Two Concepts of Freedom



Two Concepts of Freedom


It is hard not to feel the pull of both of the standard positions on free will. On the one hand, it seems right to say that a free action is one that is in accordance with the agent’s desires, as opposed to one that is forced on the agent in some way (the OED defines “free” as simply “not under the control or in the power of another”). This is quite compatible with determinism–physical, psychological, or divine. On the other hand, it seems right to insist that freedom requires the ability to do otherwise, which is ruled out by determinism. If an agent has no alternative to acting as he did, how can his act be free? But surely the future course of nature is always necessitated by antecedent conditions, so there are no alternative actions the agent could have performed. Thus the will is both free and not free, a contradiction. Depending upon what conception of freedom we choose to adopt, we get different answers to the question of whether free will exists. But it is assumed that there is a single thing (denoted by “free will”) over which the combatants are contending.

I want to suggest that this debate is afflicted by a methodological problem, and once this problem is fixed the solution drops out quite naturally. The problem consists in extracting the word “free” from its normal linguistic context and trying to analyze it in isolation. In fact, there are two very different notions expressed by standard locutions, which generate different answers to the question whether free will exists. Both answers are correct, so that one type of locution has application while the other does not. The locutions are “free from” and “free to”. We say that an agent is free from constraints or influences that potentially limit his range of actions: illnesses, obligations, engagements, coercion, upbringing, genes, or divine interference. In this vein we can sensibly ask if the agent is free from his desires and free from his physical condition (including his brain states): here the answer appears to be universally in the negative. I am not free from my own psychology or my own physiology—though I may be free from external coercion or prior obligations or God’s dominion. The determinist adds up all the antecedent states of the world and declares that we are not free from this totality. Again, this seems logically permissible: we simply ask whether my freedom-from extends to all of the factors bearing down on me, specifically my mental and physical states. And the answer is clear: I am not free from all of that. I don’t have that kind of freedom. In the relevant sense, I could not have acted otherwise (though there are perhaps other senses in which I could have acted otherwise, e.g. I could logically have had a different psychology). Put simply, we don’t have freedom from the past—the locution “free from” does not apply to the totality of past facts (though it applies to various subsets of these facts). It is quite true that we are free from X for many values of X, so we are free relative to these values, but we are not free from all values of X. We don’t have complete freedom-from. So we can forget having that kind of freedom. Determinism rules out freedom-from.

But it doesn’t follow that we don’t have freedom-to. I have freedom to do Y if I can act on my desire to do Y. The locution “free to” allows application in conditions in which I do as I please, as opposed to acting against my desires because of external (or internal) coercion. That is what “free to” means (as the OED records): I have a set of desires (wishes, inclinations, commitments, etc.) and I can either act in accordance with them or against them, thus acting freely or not.[1] This has nothing to do with being free from all prevailing conditions: indeed I am not free from my desires (which may causally determine me to act as I do), but that doesn’t mean that I can’t act in accordance with them! I am free to follow my desires, because not prevented from doing so, even though I am not free from them. I may sometimes not be free to follow my desires, if I am imprisoned or shackled or subject to physiological upsurges that prevent me from acting as I wish; but much of the time I am free to do pretty much as I please (but see below). Quite often I am free to do exactly as I please, with no impediment at all to my freedom to do as I please. This is in no way compromised by my lack of freedom from antecedent conditions. Freedom-to is just a different concept from freedom-from; the locutions have quite different meanings and conditions of application. The compatibilist is thus right to insist that freedom-to is consistent with determinism, while the incompatibilist is right to maintain that freedom-from is inconsistent with the facts of historical determination. But the two theorists are not disagreeing with each other, once we distinguish between the two sorts of locution with their different meanings. The reason we feel the pull of each position is that both positions are perfectly correct so far as they go; we only get confused because we conflate the two concepts. And the reason we do that is that we yank the word “free” from its normal linguistic context and ask questions like “Does free will exist?” or “Is free will compatible with determinism?” Strictly speaking, these questions are ill formed, because they try to sever the concept of freedom from its surrounding grammatical context, which alone gives the word sense. We violate Frege’s context principle, or we fail to heed Wittgenstein’s warning about the perils of taking language on holiday. We are like someone who perplexes herself about freedom by trying to integrate the meaning of the locution “free with” (“John is rather free with his money”) with “free from” and “free to”. Is it that a free agent is one who is free with his actions? Can we be free with our past? Are our desires free with us? None of these sentences makes sense and can only generate pseudo-problems. Likewise, we should not try to shuttle between “free from” and “free to”, as if asking whether we are free to change our past or free from the future. In fact “free from” is a backwards-looking locution while “free to” is a forwards-looking locution: one connotes independence from the past; the other connotes dependence on desire in relation to the future. Am I free to act as my desires prompt me to? That is the question of freedom-to. Am I free from everything that has led up to this moment? That is the question of absolute freedom-from. And the answers are respectively: yes, I am free to act on my desires as opposed to being made to go against them; but no, I am not free from the conditions leading up to and surrounding my action, including my desires. I have freedom-to but I don’t have freedom-from. That is all that needs to be said, or can be said; there is no further question expressible as “Am I free?” or “Do I have free will?” It is not that I both have free will and don’t have it, or that I have to reject the plausible things said by the compatibilist and the incompatibilist; rather, I just have to return the word “free” to its natural environment tightly coupled with the prepositions “from” and “to”. Then (and only then) I will understand the import of our talk of freedom. The correct assessment of the philosophical upshot of this examination is thus twofold: (a) we are not free from our past, since our actions are determined by it; but (b) this does not rule out a robust sense in which we are free to act on our desires (the only kind of freedom-to there is). As a matter of fact, if we were free from our past, that would not provide an acceptable notion of freedom, since it would amount merely to randomness; and if we had the ability to act otherwise than our desires indicate (including our moral and prudential desires), that would not be a form of freedom-to. No occurrence in nature is free from the past, including human action; and nothing but acting on desire can add up to freedom-to. Nor is there any notion of freedom that is purer or better than freely acting on one’s desires—as if we are only really free when discarding our desires and acting in a vacuum.[2] For instance, a person who acts on his desire to save the world (perhaps putting aside his other selfish desires) is the paradigm of a free agent—and it is no impediment to this that his desire follows strictly from his genes and his upbringing. He couldn’t have acted otherwise, but so what—he was free to act on his most cherished desire. He was free to act on his altruistic desire despite attempts by others to thwart him, though his action wasn’t miraculously free from his mind and nervous system. The former freedom is not undermined by lack of the latter freedom.[3]

