Compatibilism and incompatibilism

Bramhall was an incompatibilist, meaning he thought that freedom of action and responsibility for actions are incompatible with the causal determination of the will. Since he believed that the will is free, he was a libertarian.

Hobbes could not imagine anything happening without a cause. He also thought that causes make their effects necessary. So he was a determinist, meaning he believed that all events are caused and necessary.

Hobbes also denied that there is such a thing as free will. The will, like everything else, is caused. However he was a compatibilist about the freedom of action and responsibility for what we do. That means he thought freedom and responsibility are compatible with the causal determination of the will.


Compatibilism is the more difficult position to understand, so I’m going to spend a little time going over it.

A person’s actions are free, according to Hobbes, if she can do what she has a will to do. (“Will,” for Hobbes, means something like “intention” for us; it is what you decide to do and generally leads to action.) The idea is that freedom means there is nothing external blocking you from doing what you decide to do. It does not matter whether your decision to do one thing rather than another was caused by factors outside of your control.

I used what I hope was a boring example to illustrate the point. No one can control whether they are are thirsty; thirst is not a matter of will. Thirst also causes us to do things like drink water. But no one really thinks that this means we are not free when we get up to get a drink.

I’m not saying that seals the case for the compatibilists. I’m just saying that is the sort of thing that they find convincing. And it’s not a bad point.

Relationship to punishment

Compatibilists are usually consequentialists about punishment. Incompatibilists are usually retributivists. You can see why these positions tend to go together.

Compatibilists think our behavior is caused, so they tend to look for causes of good behavior, like deterrent threats.

Incompatibilists think that we are responsible for our actions only if we are free from causal influence. They think responsibility for actions has to be attached solely to the person who acts. So it is natural for them to think that the point of punishment is retribution for freely chosen evil.

That said, as Taylor observed, there is no logical reason why the views on free will have to line up with those views about punishment. In fact, Greene and Cohen are consequentialists about punishment but incompatibilists about responsibility. So that shows people can combine the one with the other. Good point!

Also, a point that both Ben and Mollie raised is worth restating. The dispute between compatibilists and incompatibilists is about whether punishment in general could be justified. It does not tell you about how to distinguish between different acts. So resolving the debate won’t tell you when actions are coerced and when they are not. Nor will it help you set specific punishments according to degrees of responsibility.

Bramhall’s objections

Bramhall had two broad points.

The first was that many things that do, in fact, make sense would not make sense if determinism were true. For instance, it would not make any sense to ask someone for advice if your actions were causally determined.

Hobbes’s answer to this sort of point is that the advice could be part of the cause. If I ask you for advice and what you tell me makes sense to me, that will cause me to act in the ways you advised. So there is a point to asking for advice, thinking about what to do, and so on even if determinism is true.

Bramhall’s second point is harder for Hobbes to overcome. He said it would be unjust to punish people for what they could not help doing. Hobbes said in reply that we punish out of a kind of self-defense and in order to deter others. Neither point directly answers Bramhall.

Key concepts

  1. Compatibilism.
  2. Incompatibilism.
  3. Relationship with consequentialist and retributivist theories of punishment.