Are criminals the proof of free will? They are told the law, not to steal, for example, but they do it anyway. Free will is independence from other agencies, governments, people, entities, etc. Does the fact that they break the law show their free will?

  • Besides the human laws that tell them not to steal there are other laws, the laws of physics, chemistry and biology. Unlike human laws, they are impossible to break, and they may well "tell" some bodies and brains otherwise.
    – Conifold
    Nov 3, 2022 at 17:19
  • @Conifold until the laws of physics, chemistry and biology evolve. Nature isn't constrained by those so-called laws: they are descriptions and observations. And that would be because they have been "broken" – i.e. observation disagrees with what the "law" says "should/must" happen. Nov 3, 2022 at 19:34
  • Maybe they are biological programmed to make wrong doings... Nov 3, 2022 at 19:37
  • Does the fact that they break the law show their free will? Not if that is the only possible option. Nov 3, 2022 at 19:47
  • The exact contrary point could be made, that the fact they can't prevent themselves from breaking the law although it will likely get them in trouble is proof they have no free will. I don't think we can go anywhere down this path.
    – armand
    Nov 3, 2022 at 23:32

4 Answers 4




Longer Answer

No particular instance of human behavior can prove the existence of free will. There are a couple of reasons for this.

  1. Free will is a poorly defined concept.
  2. No matter what someone does, it is in some way determined by their circumstances.

Let's take your definition of free will: "Free will is independence from other agencies, governments, people, entities, etc." Is a person who commits a crime independent from other entities? They have some motivation to commit the crime, and some reason to believe it is the best current option. In different circumstances, they would act differently.

Someone is on their way to rob a bank. They notice a police officer in the bank lobby and decide to rob a bank some other day. Someone is on their way to rob a bank. They check their lottery numbers on the way and realize they are now very wealthy, so they decide not to rob a bank. Someone is on their way to rob a bank. They are hit by a car and go to a hospital instead. Whether or not a person commits a crime is dependent on how other people behave and the circumstances around them. Someone can always walk a causal chain back to explain why some person did exactly what they did.

So the question is, could they have done something else? And the existence of criminals doesn't shed any light on that question.

  • Poorly defined concept indeed. With a proper definition the existence of free will does not need to be proven or disproven. The definition should define whether it is a real or an imaginary thing. If the definition leaves the question unanswered, subject to debate, matter of belief, it is not a valid definition. Nov 4, 2022 at 4:46
  • +1 for 'TLDR: No'
    – CriglCragl
    Nov 4, 2022 at 23:10

We might define free will as independence from the wills of others. You make the decisions concerning your behaviour alone, based solely on your preferences, knowledge, needs, desires and future plans.

In that case, any behaviour, criminal or lawful, is an act of free will.

However, there are other definitions for free will. Some define free will as an imaginary, impossible or even illogical thing. But there are no valid definitions that leave the question of the existence of free will unanswered.


There can be many definitions of free will. In your definition, free will is the ability to do whatever we want when we are provided with options. If that is the case then everyone will agree that we have free will. But going a little deeper, some people define free will as the ability to choose what we want. This is an area where the debate starts.

Man can do what he wants, but a man can’t want what he wants - Schopenhauer It means you can do what you want to do but you can't choose what you want. The desires in you are not chosen by you.

  • That quote - I thought it was Joe Jackson! (You can do what you want, but you can’t want what you want).
    – gnasher729
    Nov 4, 2022 at 23:59

Free will cannot be proven by any type of observable human behaviour, including criminality.

This is because theories which support free will and theories which argue against free will both account for all those behaviours we observe.

Determinism (in which non-compatabilistic free will doesn't exist) allows for criminality, but libertarian free will also allows for criminality. It is therefore impossible to justify a claim that criminality proves one or the other.

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