In Defence of Free WillInaugural Address, Glasgow University, (1938) in In Defence of Free Will: With Other Philosophical Essays, Volume 4 (Psychology Press: 2004).
In casting about for a suitable topic upon which to address you to-day, I have naturally borne in mind that an inaugural lecture of this sort should be devoted to some theme of much more than merely esoteric import: to some theme, for preference, sufficiently central in character to have challenged the attention of all who possess a speculative interest in the nature of the universe and man’s place within it. That is a principal reason why I have chosen to-day to speak on free will. Mighty issues turn, and turn directly, on the solution of the free will problem. It is in no way surprising that for centuries past it has exercised a fascination for thinkers both within and without the ranks of the professional philosophers that is probably not paralleled in the case of any of the other great problems of metaphysics.There are, however, other considerations also which have governed my choice of subject. More particularly, I have been influenced by a conviction that the present state of philosophical opinion on free will is, for certain definitely assignable reasons, profoundly unsatisfactory. In my judgment, a thoroughly perverse attitude to the whole problem has been created by the almost universal acquiescence in the view that free will in what is often called the ‘vulgar’ sense is too obviously nonsensical a notion to deserve serious discussion. Free will in a more ‘refined’ sense — which is apt to mean free will purged of all elements that may cause embarrassment to a Deterministic psychology or a Deterministic metaphysics — is, it is understood, a conception which may be defended by the philosopher without loss of caste. But in its ‘vulgar’ sense, as maintained, for example, by the plain man, who clings to a belief in genuinely open possibilities, it is (we are told) a wild and even obnoxious delusion, long ago discredited for sober thinkers.
Now, as it happens, I myself firmly believe that free will, in something extremely like the ‘vulgar’ sense, is a fact. And I am anxious to-day to do what I can, within the limits of a single lecture, to justify that belief. I propose therefore to develop a statement of the Libertarian’s position which will try to make clear why he finds himself obliged to hold what he does hold, and to follow this up with a critical examination of the grounds most in vogue among philosophers for impugning this position. Considerations of time will, I fear, compel a somewhat close economy in my treatment of objections. But I shall hope to say enough to instigate a doubt in some minds concerning the validity of certain very fashionable objections whose authority is often taken to be virtually final. And if no other good purpose is served, it will at least be of advantage if I can offer, in my positive statement, a target for the missiles of the critics more truly representative of Libertarianism than the targets at which they sometimes direct their fire—targets, I may add, upon which even the clumsiest of marksmen could hardly fail to register bull’s-eyes.
Let us begin by noting that the problem of free will gets its urgency for the ordinary educated man by reason of its close connection with the conception of moral responsibility. When we regard a man as morally responsible for an act, we regard him as a legitimate object of moral praise or blame in respect of it. But it seems plain that a man cannot be a legitimate object of moral praise or blame for an act unless in willing the act he is in some important sense a ‘free’ agent. Evidently free will in some sense, therefore, is a pre-condition of moral responsibility. Without doubt it is the realization that any threat to freedom is thus a threat to moral responsibility — with all that that implies — combined with the knowledge that there are a variety of considerations, philosophic, scientific, and theological, tending to place freedom in jeopardy, that gives to the problem of free will its perennial and universal appeal. And it is therefore in close connection with the question of the conditions of moral responsibility that any discussion of the problem must proceed, if it is not to be academic in the worst sense of the term.
We raise the question at once, therefore, what are the conditions, in respect of freedom, which must attach to an act in order to make it a morally responsible act? It seems to me that the fundamental conditions are two. I shall state them with all possible brevity, for we have a long road to travel.
The first condition is the universally recognised one that the act must be self-caused, self-determined. But it is important to accept this condition in its full rigour. The agent must be not merely a cause but the sole cause of that for which he is deemed morally responsible. If entities other than the self have also a causal influence upon an act, then that act is not one for which we can say without qualification that the self is morally responsible. If in respect of it we hold the self responsible at all, it can only be for some feature of the act — assuming the possibility of disengaging such a feature — of which the self is the sole cause. I do not see how this conclusion can be evaded. But it has awkward implications which have led not a few people to abandon the notion of individual moral responsibility altogether.
This first condition, however, is quite clearly not sufficient. It is possible to conceive an act of which the agent is the sole cause, but which is at the same time an act necessitated by the agent’s nature. Some philosophers have contended, for example, that the act of Divine creation is an act which issues necessarily from the Divine nature. In the case of such an act, where the agent could not do otherwise than he did, we must all agree, I think, that it would be inept to say that he ought to have done otherwise and is thus morally blameworthy, or ought not to have done otherwise and is thus morally praiseworthy. It is perfectly true that we do sometimes hold a person morally responsible for an act, even when we believe that he, being what he now is, virtually could not do otherwise.
