I understand compatibilism to mean that an action can be free if it is self-determined by the agent, even if it would have been impossible for the agent to choose any other action. Consider the following analogy.

Person A is a slave who has had some sort of brain control device implanted. This brain control device does the following and nothing else. It makes the person it's controlling desire to continue providing free labor under horrible conditions(being a slave) more strongly than they desire to leave and do anything else. There are also no laws prohibiting person A from leaving, and it has been made completely clear to person A that there will be no punishment for them trying to leave. In fact their owner has told A that they will give A some starting money to help them out if they leave.

Is person A free? It seems like a compatibilist must say yes, because their continued decision to remain a slave is their own decision, it is not from fear of consequences or anything like that. They are choosing to stay because it is truly what they want to do, and to a compatibilist the fact that they couldn't "want otherwise" is irrelevant. But I think most people would have a problem calling someone in this situation free.

It just seems to me like compatibilism is a word game created just to give us "free will", but in doing so it completely devalues its own concept of free will. Also feel free to suggest any additional tags or for me to remove a tag. I included linguistics because I think this is mainly an issue of how free will is defined, but I could totally understand if many people thing that it's an irrelevant tag.

EDIT: So I just had an idea for a rebuttal defending compatibilism, so the rest of this paragraph is like me putting on my compatibilist hat for a minute. In order for the slave to choose otherwise, they would have to be free to act against their own will. But would acting against your own will really be a freely chosen action? For that action to be chosen by the agent (and therefore freely willed), the action HAS to be what the agent wills to do. Surely if you want to have a hamburger for dinner, but your parents make you eat spinach, you haven't freely chosen spinach for dinner.

So would the above paragraph be a valid defense of compatibilism? Essentially that not accepting the slaves choice to continue being a slave as free is the same as demanding a logical impossibility to define an action as free?

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    Don't really know much about this subject, but some have argued the free will of compatibilism isn't really free will as we normally use it.
    – APCoding
    Commented Jan 2, 2017 at 2:02
  • @APCoding Yea that's the point I'm trying to make. It's just redefining free will and then saying that we have their new redefined free will. Do you have any sources where I could read more about that?
    – monster319
    Commented Jan 2, 2017 at 5:15
  • I didn't read the Q carefully but there are reams of papers on compatibilist accounts of freedom. One position held by some libertarians wrt freedom and some determinists is that the compatibilist position is really just a determinist position. But much hinges on the conditions necessary for freedom and thus the definition of freedom which itself far from clear. Please see plato.stanford.edu/entries/freewill and plato.stanford.edu/entries/compatibilism . Can you then narrow specify the nature of your question that we can answer about the compatibalist attempt?
    – virmaior
    Commented Jan 2, 2017 at 9:34
  • @monster319 The Wikipedia page of compatibilism talks about this view under the criticisms section. "incompatibilists may agree that the compatibilists are showing something to be compatible with determinism, but they think that something ought not to be called 'free will'". Most of the references under that section talk about this issue (I haven't read any of them).
    – APCoding
    Commented Jan 2, 2017 at 21:27

2 Answers 2


Compatibilism might be expressed as follows:

Every voluntary act is free from any immediate determination which is completely random or external to our nature.

Although external factors influence or have an effect on our decisions, our voluntary decisions are the ultimate arbiters, and it is in this sense that I mean they are "immediate* determinations.

Logically, this may be formulated as follows:

  • Vx = x is a voluntary act
  • Rx = y is completely random
  • Ey = y is external to our nature
  • Dyx = y immediately determines x

∀x[Vx → ~Ǝy[(Ry ∨ Ey) & Dyx]

It can be proven that the denial of this implies:

Ǝx[Vx & Ǝy[(Ry ∨ Ey) & Dyx]]

In other words, those who are denying compatibilism are advocating a species of freedom that involves some "voluntary" acts which are either completely random or determined by something external to our nature. Jonathan Edwards argued at a length against such a notion of freedom:

"Now let it be considered to what this brings the noble principle of human Liberty, particularly when it is possessed and enjoyed in its perfection, viz. a full and perfect freedom and liableness to act altogether at random, without the least connexion with, or restraint or government by, any dictate of reason, or any thing whatsoever apprehended, considered, or viewed by the understanding; as being inconsistent with the full and perfect sovereignty of the Will over its own determinations." (Freedom of the Will, p. 83)

Rather than the compatibilism's notion of freedom being merely a "word game," it's the only form a freedom worthy of the name and consistent with experience. On the other hand, those who would advocate some other form of freedom are using the notion of voluntary in an empty sense, because it involves determinations which are either random or beyond our control. I believe this is essentially what you were saying with your rebuttal argument.


Well, I'm inclined to say that compatibilism doesn't seem to afford us the sort of free will we appear to subjectively experience. However, it would be a mistake to assert that there isn't a substantive difference between person X is determined to engage in some act Y due to very strong predilection and X engaging in some act at gun point. The latter seems to be what strong determinism asserts. Your choices are your choices even if they are determined. So, compatabilism isn't merely a semantic trick. It's rather the reconciliation of strong determinism and the implausibility of libertarian free will.

  • I don't think strong determinism asserts what you are saying it asserts, or even anything related. It simply asserts that if some person A is holding person X at gunpoint, that person A had no choice but to choose to hold X at gunpoint. Similarly person X has no choice but to act however they end up acting. They could act against how person A is demanding them to act, resulting in them getting shot. But how they act is predetermined. But still compatibilism changes the definition of free will from "ability to act regardless of predetermination" do "ability to act according to self-will".
    – monster319
    Commented Jan 2, 2017 at 8:00
  • @monster319: The term "choice" and "free will" have no meaning in strong determinism, therefore strong determinism is the one that is "word-playing": It uses meaningful terms, stating they were meaningless. The other way round, we have to admit that when we are speaking of choice and responsibility, we are obviously not speaking in terms of deterministic nature. So we either speak meaningful about two ontologically different realms (dualism) or in categorically different languages about one and the same thing (compatibilism). Compatibilism is not necessarily dualistic, though.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Jan 2, 2017 at 13:40
  • I'm inclined to say that compatibilism doesn't seem to afford us the sort of free will we appear to subjectively experience - believe it or not, this question is one of the main conversation points in compatibilist philosophy, with many arguing it's actually EXACTLY what most people intuitively mean by 'free will'. There's various arguments and pieces of evidence both for and against this claim, but you definitely should not take it for granted that compatibilist free will is not the intuitive sort of free will people subjectively experience.
    – TKoL
    Commented Dec 13, 2023 at 11:51

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