Determinism or Free-Will?Chaptman Cohen

Not the least curious aspect of the Free-Will controversy is that those who oppose Determinism base a large part of their argumentation upon the supposed evil consequences that will follow its acceptance. In a work from which I have already cited, Mr. F. C. S. Schiller falls foul of Determinism because, he says, while incompatible with morality, its champions nevertheless imagine they are leaving morality undisturbed. The real difficulty of Determinism is, he says, that in its world, events being fully determined, there can be no alternatives. Things are what they must be. They must be because they are. No man can help doing what he does. Man himself belongs to a sequence unending and unbroken. “To imagine therefore that Determinism, after annihilating the moral agent, remains compatible with morality, simply means that the logical implications of the doctrine have never been fully explored.” And he adds: “The charge against it is not merely that it fails to do full justice to the ethical fact of responsibility, but that it utterly annihilates the moral agent.” This, he says, is the real dilemma, and Determinism has never answered it.

It is curious that so clever a writer as Mr. Schiller should fail to realize that taking Determinism in its most drastic form, and accepting it in the most unequivocal manner, nothing can suffer, because everything remains as it must be—including the facts, feelings, and consequences of the moral life. Observe, it is part of Mr. Schiller’s case against Determinism that on determinist lines everything, down to the minutest happenings, is the necessary result of all antecedent and co-operating conditions. But this being the case, if Determinism leaves no room for chance or absolute origination, how comes it that an acceptance of Determinism initiates an absolutely new thing—the destruction of morality? Surely it is coming very near the absurd to charge Determinism with breaking an unbreakable sequence. It is surely idle to credit Determinism with doing what is impossible for it to accomplish. So far as morality is a real thing, so far as the facts of the moral life are real things, Determinism must leave them substantially unaltered. The problem is, as has been already said, to find out for what exactly all these things stand. To read wrong meanings into the facts of life, and then to declare that the facts cease to exist if the meanings are corrected, is unphilosophical petulance.

It is, indeed, quite open to the Determinist to meet these grave fears as to the consequences of Determinism with a denial that morality is vitally concerned with the question of whether man’s “will” be “free” or not. The question of Determinism may enter into the subject of how to develop character along desirable lines; and, apart from Determinism, it is difficult to see how there can be anything like a scientific cultivation of character. But the fact of morality and the value of morality are not bound up with whether conduct be the expression of theoretically calculable factors, or whether it is, on the one side, determined by a self which originates its own impulses. Determinism or no Determinism, murder, to take an extreme illustration, is never likely to become an every-day occupation in human society. Neither can any other action that is obviously injurious to the well-being of society be practised beyond certain well-defined limits. The laws of social health operate to check socially injurious actions, as the laws of individual health operate to check injurious conduct in dietary or in hygiene. Determinists and Indeterminists, as may easily be observed, manifest a fairly uniform measure of conduct, and whatever variations from the normal standard each displays cannot well be put down to their acceptance or rejection of Determinism.

The real nature of morality is best seen if one asks oneself the question, “What is morality?” Let us imagine the human race reduced to a single individual. What would then be the scope and character of morality? It is without question that a large part of our moral rules would lose all meaning. Theft, murder, unchastity, slander, etc., would be without meanings, for the simple reason that there would be none against whom such offences could be committed. Would there be any moral laws or moral feelings left? Would there even be a man left under such conditions? One might safely query both statements. For if we take away from this solitary individual all that social culture and intercourse have given him—language, knowledge, habits both mental and moral, all, in short, that has been developed through the agency of the social medium—man, as we know him, disappears, and a mere animal is left in his place. Even the feeling that a man has a duty to himself, and that to realize his highest possibilities is the most imperative of moral obligations, is only an illustration of the same truth. For very little analysis serves to show that even this derives its value from the significance of the individual to the social structure.

Morality, then, is wholly a question of relationship. Not whether my actions spring from a self-determined “will” or even whether they are the inevitable consequent of preceding conditions makes them moral or immoral, but their influence in forwarding or retarding certain ideal social relations. The rightness or wrongness of an action lies in its consequences. Whether one is of the Utilitarian or other school of morals does not substantially affect the truth of this statement. Action without consequences—assuming its possibility—would have no moral significance whatever. And consequences remain whether we accept or reject Determinism. Determinism cannot alter or regulate the consequences of actions, it can only indicate their causes and their results. What a science of morals is really concerned with is, objectively, the consequences of actions, and subjectively the feelings that lead to their performance. When a science of morals has determined what actions best promote desirable relations between human beings, and what states of mind are most favourable to the performance of such actions, its task as a science of morals is concluded. The genesis of such states of mind belongs to psychology, just as to sociology belong the creation and maintenance of such social conditions as will best give them expression and actuality.

