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Freedom and Free Will



Freedom is widely regarded as a highly desirable component of human personalities, interpersonal relations, and social and governmental arrangements. Despite multiple meanings, the main types of freedom can be defined and distinguished.

Types of Freedom

Diverse freedoms contrast with different types of restrictions, limitations, or restraints that negate them. Some freedom-inhibiting conditions are internal to persons, some external, some negative, some positive. Joel Feinberg (1980) developed a useful four-way typology of constraints: external positive, external negative, internal positive, and internal negative. Examples of these, respectively, are lack of money, being handcuffed, fear, and weakness. In the free will controversy, freedom of action equates with external freedom, both positive and negative, while freedom of will is a variety of internal freedom.

POSITIVE EXTERNAL FREEDOM. Positive external freedom is having the external means to achieve our ends and fulfill our desires or interests. These means are positive conditions in our environment such as money to pay our way, schools open to all, or accessible medical resources and personnel. A pregnant woman who desires an abortion but lacks the money to pay for it has insufficient positive external freedom. Whether society should pay for contraception services and abortions for the poor, thereby enhancing their positive freedom, is highly controversial (Edwards, 1997). Patients in great pain who desire analgesic medication may or may not have compassionate doctors who will prescribe adequate means to pain relief; if denied such means by uncaring, inattentive, or intimidated doctors, these patients lack external freedom.

NEGATIVE EXTERNAL FREEDOM. Negative external freedom is the absence of external pressures, constraints, or restraints that inhibit or prevent us from doing what we want or choose to do. Many negative conditions interfere significantly with freedom of action. We are negatively free externally when unencumbered by such restraints as chains, shackles, walls, and jails, and/or by such constraints as laws, institutional prohibitions, threats, intimidations, and coercive or covert pressures from others. Absence of external encumbrances usually correlates very directly with increased options for choice and action.

Many types of positive external freedom are widely recognized and cherished. Some of the most important are political freedoms or rights guaranteed by government. The Bill of Rights to the U.S. Constitution identifies and affirms such varieties of external freedom of action as freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom to assemble peaceably, and freedom to petition government for redress of grievances. Other amendments guarantee the freedom to participate in political processes on an equal basis. These constitutionally guaranteed forms of freedom of action declare that government, other institutions, and specific individuals may not interfere with a person's choice of religion, with people expressing their thoughts, or with people communicating their beliefs, knowledge, and ideas through the press and other media. All of these kinds of freedom of action are both permitted and limited by our laws; none is absolute without qualification. All are highly desirable whether or not humans have free will and would be so even in a totally deterministic universe.

Historically, many classes of individuals were externally unfree in a great variety of undesirable ways. The fullest enjoyment of external freedom in the United States was once limited to competent, landowning, white males, whereas severe restrictions were imposed on the freedom of action of females, slaves, nonwhites, minors, mentally disturbed persons, the landless, homosexuals, and other disfavored groups such as animals. Gradually, as prejudices waned, usually after prolonged and bitter struggles, both the scope and types of freedom were extended to victims of unjust discrimination; but the process has not yet come to an end.

External social and governmental restrictions on freedom of action are not always undesirable. We are not and should not be free to do many things that would be harmful to the person and/or property of others or, more controversially, even to ourselves. Some external legal, moral, and social restraints on freedom of action are perfectly legitimate. When freedom of action conflicts with more legitimate goals and values, it must yield to their superiority.

External freedom of action is extremely valuable, but it is not sufficient for freedom in its fullest sense. Other kinds of freedom internal to persons are also highly desirable.

POSITIVE INTERNAL FREEDOM. Positive internal freedom consists of the effective presence of internal factors that contribute to people fulfilling their goals, desires, and interests; being self-reliant and self-directed—their own masters; and being in control of their own lives and destinies. These are elements of personality such as knowing who we are, our circumstances, the alternatives among which we must select, and the norms and facts relevant for making informed decisions; the ability to think, deliberate, and reason about our ends or goals, to prioritize and harmonize them, and to recognize effective means to achieve them; conscience, a moral sense of right and wrong; feelings, emotions, motives, desires, purposes, interests, and affections; and the ability to make our own choices for ourselves and to identify with our own purposes and projects, and the inner resources for acting as we will to act.

Occasionally freedom is said to consist of valuing and actualizing certain inner processes and states above all others. Saint Augustine (354–430), the early Christian church father, identified true freedom with complete conformity to the will of God; and the Stoics and the seventeenth-century Dutch philosopher Benedict Spinoza identified it with being rational and controlling or suppressing one's emotions.

