Motivation and emotion/Book/2017/Compatibilism

What is compatibilism and what does it mean for our everyday lives?


Figure 1. How can free will and determinism be compatible?

Have you ever wondered whether you really have control over your actions? This is an age old question which has been subject to one of the great philosophical debates between the concepts of free will and determinism. Many great minds have grappled with this question, however it has not been decisively determined.

But what if the answer is not so black and white? What if the answer is that both of these concepts are valid and do not necessarily disprove each other? But how could these two vastly different concepts coexist?

Compatibilism is the idea that free will and determinism are compatible, rather than opposing, ideas (Turri, 2017). Within compatibilism there are several varying conceptions by theorists, who each propose slightly different arguments. A key compatibilist was Harry Frankfurt who made a semantic argument and used hypothetical situations to show that a person can still exercise free will even where they had no other choice. Patricia Churchland, on the other hand, suggests that asking 'do I have free will?' is the wrong question to be asking.

This philosophical thought has significant implications for the way that we attribute moral responsibility and therefore is essential to the construction of our legal system. However, it fails to tell us much about our everyday lives.

Accordingly, this chapter will also look into more recent psychological research which has much more applicability to everyday situations. This will include research looking into the extent to which our decisions are made by unconscious or conscious processes, in what circumstances individuals are more likely to exercise willpower, how people respond to a perceived loss of autonomy and how people attribute responsibility for the actions of others. This will all be considered in the context of our everyday lives.

Conceptual underpinnings and key concepts


First of all, in order to understand compatibilism it is necessary to consider the underpinning concepts of free will and determinism. These two concepts and the debate between them are central to compatibilism and will be referred back to throughout this chapter.



Determinism is the concept that events within a given paradigm are bound by causality in such a way that any state of an object or event is completely determined by prior states.

One popular explanation of determinism is through metaphysics. This view is underpinned by Newton's third law that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. This view puts forward that every action has predictable consequences and as such the world is comprised of a predictable chain of reactions (Hallett, 2016).

A key theorist in this area was Arthur Schopenhauer. Schopenhauer, in his 1818 work, "The World as Will and Representation" described actions in terms of law-based metaphysical reactions. In accordance with this view, he proposed that all actions are simply the body's reaction to stimuli and cannot be attributed to the free will of the individual (Schopenhauer, 2012).

Free will


Free will, on the other hand, is slightly more difficult to define. There are differing views regarding what is required for an action to be considered free. While some define free will as the ability for an individual to choose between different possible courses of action, others have defined it as making choices and having thoughts independent of physical processes (Montague, 2008). Others have described free will as a perception that an individual is able to will a movement and that they are responsible for that movement (Hallett, 2016).

In relation to human behaviour, while an individual may not have free choice (the ability to do anything they wish), they may have flexible choice (the ability to choose between multiple options) (Montague, 2008).

What is compatibilism?

Figure 2. Compatibilism is the view that both free will and determinism are true. Compatibilism cannot be established if either of these are false.

So, now that we have briefly heard about these seemingly completely opposite views of free will and determinism, how could these views be compatible?

Below are two varying approaches to explaining compatibilism. The first is by American philosopher Harry Frankfurt who put forward an explanation based on the capability for coexistence of free will and determinism. Conversely, Canadian American philosopher Patricia Churchland focused on actions as being derived as a matter of degree from internal and external causes.

Harry Frankfurt


Frankfurt, in his original work 'Alternate Possibilities and Moral Responsibility', essentially argues that while things may be determined, they are only determined in a particular way. Harry Frankfurt's construction of compatibilism is based upon the definition of free will. Traditional conceptions of free will, based upon the principle of alternative possibilities, hold that for an action to be free and for an individual to be responsible for that action it must have been possible for the person to have done something other than what they did (Frankfurt, 1969). However, Frankfurt took a different approach to this definition. Frankfurt argues that a person can still exercise free will and make a choice even where it was not possible for them to have done otherwise (Frankfurt, 1969).

