Free Will Arguments For and Against

The debate over whether humans have Free Will is a debate that has been raging in academic departments, as well as the public sphere, for centuries. The fundamental question is whether humans (or other animals) have free will. The stakes are quite high, as it informs almost every debate regarding issues in criminal justice ranging from prison reform to the ethical permissibility of abortion and gun control. 

Despite the seemingly simple premise that underlies the debate, which is perhaps why it has invited so much dialogue, the argument has gotten immersed in some complex philosophical arguments. The simple premise: “do people have the ability to choose between different possible courses of action? And if so, under what conditions?”

The amount of ink that has spent on the above two questions by philosophy departments may stun many, but we’ll do our best to quickly summarize how we got here. Much of the debate deals with the question of the relevance of determinism. Determinism is the belief that all events are the result of previously existing causes. First there is the argument of whether determinism is true, and second there is the question of whether that has any ramifications, at all, on whether one has free will.

Putting it extremely simply advocates for Free Will (people who argue that we do, under certain conditions, have free will) typically fall into one of two categories: either they are combatabilists or libertarians (not to be confused with the political position) with the vast majority of Free Will proponents being combatabilists.  Those who do not believe we posses free will, typically fall into the Hard Determinist camp. Let’s unpack that.

Free Will Hard Determinists

If your intuition is that one cannot have free will because they didn’t ‘choose their genes or their environment, then you are a hard determinist. A hard determinist believes that one cannot have free will, because their thoughts are a product of their mind and their mind was developed as a product of their genes and the environment. None of which was chosen or selected by the person (we didn’t choose our race, birthplace, color, or mental makeup). Notable proponents of Hard Determinists include philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris.

Free Will Compatabilists

Compatibilism is the belief that determinism can be true (all future actions are determined by prior states of the universe) and yet people believe can still have free will. The core of the compatabilist theory is that free will rests on one’s ability to deliberate and choose between different courses of action and that it doesn’t matter whether all future states of the universe are determined. As perhaps one of the most famous compatabilist’s, philosopher Danniel Dennett, put it: we can change the future no more than we can change the past.

For the compatabilist, free will is derived from our ability to weigh different decisions and choose one from many. Obviously there are some people that do not have that cognitive ability. For example, let’s say that one has a brain tumor that limits their ability to weigh decisions and drastically limits their impulse control. The compatabilist, as would the determinist, argue that this is the perfect example that illustrates the point: some people are unable to distinguish between choices but some people are and those people have free will.

The only difference is that the determinist would say that it’s tumor’s all the way down, while the compatabilist would say that these two cases are uniquely different.


Not to be confused with the political ideology, libertarians have a unique interpretation of free will that thoughts and ideas arise from not causes that are not necessarily deterministic. What the hell does that mean? Essentially, libertarians are often categorized as thinking that every new thought is a “tiny miracle.” For this reason, and many others, libertarian free will is often considered seriously in religious circles and casually dismissed in others. In fact many free will debates, dedicate some time to bashing the conception of libertarian free will before engaging in another battle in the ongoing war between compatabilists and libertarians.

Citing a wonderful paper that gives Libertarianism an honest analysis, Alex Florello writes:

“Libertarians believe that free will is incompatible with causal determinism, and agents have free will. They therefore deny that causal determinism is true. There are three major categories of libertarians. Event-causal libertarians believe that free actions are indeterministically caused by prior events. Agent-causal libertarians believe that agents indeterministically cause free actions. Non-causal libertarians typically believe that free actions are constituted by basic mental actions, such as a decision or choice.”

Let’s Recap:

Compatibilists: Determinsm is true, but (some) humans have free will because they have the ability to think, weigh the options and make decisions based on this deliberation. They are “free from external influence.”

Libertarian: Determinism is false, and humans have free will. Depending on the type of libertarian one is, they believe that the nature of human consciousness/psychology plays some type of role in determinism not being true. 

Hard Determinists: Determinsm is true therefore there is no free will. Human actions are caused solely by previous causal states and thus one cannot do otherwise than they would have done.

Sam Harris on Abortion

Sam Harris has always attempted to take the rationalistic approach to current issues in American politics and philosophy. However he’s taken a hard stance on Free Will.

Ben Shapiro on Free Will

 Though not one of the central issues for the conservative commentator, Free Will nonetheless came up in his debate/discussion with Neuroscientist Sam Harris. 


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