Concerning the notion of Liberty, and of moral Agency.


The plain and obvious meaning of the words Freedom and Liberty, in common speech, is The power, opportunity, or advantage, that any one has, to do as he pleases. Or in other words, his being free from hindrance or impediment in the way of doing, or conducting in any respect, as he wills. — And the contrary to Liberty, whatever name we call that by, is a person’s being hindered or unable to conduct as he will, or being necessitated to do otherwise.

If this which I have mentioned be the meaning of the word Liberty, in the ordinary use of language; as I trust that none that has ever learned to talk, and is unprejudiced, will deny; then it will follow, that in propriety of speech, neither Liberty, nor its contrary, can properly be ascribed to any being or thing, but that which has such a faculty, power or property, as is called will. For that which is possessed of no will, cannot have any power or opportunity of doing according to its will, nor be necessitated to act contrary to its will, nor be restrained from acting agreeably to it. And therefore to talk of Liberty, or the contrary, as belonging to the very Will itself, is not to speak good sense; if we judge of sense, and nonsense, by the original and proper signification of words.— For the Will itself is not an Agent that has a will: the power of choosing, itself, has not a power of choosing. That which has the power of volition is the man, or the soul, and not the power of volition itself. And he that has the Liberty of doing according to his will, is the Agent who is possessed of the Will; and not the Will which he is possessed of. We say with propriety, that a bird let loose has power and liberty to fly; but not that the bird’s power of flying has a power and Liberty of flying. To be free is the property of an Agent, who is possessed of powers and faculties, as much as to be cunning, valiant, bountiful, or zealous. But these qualities are the properties of persons; and not the properties of properties.

There are two things contrary to what is called Liberty in common speech. One is constraint; otherwise called force, compulsion, and coaction; which is a person’s being necessitated to do a thing contrary to his will. The other is restraint; which is, his being hindered, and not having power to do according to his will. But that which has no will, cannot be the subject of these things.— I need say the less on this bead, Mr. Locke having set the same thing forth, with so great clearness, in his Essay on the Human Understanding.

But one thing more I would observe concerning what is vulgarly called Liberty; namely, that power and opportunity for one to do and conduct as he will, or according to his choice, is all that is meant by it; without taking into the meaning of the word, any thing of the cause of that choice; or at all considering how the person came to have such a volition; whether it was caused by some external motive, or internal habitual bias; whether it was determined by some internal antecedent volition, or whether it happened without a cause; whether it was necessarily connected with something foregoing, or not connected. Let the person come by his choice any how, yet, if he is able, and there is nothing in the way to hinder his pursuing and executing his will, the man is perfectly free, according to, the primary and common notion of freedom.

– Jonathan Edwards, Freedom of the Will, 1754

Are you up for A Careful And Strict Inquiry Into The Modern Prevailing Notions Of That FREEDOM OF WILL Which Is Supposed To Be Essential To Moral Agency, Virtue And Vice, Reward And Punishment, Praise And Blame? Then feel free to come join us at the next meeting of the New Inklings. (Tuesday 30 April, 5:00 pm, Trax Bar and Cafe, Platform 1, Wellington Railway Station.)

22 thoughts on “Concerning the notion of Liberty, and of moral Agency.”

  1. Cant make it.
    I must say that I am glad that I am not a ‘real philosopher’… so much time wasted chasing fairies!
    I am quite happy to be a simple minded fellow …having an ordinary sense… a common understanding of what Free will is. All your Philosophizing may be able to tie yours selves up into knots… and carry you off on strange tangents yet please don’t think any of that was necessary… or that your findings undo the ordinary sense of what is meant by free will, or moral culpability.
    If you feel that this makes me an inferior minded man… well so be it.
    On this issue I am happy to dwell in the land of the common people because I know these things really exist down here in the land of the living… not way ‘up there’ in the realms of the ‘Super humans’.
    If anything you are all the more culpable for such an extreme abuse of reason.
    You see freedom was never meant to be absolutely divorced from material reality… or from carnality…. Etc. Ie It never meant what you airheads assume it was supposed to be.
    Yet the fact is without freewill the very words ‘Freedom’ / compulsion/ legal sanctions and threats of punishments…. Morality itself… are meaningless.
    Moral ‘Badness’ is not like a Rotten egg. Because an egg has no say in being rotten or not… and you guys whom deny freewill attempt to say Moral badness is just like that.

