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Chapter III: Moral Worth and Moral Choice

The answer to the question I have just raised is, it seems to me, a simple one. To be responsible is to be the sort of being whose conduct is open in certain respects to peculiar ethical distinctions of morally good or morally bad in appropriate degrees. The notions of moral worth, and, correspondingly, evil, are peculiar and ultimate ethical ones. We can give no proper indication of what they are other than by eliciting the recognition of them in the circumstances in which they apply. This will seem to many frustrating. Should not a philosopher say more? I sympathise with this reaction, and I have on more than one occasion complained of the practice of taking one’s stance in a final way over matters which admit of further analysis and argument. We often reach the stopping place too soon. But while this needs to be carefully borne in mind, and considerable caution so induced, there are matters which we seem to see to be as they are without further reason for that being required or in order.

In such cases we can only reflect on the way things seem to be. The proliferation of arguments beyond the point, or in ways, where they are no longer appropriate may stimulate impressive ingenuity. But that is not the sole test of achievement and excellence in philosophy. Insight is needed also, intuition, as the word is sometimes used. The word ‘intuition’ has some unfortunate associations, more evident perhaps in travesties of what intuitionists have maintained than in their practice. Perhaps we should avoid it, although it is used in the same sense as the present one by thinkers whom we could hardly accuse of hasty dogmatism, for example A. J. Ayer. But whether we retain this word or not, it seems unavoidable that there should be a point in our reflections where we can only indicate the way things seem to be.

This does not mean that we have recourse to nothing to further our reflection at that stage. We may bring to mind, and instance for others, those features of a situation which have most relevance to the stance we seem forced to take. We may reflect again and become more skilled in the process. But we have to stay with what seems to us the case, in open, patient reflection, about the world around us and its significance for us and our relations with one another. We do not make the world or anything about it. We stand finally in all matters on the way things seem to be.

It does in this way appear plain to me that, when we consider certain features of our conduct we seem forced to recognise in them some value or disvalue, in various degrees, which is unique and distinct, very radically distinct, from other evaluations. It is what we normally indicate by the terms ‘moral good and evil’. But it will help further reflection on this claim if we now underline more sharply the difference between moral evaluation and the ascription of worth in other respects. In familiar terms, let us stress the distinction between moral and non-moral worth. This, as we shall see shortly, is a distinction that is often overlooked or blurred. I consider the recognition of it, together with our earlier distinction between law and morality, to be one of the most fundamental and rewarding moves we may make in seeking good sense and clarity in ethics.

Let me amplify his. There are many things which we would normally consider to be worth having, or as some of us would have it, in a tradition that goes back at least to Plato, good in themselves, and not just as a means. Such are being in health and comfort, having interesting pursuits and relaxation, athletic skills and attainment, artistic enjoyment and creativity, a sense of humour and amusement, intelligence, having friends and happy personal relationships, qualities of character such as natural fortitude and generosity. The latter, although they also depend on natural endowment and circumstance, have some affinity with properly moral worth, and they are sometimes designated ‘virtues’. But as I shall note again, they do not come within the area of properly moral good.

A peculiarity of all these attributes and attainments is that, while we praise and extol them and encourage their cultivation, there is no entitlement to blaming those who lack them or suffer from their opposites. We commiserate with those who are in pain or sickness, as we congratulate those who are well and successful. It would be monstrous to blame or abuse those who are sick. We visit them to help and comfort them, not to pronounce them at fault. To sneer at the sick would be the height of meanness. Sickness and pain are bad things, but not in a way which involves the imputation of fault. Illness may be the result of profligate living, but in that case it is the profligacy that we censure, not its unhappy consequence.

Likewise, if someone has no ear for music, or no flair for poetry, we may deeply regret or deplore what he misses in these ways, but that is in no way an ascription of moral turpitude. If a student has done his best and worked hard, we do not hold his failure against him. We help him to view his prospects in the best light he can. To be unkind to him on account of his failure would be shocking. If someone employed in a bank makes serious mistakes and continues to do so, his employers will conclude that he has no aptitude for that kind of work, and they will dispense with his services. This may be a harsh blow, but it is something with which a person must cope as best as he can; and it will be proper for employers and others to help him, subject to honesty about his capacities. But suppose the worker in the bank had taken advantage of his position to defraud the bank or its customers, by faking the accounts or some other dishonesty, then our attitude would be entirely different. We would no longer speak of distressing blunders, but of a culprit; how we treat such a culprit would depend on many things, although, in most cases at least, the law would be involved. The situation would have to be treated in its wholeness, including such extenuating circumstances as may be found. But there would clearly be condemnation here in a form not to be applied to genuine blunders, however grave and aggravating. The misdemeanour would be looked at in a very special light.

