Philosophy 114 - 6.4.1 Defining Freedom

To begin to answer these questions, this section first explores two competing definitions of freedom.

The Ability to Do Otherwise

Perhaps the most intuitive definition of freedom can be expressed as “A moral agent is free if and only if the moral agent could have done otherwise.” Philosophers refer to this expression as the Principle of Alternative Possibilities (PAP). A person is typically thought of as performing a free action if that same person could have taken a different action or decided to take no action. Within many legal systems, a person is not considered culpable if the action taken was forced.

One objection against the PAP is based on how we define our being. What if we as physical objects are governed by the laws of nature? We do not set our rate of velocity when diving into a pool, nor are we able to determine the force of gravity if we choose to enter the water “belly first”! Those outcomes are determined by the laws of nature. We, as objects, are governed by such forces. Does this mean, like the driver in the ride depicted above, that we never actually experience alternative possibilities? If so, then the possibility of freedom—a precondition for responsibility—seems absent.

What about socialization and the conditioning that follows from living in a society? Does the constructed set of norms and values lessen our ability to do otherwise? Given the external conditioning we all endure, can we assert that the PAP is a possibility?

The Ability to Do as One Wants

One possible objection to defining freedom through PAP was offered by Harry G. Frankfurt. Frankfurt argued that freedom was better understood not as the ability to do otherwise but as the ability to do what one wants (1971). Imagine that a deranged space alien barges into your room and produces a sinister-looking button. You are informed that the button will annihilate Earth if pressed. The alien laughs manically and demands that you eat a delicious pizza brought from your favorite pizzeria or the alien will press the button. You can feel and smell the freshness! In this case, most of us would argue that you are not free to do otherwise. But you could say that you not only want the pizza, a first-order volition, but given what is at stake, you want to want the pizza. You could be described as acting freely, as you are satisfying your first- and second-order volitions. You are free, as you are doing what you want to do.

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The content of this course has been taken from the free Philosophy textbook by Openstax