Methods of Ethics

Henry Sidgwick

Book I

Chapter V


§4. So far I have been arguing that the adoption of Determinism will not-except in certain exceptional circumstances or on certain theological assumptions-reasonably modify a man's view of what it is right for him to do or his reasons for doing it. It may, however, be said that---granting the reasons for right action to remain unaltered---still the motives that prompt to it will be weakened; since a man will not feel remorse for his actions, if he regards them as necessary results of causes anterior to his personal existence. I admit that so far as the sentiment of remorse implies self-blame irremovably fixed on the self blamed, it must tend to vanish from the mind of a convinced Determinist. Still I do not see why the imagination of a Determinist should not be as vivid, his sympathy as keen, his love of goodness as strong as a Libertarian's: and I therefore see no reason why dislike for his own shortcomings and for the mischievous qualities of his character which have caused bad actions in the past should not be as effective a spring of moral improvement as the sentiment of remorse would be. For it appears to me that men in general take at least as much pains to cure defects in their circumstances, organic defects, and defects of intellect which cause them no remorse---as they do to cure moral defects; so far as they consider the former to be no less mischievous and no less removable than the latter.

This leads me to the consideration of the effect of Determinist doctrines on the allotment of punishment and reward. For it must be admitted, I think, that the common retributive view of punishment, and the ordinary notions of `` merit'', ``demerit'', and ``responsibility'', also involve the assumption of Free Will: if the wrong act, and the bad qualities of character manifested in it, are conceived as the necessary effects of causes antecedent or external to the existence of the agent, the moral responsibility---in the ordinary sense---for the mischief caused by them can no longer rest on him. At the same time, the Determinist can give to the terms ``ill-desert'' and ``responsibility'' a signification which is not only clear and definite, but, from an utilitarian point of view, the only suitable meaning. In this view, if I affirm that A is responsible for a harmful act, I mean that it is right to punish him for it; primarily, in order that the fear of punishment may prevent him and others from committing similar acts in future. The difference between these two views of punishment is theoretically very wide. I shall, however, when I come to examine in detail the current conception of Justice, endeavour to show that this admission can hardly have any practical effect; since it is practically impossible to be guided, either in remunerating services or in punishing mischievous arts, by any other considerations than those which the Determinist interpretation of desert would include. For instance, the treatment of legal punishment as deterrent and reformatory rather than retributive seems to be forced upon us by the practical exigences of social order and wellbeing---quite apart from any Determinist philosophy. Moreover, as I shall hereafter show, if the retributive view of Punishment be strictly taken---abstracting completely from the preventive view---it brings our conception of Justice into conflict with Benevolence, as punishment presents itself as a purely useless evil. Similarly, as regards the sentiments which prompt to the expression of moral praise and blame---I admit that in the mind of a convinced Determinist, the desire to encourage good and prevent bad conduct must take the place of a desire to requite the one or the other: but again I see no reason why the Determinist species of moral sentiments should not be as effective in promoting virtue and social wellbeing as the Libertarian species.

[ME, Free Will, §3]
[ME, Free Will, §5]