Determinism or Free-Will?Chaptman Cohen

If Hume was not right in asserting that a few intelligible definitions would put an end to the Free-Will controversy, his error lay in assuming a greater receptivity of mind than most people possess. For it may safely be asserted that once the legitimate meanings of the terms employed are acknowledged, and they are properly applied to the matter in dispute, it may be shown that the opponents of Determinism have been beating the air. The Determinism they attack is not the Determinism that is either professed or defended. The consequences they forecast follow only from a distorted, and often meaningless, use of the terms employed. Instead of the Determinist denying the moral and mental value of certain qualities of which the Indeterminist announces himself the champion, he admits their value, gives them a definite meaning, and proves that it is only by an assumption of the truth of the cardinal principle of Determinism that they have any reality. This has already been shown to be true in the case of Freedom, Choice, Deliberation, etc.; it remains to pursue the same method with such conceptions as praise and blame or punishment and reward, and responsibility.

The charge is, again, that Determinism robs praise and blame and responsibility of all meaning, and reduces them to mere verbal expressions which some may mistake for the equivalents of reality, but which clearer thinkers will estimate at their true worth. What is the use of praising or blaming if each one does what heredity, constitution, and environment compels? Why punish a man for being what he is? Why hold him responsible for the expressions of a character provided for him, and for the influence of an environment which he had no part in forming? So the string of questions run on. None of them, it may safely be said, would ever be asked if all properly realized the precise meaning and application of the terms employed. For as with the previous terms examined, it is an acceptance of Indeterminism that would rob these words of all value. Rationally conceived they are not only consonant with Determinism, but each of them implies it.

Of the four terms mentioned above—Praise, Blame, Punishment, and Responsibility, the cardinal and governing one is the last. It will be well, therefore, to endeavour to fix this with some degree of clearness.

To commence with we may note that in contra-distinction to “freedom” where the testimony of consciousness is illegitimately invoked, a consciousness of responsibility is essential to its existence. A person in whom it was manifestly impossible to arouse such a consciousness would be unhesitatingly declared to be irresponsible. There is here, consequently, both the fact of responsibility and our consciousness of it that calls for explanation. And both require for an adequate explanation a larger area than is offered by mere individual psychology. Indeed, so long as we restrict ourselves to the individual we cannot understand either the fact or the consciousness of responsibility. By limiting themselves in this manner some Determinists have been led to deny responsibility altogether. The individual, they have said, does not create either his own organism or its environment, and consequently all reasonable basis for responsibility disappears. To which there is the effective reply that the datum for responsibility is found in the nature of the organism and in the possibility of its being affected by certain social forces, and not in the absolute origination of its own impulses and actions. It is playing right into the hands of the Indeterminist to deny so large and so important a social phenomenon as responsibility. And to the Indeterminist attack, that if action is the expression of heredity, organism, and environment, there is no room for responsibility, there is the effective reply that it is precisely because the individual’s actions are the expression of all the forces brought to bear upon him that he may be accounted responsible. The Determinist has often been too ready to take the meanings and implications of words from his opponent, instead of checking the sense in which they were used.

The general sense of responsibility—omitting all secondary meanings—is that of accountability, to be able to reply to a charge, or to be able to answer a claim made upon us. This at once gives us the essential characteristic of responsibility, and also stamps it as a phenomenon of social ethics. A man living on a desert island would not be responsible, unless we assume his responsibility to deity; and even here we have the essential social fact—relation to a person—reintroduced. It is our relations to others, that and the influence of our actions upon others, combined with the possibility of our natures being affected by the praise or censure of the social body to which we belong, which sets up the fact of responsibility. Conduct creates a social reaction, good or bad, agreeable or disagreeable, and the reacting judgment of society awakens in each of us a consciousness of responsibility, more or less acute, and more or less drastic, to society at large. The individual sees himself in the social mirror. His nature is fashioned by the social medium, his personal life becomes an expression of the social life. Just as the social conscience, in the shape of a legal tribunal, judges each for actions that are past, so the larger social conscience, as expressed in a thousand and one different forms, customs, and associations, judges us for those desires and dispositions that may result in action in the future. Responsibility as a phenomenon of social psychology is obvious, educative, inescapable, and admirable. Responsibility as a phenomenon of individual psychology, whether from the Determinist or Indeterminist point of view, is positively meaningless.

