Lecture 2: Freedom of the Will, I

Classical Liberalism

A Lecture Series with Prof. Thomas Patrick Burke

We saw in the first lecture that every human being is a distinct center of action;  that this center is located in the individual’s will, his power of deciding  or choosing to do certain actions rather than others; that the will is what chiefly individualizes each person; and that the will is not a mechanical cause but is teleological.  We saw that teleological causation is distinctive of living beings, is inherently purposive, and is reciprocal: it both causes and is caused by the other organic parts of the living being.  Action is not an accidental feature of human beings but an intrinsic demand of their teleological nature.  I turn now to discuss the most distinctive feature of the human will: its freedom.

The freedom of the will is the foundation of the moral order.

Only beings with free will belong to the moral order. An action that is the product of force does not belong to the moral order and cannot be either morally right or morally wrong.

All  beings with free will and all actions done under freedom belong to the moral order. As soon as free will appears on the scene, so also does the moral order, for every free action is subject to moral judgement.

In other words, freedom of the will is both a necessary and a sufficient condition for the presence of the moral order.

The moral order

As adult human beings we are conscious of a mysterious interior rule that tells us some actions are absolutely to be avoided, even though they might bring us personally substantial benefit, and other actions are good to do, even though they do not bring us any obvious or direct personal benefit and may even cause us harm.

Our consciousness of this twofold rule is accompanied by a sense of “oughtness” or obligation, which recognizes on the one hand that we have the power to do something else, namely to be guided by our natural concern for our personal well-being, but which gives us a special kind of reason not to do that something else which we could do, but to be guided instead by concern for the well-being of others, even though to our own detriment.

Almost everyone seems to acknowledge that moral goodness is the supreme kind of goodness, which trumps every other kind. All other forms of goodness, even that of life and existence, pale into insignificance beside it, and it is considered praiseworthy to sacrifice them for it.  In Dickens’s novel A Tale of Two Cities, set in the time of the French Revolution, there is a memorable scene where one man,  the Englishman Sydney Carton, who has been leading a dissolute life, in a deliberate act of self-sacrifice takes the place of another man, Charles Darnay, in the queue waiting for the guillotine.  He reassures Darnay and himself by saying “It is a far, far better thing I do than I have ever done.”  I believe most people reading the story will agree with and approve of this judgement. Why is this?  What is the distinctive quality that makes the ethical goodness of other people so attractive to us? For even those who themselves are not models of ethical conduct usually rejoice when they make the acquaintance of someone who is upright, honest, kind, and generous. We find these qualities admirable even when we do not personally benefit from them, when they are not directed or exercised toward us but toward someone else. We regard them as worthy to be imitated, even if we do not imitate them.

This mysterious interior rule is not addressed in the first place to our intellect, like a rule of mathematics or logic, but to our will. It is a matter of doing or not doing something, not a matter merely of understanding. It involves having a particular kind of motivation, and no armchair moralist can easily acquire a reputation for moral goodness simply by making moral judgments and doing nothing to act in accordance  with them. Furthermore the moral motive is not a form of self-interest, but is indeed expressly opposed to it. Moral goodness is not something envisaged as good for me, but for someone else, or as good simpliciter. “Justice is another’s good,” as Plato’s Thrasymachus points out. It may be our harm. Yet even though it be for our harm, we consider it good. This is the mystery of the moral life.

Like human beings themselves, every human action comprises two aspects or dimensions.

The reality of a human being is not exhausted by what can be experienced of him or her externally or empirically.  We are directly conscious that there is an interior dimension of our being which is not directly accessible to others: our consciousness itself.  We view this even as the more important aspect of our existence. A person may be prevented by accident or illness from leading an active external life, but may lead a rich and significant interior one.

Just as we have these two sides of our being, so also do our actions. On the one hand there is the exterior or objective action performed.  On the other there is the interior or subjective state of mind in which it is performed.  The interior dimension of actions includes such things as one’s intention, knowledge, honest ignorance — to be distinguished from willful ignorance  — and beliefs. While the exterior dimension of the action gives it its objective reality, it is the interior dimension that gives the action its meaning. If we wish to understand the significance of a person’s action for others, we must take into account his motive in doing it, which in turn will depend on his beliefs.

