266. Tom Pink on the Will

Posted on 3 December 2016

A conversation with Tom Pink about medieval theories of freedom and action.

Further Reading

• T. Pink, “Freedom and responsibility,” Religious Studies 36 (2000), 116-19.

• T. Pink, “Suarez, Hobbes and the Scholastic Tradition in Action Theory,” in T. Pink and M.W.F. Stone (eds), The Will and Human Action: From Antiquity to the Present Day (London: 2003), 127-53.

• T. Pink, Free Will: a Very Short Introduction (Oxford: 2004).

• T. Pink, “Action, Will and Law in Late Scholasticism,” in J. Kraye and R. Saarinen (eds), Moral Philosophy on the Threshold of Modernity (Dordrecht: 2005), 31-51.

• T. Pink, “Intentions and Two Models of Human Action, in B. Verbeek (ed.), Reasons and Intentions (Aldershot: 2008), 153-80.

• T. Pink, “Power and Moral Responsibility,” Philosophical Explorations 12 (2009), 127-49.

• T. Pink, “Thomas Hobbes and the Ethics of Freedom,” Inquiry 54 (2011), 541-63.

• T. Pink, “Freedom of the Will,” in J. Marenbon (ed.), Oxford Handbook of Medieval Philosophy (Oxford: 2012), 569-87.

• T. Pink, The Ethics of Action, Volume 1: Self-Determination (Oxford: 2017).


Thomas Mirus 18 December 2016

I read a recent book on acedia by a Benedictine abbot which included a discussion of Ockham. As he explained it, Ockham said that the will was not intrinsically ordered toward the good (so that we are only free to choose either goods or perceived goods), but completely indifferent between good and evil. This theory resulted in the detachment of morality from its classical end of happiness, which in turn turned morality into a set of arbitrary "rules."

Yes, I can see how someone might say that. But I think the divine command idea (morality as just stipulated rules) doesn't stem so much from the point about will - on that front Ockham just wants to say that nothing can compel the will and even its own nature must leave it totally free to choose good or evil. More crucial to my mind is his view that all actions are morally neutral in themselves because it depends on the context in which they are done. Maybe it is even this together with the idea of the will's neutrality: if you take both points on board it starts to look like there is no normative standard for moral actions at all, either outside in the action or inside in the agent. Hence we need a lawgiver to come along and set down which actions are good and which bad. 

Alexander Johnson 30 August 2019

i found it fascinating the discussion that 100% reason and 0% reason seem to be both unfree, which makes freedom a function of incomplete reason.  It sounds like perhaps that freedom then, if we accept that conclusion, is a choice between going with our reason and going with our emotions.  So "not eating a cake because it is bad for me" and "appeasing my desire for delicious cake".  Which suggests, then, that freedom could be contained in what economists call a possibility frontier curve (choosing between what reason wants, what instinct wants, and then what various balances between those two wants).

Nice connection! I would add that the idea that we are choosing between reason and emotion (or, more generally, passive desire) is pretty intuitive and works well with ancient and medieval theories of soul, starting with Plato's three part soul. However that account does lead to the problem that a perfectly rational being who had no desires/emotions, or whose reason was always aligned with their desire/emotion, could not be free. This is unfortunately very counterintuitive and would be almost impossible for a medieval thinker to accept since it suggests that God is not free, but also the Stoics for instance would reject it since their perfect sage is like this, and is obviously free.

Anthony 2 January 2020

Is there a transcript? I feel like I could retain this information better if I could read it.

I struggled with this episode more than others. It's very dense. I'm about to listen a fourth time.

I'm still struggling to wrap my brain around the REAL distinction between volunteerism and intellectualism regarding the will. You suggest it's reasoning for inellectualists and sheer control over the will on the part of the volunteerist. Tom Pink seems to reject this as the most important part. However, I think in the process of this I get lost. Is there something to the distinction between reasoning and control when it comes to the will? What kind of control would a volunteerist believe an agent has apart from reason?

Power over alternatives vs. freedom based on rationality: I don't see how anyone ever thought we were not reasoning through the alternatives so I fail to understand the argument here.

Compatiblists vs. incompatiblists: They debate whether or not free will is even compatible with causal determination. They are not even considering that we're weighing ideas because they believe that process is entirely causally determined. Why should they reconsider this axiomatic claim?

Thank you so much for this podcast. I'm doing my best to keep up and stay attentive sometimes it takes a couple listens. This one was a bear.


Peter Adamson 2 January 2020

In reply to by Anthony

Yes, I agree this one was pretty dense. I think the interviews are often a bit more advanced which is by design since they take the material from scripted episodes further; in this case it might help if you re-listen to the relevant scripted episodes, like 261.