Taking, then, responsibility as a fact of social life, with its true significance of accountability, let us see its meaning on deterministic lines. For the sake of clearness we will first take legal responsibility as illustrating the matter. In law a man is accounted guilty provided he knows the law he is breaking, and also that he is capable of appreciating the consequences of his actions. A further consideration of no mean importance is that the consequences attending the infringement of the law are assumed to be sufficiently serious to counterbalance the inducements to break the regulation. And as all citizens are assumed to know the law, we may confine our attention to the last two aspects. What, then, is meant by ability to appreciate consequences? There can be no other meaning than the capacity to create an ideal presentment of the penalties attaching to certain actions. Every promise of reward or threat of punishment assumes this, and assumes also that provided the ideal presentment is strong enough, certain general results will follow. It is on this principle alone that punishments are proportioned to offences, and that certain revisions of penalties take place from time to time. Negatively the same thing is shown by the fact that young children, idiots, and lunatics are not legally held responsible for their actions. The ground here is that the power to represent ideally the full consequences of actions is absent, or operates in an abnormal manner. Moreover, the whole line of proof to establish insanity in a court of law is that a person is not amenable to certain desires and impulses in the same manner as are normally constituted people.

Substantially the same thing is seen if we take the fact of responsibility in non-legal matters. A very young child, incapable of ideally representing consequences, is not considered a responsible being. An older child has a limited responsibility in certain simple matters. As it grows older, and growth brings with it the power of more fully appreciating the consequence of actions, its responsibility increases in the home, in the school, in business, social, religious, and political circles it is held accountable for its conduct, in proportion as the power of estimating the consequences of actions is assumed. In other words, we assume not that there is at any stage an autonomous or self-directing “will” in operation, but that a particular quality of motive will operate at certain stages of mental development, and the whole of the educative process, in the home, the school, and in society, aims at making these motives effective. That is, the whole fact of responsibility assumes as a datum the very condition that the Indeterminist regards as destroying responsibility altogether. He argues that if action is the expression of character, responsibility is a farce. But it is precisely because action is the expression of character that responsibility exists. When the law, or when society, calls a man to account for something he has done, it does not deny that had he possessed a different character he would have acted differently. It does not assert that at the time of action he could have helped doing what he did. Both may be admitted. What it does say is that having a character of such and such a kind certain things are bound to follow. But inasmuch as that character may be modified by social opinion or social coercion, inasmuch as it will respond to certain influences brought to bear upon it, it is a responsible character, and so may be held accountable for its actions.

There is, therefore, nothing incompatible between Determinism and Responsibility. The incompatibility lies between Indeterminism and Responsibility. What meaning can we attach to it, on what ground can we call a person to account, if our calling him to account is not one of the considerations that will affect his conduct? Grant that a consciousness of responsibility decides how a person shall act, and the principle of Determinism is admitted. Deny that a consciousness of responsibility determines action, and the phrase loses all meaning and value. The difficulty arises, as has been said, by ignoring the fact that responsibility is of social origin, and in looking for an explanation in individual psychology. It would, of course, be absurd to make man responsible for being what he is, but so long as he is amenable to the pressure of normal social forces he is responsible or accountable for what he may be. Whatever his character be, so long as it has the capacity of being affected by social pressure, it is a responsible character. And this is the sole condition that makes responsibility intelligible.

Having said this, it is not difficult to see the place of punishment and reward, or praise and blame, in the Determinist scheme of things. Another word than punishment might be selected, and one that would be without its unpleasant associations, but on the whole it is advisable perhaps to retain the word in order to see the nature of the problem clearly. Of course, punishment in the sense of the infliction of pain merely because certain actions have been committed, no Determinist would countenance. So far as punishment is inflicted in this spirit of sheer retaliation it serves only to gratify feelings of malevolence. A society that punishes merely to gratify resentment is only showing that it can be as brutal collectively as individuals can be singly. And if punishment begins and ends with reference to the past, then it is certainly revolting to inflict pain upon a person because he has done what education and organization impelled him to do. So far one can agree with Professor Sidgwick that when a man’s conduct is “compared with a code, to the violation of which punishments are attached, the question whether he really could obey the rule by which he is judged is obvious and inevitable.” But when he goes on to reply “If he could not, it seems contrary to our sense of justice to punish him,” the reply is, Not if the code is one that normal human nature can obey, and the individual one who can be modified in a required direction in both his own interest and the interest of others. For if our punishment is prospective instead of retrospective, or at least retrospective only so far as to enable us to understand the character of the individual with whom we are dealing, and using punishment as one of the means of securing a desirable modification of character, then punishment is merged in correction, and receives a complete justification upon Deterministic lines.