This applies especially to the moral meaning of actions. Often when people discuss what is the right and the wrong thing to do, they focus only on the exterior action.  An assumption is made that the agent’s interior state of mind corresponds to that, whether right or wrong. But in point of fact the interior dimension may not correspond with the exterior at all, the appearances may be deceptive, and in that case it is the interior dimension that is decisive for any judgement about the morality of the action. If a person does something which objectively is contrary to moral principle, for example by taking money belonging to someone else, but he honestly believed, mistakenly, that it belonged to himself, most people will agree that his actual action was not morally wrong and did not involve moral guilt.    Similarly if a person does an exterior action which is in accord with moral principle, for example helping an elderly woman across a busy street, but his intention is wicked, such as to make it easier for his accomplices to rob her, most people will agree that his actual action was wicked.  This is why even the civil law recognizes the necessity of mens rea (“a guilty mind”) if a person is to be convicted of a true punishable crime. From the point of view of moral value, it is the interior dimension of actions, the state of mind in which they are performed, and especially the motive or intention, that is decisive.  Only an action that is the product of a motive or intention has meaning, and moral meaning or moral value.

In the first lecture we pointed out that there are two fundamentally different kinds of causality in the world. There is mechanical causality, the causality of inanimate objects in nature and machines, in which the outcome appears to follow by necessity from events that preceeded it.  We know now from quantum mechanics that this appearance of necessity is not precisely true, but that the causality of inanimate nature produces only a probability.   And there is teleological causation, which we observe in living beings, where the movement or activity is guided, in the most mysterious way, which we do not understand at all,  by factors that do not yet exist, which we usually call a purpose.  The eye exists for the purpose of seeing, the heart for the purpose of pumping blood.

In saying these organs exist for a purpose, we are not necessarily attributing actual purpose to them, for purpose properly speaking is something that only a rational being can have. Although teleological organs suggest the existence of such a being as the most likely explanation, they do not prove it, because we cannot completely rule out a priori the possibility that they can be explained by ordinary mechanical causation. Rather we are making a comment about the possibilities of our own mind: we are saying that the only way it makes sense for us to think of them is as if they existed for a purpose.

Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection has been taken to imply it is purely a matter of chance that eyes see and hearts pump blood. In some primitive living being a cell twitched, causing liquid to move, and this proved by chance to be beneficial for the being in its struggle to stay alive, and so on. But this overlooks the slightly significant facts that the being was alive and that life is teleological.

The activity of a seed, by which it grows into a tree,  is guided somehow  by the concept of the tree, of the living whole that does not yet exist.  Human actions, of course, are the prime examples of teleological causation.  They are not the necessary product of events that took place earlier, but are directed towards a purpose. That is, they are produced not by a prior event but by a person, who has a motive or intention.  This motive or intention is part of the interior dimension of the action, and its decisive part, which creates its meaning.  Only teleological action or causation has meaning.

An action that is the product of force does not belong to the moral order and cannot be either morally right or morally wrong.

This is something everybody knows. An action that is the product of force is removed from the realm of meaning and thereby from the realm of morality, and falls back to the level of inanimate nature.  If I take your arm by physical force and use it to hit someone else on the face, the movement of your hand is not under your control.  Even though it is your hand, it is not your action. The movement of your hand cannot be imputed to you:  it does not belong to you.  The idea of imputation is important because it indicates ownership:  to impute something to somebody is to say it belongs to him and is his possession.  Since you do not cause the action performed by your hand when I have control of it, everybody knows you are not responsible for its effects. If the person struck should be injured in the eye, you bear no guilt for the injury.  The same thing is true if the movement of your hand is caused by an illness, such as an epileptic fit, or by a drug.  The same is true of the movements of a young child.