To illustrate this point, he used Frankfurt Cases. A Frankfurt case is a type of example used to show that where one does what they wanted to do, it could not be said they did not act freely just because they did not have another option. An example of a Frankfurt case was provided by Fisher (2010), in which an American named 'Jones' goes to vote in an election and has two choices, Obama and McCain. Jones unwittingly has a chip inserted in his brain such that if Jones were to decide to vote for McCain, the chip will activate and make him vote for Obama. If Jones was originally to select Obama then the chip would not activate and would play no role. Accordingly, Jones is unable to make any choice other than to vote for Obama. Despite this, if Jones selects Obama with no input from the chip, it could not be said that he has not acted freely, notwithstanding that he could not have made any other decision.

Patricia Churchland

Figure 3. Patricia Churchland

A common approach taken by compatibilists is to distinguish between the freedom of actions on the basis of whether they are driven by internal or external causes. According to this explanation, an action that is taken which is driven by internal causes such as desire or even brain activation patterns are free. However, behaviours that are forced by external events such as having a gun placed to your head are not free (Hallett, 2016). Therefore, while some events are free, we do not have freedom over all of our actions.

This has been used and expanded upon by Churchland, whereby she proposed that whether an action is 'free' and whether humans have free will is a matter of degree, rather than something that can be answered with a simple yes or no (Churchland, 2006). According to this view, the key question to be asked is not 'do I have control', but rather 'how much control do I have?'.

She held that the degree of freedom that could be attributed to an action is dependent on the number of internal and external factors influencing us and the amount of control we have over what we do. The factors that influence what degree of control we have range from circumstances such as forceful coercion, uncontrollable physiological states like sneezing and the interaction of neurological factors and impulses (Churchland, 2006).

The more control that the individual has the more moral responsibility that they bear for their actions. This view balances the deterministic nature of some circumstances which are beyond our control, while maintaining that others are within our control. which is consistent with free will. This conception of free will is very applicable and compatible with our legal system and the application of moral responsibility, as well as with modern psychological literature.

Implications of the philosophical debate

Figure 4. Compatibilism intersects with the legal system and how we attribute moral responsibility

The main implication of the above debate is that it has a significant bearing on how moral responsibility should be attributed for an individual's actions. Aspects of this debate have, accordingly, had a significant impact on our legal system.

Moral responsibility


The main application of the philosophical debate between free will and determinism is that it determines the extent to which we can attribute moral responsibility to the actions of an individual. Under the approach taken by free will, a person will be responsible for their actions as the individual has a choice. However, under determinism it is difficult to attribute moral responsibility to an individual that had no control over their action (Capes, 2013). Neither of these approaches provide particularly satisfactory outcomes, because the attribution of moral responsibility generally is not this black and white.


An approach based more upon compatibilism is seen in the legal system, which provides a good basis for considering the application of these principles. By considering the structure of our legal system and some legal principles, we can see how the views of Frankfurt and Churchland are reflected.

There are a number of factors, including situational and physiological, that may come into consideration that may change the application of moral responsibility. For example, if we were to consider a homeless individual who stole a loaf of bread because they were unable to buy it, we would attribute less blame on this individual than someone who stole it simply because they did not want to pay for it. In the legal system these are referred to as mitigating or aggravating circumstances. This concept reflects Churchland's approach to compatibilism whereby aggravating and mitigating factors are taken into account to determine the degree of the individual's responsibility.



Now that you have heard all about compatibilism, here are some quiz questions to test your knowledge. Make your selections and click "Submit" when you are ready:

1 Compatibilists believe that ______

Humans have complete freedom to make choices at all times
Nothing is predetermined
Ants run the world
Free will is not incompatible with some things being pre-determined

2 Arthur Schopenhauer proposed that ______

All animals have free will
Humans have no free will whatsoever
Humans are morally responsible for their actions
The key question we should ask is 'how much control do I have?'