Professor Nowell-Smith would not deny this. But he would account for the difference entirely in terms of the fact that it is pointless to punish the clerk who blunders, and that his dismissal would not be regarded as punishment, however unfortunate, while the dishonest clerk, and others tempted to follow suit, might be induced to hesitate and refrain in future by thought of the censure and punishment they may incur. But are we to think seriously that this is all that is involved? Is our attitude merely that of persons concerned, for the good of us all, with stamping out dishonesty? Do we simply say ‘We must take all measures to see that this does not go on, we must be able to count on our money being safe in the bank and related transactions?’ Is there not an immediate reaction to the vile or dastardly character of the action in itself?

It may be well perhaps to think of other examples than stock ones of dishonesty and violent crime, forms of spite or meanness that will find their way more easily into the lives of people well placed in their communities. Suppose someone confides in me, trusting me as a friend whom he can consult, and I subsequently use this confidence as a means of furthering my own interest at his expense. Suppose an examiner takes it out on a candidate to whom he has taken a dislike, or suppose, in the course of some appointment, I favour a candidate who seems not so good as another because this would be in some way advantageous to me, or as a favour to a friend. Would we deplore such activities merely in the sense that we must do all we can to discourage them, on account of their harmful consequences? Is there not an immediate reaction of moral revulsion? That of course presupposes the harm that is being done — or is likely. But our reaction is also an immediate one to the lapse or misdemeanour in itself.

Consider the terms we use in such cases — ‘vile’, ‘detestable’, ‘mean’, ‘vicious’, ‘bad lot’, ‘bounder’, ‘wicked’ or, if not too wholly outmoded to mention, ‘sin’. Deliberate cruelty to persons at our mercy, whatever form it takes, readily elicits the condemnation these terms involve. It is a condemnation of what is done, and not merely of deplorable results. An accident may cause grievous harm. But to be upset about this is a very different matter from our attitude to someone who risked, or perhaps staged, an accident for some gain to himself. The condemnation implied in the terms I have listed, and their like, seems plainly of a special kind and quite different from the horror or dismay we may feel over some natural calamity, distress or deprivation. It is a pity when our aptitudes are very limited, when acute senility overcomes highly gifted people, or when multitudes of people remain illiterate and almost wholly deprived of access to creative works of genius and the facility to enjoy them. But if we say that such things are bad, there is no thought of immediate moral condemnation; we reserve the latter for any who may have helped to bring about such conditions or neglected to do what they could to prevent them.

It does not follow that our condemnation, of ourselves in remorse or of others in the ascription of guilt or wickedness, always needs to be overtly expressed. How far we should express condemnation openly is a moot point. We are warned, in a celebrated context, to ‘judge not’. The person who is constantly censorious of others may easily lapse into smug self-righteousness. Public condemnation in general terms is another matter. Personal censure calls for great sensitivity and discernment. But that is not what concerns us expressly now. What matters at the moment is that, whatever we do about some situation of moral evil, our contemplation of it involves a recognition, whether or not expressed in words or deeds, of a special, distinctive mode of evil which sets it peculiarly apart from recognition of the badness of situations of non-moral badness (and corresponding goodness) such as I have already instanced. There is no better way, as far as I can see, of bringing out the radical nature of the distinction involved than to note instances of the different forms of badness or goodness in question, and invite contemplation of them.

But when we do this we find it unavoidable also to recognise one peculiar condition of this ascription of distinctly moral good or evil. This is that such evaluation only applies to what is in a complete and unambiguous sense one’s own. In moral good or evil we are ourselves the sole authors. We have already seen how Bradley stressed this in his famous essay, and how we could not otherwise, for him, think of retribution. Many other idealists took the same line. I do not go along wih them in what they say about retribution. But I am sure that their instinct was sound in supposing that so distinctive a character of moral evil as retribution implies required the lapses in which it consists to be very finally one’s own, notwithstanding that this was further developed by idealists in ways which I could not follow.