Consider the more realistic case where a man has been arrested by the police and handcuffed behind his back and is pushed into the back seat of the police car.  And imagine there is a baby sleeping on the back seat, perhaps under a blanket, and the baby is injured by the weight of the man landing on top of him. Was the arrested man guilty or responsible for the injury to the baby? Few people would accept such a viewpoint because although his body caused the injury, he was not in command of his action. It was not his action, but that of the person who pushed him.

In the theory of determinism, all human action is considered to be the product of mechanical causation, which is simply physical force or its chemical or other equivalent.  On the micro scale this is, within certain limits, random or a probability. But if all human action is the product of mechanical causation, no actions can be morally right or morally wrong.

This is in strong contrast to our normal understanding of the actions of an adult. Under normal circumstances the actions of an adult are viewed as under his control.  He decides or chooses to do them. Consequently the actions are seen as belonging to him, they are his actions.  And therefore he is considered responsible for them and their effects.  Our normal conception of human action is entirely different from either necessity, randomness or probability.  It is that adult human action is free and purposive.

An action that is free belongs immediately to the moral order. The whole moral order is present in it. Every free action can be judged morally right or morally wrong.

By freedom here I mean in the first place freedom from force or compulsion, whether internal or external.  The whole moral order includes the possibility of making judgements of responsibility, of praise or blame, guilt or innocence, reward or punishment

There are many degrees of freedom between full freedom and the complete absence of freedom.  A threat of force, for example, is very different from the actual use of force. A threat is a genuine restriction of freedom, but still leaves me to decide whether I will do the action or not. The degree of freedom present in an individual case depends on the details of the case.

The freedom of the human will is something unique in the universe.

It means that when a person acts, something new appears in the universe. It is not merely a continuation or the inevitable result of what went before, but is a new beginning.  It has been called into being by the will of the agent and exists only because it has been chosen.  It may be a repetition of another action done earlier, but if so it is a repetition that has been decided on by someone who could have decided to do just the opposite.  This is why individuals are inherently not predictable.

I know my actions are free because I know I had the power to do something different from what I did. How I know this will be discussed in the next lecture.

The freedom of the will is the foundation of human dignity.

Dignity is a worthiness to be respected.  By respect I mean not merely an emotion, but a rational recognition that the being in question places me under an obligation of some kind.

It is universally felt that a person who is in command of his actions is more worthy of respect than one who is not. Compare our reactions to a man who is sober and one who is drunk. I may  have obligations to the person who is not in command of his actions simply because he is a human being, but the person who is in command of his actions can quickly place me under new  concrete obligations, for example by making requests or giving orders. Quite apart from his relationship to myself, it is our usual judgement that the one is more entitled to respect than the other.

Now to possess freedom of will is just to be in command of one’s actions. As soon as a free will appears on the scene, all other beings possessing freedom of will are obliged to behave towards it in certain ways. It possesses natural rights.

Other senses of freedom of will

By the freedom of the will we mean in the first instance the interior and unpredetermined ability of a person to do something different from what he actually does. But in socialistic circles the freedom of the will is often understood differently. In this other understanding the freedom of the will is not something interior to the will, but exterior to it. It consists in a state of affairs outside the will itself, either in nature or in society, which allows the individual a wide range of choices at low cost to himself.  So a person who grows up in a typical Western or economically advanced society has a good deal of freedom of will because he has a wide range of choices available to him, but someone growing up in a poor Asian or African country has much less freedom of will because the range of choices open to him is much narrower.

The range of choices available to people is an important topic and we will discuss it later on. But it is not what we mean by freedom of the will. It cannot be the foundation of the moral order and it cannot be the foundation of human dignity.

But is there really a moral order?

Some people are skeptical about this. If you look at the way people behave, they feel, it does not exactly inspire you with confidence about a moral order. Every country has different ideas about what is right and what is wrong, embodied in different laws. Even within the same country people disagree about it.  Some have the power to make the laws, which claim to defend what is right and punish what is wrong, but these laws only represent their own views, which they impose on others for their own benefit. This was roughly the view of Marx.  At best, right and wrong are just a matter of opinion, these people feel. At worst, they are mere lies and pretension, a mask for power.

