Free Will: Towards Hume’s Compatibilist Approach

Introduction and Definitions

The dilemma of free will has baffled philosophers and other literary figures for centuries. To date, some of the greatest minds are still struggling to shed light on the doctrine of free will and other opposing doctrines such as determinism and causation. It is indeed true that concerns about free will make us ask more questions than we can ever possibly answer, including questioning our very existence and the nature of the physical world that we live in.

Issues about free will arouses more concerns about our human psychology, societal controls, right and wrong, ethical accountability, crime and punishment, and much more (Kane 1). This notwithstanding, the trend all over the world is toward populations that are more free since individuals desire to have the capability and occasion to gratify their very own desires. It is the purpose of this paper to critically analyze the concept of free will, with a focus on David Hume’s Compatibilist view about the concept.

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According to O’Connor, “…free will is a philosophical term of art for a particular sort of capacity of rational agents to choose a course of action among various alternatives” (para. 1). When taken in context, this definition presumes that rational agents are naturally endowed with freedom that entails the capacity to choose one action from other genuinely open actions or possibilities.

Further, this definition presumes that although rational agents may select a particular option on a particular event, they could have selected otherwise. From a moral responsibility perspective, free will can be defined as the distinctive capability of individuals to exercise control over their actions and behaviors in the fullest manner needed for moral responsibility (McKenna para. 2).

Consequently, rational agents have the capacity and opportunity to exercise control over their judgments, actions and choices. However, many philosophers have refuted this juxtaposition of explanations about free will, making the doctrine one of the most spectacularly debated areas of modern philosophical research.

Understanding Key Concepts Related to Free Will

Philosophers and other modern theorists have taken different positions on the issue of free will depending on their understanding of a number of key aspects related to the doctrine. It is almost impossible to discuss the concept without first understanding philosophical positions and doctrines related to the dilemma of free will such as libertarianism, determinism, moral responsibility and compatibilism.

According to Williams, libertarians are of the view that free will is rationally incompatible with the concept of determinism, and that a deterministic world may be rationally impossible or false (37). According to libertarians, some human actions and behavior, predominantly religious and ethical actions, are stringently uncaused (Frame para. 2).Consequently, libertarians argue that free will is rationally possible

Determinism is the view that every aspect of human life, including our way of thinking, behavior and decision making process, is casually determined by external forces of nature that are outside our control. Although there are many variations and philosophical positions on the doctrine of determinism, the general consensus is that the universe is completely controlled by causal laws, leaving no room for human free will since we only have one possible state to utilize at any point in time (Williams 57).

Determinism directly opposes the doctrine of free will through its metaphysical argument that an uncaused event is logically impossible. Consequently, determinists holds the view that all human actions, including cognition, behavior, temperament, decisions, are caused exclusively by antecedent events, and not by the application of free will (McKenna para. 4).

A morally responsible agent must not only be able to do what is morally right, but she must also be “accountable for her morally significant conduct” (McKenna para. 3).

A rational agent becomes the target of particular kind of responses such as praise and blame after the agent acts or fails to act on a morally significant action. As such, it is imperative to note that the doctrine of free will is understood as an essential precondition of ethical responsibility since it would be utterly illogical to argue that a rational agent merits praise and reward for her actions or behavior if it turns out that such an agent was not in control of the action at any point in time.

It therefore follows that the concept of free will is central to moral responsibility since it is rationally impossible to prove the moral worthiness of any action if a rational agent, for whatever reason, cannot exercise her freedom of will (Frame para. 3).

For example, if a rational agent is strapped to a remote controlled equipment which, using the agents arms, commits a crime, the agent is not in any way responsible for committing the said crime since she could not have acted otherwise. This view is shared by most libertarians (Frame para. 3). Consequently, there exists an intimate correlation between free will and the notion of moral responsibility.

Lastly, compatibilism is the view that both free will and determinism are logically compatible (McKenna para. 1). A compatibilist defines the exercise of free will in a manner that does not hinder the presupposition of other prior causes. For example, a rational agent can describe a free act as one that entails no coercion or compulsion by another agent.

A compatibilist will therefore argue that since the physical world and the causal laws of nature are not rational agents, actions and events which are triggered by such laws and the physical universe would undoubtedly be free acts (Kane 32). Consequently, it would be rationally wrong to make conclusions that universal determinism translates to the fact that rational agents are never free. Below, a compatibilist’s view on free will is espoused.

