Absolute vs. Practical Free Will

The difference between the kind of free will we have and the kind we don't

June 28, 2014

Here I will lay out two ways of looking at free will, which I call the absolute and the practical perspectives. I believe these two classifications take into account both the existing, well-traveled arguments as well as the treacherous semantic issues that frequently obscure free will discussions.

This is the type of free will that I argue is required for true moral responsibility. In short, if someone could not have made a willful choice to do otherwise than they did, then they cannot be held responsible for what they did do.

But there’s another way of imagining free will that doesn’t conflict with this version, but instead compliments it:

On my view, and the view of most incompatibilists, this type of free will is completely consistent with absolute free will being impossible.

Just because we couldn’t have actually done otherwise than what we did—at the chemical and physical level—doesn’t make the experience of making choices insignificant to us as humans.

As Daniel Dennett points out, we as humans have the ability to do things like decide to go to work to avoid being fired, or to influence climate for future generations, or to blow up distant astroids to keep them from crashing into Earth 5 years into the future.

These things require complex analysis of variables for the purpose of promoting our own goals–which may even be altruistic if so inclined.

In short, the experience of making choices is central to human existence. It serves as the foundation of how we view and treat others, and of how we reward and punish those who make certain choices.

Why differentiate?

Well if we all agree that practical free will is…well…practical, then why am I pursuing this differentiation?

Quite simply, I believe it’s beneficial to human civilization to acknowledge that true (absolute) free will is impossible, and thus to realize that all failure, loss, and evil was ultimately the result of bad causes.

This doesn’t mean we suddenly give people excuses for making poor choices. We won’t accept, “The atoms made me do it.” at a 1st degree murder trial. We will still hold that person responsible for his actions, but it will be done in a consequentialist fashion rather than a retributivist one.

Most of the world today would think it ok to throw rotting fruit at this person before he’s hanged in the town square. Or to curse at him, and damn him to an eternity of suffering in hell.

This is considered civilized behavior for one reason: the belief in (Absolute) Free Will.

An advanced society would realize that while this murderer had Practical Free will, he did not have Absolute Free Will, meaning the action he took was the only one he could have taken.

The result will not be a lack of punishment, but rather a measured response given knowledge that he could not have done differently, i.e.:

  1. A response that best helps the rest of the world

  2. A response that best helps the murderer feel empathy for the victim

  3. A response that keeps the rest of the population safe from the murderer while he is dangerous

Possible examples could include incarceration, teaching the attacker about the victim’s life so that he feels sympathy and remorse, or just generally educating him so that he realizes what he’s done is wrong.

The key thing to realize is that we don’t know yet what would be best. That’s an empirical question that we need data for. But the one thing we shouldn’t be doing is be wishing an eternity of torture on broken, uneducated people who literally had no choice in the matter.

It’s not civilized. It’s barbaric.

All anger at offenders, all hatred of evil, all desire for retribution—they all hinge upon the single and untrue proposition that the perpetrator could have done otherwise.

If that is incorrect, which I believe it is, then it is beholden on us, as humans attempting to be humane, to change how we treat those who make poor decisions.

This affects not just how we treat criminals, but also the rich and the poor, the powerful and the weak, and any other group distinction that we currently feel is choice-based. It affects the very fabric of our civilization.


  1. There is a kind of free will that we don’t, and cannot have, which is called Absolute Free Will. This is the kind that allows us to do otherwise for any previous decision. This type of free will is required for Moral Responsibility because if someone could not have done otherwise then they are not morally responsible.

  2. There is another kind of free will, which is actually the experience of Free Will, called Practical Free will. This is the ability to contemplate options and experience picking the one we want. Everyone experiences this every day, and it should not be discounted, but it does not meet the standard for Moral Responsibility in any context other than a Consequentialist one.

  3. People accepting that we have the latter, but not the former, and adopting a social policy that adjusts based on this truth will have a positive impact on society. This is true because realizing that people lack choice encourages us to look at those who suffering or making poor decisions with empathy instead of hatred or derision.