Compatibilism Philosophy Essay Sample

by Tim Harding

The idea that the future is already determined is known in philosophy as determinism.  There are various definitions of determinism available; but in this essay, I shall use the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy definition, which is ‘the metaphysical thesis that the facts of the past, in conjunction with the laws of nature, entail every truth about the future’ (McKenna, 2009:1.3).

This idea presents a difficult problem for the concept of free will: how can we make free choices if all our actions are determined by the facts of the past and the laws of nature?  A related but distinct question is: how can we be held morally responsible for our actions if we have no choices? Undesirable consequences like these are not sufficient reasons for declaring determinism to be false; but they can act (and have influenced many philosophers) as a powerful motivator towards resolving the apparent conflict between determinism and free will. 

Some philosophers, such as Peter van Inwagen have gone as far as arguing that the existence of moral responsibility entails the existence of free will (Iredale 2012: 8).[1] There are various other philosophical arguments in favour of free will – one of these is an apparent paradox known as Buridan’s Ass. Some scientists, such as Sam Harris argue in favour of determinism and claim that free will is an illusion. Leading contemporary philosopher John Searle thinks that the issue has still not been resolved, despite two centuries of philosophical and scientific debate. 

Most people who are neither philosophers nor scientists seem to intuitively feel that they have free will and so when presented with this dilemma are more likely to choose free will over determinism (Iredale 2012:13).  On the other hand, in my personal experience, scientists who think in terms of causes and effects are more likely to side with a determinist view.  In this essay, I intend to argue that a solution to this dilemma lies not in choosing free will over determinism, nor vice versa; but in the theory that determinism and free will are compatible – known as compatibilism.

Before going on, let us be clear about what we mean by the term free will.  Clarke & Capes (2013:1) have provided a useful definition:

‘To have free will is to have what it takes to act freely. When an agent acts freely—when she exercises her free will—it is up to her whether she does one thing or another on that occasion. A plurality of alternatives is open to her, and she determines which she pursues. When she does, she is an ultimate source or origin of her action’.

So what does it take to act freely?  Taylor (2012: 40) states that there are three essential characteristics to free actions.  One is able to act freely only if:

(1) there is no obstacle that prevents you from doing A, and

(2) there is nothing that constrains or forces you to do A, and

(3) you could have done otherwise.

There is a diversity of philosophical views about the relationship between determinism and free will; but the higher-level taxonomy of these views may be summarised as follows.  Those who hold that determinism and free will cannot both be true are known as incompatibilists.  Within this category, those who claim that determinism is true – and therefore free will is impossible – are known as hard determinists.  Those who claim that determinism is false and therefore that free will is at least possible are known as metaphysical libertarians (not necessarily related to political libertarians).  Those who think that determinism and free will are compatible are known as compatibilistsThere is also a range of sub-categories within the compatibilist camp; but I will only discuss a couple of them in this essay.  This higher-level taxonomy can be visually described by the following diagram.

To be more specific, the following set of propositions is described by McKenna (2009:1.5) as the Classical Formulation of the free will problem:

1)      ‘Some person (qua agent), at some time, could have acted otherwise than she did.

2)      Actions are events.

3)      Every event has a cause.

4)      If an event is caused, then it is causally determined.

5)      If an event is an act that is causally determined, then the agent of the act could not have acted otherwise than in the way that she did’.

This formulation involves a mutually inconsistent set of propositions, and yet each is consistent with in our contemporary conception of the world, producing an apparent paradox.  How can these inconsistencies be reconciled?  Compatibilists would deny proposition 5).  Incompatibilists, on the other hand, might move in a number of different directions, including the denial of propositions 1), 3) or 4) (McKenna, 2009:1.5).

According to Taylor (2012: 40), all versions of compatibilism (which he calls ‘soft determinism’) have three claims in common:

(i) Determinism is true.

(ii) We are free to perform an action A to the extent there are no obstacles that would prevent us from doing A, and we are not externally constrained (not forced by external causes) to do A.

(iii) The causes of free actions are certain states, events, or conditions within the agent himself, e.g., an agent’s own acts of will or volitions, or decisions, or desires, and so on.

