Free Will and Free Choice

Author: Jonah Nagashima
Category: Metaphysics
Word Count: 1000

1. Introduction

An auctioneer opens the bidding on a painting. A moment later, your hand raises. Consider now three backstories:

  1. You’ve no intention to bid, but a spasm causes your arm to raise.
  2. You don’t value the painting, but someone puts a gun to your head, telling you to bid “or else.” Wanting to live, you decide to raise your hand.
  3. You desire to own the painting, and raise your hand to bid.

The latter two backstories differ from the first: in (1), the action isn’t under your control; it’s not the result of your choice. But although (2) and (3) involve choice, in some sense (you could choose “or else”), there’s a difference: you’re coerced in (2), but not in (3). Philosophers have invoked the concept of free will and free choice, in part, to explain the difference: In (3), you chose freely, but coercion precludes free choice in (2).

And the freedom involved matters: compare the moral responsibility involved (e.g., if you’re unable to pay) in (3) to those in (1) and (2). This suggests that moral responsibility requires free choice.1 But if “free choice” is to be a useful concept, we’ll have to be precise about what it means. This project is central to the free will debate, and it’s our topic in this essay. We’ll motivate some options by considering whether or not determinism would preclude free choice.

2. Determinism

Suppose that the fundamental physical laws determine every event such that, at the moment of the big bang, it was already settled that you’d read this essay (the probability that you would was 1.0). This is a kind of determinism: the thesis that every event, including our actions, is fully determined.2 To contrast, if indeterminism is true, then at the big bang it wasn’t yet settled that you’d read this essay; given the exact same big bang event, either scenario would remain possible.

Either free choice is compatible with determinism (call this view ‘compatibilism’) or it isn’t (call this ‘incompatibilism’). Let’s explore both views to see some options for unpacking “free choice.”

3. Compatibilism

Why favor compatibilist theories? Because they explain the difference between (2) and (3), which was our reason for positing free choice, without adding any extra baggage (we shouldn’t make our theory more complex than is necessary). Consider two observations of why coercion matters: first, in (3), your hand-raising is based on your values and desires, but not so in (2), where you don’t value the painting. Second, in (2), the choice is produced from a source (the fear of death) that isn’t responsive to reasons; reasons don’t speak to fear. In contrast, in (3), it’s produced by a source (your deliberative processes) that responds to reasons. This suggests some ways to unpack “free choice”:

• A person chooses freely just when the desires she acts on cohere with her values.3

• A person chooses freely just when the source of her choice is responsive to reasons.4

And both are compatible with an act’s being determined; neither say determined acts are unfree: if determinism is true your will/values/desires are determined, not overridden or rendered incoherent. So, these proposals are compatibilist: they allow the possibility that some determined choices can be free. This would be welcome news should we discover that our world is determinstic—our freedom wouldn’t have to hang on the falsity of determinism.5

But now, a worry for these proposals.6 Suppose that a covert manipulator, through subtle but fully efficacious methods, manipulates a person into acquiring certain non-coerced desires7 and reasons that determine the person to choose in certain ways, into having specific coherent desires and values, or into having a certain reasons-responsive deliberative process, all of which are conducive to the manipulator’s ends. Such choices don’t look free—the victim isn’t the source of their actions; the manipulator is. Further, because of the efficacy of the manipulation, the victim is unable to do other than what she in fact does. But those proposals say they choose freely: their stated conditions are satisfied. Not great. We’ll either need to amend the theories or explain why this kind of manipulation doesn’t undermine freedom.

4. Incompatibilism

Alternatively, we might opt for stronger, non-compatibilist requirements on “free choice”:

• A person’s choosing freely requires that she be the ultimate source of her choice.8

• A person’s choosing freely requires that she’s able to do choose other than what she in fact chooses.9

Each rules out free choice in the manipulation case. They also help to push for incompatibilism: if determinism is true, then it seems that the laws of nature, together with the state of the world at the big bang, are the ultimate source of my choices; they fully determine them. It also seems that I can’t choose other than what I actually do if my choices are determined.10 So, if determinism is true, then I don’t choose freely—just as incompatibilists say.