But freedom of the will has its own laws, and these constitute the moral order. We will look at some of them in more detail. They may be very different from the laws of a nation, or from the practices of people. They are often not easy to obey and may be very difficult indeed.  We all experience that difficulty in ourselves and it should not surprise us beyond measure.


Many people view morality chiefly in terms of utility. They see that certain ways of behaving have better consequences for our life together in society while others are detrimental to that, and they consider that to be the chief rule of morality.  Actions should be judged by their consequences.  This kind of view was systematized by the Utilitarians in their principle that a moral action is one that maximizes utility.  The rules of justice have been developed because experience has shown that they are beneficial. Utility itself they defined as whatever increases pleasure or decreases pain.

Utilitarian theory does not require belief in free will. Some strong supporters of the free society and free markets have thought that the freedom of the will was not important. John Stuart Mill’s book On Liberty, published in 1859, is usually considered a powerful defense of individual liberty, and in its first sentence Mill is at pains to say he is not going to talk about the freedom of the will, which people mistakenly believe is opposed to necessity.  Mill does not care whether people have free will or not. He views it as a useless question. He is only concerned about external freedom, freedom from restraint by other people.

There can be no doubt that utilitarian considerations can be in their own way true and important. Later in these lectures we will see there is a role to be assigned to them. It is even possible to build up a substantial theory of classical liberalism, the free society with free markets, on that basis. That was the achievement of Jeremy Bentham, Mill and their followers. Mill explicitly bases On Liberty on considerations of utility, forgoing, as he says, any advantage to his argument from the idea of abstract right.   It also seems to represent the view of many economists, such as Hayek.

But the usefulness of an action is only an external aspect of it. A person may be long dead and gone before the true usefulness or harmfulness of his action becomes apparent.  The importance we attach to interior intention in human actions suggests that utility cannot be the whole story of morality. Utilitarianism does not do justice to the interior dimension of moral action. Related to this, it does not give sufficient respect to the individual person. Of itself the utilitarian rule does not take account of the distinction between persons, but aims only to maximize the sum total of utility across individuals. This means it may be possible for the specially intense pleasure of one individual to outweigh and therefore justify the less intense pain of many others, which could legitimize slavery.  To avoid this Mill was compelled to introduce into his utilitarianism a further rule, that the pleasure or pain of each individual was to count as of equal weight with that of every other individual. But this rule cannot be explained in terms of utility alone and must call upon some outside source.  For somewhat similar reasons he made a distinction between lower pleasures and higher pleasures, which also cannot be explained in terms of utility alone. It is extremely difficult to give a satisfactory account of justice solely in terms of utility.

To recapitulate, our thesis has been that the freedom of the will is the foundation of the moral order, and therefore of human dignity; it is something unique in the universe.  But is there in reality such a thing as freedom of the will? We will take this question up in the next lecture.

(Continuation of Lecture 2)

The freedom of our human will is dignity. It means that I myself am my own master and under my own control.  It is I who determine what, among the things that are possible for me to do, I will do. I am not the slave of my inclinations or emotions, nor of the physical or mental or societal forces that exist in or around me outside of my will.  Though I am undoubtedly not the master of my fate, which amid the vicissitudes of this uncertain world would be a tall order, I am nevertheless the captain of my soul, because I can tell it what to desire.