The problem is comparatively simple. Actions being decided by motives, the problem with a socially defective character is how to secure the prevalence of desires that will issue in desirable conduct. A man steals; the problem then is, How can we so modify the character of which stealing is the expression, so that we may weaken the desire to steal and strengthen feelings that will secure honesty of action? On the lower plane society resorts to threats of pains and penalties, so that when the desire to steal arises again, the knowledge that certain measures will be taken against the offender will arrest this desire. This is one of the principal grounds on which a measure like the First Offenders Act is based. On a higher plane the approval and respect of society serve to awaken a positive liking for honesty and the formation of desirable mental habits. Praise and blame rest upon a precisely similar basis. Man being the socialized animal he is, the approbation and disapprobation of his fellows must always exert considerable influence on his conduct. The memory of censure passed or of praise bestowed acts as one of the many influences that will determine conduct when the critical moment for action arrives. Man does not always consciously put the question of what his social circle will think of his actions, but this feeling rests upon a deeper and more secure basis than that of consciousness. It has been, so to speak, worked into his nature by all the generations of social life that have preceded his existence, and to escape it means to put off all that is distinctly human in his character. Every time we praise or blame an action we are helping to mould character, for both will serve as guides in the future. And it is just because at the moment of action a person “could not help doing” what he did that there is any reasonable justification for either approval or censure. Social approval and disapproval become an important portion of the environment to which the human being must perforce adapt himself.

What use could there be in punishing or blaming a man if his actions are determined, not by realizable motives, but by a mysterious will that in spite of our endeavours remains uninfluenced? If neither the promise nor the recollection of punishment creates feelings that will determine conduct, then one might as well whip the wind. Its only purpose is to gratify our own feelings of anger or malevolence. It is equally futile to look for the cause of wrong-doing in education, organization, or environment. For in proportion as we recognize any or all of these factors as determining conduct we are deserting the Indeterminist position, and relinquishing the “freedom” of the will. If Indeterminism be true we are forced to believe that although as a consequence of ill-conduct evil feelings may arise with greater frequency, yet they must be wholly ineffective as influencing action. It cannot even be argued that certain motives offer stronger attraction than others to the will, for this in itself would be a form of determinism. There is no middle course. Either the “will” remains absolutely uninfluenced by threat of punishment or desire for praise, serenely indifferent to the conflict of desires, and proof against the influence of education, or it forms a part of the causative sequence and the truth of Determinism is admitted. You cannot at the same time hold that man does not act in accordance with the strongest motive, and decide that the “will” maintains its freedom by deciding which motive shall be the strongest—its own determination not being the product of previous training. One need, indeed, only state the Indeterminist position plainly to see its inherent absurdity.

If ever in any case the argument ad absurdum was applicable it is surely here. It may safely be said that the larger part of the life of each of us is passed in anticipating the future in the light of experience. But if “Free-Will” be a fact, on what ground can we forecast the future. If motives do not determine conduct, any prophecy of what certain people may do in a given situation is futile. The will being indetermined, what they have done in the past is no guide as to what they will do in the future. If motives did not decide then they will not decide now. Whether we read backward or forward makes no difference. We have no right to say that the actions of certain statesmen prove them to have been animated by the desire for wealth or power. That would imply Determinism. We cannot say that because a murder has been committed a certain person who bore the deceased ill-will is rightly suspected. This is assuming that conduct is determined by motives. If we see a person jump into the river, we have no right to argue that depressed health, or financial worry, or impending social disgrace, has caused him to commit suicide. The mother may as easily murder her child as nurse it. The workman may labour as well for a bare pittance as for a comfortable wage. A man outside a house in the early hours of the morning, armed with a dark lantern and a jemmy, may have no desire to commit a burglary. A person with a game bag and a gun furnishes no reliable data for believing that he intends to shoot something. In all of these cases, and in hundreds of others, if “free-will” be a fact we have no right to argue from actions to motives, or infer motives from actions. Motives do not rule, and we are witnessing the uncaused and unaccountable vagaries of an autonomous will.

