Classical Views on Free Will


Hard Determinism

In his work “The Delusion of Free Will”, Robert Blatchford argues that human free will is a delusion; all of our desires come from within (heredity/temperament) or from without (environment/training). Blatchford claims that even though we think we choose freely, we do not. When we are faced with different choices, our choice is selected by either our heredity, such as our personal preference of sweet over sour, or our environment, such as why it is acceptable to be individualistic as opposed to collective in terms of attitude. The heredity factor is influenced by our genetic makeup; the environment factor is influenced by the culture and society in which we live. Blatchford states that whichever one of these two forces is stronger, in a given situation, it will make our decisions for us.

Blatchford gives an example of a man shooting targets on another man’s property. In the middle of him aiming at the target, a rabbit runs up to it. The man is described as both a “sportsman” – a man who loves to hunt – and a “humanitarian” – a man who believes killing harmless animals is always a morally reprehensible act. Obviously the man is conflicted; which course of action should he take? One part of him wants to shoot the rabbit while the other is mortified at the thought. Blatchford then asks, how does he choose? The answer, according to Blatchford, is that whichever persona is more significant, more present, more powerful will make the choice.

Next Blatchford deals with the objection “How do you account for a man doing the thing he does not wish to do?” Blatchford answers that no man ever does a thing he did not wish to do. He uses an example of a woman having to choose between going to a concert with her lover or visiting a sick child in a dilapidated neighborhood. Despite her immense love for music as well as her lover and despite her fear of disease and danger, the woman chooses to visit the sick child. Why? Blatchford claims it is because her sense of duty is stronger than her self-love. She would rather help others than care solely for herself. In this case, the environment won out over the heredity. Thus, according to Blatchford’s logic, whatever course of action is taken by a person is one that is desired.

Finally, Blatchford argues that we can predict a person’s behaviour based on our knowledge of their personality; if we know their personality traits as well as the culture in which they grew up, we can know what choices they will make. He uses the examples of various historical figures; Jack Sheppard, the famous criminal, will always choose to commit morally reprehensible acts while Cardinal Manning of the Roman Catholic Church will never choose such acts. Abraham Lincoln will always be loyal to his country while Torquemada will always kill heretics. The list goes on and on but the main idea is that we can predict, with extreme accuracy, what a person is going to do in any situation as long as we understand their heredity and environment.

Soft Determinism

In his work on “free will,” “The Problem of Free Will,” W.T. Stace argues that the main problem philosophers have with this topic is the definition being used. Stace believes that “free will” refers not to actions without causes or prior conditions since nothing can come to fruition without causes and/or prior conditions but rather to actions done with an internal desire or with a certain psychological state of mind. He gives the example of a man named Smith talking to two men, one named Jones and the other Gandhi. Both Jones and Gandhi went without food for a week but their circumstances were completely different. Jones went without food for a week because “I was lost in a desert and could find no food.” yet Gandhi went without food for a week because “I wanted to compel the British Government to give India its independence.” Jones went hungry because he was forced to by a lack of resources; Gandhi went hungry because he had a desire to improve the social and political conditions of his fellow Indians. That desire is the crux of Stace’s argument. Without that desire, any action completed is not done with free will.

In dealing with the previously suggested definition of free will being actions completed that are uncaused Stace feels that any action completed that does not have a cause cannot be punished or rewarded since no entity was responsible for completing said action. For example, if, somehow I kill an entire village in South America yet the massacre was uncaused, meaning that it did not originate from prior conditions independent of myself or from my internal desire to spill blood, then I am not morally responsible for such an action. But this cannot be true since we do punish wrong-doers. Stace notes “If human actions and volitions were uncaused, it would be useless either to punish or reward, or indeed to do anything else to correct people’s bad behaviour. For nothing that you could do would in any way influence them. Thus moral responsibility would entirely disappear.”


In Richard Taylor’s reflection about free will, entitled “Freedom and Determinism,” he defines an action of free will as one that is unimpeded either by an obstacle or a constraint, the former being something that prevents action and the latter being something that enforces limits upon action. For the sake of clarity, Stace and Taylor share the same definition of an action completed with free will.

In his article, Taylor criticizes Soft Determinism on the same grounds as the objection to Stace’s definition of free will, mentioned above. Under any form of determinism, one cannot make any choice. His choice was made for him previously by a series of events that are caused and determined. Taylor gives an example of a man that is moving his body in a manner that is not externally constrained or impeded and is doing so out of personal desire to move. Thus, according to Taylor and Stace’s definition, the man is free. But here is where the example falls apart. Taylor introduces an evil physiologist who can manipulate the man’s volitions and desires merely by pressing buttons on a brain control device. Is the man freely acting? No, he is not. Yet this example is not adequate for discussing Soft Determinism. Taylor tries to bat away the objection that the physiologist is actually an external force constraining the man’s actions but fails to do so. The physiologist is separate from the man’s will. The remote control cannot control the volitions of the man by itself, but even if it could that would still be classified as an external entity. I will not continue to focus on this.

Next, Taylor deals with Simple Indeterminism. He raises the same objection as Stace does against uncaused actions. Essentially, any action carried out that is uncaused cannot be rewarded or punished since there is no agent responsible for said action. If my arm decides to hit a small child but does so without my conscious effort, i.e. I have no control over it nor the desire to hit the child, then I cannot be held morally responsible.

Finally, Taylor discusses his viewpoint on free will. His view, Self-Determinism, states that we are sometimes self-determining beings. This means that we are sometimes, but not always, the cause of our own behaviour; we are the agent responsible for causing and completing the action yet there can be no antecedent conditions sufficient for completing said action. Taylor then notes “In the case of an action that is both free and rational, it must be such that the agent who performed it did so for some reason, but this reason cannot have been the cause of it.”

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