  2. If Freewill is meaningless nonsense Richard so must be the word ‘Libertarian’.
    And your entire Moral arguement against Socialism and Hitler is Rendered Naught!
    Furthermore lets consider the Death of Parekura Homia.
    You are tell me he had no choice but to shovel pies down his own throat till he died?
    No Free will?
    Man it is tragic listening to ‘philosophers’ deny free will!
    It’s like philosophicaly denying *life*. Oh wait you do that too! Monism is mere mechanics.

  3. “Are you up for A Careful And Strict Inquiry Into The Modern Prevailing Notions Of That FREEDOM OF WILL Which Is Supposed To Be Essential To Moral Agency, Virtue And Vice, Reward And Punishment, Praise And Blame? Then feel free to come join us at the next meeting of the New Inklings.”

    This is an appeal to readers to exercise their free will to come along to a meeting that will try and convince them that free will does not in fact exist. I cannot think of a more effective hypnosis technique.

  4. You guys just don’t get it.

    Have you actually read the post?!

    You are free to exercise your will. It is *you* who is free, not your will.

    Your will is your capacity to do as you please. Just as a bird has a capacity to fly, but its capacity to fly does not itself have a capacity to fly, so you have the capacity to do as you please but your capacity to do as you please does not itself have the capacity to do as it pleases.

    You are free to do as you will, but your will is not free to do as it wills. Your will is not free, *you* are.

  5. Richard, of course ‘you’ are not your ‘will’.

    Edwards created a straw man in claiming that any rational person is calling ‘you’ your ‘will’. Your ‘will’ is a faculty of your mind, where your mind together with your corporeal existence is what comprises ‘you’.

    Human ‘will’ differs to animals’ will in that it pertains to engaging a reasoning faculty (which non-human animals do not possess) and not solely to exercising voluntary physical action as is the case with higher animals. It is only in this respect that human will is “free”, i.e. one is ‘free’ to choose whether or not to engage one’s reason in arriving at one’s voluntary actions.

    A voluntary action by the way is not a choice *how* to act, it is only the choice *whether* to act, i.e. to act (or not) in accordance with the instructions being received by the conscious faculty from the subconscious.

  6. Concerning the Nature of the Will.

    IT may possibly be thought, that there is no great need of going about to define or describe the Will; this word being generally as well understood as any other words we can use to explain it: and so perhaps it would be, had not philosophers, metaphysicians, and polemic divines, brought the matter into obscurity by the things they have said of it.

    Edwards distinguishes between will and acts of will.

    Your will is just what goals you want to pursue, what objectives you want to achieve, what states of affairs you want to attain and maintain, what you desire … your will is not a magical superpower.

    Christians pray (to God), “Thy will be done.” The damned follow the maxim, “Do what thou wilt.” Your will is just what you want (done). God’s will is what God wants (done). When someone dies, they leave behind a will. They leave behind a list of what they want done with their stuff. They don’t leave behind a magical superpower.

    Whereas, an act of will, according to Edwards, is simply choosing.

    by whatever names we call the act of the Will, choosing, refusing, approving, disapproving, liking, disliking, embracing, rejecting, determining, directing, commanding, forbidding, inclining, or being averse, being pleased or displeased with; all may be reduced to this of choosing. For the soul to act voluntarily, is evermore to act electively.

  7. Your ‘will’ is a faculty of your mind, where your mind together with your corporeal existence is what comprises ‘you’.