But underlying that judgment is always the assumption that the person has come to be what he now is in virtue of past acts of will in which he was confronted by real alternatives, by genuinely open possibilities: and, strictly speaking, it is in respect of these past acts of his that we praise or blame the agent now. For ultimate analysis, the agent’s power of alternative action would seem to be an inexpugnable condition of his liability to moral praise or blame, i.e. of his moral responsibility.We may lay down, therefore, that an act is a ‘free’ act in the ‘sense required for moral responsibility only if the agent (a) is the sole cause of the act; and (b) could exert his causality in alternative ways. And it may be pointed out in passing that the acceptance of condition (b) implies the recognition of the inadequacy for moral freedom of mere `self-determination’. The doctrine called ‘Self-determinism’ is often contrasted by its advocates with mere Determinism on the one hand and Indeterminism on the other, and pronounced to be the one true gospel. I must insist, however, that if ‘Self-determinism’ rejects condition (b), it cannot claim to be a doctrine of free will in the sense required to vindicate moral responsibility. The doctrine which demands, and asserts, the fulfilment of both conditions is the doctrine we call ‘Libertarianism’. And it would in my opinion minister greatly to clarity if it were more widely recognized that for any doctrine which is not a species of Libertarianism to pose as a doctrine of ‘free will’ is mere masquerade.
And now, the conditions of free will being defined in these general terms, we have to ask whether human beings are in fact capable of performing free acts; and if so, where precisely such acts are to be found. In order to prepare the way for an answer, it is desirable, I think, that we should get clear at once about the significance of a certain very familiar, but none the less formidable, criticism of free will which the Self-determinist as well as the Libertarian has to meet. This is the criticism which bases itself upon the facts of heredity on the one hand and of environment on the other. I may briefly summarize the criticism as follows.
Every historic self has an hereditary nature consisting of a group of inborn propensities, in range more or less common to the race, but specific to the individual in their respective strengths. With this equipment the self just happens to be born. Strictly speaking, it antedates the existence of the self proper, i.e. the existence of the self-conscious subject, and it is itself the effect of a series of causes leading back to indefinitely remote antiquity. It follows, therefore, that any of the self’s choices that manifests the influence of his hereditary nature is not a choice of which he, the actual historic self, is the sole cause. The choice is determined, at least in part, by factors external to the self. The same thing holds good of ‘environment’. Every self is born and bred in a particular physical and social environment, not of his own choosing, which plays upon him in innumerable ways, encouraging this propensity, discouraging that, and so on. Clearly any of the self’s choices that manifests the influence of environmental factors is likewise a choice which is determined, at least in part, by factors external to the self. But if we thus grant, as seems inevitable, that heredity and environment are external influences, where shall we find a choice in the whole history of a self that is not subject to external influence? Surely we must admit that every particular act of choice bears the marks of the agent’s hereditary nature and environmental nurture; in which case a free act, in the sense of an act determined solely by the self, must be dismissed as a mere chimaera.
To this line of criticism the Self-determinist — T. H. Green is a typical example — has a stock reply. He urges that these factors, heredity and environment, are not, in so far as their operation in willing (and therefore in conduct proper) is concerned, ‘external’ to the self at all. For the act of willing, when we analyse it, reveals itself to be in its nature such that no end can be willed save in so far as it is conceived by the self as a good for the self. A ‘native propensity’ cannot function as such in willing. It can function only in so far as the self conceives its object as a good for the self. It follows that the self in willing is essentially self-determining; not moved from the outside, but moved always by its own conception of its own good. Inherited nature and environmental circumstance do play their part; but not as factors external to the self. They can function only in so far as their suggestions are, as it were, incorporated by the self in its conception of its own good. Consequently — so we are told — the threat to self-determination from the side of inheritance and environment disappears on an adequate analysis of the act of willing.
I am afraid, however, that this argument, though it contains important truth, cannot bear the heavy weight that is here imposed upon it. Let us grant that inheritance and environment can operate in willing only in the medium of the self’s conception of its own good. But then let us ask, how is the self’s conception of its own good constituted? Self-consciousness is required, of course: but mere self-conscious reflection in vacuo will not furnish the self with any conception of a personal good whatsoever. Obviously to answer the question in regard to any agent we are obliged to make reference to certain sheer external facts; viz., to the quality and strength of that person’s inherited propensities, and to the nature of the influences that are brought to bear upon him from the side of environment. It seems certain, then, that the self’s conception of its own good is influenced directly by its particular inheritance and environment. But to admit this surely involves the admission that external determination enters into choices. It may be true that the self’s choices are always determined by its conception of its own good. But if what it conceives to be its own good is always dependent, at least partly, upon inheritance and environment, as external facts, then it is idle to deny that the self’s choices are externally influenced likewise.