3 Which of the following is a Frankfurt case?

Steve was really hungry and he particularly felt like eating chocolate, but he decided it was too fattening so he ate an apple instead
Steve did not like dogs, but his wife really wanted one. Even though he didn't want it, he bought a dog to keep his wife happy
Steve was driving his car and unbeknownst to him the car was incapable of turning left. He came to the end of the street and decided to turn right
Steve refused to eat, but somebody forced him to by forcing the food into his mouth

Criticisms of the philosophical debate


While there are many strong arguments in the debate between free will and determinism, there are also a number of weaknesses. Some of the criticisms of the debate are outlined below.

Does it really matter?


The philosophical debate between free will, determinism and compatibilism is a semantic debate that mainly revolves around how concepts are defined. Regardless of what title we put onto our actions, or how we define free will, this will lead to the same outcomes and has very little implications for how to improve our lives.

Does the debate tell us much about our actions?


Some researchers have described aspects of the philosophical debate, such as its semantic nature, as 'beyond the reach of scientific description' (Montague, 2008). Accordingly, they have chosen to focus on understanding things such as the nervous system and how choices are characterised in the brain (Montague, 2008). Additionally, while this debate is great for solving significant societal issues, like how our legal system should be structured, it does not have much application to our everyday lives. To fill this void, there has been significant psychological research which has considered how individuals make choices and to what extent they are able to control their actions. This provides greater clarity relating to how, when and why an individual may display a particular behaviour and in what situations they may have control over their behaviour.

Psychological research


In psychological research there has been a larger focus on practical applications, compared to the philosophical focus of the early literature. Accordingly, in the psychological literature there is a greater focus on how and when an individual may exert control over their own behaviour, evidence based research on conscious and unconscious actions and even the way that we attribute the causes of other's behaviour. This research provides practical applications that will be considered in case studies.

Conscious and unconscious action


The popular belief among every day persons in society is that conscious thoughts and decisions are the basis for the vast majority of our actions (D'Ostilio & Garraux, 2012). However, the overwhelming evidence suggests that our actions are mainly determined by brain processes that are outside our conscious awareness (D'Ostilio & Garraux, 2012). This isn't just limited to simple behaviours, with unconscious processes being an intrinsic part of even very complex behaviours (Sumner & Husain, 2007).

An interesting branch of research has considered whether actions attributed to conscious decisions by individuals are really just the consequences of particular neural activations and patterns. Soon, Brass, Heinze, and Haynes (2008) conducted a study in which participants would make a decision to make a physical movement and to note exactly when they made that decision. Using a blood-oxygen-level-dependent functional magnetic resonance imaging signal, it was found that there was particular activity in certain brain areas like the precuneus and the fronto-polar cortex, which preceded the decision moving into the awareness, and the activation of conscious brain areas such as the motor cortex of the participant by around three seconds.

This research suggests that humans do not have the degree of conscious control over their actions that they believe that they do. Rather, to a large extent, actions are determined by automatic processes with only some decisions controlled by conscious decisions.

Exercising will and ego depletion

Figure 5. Resisting things that we desire like cookies can temporarily wear down an individual's willpower.

Humans have shown that they have the capability to act in ways inconsistent with their biological desires and imperatives in order to achieve particular outcomes (Montague, 2008), such as engaging in hunger strikes to achieve political outcomes. But what limitations are there on this ability to exercise will and make decisions despite particular temptations?

An interesting body of research has considered in what circumstances we may be able to exhibit control and exercise conscious decision making. This research suggests that humans may have a certain degree of free will that is limited. This research has looked into the control over one's actions and will power with respect to ego depletion. Ego depletion refers to a reduced capability to self-regulate due to already having engaged in self-controlling behaviours (Baumeister, Bratslavsky, Muraven, & Tice, 1998).

The classic ego depletion study, conducted by Baumeister, Bratslavsky, Muraven, and Tice (1998) involved a group of participants who were left alone with unappetising radishes and appetising chocolate. In one group, they were instructed only to eat the radishes and not the chocolate. Participants were then asked to attempt to solve puzzles. The study found that this group gave up significantly faster than other groups. The reason for this is that this group had already been mentally exhausted and their limited capacity of self-control had been depleted.

