Saturday, December 7, 2013

[PHI 1000] Is your free will (if you have it) free?

Free will is supposed to be our ability to "choose a course of action from various alternatives" and how we choose is supposed to be up to us. Some argue that we have free will only if the causal factors that determine our actions are up to us. Since those causal factors are beyond our control, we do not act freely.

Now, instead of thinking of these causal factors (e.g., genes and environment) as factors that causally determine our actions, think of them as prerequisites or preconditions for free will. After all, in order to act freely, it seems that one needs a healthy brain, at the very least, as cases of severe brain injuries show.

Moreover, it seems that children born with Tay Sachs disease or microcephaly cannot be said to be acting freely (i.e., rationally choosing a course of action from various alternatives in full control) in any meaningful way.

If this is correct, then free will itself is causally determined. That is, whether one can act freely or not is causally determined by factors that are beyond one's control. More explicitly:
  1. The preconditions for free will (e.g., a healthy brain) are causally determined by factors over which we have no control (e.g., genes).
  2. If the preconditions for free will are causally determined by factors over which we have no control, then whether we have free will or not is not up to us.
  3. Therefore, whether we have free will or not is not up to us.
In other words, even if we can act freely, we cannot act freely freely. That is, since one needs a healthy brain (at the very least) in order to act freely, and whether one is born with a healthy brain or not is not up to one, then whether one can act freely or not is not up to one. Is this argument sound?

If it is, then the problem of moral responsibility remains. That is, even if we can act freely, our ability to act freely is itself causally determined by factors beyond our control. But if our free will is not free, are we ultimately responsible for what we do, even if we do it freely?


  1. This is a sound argument. The premises are actually true (evidence of such cases were given in the videos). For us to have free will, there is a perquisite, which you have told us is a healthy brain. A brain can be damaged by environmental factors such as the case in the first video, or by genetics as in the second video. If a person is mentally handicapped to the extent as the people in the videos, they will most likely not understand that their brain function is hindered and their choices limited. This is like the famous John Locke’s example of a man locked in a room where he sees a friend he really wants to talk to. The man “freely chooses” to stay in the room, but since the door is locked; he has no other choice but to stay in the room. Since the man chose to stay in the room, unaware that there is no other choice, he is morally responsible for his actions as described by the Frankfurter-style cases. A person whose brain is damaged and cannot comprehend the idea that the damage restricts her choices, she is morally responsible for her actions. In the case of the girl with microcephaly, the disease is the intervener, which can prevent her from making one choice over another, but in the end, she is unaware of the intervener and is responsible for the choices she makes. The same goes for all of us. Our freedom may be determined by external or biological factors, but we still make decisions with the illusion that there is always another option, and it is this thinking that holds us responsible.

    Daniel Chen

  2. Free will, even if we have it, is not free. This is the case because there are certain faculties in our frontal lobe that dictate how we make our decisions. Whether we receive those faculties or the full ability and potential to use them is not within our control, therefore leaving free will as something that is not within our control.

  3. Assuming that free will exists, I don’t think it matters whether free will is causally determined or not in terms of moral responsibility. I don’t think free will must be free in order for people to be responsible for their actions. In fact, I don’t think it would be possible for even the concept of free will to be free. It would have to come from somewhere. We could not freely chose to have free will unless we already had it in the first place. Having free will is what makes a person morally responsible for their actions. Being pre-determined to have free will does not take away that responsibility. Regardless of how a person got free will, once they have it they are able to analyze situations and make choices freely. Even though it was not their choice to be able to act freely, they are still able to do so. A person with free will understands what is right and wrong and is then able to choose between the two. If that person still chooses to do something bad, they are morally responsible for what they did. They had the ability to avoid evil and they were aware of what they were doing. A person with out free will would not be able to avoid evil or freely chose any of their actions and therefore cannot be held morally responsible for those actions. Free will is the solution to that problem of moral responsibility, even if free will is not free itself. The fact that free will is causally determined undermines the existence of free will itself, but it does not take away the responsibility of those who have it, if it even exists at all.

  4. According to the above argument, which is both valid and sound, whether a person has free will or does not is causally determined. This argument assumes that a person does have free will if they are born with the ability to have free will (i.e. healthy brain). Although we do not determine how we are born, if we are in fact born with a health brainy and have free will then we have the ability to make the choices that we want to make. Because we have this ability to choose and act “freely” it is still reasonable to attribute moral responsibility to individuals that have properly functioning brains. Without giving any thought to how we got free will, once we have it, we can and should be held responsible for what we do because it is us making these choices. The initial onset or reception of free will may be causally determined but the individual use of free will is not. Those born without the ability to exhibit free will should be held to a lesser degree of responsibility but will still be held accountable in some way with the way our society is set up.
    -Kezia Harris

  5. Free will is causally determined by factors beyond our control therefore we are not responsible for something that is out of our control.


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