to accomplish goal G. This explains why the person did A, and it does so without supposing the person was caused to perform action A.

Objection 2

Event causation can be investigated by science. However, agent causation is not a type of causation that can be investigated by science. Thus, if we adopt the agent-causation model of human action, it looks as if we must give up hope that free will is ever going to be explained by science. This would be a disappointing result.

In reply, defenders of agent causation argue that we should not be disappointed that the action of the human will is never going to be explained scientifically. For science explains in terms of deterministic physical mechanisms, and a free human will can't function as a determined mechanism (like a watch, for example) and at the same time be a free will. A genuinely free act, they argued,  must originate in a part of us that is not determined, in particular, in a part of us that is not pre-programmed; in a part of us that is not a mere causal consequence of the rigid laws of physics.

i[1] Laurence BonJour and Ann Baker, Philosophical Problems. An Annotated Anthology (New York: Pearson Longman, 2005), page 453.

ii[2] Another way to express the thesis of determinism is as follows: The state of the universe at any one moment in time determines in precise detail exactly what the universe will be like at each future moment.

iii[8] My treatment of these issues has been influenced by the work of Peter van Inwagen, Roderick Chisholm, and Richard Taylor. For further analysis, see Peter van Inwagen, An Essay on Free Will (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983); Roderick Chisholm, "Freedom and Action," in Keith Lehrer, Freedom and Determinism (New York: Random House, 1966); Richard Taylor, Metaphysics, 4th ed., (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1992).

iv[4] Quoted in Louis Pojman, Philosophy. The Pursuit of Wisdom (Belmont California: Wadsworth, 1994), p. 231.

v[2] Roderick Chisholm, "Freedom and Action," in Keith Lehrer, Freedom and Determinism (New York: Random House, 1966).

vi[3] Richard Taylor, Metaphysics, 2nd ed., (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1974), p. 54.

vii[4] This explanation of agent causation is indebted to the explanation Robert Coburn developed in Robert Coburn, The Strangeness of the Ordinary (Savage, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 1990). My account is also indebted to Roderick Chisholm, "Freedom and Action," in Keith Lehrer, Freedom and Determinism; and to the analysis in Richard Taylor, Metaphysics.

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