The question of the moral consequences of Determinism is not, therefore, discussed because we believe there is any relevancy in the issue thus raised, but solely because it is raised, and not to deal with it may create a prejudice against Determinism. Many of those who quite admit the scientific character of Determinism, yet insist on the necessity for some sort of Indeterminism in the region of morals. Professor William James, for instance, admits that a profitable study of mental phenomena is impossible unless we postulate Determinism (Prin. Psych. ii. 573). But having admitted this, and in fact illustrated it through the whole of his two volumes, his next endeavour is to find a place for “free-will” as a “moral postulate.” The region of morals is thus made to play the part of a haven of refuge for illegitimate and unscientific theories, a kind of workhouse for all mental vagrants found at large without visible means of support. The moral postulate which is to reinstate “Free-Will,” is that “What ought to be can be, and that bad acts cannot be fated, but that good ones must be possible in their place.” In a writer usually so clear this somewhat ambiguous deliverance is far more indicative of a desire to befriend an oppressed theory than of the possession of any good evidence in its behalf.

The matter really turns upon what is meant by “ought” and “possible.” It has already been pointed out that if by “possible” it is meant that although one thing actually occurs, another thing—a different thing—might have occurred without any alteration in the accompanying conditions, the statement is not only untrue in fact, but it is inconceivable as possibly true. And if it does not mean this, then Professor James is merely stating what every Determinist most cheerfully endorses. But in that case the “possibility” gives no support whatever to the Indeterminist. Further, Professor James says that Determinism is a clear and seductive conception so long as one “stands by the great scientific postulate that the world must be one unbroken fact, and that prediction of all things without exception must be ideally, even if not actually, possible.” On which one may enquire, how prediction could be at all possible unless, given the co-operating conditions, a definite and particular result is inevitable? But if prediction be possible—and the whole power of science lies in its power of prediction—what becomes of the value of “possibility” to the Indeterminist? Is it any more than an expression of our ignorance of the power of particular factors, and a consequent ignorance of their resultant?

To say that certain things “ought” to be, or that one “ought” to act in this or that particular manner, are common expressions, and within limits, relevant and intelligible expressions. But “ought” here clearly stands for no more than ideal conception. Its reference is to the future, not to the past. It does not imply a belief that things could have resulted other than those which actually did result, but a belief that given a suitable alteration in the conditions different results might ensue in the future. When, for example, I say that men ought to think wisely, I do not affirm either that all men do think wisely, or that foolish men can do so without some change in their mental make-up. I merely eliminate all those conditions that make for unwise thinking, leaving wise thinking as the only possible result. That is, recognizing that from different conditions different consequences will follow, in imagination, all forces that are inimical to the ideal end are eliminated. We say that no man ought to commit murder, and yet if we take as an illustration the congenital homicide, no one can assert that in his case, at least, anything but murder is possible, given favourable conditions for its perpetration. Or if it is said that congenital homicide is a purely pathological case, it may surely be asserted that the same general considerations apply to cases that are not classified as pathological. The more we know of the criminal’s heredity, environment, and education, the more clearly it is seen that his deeds result from the inter-action of these factors, and that these must be modified if we are reasonably to expect any alteration in his conduct. In fact, the criminal—or the saint—being what he is as the result of the inter-action of possibly calculable factors is the essential condition towards making “the prediction of all things” ideally, if not actually possible. In saying, then, that a man ought not to do wrong, we are only saying that our ideal of a perfect man eliminates the idea of wrong-doing, and that our imagination is powerful enough to construct a human character to which wrong-doing shall be alien.

The fallacy here is due to a confusion of the actual with the desirable. If we are looking to the past we are bound to say that “ought” is meaningless, because what has been is the only thing that could have been. Thus it is meaningless to say that a piece of string capable of withstanding a strain of half a hundredweight ought to have withstood a strain of half a ton. It is equally absurd to say that a man ought to have withstood the germ of malarial fever, when his constitution rendered him susceptible to attack. Both of these instances will be readily admitted. Is it, then, any more reasonable to say that a man ought to have withstood a temptation to drunkenness, or theft, or cruelty—in the sense that given his nature he could have withstood it—when all the circumstances of character, heredity, and environment made for his downfall? We say that certain considerations “ought” to have restrained Jones because they were enough to restrain Smith. Are we, then, to conclude that Smith and Jones are so much alike—are, in fact, identical in character—that the same forces will influence each in the same manner and to the same degree? The assumption is obviously absurd. What ought to have happened with Smith and Jones, bearing in mind all the conditions of the problem, is what did happen. What ought to happen to Smith and Jones in the future will be equally dependent upon the extent to which the character of the two becomes modified. In this sense our conception of what “ought” to be in the future will guide us as to the nature of the influences we bring to bear upon Smith and Jones. We believe that good actions may be possible in the future where bad ones occurred in the past, because we see that a change of conditions may produce the desired result. The “moral postulate,” therefore, does not contain anything, or imply anything, in favour of Indeterminism. It does assert that certain things ought to be, but it can only realize this by recognizing, and acting upon the recognition, that just as certain forces in the past have issued in certain results, so a modification in the nature or incidence of these forces will produce a corresponding modification of conduct in the future. Whatever else there appears to be in the “ought” is a mere trick of the imagination; and the surprising thing is that a writer of the calibre of Professor James should not have been perfectly alive to this.

