5.5.2 Compatibilism: Do we have any freedom to choose?


By the end of this section you will discover:

  • How soft determinism or compatibilism seeks to reconcile the determinist perspective with the idea of human free will.
  • How “freedom” can have multiple meanings, allowing for compatibilism.
  • The meaning of “source compatibilism.”
  • How compatibilism faces a strong challenge from the “ultimacy argument.”
  • Strengths and weaknesses of the compatibilist position.


Compatibilism (or “Soft” Determinism) is the view that free will is partially compatible with determinism, i.e. even if determinism is true, we still have moral agency and responsibility. We might see this as a form of determinism that allows for humans to still be deemed responsible for their actions.

In the following selection, contemporary philosopher Daniel Has helpfully lays out the motivations for – and some objections to – compatibility approaches to freedom.

Excerpt from Daniel Has, Freedom of the Will

How much control do people exercise over who they are and what they do? Suppose it is the night before an exam, and Quinn should be studying, but her roommate asks her to come out with her and some friends. It certainly seems like it is up to Quinn what she does. She could stay home and study or she could spend the night out with friends. The choice seems hers to make and up to her. And when Quinn arrives exhausted to her exam the following morning, Quinn should feel justified in blaming herself for failing to do what she should have done and what she could have done.

Or suppose you are weighing the pros and cons between a career in something with a reasonable return on investment, like nursing or accounting, versus a career in a field with more questionable career prospects, like philosophy. Again, the choice seems yours to make. You’re free to pursue whatever career path you want, and it is ultimately up to you what you decide to do with your life. Right?

But maybe this sense of freedom is a mere illusion. Maybe Quinn’s decision to go out with her friends the night before a big exam is an inevitable, deterministic consequence of the past and the laws of nature in such a way that her supposed freedom is undermined. Or perhaps it is the case that the real reason someone chooses a career in philosophy over a career in accounting has more to do with unconscious brain processes and the environment and social situation they find themselves in than it has to do with any conscious decision they may have made. And if so, if our choices are really the causal results of unconscious brain processes or external environmental factors, are any of us really free? Are we really in control of who we are and what we do? Or are free-will skeptics correct to claim that the things we do and the way that we are is ultimately the consequence of external factors beyond our control?

What do we mean by “free will”?

To investigate whether or not humans sometimes act freely, we need to first clarify what is meant by free will. The discussion of freedom has a long history and free will has been used to apply to a multitude of, often radically different, abilities and capacities that people may, or may not, have. A helpful place to start is to note that most philosophers today who write on free will have in mind the kind of control required for morally responsible …. That is, to ask whether or not someone is free is to ask whether or not they have control over their actions such that they are deserving of blame or praise for what they do (or fail to do)…

Determinism and free will are often thought to be in deep conflict. Whether or not this is true has a lot to do with what is meant by determinism and an account of what free will requires.

First of all, determinism is not the view that free actions are impossible. Rather, determinism is the view that at any one time, only one future is physically possible. To be a little more specific, determinism is the view that a complete description of the past along with a complete account of the relevant laws of nature logically entails all future events.

Indeterminism is simply the denial of determinism. If determinism is incompatible with free will, it will be because free actions are only possible in worlds in which more than one future is physically possible at any one moment in time. While it might be true that free will requires indeterminism, it’s not true merely by definition. A further argument is needed and this suggests that it is at least possible that people could sometimes exercise the control necessary for morally responsible action, even if we live in a deterministic world.

It is worth saying something about fatalism before we move on. It is really easy to mistake determinism for fatalism, and fatalism does seem to be in direct conflict with free will. Fatalism is the view that we are powerless to do anything other than what we actually do. If fatalism is true, then nothing that we try or think or intend or believe or decide has any causal effect or relevance as to what we actually end up doing.

But note that determinism need not entail fatalism. Determinism is a claim about what is logically entailed by the rules/laws governing a world and the past. It is not the claim that we lack the power to do other than what we actually were already going to do. Nor is it the view that we fail to be an essential part of the causal story for why we do what we do. And this distinction may allow some room for freedom, even in deterministic worlds.