Positive internal freedom may include free will, but most of its components would be highly desirable even in the absence of free will. Being positively free is what most bioethicists mean by being autonomous, or rationally autonomous, though whether this includes free will is not always clear. Respecting the rational autonomy of patients is a matter of valuing their positive internal freedom and acting accordingly.

NEGATIVE INTERNAL FREEDOM. Negative internal freedom is the absence of internal psychological or physiological obstructions that inhibit the proper functioning of the constituents of positive internal freedom—the absence of factors that inhibit knowing, deliberating, feeling, preferring, valuing, discerning right from wrong, self-control, making our own choices for ourselves, and acting effectively. Exercise of positive freedom is inhibited by such internal conditions as being overwhelmed by unconscious processes or motives, or by psychoses, neuroses, compulsions, addictions, or other nonvoluntary character defects and disorders. Genetic and neuromuscular conditions involving pain, weakness, disability, or hyperactivity may also undermine negative internal freedom.

Many conditions that undermine negative internal freedom have external causes, some medical in nature, some not. Negative internal freedom is absent in individuals who are temporarily stupefied by alcohol or by recreational or poorly administered psychotropic drugs, and in those who are more permanently impaired by brain damage, retardation, or a degenerative disease. People may also lose or lack independence if their capacities and options are reduced by lobotomies, psychosurgery, hypnosis, behavior modification, brainwashing, indoctrination, or massive ignorance. When used skillfully with the informed voluntary consent of patients, psychotherapy can increase human freedom, not decrease it. The Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) thought that the major purpose of psychoanalysis is to increase the freedom of otherwise freedom-impaired patients.

All four types of freedom have significant worth for human beings with or without free will and may be classified as intrinsic goods, valuable for their own sakes; as indispensable extrinsic goods, valuable as essential means to other human ends; or as both at once; but we can make such judgments justifiably only if we are sufficiently enlightened, fair-minded, and free!

Because healthy bodies and selves are our most directly efficient instruments, and because so many conditions that interfere with freedom are medical in nature, physicians and other healthcare professionals are uniquely positioned by their knowledge and power to enhance human freedom.

Free Will, Obligation, Responsibility, and Related Concepts

The concept of free will is inextricably bound up with many related but elusive concepts such as duty or obligation, responsibility, blameworthiness, and praiseworthiness.

THE FREE WILL POSITION. Defenders of free will insist that freedom in the most inclusive and desirable sense is something more than mere external freedom of action; it is a fundamental type of positive internal freedom. Free will involves more than a mere internal capacity for making choices, for choices may be either free or unfree. Free choices are informed and intentional as well as creative, originative, or "contracausal." Choices are not free if they are completely determined by ignorance or by preexisting desires, habits, beliefs, or by other psychological, physiological, genetic, social, or environmental conditions. When choices are so determined, we lack the power to choose otherwise and are inevitably destined to make exactly the choices we make and do exactly the things that we do. Representative defenders of free will include the fourteenth-century English philosopher William of Ockham, the eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher Thomas Reid, and such contemporary figures as C. A. Campbell, Roderick Chisholm, Rem B. Edwards, and Robert Kane.

Defenders regard free will as essential to human worth and dignity, partly because of its inherent value and partly because it is interwoven inextricably with other indispensable moral and legal concepts and practices such as obligation, responsibility, blameworthiness, and praiseworthiness.

Being obligated—having duties, whether moral, prudential, or whatever—is possible only if we have free will, genuinely open alternatives, and the ability to choose and act otherwise, defenders claim. Obligation presupposes being able to choose freely and act dutifully. Ought implies can, and cannot implies not obligated. In a deterministic universe devoid of free will, those who choose to do their duty can and must do so; oddly, those who do not cannot, and thus never have or had any duties at all. Actually, because neither ever encounters open alternatives or could ever choose or act otherwise, no one ever has any duties of any kind, for all persons are rigidly determined to choose and act exactly as they do.

Similarly, being responsible for our choices and the actions that issue from them just means that we understand the genuinely open alternatives before us, that we desire or intend some of them, and that our final decisions originate with us, rather than being programmed into us by heredity, our physical or social environment, fate, God, or any kind of external causes, however near or remote. These things may influence us, but they cannot completely determine us if we are to be responsible for what we decide and do.

The free will position also insists that blame and punishment as well as praise and reward are inextricably linked to being responsible. When we do wrong and are blameworthy, we may be justly blamed or punished only if we are responsible for our decision to do wrong, and only if we do it knowingly and intentionally, it originates with us, and it could have been otherwise—that is, only if it is informed, intentional, and free. And when we do what is right and are praiseworthy, we may be justly praised and rewarded only if we responsibly, knowingly, intentionally, creatively, and freely decide to do so. Blameworthiness cannot be defined simply as susceptibility to blame or punishment; nor can praiseworthiness be defined simply as susceptibility to praise or reward. The susceptibility must be just or appropriate, free will advocates insist; and this condition is satisfied only when we choose responsibly, that is, originatively or freely, knowingly, and intentionally and have the power to choose otherwise from genuinely open alternatives. If our choices do not originate with us, if they are programmed into us and we are predetermined to make only and exactly the choices that we make, then our programmers, but not we ourselves, are responsible for our decisions, and we cannot justly be held responsible or subjected to blame, punishment, praise, or reward.

