I have heard that humans have a limited or constrained free will, especially when biological limitations are brought up. However, Merriam-Webster dictionary says:


1a: confined within limits: RESTRICTED



1a: to force by imposed stricture, restriction, or limitation

Also, among the many definitions of free is:


8a: not obstructed, restricted, or impeded

Does this mean limited free will is the same as restricted unrestricted will?

What is limited free will?

  • 1
    @Gordon. I flinch at questions on free will. Since the question was put, however, I thought (perhaps mistakenly) that I might be able to clarify the terms that puzzled the OP. Strawson's essay is a magnificent piece, I agree, It's a ray of light in the inky darkness.
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Oct 3, 2018 at 13:10
  • 1
    You are right, I had a spell of insanity.
    – Gordon
    Oct 3, 2018 at 15:18
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    When I walk around a park I am not obstructed or restricted, in the colloquial sense, but of course I am restricted by gravity, placement of the trees, etc. Free will is restricted by physical laws, biological constitution, etc., hence "limited", but presumably is not fully determined by them, hence "free".
    – Conifold
    Oct 3, 2018 at 18:14
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    @Conifold: Care to elaborate this argument in a proper answer?
    – Philip Klöcking
    Oct 3, 2018 at 20:00
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    @PhilipKlöcking I do not know what to say beyond this banality, the question seems definitional and hangs on loose colloquial use of "restricted" and "limited". I am not even sure it is not off-topic.
    – Conifold
    Oct 3, 2018 at 23:57

5 Answers 5


I am not familiar with the expression, 'limited free will', but I can see a sense in which it could be used.

The so-called libertarian view holds that X is free (has free will) at time t1 if and only if for some event or set of events, E2, there is no event or set of events, E1, that precedes E2 and is causally sufficient for E2. For 'events' we can read 'actions', which are a type of event.

In other words and in more detail, at time t1 for those actions in respect of which X is free, whatever the laws of nature and whatever the conditions of action, X can do simply any action that X chooses - and (a) X's choice, C1, itself is such that there is no event or set of events, E3, that precedes C1 and is causally sufficient for C1 and (b) X's action results from X's choice.

One might properly call this unlimited free will. (I offer no opinion as to its existence.)

In contrast, limited free will would take constraining factors into account in this sort of way :

At time t1, X could have chosen otherwise, C2, if X's desires and character had been different.

This leave's the agent's choice as the vital element but constrains that choice by the state of the agent's character and desires. One might in this case say that the agent had limited free will.

I am trying to conduct a purely conceptual exercise. What I think about free will - its reality or limits - cannot be inferred from anything here.


The objection, perfectly interesting, has been made :

Wouldn’t it be more appropriate to say the first example is an unlimited will which is truly free, whereas the second example is a limited will but in no way free? Or are unlimited and unrestricted not good synonyms for free in this context?

I find free will too tricky a topic to be dogmatic about but I'm inclined to reply that I think a choice limited by one's own desires and character is free; after all, one may have a range of choices given one's character and desires. It is not as if, given one's character and desires, there is only one possible choice. Given my character and desires, I may have choices 1, 2, 3 .... n. The actual choice I make is not determined by my character and desires, which merely set limits to the choices I can make.

  • Wouldn’t it be more appropriate to say the first example is an unlimited will which is truly free, whereas the second example is a limited will but in no way free? Or are unlimited and unrestricted not good synonyms for free in this context?
    – Cannabijoy
    Oct 3, 2018 at 13:30
  • I think a choice limited by one's own desires and character is free; after all, one may have a range of choices given one's character and desires. It is not as if, given one's character and desires, there is only one possible choice. Given my character and desires, I may have choices 1, 2, 3 .... n. The actual choice I make is not determined by my character and desires, which merely set limits to the choices I can make.
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Oct 3, 2018 at 13:58
  • @elliot svensson. Yes, thank you indeed for the correction. Much appreciated - Best : Geoffrey
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Oct 3, 2018 at 14:51

Well, the "Term Limited free Will" is not a popular one and I found a piece On "Limits of Free Will" as visualized by Sartre and a brief of the work is given below- may be interesting in this context.

What are the limits of free will?

Do people have free will or is this an illusion and importantly at what point does our free will merge with existing sociological and environmental pressures?

Let us examine Jean-Paul Sartre's existential approach to free will and the concept of being, to consider his argument and if modern developments in Psychology can add to this argument.

The theory of free will proposed by Jean-Paul Sartre was controversial and revolutionary in opposing existing thought upon the subject. In considering this with his ontological view of free will was not in keeping with the existing paradigm of thought which was compatibilism.

