The concept of free will in philosophical discussion is surrounded with a host of differing views that range from the extremes of libertarianism to determinism and that include the moderated positions of compatibilism. With respect to these positions, the answer one gives to the question “Do we have free will? ” will vary greatly depending upon which framework one chooses to apply to the discussion. In this essay I will argue for a position of libertariansm against the views of both compatibilism as well as hierarchical compatibilism.
I begin first by briefly describing these three views and conclude with a critique of the two compatibilism views while putting forward an argument for libertarianism. Libertarianism argues for a concept of freedom which emphasizes that in order for an agent to be fully free, that agent must have the real possibility of doing the opposite of a specific action. John Locke, in his Treatise of Human Understanding offers a good example of what “the ability to do otherwise” means.
He asks us to imagine a man that has fallen asleep and been carried into a room into which he is locked with a good friend. Upon waking, the man sees his friend, and due to his desire to have good conversation, he remains in the room. For Locke and the libertarians, the man is not free simply because he wants to be in the room; rather he lacks freedom because he does not have the ability or the free will to leave the room.
In contrast, the compatibilist believes that the man is indeed free because even though he is forced to remain in the room, he is free insofar as he is able to align his will with what has been determined. A better picture of this is that given by the Stoics: a dog tied to a cart and running behind it has two options: it may either be free to run after the cart or be determined to be dragged behind. Either way, the dog will follow the cart. Hierarchical compatibilism such as that put forward by Harry Frankfurt takes a slightly different angle.
According to this theory, an agent is free so long as his or her willed actions fit within his or her psychological constitution such that even if this person does not have libertarian freedom he or she may still be free insofar as these actions come from within and not something external. Of all three of these options, the libertarian model is the only ethical model that offers real freedom of the will. The reason for this is wrapped up in the importance of the phrase “the ability to do otherwise”. Compatibilism in its simple form assigns freedom to the agent who wills in harmony with what is determined.
This seems acceptable so long as the agent always wills the same thing as determination dictates. If the man in Locke’s example chooses to remain in the room indefinitely, then the man can certainly be understood to have freedom. However, if the man desires to leave the room, which he eventually will, he would no longer have freedom. To depend on continuous harmonious willing or to assume that one can be free at one moment and not free at another yet still possess a free will seems either silly or contradictory.
Likewise, Frankfurt’s account of hierarchical compatibilism also misses the point stressed by libertarianism. If I act out of my deep psychological character and this character is also shaped by determined factors, then I have no ability to choose anything else even if I choose what I want according to my personal identity. A ball (with consciousness, of course) rolling down a hill is not free to choose to roll because the very nature of it as a sphere does not allow it to stop rolling.
In both of the ethical frameworks above we see the importance of the libertarian “ability to do otherwise”. It makes no sense to say I can choose A unless choosing not A is a full and real possibility. If it is not a real possibility and we still claim to have freedom, we are merely throwing around words irresponsibly. In this respect, the libertarian model best captures what it means to claim to have freedom and a free will.
Locke, J. An Essay concerning Human Understanding. Ed. P. H. Nidditch. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975.