Claim (i) is made in common with hard determinism.  Claims (ii) and (iii) are where the compatibilists part company with the hard determinists and attempt to explain how free will can be compatible with determinism.

Taylor’s objection to compatibilism is essentially a challenge to Claim (iii); that is, that the certain states, events, or conditions within the agent herself are themselves caused by external factors, consistent with determinism.

My response to Taylor’s objection is that the certain states or conditions within the agent could include the person’s values, ethics, loyalties, priorities, and so on.  Let us call these states or conditions within the agent ‘values’.  These values may have external causes accumulated over the agent’s lifetime.  The important point is that an agent’s values could give rise to more than one possible action by the agent, all of which are consistent with the agent’s values.  Let us call these possible consistent actions ‘options’.  When faced with a decision to make, a rational agent would be likely to consider the options available to her and choose the best option.  In this way, the options available to the agent stem from causes but the agent is making a free choice within the range of options available.

A simple way of modelling this limited version of free will has been referred to by some philosophers as a ‘Garden of Forking Paths’ after the novel of the same name by Jorge Luis Borges (McKenna 2009:2.1; Iredale 2012: 14).  In other words, there are alternative paths an agent could choose to take, but the paths available have been predetermined.  Within this model, the agent meets the criterion of acting of her own free will, because she could have acted otherwise.  Her ability to have acted otherwise is underwritten by her ability to have selected amongst, or chosen between, alternative courses of action (McKenna 2009:2.1).

Garden with forked path (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

It is possible that consciousness is an emergent psychological property of the material mind.  Free will could be seen as a manifestation of consciousness.  Whilst we cannot yet fully explain what consciousness is and how is works, there is little doubt that consciousness exists.  If consciousness can exist, then so can free will.

Daniel Dennett (2003) has proposed a more elegant version of compatibilism with an evolutionary basis.  Although in the strict physical sense our actions might be determined, we can still be free in all the ways that matter, because of the abilities we evolved.  Seen this way, free will is the freedom to make decisions without duress, as opposed to an impossible and unnecessary freedom from causality itself.  To clarify this distinction, he coins the term ‘evitability’ as the opposite of ‘inevitability’, defining it as the ability of an agent to anticipate likely consequences and act to avoid undesirable ones (Dennett 2003:56).  Evitability is entirely compatible with, and actually requires, determinism; because without it, an agent cannot anticipate likely consequences and avoid them.  Dennett provides us with the following explicit argument:

‘In some deterministic worlds there are avoiders avoiding harms. Therefore in some deterministic worlds some things are avoided. Whatever is avoided is avoidable or evitable.  Therefore in some deterministic worlds not everything is inevitable. Therefore determinism does not imply inevitability’ (Dennett 2003:56).

Dennett (2003:58) also argues that there is a concept of chance that is compatible with determinism, which has been invoked to explain evolution via natural selection.  Through these means, he endeavours to unyoke determinism from inevitability (Dennett 2003:60) [2].

In conclusion, I have offered two accounts of how free will may be compatible with determinism – my own and Daniel Dennett’s.  However, I do not claim that either of these accounts has solved the dilemma.  There are also, of course, many other accounts of compatibilism as well as objections to them, plus alternative theories such as hard determinism and metaphysical libertarianism.  Indeed, resolving the dilemma between free will and determinism is very complicated and may be ‘one of the most persistent and heated deadlocks in Western philosophy’ (Nichols and Knobe 2007:1).


[1] Peter van Inwagen’s argument that free will is required for moral judgments  is:

  1. The moral judgment that you shouldn’t have done X implies that you should have done something else instead.
  2. That you should have done something else instead implies that there was something else for you to do.
  3. That there was something else for you to do implies that you could have done something else.
  4. That you could have done something else implies that you have free will.
  5. If you don’t have free will to have done other than X we cannot make the moral judgment that you shouldn’t have done X (van Inwagen 2009).

[2] For those who would like to read more on this topic, there is an interesting online debate between Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett.  Dennett critiques Harris’ book on Free Will in a review titled Reflections on Free Will. Then Harris responds to Dennett’s critique in a rejoinder entitled The Marionette’s Lament.


