Argumenta – Journal of Analytic Philosophy

This article summarizes John Locke’s considered views on freedom, explaining that freedom is a power of the mind to act in accordance with its volitions, that freedom is a power that can belong only to substances, that we have the freedom to will in many cases, including the power to hold our wills undetermined and thereby suspend the prosecution of our desires.  This is a seemingly reasonable account of how our minds work, and should work, when we make (important) decisions.  But Locke takes us to be morally responsible and accountable, not just for suspending when it is appropriate, but also for spending our time wisely during suspension, in the proper investigation of what would most conduce to our happiness.  The problem is that we are prone to motivated irrationality during suspension when deciding what to investigate and for how long to do so.  And thus we need to stop and consider whether we are succumbing to such irrationality before making the ultimate decision. This, I argue, leads to an infinite regress and forces Locke into an unsurmountable dilemma.

In An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, John Locke defends a theory of free will and moral responsibility that he thinks accounts for a number of familiar commonsense intuitions, including the fact that human beings sometimes act akratically (i.e., do something bad or wrong, despite believing or knowing that it is bad or wrong) and the fact that human beings are often morally responsible for the choices they make and the acts they commit despite being under the influence of pressing uneasiness(es) pushing them to so choose and act. Although Locke denies that it is literally or strictly speaking true that a human being’s will is free, he does think that human beings are often (though not always) free with respect to their acts of willing, and he thinks that there is something that people are referring to, albeit misleadingly, when they use the phrase “free will”. This much, I believe, is well understood, though scholars continue to…


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