Determinism or Free-Will?Chaptman Cohen

In spite of what has been said, it may be that a protest will still be raised by some on behalf of character. A man’s character, it will be argued, is an alienable personal possession. What he does belongs to him in a sense that is peculiar to his personality. In many important instances his actions bear the stamp of individuality in so plain a manner that while we cannot predict what he will do, once it is done we recognize by the peculiar nature of the action that it must have been done by him and by none other. In painting, in music, in literature, and in many other walks of life, we are able to infer authorship by the personality stamped upon the production. Moreover, nothing that we can do or say will ever destroy the conviction that my actions are mine. They proceed from me; they are the expressions of my character; it is this feeling that induces me to plead guilty to the charge of responsibility, and this conviction remains after all argument has been urged. But, it is further asked, how can this be aught but an illusion if I am not the real and determining cause of my conduct? If I and my actions are the products of a converging series of calculable or indetermined forces, are we not compelled to dismiss this conviction as pure myth? Must I not conclude that I am no more the determining cause of my conduct than a stone determines whether it shall fall to the ground or not? And is not the cultivation of character, therefore, an absurd futility?

Now although the Determinist will dissent from the conclusions of those who argue in this way, with a great deal of the argument he would agree; more than that, he would enforce the same line of reasoning as a legitimate inference from his own position. And he might also submit that it is only by an acceptance of the deterministic position that such reasoning can receive full justification.

What do we mean by character? Suppose we reply with T. H. Green by defining character as the way in which a man seeks self-satisfaction.[7] We are next faced with the problem of accounting for the different ways in which self-satisfaction is sought. One man is a drunkard and another temperate, one is benevolent and another grasping, one is cruel and another kind; there are endless diversities of human conduct, and all come within the scope of Green’s definition of character. We have to look farther and deeper. A satisfactory answer clearly cannot be found in the assumption that each person’s actions proceed from an unfettered, autonomous will. The reason for the choice would still have to be discovered. Nor will it do to attribute the difference of choice to different environmental influences in which the “self” is placed. This would indeed be reducing the man to the level of a machine, or to a lower level still. And the same environmental influences do not produce identical results. This is one of the commonest facts of daily experience. Stimulus from the environment is the essential condition of action, but the precise nature of the action elicited is an affair of the organism. If I am courageous by nature I shall stay and face a threatened danger. If I am cowardly I shall run away. Thus, while circumstances are the cause of my acting, how I shall act is in turn caused by my character, the net result being due to their interaction. This seems so obvious that it may well be accepted as a datum common to both parties in the dispute.

We may, then, freely grant the Indeterminist—what he foolishly assumes is inconsistent with the Deterministic position—that environment may be modified by character, that a man is not the creature of circumstances, if we restrict that word to external circumstances, as is so often done. A man, we will say, allowing for the influence of external circumstances, acts according to his character. The question then becomes, “What is his character? How does he acquire it?[8] And whence the varieties of character?” To these queries the only intelligible reply is that a man’s character represents his psychic heritage, as his body represents his physical heritage, both of them being subject to development and modification by post-natal influences. Each one thus brings a different psychic force, or a different character, to bear upon the world around him. He is thus the author of his acts, not in the unintelligible sense of absolutely originating the sequence that proceeds from his actions, but in the rational sense of being that point in the sequence that is represented by his personality. And his actions bear the stamp of his personality because had his antecedents been different his actions would have varied accordingly. Each is properly judged in terms of character, because it is the character which determines the form taken by the reaction of the organism on the environment.

We may go even further than this and say that it is only actions which proceed from character that are properly the subject of moral judgment. Let us take a concrete illustration of this. A man distributes a large sum of money among the inhabitants of a town, some of it in the form of personal gifts among its needy inhabitants, the rest in endowing various institutions connected with its social and municipal life. Twelve months later he comes forward as candidate in a parliamentary election. The question of his donations at once comes up for judgment, and in defence he may plead that he was only invited to contest the seat after the money was given. How shall we determine what his motives were? Obviously by an appeal to his character. If he were well known as a wealthy person of recognized benevolent disposition, it would be argued that while his candidature would inevitably reap benefit from his donations it was highly probable that in giving the money he was only acting as one would expect him to act. If, on the other hand, he was well known as a person of a mean and grasping disposition, it would be concluded that the donation was an attempt to bribe the electorate, his giving the money so long before being an intelligent anticipation of events. In either case we should be appealing to character, and judging the man by what of his character was known. Numerous instances of a like kind might be given, but in every case it would be found that we infer from an action a particular kind of motive, and that our judgment of the motive is determined by the character of the individual. This is so far the case that we are apt to mistrust our own judgment when we find a benevolent person doing what looks like a mean action, or a brave person committing what looks like an act of cowardice. While action is thus—so far as it is intentional—always the registration of motive, and motive the expression of a preponderating desire, the desire, whether it be licentious or chaste, noble or ignoble, is the outcome of character.

