What About Free Will? (Part 9)

I am writing a book on the ever thorny, controversial, misunderstood topic of free will.  Over the course of several few weeks, I am blogging about the issue.  I invite your feedback, as this will help me fine tune the contents of my book.


Libertarians say we are only held liable for our actions if we could have acted otherwise.  In some cases, this may be true, but that is not principally where liability lies. Compatibilism holds that we are held liable for our actions in direct proportion to the degree that we voluntarily (intentionally) engage in such actions. Let us consider this proposition.

To the Degree we Act Voluntarily we are Liable for our Actions

Almost all human actions are voluntary, but some actions are more coerced than others thereby mitigating their voluntariness. The more voluntary one’s actions are the more one is liable for those actions and vice versa. Thus, if a compelling force causes a conflicting motive within a person to act in a way one would otherwise not act, such a person is not as liable for the action. If one feels forced to act against what his conscience tells him is clearly wrong then he is not held as liable for such actions.

Freedom from coercion and the ability to act voluntarily and responsibly is reflected in most systems of jurisprudence where just measures are used to assess guilt (blame) or innocence. Manslaughter is the killing of another without malice of intent, whereas murder is the killing of another with malice of intent. Voluntary manslaughter involves intentional killing, but when mitigating factors make the intention less culpable.  For example, a sudden provocation leads to a fight resulting in the death of the provocateur. Involuntary manslaughter refers to accidental killing in which the death occurred without intention. For example, a person driving her vehicle hits and kills a pedestrian by accident. One is held less liable for something they did accidently or reluctantly under duress. Conversely, one is held more liable for an immoral action if they did it freely (i.e. more intentionally). In fact, what makes it immoral is directly connected to the intentions of the perpetrator (James 1:14-15).

Sam Storms relates a poignant illustration that highlights this proposition. The story involves a pizza deliveryman named Brian Wells who robbed a bank while an explosive device was strapped to his body. He fled the scene with the bomb intact and was later apprehended by the police where he pleaded for their help. He claimed he had been forced to rob the bank by the real perpetrator of the crime who forcibly placed the device on him and threatened to detonate it if he didn’t comply. If his confession was true, what other choice would he have? Under such circumstances our justice system is obligated to exonerate him of culpability for the crime even though he robbed the bank.  The compelling motive to rob the bank is not rooted in some mal-intent but the preservation of his life.

However, under such circumstances one would not be without an alternative choice. Technically, due to the absence of absolute constraint, he was not forced against his will to rob the bank, it was done willingly. The difference is it was also done reluctantly due to extreme duress. All things being equal we can suppose his conscience would not allow him to engage in such a criminal act. But the strongest of any motive or compelling desire within a person at any given moment is always the one that directly influences the will, in this case the coercive influence of the main perpetrator. However, he could have taken his chances and refused to commit the robbery. He could have said I would rather die than cause distress to the bank and its customers and risk their deaths should the perpetrator detonate the bomb in the middle of the robbery. In this sense, he is free to act contrary but only if corresponding contrary motives prevail. The point is the will is the absolute servant of the motive that most powerfully influences it and it never acts in a contrary manner.

People are also not considered liable for actions if other legitimate hindrances prevent them from acting responsibly. For example, Christians ought to attend church on Sunday morning (Heb. 10:25).  But if they are sick and bed-ridden we do not hold them liable; they have a natural inability to act otherwise. But if they don’t go to church because they preferred to watch a football game, they are more liable because they had a natural ability and a moral responsibility to do so. They were under no constraints preventing them from acting responsibly. Likewise, one would not be held liable for saving a drowning victim if he was unable to swim. His natural inability prevents him from doing what is morally right. However, if he is able to swim and doesn’t make the effort to save the drowning victim he is held liable. In this case, he is held liable not because he is unable to swim but because as Stephen Holmes wrote, he is “unable to care.” Thus, liability lies not just with natural ability but as always with one’s intentions.