Free will and character are not incompatible

A common critique that I often hear against libertarian views of free will is that they are incompatible with the idea that our decisions can be decisively shaped by our character. I ran across a good example of this critique in a recent blog post. The author is critiquing a definition of free will offered by C. Stephen Evans, in which Evans says, “The possession of free will does not entail an ability not to sin, since human freedom is shaped and limited by human character. Thus a human person may be free to choose among possibilities in some situations but still be unable to avoid all sin.” The author concludes:

This statement is contradictory. If the will must sin of necessity then it is in bondage to corruption, and that which is in bondage is not free. So we must ask, freedom from what? Freedom from coercion, yes, but not freedom from necessity (the necessity to sin in this case). So even the author of the definition himself rejects free will perhaps without even knowing it.

There are at least two things wrong with this conclusion. First, it is simply a mistake to conclude that for a person to have “free will”, even in a libertarian sense, they must not be constrained in any sense. All views of free will recognize that the human will is always constrained in important ways (i.e. there are lots of things that I can’t choose). Evans’ definition simply affirms the fact that believing in free will does not commit you to believing that a person is free not to sin. Most libertarian views of free will do necessitate that there be multiple legitimate options available to the free agent, but it is entirely consistent with these views to hold that all of these options might be sinful. Libertarian free will does not commit a person to maintaining that a fallen human being is capable of performing a truly good and righteous act. That is an entirely separate question.

Second, the criticism misses the fact that at least some libertarian views affirm that some free actions can be fully determined by a person’s character. In other words, it might be the case that my decision to X was fully and completely determined by the fact that I am the kind of person who always does X. But a libertarian can still maintain that this is a free action for which I am entirely responsible if I was responsible for the development of an X kind of character. In other words, as long as I am ultimately responsible for the actions and decisions that led to the development of my character, I am fully and freely responsible from the actions that flow from that character, even if the specific actions that resulted were themselves fully determined. (For a good introduction to this understanding of free will see Robert Kane’s A Contemporary Introduction to Free Will).

So, if you want to be a compatibilist, fine. But be careful about throwing “logical contradiction” around too quickly. (And, by the way, the same holds for many libertarian criticisms of compatibilism).

About Marc Cortez

Theology Prof and Dean at Western Seminary, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general.

Posted on June 1, 2010, in Anthropology and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. I’ll bite: Am I the only theology student in the ThM? 🙂

    MC wrote: “In other words, as long as I am ultimately responsible for the actions and decisions that led to the development of my character, I am fully and freely responsible from the actions that flow from that character, even if the specific actions that resulted were themselves fully determined.”

    a) “ultimately responsible…” meaning that as an agent you freely made the choices that formed the habit that now serves as the “determiner” of consequent choices?

    b) Would your above definition include your union with Adam? i.e. you are responsible even for the state of being “dead in sin” as a result of your union in Adam?

    • a) Yes, that is what Kane (and others) is arguing for in his particular brand of libertarianism.

      b) Maybe. I wouldn’t do it this way, but you probably could unpack an understanding of free will that rendered you ultimately responsible for your union with Adam. For example, you could follow the line of thinking that has infants born in a state of conditional innocence; they aren’t actually guilty/corrupt (i.e. in union with Adam) until they reach the age of accountability and freely engage in responsible sin. They would then be responsible for all consequent sins by virtue of their responsibility for their state. I think a better approach would be to say that we are not in union with Adam because of any direct, free decision on our part; and, therefore, we do not have freedom to choose (apart from grace) whether to be in union with Adam or Christ. But, even with this view it would be entirely consistent to say that we still have libertarian free will insofar as we make legitimately free choices among the options available to us. It is simply the case that not being in union with Adam is not one of those options (apart from grace).

  1. Pingback: hodgepodge | eChurch Christian Blog

  2. Pingback: Jonathan Edwards on the Freedom of the Will « scientia et sapientia

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