Indeed I cannot but regard the attempt to save self-determination by denying the externality of the influence of heredity and environment as a quite desperate expedient. It is significant that nobody really believes it in practice. The externality of these influences is taken for granted in our reflective practical judgments upon persons. On those occasions when we are in real earnest about giving a critical and considered estimate of a man’s moral calibre — as, e.g., in any serious biographical study — we impose upon ourselves as a matter of course the duty of enquiring with scrupulous care into his hereditary propensities and environmental circumstances, with a view to discovering how far his conduct is influenced by these factors. And having traced these influences, we certainly do not regard the result as having no bearing on the question of the man’s moral responsibility for his conduct. On the contrary, the very purpose of the enquiry is to enable us, by due appreciation of the external influences that affect his conduct, to gain as accurate a view as possible of that which can justly be attributed to the man’s own self-determination. The allowances that we all of us do in practice make for hereditary and environmental influences in passing judgment on our fellows would be meaningless if we did not suppose these influences to be in a real sense ‘external’ to the self.
Now the recognition of this externality is, of course, just as serious a matter for the Libertarian as for the Self-determinist. For the Libertarian, as we saw, accepts condition (a) no less wholeheartedly than the Self-determinist does: i.e. that an act is free only if it is determined by the self and nothing but the self. But though we have not been directly advancing our course by these recent considerations, we have been doing so indirectly, by narrowing and sharpening the issue. We know now that condition (a) is not fulfilled by any act in respect of which inheritance or environment exerts a causal influence. For that type of influence has been shown to be in a real sense external to the self. The free act of which we are in search has therefore got to be one into which influences of this kind do not enter at all.
Moreover, one encouraging portent has emerged in the course of our brief discussion. For we noticed that our reflective practical judgments on persons, while fully recognizing the externality of the influence of heredity and environment, do nevertheless presuppose throughout that there is something in conduct which is genuinely self-determined; something which the agent contributes solely on his own initiative, unaffected by external influences; something for which, accordingly, he may justly be held morally responsible. That conviction may, of course, be a false one. But the fact of its widespread existence can hardly be without significance for our problem.
Let us proceed, then, by following up this clue. Let us ask, why do human beings so obstinately persist in believing that there is an indissoluble core of purely self-originated activity which even heredity and environment are powerless to affect? There can be little doubt, I think, of the answer in general terms. They do so, at bottom, because they feel certain of the existence of such activity from their immediate practical experience of themselves. Nor can there be in the end much doubt, I think, in what function of the self that activity is to be located. There seems to me to be one, and only one, function of the self with respect to which the agent can even pretend to have an assurance of that absolute self-origination which is here at issue. But to render precise the nature of that function is obviously of quite paramount importance: and we can do so, I think, only by way of a somewhat thorough analysis — which I now propose to attempt — of the experiential situation in which it occurs, viz., the situation of ‘moral temptation’.
It is characteristic of that situation that in it I am aware of an end A which I believe to be morally right, and also of an end B, incompatible with A, towards which, in virtue of that system of conative dispositions which constitutes my ‘character’ as so far formed, I entertain a strong desire. There may be, and perhaps must be, desiring elements in my nature which are directed to A also. But what gives to the situation its specific character as one of moral temptation is that the urge of our desiring nature towards the right end, A, is felt to be relatively weak. We are sure that if our desiring nature is permitted to issue directly in action, it is end B that we shall choose. That is what is meant by saying, as William James does, that end B is ‘in the line of least resistance’ relatively to our conative dispositions. The expression is, of course, a metaphorical one, but it serves to describe, graphically enough, a situation of which we all have frequent experience, viz., where we recognize a specific end as that towards which the ‘set’ of our desiring nature most strongly inclines us, and which we shall indubitably choose if no inhibiting factor intervenes.
But inhibiting factors, we should most of us say, may intervene: and that in two totally different ways which it is vital to distinguish clearly. The inhibiting factor may be of the nature of another desire (or aversion), which operates by changing the balance of the desiring situation. Though at one stage I desire B, which I believe to be wrong, more strongly than I desire A, which I believe to be right, it may happen that before action is taken I become aware of certain hitherto undiscerned consequences of A which I strongly desire, and the result may be that now not B but A presents itself to me as the end in the line of least resistance. Moral temptation is here overcome by the simple process of ceasing to be a moral temptation.
That is one way, and probably by far the commoner way, in which an inhibiting factor intervenes. But it is certainly not regarded by the self who is confronted by moral temptation as the only way. In such situations we all believe, rightly or wrongly, that even although B continues to be in the line of least resistance, even although, in other words, the situation remains one with the characteristic marks of moral temptation, we can nevertheless align ourselves with A. We can do so, we believe, because we have the power to introduce a new energy, to make what we call an ‘effort of will’, whereby we are able to act contrary to the felt balance of mere desire, and to achieve the higher end despite the fact that it continues to be in the line of greater resistance relatively to our desiring nature. The self in practice believes that it has this power; and believes, moreover, that the decision rests solely with its self, here and now, whether this power be exerted or not.
