Methods of Ethics

Henry Sidgwick

Book I

Chapter V


§3. Against the formidable array of cumulative evidence offered for Determinism there is to be set the immediate affirmation of consciousness in the moment of deliberate action. Certainly when I have a distinct consciousness of choosing between alternatives of conduct, one of which I conceive as right or reasonable, I find it impossible not to think that I can now choose to do what I so conceive,---supposing that there is no obstacle to my doing it other than the condition of my desires and voluntary habits,---however strong may be my inclination to act unreasonably, and however uniformly I may have yielded to such inclinations in the past.[1] I recognise that each concession to vicious desire makes the difficulty of resisting it greater when the desire recurs: but the difficulty always seems to remain separated from impossibility by an impassable gulf. I do not deny that the experience of mankind includes cases in which certain impulses---such as aversion to death or extreme pain, or morbid appetite for alcohol or opium-have reached a point of intensity at which they have been felt as irresistibly overmastering voluntary choice. I think we commonly judge that when this point is reached the individual ceases to be morally responsible for the act done under such overmastering impulse: but at any rate the moral problem thus presented is very exceptional; in ordinary cases of yielding to temptation this consciousness of the irresistibility of impulse does not come in. Ordinarily, however strong may be the rush of appetite or anger that comes over me, it does not present itself as irresistible; and, if I deliberate at such a moment, I cannot regard the mere force of the impulse as a reason for doing what I otherwise judge to be unreasonable. I can suppose that my conviction of free choice may be illusory: that if I knew my own nature, I might see it to be predetermined that, being so constituted and in such circumstances, I should act on the occasion in question contrary to my rational judgment. But I cannot conceive myself seeing this, without at the same time conceiving my whole conception of what I now call ``my'' action fundamentally altered: I cannot conceive that if I contemplated the actions of my organism in this light I should refer them to my "self"---i.e. to the mind so contemplating---in the sense in which I now refer them. In this conflict of arguments, it is not surprising that the theoretical question as to the Freedom of the Will is still differently decided by thinkers of repute; and I do not myself wish at present to pronounce any decision on it. But I think it possible and useful to show that the ethical importance of deciding it one way or another is liable to be exaggerated; and that any one who will consider the matter soberly and carefully will find this importance to be of a strictly limited kind.

It is chiefly on the Libertarian side that I find a tendency to the exaggeration of which I have just spoken. Some Libertarian writers maintain that the conception of the Freedom of the Will, alien as it may be to positive science, is yet quite indispensable to Ethics and Jurisprudence; since in judging that I ``ought'' to do anything I imply that I ``can'' do it, and similarly in praising or blaming the actions of others I imply that they ``could'' have acted otherwise. If a man's actions are mere links in a chain of causation which, as we trace it back, ultimately carries us to events anterior to his personal existence, he cannot, it is said, really have either merit or demerit; and if he has not merit or demerit, it is repugnant to the common moral sense of mankind to reward or punish---even to praise or blame---him. In considering this argument, it will be convenient---for clearness of discussion---to assume in the first instance that there is no doubt or conflict in our view of what it is right to do, except such as may be caused by the present question. It will also be convenient to separate the discussion of the importance of Free Will in relation to moral action generally from the special question of its importance in relation to punishing and rewarding; since, in the latter species of action, what chiefly claims attention is not the present Freedom of the agent, but the past Freedom of the person now acted on.

As regards action generally, the Determinist allows that a man is only morally bound to do what is ``in his power''; but he explains ``in his power'' to mean that the result in question will be produced if the man choose to produce it. And this is, I think, the sense in which the proposition ``what I ought to do I can do'' is commonly accepted: it means ``can do if I choose'', not ``can choose to do''. Still the question remains ``Can I choose to do what in ordinary thought I judge to be right to do?'' Here my own view is that---within the limits above explained---I inevitably conceive that I can choose; however, I can suppose myself to regard this conception as illusory, and to judge, inferring the future from the past, that I certainly shall not choose, and accordingly that such choice is not really possible to me. This being supposed, it seems to me undeniable that this judgment will exclude or weaken the operation of the moral motive in the case of the act contemplated: I either shall not judge it reasonable to choose to do what I should otherwise so judge, or if I do pass the judgment, I shall also judge the conception of duty applied in it to be illusory, no less than the conception of Freedom. So far I concede the Libertarian contention as to the demoralising effect of Determinism, if held with a real force of conviction. But I think the cases are rare in which it is even on Determinist principles legitimate to conclude it to be certain---and not merely highly probable---that I shall deliberately choose to do what I judge to be unwise. Ordinarily the legitimate inference from a man's past experience, and from his general knowledge of human nature, would not go beyond a very strong probability that he would choose to do wrong: and a mere probability---however strong---that I shall not will to do right cannot be regarded by me in deliberation as a reason for not willing: while it certainly supplies a rational ground for willing strongly---just as a strong probability of any other evil supplies a rational ground for special exertions to avoid it. Indeed, I do not see why a Libertarian should not---equally with a Determinist---accept as valid, and find it instructive to contemplate, the considerations that render it probable that he will not choose to do right in any particular circumstances. In all ordinary cases, therefore, it does not seem to me relevant to ethical deliberation to determine the metaphysical validity of my consciousness of freedom to choose whatever I may conclude to be reasonable, unless the affirmation or negation of the Freedom of the Will somehow modifies my view of what it would be reasonable to choose to do if I could so choose.