The difference between the two concepts is illustrated by a difference in their logic. An action is either free from a factor X or not; in particular, either actions are determined by antecedent conditions or they are not. It is an all-or-nothing matter. But forward-looking freedom-to is not so simple: a good case can be made that we are partially free in this way but not completely free. Am I really free to do exactly what I please, even in the most favorable conditions? Don’t I have all sorts of unrealistic desires that I can never act on? I would dearly love to fly like a bird, but I am not free to do so—the laws of nature prevent me from so acting. Don’t I also have a lot of conflicting desires that keep me from fulfilling all of them? Realistically, we can’t always do exactly what we please—we are not completely free. We are pretty free most of the time (if we are lucky), or more free than our neighbor, but we are not totally free. Freedom-to is not an all-or-nothing matter, unlike freedom-from. It operates in different conceptual terrain. It doesn’t breathe the same air. The logical behavior of “free to” is not the same as that of “free from”. This is why the compatibilist and the incompatibilist often seem like they are talking past each other: for they are talking about different things. The word “free” crops up in their discourse about these things but not because they have an identical subject matter—any more than its occurrence in “free with” discourse (compare also “tax-free”, “free as a bird”, “free society”, “free radicals”, “degrees of freedom”, “stimulus-free”, etc.) We mustn’t mix language games; we mustn’t tear “free” free of its linguistic auxiliaries. We mustn’t confuse one concept with another. Then we can accept that we have plenty of “free to” freedom but zero “free from” freedom—though remaining wary of that dangling use of “freedom”. Both are legitimate uses of the word “free”, but the constructions in which they occur have quite different import.

The intuitive idea of determinism is that the future is bound by the past, not able to escape its clutches, its shackles. This conflicts with the idea that we are free from the past and hence have alternative courses of action open to us. Thus we don’t have this kind of freedom. The intuitive idea of voluntary action is that we are often able to act without constraint or interference from sources external to our own desires, wishes, inclinations, preferences, values, and so on. This in no way precludes our actions from being genuinely free: to do what you want because of what you want is the very essence of freedom. Not indeed freedom-from, since we are not in so acting free from our desires (values etc.), but freedom to follow these desires without external impediment. Both lines of thought are perfectly sound: but, contrary to traditional thinking, they are not in conflict with each other. The plain fact is that we are free (to) but we are not free (from). I would recommend never using the word “free” in philosophical discourse without its attached preposition. That will make us free from confusion and free to stop worrying about the problem of freedom.[4]


[1] The fundamental idea of free action is surely freedom from other people: it is doing what you want irrespective of the wishes and actions of others. Internal factors can operate like other people, but the basic idea is that of interpersonal constraint or restraint. This has nothing to do with determinism; it is purely a matter of being free to act on one’s desires independently of others. So the notion of freedom is a social notion at root: if there are no other people, the question of freedom cannot arise. It is other people who put one’s freedom in jeopardy, not the past or one’s internal physiology or the laws of nature or one’s own desires. Have philosophers and others succumbed to a kind of anthropomorphism about such factors, modeling them on interfering human agents? That would explain a lot.

[2] It is sometimes said, quite correctly, that we are not compelled to act on our desires—we can resist their urgings and refuse to act on them. However, this is so only because we have other mental states that countermand these desires, typically commitments to values that conflict with the desire in question. These may take the form of second-order desires to the effect that the first-order desire ought to be resisted. The fact that a certain desire may incline us to action without compelling us should not be converted into an argument against psychological determinism, let alone physical determinism; for the reason for resistance will itself be another desire, possibly a value judgment, or some other psychological factor.

[3] It is instructive to consider free animal action. We recognize the difference between a caged or bound animal and a free-ranging one: the difference is the difference between the animal acting as it desires and being prevented from so acting. To be sure, its actions are determined by its genes, upbringing, and impinging stimuli, but that has nothing to do with the distinction between being caged and being free-ranging. Animals can be free to act on their desires or not so free, but they are certainly not free from the antecedent state of the world—they must act as they do. Still, there is all the difference in the world between being free to act on their desires and being coerced in various ways. The case is precisely analogous in the case of humans.

[4] I have been fretting about freedom for over fifty years and have wavered between different positions, most recently favoring the compatibilist position. This is my attempt to lay the subject to rest, at least so far as I am concerned.

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