Free Will as Essentail to Human Nature
April 3, 2011 — 9:35

Author: Kevin Timpe  Category: Free Will  Tags:   Comments: 16

A number of theologians and philosophers make the claim, implicitly if not explicitly, that having free will is essential to human nature. This is, perhaps, a fairly natural claim, particularly if one thinks that free will is a capacity of the human soul. But the claim got me thinking, as there may be a counterexample.

The first potential counterexample will depend on the details of what one’s view of free will is. Consider, for example, John Fischer’s view according to which free will requires a certain level of ability to recognize and respond to moral reasons. But then what about psycopaths, who are incapable of recognizing and/or being moved by certain sorts of moral reasons, namely those that pertain to the good of other individuals? Even if psycopathy renders individuals who suffer from it not morally responsible, it would seem odd if they weren’t human. Now, perhaps psycopathy at most takes away certain aspects of one’s ability to recognize or be moved by certain moral reasons, but it leaves one’s abilitty to recognize and be moved by other kinds of moral reasons intact. So perhaps what psycopathy does is limit the range of one’s free will, but doesn’t diminish it all together.

The second potential type of counterexample is young children. My daughter is currently only ten months old, and I strongly doubt she has either the volitional or intellectual capabilities for free will, although she likely will once she reaches a certain age. In response to this, perhaps one could say that what is essential to humans is not the actual having of free will, but the capacity to have free will.

But finally, consider those humans who have genetic disorders that strongly impair their intellectual and/or volitional capacities. Such individuals may not reach the level of these capacities needed for free will even once fully grown. Nor, given their genetic disorders, does it look like even have the capacity for free will in the way suggested regarding young children.

So it looks like the claim the free will is essential to human nature is false.

  • You may enjoy the example of Simon Browne:

    April 3, 2011 — 13:21
  • Jarrett Cooper

    I wonder if one could use this claim of what free will is. Theistically (specifically Christian) speaking, one could say free will is simply the ability to choose/accept God. (This is assuming after God has given prevenient grace to individuals, thereby allowing them to have free choice to accept God.) The reason one could take this route is it avoids (possibly?) your counterexamples. It would be hard to say that for psychopaths, people will mental disabilities, and young children–that even these people can or cannot freely accept God’s calling.

    April 3, 2011 — 13:52
  • Jason Cruze

    Admittedly, those who have genetic disorders and are cognitively impaired don’t have the capacity for free will, but I’m not sure I see how it follows that the claim about free will is incompatible with this counterexample. Why not alter the required relation between free will and human nature to be a connection to the capacity of being a member of a species where all members who are properly formed possess the capacity for autonomous actions?

    April 3, 2011 — 14:08
  • It could be argued that the potential of free will is an essential property; the utilization of free will, however, is not essentially necessary. This might be analogous to “To be human includes the essential property of being able to tell a joke; actually telling a joke is not itself necessary.”

    April 3, 2011 — 19:17
  • Suppose free will is not fundamentally a matter of being responsive to (moral) reasons but, rather, of having a choice (in a sense of ‘having a choice’ that implies alternative possibilities)about whether one shall or shall not perform a certain action. Even psychopaths might have free will thus construed. And, one might argue, this freedom is essential to healthy human adults. That takes care of all the examples you listed, right?
    Anyway, now that I’ve played devil’s advocate, the claim that free will is essential to human nature strikes me as unmotivated, at best(but perhaps people have tried to motivate it and I just don’t know about it), not to mention implausible. If incompatibilism is true (and, of course, it is), the claim that free will is essential to human nature means that determinism is incompatible with human nature. That would certainly be surprising.

    April 3, 2011 — 21:12
  • Sean Mac

    Possibly complementary to Cruze’s comment: I also see a problem with some sort of materialist reductivism in claiming that a genetic mutation/disorder truly does prevent even the capacity. Maybe not for one who already assumes the materialist reduction, but for a Christian theist, a soul’s capacities far outstrip its bodily limits, and thus bodily limits do not reflect accurately what that soul may be capable of.