An example will be helpful here. We know that the boiling point for water is 100°C. Suppose we know in both a deterministic world and a fatalistic world that my pot of water will be boiling at 11:22 am today. Determinism makes the claim that if I take a pot of water and I put it on my stove, and heat it to 100°C, it will boil. This is because the laws of nature (in this case, water that is heated to 100°C will boil) and the events of the past (I put a pot of water on a hot stove) bring about the boiling water. But fatalism makes a different claim. If my pot of water is fated to boil at 11:22 am today, then no matter what I or anyone does, my pot of water will boil at exactly 11:22 am today. I could try to empty the pot of water out at 11:21. I could try to take the pot as far away from a heating source as possible. Nonetheless, my pot of water will be boiling at 11:22 precisely because it was fated that this would happen. Under fatalism, the future is fixed or preordained, but this need not be the case in a deterministic world. Under determinism, the future is a certain way because of the past and the rules governing said world. If we know that a pot of water will boil at 11:22 am in a deterministic world, it’s because we know that the various causal conditions will hold in our world such that at 11:22 my pot of water will have been put on a heat source and brought to 100°C. Our deliberations, our choices, and our free actions may very well be part of the process that brings a pot of water to the boiling point in a deterministic world, whereas these are clearly irrelevant in fatalistic ones…

In what follows from Has,  what are several possible meanings of the term freedom?

Most accounts of freedom fall into one of three camps:

  1. Some people take freedom to require merely the ability to “do what you want to do.” For example, if you wanted to walk across the room, right now, and you also had the ability, right now, to walk across the room, you would be free as you could do exactly what you want to do. We will call this easy freedom.

  2. Others view freedom on the infamous “Garden of Forking Paths” model. For these people, free action requires more than merely the ability to do what you want to do. It also requires that you have the ability to do otherwise than what you actually did. So, If Anya is free when she decides to take a sip from her coffee, in this view, it must be the case that Anya could have refrained from sipping her coffee. The key to freedom, then, is alternative possibilities and we will call this the alternative possibilities view of free action.

  3. Finally, some people envision freedom as requiring, not alternative possibilities but the right kind of relationship between the antecedent sources of our actions and the actions that we actually perform. Sometimes this view is explained by saying that the free agent is the source, perhaps even the ultimate source of her action. We will call this kind of view a source view of freedom.

Now, the key question we want to focus on is whether or not any of these three models of freedom are compatible with determinism. It could turn out that all three kinds of freedom are ruled out by determinism so that the only way freedom is possible is if determinism is false. If you believe that determinism rules out free action, you endorse a view called incompatibilism. But it could turn out that one or all three of these models of freedom are compatible with determinism. If you believe that free action is compatible with determinism, you are a compatibilist.

What is the first counterargument compatibilists must overcome in order to hold that human freedom might be possible despite determinism?

Let us consider compatibilist views of freedom and two of the most formidable challenges that compatibilists face: the consequence argument and the ultimacy argument.

Begin with easy freedom. Is easy freedom compatible with determinism? [Compatibilists have] argued that free will requires merely the ability of an agent to act without external hindrance. Suppose, right now, you want to put your textbook down and grab a cup of coffee. Even if determinism is true, you probably, right now, can do exactly that. You can put your textbook down, walk to the nearest Starbucks, and buy an overpriced cup of coffee. Nothing is stopping you from doing what you want to do. Determinism does not seem to be posing any threat to your ability to do what you want to do right now. If you want to stop reading and grab a coffee, you can.

But, by contrast, if someone had chained you to the chair you are sitting in, things would be a bit different. Even if you wanted to grab a cup of coffee, you would not be able to. You would lack the ability to do so. You would not be free to do what you want to do. This has nothing to do with determinism, of course. It is not the fact that you might be living in a deterministic world that is threatening your free will. It is that an external hindrance (the chains holding you to your chair) is stopping from you doing what you want to do. So, if what we mean by freedom is easy freedom, it looks like freedom really is compatible with determinism.

Easy freedom has run into some rather compelling opposition, and most philosophers today agree that a plausible account of easy freedom is not likely. But, by far, the most compelling challenge the view faces can be seen in the consequence argument.  The consequence argument is as follows:

  1. If determinism is true, then all human actions are consequences of past events and the laws of nature.
  2. No human can do other than they actually do except by changing the laws of nature or changing the past.
  3. No human can change the laws of nature or the past.

  1. If determinism is true, no human has free will.

This is a powerful argument. It is very difficult to see where this argument goes wrong, if it does go wrong. The first premise is merely a restatement of determinism. The second premise ties the ability to do otherwise to the ability to change the past or the laws of nature, and the third premise points out the very reasonable assumption that humans are unable to modify the laws of nature or the past.