I do not think that any such modification of view can be maintained, as regards the ultimate ends of rational action which, in chap. i., I took as being commonly accepted. If Happiness, whether private or general, be taken as the ultimate end of action on a Libertarian view, the adoption of a Determinist view affords no ground for rejecting it: and if Excellence is in itself admirable and desirable, it surely remains equally so whether any individual's approximation to it is entirely determined by inherited nature and external influences or not:---except so far as the notion of Excellence includes that of Free Will. Now Free Will is obviously not included in our common ideal of physical and intellectual perfection: and it seems to me also not to be included in the common notions of the excellences of character which we call virtues: the manifestations of courage, temperance, and justice do not become less admirable because we can trace their antecedents in a happy balance of inherited dispositions developed by a careful education.

Can, then, the affirmation or negation of Free Will affect our view of the fittest means for the attainment of either end? In considering this we have to distinguish between the case of a connexion between means and end believed to exist on empirical or other scientific grounds, and the case where the belief in such connexion is an inference from the belief in a moral government of the world. According to the received view of the moral government of the world, the performance of Duty is the best means of attaining the agent's happiness largely through its expected consequences in another world, in which virtue will be rewarded and vice punished by God: if, then, the belief in the moral government of the world and a future life for men is held to depend on the assumption of Free Will, this latter becomes obviously of fundamental ethical importance: not, indeed, in determining a man's Duty, but in reconciling it with his Interest. This, I think, is the main element of truth in the view that the denial of Free Will removes motives to the performance of Duty: and I admit the validity of the contention, so far as (1) the course of action conducive to an individual's Interest would be thought to diverge from his Duty, apart from theological considerations, and (2) in the theological reasoning that removes this divergence Free Will is an indispensable assumption. The former point will be examined in a subsequent chapter; the latter it hardly falls within the scope of this treatise to discuss.

If we confine our attention to such connexion between means and ends as is scientifically cognisable, it does not appear that an act now deliberated on can be less or more a means to any ulterior end, because it is predetermined. It may, however, be urged that in considering how we ought to act in any case, we have to take into account the probable future actions of others, and also of ourselves; and that with regard to these it is necessary to decide the question of Free Will, in order that we may know whether the future is capable of being predicted from the past. But here, again, it seems to me that no definite practical consequences would logically follow from this decision. For however far we may go in admitting Free Will as a cause, the actual operation of which may falsify the most scientific forecasts of human action, still since it is ex hypothesi an absolutely unknown cause, our recognition of it cannot lead us to modify any such forecasts: at most, it can only affect our reliance on them.

We may illustrate this by an imaginary extreme case. Suppose we were somehow convinced that all the planets were endowed with Free Will, and that they only maintained their periodic motions by the continual exercise of free choice, in resistance to strong centrifugal or centripetal inclinations. Our general confidence in the future of the solar system might reasonably be impaired, though it is not easy to say how much; but the details of our astronomical calculations would be clearly unaffected: the free wills could in no way be taken as an element in the reckoning. And the case would be similar, I suppose, in the forecast of human conduct, if psychology and sociology should ever become exact sciences. At present, however, they are so far from being such that this additional element of uncertainty can hardly have even any emotional effect.

To sum up: we may say that, in so far as we reason to any definite conclusions as to what the future actions of ourselves or others will be, we must consider them as determined by unvarying laws: if they are not completely so determined our reasoning is pro tanto liable to error: but no other is open to us. While on the other hand, when we are endeavouring to ascertain (on any principles) what choice it is reasonable to make between two alternatives of present conduct, Determinist conceptions are as irrelevant as they are in the former case inevitable. And from neither point of view does it seem practically important, for the general regulation of conduct, to decide the metaphysical question at issue in the Free-will Controversy: unless---passing from Ethics into Theology---we rest the reconciliation of Duty and Interest on a theological argument that requires the assumption of Free Will.

[ME, Free Will, §2]
[ME, Free Will, §4]