Now, a worry. Incompatibilists say that determinism precludes free choice. So, free choice requires indeterminism. But indeterminism doesn’t seem more hospitable for free choice. Consider scenario (3), where you bid based on your reasons and desires. If indeterminism is true, then you could’ve had the exact same desires and reasons and refrained from bidding; just prior to bidding, you could’ve done either. But now we’re no longer able to explain your choice with your desires and reasons: they would be the same in both possibilities, so their presence can’t explain the difference. Consequently, your choice appears random; it just happens to happen. And random choices don’t look free— they’re like (1), the spasm case. Blergh. So, incompatibilists have to explain how we could have the kind of control relevant for freedom under indeterminism.11

5. Conclusion

The foregoing makes headway to our initial project of defining free choice: we’ve laid out two major families of views, and pointed to some problems each should solve. As noted earlier, we’ve a stake in pressing forward: free choice is connected to moral responsibility, a practice central to how we get along.12


1This is the most prominent way in the literature of motivating why freedom matters. Here’s another: freedom matters because we want to have control over who we are and what our lives will be like. If things inhibit our freedom over these matters, we want to know what they are. A good definition of “free choice” is an integral part of that project.

2Another kind of determinism is theological. Suppose that God willed before the creation of the world that you’d read this essay, and that everything God wills must come to pass.

3Gary Watson’s “Free Agency” and Susan Wolf’s Freedom Within Reason develop theories in this vein. So does Harry Frankfurt in The Importance of What We Care About, although he focuses on coherence between a person’s in-fact desires, and the desires she wishes to have (when they match, a person identifies with her desires).

4See John Marin Fischer and Mark Ravizza’s Responsibility and Control for a such a view, and Dana Nelkin’s Making Sense of Freedom and Responsibility for a proposal in a similar spirit.

5Although the most widely accepted interpretation of quantum mechanics (the Copenhagen interpretation) is indeterministic, some live competitors, like the many worlds interpretation or the de Broglie-Bohm interpretation, are determinstic.

6See chapter 4 (especially pages 110-117) of Derk Pereboom’s Living Without Free Will for a fuller statement of this kind of problem, and see Kristin Demetriou’s “The Soft-Line Solution to Pereboom’s Four-Case Argument” and Tomis Kapitan’s “Autonomy and Manipulated Freedom” for responses.

7Coercion involves an unwilling subject, but here, we can suppose that our subject did not will one way or another prior to the manipulation.

8Eleonore Stump develops such a view in chapter 9 of Aquinas.

9See Peter van Inwagen’s An Essay on Free Will for such a view.

10Peter van Inwagen provides a detailed argument for this claim in chapter 3 of An Essay on Free Will. See also further developments by Alicia Finch and Ted Warfield in “The Mind Argument and Libertarianism.” Kadri Vihvelin provides a compatibilist reply in “How to Think About the Free Will/Determinism Problem.”

11See chapter 3 of Neil Levy’s Hard Luck more a more careful statement of the problem and see chapters 6-7 of Helen Steward’s A Metaphysics for Freedom for an incompatibilist reply.

12Thanks to Andrew Chapman for helpful comments which improved this essay.


Demetriou, Kristin (2010). “The Soft-Line Solution to Pereboom’s Four-Case Argument.” Australasian Journal of Philosophy 88(4): 595-617.

Finch, Alicia and Ted A. Warfield (1998). “The Mind Argument and Libertarianism.” Mind 107(427): 515-528.

Fischer, John Martin and Mark Ravizza (1998). Responsibility and Control. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Frankfurt, Harry (1988). The Importance of What We Care About. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Kapitan, Tomis (2000). “Autonomy and Manipulated Freedom.” Philosophical Perspectives 14: 81-104.

Levy, Neil (2011). Hard Luck. New York: Oxford University Press.

Nelkin, Dana (2011). Making Sense of Freedom and Responsibility. New York: Oxford University Press.

Pereboom, Derk (2001). Living Without Free Will. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Steward, Helen (2012). A Metaphysics for Freedom. New York: Oxford University Press.

Stump, Eleonore (2003). Aquinas. New York: Routledge. 

van Inwagen, Peter (1983). An Essay on Free Will. New York: Oxford University Press.