Determinism and Compatibilism as Two Main Contemporary Positions in the Problem of Free Choice

Categories: Philosophy

The problem of free choice is in essence a fundamental question of whether we have the ability to make choices or not? Though the answer may seem simple at first glance, the answer is much more complicated than it may intuitively seem. To support this claim, although this problem can be traced back to the Greek and Roman era, today it remains in virtually the same state as it did back then, and is still without an adequate solution.

Therefore, in this essay I am not attempting to make the rather bold statement of offering a solution to the problem of free choice, but rather, to offer a description of two main contemporary positions in the problem – which will be determinism and compatibalism – and to state which position I find more attractive, and the reasons as to why I am attracted to it.

Before a description of the two positions however, there must be a mutual understanding of what exactly the problem of free choice involves, and in order to do this, we must understand the notion of a free choice.

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For the sake of clarity, I will emphasize that choice by its very definition is free; thus, free choice, and choice can be used synonymously. The notion of choice in its most general form would be something like “a decision such that up moment it was made, another decision could have been made and which decision is made is up to the person making it” (Brooke & Stainton 136).

We must note that this definition is only a working definition, rather than a concrete one, because the idea that another decision could have been made’ is just as unclear as the notion of choice itself.

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However, this definition serves useful as a basic guideline, and any ambiguities in it will be clarified when I begin my discussion of the two main positions in the free-choice problem.

Thus, by combining my earlier statement that the problem of free choice is based on the question of whether we have choice or not, with the understanding of what a choice involves, the problem of free choice comes down to whether we can make a decision such that, up to the moment of decision, there are alternative possibilities, and that we are not limited to just one of those alternatives?

What is the determinist’s response to this question? Simply put, the determinist does not believe we have the power to make choices. Determinists hold this position because they are firmly entrenched in the belief that all our choices are causally determined, and it is as a direct consequence of this belief that the determinist reasons we cannot make choices.

To illustrate this notion, imagine a person who is faced with a choice between attending a party, and writing a philosophy paper. He deliberates on different variables such as how much he wants to go to the party, and how much he doesn’t want to write that paper, and might even try to foresee the possible consequences of his action.

Eventually, he comes to a decision to go to the party. Now intuitively, one wouldn’t doubt that the person’s decision was of his own accord; but the determinist would argue that one’s intuitions are ignorant of the fact that there was a complicated mechanism in which that person’s decision was actually determined. One might argue that the person’s deliberations and foresight can be indicative of some sense of choice, but still the determinist would claim that they too were determined.

The determinist’s argument would go something like the person’s decision to go to the party was caused by his overpowering enjoyment of parties, which was caused by a great experience he had at a previous party, which was caused by a very attractive person he met at that party, and so on in an endless chain of causation, and through this reasoning the determinist’s brings us to his main point that since every aspect of our choice is under the control of some long chain of causes beyond us, that we do not have the power to make choices.

Now although the compatibilist agrees with the determinist’s premise that all our choices are causally determined, the compatibilist does not agree with the determinist’s premise that casual determinism is incompatible with free choice. Like their name, compatibilists believe that determinism, and free choice rather than nullifying the other, are compatible; that they can mutually co-exist, and even complement each other.

There are a wide variety of compatibilistic models out there that are all based on this general idea, but the one I will be focusing on in particular is the compatibilistic model that was proposed by A.J Ayer, in his paper, ‘Freedom and Necessity’. Ayer’s compatibilistic model is based on the principle goal of applying moral responsibility to our actions, and to accomplish this goal, Ayer states that we must be able to make choices.

However, this entails that we must have the freedom to make choices, and as Ayer points out, we have run into problems with the determinist, in trying to reconcile this freedom with causality. Ayer’s proposal is rather than contrasting freedom with causality, that it should be contrasted with constraint. Hence, in the context of this new perspective Ayer states that, “[although] my action is causally determined it does not necessarily follow that I am constrained to do it” (Ayer, 404).

In other words, although our choices may be determined, it is only when I am constrained that I lose the freedom to make choices, and accordingly, cannot be held morally responsible for my action. But in what instances are we constrained? We can answer this question, by looking at its converse that is in what instances are we not constrained?

And according to Ayer there are three conditions that must be met: that I could have acted otherwise if I had so chosen; my actions were voluntary, in the common sense, and that nobody compelled me to choose as I did. Hence, when any of these conditions are not met, it can be said that we are legitimately constrained.

The notion of constraint can be illustrated in the case of the kleptomaniac, who is a person with an obsessive-compulsive disorder to steal. When it comes to stealing, the kleptomaniac does not go through a process of deliberation, and even if he did, this would not deter his stealing.

Consequently, his action is not voluntary, and thus, it can be said that he is constrained. In another example, there is an individual who points a gun to my head, and threatens to kill me if I do not meet his demands. Now, although I still have the power to disobey him, I am in such a circumstance that any reasonable person would agree that I have no choice but to meet his demands; and in doing so, it can said that I am constrained.

Yet, one might reasonably ask what difference does constraint have with the notion of causality, as proposed by the determinist? Does not causality still prevent us from making choices? Indeed, the answer to this question lies in a firm understanding of Ayer initial proposition, which states that we posses the freedom of choice even when our actions are caused, and lose the freedom of choice only, and only if we are subject to compulsion (its criterions stated earlier).

All that is needed for causation is that one event which is said to be the effect would not have occurred if it had not been for the occurrence of the event which is said to be the cause, and as Ayer states, “[in causality) there is an invariable concomitance between two classes of events; but there is no compulsion” (Ayer, 405).

Thus, when the determinist makes the claim that our actions are determined, Ayer suggests that he simply means our actions are capable of being explained, but since this does not entail that we are under compulsion, as a result we retain the power to make choices. In light of the previous arguments, I believe that Ayer’s compatibilistic model seems to adequately resolve the free-choice problem, and any conflicts that are brought on to it by the determinist.

As well, Ayer’s model gives credit to our intuitions that we have the ability to make choices, and provides us a working model for the application of moral responsibility to our actions, which is crucial to the underpinnings of society by its impact on law, and personal relationships. Whereas the determinist simply states that we cannot make choices, which consequently makes moral responsibility impossible, and leaves one more in a state of confusion, than enlightenment.

Hence, I find Ayer’s compatibilistic position to be more attractive than the determinist’s position, and the only way the determinist might convince me otherwise, is in the certainty of a sole scientific explanation for our actions, which at the present moment, is not the case. The determinist might make a final plea by stating that it will only be a matter of time before he makes such discoveries, but as A.J Ayer states “until those discoveries have been made, this remains only a pious hope” (Ayer, 403).

Works Cited

  1. Brook, Andrew, and Robert J. Stainton. Knowledge and Mind: A Philosophical Introduction. MIT Press, 2000.
  2. Ayer, A.J. Freedom and Necessity. (1954) Philosophical Essays. New York: St. Martin’s Press. Reprinted in S.A. Cahn, Philosophy for the 21th Century: A Comprehensive Reader, 401-406.
  3. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Cite this page

Determinism and Compatibilism as Two Main Contemporary Positions in the Problem of Free Choice. (2021, Oct 06). Retrieved from

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