Free Will and Compatibilism

9. Conclusion

Book cover: Free Will by Sam Harris

Hard determinists and libertarians agree that if determinism is true, we ought to give up 'free will' talk. These incompatibilists argue that if all human thoughts and actions are the result of sufficient prior causes, then we could not have acted otherwise than what we actually did. In this essay, I tried to show that this line of reasoning is mistaken. To the extent that incompatibilists are referring to the way we ordinarily speak about free will, I argued that their analysis is misconstrued. By tracing the evolution of 'free will' language through its sixteenth century origins to its use in ordinary discourse today, I showed that for the person in the street, lack of restriction and not contra-causality is central to the meaning of 'free will'.

Through examining discourse about more complex situations in which people are manipulated and suffer addiction and mental illness, I distilled the key factors that are commonly thought to restrict a person's free will. With these limiting factors, I forged them into the '4C theory' of compatibilism: Compulsion, Control by a third party, Character loss and Cognitive inability to reason. A key feature of this more comprehensive compatibilist view is that it reflects and encapsulates how modern thinking in the areas of medicine and jurisprudence has led to the further development of our notion of 'free will'. These four 'free will' limiting factors are now recognized in medical and legal practice today and are mainstay in courtrooms throughout the developed world.

At the pointy end of the stick, I also argued that a little bit of philosophy and science can be dangerous in the hands of incompatibilists. In paying insufficient heed to how ordinary folk engage in 'free will' talk, incompatibilists superimpose their own metaphysical presuppositions onto the meaning of 'free will'. This unconscious metaphysical overlay on common meanings lead them to suppose erroneously that ordinary folk 'intuit' that their wills are contra-causal. I ended this essay with a reflection on the linkage between our concept of 'free will' and our moral practices. I tried to show that far from our moral discourse presuming we have contra-causal free will, it is in reality underpinned by a determinist view of human behaviour.[10]


  1. [10] I am grateful to the many people who submitted comments and criticism of earlier versions of this essay. I am especially indebted to Pierre-Normand Houle for his detailed commentary and for our long and fruitful conversations on this subject. I remain wholly responsible for any errors and omissions in the published version.

Copyright © 2016, 2018, 2021

First published           Jun 11, 2015

Substantive revision  Mar 2, 2018 (§3: added argument from 'free' modifier, psych studies and against dualism; §6: added O'Connor quote, vanishing ball illusion and free market examples; References: added Allan 2016b, Clarke & Capes 2017, O'Connor 1995; throughout: replaced 'counterfactual conditional' to 'modal proposition', various grammatical changes to improve readability)

Minor revision           17 Sep, 2021 (updated site URL; §6: corrected 'your skull'; §7.2: corrected 'hardness')

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