'Compatibilism is the view that free will and determinism are actually compatible' (Wright, 2005),

for example being casually determined while having a free will to choose another path. Sartre argues for an opposing viewpoint, incompatibilism which argues that free will is not compatible with determinism.

For Sartre, ‘What we call freedom is impossible to distinguish from the being of ‘human reality’. Man does not exist first in order to be free subsequently; there is no difference between the being of man and his being-free.'(Sartre, 1974) The theory of freedom [Part One, Chapter 1, Section V, 24-45/60-84 and Part Four, Chapter 1, Section I] )

Sartre begins with the point that we can be free in relation to the things of the world, only if our self-relation contains freedom: 'human reality can detach itself from the world [ ... ] only if its own nature is that of self -detachment' (Sartre, J.P., 1974: 25/61), this self-detachment certainly appears similar to the rationalist approach of body and mind distinction which allows to a reflective detachment as an ontological approach, and at odds with the idea of compatibilism which would suggest that we are engaged with the world rather than detached from it.

To begin let us focus on three areas of Being and Nothingness to begin to understand Sartre's view of free will.

(1) Existence precedes essence.’(Sartre, 1974)

Sartre suggests that we must begin from the subjective. For Sartre, this fact fundamentally alters our way of thinking about human beings. Our essences — our definitions — come at the end of our lives, not at the beginning.

Thus, for Sartre, living your life is like writing a novel, like creating a work of art. Before it’s done, it doesn’t make any sense to ask what it “really” is, whether it is satisfactory or not. Those questions have answers only when it is completed.

In effect, what Sartre is doing is rejecting any kind of notion of a “personality”

deep down inside me, a “real me” hidden by the more or less false “public” me. (This is a theme developed at considerable length in Transcendence of the Ego.) It follows, of course, that Sartre would reject all the fashionable “self-help” books that tell you to get in touch with your “real self,” to let it out.

For Sartre, he rejects the real aspect of the self. He argues against the argument for design which has typically been used to this point by Philosophers in the ontological argument to define God's existence in providing our creation. Sartre uses the reverse as his argument that our existence precedes essence. ‘(2) Each man is responsible for all men.’(Sartre, 1974)

Individuals are responsible for all choices and how those choices shape the individual, for example, you are not condemned by your past choices but can alter your thinking through conscious decision to follow a new path. Certainly, this would suggest a moral responsibility not seen in previous philosophical approaches for many years and especially considering this was not based on religious argument or ontological approach.

Sartre is uncompromising about personal choices and the results they produce, he defines in his book the emotions and elsewhere that choices based on emotional influence offer no excuse. Emotions are adoption through action and are not passive to our experience.

'Sartre gives an example of a patient of the French psychologist Pierre Janet. She went to Janet with some problem to discuss (we aren’t told what it was). As she talked with Janet and got closer and closer to the main point, the tension began to build — the emotional level of the conversation began to rise. Finally, just as she was about to blurt out what the real problem was, the emotional tension reached the point that she broke down in tears, and couldn’t continue. Sartre’s response is: “Wasn’t that convenient!” It wasn’t that she couldn’t continue because she was all choked up and couldn’t talk' (Spade, 1996)

Furthermore, Sartre argues that there is no unconscious which relates to his direct opposition to the Freudian Psychoanalysis at the time.

His approach of personal choice and personality determined through decision is appealing; he is uncompromising and provides many positive approaches to otherwise difficult moral and personal decisions.

'He suggests that to change and adapt to challenges a person in naturally future-directed which is also being considered very favorably in Psychology today. He makes no apologies for criminals and still maintains that they have chosen and continue to choose that way of life 'But the existentialist, when he portrays a coward, shows him as responsible for his cowardice.

He is not like that on account of a cowardly heart or lungs or cerebrum, he has not become like that through his physiological organism; he is like that because he has made himself into a coward by his actions. …What people feel obscure, and with horror, is that the coward as we present him is guilty of being a coward.

What people would prefer would be to be born either a coward or a hero…. If you are born cowards, you can be quite content, you can do nothing about it and you will be cowards all your lives whatever you do; and if you are born heroes you can again be quite content;

*you will be heroes all your lives, eating and drinking heroically. Whereas the existentialist says that the coward makes himself cowardly, the hero makes himself heroic; and that there is always a possibility for the coward to give up cowardice and for the hero to stop being a hero.' (Sartre, 1974: 359-360; Spade, 1996) *Indeed Sartre continues in stating that we are responsible not only for own choices but for how our actions impact upon others. : 'And, when we say that man is responsible for himself, we do not mean that he is responsible only for his own individuality, but that he is responsible for all men.' (Sartre, 1974: 350).**

So our actions indicate our values and therefore shape not only ourselves but those around us.