Ego depletion suggests that individuals have a limited reserve of self-control, which when depleted gives rise to the person giving in to their impulses rather than exercising autonomous, rational thoughts and behaviours.

Case study

Steven is an overweight middle aged man looking to lose weight. He plans to go for a run each afternoon, but once work finishes and it is time for the gym, he feels tired and can never be bothered.

Instead of planning his exercise at the end of the day when he is worn out from work, Steve decides to exercise in the morning before work. This leads to much better results.

Reactance theory


Reactance provides an interesting insight into how the perception of the freedom of our actions may influence the way that we make decisions. Reactance refers to a phenomenon whereby when an individual feels that their ability to exercise a free choice is being limited, they are likely to take actions to affirm that freedom. Attempts to persuade another person or requests that are viewed as unnecessarily restrictive can be perceived as restrictions over a person's autonomy (Mirick, 2016). This may then lead to contrary behaviours that protect against the loss of freedom such as refusing to comply with the request, engaging in the behaviour that is being limited and even convincing others to continue engaging in the behaviour being limited (Quick & Stephenson, 2007). This often manifests in behaviour that rejects authority figures (Van Petegem, Soenens, Vansteenkiste & Beyers, 2015).

Reactance theory, accordingly, has many real world applications and implications for our everyday interactions. Research has shown that people in authoritative positions taking simple steps such as offering a choice and avoiding dogmatic language can lead to significant improvements in performance (Dillard & Shen, 2005). Therefore, simply by being mindful of respecting the autonomy of the individual who you are interacting with can lead to significant improvements in your interactions and in being able to achieve what was intended. This may apply to a range of different situations including employers looking to get the most out of their employees, parents trying to shape the behaviour of their children and any person seeking to change the behaviour of another.

Fundamental attribution error


Fundamental attribution error refers to the tendency to overestimate the role of personal disposition and underestimate the role of environmental and social factors in causing the behaviour of others (Jouffrey & Croizet, 2016). The research on the fundamental attribution error is interesting because it provides a practical evidence based perspective on the attribution of responsibility for actions, which is often discussed in the free will and determinism debate.

The fundamental attribution error is easily applied to negative and confrontational situations between two parties. For example, if an individual is rude to another, the recipient is likely to attribute the rudeness to the other being a bad person, rather than considering the environmental causes such as stress that may have led them to be rude. There have also been a number of studies showing that the fundamental attribution error may lead to decreases in self-efficacy and dissatisfaction with social position (Ellemers, Wilke, & van Knippenberg, 1993) and discrimination of low status out groups (Rubini, Moscatelli, Albarello, & Palmonari, 2007).

By understanding the fundamental attribution error and this natural tendency towards the attribution of the causes of behaviour, this gives us the opportunity to recognise this tendency and correct accordingly. The potential for individuals to correct the fundamental attribution error has been established in a number of studies. In Hooper, Erdogan, Keen, Lawton, and McHugh (2015) it was shown that simply by getting participants to do some simple perspective taking of another person's position significantly reduced the fundamental attribution error. Accordingly, this provides a simple way to improve social interactions and avoid slipping into natural patterns of communication.

Case study

Mandy has been having issues at the office. She keeps on getting into arguments with her colleagues and feels like they are being rude and short with her. 'The people I work with are bad people' she thought. Besides, she thought, 'I have only been rude myself because of how busy and stressed I am'.

Mandy thought back to what she knows about the fundamental attribution error. 'Wait', she thought, 'everyone else at work has been busy as well, maybe they are just under pressure as well.' Mandy makes a positive effort to engage positively with her colleagues and develops much better working relationships.



Compatibilism is a philosophical concept that finds compromise in the long standing debate between free will and determinism, by holding that these are compatible ideas.

There are a number of different explanations within compatibilism that differently explain how free will and determinism are compatible. One leading view is the explanation of Frankfurt, that a decision may still be free even though the person could not have made a different decision. Another is that of Churchland, which explains the freedom of action as a matter of degree.