    Terry, clearly a distinction must be made between *what* you will and *acts* of will. But the latter is nothing more than your faculty to choose.

    Edwards created a straw man in claiming that any rational person is calling ‘you’ your ‘will’.

    No, it is you and Tim who are creating effigies. Your will is your faculty of choice. It is not your faculty of choice that is free. It is you who is free to exercise it. It’s a simple enough point, surely?

  8. Anyway, Terry, what do you mean by

    your mind together with your corporeal existence is what comprises ‘you’.

    ? Isn’t your mind *part* of your corporeal existence? Dualist! 😉

  9. This is an appeal to readers to exercise their free will to come along to a meeting

    No, it’s an appeal to come along to a meeting. Why do you have to make things so damned complicated?!

  10. All this just goes on to validate Dualism because without a *you* there is no will at all.
    And Monism is the notion that there is no real distinct *you* separate from your phyisical body. Ie from your atoms (which dont/ cannot have ‘will’…or any freedom) Accordingly though Monists say “Your Brain wills this”… or “your Genes demand that”… they are speaking gibberish.
    They say our brains and genes are like a computor which has no will… and *no you*…. and no freedom… thus the fact that Freedom exists… is a self evident proof of dualistic Spirituality beyond materialism.

  11. Richard,

    >>”Your will is your faculty of choice. It is not your faculty of choice that is free. It is you who is free to exercise it. It’s a simple enough point, surely?”

    Your faculty of will is inseparable from “you”. It is a component of “you”, just like any other mental faculty. (Both mentally and physically directed) will is vital to one’s existential existence. If you lost the capacity to will or to exercise volition, “you”, in the existential sense, would cease to exist – what would remain is a human body in a coma or convulsive state, or a psychotic lunatic, respectively.

    >>”Anyway, Terry, what do you mean by ‘your mind together with your corporeal existence is what comprises ‘you’.’ ? Isn’t your mind *part* of your corporeal existence? Dualist! ”

    The existential mind emerges from and is entirely dependent upon and is supervenient on one’s corporeal existence, but it is not entirely corporeal in nature. Consciousness is a faculty that emerges from a certain level of development of neural complexity. By way of analogy, when water reaches a certain temperature bubbles emerge. Where do they come from? Where do they go to? Bubbles too are emergent properties of heated water, and their existence entirely dependent upon the water which created them, but they are not themselves the water from whence they came. So I liken each person’s consciousness to a bubble that has been formed from heating water (i.e. born), and which then travels upwards (i.e. lives it’s life) and then finally ceases to be a bubble upon reaching the surface (i.e. dies).

    Physicality or corporeality is analogous to wateriness. Would you call a bubble ‘watery’?

  12. Richard…Whats ‘complicated’ about interpreting your post as an invitation to exercise our free will?
    That’s the simple truth…*exactly* what you have done.
    You try and deny the simple truth because of your sophist need to force everything into a materialist/ determinist mould to satisfiy Anti-Spiritual Anti-theistic Anti-Freedom Monism.

  13. Tim, you say here that any kind of determinist theory of the will (a view you are attributing to Edwards, if I am reading this discussion properly) is incompatible with libertarianism. In other words, if, at a fundamental level, libertarian free will (not libertarian in the political sense) doesn’t exist, then libertainism as a political outlook must be mistaken.

    But how can this judgement of yours be sincere? If you recall – and I am pretty sure you will – I made a case once that a Christian cannot be a libertarian, because libertarian claims that human beings are the owners of themselves and their lives. Christians reject this, I pointed out, because God own us.

    You rejected this as an argument that Christians cannot be libertarians, because you claimed that libertarianism was no more than a view about certain political arrangements, and viewed from this political standpoint, humans should be regarded as the owners of their own lives. Libertarianism doesn’t make claims about deeper metaphysical questions, you seemed to be saying – it’s just about political/social arrangements and no more.