David Hume’s View on Free Will

David Hume was an empiricist philosopher who revolutionalized the concepts of causality, induction, and the difference between fact and value (Hume 9). He was Scottish by origin, and was also interested in History and Economics. The philosopher is widely documented as having provided the most dominant account of compatibilist position in the deliberation about free will. Hume was of the view that free will and moral responsibility can coexist with causal determinism (Russell para. 1).

According to the philosopher, free will must not be understood in the context of an absolute capability to choose different actions under precisely the same inner and outer conditions. Rather, free will should be viewed as a hypothetical capability to select one action from a number of possible actions due to psychological disposition that may arise from some different beliefs or desires (Hume 39).

The philosopher was categorical that all free acts can never be without a cause. In other words, David Hume maintained that all exercises of free will can never be self-caused (Hume 57). In his view, the exercise of free will is caused by the choices that we make as determined by our actions, characters, value systems and beliefs.

To Hume, decisions made by rational agents are always controlled by a causal chain of events and conditions. For instance, a rational agent may make a decision to visit a hotel when she feels hungry; but that decision must be determined by other conditions and events that existed before the agent made her decision to visit the hotel.

There is little doubt that people as rational agents have a discernment of choice in their daily lives. As a matter of fact, the trend in contemporary societies around the world is towards freedom. Individuals are yearning to be given more space to exercise their freedom.

Indeed, we vehemently believe that were not mere marionettes of causal laws or the natural laws of the universe since we make our own choices and do whatever pleases our inner souls and desires. But looking at Hume’s arguments, one is forced to rethink about how free we really are. The fact that humans are free to exercise their will is undeniable. But as Hume suggests, freedom is, and must be determined by other conditions. In that respect, the compatibilist view on free will is much more favorable.

According to David Hume, the disagreement about the compatibility of free will and determinism is fueled by ambiguous terminology. Accordingly, he tried to solve the problem by coming up with the concepts of ‘necessity’ and ‘liberty’. In brief, the philosopher defined necessity as the uniformity that can be observed in the normal operations of the laws of nature, where comparable objects are continually conjoined collectively (Hume 37).

Liberty was defined as the power of the rational agent to act or not to act according to his or her own determinations of the will. Consequently, Hume postulated that not only are the two definitions compatible, but liberty, which is taken to mean free will, requires necessity. To Hume, such an arrangement was necessary to align the actions of rational agents to their motives, inclinations and situations.

Hume’s compatibilist view about free will is undoubtedly the most rational view that can be used to explain human action and behavior in contemporary times. It is indeed true that the doctrine of free will can never exist without influence, compulsion and pressure from the laws of the universe or the environment (Williams 87). Hopefully, there exist more or less logical motives why rational agents may choose action A over B. For example, government laws or our very own upbringing may warrant us to choose A over B.

That not withstanding, our very own knowledge and understanding that action B would bring undesired ramifications may warrant us to choose action A. It therefore follows that the exercise of free will must be determined by other conditions. However, this argument does not suggest that the concept of free will is an illusion. On the contrary, rational agents have the capacity to make choices, and there exist situations in life where they can genuinely choose between action A or B.


The doctrine of free will has been debated by philosophers and other theorists for over two millennia now (O’Connor para. 1). As such, its contents can never be fully exhausted. But from the essay, the key concepts relating to free will, namely libertarianism, determinism, moral responsibility and compatibilism, have be discussed.

In equal measure, David Hume’s compatibilist’s approach about free will has formed the main reference point of this discussion. The opinions given strongly favor Hume’s compatibilist’s view on free will. The philosopher strongly argued that free will and moral responsibility can coexist with causal determinism (Russell para. 1).

He was categorical that all free acts can never be without a cause. While rational agents like to believe that they make their own choices without compulsion or coercion, it is indeed difficult to validate this belief logically for theological, philosophical and scientific reasons. However, it should not escape mention that the notion of free will is not a delusion.

As already mentioned, there exist situations where rational agents can genuinely choose their own actions without external interference. Otherwise, our criminal justice systems may lack the legal and moral basis of punishing murderers, rapists and other law breakers since moral responsibility is only significant if there is possibility for choice.


Frame, J.M. Free Will and Moral Responsibility. IIIM Magazine [Online], Vol. 1, Issue12 (1999). Retrieved 6 Dec 2009

Hume, D. An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. Minneola, N.Y: Dover Publications, Inc., 2004

Kane, R. Free Will. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2002

McKenna, M. Compatibilism. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2009. Retrieved 6 Dec 2009

O’Connor, T. Free Will. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2005. Retrieved 5 Dec 2009

Russell, R. Hume on Free Will. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2007. Retrieved 6 Dec 2009

Williams, C. Free Will and Determinism. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc. 1980

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