Free will

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Free will is the concept that it is possible to make choices by an act of will based on independent thought.

  • ... free will can be defined as the unique ability of persons to exercise control over their conduct in a manner necessary for moral responsibility[1]

This would appear to be impossible in a solely naturalistic system in which biochemical processes obey natural laws, not will.

Incompatibilism views free will as being in conflict with the doctrine of determinism, while Compatibilism sees no conflict between the two. Both schools of thought (philosophy) acknowledge the possibility of physical coercion, either by active opposition or inertly passive unresponsiveness, so that a choice of action does not always effect what is chosen. The will, whether determined or free, can be blocked or frustrated. "You can't always get what you want." One can either persist in a choice by insistence or stubbornness, or can withdraw immediate efforts to effect what is willed and be resigned or patiently awaiting opportunity; in either case, what one has personally chosen remains essentially unchanged, even when circumstances outside one's control do not seem to allow under any circumstance the fulfilled realization of what is chosen.

In some denominations of the Christian faith it is believed that humans were created with free will so that they would choose to believe in and worship God[2]. Free will can be unaffected even in the face of possible martyrdom. Other Christian traditions, such as Calvinism, believe that humans were created without free will, but that God's will determines our choice of him. The issue is theological. It relates to the human's acceptance of God, and does not mean that man is without free will in other respects.

For many, freedom of will is required for a functioning morality; that is, if we were not free we could not be held responsible for our actions, having been incapable of making a moral choice.

Viewpoint of David Hume

However some philosophers (e.g. David Hume) have held that not only can morality and determinism co-exist, but in fact that morality requires that our actions were determined. The reasoning is as follows:

Decisions are just like any other event in that they have causes. The relationship between a reason and a decision is broadly similar to that between a cause and an effect; if an effect lacks a cause, it must necessarily be random, and the same is true of a decision. Every element of the thought process that goes into making a choice must be either caused by external stimuli (the reasons for deciding one way or the other) or completely random. We could not be considered moral beings if our actions were random and therefore responsibility can fall only on determined individuals. Hume considered free will to be the freedom to do as one chooses (freedom of action), and therefore moral blame falls upon those who have acted immorally when they were at liberty to act otherwise.

Free will and punishment

The error in Hume's assertion regarding randomness excludes the possibility that a randomly free act can be completely moral, even benevolent, or completely immoral, even deadly. The act following upon such an undetermined random free choice of the will and its externally operative effect can be evaluated as either intrinsically moral or immoral according to an objective standard of truth. This is apart from intent. The effect, good or bad, may not be what was intended. It was accidental. The Catholic Church teaches that actions of themselves are intrinsically either good or evil even if they are not perceived to be so. Compare Subjectivism.

Some people deny free will but still claim that punishment is necessary to deter harmful behaviour and protect the community, predicated on the idea that human beings are motivated by a healthy animal instinct to avoid pain and danger of injury or death, and are rational enough to understand the consequential difference between right and wrong behavior and the corollary concepts of good and evil. Such people argue that punishment should be the minimum necessary to deter harmful behavior[3]. They are opposed by those who speciously promote the false libertarian philosophies of anarchism and antinomianism under the guise of true liberty and freedom of the will.


  1. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  2. Aquinas on Free Will and Intellectual Determinism, Tobias Hoffman, School of Philosophy, The Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C., Cyrille Michon, Département de philosophie, Université de Nantes - Philosophers' Imprint, volume 17, no. 10, May 2017
  3. See arguments in Corporal punishment. Compare Insanity defense.