Now the objective validity or otherwise of this belief is not at the moment in question. I am here merely pointing to its existence as a psychological fact. No amount of introspective analysis, so far as I can see, even tends to disprove that we do as a matter of fact believe, in situations of moral temptation, that it rests with our self absolutely to decide whether we exert the effort of will which will enable us to rise to duty, or whether we shall allow our desiring nature to take its course.
I have now to point out, further, how this act of moral decision, at least in the significance which it has for the agent himself, fulfils in full the two conditions which we found it necessary to lay down at the beginning for the kind of ‘free’ act which moral responsibility presupposes.
For obviously it is, in the first place, an act which the agent believes he could perform in alternative ways. He believes that it is genuinely open to him to put forth effort — in varying degrees, if the situation admits of that — or withhold it altogether. And when he has decided — in whatever way — he remains convinced that these alternative courses were really open to him.
It is perhaps a little less obvious, but, I think, equally certain, that the agent believes the second condition to be fulfilled likewise, i.e. that the act of decision is determined solely by his self. It appears less obvious, because we all realize that formed character has a great deal to do with the choices that we make; and formed character is, without a doubt, partly dependent on the external factors of heredity and environment. But it is crucial here that we should not misunderstand the precise nature of the influence which formed character brings to bear upon the choices that constitute conduct. No one denies that it determines, at least largely, what things we desire, and again how greatly we desire them. It may thus fairly be said to determine the felt balance of desires in the situation of moral temptation. But all that that amounts to is that formed character prescribes the nature of the situation within which the act of moral decision takes place. It does not in the least follow that it has any influence whatsoever in determining the act of decision itself — the decision as to whether we shall exert effort or take the easy course of following the bent of our desiring nature: take, that is to say, the course which, in virtue of the determining influence of our character as so far formed, we feel to be in the line of least resistance.
When one appreciates this, one is perhaps better prepared to recognize the fact that the agent himself in the situation of moral temptation does not, and indeed could not, regard his formed character as having any influence whatever upon his act of decision as such. For the very nature of that decision, as it presents itself to him, is as to whether he will or will not permit his formed character to dictate his action. In other words, the agent distinguishes sharply between the self which makes the decision, and the self which, as formed character, determines not the decision but the situation within which the decision takes place. Rightly or wrongly, the agent believes that through his act of decision he can oppose and transcend his own formed character in the interest of duty. We are therefore obliged to say, I think, that the agent cannot regard his formed character as in any sense a determinant of the act of decision as such. The act is felt to be a genuinely creative act, originated by the self ad hoc, and by the self alone.
Here then, if my analysis is correct, in the function of moral decision in situations of moral temptation, we have an act of the self which at least appears to the agent to satisfy both of the conditions of freedom which we laid down at the beginning. The vital question now is, is this ‘appearance’ true or false? Is the act of decision really what it appears to the agent to be, determined solely by the self, and capable of alternative forms of expression? If it is, then we have here a. free act which serves as an adequate basis for moral responsibility. We shall be entitled to regard the agent as morally praiseworthy or morally blameworthy according as he decides to put forth effort or to let his desiring nature have its way. We shall be entitled, in short, to judge the agent as he most certainly judges himself in the situation of moral temptation. If, on the other hand, there is good reason to believe that the agent is the victim of illusion in supposing his act of decision to bear this character, then in my opinion the whole conception of moral responsibility must be jettisoned altogether. For it seems to me certain that there is no other function of the self that even looks as though it satisfied the required conditions of the free act.
Now in considering the claim to truth of this belief of our practical consciousness, we should begin by noting that the onus of proof rests upon the critic who rejects this belief. Until cogent evidence to the. contrary is adduced, we are entitled to put our trust in a belief which is so deeply embedded in our experience as practical beings as to be, I venture to say, ineradicable from it. Anyone who doubts whether it is ineradicable may be invited to think himself imaginatively into a situation of moral temptation as we have above described it, and then to ask himself whether in that situation he finds it possible to disbelieve that his act of decision has the characteristics in question. I have no misgivings about the answer. It is possible to disbelieve only when we are thinking abstractly about the situation; not when we are living through it, either actually or in imagination. This fact. certainly establishes a strong prima facie presumption in favour of the Libertarian position. Nevertheless I agree that we shall have to weigh carefully several criticisms of high authority before-we can feel justified in asserting free will as an ultimate and unqualified truth.
Fortunately for our purpose, however, there are some lines of criticism which, although extremely influential in the recent past, may at the present time be legitimately ignored. We are not to-day confronted, for example, by any widely accepted system of metaphysic with implications directly hostile to free will. Only a decade or two ago one could hardly hope to gain a sympathetic hearing for a view which assigned an ultimate initiative to finite selves, unless one were prepared first to show reason for rejecting the dominant metaphysical doctrine that all things in the universe are the expression of a single Mind or Spirit. But the challenge so lately offered by monistic Idealism has in the present age little more significance than the challenge once offered by monistic Materialism.
