Compatibilism and Incompatibilism

Bramhall is an incompatibilist, meaning he thinks that freedom of action and responsibility for actions are incompatible with the causal determination of the will. Since he believes that the will is free, he is a libertarian. That means he thinks that at least some things that happen are not causally determined, namely, the voluntary actions of rational agents, such as people and, presumably, God.

Hobbes cannot imagine anything happening without a cause. He also thinks that causes make their effects necessary. So he was a determinist. That means he believes that all events are caused and necessary.

Hobbes also denies that there is such a thing as free will. The will, like everything else, is caused, and, as we will see, the definition of “liberty” that applies to actions does not apply to the will. However he is 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.

(Greene and Cohen will occupy the third position we identified: hard determinism. Hard determinists are incompatibilists who believe in the truth of determinism.)


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. The “will,” for Hobbes, means the last appetite before action; it is the state of mind that leads you to act (§27). The idea is that freedom means there is nothing external blocking you from doing what you will to do (see §29). It does not matter whether your decision to do one thing rather than another was caused by factors outside of your control.

Hobbes writes that “I acknowledge this liberty, that I can do if I will; but to say, I can will if I will, I take to be an absurd speech” (§3). This is what he means. Hobbes believes your actions are free if there is nothing preventing you from doing what you have a will to do. Given the definition of “will” as the last appetite before action, there cannot be a will to will; willing something is not an action. So the definition of liberty of action cannot apply to the will itself. So there is no such thing as free will. (Both the will and actions are causally determined, so neither is free in the sense that Bramhall has in mind, namely, being free from causal determination.)

I used a boring example to illustrate Hobbes’s 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.

Hobbes thinks that this kind of example shows that he is describing what we ordinarily call free actions. He concedes that if you asked someone an abstract question about whether freedom is compatible with causal determination, that person would say no. But, he thinks, the ordinary person’s descriptions of concrete actions as free or unfree will match his definition. And the ordinary person’s abstract philosophical opinions are just confused: no one really understands what an uncaused action would be.

That is why Hobbes does not think he is just talking past Bramhall. Their definitions are different, but they mean to apply them to the same phenomena. The question is whose definitions are more accurate.

That said, examples like this do not seal the case for Hobbes. As Matthew pointed out, you can be thirsty without getting up to get a drink. That is true of me right now, in fact. So there is something other than just your thirst that controls what you do. You have to decide to act on your thirst.

Hobbes thinks that all decisions are just going to be more complex versions of getting up to get a drink of water because you are thirsty. The complexity comes from adding more appetites and aversions (= desires) that get weighed against one another in the course of deliberating (= “thinking about what to do”). At the end of the day, one appetite or aversion is going to cause you to do something and the existence of that appetite or aversion in your head is something that you do not control.

But he is not necessarily right about that. Maybe there is a difference between desires like thirst and hunger and other motivations. Or maybe Hobbes is leaving out something crucial: the rational person who decides what desires to act on. There might be room for free will in either case. Maybe some of our desires really are in our control even if thirst and hunger are not. Or maybe we exercise our free will by making rational choices about what desires to act on.

Bramhall’s objections and punishment

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.

Hobbes is a consequentialist about punishment: he thinks punishment is justified by the good consequences it brings about. This is a common combination of views. Compatibilists are usually consequentialists about punishment. Incompatibilists, by contrast, are usually retributivists.

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 there is no logical reason why the views on free will have to line up with those views about punishment. As we will see next time, Greene and Cohen are consequentialists about punishment but incompatibilists about responsibility.

Key concepts

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


Hobbes, Thomas. (1645) 1993. Of Liberty and Necessity. Edited by Mark C. Rooks. British Philosophy: 1600-1900. Charlottesville, VA: InteLex Corporation.

———. (1656) 1993. The Questions Concerning Liberty, Necessity, and Chance. Edited by Mark C. Rooks. British Philosophy: 1600-1900. Charlottesville, VA: InteLex Corporation.