There are many ways in which something could be said to be one’s own. We have various property rights, for example. The pen with which I write is mine. More pertinently now, some thoughts are mine when I have them or am disposed to think them. If I have some novel arresting ideas these are also very specially my own. The plays of Shakespeare are his own, they are his creations, the work of his genius. So are other traits of character. They are part of what it is to be oneself, to be me. This is why we are proud or ashamed of them. They are good or bad traits of my nature reflected in good or bad on-going states. But the conduct which may be good or bad in the special moral sense, involving, in the case of evil, an outright condemnation and, in moral goodness, the meriting of correlative praise, requires to be one’s own in an unqualified and final way. It must be through and through one’s own doing. A fault, if it is a fault, must be altogether mine; I am the author of it, the perpetrator.

But when we think of authorship in this complete or final way it seems plain that what we do in such a case is not decided or determined in any way other than our doing it. That is not true of other experiences, or of good or bad traits of character. These owe much to what has gone before. I am what I am because of my parents and of other factors which have most affected and shaped me in the course of my life. Some have thought that the peculiar character of this determination, the way the influences that have shaped me have been absorbed into what I am myself, makes it a process in which my own authorship is safeguarded in the way that peculiarly moral distinctions require; and I shall return to that claim shortly. But it seems to me that the condemnation which is appropriate to moral evil and reflects its nature calls for my conduct to be, in that respect, under my control in a more absolute way. If, in whatever way, my conduct is bound to be as it is, then there does not seem to be a place for any radical distinction between moral good and bad and other evaluations we have instanced, the worth of intelligence, for instance, or of having fine friends. But this is where the real crux is found. In the last resort we are fortunate to have these characteristics. No one is condemned for the lack of them, unless it be for earlier lapses which caused the deprivation. But we do condemn wickedness, we view it with an opprobium which sets it quite apart from the badness of stupidity or loneliness; and surely the reason for this is that we cannot, in the final account, help these latter while, it seems implied, we can in a final unambiguous way help the conduct which is subject to moral condemnation.

But if there is no way in which we could not help the conduct which is subject to properly moral appraisal, if it has to be free in some much more radical and total way than other features of the course of our lives which also admit of value distinctions of the appropriate kind, then there seems to be no alternative but to recognise, in this one feature of our existence, a freedom without parallel elsewhere, a totally new beginning or, as it is sometimes put today, a ‘choice between genuinely open alternatives’ such that, granted everything else in the situation, what was done could have been other than it was.

This is the freedom which libertarians or indeterminists are taken to champion. I prefer the former less negative term. Indeed, it is alleged at times that there are forms of indeterminism other than that we find in morally accountable choices, in nature for instance. But if that is the case, which I very much doubt, then it can have very little in common with the positive exercise of freedom of choice to which I am now alluding.

It must be stressed also that the purported new beginning, without predetermination of any sort, is not in all other ways cut off from the situation in which it occurs and all that has gone to shape that. It is not a bolt from the blue, a totally random event, a blind innovation. If it were it could certainly have no moral significance. It would be devoid of all significance and purport. But moral action is pre-eminently significant, what could be more so? It is a purposeful response to the situation as the agent finds it, including his own thoughts and attitudes and all that is set as the total situation to which he must respond. It is the response itself that is untrammelled, an innovation within the situation that invites it but which is not itself set or determined in the same way; it could, in the fullest sense, have been other than it was.

But when this sort of freedom is mooted, or thought to be genuine, certain familiar objections present themselves at once, and although they have been very conclusively met, in some respects at least, by supporters of the libertarian view, their persistence and the neglect of the answers given to them make it necessary to refer yet again to these objections.

There are two major objections to be noted. They are closely related. First of all there is the reference to the obvious continuity of character and conduct. We do not expect one another’s behaviour to be totally random. As it is also put, we do not ‘expect any action to come from any man at any time’. This is plainly so. We act in character. Even when behaviour does seem random, as in cases of extreme insanity or delirium, it is the sort of wildness we expect in these conditions and is in its own way more obviously determined than any. Those who behave in more prodigal or unreliable ways than others do so because that is the sort of persons they are.