    April 3, 2011 — 23:40
  • Kevin Timpe

    One could define free will in that way, but the cost (which is significant in my view) is that it is disconnected from the contemporary free will literature. Perhaps you might think “so much the worse for the contemporary free will literature.” But that seems like an extreme position to me.
    That’s a possibility, although it’s not clear to me what a ‘capacity to be a member of a kind’ is. What role is the capacity language doing here?
    The case of the genetic condition was supposed to call into question even the capacity for free will. For, on many such conditions, the cognitive and volitional impairments are so severe that it’s hard to see how one who suffers from them has the needed capacities.
    I wasn’t trying to suggest that the ability to recognize moral reasons is all there is to free will. Surely there is also the need to control whether or not one does an action. And even if free will is essential to healthy human adults, that’s a much weaker claim that it is an essential part of human nature. Also, your comments about incompatibilism is, I think, correct. In the present post, I was trying to be neutral on the combatibility question.
    Your comment seems to presuppose substance dualism. There are other options to reductive materialism besides substance dualism, even for the Christian theist.

    April 4, 2011 — 4:20
  • Mike Almeida

    I don’t think free will can be essential to human nature if by that you mean a power we are free to manifest. Suppose something s has an essential property f just in case there are no worlds where s exists and fails to be f. There are strongly deterministic worlds in which, for each A that s performs, God causes s to do A. Call a world w strongly deterministic for s just in case s performs A in w and in any counterfactual world in which s fails to perform A the impossible is true. But then there are worlds w where s cannot manifest his freedom. But then s is not free in w, and so not essentially free.

    April 4, 2011 — 8:28
  • It would be uncharitable to interpret the essentiality thesis as implying that small infants exercise free will. Thus the thesis can’t be a thesis about the exercise of free will, but about a capacity for the exercise of free will.
    But what kind of capacity can it be? Aristotle distinguishes first and second potentiality. I am right now in second potentiality with respect to speaking English–I can speak it any time I so wish. But I am only in first potentiality with respect to speaking German. To do that, I’d have to learn German first–which I do have a certain capacity for.
    Presumably, the small infant, and a fortiori the embryo, is only in first potentiality with respect to the exercise of free will. So the thesis’ modal commitment is probably going to something more like this: Necessarily, every human being is at least in first potentiality with respect to the exercise of free will.
    So, now on to the psychopath. Does the psychopath have a first potentiality with respect to the exercise of free will? Maybe. Of course, this first potentiality may be blocked from exercise. I still have a first potentiality for speaking German even if I am confined to a desert island with no German speakers or German texts. And the psychopath’s first potentiality may well be thus blocked.
    The other thing one might say about the psychopath is that she does in fact make moral choices. Here’s one way to look at it: Prudence is also a virtue. To act imprudently is to act viciously, and to act prudently is to act virtuously, thus far. The psychopath who sacrifices a present good for herself in favor of a greater later good for herself exercises the virtue of prudence. Granted, people are not very praiseworthy for following the virtue of prudence. My wife got from somewhere the rather nice line that no saint has been canonized for heroic prudence. Nonetheless, imprudence is a vice, and psychopaths may differ in respect of it, and perhaps by their own choices.

    April 4, 2011 — 9:32
  • It’s worth noting that this criticism of the thesis that humans essentially have free will, if it goes through, would apply to pretty much any putatively essential characteristic of any type of organism. Are cats essentially vertebrates? Ah hah! Not in the early stages in utero. Dogs quadrapeds? The existence of the occasional “tripod” who gets around despite some birth defect or an accident would disprove that. Humans language users? Nope, as shown by infants and people who are profoundly mentally retarded.
    I think Jason Cruze and Alex give the proper sort of responses to this puzzle. This is worth pushing on further, but people who hold that humans are by nature rational, social, etc., certainly are aware of the existence of fetuses, infants, and late-stage Alzheimer’s patients.