Determinism thus finds a fit and proper place for character in its philosophy of things. It does not say that the fact or the consideration of character is irrelevant; on the contrary, it says it is all-important. And in saying this it challenges the position of the Indeterminist by the implication that it is only on lines of Determinism that character is important or that it can be profitably cultivated. For consider what is meant by saying that conduct implies and proceeds from character. It clearly implies that a man acts in this or that manner because he has been in the habit of acting in this or that manner. We do not gather grapes from thistles, and we do not experience noble actions from a depraved character. The actions of each are determined by the character of each, and character is in turn the outcome of psychic inheritance, plus the effects of the interaction of organism and environment from the moment of birth onward. Personal characteristics, honesty, courage, truthfulness, loyalty, thus imply strictly determined qualities. They are qualities determined by the nature of the organism. They could not be expressed unless the surrounding circumstances were favourable to their expression; but neither could they be manifested unless the character was of a particular order. Conduct is, in fact, always a product of the two things.

Let us also note that it is this determination of qualities that is implied when we speak of a good or a bad, a strong or a weak character. We should not call a man a good character who to-day fed a starving child, and to-morrow kicked it from his doorstep. We should describe him as, at best, a person of an exceedingly variable disposition who satisfied the caprice of the moment irrespective of the feelings and needs of others. We should not call a person strong who withstood a temptation one hour and yielded to it the next. He would be described as weak, and lacking the compelling force of a stable disposition. It is also true that the moralization of character is the more complete as the determined nature of impulses is the more evident. Most people would not only resent the imputation of having committed a mean action, they would also resent the likelihood of their committing one. And in common speech, and in fact, the highest tribute we can pay a man is to say that a certain kind of action is beneath him. We say that we know A would not have committed a theft, but we are quite willing to believe it of B. In each case we make no allowance for the operation of an undetermined will; such doubts as we have being connected with our inability to completely analyze the character in question. But our prognostications are strictly based upon our knowledge of character and upon the conviction that given a certain character and the operation of particular motives, specific action follows with mathematical certainty.

And this, as has previously been pointed out, gives the only reliable basis for the cultivation of character. The whole aim of education, whether it be that received in the home, in the school, or the larger and more protracted education of social life, has the aim and purpose of securing the spontaneous response of a particular action to a particular stimulus, or on the negative side that certain circumstances shall not arouse desires of a socially unwelcome character. The phrase “Patriotism” thus serves to arouse a group of feelings that cluster round the state and social life. “Home” awakens its own groups of domestic and parental feelings. “Duty,” again, covers a wider sphere, but involves the same process. By instruction and by training, certain conditions, circumstances, words, or associations are made to call up trains of connected feelings which, culminating in a desire, imperatively demand conduct along a given line. The more complete the education, the stronger the desire; the stronger the desire, the more certain the action. The more defective the education the less the certainty with which we can count upon specific conduct. The man who acts to-day in one way and to-morrow in another way is not a man of strong desires, so much as he is a man whose desires are undisciplined. The man who acts with uniform certainty is not a man of weak desire, but one whose desires run with strength and swiftness in a uniform direction. And it is a curious feature of indeterministic psychology that it should take as clear evidence of the subordination of desire to “will” the man whose desire is so strong as to preclude hesitation between it and action.

The whole of education, the whole of the discipline of life, is thus based upon the determination of conduct by circumstances and character. If the principle of cause and effect does not fully apply to conduct, all our training is so much waste of time. But it is because we cannot really think of the past not influencing the present, once we bring the two into relation, that we, Determinist and Indeterminist alike, proceed with our deterministic methods of training, and in this instance at least wisdom is justified of her children.

Finally, if the above be granted, can we longer attach meaning to the expression that man forms his own character? Well, if it means that a man has any share in his psychic endowments, or that they being what they are at any given time he could at that time act differently from the way in which he does act, the expression is meaningless. It is absolute nonsense. But in another sense it does convey an important truth. We must, however, always bear in mind that in speaking of a man’s character we are not dealing with two things, but with one thing. The character is the man, the man is the character. Or to be quite accurate, body and mind, physical and psychical qualities together, form the man, and any separation of these is for purposes of analysis and study only. If we say, then, that a man is master of his own character, or that a man may mould his own character, we do not imply the existence of an independent entity moulding or mastering something else. We are saying no more than that every experience carries its resultant into the sum of character. Action generates habit, and habit means a more or less permanent modification of character. What a man is, is the outcome of what he has been, and a perception of this truth no more conflicts with the principles of Determinism as above explained, than a stone being intercepted in its fall down the side of a hill by lodging against a tree is an infraction of the law of gravitation. In this sense, using figurative language, a man may be said to be master of himself. What he does proceeds from himself; it is the expression of his character, and his doing cuts deeper the grooves of habit, and so makes more certain the performance of similar actions in the future. It is the fact of the motive springing from character which determines the act that makes the man its author. And the knowledge of this supplies him with, not alone the most powerful incentive towards the determination of his own character, but, what is equally important, the only method whereby to fashion the character of others.

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