Clarke, Randolph & Capes, Justin, “Incompatibilist (Nondeterministic) Theories of Free Will”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <;.

Dennett, Daniel. 2003 Freedom Evolves. London, Penguin.

Iredale, Matthew 2012 The Problem of Free Will. Durham, Acumen.

McKenna, Michael, ‘Compatibilism’, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2009 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <;.

Nichols, S. & Knobe, 2007 ‘Moral Responsibility and Determinism: The Cognitive Science of Folk Intuitions. Nous 41(4):663-85 in Iredale, Matthew 2012 The Problem of Free Will. Durham, Acumen.

Taylor, Richard. (1976) ‘Freedom, Determinism and Fate’; printed in Time, Self and Mind Study Guide, Monash, 2012:40-47.

van Inwagen, Peter (2009). The Powers of Rational Beings: Freedom of the Will. Oxford.

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Personal Identity & Time


Craig Ross on whether freedom is all it’s been made up to be.

Some believe that humans have free will; others that each of our actions and choices is caused by prior events. Compatibilism is the theory that we can be both caused and free. It is advocated by many modern philosophers, including the prolific and influential Daniel Dennett. But compatibilism is nothing new.

Hobbes famously said that man was as free as an unimpeded river. A river that flows down a hill necessarily follows a channel, but it is also at liberty to flow within the channel. The voluntary actions of people are similar. They are free because their actions follow from their will; but the actions are also necessary because they spring from chains of causes and effects which could in principle be traced back to the first mover of the universe, generally called God. So on this view, to be at liberty is merely to not be physically restrained rather than to be uncaused. For Hobbes, to be free is to act as we will, and to be un-free is to be coerced by others.

Hume was also a compatibilist. He said that we conclude that nature is full of necessity, in that we infer that one thing follows another from necessity. We also know that people have a nature, and that their actions follow from their nature. We act in the world from motives such as ambition or friendship, and history teaches us that this was always so. If people’s motives were not understandable, our experience would not help us in our dealings with them. People are fairly similar and we can also come to understand the nuances of the characters of particular people. It can be difficult to see why someone did something, but then it can also be difficult to see why a machine stopped working. This does not mean that there was no reason. We accept that carriages are mechanisms, but if anything the drivers are more reliable than the carriages. Sometimes the carriages break down but the drivers always wish to be paid.

Of course as individuals when we undertake an action from some motive we imagine that in the exactly the same circumstances we could have chosen to do something else. We do not think we act of necessity. But, as Hume notes, if we try to prove our absolute liberty by doing something ‘unpredictable’ then we are still acting from a straightforward motive: our motive is the desire not to be seen to be acting from predictable motives. When we look at other people and fail to predict their behaviour, particularly someone we know well, then we assume that we are ignorant about some fact, and that their behaviour is in principle intelligible and predictable, rather than that the person has suddenly become incomprehensible. For Hume and other compatibilists, liberty means being free to act as we will, but this does not mean that our actions come from nowhere: our passions, motives and desires provide us with the impulse which our reason (prudence) tries to satisfy. To be at liberty cannot mean acting without a motive, because that’s the definition of madness.

Dennett defends this broad thesis of motivated freedom with a range of interesting arguments. Consider for example the difference between a human being and the Sphex wasp. If this wasp is repeatedly disturbed during its egg laying it will simply continue its instinctive behaviour, apparently unaware of the source of the interruption or the likely futility of continuing with the egg laying. Yet humans can respond flexibly and imaginatively to equivalent difficulties, which indicates that we have a kind of freedom that a simple creature like the wasp does not have.

For Dennett there is also a meaningful distinction between determinism and inevitability. The Earth, for example, has undergone a recent explosion of ‘evitability’. Once it might have been in evitable that the Earth should be struck by an asteroid. But the planet has, perhaps deterministically, evolved human beings, who may conceivably destroy an incoming rock. It is no longer inevitable, so it is evitable. In the same way it is not inevitable that those disposed to heart disease will go on to develop it. We have, perhaps deterministically, produced an understanding of the causes of heart disease, and we can modify our behaviour on this basis. Again, what was once inevitable is no longer so.