Free will champions usually affirm indirect as well as the direct responsibility. We are indirectly responsible for our choices and actions, even when they are completely determined by our present character and strongest inclinations, as long as that character and those inclinations were significantly shaped by choices and efforts that we made earlier in life. Advocates of free will and self-creative responsibility typically do not hold that all our responsible choices are directly free or originative. Determinists are right that most of our present choices are completely determined by our existing dispositions and interests; but if we actively participated in forming them by earlier self-creative choices and efforts of will, then we are indirectly responsible for the choices and actions that issue from our self-established character.

HARD AND SOFT DETERMINISM. In his influential 1884 article, "The Dilemma of Determinism," the American psychologist and philosopher William James (1842–1910) distinguished between hard and soft determinism. Hard determinists usually accept every feature of the free will position except causal indefiniteness. They agree that a free will would be an originative or self-creative will, and that being obligated and responsible just means knowingly, intentionally, and originatively making right or wrong choices that could have been otherwise. Social practices involving obligation, blame/punishment, and praise/reward are just and justified only if we are free and responsible. Nevertheless, determinism is true and all our choices are caused or determined by antecedent conditions; none could be otherwise. Because we are not free and responsible, we are never justified in holding anyone obligated or responsible for anything. We can never justly blame or punish wrongdoers or praise and reward those who do right. Representative hard determinists include Spinoza; the English clergyman and chemist Joseph Priestley; the young Benjamin Franklin; the eighteenth-century American statesman and philosopher, who later recanted this position; and Paul Edwards.

Some hard determinists acknowledge that our established practices of being morally obligated as well as blaming, punishing, praising, and rewarding are so valuable morally and socially, so indispensable for the very existence of a livable community, that the illusion of free will should be sustained in order to perpetuate them (Smilansky, 2000). Others insist that hard determinists may legitimately abandon blame and punishment but retain obligation, praise, and reward. Without deluding anyone, hard determinists can approve, commend, encourage, praise, and reward right actions, even if they are not strictly obligatory. Such activities become integral parts of causal processes calculated to bring about decent social orders (Wolf, 1980, 1990; Pereboom, 1995, 2001).

Soft determinists do not embrace these drastic conclusions. They hold that causal determinism is perfectly compatible with human obligation and responsibility and the moral and social practices normally associated with them. Representative soft determinists include the seventeenth-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, the eighteenth-century American clergyman and theologian Jonathan Edwards, the eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher and historian David Hume, the nineteenth-century English philosopher and economist John Stuart Mill, and more recent figures such as Harry G. Frankfurt, Daniel Dennett, and Kai Nielsen.

COMPATIBILISM. Soft determinists are compatibilists who attack almost every element of the free will position and reject the free will view that causal determinism is incompatible with human freedom, obligation, responsibility, and just susceptibility to blame/punishment or praise/reward.

Compatibilists hold that freedom of action combined with inner conditions that do not presuppose causal indeterminism are quite sufficient for human obligation and responsibility—that free will is not needed in the first place. If we are free to do what we knowingly and intentionally most want to do, then we are responsible for doing it, and we can have moral and other kinds of obligation. Compatibilists attack the free will meaning of the term responsible and redefine the concept.

For the free will position, being responsible for making choices and the actions that flow from them means:

  1. Recognizing and understanding the alternatives, which are genuinely open metaphysically.
  2. Intending to or being motivated or predisposed to choose one or more of these alternatives without their being completely predetermined by our desire (s), dispositions, or anything else.
  3. Deliberating about the alternatives.
  4. Knowing that some alternatives are good or right, some bad or wrong, and perhaps some indifferent.
  5. Originating the choices and efforts that we make.
  6. Having the power to choose otherwise.

Compatibilistic soft determinists omit the self-originative features of this definition. For them, being responsible just means:

  1. Recognizing and understanding the alternatives, which need not be metaphysically open.
  2. Intending or being more strongly motivated or predisposed to choose one alternative over the others, especially when these belong to our deep rational selves.
  3. Deliberating about the alternatives.
  4. Knowing that some alternatives are good or right, some bad or wrong, and perhaps some indifferent.