Much the same thing holds good of the challenge from the side of physical science. Libertarianism is certainly inconsistent with a rigidly determinist theory of the physical world. It is idle to pretend that there can be open possibilities for psychical decision, while at the same time holding that the physical events in which such decisions manifest themselves are determined in accordance with irrevocable law. But whereas until a few years ago the weight of scientific authority was thrown overwhelmingly on the side of a universal determinism of physical phenomena, the situation has, as everybody knows, profoundly altered during the present century more especially since the advent of Planck’s Quantum Theory and Heisenberg’s Principle of Uncertainty. Very few scientists to-day would seek to impugn free will on the ground of any supposed implications of the aims or achievements of physical science. I am not myself, I should perhaps add in passing, disposed to rest any part of the case against a universal physical determinism upon these recent dramatic developments of physical science. In my view there never were in the established results of physical science cogent reasons for believing that the apparently universal determinism of inorganic processes holds good also of the processes of the human body. The only inference I here wish to draw from the trend of present-day science is that it removes from any contemporary urgency the problem of meeting one particular type of objection to free will. And it is with the contemporary situation that I am in this paper anxious to deal.
I may turn at once, therefore, to lines of argument which do still enjoy a wide currency among anti-Libertarians. And I shall begin with one which, though it is a simple matter to show its irrelevance to the Libertarian doctrine as I have stated it, is so extremely popular that it cannot safely be ignored.
The charge made is that the Libertarian view is incompatible with the predictability of human conduct. For we do make rough predictions of people’s conduct, on the basis of what we know of their character, every day of our lives, and there can be no doubt that the practice, within certain limits, is amply justified by results. Indeed if it were not so, social life would be reduced to sheer chaos. The close relationship between character and conduct which prediction postulates really seems to be about as certain as anything can be. But the Libertarian view, it is urged, by ascribing to the self a mysterious power of decision uncontrolled by character, and capable of issuing in acts inconsistent with character, denies that continuity between character and conduct upon which prediction depends. If Libertarianism is true, prediction is impossible. But prediction is possible, therefore Libertarianism is untrue.
My answer is that the Libertarian view is perfectly compatible with prediction within certain limits, and that there is no empirical evidence at all that prediction is in fact possible beyond these limits. The following considerations will, I think, make the point abundantly clear.
(1) There is no question, on our view, of a free will that can will just anything at all. The range of possible choices is limited by the agent’s character in every case; for nothing can be an object of possible choice which is not suggested by either the agent’s desires or his moral ideals, and these depend on ‘character’ for us just as much as for our opponents. We have, indeed explicitly recognized at an earlier stage that character determines the situation within which the act of moral decision takes place, although not the act of moral decision itself. This consideration obviously furnishes a broad basis for at least approximate predictions.
(2) There is one experiential situation, and one only, on our view, in which there is any possibility of the act of will not being in accordance with character; viz. the situation in which the course which formed character prescribes is a course in conflict with the agent’s moral ideal: in other words, the situation of moral temptation. Now this is a situation of comparative rarity. Yet with respect to all other situations in life we are in full agreement with those who hold that conduct is the response of the agent’s formed character to the given situation. Why should it not be so? There could be no reason, on our view any more than on another, for the agent even to consider deviating from the course which his formed character prescribes and he most strongly desires, unless that course is believed by him to be incompatible with what is right.
(3) Even within that one situation which is relevant to free will, our view can still recognize a certain basis for prediction. In that situation our character as so far formed prescribes a course opposed to duty, and an effort of will is required if we are to deviate from that course. But of course we are all aware that a greater effort of will is required in proportion to the degree in which we have to transcend our formed character in order to will the right. Such action is, as we say, ‘harder’. But if action is ‘harder’ in proportion as it involves deviation from formed character, it seems reasonable to suppose that, on the whole, action will be of rarer occurrence in that same proportion: though perhaps we may not say that at any level of deviation it becomes flatly impossible. It follows that even with respect to situations of moral temptation we may usefully employ our knowledge of the agent’s character as a clue to prediction. It will be a clue of limited, but of by no means negligible, value. It will warrant us in predicting, e.g., of a person who has become enslaved to alcohol, that he is unlikely, even if fully aware of the moral evil of such slavery, to be successful immediately and completely in throwing off its shackles. Predictions of this kind we all make often enough in practice. And there seems no reason at all why a Libertarian doctrine should wish to question their validity.
Now when these three considerations are borne in mind, it becomes quite clear that the doctrine we are defending is compatible with a very substantial measure of predictability indeed. And I submit that there is not a jot of empirical evidence that any larger measure than this obtains in fact.