'To choose between this or that is at the same time to affirm the value of that which is chosen. We are unable ever to choose the worse.'(Sartre, 1974:350), this relates to the Socratic Paradoxical argument that no one ever willing chooses to do evil. So why would anyone ever conduct such an action if he was free?

His reply is you are not aware that it is evil, no one should choose an action which would present long-term damage but examples are in evidence daily for example smoking and drinking. For Socrates, there was a distinction between good and evil but for Sartre, there are no absolutes, it is rather a process of choice and benefit analysis and certainly given there is no excuse for ignorance as this is another choice of not becoming educated.

(3) Man is condemned to be free.

So far Sartre has suggested that freedom is personal and unlimited, but states a startling opinion. I am free to choose, but not chosen to be free, meaning that life and freedom are imposed upon us and that we have a responsibility to use that freedom wisely. Condemned to be free, “Condemned, because he did not create himself, yet is nevertheless at liberty, and from the moment that he is thrown into this world he is responsible for everything he does.” (Sartre, 1974:353). This is the definition origin of Sartre's no freedom to be free. By continuing Sartre describes that free will versus determinism must be reconsidered, there is no choice to begin, only the possibility of best choice from a range of alternatives given, for example, a cross-roads showing different routes.

I am free to choose given the contextual position I find myself in and to blame the choices on the environment for Sartre is insufficient. Certainly, determinists would argue that certain positions offer little choice and that our choices are pre-determined based upon a number of factors including social standing, environment, genetics etc. Psychological contributions to free will debate 'Potential threats to our free will, therefore, would include any theory or evidence suggesting that our conscious deliberations do not influence our actions (contra CR) or that we tend to be motivated by unconscious influences we would reject if we knew about them (MR). (Again, these threats to free will are entirely consistent with determinism and the falsity of determinism.)

So, our free will would be threatened by a theory that says our conscious mental states are causally irrelevant to action (epiphenomenalism). Of course, we all act without conscious reflection sometimes, and we are all subject to cases of ignorance and rationalization.

The question is whether these challenges to our free will are more pervasive than we realize?' (Nahmias, 2013)

Increasing empirical evidence from cognitive and neuropsychology indicates that conscious mental processes can be minimal or automated to an extent.. 'This research suggests that when people make moral judgments, they often act on immediate gut reactions and their conscious deliberations just come up with post hoc rationalizations for these gut reactions.'(Nahmias, 2013)

Examples of studies which highlight group conformity and social obedience have indicated how free will can be diminished (Asch, 1951; Milgram 1963; Zimbardo 1989), but can we really believe that we never have a choice? I would suggest that we retain our capacity for logical and reflective thought upon action which maintains our actions in relation to Sartre's argument that our actions determine not only our current state but our state of being.

There has been a significant debate between naturalists and situationist’s whether our actions are predictable and innate behaviors are definable, many people, when questioned about their responses of social conformity, would respond by stating the opposite result but the studies show otherwise. 'In many of the relevant experiments from social psychology, there is little or no correlation between the character traits (as self-reported or measured in other ways) that subjects think matter and their own or others’ actual behavior' (Nahmias, 2013). This suggests that the traits we endorse or aspire to develop tend to be ineffective given the power of certain situational factors.

Finally, because we do not know about the power of situational factors, our explanations of our own and others’ actions are based on mistaken folk theories and inaccurate introspection. Our capacity to act in accord with our reasons is limited to the extent we do not know why we do what we do. As shaping our behavior through conscious decision were are more likely to respond to such situations more favorably. Certainly, there is scope for further research to change established paradigms on an issue which is still open to debate.

Philip Zimbardo in his book The Lucifer Effect (2007) proposes his view on social conformity and lack of free will 'It should be clear that not even the best psychology can predict how each and every individual will behave in a given situation; some degree of individual variance always exists that cannot be accounted for.'.

Given his extensive experience in social learning, social conformity and presence at the Abu Ghraib military investigation into prison abuses within the US military it is certainly a positive approach towards the responsibility of free will and the necessity of reflecting on our actions and to where they lead. 'One of the great advantages of our species is the ability to explore and understand our social world and then to use what we know to make our lives better' (Zimbardo, 2008). This relates back to Jean-Paul Sartre's emphasis on being for others, quoting Baumeisters (2008) paper on free will and psychology 'Sartre (1943/1974) argued passionately in favor of human freedom. He contended that people are always, inevitably free—‘‘condemned to freedom,’’ in his famous phrase. Life is a series of choice points, and at each choice point, you could have chosen differently than you did.’ (Baumeister, 2008). Many

psychologists would argue against free will in support of determinism, research has by now shown that people are sometimes mistaken when they believe their actions to be free, insofar as factors outside their awareness do exert a causal influence on them (Bargh, 1994; Wegner, 2002; Wilson, 2002; Baumeister, 2008).

we are not proposing that free will is unlimited and not without its outside and environmental, sociological and cultural influences, but as Sartre suggests we must be resolute and dedicated to pursuing the choices we deem are good and worthwhile and not simply reacting to temporary forces at work.