These two explanations have significant implications for the determination of moral responsibility, as seen in the legal system, and the influence of each body of thought can be seen in legal principles. These principles dictate that individuals will have varying levels of moral responsibility depending on the circumstances.

This philosophical debate has been criticised on the basis that it comes down to semantics and does not have significant application to our everyday lives.

Other research, based in psychology, provides a more practical set of knowledge that establishes how, when, and why individuals may exercise free choices. We have seen that unconscious and environmental causes and processes seem to play a much more significant role in our decision making than we think. Further, with respect to ego depletion, it seems that we may have limited capacity to exercise self-controlled behaviours. Once this is depleted we are more likely to acquiesce to impulses. Finally, with respect to reactance, we have seen that our perception of the freedom of our actions may influence the way that we make decisions.

See also



Baumeister, R. F., Bratslavsky, E., Muraven, M., & Tice, D. M. (1998). Ego depletion: Is the active self a limited resource? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 1252-1265.

Capes, J. A. (2013). Mitigating soft compatibilism. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 87, 640-663.

Churchland, P. (2006). Do we have free will?. New Scientist, 192, 42-45.

D'Ostilio, K., & Garraux, G. (2012). Brain mechanisms underlying automatic and unconscious control of motor action. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 6, 1-5.

Dillard, J. P., & Shen, L. J. (2005). On the nature of reactance and its role in persuasive health communication. Communication Monographs, 72, 144–168. doi:10.1080/03637750500111815

Ellemers, N., Wilke, H., & van Knippenberg, A. (1993). Effects of the legitimacy of low group or individual status on individual and collective status-enhancement strategies. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 64, 766–778.

Fischer, J. M. (2010). The Frankfurt cases: The moral of the stories. Philosophical Review, 119, 315–336.

Frankfurt, H. G. (1969). Alternate possibilities and moral responsibility. The journal of philosophy, 66, 829-839.

Hallett, M. (2016). Physiology of free will. Annals of Neurology, 80, 5-12.

Hooper, N., Erdogan, A., Keen, G., Lawton, K., & McHugh, L. (2015). Perspective taking reduces the fundamental attribution error. Journal of Contextual Behavioral Science, 4, 69-72.

Jouffre, S., & Croizet, J. C. (2016). Empowering and legitimizing the fundamental attribution error: Power and legitimization exacerbate the translation of role‐constrained behaviors into ability differences. European Journal of Social Psychology, 46, 621-631.

Matheson, B. (2014). Compatibilism and personal identity. Philosophical Studies, 170, 317-334.

Mirick, R. G. (2016). Reactance Theory: A Model for Instructor Communication in the Classroom. Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology, 2, 219-229.

Montague, P. R. (2008). Free will. Current Biology, 18, 584-585.

Quick, B. L., & Stephenson, M. T. (2007). Further evidence that psychological reactance can be modeled as a combination of anger and negative cognitions. Communication Research, 34, 255–276.

Rubini, M., Moscatelli, S., Albarello, F., & Palmonari, A. (2007). Group power as a determinant of interdependence and intergroup discrimination. European Journal of Social Psychology, 37, 1203–1221.

Schopenhauer, A. (2012). The world as will and representation (Vol. 1). Courier Corporation.

Soon, C. S., Brass, M., Heinze, H. J., & Haynes, J. D. (2008). Unconscious determinants of free decisions in the human brain. Nature Neuroscience, 11, 543-545.

Sumner, P., & Husain, M. (2008). At the edge of consciousness: automatic motor activation and voluntary control. The Neuroscientist, 14, 474-486.

Turri, J. (2017). Compatibilism can be natural. Consciousness and Cognition, 51, 68-81.

Van Petegem, S., Soenens, B., Vansteenkiste, M., & Beyers, W. (2015). Rebels with a cause? Adolescent defiance from the perspective of reactance theory and self‐determination theory. Child Development, 86, 903-918.