So we may not have what Dennett calls ‘behavioural choice’,the absolute and unimpeded God-like ability to choose out of nothing – but we can flexibly respond to and change our environment, an environment that among other things contains knowledge of how other people have acted and thought.

Why Compatibilism Is Mistaken.

There are some major difficulties in compatibilism, which I think damage it irreparably.

Take Hobbes’ claim, largely accepted by Hume, that freedom is to act at will while coercion is to be compelled to act by others. This does not give us a sure reason to choose this ‘freedom’.

Imagine that you were a free-floating spirit, equal to God in your capacity to choose. God gives you the unwelcome news that shortly you are to be placed on Earth, and that you will be endowed with a range of fundamental passions, chosen entirely at the caprice of God. Would you choose to be free, in Hobbes’sense of acting at will, or might you consent to being coerced?

It is very far from clear that you would automatically choose to be free. Much would depend on the nature of the coercion. If you did not know what your fundamental desires were going to be, you might well decide to hedge your bets and back the field. It might be far better to be coerced by others (perhaps most people are good) than to be free to pursue un-chosen but possibly dubious desires. A free-floating ethically-minded spirit that feared an imminent endowment of psychopathic desires would certainly wish for an alert constabulary and swift incarceration: this spirit would wish to be coerced.

This thought experiment makes it clear why coercion by others might be morally preferable to being caused to act upon one’s desires. It seems very odd, though, that we might have good reasons to choose what compatibilists define as coercion, and reject what they claim to be freedom.

Nor is it obvious that if we were on Earth with a range of un-chosen passions, we would choose to have the intellectual ability which Dennett thinks characterises human freedom, as opposed to the mindless behaviour of the Sphex wasp for instance. Imagine that, rather than for laying eggs, one had a disposition for random acts of extreme violence. Is one better off by having the wit to see that the .357 Magnum is overrated and that the 9mm is similarly effective, but with more shots? If one had the murderous impulses of an Eichmann or a Himmler, is one’s situation necessarily improved by being able to flexibly respond to the logistical problems of machine-gunning large numbers of people? Is the murderous intelligence involved in industrialising genocide ever a gain? Similarly, if we knew that we were going to have passions that we have not chosen, is it obvious that we would ask for the ability to pursue these passions flexibly and imaginatively? Perhaps if we knew that we were to have unknown passions and be held responsible for our actions, we would choose to be incompetent. Perhaps the priority would be first to do no harm: one could not risk being good at being bad.

It is not obvious then that we would choose to be caused by our own desires rather than coerced by others; and nor is it obvious that we would choose to be able to successfully pursue our desires if we did not know what those desires were to be.

It is interesting to note that a compatibilist would presumably have to accept that the Terminator as played by Arnold Schwarzenegger is free, in that it has a desire (to kill John Connor) which it pursues with flexibility, insight and intelligence. It is certainly hard to see why the Terminator is un-free simply because it was given its (programmed) passion by an identifiable individual, as opposed to taking pot luck from God or genetics.

As to Dennett’s claim that the planet has evolved ‘evitability’, it seems obvious that if strict determinism is true then human evolution is also one event after another, and the destruction of asteroids by humans follows inevitably from cause and effect, given the first composition of the universe. If we destroy an asteroid, for the strict determinist it was inevitable that we would. Indeed it is quite conceivable that humans are minor characters in a game played by the gods, involving striking planets with asteroids. Perhaps one of the moves in the game is to seed a target planet with humans to prevent your opponent successfully striking it with his asteroid. It is hard to think of an absolute reason why determinism might not be our lot. There seems to be no meaningful distinction to be drawn between what happens and what might have happened, on which we can hang some third theory of human existence to sit alongside determinism and libertarianism.

It seems that we are either caused, and our actions are caused events, or we are free. The middle, compatibilism, is excluded.

© Dr Craig Ross 2007

Craig Ross teaches at Langside College in Glasgow.

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