    And yet now when considering the metaphysical issue of free will, Tim, you say that any kind of determinism is not compatible with libertarianism! But surely, according to you, this has to be a faulty criticism, because libertarianism treats people as free in terms of political arrangements only, and doesn’t make deeper metaphysical judgements! Libertarianism means that you’re free in terms of law and government, and not that your will is unbounded by the constraints of any cause whatsoever.

    If you’re going to backtrack on this and say that actually libertarianism’s claims are indeed deeper metaphysical judgements after all, then you’re back in the position of making the genuine metaphysical claims that you, rather than God, own your life and self. But if that is not what you want to say, then you’ve got to give up your claim that determinism (a metaphysical view) is incompatible with libertarianism (a view that is only about political / social arrangements).

  14. Not at all Glenn.
    While you accurately described my position as a Christian in regards to libertarianism,
    I am not saying a determinist *cant be a Libertarian*. I am saying that they *can be* because despite their silly belief… in reality….*they really are free*!
    It is *they themselves* who actually don’t believe in any sort of freedom, and so Freedom is a problem *for them*. Thus there is no inconsistency on my part at all, because Libertarianism does not even require an idealist basis to be accepted. Ie It can be accepted via mere pragmatism, or even by those whom love liberty even when their own professed beliefs are a denial of it… A bit like Dawkins who may indeed be honest, and value trustworthiness, be charitable, and kind, despite the fact that his own philosophy ultimately renders all these values/ ethics as objectively meaningless, and in no way superior to being dishonest, untrustworthy, greedy, and violent.
    Ie It is inconsistency, and delusional… yet thankfully in a good way!
    Some would argue that Man cannot live consistently with Atheist, Materialist, Nihilism.
    Man is a freewill Moral agent whether he admits it or not.
    Indeed he is rabidly obsessed with freedom to the extent that he will go to great lengths to deny an moral restraint… any moral law by which he is duty bound to voluntarily submit to, or that he *owes* any homage or gratitude to any higher being .
    This I believe is the core psychology of the Evolutionary Atheist materialist.
    He is so obsessed with his own absolute Freedom to the extent that he demands to be his own God… and is prepared to go to extreme lengths to Sterilize reality of God and objective morality… while pretending to be ‘Rational’ and motivated by ‘humanitarianism’…’Saving Humanity from the ‘evil’ of Religion’. Full circle self contradiction and self delusion.
    The scriptures declare… The fool hath said in his heart “There is no God”… which is akin to saying the fool hath said in his heart “There is no Super Natural’Spirit’ being”… The materialist monist is a fool.
    P.S I was not actually saying Edwards opposes Freedom (at least from that portion Richard posted). I jumped onto that pet part of this subject in respect to mine and Richard’s ongoing debate about Dualism and freewill.

  15. “and so Freedom is a problem *for them*. ”

    But not political freedom, Tim. And that’s libertarianism, right? Libertarian free will might be a problem for them, but not political / legal freedom. So this was false: “If Freewill is meaningless nonsense Richard so must be the word ‘Libertarian’.”

  16. I believe that Glenn.
    To my way of thinking if Free will is *in reality* a myth, then Libertarianism makes no sence at all. If I am wrong about freewill, I am wrong about almost everything I believe in respect to morality and Human nature, and I would even have to question the truthfulness of the bible, and the justice of the God therein.

  17. I conceded that ‘Libertarianism’ does not demand any ‘deeper metaphysics’ from those whom choose to support it.
    Ie You can be a nihilist and still choose to be an advocate of Libertarianism.
    It may well be that a person likes Libertarianism better than socialism out of pure self interest. Etc
    Yet you can see by my language in this reply that ‘Choice’ is fundamental to my whole way of thinking and that I struggle to rationalize our discussion without assuming freewill is real.
    It is basic to my aprehension of what Humans do when they ‘think’.

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