Methods of Ethics

Henry Sidgwick

Book I

Chapter V


§1. In the preceding chapters I have treated first of rational, and secondly of disinterested action, without introducing the vexed question of the Freedom of the Will. The difficulties connected with this question have been proved by long dialectical experience to be so great, that I ani anxious to confine them within as strict limits as I can., and keep as much of my subject as possible free from their perturbing influence. And it appears to me that we have no psychological warrant for identifying Disinterested with either ``Free'' or ``Rational'' action; while to identify Rational and Free action is at least misleading, and tends to obscure the real issue raised in the Free Will controversy. In the last chapter I have tried to show that action strictly disinterested, that is, disregardful of foreseen balance of pleasure to ourselves, is found in the most instinctive as well as in the most deliberate and self-conscious region of our volitional experience. And rational action, as I conceive. it, remains rational, however completely the rationality of any individual's conduct may be determined by causes antecedent or external to his own volition: so that the conception of acting rationally, as explained in the last chapter but one, is not bound up with the notion of acting `freely', as maintained by Libertarians generally against Determinists. I say ``Libertarians generally'', because in the statements made by disciples of Kant as to the connexion of Freedom and Rationality, there appears to me to be a confusion between two meanings of the term Freedom, which require to be carefully distinguished in any discussion of Free Will. When a disciple of Kant says that a man ``is a free agent in so far as he acts under the guidance of reason'', the statement easily wins assent from ordinary readers; since, as Whewell says, we ordinarily ``consider our Reason as being ourselves rather than our desires and affections. We speak of Desire, Love, Anger, as mastering us, or of ourselves as controlling them. If we decide to prefer some remote and abstract good to immediate pleasures, or to conform to a rule which brings us present pain (which decision implies exercise of Reason), we more particularly consider such acts as our own acts.''[2] I do not, therefore, object on the score of usage to this application of the term ``free'' to denote voluntary actions in which the seductive solicitation of appetite or passion are successfully resisted: and I am sensible of the gain in effectiveness of moral persuasion which is obtained by thus enlisting the powerful sentiment of Liberty on the side of Reason and Morality. But it is clear that if we say that a man is a ``free'' agent in so far as he acts rationally, we cannot also say---in the same sense---that it is by his own ``free'' choice that he acts irrationally, when he does so act; and it is this latter proposition which Libertarians generally have been concerned to maintain. They have thought it of fundamental importance to show the `Freedom' of the moral agent, on account of the connexion that they have held to exist between Freedom and Moral Responsibility: and it is obvious that the Freedom thus connected with Responsibility is not the Freedom that is only manifested or realised in rational action, but the Freedom to choose between right and wrong which is manifested or realised equally in either choice. Now it is implied in the Christian consciousness of ``wilful sin'' that men do deliberately and knowingly choose to act irrationally. They do not merely prefer self-interest to duty (for here is rather a conflict of claims to rationality than clear irrationality); but (e.g.) sensual indulgence to health, revenge to reputation, etc., though they know that such preference is opposed to their true interests no less than to their duty. Hence it does not really correspond to our experience as a whole to represent the conflict between reason and passion as a conflict between `ourselves' on the one hand and a force of nature on the other. We may say, if we like, that when we yield to passion, we become `the slaves of our desires and appetites': but we must at the same time admit that our slavery is self-chosen. Can we say, then, of the wilful wrongdoer that his wrong choice was `free', in the sense that he might have chosen rightly, not merely if the antecedents of his volition, external and internal, had been different, but supposing these antecedents unchanged? This, I conceive, is the substantial issue raised in the Free Will controversy; which I now propose briefly to consider: since it is widely believed to be of great Ethical importance.

[ME, Pleasure and Desire, §4]
[ME, Free Will, §2]