Defining Libertarian Freedom

Tim

Stratton

(The FreeThinking Theist)

|

May 18, 2021

Question

Hey Dr. Stratton,

A fellow libertarian has taken issue with your definition of libertarian freedom. Although you offer multiple definitions in your book and other writings, you often describe libertarian freedom in the following manner: “the ability to choose among a range of alternative options, each of which is compatible with one’s nature at the moment of choice.” The objector said that this definition fails and “simply isn’t correct since it describes a view that Humean Soft Determinists affirm.”

The objector continued: “Humean soft determinists affirm that we possess the categorical ability to do otherwise, just like libertarians. These Humean determinists will also affirm that the options available to you must be one’s which are compatible with your nature.” He offered another definition which he believes is better:

1) we sometimes freely choose to act (or omit to act)
2) we are sometimes morally responsible for such actions (or omissions)
3) such freedom and responsibility are incompatible with causal determinism.

My interlocutor believes that the benefits of this definition are the following: “(1) it is neutral enough so as to not prejudice any particular model of libertarianism, (2) it is nuanced enough so as to exclude determinists, (3) it’s neutral to the question regarding whether or not omissions are actions.”

How would you respond to this objection?

– Scott


Dr. Tim’s Response

Thank you for sending this objection my way, Scott! The business of defining “libertarian freedom” and “determinism” can be knotty and perplexing. Because of this, scholars are typically patient with each other while trying to understand these notions. As you noted, I do try to cover all the bases and offer multiple definitions of libertarian freedom. There is nothing wrong with defining a term a certain way for a certain purpose. After all, there are many definitions to consider, and disagreements about definitions, of libertarian freedom. As explained in Human Freedom, Divine Knowledge, and Mere Molinism,

Libertarian freedom may be defined, essentially, as the conjunction of a rejection of compatibilism . . . along with the claim that humans (at least occasionally) possess free will. That is to say, the advocate of libertarian freedom affirms that people possess “freedom of moral and rational responsibility” . . . and “that the freedom necessary for responsible action is not compatible with determinism.”[1]

This definition is quite similar to that of your interlocutor’s preferred definition. Be that as it may, I make it clear that there are two ways of understanding the libertarian freedom of man.

. . . in simple terms, libertarian freedom sometimes refers to a categorical ability to act or think otherwise, and it always refers to source agency without any ultimate external causes. The former is sufficient for libertarian freedom while the latter is necessary.

In my response to philosopher Guillaume Bignon, I shared that the primary definitions of libertarianism that I seek to defend are twofold:

The first is what is referred to as sourcehood libertarian freedom, according to which (as I say in my book), “libertarian freedom always refers to source agency without any ultimate external deterministic cause” (p. 4). The second definition of libertarian freedom is “stronger” and often “referred to as a ‘leeway-based approach’ . . . or an ‘alternative possibilities approach.’”[2] As I noted on the fourth page of my book, one of the goals (at least whenever possible) was to argue for the stronger definition of libertarian freedom. I phrased it as follows: “The categorical ability to choose among a range of alternative options, each of which is consistent or compatible with one’s nature.” It could also be expressed as follows: “The ability to choose among a range of alternative options, each of which is compatible with the agent’s nature at the moment of choice, and the antecedent conditions are insufficient to causally determine the agent’s choice.”[3]

Your friend’s concerns are noted, but it is quite easy to slightly rejig the definition to alleviate his concerns. Consider the following description of libertarian freedom:

The opportunity to exercise an ability to choose among a range of options, each of which is compatible with one’s nature in a circumstance where the antecedent conditions are insufficient to causally determine the agent’s choice

Why does a determinist or compatibilist (who thinks determinism describes reality) fail to access this definition? Because if an agent’s choice is causally determined by something or someone else (other than the agent), then the agent simply does not possess an opportunity to think or choose otherwise (because alternative opportunities have been causally determined to be unavailable and incompatible with the agent’s nature at the moment of choice).[4] That is to say, if something or someone other than the agent causally determines the agent to think or act in a particular manner, then the agent does not have alternative options that are each compatible with the agent’s nature in that specific circumstance and at the moment in question (there is only one choice-option actually compatible with the agent’s nature at the moment of choice).

