chapter  11
10 Pages

Degrees of freedom: the Buddha’s implied views on the (im)possibility of free will


Much of the psychological impetus driving philosophical discussions of free will derives from ordinary, commonly entertained intuitions concerning actions we perform in circumstances of duress or coercion. In most instances, our practice is that we do not hold the agent fully responsible for such acts. This corresponds to our personal experience and is intuitive. Do unto others, we say-and who has not felt dismay or anger at being held morally responsible for doing something that was forced upon one? And yet, even in such cases, a subjective sense persists that one’s actions remain one’s own; there lingers a feeling of personal responsibility. And so the question arises: Just how free need one be for personal responsibility to obtain? And in what sense free? Such questions form the very substance of the ancient and apparently unending thread of Western philosophical discourse referred to as ‘the free will problem.’ I seek to expand the boundaries of this conversation by opening it up to a perspective on freedom originating beyond Western intellectual horizons-namely, that of early Buddhism, as represented in the Pāli Canon of the Theravāda tradition. To that end, I examine some of the implications of the Anattalakkhaṇa Sutta (Discourse on the Characteristic of Non-self ), comparing these with Harry Frankfurt’s account of free will. I argue that the Buddha’s position on human freedom is unique, implying the denial of a metaphysically free will, while asserting moral responsibility and the possibility of spiritual freedom. One basic distinction Western philosophers draw is between empirical and metaphysical freedom. Empirical freedom refers to the ability to act as one wants. Formulated negatively, it can be understood in terms of the absence of constraints obstructing an individual’s ability to do as they like. The notion of ‘constraint’ can be understood as either external or internal to the agent. Philosophers have distinguished different sets of constraints in spelling out different understandings of freedom. Political philosophers, for example, have focused on external restrictions such as those imposed by governments, political classes, and material conditions. Psychologically-minded thinkers have emphasized internal constraints, such as compulsions, obsessive thoughts, depression, confusion and so on.