Thomas Reid


In the Free Will debate, Thomas Reid is generally considered a paradigmatic libertarian. He rejects causal determinism and defends a strong notion of liberty. The second section of this page presents summaries of some of Reid’s defense of his notion of liberty, particularly that of moral liberty, found in his Essays on the Active Powers of Man 1, while the first discusses some important concepts in Reid’s view.


The Will

Reid argues that we are “conscious of a power to determine” some events. This power that we have is what he calls the will. He distinguishes it from the act which results. He reserves the term volition for the action that result from the exercise of one’s will, though he notes that this distinction is not always clear when people talk about the will (II, chap. 1, p. 59). He also thinks there is no temporal gap between the exercise of the will and the associated volition (II, chap. 1, p. 65).

Reid makes certain claims about the object of a volition. First, he argues it is necessary that volitions have objects towards which they are directed. He thinks in this respect volitions are like other mental actions like thinking and remembering. He thinks it is impossible to think or remember without thinking of or remembering something in particular. The same holds for acts of the will. It is important that the object of the will be something that is conscious to the agent. This is unlike involuntary actions in which the agent need not have conscious awareness of the object of their action (like habitual blinking of one’s eye) (II, chap. 1, p.61–2).

Second, Reid distinguishes the object of a volition from the object of one’s desire. The object in the former is a particular action while the latter is directed to how the agent wants things to be. We do not desire particular actions, only what those actions might bring about (II, chap. 1, p. 62–3).


Reid thinks that something must precede acts of the will (II, chap. 1 p. 66). In particular, voluntary actions result either from reason or passion. Passions are things like “natural desires, affections” (II, chap. 2, p. 67–8), and “appetites” (p. 73). These motivations direct us towards an object with a sort of “violence” (Ibid.). They sometimes result in actions where judgement plays little or no role. For instance, Reid thinks this is sometime the case in which our natural desires determine when and what we eat (p. 67). For Reid, reason stands in opposition to the passions. Exercising reason involves actively struggling against the force of passions. He thinks rational motives tend to be weaker than passions which explains why it is hard to oppose them in acting in accordance to reason (IV, chap. 4, p. 298–300).


Reid distinguishes between possessing a virtue and a natural disposition. Having a virtue involves a “fixed purpose or resolution” to act. However, such actions might result simply from a “natural constitution or habit” to do so (II, chap. 3, p. 88). The former involves an act of the will directed at a general purpose. Instead of the object of the will being particular actions, the object is more general resulting in a series of particular actions. Such general purposes result in actions that form the character of an individual. The moral part of a person’s character are the virtues (p. 86–7).


For Reid, an active power is the ability to produce a change. A cause has the active power to bring about a change in the effect, which is passive and acted upon. He calls the exercise of an active power action, agency, or efficiency (IV, chap. 2, p. 276). Reid argues that the power of a cause to bring about an effect implies that it is possible for the effect to be brought about . Finally, Reid thinks every change must have an efficient cause (p. 277).

Liberty and Necessity

Reid thinks that “we are the efficient causes in our deliberate and voluntary actions” (IV, chap. 2, p. 277) and defines liberty to be our power over the determinations of our will (chap. 1, p. 267). An individual is free just in case they had the power to will an action or not it will it. Reid takes it that if this is not the case the action is somehow necessitated and the action is not free (ibid). Reid thinks those who argue that liberty is only conceivable in a weakened notion compatible with determinism neglect different ways of understanding liberty. He thinks liberty can be understood as the absence of external force, the ability to act in accordance with a standard, and as something which is incompatible with necessity. He argues that it is perfectly conceivable think that the determination of the will can have the agent as its cause (IV, chap. 1, p. 272–3).

Reid considers a particular instance of liberty, moral liberty, is the specific power “to do well or ill.” (IV, chap. 1, p. 269). He thinks that necessity implies the lack of moral liberty (p. 270).


Arguments for Moral Liberty

Reid presents three arguments for moral liberty in Essay IV of the Essays on the Active Powers of Man. The first is from our natural conviction that we act freely, in the sense that we possess some degree of active power with respect to voluntary actions. Reid argues as follows: (i) Knowingly and willingly exerting one’s power with the intention to bring about some effect implies that one must have the conception of and belief in one’s power; (ii) Deliberating about whether to do or not do an action implies a conviction that the action is in one’s power; (iii) Resolving to do an action requires a conviction that one has the power to execute the resolution; (iv) Faithfully making a promise or entering into a contract requires that one believe that one has the power to perform what is promised or contracted; and (v) The conviction of wrong conduct, remorse, and self-condemnation imply a conviction of our power to have done better. But if the belief in our having active power is necessarily implied by these rational operations, then it must be as universal and as necessary in life as those operations. Thus, the belief must have its origin in our constitution and so be the work of God. Since God would not deceive us, we do possess active power (IV, chap.6, pp. 312-322).

The second argument is from moral responsibility. Since moral obedience must be voluntary, such a being must understand the law to which they are bound as well as their obligation to obey it. Furthermore, since it is self-evident that one cannot be morally obligated to do what is impossible for one to do, such a being must have the power to do what they are accountable for. Reid takes it as granted that humans are moral and accountable beings. Thus, we possess active power (IV, chap. 7, pp. 323-328).

The third argument is from the ability to carry out plans of conduct. Executing any given plan requires a conception of it and the power over one’s actions that is necessary to operate according to it. Since we do deliberately lay down plans of conduct and subsequently pursue them, we possess active power (IV, chap. 8, pp. 329-333).

Countering Arguments Against Liberty

Reid considers the claim that libertarian freedom is impossible due to the truth of the Principle of Sufficient Reason. This objection runs as follows: any given determination of the will is an event for which there must be a sufficient reason; thus, there must be something preceding which was necessarily followed by the determination of the will, which is just to say that the determination of the will was necessary. In response, Reid points out that “reason” is ambiguous. If the principle requires that any voluntary action have a cause that is sufficient to produce it, then Reid agrees. For a given action either the agent was the cause, in which case it was a free action, or something else was the cause, and the action cannot be justly imputed to the agent. However Reid holds that this is irrelevant to the question of liberty. If the principle instead requires that there was something preceding the action which necessarily produced it, then Reid disagrees. Reid takes it to be a first principle that for every event there is a cause that had sufficient power to produce it. However, he further holds that there is no proof that every event is necessarily consequent on something preceding it, and that such a position not only fails to be self-evident but also has absurd fatalist consequences (IV, chap. 9, pp. 333-337).

A second point that has been taken to show that libertarian freedom is impossible stems from the supposed implication that there can exist an effect without a cause. Reid denies that this is an implication, since he takes a free action to be an effect produced by a being who had the power and will to produce it (IV, chap. 9, pp. 340-346).

Reid also argues against the view, advanced by Hobbes, that the will just is the strongest motive which causes an action. Reid  thinks that there is no way to determine what is meant by “the strongest motive”. Either it is whatever motive prevails, which is circular; or it is whatever causes the action, which presupposes that motives cause actions, a power which Reid thinks they lack (IV, chap. 4, p. 295–6).

[1] Reid, Thomas. 1788. Essays on the Active Powers of Man. Edinburgh: J. Bell.

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