Let us pass on then to consider a much more interesting and, I think, more plausible criticism. It is constantly objected against the Libertarian doctrine that it is fundamentally unintelligible. Libertarianism holds that the act of moral decision is the self’s act, and yet insists at the same time that it is not influenced by any of those determinate features in the self’s nature which go to constitute its ‘character’. But, it is asked, do not these two propositions contradict one another? Surely a self-determination which is determination by something other than the self’s character is a contradiction in terms? What meaning is there in the conception of a ‘self’ in abstraction from its ‘character’? If you really wish to maintain, it is urged, that the act of decision is not determined by the self’s character, you ought to admit frankly that it is not determined by the self at all. But in that case, of course, you will not be advocating a freedom which lends any kind of support to moral responsibility; indeed very much the reverse.
Now this criticism, and all of its kind, seem to me to be the product of a simple, but extraordinarily pervasive, error: the error of confining one’s self to the categories of the external observer in dealing with the actions of human agents. Let me explain. It is perfectly true that the standpoint of the external observer, which we are obliged to adopt in dealing with physical processes, does not furnish us with even a glimmering of a notion of what can be meant by an entity which acts causally and yet not through any of the determinate features of its character. So far as we confine ourselves to external observation, I agree that this notion must seem to us pure nonsense. But then we are not obliged to confine ourselves to external observation in dealing with the human agent. Here, though here alone, we have the inestimable advantage of being able to apprehend operations from the inside, from the standpoint of living experience. But if we do adopt this internal standpoint — surely a proper standpoint, and one which we should be only too glad to adopt if we could in the case of other entities — the situation is entirely changed. We find that we not merely can, but constantly do, attach meaning to a causation which is the self’s causation but is yet not exercised by the self’s character. We have seen as much already in our analysis of the situation of moral temptation. When confronted by such a situation, we saw, we are certain that it lies with our self to decide whether we shall let our character as so far formed dictate our action or whether we shall by effort oppose its dictates and rise to duty. We are certain, in other words, that the act is not determined by our character, while we remain equally certain that the act is determined by our self.
Or look, for a further illustration (since the point we have to make here is of the very first importance for the whole free will controversy), to the experience of effortful willing itself, where the act of decision has found expression in the will to rise to duty. In such an experience we are certain that it is our self which makes the effort. But we are equally certain that the effort does not flow from that system of conative dispositions which we call our formed character; for the very function that the effort has for us is to enable us to act against the ‘line of least resistance’, i.e. to act in a way contrary to that to which our formed character inclines us.
I conclude, therefore, that those who find the Libertarian doctrine of the self’s causality in moral decision inherently unintelligible find it so simply because they restrict themselves, quite arbitrarily, to an inadequate standpoint: a standpoint from which, indeed, a genuinely creative activity, if it existed, never could be apprehended.
It will be understood, of course, that it is no part of my purpose to deny that the act of moral decision is in one sense ‘unintelligible’. If by the ‘intelligibility’ of an act we mean that it is capable, at least in principle, of being inferred as a consequence of a given ground, then naturally my view is that the act in question is ‘unintelligible’. But that, presumably, is not the meaning of ‘intelligibility’ in the critic’s mind when he says that the Libertarian holds an ‘unintelligible’ doctrine. If it were all he meant, he would merely be pointing out that Libertarianism is not compatible with Determinism! And that tautologous pronouncement would hardly deserve the title of ‘criticism’. Yet, strangely enough, not all of the critics seem to be quite clear on this matter. The Libertarian often has the experience of being challenged by the critic to tell him why, on his view, the agent now decides to put forth moral effort and now decides not to, with the obviously intended implication that if the Libertarian cannot say ‘why’ he should give up his theory. Such critics apparently fail to see that if the Libertarian could say why he would already have given up his theory! Obviously to demand ‘intelligibility’ in this sense is simply to prejudge the whole issue in favour of Determinism. The sense in which the critic is entitled to demand intelligibility of our doctrine is simply this; he may demand that the kind of action which our doctrine imputes to human selves should not be, for ultimate analysis, meaningless. And in that sense, as I have already argued, our doctrine is perfectly intelligible.
Let us suppose, then, that the Determinist, confronted by the plain evidence of our practical self-consciousness, now recognizes his obligation to give up the position that the Libertarian doctrine is without qualification ‘meaningless’, and concedes that from the standpoint of our practical self-consciousness at any rate it is `meaningful’. And let us ask what will be his next move. So far as I can see, his most likely move now will be to attack the value of that ‘internal’ standpoint, contrasting it unfavourably, in respect of its claim to truth, with the rational, objective, standpoint of `pure philosophy’. ‘I admit,’ he may tell us, ‘that there is begotten in the self, in the practical experience you refer to, a belief in a self-causality which is yet not a causality exercised through the self’s character. But surely this must weigh but lightly in the balance against the proposition, which appeals to our reason with axiomatic certainty, that an act cannot be caused by a self if it has no ground in the determinate nature of that self. If the choice lies between either disbelieving that rational proposition, or dismissing the evidence of practical self-consciousness as illusion, it is the latter alternative which in my opinion any sane philosophy is bound to adopt.’
