Psychological versus metaphysical agents: a Theravāda Buddhist view of free will and moral responsibility
A permanent self could not be a free agent of actions A strand of the current discussion of ‘free will’ and Buddhism concerns the fact that most forms of Buddhism do not accept a self in the sense of a permanent essence of a person. This is then generally seen as equivalent to the nonacceptance of a self as the agent of actions, an agent-self, which could be either free or unfree. The connection seems a natural one to make, but it is worth pausing to reflect on its appropriateness. In teaching that ‘everything (all dhammas) [is/are] non-self (anattā)’1 (AN.I.286),2 the Buddha meant that they were ‘empty of self and what belongs to self ’ (SN.IV.54). Here ‘self ’ (Pāli: atta; Sanskrit: ātman) is used in a specific kind of sense, to refer to a permanent and happy essence of a person. This can be seen in the repeated teaching that it is “not fit to consider that which is impermanent, painful, of a nature to change, as: ‘This is mine (etam mama), this I am (eso ham asmi), this is my self (eso me attā)’ ” (e.g., SN.III.66). Hence, the kind of ‘self ’ in the term ‘non-self ’ is best rendered with an initial capital-‘Self ’—to signal that it is a specific kind of self. Anything conditioned is seen as impermanent, painful and non-Self, but nirvāṇa, the unconditioned, is not seen as impermanent and painful, but still as non-Self, because it is beyond any grounds for the arising of the thought ‘I am’ (Harvey 1995a, pp. 23, 51-53). Now if there were a Self in the above sense, could it be a free agent of action? To answer this, one needs to ask if it could be any kind of agent of action. I would argue that the answer is ‘no.’ Why? Because the occurrence of a decision or any other action-initiating event in such a putative Self would be a change within it. But if anything has change within it, there is surely no way that further changes can reliably be prevented from happening within it, which would in time bring about its end; so, it could not actually be permanent, in a strong sense. So, a truly permanent Self could not be an agent of action. This seems to be recognized in the Sāṃkhya school of Hinduism, in which the puruṣa or inner ‘person’ is not the agent of actions, but is simply the observer of an aspect of conditioned and impermanent (material) ‘nature’ (prakṛti) that is the agent of actions (Flood 1996, pp. 234-235).