Theravāda Sources on Free Will

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 14, 2007

“Freedom of the Will” in the Light of Theravāda Buddhist Teachings

Peter Harvey
University of Sunderland

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 Theravāda 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” cannot be said to be either determined or free.

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