Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Free will

Fully updated and revised April 19, 2011

1 Compatibilism
2 Incompatibilism
3 Pessimism
4 Moral responsibility
5 Metaphysics and moral psychology
6 Challenges to pessimism
7 Recent work

Galen Strawson

7 Recent work

There has recently been a great deal of discussion of a paper by Harry Frankfurt (1969), in which he argues, from a compatibilist point of view, that one can (i) perform an action at a given time, (ii) be unable to act otherwise at that time, and yet (iii) be morally responsible for the action. This challenges the ‘principle of alternate possibilities’, otherwise known as ‘PAP’, the very widely accepted principle that the ability to act otherwise is a condition of moral responsibility for an action. It is, however, unclear that Frankfurt or any of his followers or critics has ever managed to describe a genuine case in which (i) and (ii) are true. This is unsurprising, so long as one works within a compatibilist framework, for there appears to be an immoveable sense in which an ability to act otherwise is, from a compatibilist point of view, a constitutive condition of being able to act at all (see e.g. G. Strawson 1986b). An odour of red herring therefore hangs over the discussion of PAP.

On another front, practitioners of ‘experimental philosophy’ (see Experimental philosophy §1) have taken the problem of free will out into the empirical field. They have tested the intuitions of nonphilosophers in different cultures concerning key concepts in the philosophical debate (such as intention, moral responsibility, desert) by means of questionnaires, and have used their results to question some of the standard assumptions made in the philosophical debate. This is not a covert return to ‘ordinary language philosophy’ (see Ordinary language philosophy), but the two techniques of philosophical investigation have certain concerns in common.

A different and intriguing line of empirical enquiry draws on a well-established tradition of work in experimental and social psychology which shows that our actions are often strongly influenced by factors, situational or otherwise, of which we are completely unaware (see e.g. Doris 2002; Nahmias 2007). The general effect of this ‘situationist’ line of enquiry is to cast increasing doubt on our everyday picture of ordinary adult human agents as consciously aware of, and in control of, themselves and their motivations and subsequent actions in such a way that they are (at least from a compatibilist point of view) morally responsible for what they do. In this respect ‘situationism’ finds an ally in Freudian theory; but it considerably extends the range of factors that threaten to undermine our everyday picture. It tells us that we are far more ‘puppets of circumstances’ than we realize. In this manner it aims to undermine the conception of ordinary human beings as genuinely free agents in a way that is independent of any considerations about determinism, or the impossibility of self-origination. At the same time (again in line with Freudian theory) it grounds a sense in which greater self-knowledge, a better understanding of what motivates one, can increase one’s control of and responsibility for one’s actions.

How to cite this article:
STRAWSON, GALEN (1998, 2011). Free will. In E. Craig (Ed.), Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. London: Routledge. Retrieved January 16, 2022, from

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