Is there a free will problem in classic Chinese philosophy?

Affiliate centre member Dr Jingbo Hu is a postdoctoral researcher at Fudan University, China. He has recently published work on reasons-responsive conceptions of responsibility in the Journal of the American Philosophical Association. Some of his current research contributes to decolonisation efforts, by bringing contemporary work in Western philosophical debates on free will into contact with ancient Chinese philosophy of action. This post gives an insight into this exciting project:

“The free will problem has been a source of heated debate within the history of western philosophy, however, it appears that much lesser attention has been devoted to this issue within classic Chinese philosophy. Is this a correct assumption? If so, what might explain this discrepancy? To answer these questions, I recently conducted some research. There were two primary motivations for my project; on one hand, if we cannot find any reference to the free will problem in classic Chinese philosophy, we may have a reason to doubt whether it is indeed a genuine philosophical problem. On the other hand, exploring the matter may unveil some implicit assumptions behind the discussion of free will in western philosophy.

The outcome of this research in part depends on the definition of “free will problem”. In western philosophy, free will is taken as consisting of two related capacities: the capacity of choosing, and the capacity of self-determination. The problem arises because we find the conditions of free will hard to satisfy. If the world strictly follows the laws of nature, it may leave us no room for free choice; likewise, if things that occur in the world are just one event causing another, we may lack the capacity to truly determine our actions. To summarize, the free will problem arises due to the dissonance between our ideas about human agency and our understanding of the world. Consequently, this problem can be approached from three perspectives. The Wide Question: to what degree do humans have free will? The Narrow Question: Do humans really have free will given our understanding of the world? The Compatibility Question: Is free will compatible with determinism? 

I have conducted some initial research and found that The Wide Question does exist in classic Chinese philosophy. This question is presented in the form of the debate/differentiation between effort and fate (“力命之辨”). Chinese philosophers are aware of the constraints of human agency. They make a distinction between the things that are under humans’ control (effort), and the things that are beyond humans’ control (fate), and have divergent views about how fate and effort relate. Confucius acknowledges the significance of fate, yet he rarely speaks of how it works. Mozi challenges the excessive attention to fate in his era, insisting that effort is what really matters in both individuals’ and nations’ success. In contrast, some Daoist scholars believe that fate is too powerful and enigmatic to be tamed by humans.

Though many Chinese philosophers hold that fate places limitations on human agency, it seems that they never seriously entertain the possibility that free will does not exist. For them, the presence of fate at best implies some events or outcomes are inevitable; it does not imply that every thought or action of individuals is predetermined. As a result, it seems that there is no Narrow Question or Compatibility Question of free will in classic Chinese philosophy. In other words, it is difficult to identify any skepticism towards free will in classic Chinese philosophy; this is not a conclusive statement, as the corpus of classic Chinese philosophy is incredibly vast. Nevertheless, it seems to be safe to claim that free will skepticism did not hold much interest for many of these philosophers. Why?

Mercedes Valmis’s research on Chinese philosophy of action may yield some illuminating

Insights (Valmisa, Mercedes. Adapting: A Chinese Philosophy of Action. Oxford University Press, 2021. Her article on Aeon provides a nice introduction to her research). According to her findings, actions are understood in a distinct manner in ancient China. She refers to this conception as the “co-action paradigm,” which encompasses three fundamental tenets. First, actions are collectively produced, as opposed to being produced by individual agents who are self-reliant. This claim contradicts to western conception of actions, according to which individuals are the only sources of their actions and thereby should take up the responsibility for their actions. Second, even inanimate objects possess agency. And third, humans should act in cooperation with other agentive beings (including other humans, creatures, and inanimate objects). This way of acting is referred to as adapting (“因“). 

In the co-action paradigm, actions are not solely the product of the agent. Instead, they are the result of the agent’s successful cooperation with other beings. For example, the act of writing this essay on my laptop involves multiple factors beyond my individual contributions. The laptop I am using was invented and manufactured by numerous other individuals. It is also crucial to acknowledge that my writing is mediated by language, which is only accessible to me by virtue of my membership in a certain community.

If the co-action paradigm accurately represents ancient Chinese thought, it may give us a partial explanation as to why Chinese philosophers are not troubled by free will skepticism. For these philosophers, the goal of agency is not to attain and exercise free will; rather, it is to adapt to ever-changing circumstances, establishing harmony with other beings in the environment.

Valmis’s analysis offers us a unique perspective outside the confines of Western philosophy, providing us with a useful reference point to reflect on the free will problem. As mentioned, the free will problem (particularly the free will skepticism) becomes pressing when we find a tension between an agent and the external environment. In this perspective, external factors are viewed as potential hindrances to agency. Consequently, an agent is competing against the world for control over her actions. However, Valmis’s co-action paradigm offers a shift in this perspective. Instead of being self-reliant and independent, an agent is dependent on the assistance of others whenever she acts. An agent is no longer in competition with the world but rather is engaged in cooperation with it.”