A cruder form of the same position, although introducing other issues, was upheld by Dr. Martineau in the categorical statement, “either free-will is a fact, or moral judgment a delusion.” His reason for this remarkable statement is:—

“We could never condemn one turn of act or thought did we not believe the agent to have command of another; and just in proportion as we perceive, in his temperament or education or circumstances, the certain preponderance of particular suggestions, and the near approach to an inner necessity, do we criticize him rather as a natural object than as a responsible being, and deal with his aberrations as maladies instead of sins.”[5]

Well, human nature might easily have been nearer perfection than it is had moral aberrations been treated as maladies rather than sins, and one certainly would not have felt greater regret had judges and critics always been capable of rising to this level of judgment. Social, political, and religious malevolence might not have received the gratification and support it has received had this been the rule of judgment and the guide to methods of treatment, but our social consciousness would have been of a superior texture than is now the case. And one may ask whether there is any human action conceivable for which an adequate cause cannot be found in temperament or education or circumstances, or in a combination of the three? It would tax any one’s ingenuity to name an action that lies outside the scope of these influences. Temperament, education, circumstances, are the great and controlling conditions of human action, and only in proportion as this is recognized and acted upon do we approach a science of human nature and begin to realize methods of profitable modification.

Against Determinism Dr. Martineau argues that “the moral life dwells exclusively in the voluntary sphere,” and also that “impulses of spontaneous action do not constitute character.” The first of these statements is at least very debatable, although it may turn upon a matter of definition. But the second statement is distinctly inaccurate. One may assert the exact opposite, and instead of saying that the impulses of spontaneous action do not constitute character, argue that they are the truest indications of character. Of course, from one point of view, all that a man does, whether it be spontaneous or reflective, must be equally the expression of the whole man. But from another point of view the more permanent and enduring characteristics of a man may be overborne by a passing flood of emotion or by a casual combination of unusual circumstances. By these means an habitually mean man may be roused to acts of generosity, an habitual thief roused to acts of honesty. Long reflection may cause a person to decide this or that, when his spontaneous impulses are in the contrary direction. And while these reflections and floods of emotion are equally with the spontaneous impulses part of a given personality, yet it will hardly be disputed that the latter are the more deeply seated, will express themselves in a more uniform manner, and are thus a truer and more reliable index to the character of the person with whom we are dealing.

How far we are to accept morality as dwelling exclusively in the voluntary, that is the intentional, sphere, is, as I have said, largely a matter of definition. We may so define morality that it shall cover only intentional acts, in which case the statement must be accepted, or we can define morality in a wider sense, as covering all action by means of which desirable relations between people are maintained, in which case the statement is not true. For we should then be committed to the curious position that all moral development tends to make man less moral. To have the quality of voluntariness an act must be consciously performed with a particular end in view. But a large part of the more important functions of life do not come under this category, while a still larger portion are only semi-voluntary. The whole set of instincts that cluster round the family, the feelings which urge human beings to seek others’ society, and which are the essential conditions of all social phenomena, do not properly come under the head of volition. Our conduct in any of these directions may easily be justified by reason, but it would be absurd to argue that there is any intentional choice involved.

Moreover, the chief aim of education, of the moralization of character, is to divest actions of their quality of reflectiveness or intention. Our aim here is so to fashion character that it will unquestioningly and instinctively place itself on the right side. This is a force that operates on all individuals more or less, and from the cradle to the grave. Family influences curb and fashion the egotism of the child until there is an unconscious and often unreasoning adherence to the family circle. Social influences continue the work and train the individual into an instinctive harmony, more or less complete with the structure of the society to which he belongs. The mere repetition of a particular action involves the formation of a habit, and habit is meaningless in the absence of a modified nerve structure which reacts in a special manner. Persistence in right action, therefore, no matter how consciously it may be performed in its initial stages, inevitably passes over into unconscious or instinctive action. And let it be noted, too, that it is only when this change has been brought about that a person can be said to be a thoroughly moralized character. It is not the man who does right after a long internal struggle that is most moral, but the one with whom doing right is the most imperative of organic necessities. We praise the man who does right after struggle, but chiefly because of our admiration at the triumph of right over wrong, or because his weakness cries for support, or because he has in him the making of a more perfect character. But to place him as the superior of one whose right doing is the efflorescence of his whole nature is to misunderstand the ethical problem. And equally to confine morality to merely voluntary or intentional action is to truncate the sphere of morals to an extent that would meet with the approval of very few writers on ethics. In brief, one may not merely say with Lessing, “Determinism has nothing to fear from the side of morals,” one may add that it is only on the theory of Determinism that the moralization of character becomes a rational possibility.

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