But a very little reflection suffices to show that this position is in reality no improvement at all on that from which the critic has just fallen back. For it is evident that the proposition alleged to be axiomatic is axiomatic, at most, only to a reason which knows nothing of acts or events save as they present themselves to an external observer. It obviously is not axiomatic to a reason whose field of apprehension is broadened to include the data furnished by the direct experience of acting. In short, the proposition is axiomatic, at most, only to reason functioning abstractly; which most certainly cannot be identified with reason functioning philosophically.
What is required of the critic, of course, if he is to make good his case, is a reasoned justification of his cavalier attitude towards the testimony of practical self-consciousness. That is the primary desideratum. And the lack of it in the bulk of Determinist literature is in my opinion something of a scandal. Without it, the criticism we have just been examining is sheer dogmatism. It is, indeed, dogmatism of a peculiarly perverse kind. For the situation is, in effect, as follows. From our practical self-consciousness we gain a notion of a genuinely creative act — which might be defined as an act which nothing determines save the agent’s doing of it. Of such a character is the act of moral decision as we experience it. But the critic says ‘No ! This sort of thing cannot be. A person cannot without affront to reason be conceived to be the author of an act which bears, ex hypothesi, no intelligible relation to his character. A mere intuition of practical self-consciousness is the solitary prop of this fantastic notion, and surely that is quite incapable of bearing the weight that you would thrust upon it.’ Now observe the perversity! The critic says, excluding the evidence of practical self-consciousness, the notion makes nonsense. In other words, excluding the only evidence there ever could be for such a notion, the notion makes nonsense! For, of course, if there should be such a thing as creative activity, there is absolutely no other way save an intuition of practical self-consciousness in which we could become aware of it. Only from the inside, from the standpoint of the agent’s living experience, can ‘activity’ possibly be apprehended. So that what the critic is really doing is to condemn a notion as nonsensical on the ground that the only evidence for it is the only evidence there ever could be for it.
Up to the present I have deemed it advisable, in order better to cover the ground, to deal with typical rather than with individual criticisms of the Libertarian position. I wish, however, to depart from that precedent in one instance before I conclude. I am anxious to come to somewhat closer grips with the criticism which Professor C. D. Broad makes in an inaugural lecture published under the title ‘Determinism, Indeterminism, and Libertarianism’: a work which, short as it is, seems to me to offer incomparably the best elucidation of the problem of freedom that we have. Mr Broad’s criticism does not, as I shall try to show, raise any really new point of principle. But its author’s preeminence in contemporary philosophy, combined with the recency of this pronouncement, makes it desirable to give a rather particular attention to his views.
The business of elucidation — with which by far the greater part of his lecture is concerned — is in my opinion executed almost to perfection. I acquiesce with especial pleasure in the position Mr Broad adopts on three important aspects of the problem. (1) He takes as his starting-point the conditions implied in moral obligability; the only starting-point, as I believe, which will ensure that the freedom to be discussed will be the freedom which constitutes the real problem. (2) He is entirely clear that the freedom implied in moral obligability is a freedom in which there are genuinely open possibilities before the self: a freedom in which, to use Mr Broad’s terminology, our volition is not merely ‘conditionally’ but `categorically’ substitutable: i.e. a freedom in which the agent ‘could have done otherwise than he did’ even though the whole set of conditions environing his decision remained constant. And (3) his analysis culminates in the frank recognition of what he calls the `effortful factor’ in willing as the crux of the whole problem. It is by reference to this that the Libertarian position has got to be defined. What the Libertarian wants to say, he tells us, is that where an effort of will is put forth to reinforce my desire for a course A, ‘it is logically consistent with all the nomic, occurrent, dispositional, and background facts that no effort should have been made, or that it should have been directed towards reinforcing the desire for B instead of the desire for A, or that it should have been put forth more or less strongly than it actually was in favour of the desire for A’ ; and that, nevertheless, the putting forth of the effort was no mere accident, but was ‘in a unique and peculiar way’ determined ‘by the agent or self‘.