(PDF) What are the limits of free will? Sartre and Psychology. Available from: >https://www.researchgate.net/publication/314095650_What_are_the_limits_of_free_will_Sartre_and_Psychology [accessed Oct 03 2018].


Limited free will makes reference to the fact of always having limited possible paths to follow, for example you can accelerate an object but yoh cannot go beyond certain speed even if you want to, so this concept is actually very interesting from a physics/philosophy perspective, a lot of everyday situations fall in this category like for example saying that the decisions you make were always predetermined and maybe you could say if i wanted i would chosen another girlfrien but that is not true because you were determined to choose the current one even if at that time you felt "free" to choose anything


Robert Kane, a proponent of the "causal indeterminist or event-causal libertarian" view of free will defines free will as follows (page 269):

...there is at least one kind of freedom worth wanting that is not compatible with determinism. This additional important freedom, as I see it, is "free will," which I define as "the power to be the ultimate creator and sustainer of some of one's own ends or purposes."

Note the word "some". This is where one can talk about free will being "limited".

On the contrary, what would a determinist have to insist upon to defeat this type of free will? A determinist would need to assert that there does not exist any power for an agent, such as a human being, to be "the ultimate creator and sustainer of" any of that agent's own ends or purposes.

Limited free will does not require the agent to have full and complete power over their actions. It just requires "the power to be the ultimate creator and sustainer of some of one's own ends or purposes."


Robert Kane, "Free Will: New Foundations for an Ancient Problem", Proceedings of the British Academy 48 (1962) reprinted in Free Will, Hackett Readings in Philosophy Second Edition, edited by Derk Pereboom 2009.


Some of Sartrian points explaining why we are not capriciously free individuals. That partly answers on "restricted freedom". In what sense are we restricted and not unlimited in our choices?

  • Even refusal to choose is the choice made, a choice with its consequencies, thus not to choose is impossible. There is always 2+ possibilities to choose among, but a man is not free not to choose.

  • Situation is organized, not is released. It presents some possibilities while conceals other ones. I cannot choose among what I don't perceive. It also is organized in a form of outer-world instrumental requirements therefore demanding consistency from my actions I choose.

  • Primeval Other is not an object but a "lateral gaze" for my consciousness (that is why it precedes "I" and makes solipsism impossible), so the consciousness cannot be free against it (like it always free against an object). Whenever I catalogue or judge myself, that is due to the Other in me. That is why my choice would be sincere, being done "in front of" the (implied) mankind.

  • In addition to that I cannot get of the "gaze" of others, I am the only source of values for the world. To Sartre, conventional or real values do not exist. To claim that bread or life are a value per se, constantly and independently of concrete individuals using them, is a form of dishonesty called by him "the spirit of seriousness". If not thank to me, world would have no values. Therefore I cannot escape responsibility since it is me who is the value provider.

  • A caprice would imply that a ready man already is, as a foundation of himself. In fact, any effective capriciousness amounts to insistence for what preexists (e.g. Ego with its demands). But this is wrong relative to human (consciousness), who cannot be founded anyhow before a choice and who only constitutes himself for the first time in his choice. Only a substance could show caprices, consciousness isn't a substance.

  • Not only the choice isn't keeping my own way behind, it is also not following a guaranteed end ahead. Consciousness cannot tie itself reliably to its aim because the latter is a possibility that simply "might be", and reflection opens the nothing between me and the selected possibility. Thus, marked off his future (possibility) as strongly as off his past (preexisting ego), a man is too restless to be capricious.

  • There in principle cannot be drawn the border between what is facticity in a given situation and what is my constitution in it. It appears that I'm completely thrown into the objective situation and am totally free in it. Here is no contradiction: both is true. And consequently, from the very start I see only my free project (choice) in the situation ("meet nothing except myself"), a project which is possible exceptionally in this situation and in no other one. In other words, a man is engaged from the beginning and he deserves everything having happened with him, so that there is no alibi and any given was past possibility and is current opportunity for... And only thanks to factual obstacles/misfortunes a freedom appeares as realizable.

  • Will is a reflective movement, but we choose pre-reflectively (which isn't "unconsiously"). Will only signals that the choice (which is but free spontaneous) has been just made. Situation understanding comes with the choice made and earlier than there comes situation knowing/judgement, but will operates on the latter. Thus, there is no need for term free will, freedom is enough.

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