Compatibilism and Libertarianism: A Summary

Much of the confusion in discussions between Extensivists (here used in place of non-Calvinists) and Calvinists is due to not understanding the different perspectives regarding man’s moral freedom. Calvinists believe man is free according to compatible moral freedom; in contrast, Extensivists believe man is free according to libertarian moral freedom. A clear understanding of these two ideas is essential to properly evaluating the claims of each perspective. The following is provided as a summary. A more detailed explanation can be found by searching Compatible and Libertarian Freedom.

The definitions of these perspectives regarding the moral responsibility of man are not dependent upon a Christian worldview. They are philosophical in that they explore the metaphysical nature, or lack thereof, of man and his freedom. That is to say, one of the perspectives may be held by someone who is a Darwinist, Atheist, Theist (but not Christian), or Christian. The fundamental definitional meaning of each is the same regardless who holds the position.

Consequently, the application to Christianity, and therefore, references to God, sin, and salvation are not actually inherent in the nature of the perspectives but only in their application to Christian theism.

Compatibilism: compatibilism says that determinism and moral responsibility are compatible; hence the name. This compatibility is not achieved by compatibilism being less deterministic than hard determinism. Rather, it is achieved by defining free choice to mean that as long as a person chooses according to his greatest desire, he can be considered to have made a free choice for which he is morally responsible; even though, given the same past, he cannot choose differently in the moral moment of decision.

Libertarianism: man is not determined, and his Creator endowed him with the ability to choose between accessible options in some scenarios. He can choose to act or refrain in most situations, and therefore he is obviously responsible for his choice. Libertarians contend that determinism is not compatible with moral responsibility.

The following is a list of what compatibilism includes and excludes (entails)

I Includes
a Voluntariness—one acts freely if he chooses according to his greatest desire.
b Man is morally responsible because he freely chose according to his greatest desire.
c Micro-determinism—given one’s past, no actual accessible options are available other than the one chosen in the moral moment of decision because the greatest desire emanates from determinative antecedents.[1]
d One may have an experiential sense of deliberation in decision-making.
e Guaranteed outcome—God knows what will happen because He predetermined everything so that everything would be as it precisely is; thus, everything is as God desired.[2]

II Excludes
a Otherwise choice in the moral moment of decision given the same past.
b Origination—the ability to initiate a new sequence of events for the future.
c The sense of deliberation including any possibility of actually choosing between accessible options.
d Actual possibility in the moral moment of decision to have chosen differently than one did in fact choose.
e Actual range of accessible options—alternative possibilities
f Agent causation as the efficient cause—meaning that one need look no further than the individual choosing for the cause of the choice. In compatibilism the cause is traced to determinative antecedents from which the greatest desire emanated.
g Reliance upon character-influenced choices in order to lessen the deterministic nature of the choice because for one’s character to accomplish such necessitates that the person made at least one or some previous choices in which he could have actually chosen differently, which is absolutely disallowed by compatibilism.
h Being sufficiently defined to mean moral responsibility is compatible with sovereignty. This may be what an individual believes to be true, but it is not the definition of compatibilism.
i The individual being ultimately responsible for his choice because ultimate responsibility must be found at the origin of the chain of determinative antecedents. From a Christian worldview, this is God.

The following is a list of what libertarianism includes and excludes (entails)

I Includes
a Voluntariness—man acts freely.
b Origination—choice can initiate a new sequence of events, alternative possibilities.
c One’s choice may be influenced, even strongly so, but not determined. If it is a determined decision, then the individual is not morally responsible for that specific decision.
d Efficient cause—one need look no further than the individual for the cause of the action, sometimes referred to as agent causation.
e Contra-causal power—ability to do otherwise.
f Actual otherwise choice in the moral moment of decision even with the same past.
g At times, one’s character may occasion sufficient influence for a choice, thereby lessening the need for as much deliberation as other decisions may require.
h No guaranteed outcome—God knows contingencies because He is essentially omniscient.
i The problem of sin is answered in that it is the result of a free choice in which man could have and should have acted differently. Additionally, it seems to be impossible to create a libertarian free being with the option to sin (in his range of options) and guarantee that he will not misuse his freedom.
j God overcomes man’s misuse of the good gift of libertarian freedom with His co-extensive creation/redemption plan.
k God created man in His image with libertarian freedom, which means that this freedom is a force. Like all other forces, it is thereby under His sovereign rule, which He can contravene at any time. He allows the misuse of freedom, but if such misuse goes too far, He can and does thwart it; we see this in the Scripture in many ways, but particularly in His dealings with rulers like Pharaohs and kings such as Nebuchadnezzar. Man is responsible for all choices that he makes apart from the use of force, e.g. held at gunpoint or even when God overrides his freedom

II Excludes
a The idea that libertarian freedom means a person can do anything.
b The idea that having one’s libertarian freedom overruled results in a dispossession of libertarian freedom. God may overrule one’s freedom in a given moment, or man may be imprisoned by another; however, such coerced actions do not mean that the individual no longer has libertarian freedom, but only that he is not morally responsible for the coerced action.
c The idea that libertarian freedom disallows Influential antecedents.
d The idea that a change in the range of options eliminates the existence of libertarian freedom (some past options, or options available to others,  are not available to another individual). This is because while different seasons of life, birthplaces, familial dynamics, physical and mental capabilities affect the range of options available to the person, they do not affect the reality of libertarian freedom.
e The idea that man’s choice is baseless or random. Libertarian choice may be influenced by reason, emotions, past, character, or circumstances, or a constellation of these, but the decision is not determined by them; that is the result of the free agent, which means that he has reasons for his choice, but he is not controlled by them.
f The idea that fallen man can choose to come to God apart from grace-enablements.


[1] The determinative antecedents, and particularly the genesiacal determinate antecedent (ultimately responsible action/actor), may be different in Darwinism, Christianity, or other worldviews, but the degree of determinism is constant.
[2] Compatibilism in secularism would exclude God.