In any case, the basic contrast between voluntarism (which is the right spelling by the way) and intellectualism is simply that for the intellectualist, the will follows the dictates of reason's choices. So whatever you rationally judge to be best, all things considered, is what you will choose to do. Voluntarists typically deny this, and how they would frame their alternative varies a bit but the basic idea is that the will maintains some kind of autonomy - the clearest case would be "weakness of will" where you judge that the best thing to do is X, and then choose to do not X (like, eat the cake when you know you shouldn't).

Then the point about alternatives and compatibilism is something like this: some people (incompatibilists) think that to be free, you have to have more than one genuinely open course of action. Compatibilists will say that you could choose freely despite having no other real options, so long as the one chosen option is chosen on the basis of, say, your desires and beliefs and not through external force. Obviously a compatibilist can say that we reason through different alternatives but that the reasoning process itself determines what we will do; it would be natural (though not inevitable) to combine compatibilism with intellectualism, the idea then would be that whatever I judge to be best, all things considered, is what I "have to do", but we would still say this constitutes free choice because it was up to me to do the reasoning and be led to the conclusion about what is best. Compatibilist intellectualists would say that incompatibilist voluntarists are invoking a kind of "magic" step where the will "just chooses" completely independently of all causal factors, background desires, etc.

In the medieval and early modern period it is not that easy to find pure voluntarists or pure intellectualists, typically almost everyone wants to give a robust role to both reason and will in explaining choice, so it is sort of a continuum more than an either-or contrast.

Does that help?

Anthony 5 January 2020

In reply to by Peter Adamson

That is very helpful. I appreciate the spelling lesson. A bit embarrassing in this context. I will remember this forever as a result. In this case, I'm not so much choosing to remember this lesson because I reasoned it would be good, but compelled to do so by embarrassment. Does that make me a voluntarist? What does an intellectualist make of someone who eats the cake, and some more cake, and maybe some ice cream. Surely this person is no longer reasoning that these are good choices.

Thanks again! I can't tell you how much I appreciate this podcast as someone who just didn't get to go to college. Philosophy was my dream even in high school. I really wanted to write it. Now I can barely hope to understand it.

Peter Adamson 5 January 2020

In reply to by Anthony

Ha! Yeah, I know the feeling. To answer your question about cake, that is not actually so hard for the intellectualist. The cake eater believes (rightly, by the way) that cake is delicious and also believes that pleasure is good, which arguably is also true. So they are acting on that judgment. There is indeed a further question about what happens when you have conflicting judgments, like "this cake is delicious and so should be eaten" and "I'm on a diet and shouldn't eat the cake". Different intellectualists give different answers here but usually say something along the lines of the first belief trumping, obscuring, or making inactive the second belief when one is weak willed.

Scott McKellar 30 April 2021

I am obviously not fast enough to keep up, but am still listening to the podcasts. I found Thomas Pink's comments extremely insightful! I have enjoyed the 300 or so episodes that I have listen too, but I think this might be my favorite so far. 

I was intrigued enough to seek out some of his publications. 

Jorge 25 August 2021

Hello Peter,

Thank you for gracing us with this wonderful interview!

I would be very grateful if you could tell me how Grace fits in the pictures of free will talked about in this episode, and if it struggles with the possibility of freedom the way Agustin did. Is God's Grace necessary to choose salvation? And if so what would be its role in both a voluntarist and an intellectualist perspective. Is Grace necessary for free will or would it be gratuitous?

If this question is too broad, could you be gracious enough to at least talk about how Grace fits in Scotus's ideas on free will?



Actually the series that is just airing now on the Reformation gets into this a lot, like if you listen to the most recent ones on Luther or northern scholasticism I say a lot about this. Also check out the episode on predestination in the 14th c series.

But to make a long story short, the idea of grace is very important in voluntarism because according to many voluntarists God can by His "absolute power" decline to offer grace to anyone, no matter how apparently deserving - in fact we are all sinful so we all deserve damnation, which is why redemption counts as a free gift, i.e. grace. The question is then whether God also voluntarily binds Himself by promising grace to those who "do their best" to be good, this being the position of someone like Gabriel Biel who is in the Scotist/Ockhamite voluntarist tradition. Luther rejects this in favor of what you might see as an even more voluntarist view, on which human agency contributes nothing to the earning of grace and it is all up to God. And that leads to the radical determinism of Calvin. So it is all connected and goes back to the 13/14th century scholastics and, ultimately, Augustine's rejection of Pelagianism.

Anne Kellet 25 November 2022

God does not make up His mind for or against doling out goods as man does because He is perfect good and all good. It is man who by right of consciousness is able to receive grace from the Son through whom all grace and power is given.

Dylan 16 December 2022

The idea that animals are less free than humans because of their lesser capacity for reason feels odd to me. If you take a purely rational being, i.e. god, he doesn't doesn't ponder things and make decisions, he simply acts as is best. This seems remarkably similar to how animals seem to act. Both god and an earthworm act simply in accordance with their own nature's. The worm has infinitely less power, but uses what power it has to act precisely in the manner befitting a worm. That seems like a type of freedom. 

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