Free Will: Responsibility or Predetermination?

People use their free will to make decisions every day: what to eat for breakfast, when to leave home, how much time to spend on social media, and many others. The choice is often quick and subconscious; the current pace of living simply does not leave much time to analyze the causes and consequences of a chosen course. However, sometimes, people put significant effort into decision making and, in a way, determine their future. Numerous factors, such as environment, upbringing, and social connections, affect human choices, but they do not take away the responsibility for the consequences of individual actions.

Free Will Theories

It is challenging to work with a broad and wage idea of a free will, although philosophers worldwide have touched on it. As Lavazza (2019) points out, there is no universally accepted definition of it. Thus, any discussion about the existence of human free will is more about the points of view than an absolute truth. Some philosophers state that people’s behavior is predetermined by their circumstances and cannot be changed instantly at the moment of decision making. This view assumes that humans are not responsible for their actions, as they cannot affect the result. Subsequently, people would think less about those potentially affected by them by separating themselves from the consequences of their actions.

Others consider human desires to follow a specific path of action to be the main propelling force behind the events. In this case, people carry either partial or full responsibility for their actions (List et al., 2020). Robert M. Chisholm, a libertarian philosopher, does not deny the effect of circumstances on people’s decisions, but separates them from individual’s reaction, leaving some responsibility in place (McKenna & Pereboom, 2016). While philosophers did not come to a single conclusion about the free will, they have presented several possibilities on this subject to be studied and discussed further.

Roderick Chisholm on Free Will

Chisholm supports the combined influence of the world and the person’s free will on the individual’s choice-making but states that people are responsible for their reactions and decisions as mindful and social beings. He wrote that, in some cases, “in doing what we do, we cause certain events to happen and nothing – no one – causes us to cause those things to happen” (McKenna & Pereboom, 2016, p. 62). Chisholm’s views take into account more factors than opposing theories, as he divides the responsibility for the events taking place.

Most decision-making occurs in a complex environment: past and present experiences, a particular atmosphere, and timing. Moreover, a person’s moral upbringing and intelligence play a part in their choices. While humans cannot control major physical and social forces, they can choose how to behave about them, and this reaction is their responsibility (List et al., 2020). This approach analyses more factors than supporting solely free will or determinism.

The Opponents of Chisholm’s Theory

Pereboom and Caruso do not support Chisholm’s theory about free will. According to them, “free will is an illusion, but this does not affect our lives” (Lavazza, 2019, p. 1). In other words, all people’s actions and decisions are based on biological and physical circumstances, and the feeling of control in the human mind is just a trick played by the brain. In addition, since human natural and social responses are usually directed at the safety of an individual and society’s prosperity, there is no actual need for free will.

Not all philosophers connect or even correlate the free will with responsibility and morals. Sometimes people act out of fear or greed, without having any greater good in mind. Peter van Inwagen defines free will as “the ability to do otherwise,” not necessarily facing the immoral behavior’s consequences afterward (as cited in McKenna & Pereboom, 2016, p. 154). This goes back to the problem of defining the free will for the discussion purposes.

Chisholm’s Theory: Response to Criticism

It would not be proper to consider all the factors that affect human decision making to have the same influence. For example, solar activity is impossible for people to control, political movements require significant social power, and one’s irritation while commuting to school can be easily controlled by inner discipline. Yet, all of them may have an effect on one’s behavior. Chisholm divides the factors into two groups: the ones people can control and the ones they cannot. The former ones can be considered deterministic, as they are nearly impossible to avoid. The latter ones, including non-reflexive human reactions, can be controlled; thus, people should be responsible for them. The world in which individuals would not affect anything cannot exist (McKenna & Pereboom, 2016). Moreover, strict determinism would prevent society from developing, as people would have no motivation to change the world around them for the better.

Chisholm argues against free will being merely an opportunity to choose an alternative action under certain circumstances. As human beings and society members, people would exercise free will through moral dilemmas and face the consequences afterward. He also uses examples of people being confused or misled in making their decisions to show how simplifying the free will to physical actions does not reflect its substance (McKenna & Pereboom, 2016). Humans are responsible for their ways of reacting to particular situations and problems.

The Essence of the Free Will

The free will has always been a controversial topic, as for people it is hard to separate their personal influence from the biological or psychological reaction. Philosophers have tried to describe the characteristics of this phenomenon. For example, List defines them as having a goal, alternatives, and inner motivation (List et al., 2020). According to these requirements, any unintentional actions cannot be caused by free will. In their turn, McKenna and Pereboom (2016) put moral responsibility forth as an essential factor. In their interpretation, the exercising of free will is a mindful practice with a set goal. While it can be tempting for humans to put all the responsibility onto higher beings (like God) or natural forces, connecting free will to the moral decisions may lead to further development of the society.


Free will is a complex and hard to comprehend phenomenon that humans may never be able to understand completely. Philosophers have been arguing about its definition and meaning for centuries, yet there is still no universal guideline to exercising the free will. Chisholm’s theory on it seems more thorough than strictly deterministic and non-deterministic ones. It promotes individual moral responsibility for personal decisions without denying the impossibility of controlling some factors. In the end, people can look deeper and broader into the meaning of the free will and choose the definition that reflects their life views better, as no universal guideline exists to this moment.


Lavazza, A. (2019). Why cognitive sciences do not prove that free will is an epiphenomenon. Frontiers in Psychology, 10, 326. Web.

List, C., Caruso, G., & Clark, C. (2020). Free will: Real or illusion? A debate. The Philosopher, 108(1), 1-20. Web.

McKenna, M., & Pereboom, D. (2016). Free will: A contemporary introduction. Routledge.

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