If our conduct were entirely unpredictable life as we know it would be impossible. We could not count on anyone, it would be pointless to make arrangements. But we do so count on one another, and we predict what persons will do or where they will be. Such predictions are fallible. We do not always have all the relevant facts about a particular person or his circumstances. But in the main we have reasonable confidence that people will behave as we anticipate. If I have arranged to address a meeting at a certain time some evening, that is where, in the normal course of things, I will be found. People who take on such engagements are normally presumed to be reasonably reliable. It makes good sense to anticipate that, in the absence of some untoward event, I shall be at the meeting. If someone telephones, my wife can tell him where to find me. This seems so obvious that I need not elaborate it further or dwell upon it. There is plainly a continuity of character and conduct which is presupposed in all our normal exchanges. Life would be impossible without it.

It is, moreover, a tribute to a person to say that we can count upon him. Some are more dependable than others, but those who are less dependable than others are so because of the sort of persons they are, not because of some totally random feature of their conduct. It is a defect of character when people are found not to be dependable, and such aspersions on character are usually resented. We like to feel that people can count upon us.

The second, closely related, objection is that an action which does not flow from our characters does not properly reflect the person I am, it is more as if something blindly happened to me or, as it is also put, sheer chance. It could go one way or the other. Nothing determines it, and why should solemn imputation or high regard extend to what is nothing but the extravagant play of total indetermination or completely random choice? Moral estimation must surely depend on something more solid.

These appear to be very substantial objections, and to many they have seemed so conclusive and irrefutable, that no further question need be raised about the libertarian view. This is still a widespread supposition. It is, however, quite mistaken. I say this rather boldly, and that is because the first of the two objections noted seems to me to have been answered as clearly and conclusively as any objection could be. The substance of the answer is that the occasions on which a genuinely open choice has to be made are limited in such a way as to be no disruption of our normal expectations and a general continuity of character and conduct. Before stressing this further, it will be well to indicate more precisely the lines along which this answer is made and, in particular, the nature of the limitations to which a choice in a moral situation is subject.

Briefly, then, the choice in a properly moral situation is confined, according to leading libertarians of today, to cases where there is a conflict of duty and interest, that is to cases where the course we would most wish to follow is at variance with what we ourselves at the time consider to be our duty. I stress the last point because, if the libertarian is right in making the untrammelled moral choice the crucial factor in moral estimation, a mistaken view as to what we ought to do cannot be itself directly relevant to what is morally good or bad in our conduct. Ignorance, whether of fact or of moral import, is not a properly moral fault. In religious terms, we cannot sin in ignorance. Such ignorance is regrettable, and it may on occasion have grievous consequences; it may be a seriously bad thing in itself, a genuine defect; but where it is not due to negligence or some like fault, where it is unavoidable or, in the traditional term, ‘invincible’, it is not as such morally reprehensible, for the plain reason again that, if it is invincible, it is ipso facto something we could not help at the time; and where the weight is placed, as we have maintained it must be, on what we can help, moral error or ignorance is not in itself a moral defect. This will be stressed further.

Our opinions, sound or mistaken, about what we ought to do are of course vital ingredients in the situation in which moral choice is made, and it is of great importance that they should be as sound as we can make them. All that matters now is that while such opinions are vital for the moral situation, they are not themselves expressly subject to moral praise or blame. The other major ingredient is what a person most wishes to do at the time. We have again to stress that what matters is what one most wishes to do. There are many things at some particular time which one would like to do, and much to which we are averse. But many of these count little in determining the main set of our inclinations. They are weak and of little importance. I have arranged, let us suppose, to teach a class some afternoon. It also happens to be a fine day, and I am much drawn to the possibility of swimming in the lake. But, however much I may toy with this idea and say, wistfully to myself or aloud to my friends, ‘I wish I were out at the lake instead of the classroom’, there is no serious likelihood that such a wish will prevail over my concern to teach my class effectively, to avoid disappointment to those who expect me, to maintain my reputation as a dependable teacher in my college etc. No serious thought is given to playing truant at the lake. It is no part of my sustained important inclinations.

