The following is one of the best expositions of the compatabilist theory of free-will I have ever read. It comes from an essay by R. L. Dabney, a Southern (American) Presbyterian pastor, entitled “The Five Points of Calvinism”. Who says atheists and theists can’t find common ground?
The whole essay can be found here
Once more, Presbyterians do not believe they lose their free-agency because of original sin. See our Confession, Chapter 9, Section 1: “God hath endued the will of man with that natural liberty, that it is neither forced, nor by any absolute necessity of nature determined, to good or evil.” We fully admit that where an agent is not free he is not morally responsible. A just God will never punish him for actions in which he is merely an instrument, impelled by the compulsion of external force or fate. But what is free agency? There is no need to call in any abstruse metaphysics to the sufficient answer. Let every man’s consciousness and common sense tell him: I know that I am free whenever what I choose to do is the result of my own preference.
If I choose and act so as to please myself, then I am free. That is to say, our responsible volitions are the expression and the result of our own rational preference. When I am free and responsible it is because I choose and do the thing which I do, not compelled by some other agents, but in accordance with my own inward preference. We all know self-evidently that this is so. But is rational preference in us a mere haphazard state? Do our reasonable souls contain no original principles regulative of their preferences and choices? Were this so, then would man’s soul be indeed a miserable weathercock, wheeled about by every outward wind; not fit to be either free, rational, or responsible. We all know that we have such first principles regulative of our preferences; and these are own natural dispositions. They are inward, not external They are spontaneous, not compelled, and so as free as our choices. They are our own, not somebody else’s. They are ourselves. They are essential attributes in any being possessed of personality. Every rational person must have some kind of natural disposition. We can conceive of one person as naturally disposed this way, and of another that way. It is impossible for us to think a rational free agent not disposed any way at all. Try it.
We have capital illustrations of what native disposition is in the corporeal propensities of animals. It is the nature of a colt to like grass and hay. It is the nature of a bouncing schoolboy to like hot sausage. You may tole the colt with a bunch of nice hay, but not the boy; it is the hot sausage will fetch him when he is hungry; offer the hot sausage to the colt and he will reject it and shudder at it. Now both the colt and the boy are free in choosing what they like; free be cause their choices follow their own natural likings, i. e., their own animal dispositions.
But rational man has mental dispositions which are better than illustrations, actual cases of native principles regulating natural choices. Thus, when happiness or misery may be chosen simply for their own sakes, every man’s natural disposition is toward happiness and against misery. Again, man naturally loves property; all are naturally disposed to gain and to keep their own rather than to lose it for nothing. Once more, every man is naturally disposed to enjoy the approbation and praise of his fellow-men; and their contempt and abuse are naturally painful to him. In all these cases men choose according as they prefer, and they prefer according to their natural dispositions, happiness rather than misery, gain rather than loss, applause rather than abuse. They are free in these choices as they are sure to choose in the given way. And they are as certain to choose agreeably to these original dispositions as rivers are to run downward; equally certain and equally free, because the dispositions which certainly regulate their preferences are their own, not some one else’s, and are spontaneous in them, not compelled.
Let us apply one of these cases. I make this appeal to a company of aspiring young ladies and gentlemen: “Come and engage with me of your free choice in this given course of labor; it will be long and arduous; but I can assure you of a certain result. I promise you that, by this laborious effort, you shall make yourselves the most despised and abused set of young people in the State.” Will this succeed in inducing them? Can it succeed? No; it will not, and we justly say, it cannot. But are not these young persons free when they answer me, as they certainly will, “No, Teacher, we will not, and we cannot commit the folly of working hard solely to earn contempt, because contempt is in itself contrary and painful to our nature.” This is precisely parallel to what Presbyterians mean by inability of will to all spiritual good. It is just as real and certain as inability of faculty. These young people have the fingers with which to perform the proposed labor (let us say, writing) by which I invite them to toil for the earning of contempt. They have eyes and fingers wherewith to do penmanship, but they cannot freely choose my offer, because it contradicts that principle of their nature, love of applause, which infallibly regulates free human preference and choice. Here is an exact case of “inability of will.”