Freedom with Causation


Our actions have causes, some of which are beyond our control. Of that there can be no serious doubt. Some worry that this fact undermines the commonsense view that we perform free actions for which we are morally responsible. My aim in this article is to show that such worries are unfounded and, consequently, that pure non-causal theories of free action, according to which free actions must be entirely uncaused, are false. My argument for this conclusion doesn’t presuppose the cogency of existing objections to non-causal theories of free agency.

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  1. 1.

    See Ginet (2007) for a recent expression of this worry. The worry arises for anyone who holds what I call below a pure non-causal theory of free action, i.e., a theory according to which (directly) free actions must be uncaused. Ginet (2007), McCann (1998), and Stump (1999), among others, advocate theories of that sort.

  2. 2.

    Cf. Clarke (2003, p. 17).

  3. 3.

    Davidson (1963) advances a causal theory of this sort and numerous others have followed suit. Variants of this standard causal theory appeal to causation by neural realizers of an agent’s mental states, or to causation by facts about the agent’s mental states, rather than to causation by the mental states themselves. See Mele (2013) for a discussion of these variants.

  4. 4.

    This view is most often associated with Davidson (1963), and, like the more basic causal theory of action of which it’s a natural part, has been appropriated and refined by numerous others since.

  5. 5.

    See Clarke (2003, pp. 19–21) for an objection along these lines.

  6. 6.

    I’ll assume in what follows that free action is possible. But this assumption isn’t necessary. If free action isn’t possible, my thesis can be understood as the claim that our actions having at least some causes beyond our control isn’t itself among the considerations that establish the impossibility of free action.

  7. 7.

    Cf. Schaffer (2000, pp. 166–170), who appeals to causal indicators in arguing for the possibility of trumping preemption, and Mellor (1995, pp. 58–66), who appeals to them in arguing for the possibility of indeterministic causation.

  8. 8.

    Matters are complicated somewhat by the fact that there may be different kinds of abilities. For instance, Mele (2006, p. 18) distinguishes between general and specific abilities. Mele would say that the swimmer in my example retains a general ability to swim, where this is understood as having certain capacities and skills, though he lacks a specific ability to swim, i.e., the ability to exercise the relevant capacities and skills in his actual circumstances. For those who distinguish between different kinds of ability, my claim is that an agent may possess a general ability (to use Mele’s terminology) to do otherwise, even if prior causes ensure that he won’t exercise it.

  9. 9.

    See, in particular, Kane (1996). Compatibilists too might insist that free and responsible agency requires being in some sense the source of our actions, though they will, of course, insist that this doesn’t require the falsity of determinism. For a discussion of this issue from a compatibilist perspective, see Fischer (2006).

  10. 10.

    Cf. Klein (1990, p. 51) and Stump (1999, p. 414).

  11. 11.

    This is, roughly, how Kane understands the ultimacy condition. See, e.g., Kane (1996, p. 35).

  12. 12.

    Defenses of non-deterministic causation abound. See Anscombe (1981), Mellor (1995 ch. 5), and van Inwagen (1983, pp. 138–140) for a sampling. The remarks that follow are reminiscent of Mellor’s defense of indeterministic causation.

  13. 13.

    Thanks to an anonymous referee for raising this objection and pressing me to address it.

  14. 14.

    See O’Connor (2000, p. 29) and van Inwagen (1983, p. 149) for similar worries.

  15. 15.

    Unless otherwise noted, claims about what an agent “could” have done or “can” do should be understood as claims about what it’s within the agent’s power to do. I shall also be focusing solely on intentional actions, things agents do meaning to do them, the likely consequences of which the agent is fully aware.

  16. 16.

    The dependence claim is clear enough, but some might resist the claim about causal production. This worry can be circumvented by considering a variant of the case. Everything is the same as in the original version, except that if Earl hadn’t shot Barney in the leg, someone else would have. In this version of the story, Barney would still have died of exsanguination due to a gunshot wound to the leg, had Earl not shot him. Thus, his death by exsanguination doesn’t counterfactually depend on Earl’s act of shooting him. Clearly, though, Earl’s action is still a cause of Barney’s death, even though the death doesn’t depend, in this version of the story, on the shooting. The death occurs in this version of the story in part (but only in part) because of the shooting; the shooting is among the circumstances that causally produces or brings about the death. These observations support my judgment that, in the original version of the story, Earl’s act of shooting Barney is part of what produces Barney’s death.


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Correspondence to Justin A. Capes.

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Capes, J.A. Freedom with Causation. Erkenn 82, 327–338 (2017).

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  • Moral Responsibility
  • Free Action
  • Causal Theory
  • Democratic Process
  • Free Agency