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Compatibilism is the belief that free will and determinism are compatible ideas, and that it is possible to believe both without being logically inconsistent. Compatibilists believe freedom can be present or absent in situations for reasons that have nothing to do with metaphysics.
For instance, courts of law make judgments about whether individuals are acting under their own free will under certain circumstances without bringing in metaphysics. Similarly, political liberty is a non-metaphysical concept. Likewise, compatibilists define free will as freedom to act according to one's determined motives without arbitrary hindrance from other individuals or institutions.
Compatibilism was championed by the ancient Greek Stoics and early modern philosophers like David Hume and Thomas Hobbes. Contemporary compatibilists range from the philosopher and cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett, particularly in his works Elbow Room (1984) and Freedom Evolves (2003), to the existentialist philosopher Frithjof Bergmann.
Compatibilists often define an instance of "free will" as one in which the agent had freedom to act according to his own motivation. That is, the agent was not coerced or restrained. Arthur Schopenhauer famously said "Man can do what he wills but he cannot will what he wills."
In other words, although an agent may often be free to act according to a motive, the nature of that motive is determined. Also note that this definition of free will does not rely on the truth or falsity of Causal Determinism. This view also makes free will close to autonomy, the ability to live according to one's own rules, as opposed to being submitted to external domination.
The Compatibilist will often hold both Causal Determinism (all effects have causes) and Logical Determinism (the future is already determined) to be true. Thus statements about the future (e.g., "it will rain tomorrow") are either true or false when spoken today.
Hume adds that the Compatibilist's free will should not be understood as some kind of ability to have actually chosen differently in an identical situation. The Compatibilist believes that a person always makes the only truly possible decision that they could have. Any talk of alternatives is strictly hypothetical. If the compatibilist says "I may visit tomorrow, or I may not", he is not making a metaphysical claim that there are multiple possible futures. He is saying he does not know what the determined future will be.
The Compatibilist might argue that determinism is not just compatible with any good definition of free will, but actually necessary. If one's actions are not determined by one's beliefs, desires, and character, then how could one possibly be held morally responsible for those actions?
In practice, the moral systems of the compatibilist have much in common with those of Incompatibilist Determinists (though perhaps not Incompatibilist Libertarians). This is because both Hard Determinists and Compatibilists use moral systems that bear in mind that people's motives are fully determined.
Critics of compatibilism often focus on the definition(s) of free will: incompatibilists may agree that the compatibilists are showing something to be compatible with determinism, but they think that something ought not to be called "free will". Incompatibilists might accept the "freedom to act" as a necessary criterion for free will, but doubt that it is sufficient. Basically, they demand more of "free will". The incompatibilists believe free will refers to genuine (e.g., absolute, ultimate) alternate possibilities for beliefs, desires or actions, rather than merely counterfactual ones.
Faced with the standard argument against free will, many compatibilists choose determinism so that their actions are adequately determined by their reasons, motives, and desires. Compatibilists are sometimes accused (by incompatibilists) of actually being Hard Determinists who are motivated by a lack of a coherent, consonant moral belief system.
Compatibilists are sometimes called "soft determinists" pejoratively (William James's term). James accused them of creating a "quagmire of evasion" by stealing the name of freedom to mask their underlying determinism. Immanuel Kant called it a "wretched subterfuge" and "word jugglery." Kant's argument turns on the view that, while all empirical phenomena must result from determining causes, human thought introduces something seemingly not found elsewhere in nature - the ability to conceive of the world in terms of how it ought to be, or how it might otherwise be. For Kant, subjective reasoning is necessarily distinct from how the world is empirically. Because of its capacity to distinguish is from ought, reasoning can 'spontaneously' originate new events without being itself determined by what already exists. It is on this basis that Kant argues against a version of compatibilism in which, for instance, the actions of the criminal are comprehended as a blend of determining forces and free choice, which Kant regards as misusing the word "free". Kant proposes that taking the compatibilist view involves denying the distinctly subjective capacity to re-think an intended course of action in terms of what ought to happen. Ted Honderich explains his view that the mistake of compatibilism is to assert that nothing changes as a consequence of determinism, when clearly we have lost the life-hope of origination.