Origination, open alternatives, and the ability to choose otherwise are irrelevant; so, free will is irrelevant. Determinism is compatible with holding people under obligation and regarding them as responsible for what they choose and do. But is this compatibilistic redefinition of the term responsible acceptable? Can we really escape the deep-rooted intuition that we are not responsible for any choices and efforts that are programmed into us from beyond?

Objections and Responses

Past and present debates incorporate many objections to free will with corresponding replies.

CHOICE AND CHANCE. Free will itself is not compatible with having duties and being responsible because free choices are by definition uncaused and indeterministic, which means that they are mere uncontrolled chance events or accidents.

But, say free willists, chance events do not satisfy many conditions that define responsible free choices. They do not involve deliberation, knowledge of alternatives or of right and wrong, desires, dispositions and intentions, or the subjective experience of selecting or trying. When free choices are made, these conditions bring about inclinations without necessitating a particular choice. These conditions are the very essence of self-control and self-causation, not of chance.

UBIQUITOUS CAUSATION. Because all events have causes, free choices and all effort-makings have causes. There are no exceptions to deterministic causation.

Free will defenders respond that the very concept of causation is ambiguous, not clear and distinct. Free originative choices can be uncaused or "contracausal" in one sense, yet caused in another. Free choices have necessary causal conditions such as knowledge, desires, and (if moral) a sense of right and wrong; in their absence, free choices cannot occur. But these are not sufficient causal conditions in whose presence only one outcome must occur. Only with respect to sufficient causal conditions are free choices uncaused. With respect to necessary conditions, they are caused. The philosophical options are more complex than simple indeterminism, which denies the relevance of all causal considerations to free choice, versus determinism, which affirms the rigid causal determination of all choices. Partisans of free will may adopt libertarianism, which affirms that existing causal conditions limit but do not necessitate choices that cannot occur in their absence.

Some proponents of free will claim that self-creative choices are made by an enduring substantive self that is exempt from normal event-causation (Chisholm; O'Connor). Others hold that choices are made by events within that stream of consciousness that constitutes personal selfhood (Edwards, 1969; Kane, 1985, 1996, 2002). Still others claim that agency causation is not so radically different from event causation (Clarke).

CAUSATION BY STRONGEST MOTIVES. Experience shows that all our choices are determined by the strongest desires or sets of cooperating desires belonging to our settled character.

In response, free willists argue that experience actually shows that effort-making and self-creative choosing occur only when character, dispositions, and desires are in conflict and prevailing inclinations are not settled in advance—only when given motives are not sufficiently powerful to resolve motivational conflict. Free choices function to resolve con-flicting motives when none are sufficiently powerful themselves to overcome their competitors. Sometimes choice boosts an inclination that is in conflict with others and makes it the strongest. Usually our choices are completely determined by our strongest inclinations, but even then we are indirectly responsible for them if our earlier choices and efforts helped to create them.

THE ABILITY TO CHOOSE OTHERWISE. Being able to choose otherwise is merely hypothetical, not categorical or absolute. Even on deterministic grounds, we can choose or could have chosen otherwise if our desires, dispositions, character, or other conditions are or were otherwise. This is quite sufficient for responsible choice.

On the contrary, free willists respond, hypothetical conditions are still incompatible with the deep and ineradicable intuition that we are responsible only if our choices and efforts originate with us; if they originate in heredity and/or environment, these, not we, are responsible for them and the actions that issue from them. Complete determination is incompatible with individual responsibility, blameworthiness, and praiseworthiness.

THE SCIENTIFIC WORLDVIEW. Free will is incompatible with what natural science tells us about the universe and about ourselves.

Free willists reply that Newtonian science had no place for free will because it regarded everything, including human choices, as completely determined and absolutely predictable, given existing facts and natural laws; but this worldview is now obsolete. Quantum physics recognizes indeterminateness and unpredictability within the depths of nature, including human brains. Random quantum events are themselves not within our control, admittedly, but they make room for creative self-control, just as Newtonian physics excluded it. On a more macroscopic level, modern brain scans reveal indeterminate, unresolved conflicts within and between different regions of the brain that are resolved when "executive control" is exercised (Posner and DiGirolamo).

Objections and replies to problems of free will are almost inexhaustible, and every response seems to generate another round of objections and responses. Free will and philosophical issues relating to it have been debated for over 2,000 years and will be, perhaps, for thousands more.

rem b. edwards

SEE ALSO: Autonomy; Authority in Religious Traditions; Behavior Control; Behaviorism; Behavior Modification Therapies; Coercion; Conscience; Conscience, Rights of; Human Dignity; Insanity and the Insanity Defense; Institutionalization and Deinstitutionalization; Mentally Disabled and Mentally Ill Persons; Neuroethics; Patients' Rights; Psychiatry, Abuses of


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