Academic journal article Journal of Buddhist Ethics

"Freedom of the Will" in the Light of Theravada Buddhist Teachings

Academic journal article Journal of Buddhist Ethics

"Freedom of the Will" in the Light of Theravada Buddhist Teachings

Article excerpt


A well known issue in Western Philosophy is that of "freedom of the will": whether, how and in what sense human beings have genuine freedom of action in the context of a broad range of external and internal conditioning factors. Any system of ethics also assumes that humans have, in some sense, a freedom to choose between different courses of action. Buddhist ethics is no different in this--but how is freedom of action to be made sense of in a system that sees human beings as an interacting cluster of conditioned and conditioning processes, with no substantial I-agent either within or beyond this cluster? This article explores this issue within Theravada Buddhism, and concludes that the view of this tradition on the issue is a "compatibilist" middle way between seeing a person's actions as completely rigidly determined, and seeing them as totally and unconditionally free, with a variety of factors acting to bring, and increase, the element of freedom that humans have. In a different way, if a person is wrongly seen as an essential, permanent Self, it is an "undetermined question" as to whether "a person's acts of will are determined" or "a person's acts of will are free." If there is no essential person-entity, "it" can not be said to be either determined or free.


Buddhist ethics, as with other aspects of Buddhist practice, assume that people are in principle capable of choosing between different courses of action, and that they should be held responsible for their actions. Indeed the doctrine of karma is based on the idea that intentional actions: a) have a shaping effect on a person's character and destiny; b) can change for the better (or worse); and c) that this improvement can be consciously chosen.

More generally, much human discourse assumes that people are responsible for their actions and can be held to account for them, which implies that they were in some sense free to do otherwise. This is assumed in courts of law--unless it can be proved that the defendant was acting under duress, such as a threat of violence, or was out of his or her mind. It is also assumed in the praise and blame that we give in moral discourse.

The Problem of Freedom

"Freedom of the will" is a topic upon which Western Philosophy has spent much thought. While moral discourse and its notion of responsibility assume some kind of freedom to act, this notion is not without its difficulties. People's choices, decisions and intentions, which are expressions of will, and even the desires and aspirations which feed into these, are clearly under a range of influences:

* Biological influences: one's genes, but also the effect of illness, tiredness, or drugs

* Social influences: from parents, peers, education, and the media, especially advertising

* Personal history: one's life events

* General history: the times in which one lives

* Psychological influences: fears, complexes, inclinations, strengths and weaknesses, and mental illness

Thus one's choices, however "free" they may feel, are made under the influence of a range of conditioning factors or constraints. (1)

In the light of the multiple factors conditioning people's actions, a "determinist" philosopher is one who denies that people have genuinely free will: all our actions and choices are determined by causes. Non-determinists emphasize human freedom. A strong example was the French Existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-80), who held that we are radically free: we only let ourselves be determined by a variety of influences because we deny or overlook our radical freedom, which he saw as based on the uncaused, spontaneous nature of consciousness (Medhidhammaporn 1995:61-71). Whatever circumstances we are faced with as a human being, we can say "no" to them and choose a different way, or at least choose our response to them. For example, the man Sartre condemns for having totally identified with the role of being "a waiter" has the freedom to act in a more authentic way--but he lets himself be molded by the role (Sartre 1958:59-60). …

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