Now up to this point, p. 43 of a book of less than fifty pages, I am, with only a few relatively unimportant reservations, in almost verbal agreement with what Mr Broad says. Yet I doubt whether even those who, unlike myself, are in sympathy also with Mr Broad’s ultimate verdict will escape disappointment from the remaining few pages. The problem of free will has at this juncture been no more than stated. But for Mr Broad, apparently, the mere statement is virtually tantamount to a Determinist solution. In one single paragraph he now proceeds to offer his reasons for rejecting the Libertarian position as certainly false. Let me quote from it the passage on which this summary dismissal turns. ‘The putting forth of an effort’, he says, ‘of a certain intensity, in a certain direction, at a certain moment, for a certain duration, is quite clearly an event or process, however unique and peculiar it may be in other respects. It is therefore subject to any conditions which self-evidently apply to every event, as such. Now it is surely quite evident that, if the beginning of a certain process at a certain time is determined at all, its total cause must contain as an essential factor another event or process which enters into the moment from which the determined event or process issues. I see no prima facie objection to there being events that are not completely determined. But, in so far as an event is determined, an essential factor in its total cause must be other events’ (p. 44).
I wish to suggest, with all respect, that we have here merely another manifestation of the cardinal fallacy of anti-Libertarian criticism, the fallacy of bringing to the interpretation of human action categories derived solely from the stand point of the external observer.
For consider. ‘It is surely quite evident’, says Mr Broad, ‘that if the beginning of a certain process at a certain time is determined at all, its total cause must contain as an essential factor another event or process which enters into the moment from which the determined event or process issues.’ On this contention his whole argument rests. On this, and this alone, depends his conclusion that the act of moral decision is preconditioned, and therefore not, as Libertarianism holds, creative. But is this contention evident? It may seem evident with respect to those events to which we stand in the relation solely of external observer. But that is not the only relation in which we can stand to events. If the decision to put forth or forbear from putting forth effort in the situation of moral temptation is an event — and I agree that from one point of view it may rightly be called so — it is an event which we can know from within. And, as known from within, it is the reverse of evident that its total cause must contain another event which enters into the moment from which the determined event issues. On the contrary, from the internal standpoint of the experiment himself, it is evident that while the event which is the moral decision is determined, in that the self is recognized as its author, there is no other event concerned in the matter at all. What determines my ‘deed’, in the act of moral decision, is felt to be nothing but my doing of it. And this ‘doing’ is of course not some other event antecedent to the deed itself. It is just the deed (or decision) as act, which is the other side of the deed (or decision) as event. It seems to me perfectly clear, therefore, that the proposition which Mr Broad says is ‘quite evident’ must in fact appear to be a false proposition to any moral agent engaged in the actual function of moral decision.
It will be seen, then, that my objection to Mr Broad’s criticism is identical in principle with the general objection which I urged earlier. Mr Broad is not entitled to say that certain conditions of the occurrence of an event as such are ‘self-evidently’ necessary, if that ‘self-evidence’ is achieved only by ignoring the testimony of our practical self-consciousness. This holds good, it seems to me, irrespective of any question as to the ultimate value of that testimony. The point is that if that testimony is relevant to the problem at all — and if it is not, I should very much like to know why it is not — then it cannot be ‘self-evident’ that the conditions Mr Broad alleges are necessary conditions. It may possibly be the case, though I do not believe it to be so, that Mr Broad’s ultimate verdict is the correct one: that Libertarianism is a false theory, and the notion of ‘categorical obligability’ in consequence a delusive notion. But it is not the case that, in Mr Broad’s words, `Libertarianism is self-evidently impossible’. Mr Broad has helped enormously towards the solution of the free will problem by his masterly statement of the issues involved. But, if I am right, much laborious analysis and deliberation upon pros and cons (which to Mr Broad, for the reasons we have seen, appears as a work of mere supererogation) must ensue before we can possibly be in a position to say that the problem is ‘solved’ one way or the other.
And here, to my regret, my own too brief discussion must terminate. There is much more that I should have liked to say: much more, in my opinion, that badly requires to be said. I should have liked, perhaps above all, to have been able to give more space to an analysis of the experience we call ‘effort of will’, and to have attempted to expose the fallacies which seem to me to underlie all attempts to explain away that experience by resolving it into something other than itself. That, however, is a matter with which I have partially dealt on a previous occasion, and to which I propose to return under conditions more appropriate to the full-length treatment which can alone be of much service on a difficult psychological theme of this kind. Meantime I can only hope that the little I have been able to say may do something towards regaining for free will in the ‘vulgar’ sense a place in serious philosophical discussion: that it may do something — to use language of an appropriate vulgarity — towards putting Libertarianism ‘on the map’ once more. It is not, in my opinion, ‘on the map’ at all at present. It cannot be, when critics are so often content to make slogans and shibboleths do the work of analysis and argument; when a few satirical references to the ‘mysterious fiat’ of a ‘Pure ego’ are regarded in so many quarters as a sufficient rejoinder to the Libertarian’s claims. Prejudicial phrases like these have certainly a good deal of power. They are evocative of an acutely hostile emotional atmosphere. But, unless accompanied by the most careful analysis, they seem to me to stand for bad habits rather than for good reasons. And it would be no disservice to philosophy if they were extruded from the literature of the free will problem altogether.