Free Will and Compatibilism

4. Four Necessary Conditions for Free Will

Book cover: The Moral Landscape by Sam Harri

In the previous section, I crystallized the four types of situational impediments to the exercise of free will: coercion, manipulation, addiction and mental illness. What is it about these situations that minimize a person's capacity to act freely? In my treatment of these situations, four requirements for an act to be called 'free' recurred throughout. For brevity, let's call this compatibilist account of the requirements for free will the '4C theory'. These 4Cs are:

(1) Compulsion

(2) Control

(3) Character

(4) Cognition

(1) The first requirement is that the act not feel compelled by the agent's situation. The feeling of compulsion I am referring to here is an introspective psychological experience. Here, the agent feels that they will sacrifice something of great value to them if they do not act in a particular way. The agent feels that they had no choice but to act as they did. Note that intentional acts that are coerced are but a subset of compelled acts. Some compelled acts are not coerced in the sense that the agent is not forced to comply by a threatening third party, but is nonetheless felt compelled to act as they did.

(2) The second requirement is that the act not be controlled by a third party. Unlike in the case of compulsion, here, even though the agent's thoughts and actions are being controlled, they do not feel as if they are being compelled by circumstance. However, with their actions being manipulated either directly or indirectly by a third party, they have lost their autonomy. This requirement goes to the heart of what it is to be a moral agent with responsibility for one's actions. When control of a person's behaviour is surrendered to another moral agent, the locus of responsibility moves along that line of control to the third-party agent in control of the human puppet's behaviour.

(3) The third requirement is that the action is consonant with and a consequence of the agent's character. When the agent's behaviour is out of character, the person is not a bona fide agent of their own actions. This requirement often acts in tandem with (2) the requirement for lack of third-party control as a marker of personhood.

(4) The fourth requirement is that the agent has the cognitive capability to offer reasons for their action and to deliberate about alternative courses of action. Without rational agency, the person is not exercising autonomy and is better described as a passive repository of impulses.

Each of these four requirements must necessarily be satisfied for a particular act to be considered the act of a free agent. A good test of the necessity of each of these requirements is to measure them against actual moral and legal deliberations, such as the ones illustrated throughout this essay.

What ties all four requirements together is the fundamental axiom expressed in §2; that a free will is an unencumbered will. With the advent of scientific knowledge and modern technology, this basic understanding of encumbrance as compulsion has been supplemented with these additional requirements for moral and rational autonomy. Various compatibilists have picked up one or more of these central requirements and developed complex theories around them.[7] My view is that a comprehensive and compelling account of what it is to exercise free will must do justice to all four requirements. I will expand on this idea in the next section.

What seems clear is that philosophical and legal thought over the last century or so has largely coalesced around the view that freedom of the will is a characteristic of an autonomous, conscious agent who can reason and deliberate about alternative courses of action. The thinking here is that such a person is constituted by their character and that within the bounds of this character, the agent faces a range of options on how to act in a given situation. When this range is encumbered or restricted by either subverting the person's character or compromising their capacity for rational deliberation and action, the person's freedom is diminished.


  1. [7] See McKenna et al [2015] for a comprehensive survey of compatibilist approaches.

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