Free Will and Action

Michael Smith

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When agents are in circumstances that do not constrain their choices in any way they enjoy freedom of action. They are able to do whatever they want to. However freedom of action, so understood, is neither necessary nor sufficient for moral responsibility. It is not sufficient because, at least when placed in suitably unconstraining circumstances, spiders, mice, infants, and the like, all enjoy freedom of action, but they are not morally responsible for anything that they do. It is not necessary because people who falsely believe that they enjoy freedom of action may be morally responsible. What is both necessary and sufficient for moral responsibility is freedom of the will. Agents enjoy freedom of the will when they possess a dual capacity. On the one hand, they must have the capacity to form well-justified beliefs about what they have reason to do. On the other hand, they must have self-control: the capacity to bring their desires in line with their reflectively formed beliefs about their reasons. Many urge that moral responsibility is impossible in a deterministic world. But whether or not this is so depends on whether rational capacities, quite generally, are possible in a deterministic world. It is a question for further investigation whether this is so.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationInternational Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioural Sciences: Second Edition
PublisherAcademic Press
Number of pages5
ISBN (Electronic)9780080970875
ISBN (Print)9780080970868
Publication statusPublished - 26 Mar 2015
Externally publishedYes


  • Belief-desire explanation
  • Compatibilism
  • Could have done otherwise
  • Determinism
  • Free action
  • Free will
  • Freedom
  • Incompatibilism
  • Rational capacity
  • Responsibility
  • Self-control

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