It is sometimes said that no matter how convinced a Determinist one may be, one always acts as though the will were free. This, so far from being true, is the reverse of what really happens. In all the affairs of life people of all shades of opinion concerning Determinism really act as though “Free-Will” had no existence. It would, indeed, be strange were it otherwise. Facts are more insistent than theories, and in the last resort it is the nature of things which determines the course of our actions. Nature, while permitting considerable latitude in matters of theory or opinion, allows comparatively little play in matters of conduct. And it may be asserted that a society which failed to acknowledge in its conduct the principle of Determinism would stand but small chance of survival. As a matter of fact, when it comes to practical work the theory of “Free-Will” is ignored and the theory of Determinism acted upon. The unfortunate thing is that the maintenance of “Free-Will” in the sphere of opinion serves to check the wholesome application of the opposite principle. Theory is used to check action instead of serving its proper function as a guide to conduct.

Still, it is instructive to note to what extent in the sphere of practice the principle of Determinism is admitted. In dealing with the drink question, for instance, temperance reformers argue that a diminution in the number of public-houses, and the creation of opportunities for healthy methods of enjoyment, will diminish temptation and weaken the desire for alcoholic stimulants. In the training of children stress is rightly laid upon the importance of the right kind of associates, the power of education, and of healthy physical surroundings. With adults, the beneficial influences of fresh air, good food, well-built houses, open spaces, and healthy conditions of labour have become common-places of sociology. In every rational biography attention is paid to the formative influences of parents, friends, and general environment. Medical men seek the cause of frames of mind in nervous structure, and predisposition to physical, mental, and moral disease in heredity. Statisticians point to absolute uniformity of general human action under certain social conditions. Moralists point to the power of ideals on people’s minds. Religious teachers emphasize the power of certain teachings in reducing particular habits. In all these cases no allowance whatever is made for the operation of an undetermined will. The motive theory of action may not be consciously in the minds of all, but it is everywhere and at all times implied in practice.

In strict truth, we cannot undertake a single affair in life without making the assumption that people will act in accordance with certain motives, and that these in turn will be the outcome of specific desires. If I journey from here to Paris I unconsciously assume that certain forces—the desire to retain a situation, to earn a living, to satisfy a sense of duty—will cause all the officials connected with boat and train service to carry out their duties in a given manner. If I appeal for the protection of the police I am again counting upon certain motives influencing the official mind in a particular manner. All commercial transactions rest upon the same unconscious assumption. A merchant who places an order with a firm in Russia, America, or Japan, or who sends goods abroad, counts with absolute confidence upon certain desires and mental states so influencing a number of people with whom he has no direct connection, that they will co-operate in landing the goods at the point desired. Or if the goods are not transmitted as desired, it is not because the principle upon which he relied is invalid, but because other desires have operated in a more powerful manner. A general commanding an army acts on precisely the same principle. The ideal of duty, of the honour of the regiment, the desire for distinction, are all counted upon as being powerful enough to serve as motives that will cause men to join in battle, storm a risky position, or take part in a forlorn hope. History is read upon the same principle. The statement that Nero was cruel, that Henry the Eighth was of an amatory nature, that Charles I. was tyrannical, or that Louis the Fifteenth was licentious, could not be made unless we argue that their actions imply the existence of certain motives. That the motive theory of the will is true is admitted in practice by all. The Indeterminist admits it even in his appeal to “Liberty.” He is counting upon the desire for freedom (sociologically) as being strong enough to lead people to reject a theory which denies its applicability to morals.

Human nature becomes a chaos if Determinism is denied. Neither a science of human conduct nor of history is possible in its absence; for both assume a fundamental identity of human nature beneath all the comparatively superficial distinctions of colour, creed, or national divisions. The determination of the influence of climate, food, inter-tribal or international relations, of the power of ideals—moral, religious, military, national, etc.—are all so many exercises in the philosophy of Determinism. In none of these directions do we make the least allowance for the operation of an uncaused “will.” We say with absolute confidence that given a people with a military environment, and either its discomforts produce an anti-militarist feeling, or its glamour evokes a strong militarist feeling. So with all other consideration that comes before us. And as Determinism enables us to read and understand history and life, so it also provides a basis upon which we can work for reform. In the belief that certain influences will produce, in the main, a particular result, we can lay our plans and work with every prospect of ultimate success. Instead of our best endeavours being left at the mercy of an undetermined “will,” they take their place as part of the determining influences that are moulding human nature. Every action becomes a portion of the environment with which each has to deal. More, it becomes a portion of the agent’s own environment, a part of that ideal world in which we all more or less live. And the heightened consciousness that every action leaves a certain residuum for either good or ill, supplies in itself one of the strongest incentives for the exercise of self-control and furnishes an unshakable basis for self-development.

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