    April 4, 2011 — 10:10
  • Jarrett Cooper

    @ Kevin,
    I’d definitely agree with your reply. I was merely limiting free will to at least just one free action (albeit a very important free action).
    I was also thinking if we had to only narrow our free will to recognizing and responding to moral reasons. However, I’m assuming if you have free will with respect to moral actions then it follows you have free actions with respect to non-moral actions?
    However there is an asymmetry here between these two types of free will: (1) having the ability to recognize and respond to moral reasons (we’ll call this moral free will). (2) having the ability to choose between non-moral actions (we’ll call this non-moral free will).
    One problem I could see someone raising against (2) is that one might say all actions are moral (all actions belong to the moral realm). Even actions like blinking your eyes really fast, holding your breathe for just a split second longer than usual, etc.
    Still, Keith, as you said before–even (2) is probably disconnected from the contemporary free will literature. After all, contemporary free will literature is concerned about moral responsibility and culpability.

    April 4, 2011 — 10:42
  • Mike Almeida

    It is certainly not true that cats are essentially vertibrates or that they’re essentially mammals, for that matter. All the more so that dogs are not essentially quadrapeds. Dogs are not even essentially canine. There are worlds in which, for instance, the phenotypical properties of dogs are indiscernible from the phenoty. properties actual alligators.

    April 4, 2011 — 16:46
  • Eric

    Kevin –
    I wonder if you are confusing the claim that free will is essential to being a person with the claim that free will is essential to being a human. These two categories while they largely overlap are not coincidental. In fact, most theists upon reflection don’t believe all persons are human.
    Of course, we hold that being a human is important and we hold that in our general experience all human beings are persons.
    However, the examples you mention serve to remind us that while being a human is important and has moral, social and ethical value, not all human beings are persons. I would suggest that your examples of the very young and the mentally incompetent show that we can be a human being without having a further important characteristic, i.e., being a person.
    Exactly what differentiates a person from being a human being is an open issue. Harry Frankfurt in “Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person” suggests one explanation. There are other explanations.
    In any case, I take it the claim most theologians and philosophers would want to make is that freedom of the will (however defined) is essential for personhood.

    April 4, 2011 — 22:21
  • Mike, your comment seems to presume that the semantics of a term like “cat” is to refer to an animal with a certain phenotype, but that’s (at a minimum) controversial, so I rather puzzled by your bold assertion that it’s certainly not true that cats are essentially vertebrates etc. If you think that e.g., “whale” is a natural kind term that rigidly designates, then, while there may be another possible world in which some fish have evolved to be phenotypically indistinguishable from whales (and are called “whales” by the folks in that world), those creatures aren’t whales but “schmales” (or whatever), as whales are essentially mammals, just as water is essentially H2O and not XYZ (again, if you accept that sort of account of the semantics for such terms).

    April 5, 2011 — 15:03
  • Derek McAllister

    Recall that there are generally two conditions stated for free will, the sourcehood condition and the alternatives condition. I’m disposed to think that the latter is dispensable and we can still have free will. Left with the sourcehood condition, which locates the source of the cause in (as?) the agent itself, we would have to find some counterexample which denies that infants and psychopaths are the source of their effectual actions. Certainly psychopaths can still be said to cause things. And even infants can be regarded as being the source of actions which originate (locally) from them, such as cooing, smiling, & laughing–though I am in no way saying that infants have higher order deliberative capabilities.
    Standing alone, perhaps this only begs the question for agency. But this understanding of sourcehood paired with Pruss’s comment on potentiality proves to be very strong support for persons having free will essentially. Thus poised, we’re left to ask the question: if we willingly attribute free will to adult human persons, what basis is left for denying it to psychopaths & infants?

    April 6, 2011 — 5:58
  • Dianelos Georgoudis

    I think that the folk (and hence appropriate) meaning of “free will” is that of a capacity. The same goes for the meaning of “consciousness”. I’d say that consciousness is the capacity to experience, and that free will is the capacity to choose. A human is a conscious being even while in a state where one cannot actually experience, such as when one is in a coma or under general anesthesia (assuming that when in coma or under general anesthesia one can’t experience). Similarly, a human is a free willed being even while in a state where one cannot actually choose, such as when one is a baby (assuming that babies can’t choose). There is nothing special in all of that; a lamp is a lamp even when it is switched off.

    April 11, 2011 — 6:11