This argument effectively devastates easy freedom by proposing that we never act without external hindrances precisely because our actions are caused by past events and the laws of nature in such a way that we are not able to contribute anything to the causal production of our actions. This argument also seems to pose a deeper problem for freedom in deterministic worlds. If this argument works, it establishes that, given determinism, we are powerless to do otherwise, and to the extent that freedom requires the ability to do otherwise, this argument seems to rule out free action. Note that if this argument works, it poses a challenge for both the easy and alternative possibilities view of free will…

How does Compatibilism respond to this argument?

How might someone respond to this argument? First, suppose you adopt an alternative possibilities view of freedom and believe that the ability to do otherwise is what is needed for genuine free will. What you would need to show is that alternative possibilities, properly understood, are not incompatible with determinism. Perhaps you might argue that if we understand the ability to do otherwise properly we will see that we actually do have the ability to change the laws of nature or the past.

That might sound counterintuitive. How could it possibly be the case that a mere mortal could change the laws of nature or the past? Think back to Quinn’s decision to spend the night before her exam out with friends instead of studying. When she shows up to her exam exhausted, and she starts blaming herself, she might say, “Why did I go out? That was dumb! I could have stayed home and studied.” And she is sort of right that she could have stayed home. She had the general ability to stay home and study. It is just that if she had stayed home and studied the past would be slightly different or the laws of nature would be slightly different. What this points to is that there might be a way of cashing out the ability to do otherwise that is compatible with determinism and does allow for an agent to kind of change the past or even the laws of nature.

But suppose we grant that the consequence argument demonstrates that determinism really does rule out alternative possibilities. Does that mean we must abandon the alternative possibilities view of freedom? Well, not necessarily. You could instead argue that free will is possible, provided determinism is false. That is a big if, of course, but maybe determinism will turn out to be false.

Is there a way to assert free will even if determinism is, in fact, true?


What if determinism turns out to be true? Should we give up, then, and concede that there is no free will? Well, that might be too quick. A second response to the consequence argument is available. All you need to do is deny that freedom requires the ability to do otherwise.

In 1969, Harry Frankfurt proposed an influential thought experiment that demonstrated that free will might not require alternative possibilities at all (Frankfurt [1969] 1988). If he’s right about this, then the consequence argument, while compelling, does not demonstrate that no one lacks free will in deterministic worlds, because free will does not require the ability to do otherwise. It merely requires that agents be the source of their actions in the right kind of way. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Here is a simplified paraphrase of Frankfurt’s case:

Black wants Jones to perform a certain action. Black is prepared to go to considerable lengths to get his way, but he prefers to avoid unnecessary work. So he waits until Jones is about to make up his mind what to do, and he does nothing unless it is clear to him (Black is an excellent judge of such things) that Jones is going to decide not to do what Black wants him to do. If it does become clear that Jones is going to decide to do something other than what Black wanted him to do, Black will intervene, and ensure that Jones decides to do, and does do, exactly what Black wanted him to do. Whatever Jones’ initial preferences and inclinations, then, Black will have his way. As it turns out, Jones decides, on his own, to do the action that Black wanted him to perform. So, even though Black was entirely prepared to intervene, and could have intervened, to guarantee that Jones would perform the action, Black never actually has to intervene because Jones decided, for reasons of his own, to perform the exact action that Black wanted him to perform. (Frankfurt [1969] 1988, 6-7)

Now, what is going on here? Jones is overdetermined to perform a specific act. No matter what happens, no matter what Jones initially decides or wants to do, he is going to perform the action Black wants him to perform. He absolutely cannot do otherwise. But note that there seems to be a crucial difference between the case in which Jones decides on his own and for his own reasons to perform the action Black wanted him to perform and the case in which Jones would have refrained from performing the action were it not for Black intervening to force him to perform the action. In the first case, Jones is the source of his action. It is the thing he decided to do and he does it for his own reasons. But in the second case, Jones is not the source of his actions. Black is. This distinction, thought Frankfurt, should be at the heart of discussions of free will and moral responsibility. The control required for moral responsibility is not the ability to do otherwise (Frankfurt [1969] 1988, 9-10).

What is “source compatibilism” and why does it allow for freedom despite determinism?


If alternative possibilities are not what free will requires, what kind of control is needed for free action? Here we have the third view of freedom we started with free will as the ability to be the source of your actions in the right kind of way. Source compatibilists argue that this ability is not threatened by determinism, and building off of Frankfurt’s insight, have gone on to develop nuanced, often radically divergent source accounts of freedom.  Should we conclude, then, that provided freedom does not require alternative possibilities that it is compatible with determinism?  Again, that would be too quick. Source compatibilists have reason to be particularly worried about an argument developed by Galen Strawson called the ultimacy argument (Strawson [1994] 2003, 212-228).