If there are no alternative opportunities actually available to the agent at the moment of choice, then the agent cannot fail to seize opportunities that are simply not there.[5] So, while the Humean Determinist might subjectively affirm that an agent’s thought is causally determined by something or someone other than the agent, and also affirm that the agent still possesses an opportunity to exercise an ability to think otherwise, that affirmation is incoherent. It is like one affirming that he is a married bachelor who is drawing triangles with four sides. Indeed, each of these affirmations are metaphysically impossible.

I am not interested in what one merely affirms, people affirm incoherent nonsense every day. I am concerned with arguments, thought experiments, and coherent models which logically explain reality.

Now, regarding your interlocutor’s preferred definition of libertarian freedom, although I am not opposed to it (I agree with each proposition), it does not seem to be particularly helpful (at least with the specific goals of thinking, mental evaluation, and rationality in mind).[6] This is the case because, unlike the definitions I have provided, it merely makes a series of statements about “actions” and “morality.” The vast majority of my time is not discussing mere actions or morality. Although I briefly address “moral responsibility” in my book (and in conversations with Dr. David Baggett on YouTube), my primary concern is “rational responsibility” (which I contend provides a foundation for moral responsibility) and opportunities to exercise abilities to take thoughts captive (2 Cor 10:5) before they become all consuming (Col 2:8). This is the epitome of “free-thinking” in a libertarian sense.

Moreover, I specifically explain exactly why “such freedom and responsibility are incompatible with causal determinism.” So, the definitions I offer combined with my explanations and thought experiments seem to be far “stronger” than what your friend asserts.

Stay reasonable (Isaiah 1:18),

Dr. Tim Stratton


Notes

[1] Craig & Moreland, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, 2017 (p. 303).

[2] Kevin Timpe, Leeway vs. Sourcehood Conceptions of Free Will (for the Routledge Companion to Free Will)

[3] Tyson James offered this formulation.

[4] Christopher Evan Franklin describes the powers of reflective self-control to include the capacities of evaluations, assessments, and decisions in light of those assessments. He also argues that one needs the opportunities to exercise these capacities in various manners—including a manner in which the agent does not actually exercise these capacities. He notes that if determinism is true, then an agent can only exercise these capacities in the way the agent actually does. Therefore, if determinism is true, then agents lack the opportunity to exercise the capacity in any other way. Franklin describes this nicely with Taylor Cyr and Matt Flummer on The Free Will Show (Episode 11): https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/episode-11-libertarianism-part-1-event-causal-christopher/id1525456786?i=1000505051937

[5]Christopher Evan Franklin provides further clarity regarding the different uses of the word “ability” and the importance of understanding it as the “Principal of Reasonable Opportunity.” See his book, A Minimal Libertarianism: Free Will and the Promise of Reduction (Oxford, Oxford Press, 2018), 42.

[6] Taylor Cyr recently noted that Peter van Inwagen believes that “free will is a term of art. You can, as a philosopher, stipulate what you mean by it.” See, The Free Will Show (Episode 20): https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/episode-20-season-2-q-a/id1525456786?i=1000522033290

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About the Author

Tim

Stratton

(The FreeThinking Theist)

Timothy A. Stratton (PhD, North-West University) is a professor at Trinity College of the Bible and Theological Seminary. As a former youth pastor, he is now devoted to answering deep theological and philosophical questions he first encountered from inquisitive teens in his church youth group. Stratton is founder and president of FreeThinking Ministries, a web-based apologetics ministry. Stratton speaks on church and college campuses around the country and offers regular videos on FreeThinking Ministries’ YouTube channel.

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