Blog Archives

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).