Freedom and Responsibility

The Value of Freedom

Some philosophers hold that freedom is intrinsically valuable; it is good for its own sake.  The plausibility of this position may be illustrated by the (likely) fact that if you are walking along and someone shouts out in a commanding voice “STOP!” and you stop walking, you will rightly expect there to be a good reason that justified this interference.  This supports the idea that we value liberty for its own sake and would limit it only if there is reason to do so (it would harm others or harm yourself or…).  On the other hand, some philosophers see freedom as only instrumentally valuable, that is, only when it is used for good ends.  According to them, if one freely steals from an innocent child (merely for the sake of entertainment), your freedom only makes the act worse than if you were compelled to do so.


An excuse is based on a reason for an action or omission that reduces (vitiates) responsibility.  Excuses come in degrees; so, to claim that one was compelled to do Z means that you did not have the power to do otherwise (if someone picked you up and threw you at my computer and you were powerless to resist), freeing a person from blame entirely.  You can reduce responsibility if you are coerced to do an act; in this case, you could resist, but the threat of not acting was great (someone kidnapped your friend and will release him only if you steal from a bank).  Coercion may reduce but not completely eliminate responsibility.  In milder cases, the term ‘duress’ is used.  Example: you cheated on a test, but you did so partly because you were emotionally exhausted due to just learning of the divorce of your parents as well as the death of a beloved dog, and you think you might be responsible for your roommates’ coming down with the plague.

Harm and Voluntariness

It is sometimes held that if you voluntarily agree to a harmful activity (such as boxing), the harm caused to you is not a violation or an injury that should be compensated for.


The standard, most common understanding of forgiveness is as follows: Pat forgives Kris when Pat believes that Kris has wronged Pat, or someone with whom Pat identifies or represents, and Pat foreswears or seeks to modify resentment toward Kris.  The term “forgiveness” comes from the term “release,” and so in forgiving Kris, Pat releases Kris from being the object of resentment.

There is some reaforgive 2son to think the traditional definition is flawed. First, forgiveness is not the same thing as forgetting, and Pat may cease or moderate resentment toward Kris simply because Pat forgets the past harm or Pat is too exhausted to continue feeling resentment.  Second, the term “resentment” seems (at least in English) to suggest a vice or a flawed sense of smouldering anger.  Pat might be wronged but not be the sort of person who resents Kris.  Perhaps Pat simply feels great sorrow or disappointment.  In light of these difficulties, consider an alternative conception of forgiveness:

  • Pat forgives Kris when Pat believes that Kris has wronged Pat, or someone with whom Pat identifies or represents, and Pat ceases to blame Kris for the wrong.

There might also need to be an additional condition such as:

  • Pat also resolves not to let the wrong stand in the way of some kind of reconciliation, albeit this might not involve the resumption of the past relationship.

Interesting questions about forgiveness: Can it sometimes be an obligation to forgive another?  Or is forgiveness always or most often a gift?  Is it possible to forgive someone who does not repent and, instead, continues doing some harm? Can you forgive someone a harm they did but they are now dead?  Can you forgive not just individuals but institutions or countries?

CLICK HERE for a video from St. Olaf’s Anantanand Rambachan about forgiveness.

Image from “DeterminismXFreeWill,” license Cc-by-sa-3.0, GFDL

Theories of Agency

Libertarianism: Libertarians hold that an agent does an act X freely if she did X and could have refrained from doing so. This involves a principle of alternative possibility and holds that a free person has more than one possible future, which is up to them.

Determinism: Some philosophers resist this position because of their commitment to determinism, or they reject the intelligibility of libertarianism (Galen Strawson thinks libertarianism is based on the conceptual absurdity of causes sui, the idea that a person can be self-created). Determinism is the view that every event that occurs is necessary given every other antecedent, contemporary events, and laws of nature. Because determinists do not believe that more than one future is possible, they understand freedom without a principle of alternative possibilities.

Compatibilism: Compatibilism is the view that everything may be determined and yet persons are free when (for example) they do what they want and are not being manipulated by some foreign agent. Thos who are often called hard determinists claim that determinism is true and that there are no free, morally responsible agents. These philosophers may still allow for praise and blame, reward and punishment, but largely as a means of controlling behavior.