In Part II, Chapter 21 of his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, John Locke makes a distinction between voluntary actions and free actions. Explain how Locke understands this distinction.

I don't really understand what free actions are.

2 Answers 2


"Voluntary" is about internal intention, "free" is about external constraint

Locke gives the following example to illustrate the difference:

Suppose a man be carried, whilst fast asleep, into a room where is a person he longs to see and speak with; and be there locked fast in, beyond his power to get out: he awakes, and is glad to find himself in so desirable company, which he stays willingly in, i.e. prefers his stay to going away. I ask, is not this stay voluntary? I think nobody will doubt it: and yet, being locked fast in, it is evident he is not at liberty not to stay, he has not freedom to be gone. So that liberty is not an idea belonging to volition, or preferring; but to the person having the power of doing, or forbearing to do, according as the mind shall choose or direct. Our idea of liberty reaches as far as that power, and no farther. For wherever restraint comes to check that power, or compulsion takes away that indifferency of ability to bear acting, there liberty, and our notion of it, presently ceases.

So whether or not something is "voluntary", i.e. in line with our internal intentions, has no necessary relationship with whether it is "free", i.e. unconstrained by external factors. Those external factors could be partly social (i.e. being locked in a room), or they could be entirely natural, as in this other example from the same source:

Likewise a man falling into the water, (a bridge breaking under him,) has not herein liberty, is not a free agent. For though he has volition, though he prefers his not falling to falling; yet the forbearance of that motion not being in his power, the stop or cessation of that motion follows not upon his volition; and therefore therein he is not free.


According to the SEP reference here:

Locke is telling us that what makes an action/forbearance voluntary is that it is consequent to a volition, and that what makes an action/forbearance involuntary is that it is performed without a volition. The operative words here are “consequent to” and “without”.

To use one of Locke’s own examples, if I am locked in a room and will to leave, my volition will not result in my leaving (E1–5 II.xxi.10: 238). So willing cannot signify the “actual producing” of a voluntary action. However, it is reasonable to assume that, for Locke, willing will “produce” a voluntary action if nothing hinders the willed episode of motion or thought. And this makes it likely that Locke takes a voluntary action to be not merely temporally consequent to, but actually caused by, the right kind of volition.

What, then, on Locke’s view, is it for an action to be involuntary? Locke says that an involuntary action is performed “without” a volition. This might suggest that an action of mine is involuntary only when I have no volition that the action occur. Perhaps this is what Locke believes. But it is more reasonable to suppose that Locke would also count as involuntary an action that, though preceded by the right kind of volition, is either not caused by the volition or caused by the volition but not in the right way.

From reference you provide it seems Locke means his free action has to have free will with volition or with thought but without necessity. Generally speaking, a free action is a reflex, or reflex action, and is like a free variable in predicate logic thus is not bound by oneself.

  • You said, "Generally speaking, a free action (involuntary action) ..." Locke's terminology is the opposite of this. In Locke's terminology, free actions are the ones chosen voluntarily. "so far as a man has power to think or not to think, to move or not to move, according to the preference or direction of his own mind, so far is a man free"
    – causative
    Commented Apr 30, 2021 at 6:11
  • @causative thx for ur comment. I didn't find in the SEP article any precise definition of Locke's free action. As mentioned in SEP, "it can be interpreted as either not caused by the volition or caused by the volition but not in the right way". I suppose it's so called due to our free will excluding those voluntary actions. I've added some content accordingly. Commented Apr 30, 2021 at 6:23
  • 1
    Locke is clear in his essay. Chapter 21, "on power," section 8, "liberty." He uses the word "free" in the sense of "liberty," and says that a person is free if they are able to do what they voluntarily choose to do.
    – causative
    Commented Apr 30, 2021 at 6:27
  • @causative for me it seems Locke means his free action has to have free will with volition or with thought but without necessity. Commented Apr 30, 2021 at 6:47

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