Rather than trying to establish that determinism rules out alternative possibilities, Strawson tried to show that determinism rules out the possibility of being the ultimate source of your actions. While this is a problem for anyone who tries to establish that free will is compatible with determinism, it is particularly worrying for source compatibilists as they’ve tied freedom to an agent’s ability to be the source of its actions. Here is the argument:

  1. A person acts of her own free will only if she is the act’s ultimate source.
  2. If determinism is true, no one is the ultimate source of her actions.

  1. Therefore, if determinism is true, no one acts of her own free will.

This argument requires some unpacking. First of all, Strawson argues that in any given situation, we do what we do because of the way we are. When Quinn decides to go out with her friends rather than study, she does so because of the way she is. She prioritizes a night with her friends over studying, at least on that fateful night before her exam. If Quinn had stayed in and studied, it would be because she was slightly different, at least that night. She would be such that she prioritized studying for her exam over a night out. But this applies to any decision we make in our lives. We decide to do what we do because of how we already are.

What are some problems associated with source compatibilism?

But if what we do is because of the way we are, then in order to be responsible for our actions, we need to be the source of how we are, at least in the relevant mental respects. There is the first premise. But here comes the rub: the way we are is a product of factors beyond our control such as the past and the laws of nature. The fact that Quinn is such that she prioritizes a night with friends over studying is due to her past and the relevant laws of nature. It is not up to her that she is the way she is. It ultimately factors extending well beyond her, possibly all the way back to the initial conditions of the universe that account for why she is the way she is that night. And to the extent that this is compelling, the ultimate source of Quinn’s decision to go out is not her. Rather, it is some condition of the universe external to her. And therefore, Quinn is not free.

Once again, this is a difficult argument to respond to. You might note that the term “ultimate source” is ambiguous and needs further clarification. Some compatibilists have pointed this out and argued that once we start developing careful accounts of what it means to be the source of our actions, we will see that the relevant notion of source-hood is compatible with determinism.

For example, while it may be true that no one is the ultimate cause of their actions in deterministic worlds precisely because the ultimate source of all actions will extend back to the initial conditions of the universe, we can still be a mediated source of our actions in the sense required for moral responsibility. Provided the actual source of our action involves a sophisticated enough set of capacities for it to make sense to view us as the source of our actions, we could still be the source of our actions, in the relevant sense. After all, even if determinism is true, we still act for reasons. We still contemplate what to do and weigh reasons for and against various actions, and we still are concerned with whether or not the actions we are considering reflect our desires, our goals, our projects, and our plans. And you might think that if our actions stem from a history that includes us bringing all the features of our agency to bear upon the decision, that is the proximal cause of our action, that this causal history is one in which we are the source of our actions in the way that is really relevant to identifying whether or not we are acting freely.

Others have noted that even if it is true that Quinn is not directly free in regard to the beliefs and desires that suggest she should go out with her friends rather than study (they are the product of factors beyond her control such as her upbringing, her environment, her genetics, or maybe even random luck), this need not imply that she lacks control as to whether or not she chooses to act upon them.  Perhaps it is the case that even though how we are may be due to factors beyond our control, nonetheless, we are still the source of what we do because it is still, even under determinism, up to us as to whether we choose to exercise control over our conduct.

Strengths and Weaknesses of Compatibilism

Compatibilism is a form of indeterminism that attempts to allow some freedom within an otherwise deterministic universe.  This freedom would, in turn, suggest we have some responsibility for our actions.  This would justify attributing praise or blame to individuals for their actions.

It is a theory of causality that better aligns with our everyday experience.  Clearly, many of our actions (breathing, blinking, tripping, sneezing) are caused by forces outside our control, yet we also feel that many of our actions are “chosen,” and are within our control.

The problem for compatibilists, however, is that they must find a way to deny the full implications of determinism.  Even if we think some of our actions are chosen, there are good arguments determinists could make to demonstrate that they are not, that, indeed, though we had the feeling of choice, we could not have made any other choice than that which we made because of our past conditioning and present situation.

Hard Determinists would argue that compatibilism simply ignores science, especially brain science, and instead suggests that there are some thoughts that are not conditioned by prior brain events.



Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License

PPSC PHI 1011: The Philosopher's Quest by Daniel G. Shaw, Ph.D. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book