But there is a deeper ground for human dignity than the fact that we are our own masters and under our own control.  The inherent freedom of the human will is the source and foundation of the moral order. Without this freedom it is nonsense to speak of ethics at all. But with it, every aspect of the ethical order is immediately present in all its fullness, both its duties and its rights and its ideals.  Without this freedom man is but a machine, or at most an animal. No doubt, it has become commonplace in our enlightened society to rank man as an animal.  It has become customary now for people to speak blithely of “man and the other animals” and to congratulate ourselves on our very unanimalian impartiality; and now many, especially in the academic world, even studiously refrain from calling man a “higher” animal on the fatuous and question-begging ground that science does not make value judgements.  It was never the task of science to give us values, but only accurate factual information about the world. Yet like all human actions science depends upon moral values: in its case, especially truthfulness.  That a being that possesses interior freedom of choice is higher or operates on a higher level than one whose actions are predetermined by nature is a judgement of ordinary rationality. Although human beings obviously have much in common with other animals, we are nonetheless separated from them by a chasm. The chasm consists in this, that we live in a universe of meaning and they do not. The universe of meaning in which we live can be described as rational or based on reason, but its real foundation is the freedom of our will and the ethical order that arises out of that, the fact that we are subject to ethical judgement and they are not. We can do good and they cannot; we can do evil and they cannot.  We are capable of having that good will which Kant rightly esteemed and they are locked into the prison of their desires.  We live in different universes: ours a universe of freedom, which transcends the forces of the mechanical and quantum-mechanical natural world, and which can also be our doom; theirs is one of necessity.

Without freedom of the will ethics is unthinkable and talk of it is mere nonsense. This was already clear to Aristotle, who begins his analysis of virtuous action in the Nicomachean Ethics by confining it to the realm of the voluntary, which is “up to us.”   If we once recognize that a person’s actions are not free but the product of causal necessity, perhaps under the influence of drugs, we see immediately that it makes no sense to attempt to pass an ethical judgement on it.  For what could it possibly mean, to say that the action of a machine was literally “unjust,”  “kind” or “mean”?  Here, let us say, is a man accused of a crime, arrested, handcuffed behind his back and being pushed into a jail cell.  Few people will judge that his act of entering the cell was either just or unjust, kind or mean. It is done under force and is the product of the police’s will, not his own.  The application of an ethical predicate to a being that does not possess freedom of will is, to use the kindest description, a category mistake.  It is a self-contradiction, an oxymoron. In passing judgement on human actions in our courts of law, we go to some trouble to distinguish those cases where the person’s freedom of will is untrammelled from those where it is compromised, and sometimes to make allowance for every tiny degree of approximation to the one side or the other. But if the suspect’s handcuffs are removed and he is restored to freedom, he immediately becomes fully answerable and responsible for his every action.

Moral goodness can occur only in freedom.  This is an essential part of what is meant by a morally good action. The idea that a morally good action could be predetermined, could be the product of a mechanical necessity or an inexorable natural process, of forces over which we have no control, is false to the most basic concept of morality. It mistakes morality for mere external utility: a catastrophic confusion which eliminates precisely what is distinctively human about the ethical life. Animals are thoroughly focussed on utility: their behavior is governed by the experience of pleasure and pain; but human beings are not confined within those narrow limits. No doubt an inexorable process can produce pleasure or pain.  But this is far removed from what is meant by morality. A moral action is not merely one that is externally in conformity with moral principle but one that is internally right, which desires what is morally good because it is morally good.  It means doing what is right because it is the right thing to do, not because it will increase the balance in my bank account. It is true that there is a minimum moral goodness which consists in the mere fact that the action is not immoral, and this should certainly not be despised: it is not nothing.  But this fact that it is sufficiently moral not to contravene the moral law is significant only if it was possible to contravene the moral law.  It is a moral action only because it could have been an immoral action. What is morally right may also be useful, and may be desired additionallybecause it is useful, but to say that an action is moral is to say that I have a sufficient reason to do it quite apart from any utility the action may possess and even if it should possess no utility at all but were to involve hardship and suffering for me. This can happen only in freedom. Biological or any scientific theories about the origins of morality, therefore, which omit the freedom of the will can never explain what is distinctive about moral value.

The freedom of the human will, which places you and me in the moral universe,  is by its nature sacred. It creates a moral demand: to be given respect, a respect that consists in leaving it alone, not infringing on it through the use of force.  The use of force on an adult human being, removing him out of the moral order and placing him back in the universe of sticks and stones, is a sacrilege.