It will much help here to recall what was stressed so much in ethical textbooks earlier this century and in the hey-day of British idealism, namely that there are ‘universes of desire’, as J. S. Mackenzie called them in his widely used Manual of Ethics of another day. Many things appeal to us at some level, they might even be desired intensely if nothing else was involved and we allowed our thoughts to dwell upon them. But in practice they matter little, for they are out of accord with our way of life and what we have planned in accordance with that. They do not belong to a sufficiently strong universe of desire. But there may be strains and tensions as between major sets of our inclinations also, and a wild or more isolated desire may, in special circumstances, become a powerful and insistent one. How these convolutions proceed within the set of our inclinations as a whole does not concern us particularly now. But, while we are sometimes torn between conflcting inclinations, one or other will normally prevail, both in the set of our dispositions and in what we are overtly drawn to at the time. This may alternate with considerable periods of oscillation, more so for some persons than others, and there may in some circumstances be rapid shifts of mood and inclination. We need not consider those closely. For all that we need to have in mind at the moment is the general notion of what we most desire at the time.

This is normally in line with what we think we ought to do — and by no means solely for prudential reasons. We have much involvement in the lives of persons and a spontaneous concern for their welfare, not only in one’s immediate circle but also in one’s community and the world at large. We have often irksome things to do, but most of these will be in line with our normal aspirations as a whole. There are chores in the garden which I do not enjoy, but I get myself to do them gladly because I do not want my garden to become wild. There are disciplines — dieting for instances — which some people have to impose on themselves for the good of their health. Mastering the rudiments of a language is frustrating and painful for those with little flair for languages. But students usually undertake this without complaint as a regular part of their course. It is sometimes a strain to visit friends in trouble or bereaved and find what is most sensible to say. But it would never occur to us not to do this.

There will, however, be some occasions when the final weight of our inclinations will not suffice to bring our conduct into accord with what we consider our duty. One person may have sufficient strength of character to stay at his post under danger. It is a struggle and painful, but he does not seriously think of slinking away — it is not in him to do that. Another may be so terrified that nothing in his natural endowment, or his nature as formed at the time, would induce him to stay. Given the person he is then, and just that, he would leave. But this is pre-eminently where duty counts. Where inclination fails duty may prevail. But it is not bound to prevail. It does not come into the situation like some further feature of our own natures. It confronts us, and we may or we may not rise to it. But that is entirely our choice at the time, the only choice that is completely open of all that we ever make.

There is much that needs to be said further about this choice. But I wish to stay for the moment with the particular objection which I am seeking to counter now. Granted that there is the choice in question, and that it is limited to occasions of conflict of duty and interest in the sense indicated, namely where the drive of our natures or characters as a whole is not in accord with what we deem to be our duty, it is plain that our conduct generally is not subject to a random wildness that is completely unpredictable. Except for the area where properly ethical choices are made our conduct remains dependable and predictable in all the ways in which we would normally take it to be so. The continuity of conduct and character is not shattered, it is simply limited or suspended in specific ways which leave our exchanges with one another in other respects unaffected — or not directly so.

It is for this reason that the view I have outlined does not disturb the confidence we normally have in anticipating what people will do or where we may find them. We can continue to count on one another for most purposes, and if some are less dependable than others, this will normally be for reasons on which the determinist and the libertarian will agree. There is every reason to assume, for example, that I will not commit certain crimes, such as robbery or assault. That may not be completely ruled out. since unusual circumstances may bring out traits of my character which have lain dormant hitherto — I may be little aware of them myself. But in the absence of evidence of criminal propensities or of some extraordinary change in my circumstances or condition, like my becoming insane, all who know me and my way of life can be quite confident that I will have no inclination to rob or cause physical harm. Such behaviour would not come within my way of life, it would be damaging to my main concerns and, to put it at its lowest, it would expose me to risks which I am least likely to take. My friends could assume this with every confidence, subject to a general uncertainty which allows, on rare occasions, for shattering surprises and tragic disillusionment. Those are inexplicable at the time but not inherently so. Normally, my friends could count on me not to rob a bank.

They could equally count on me, to take more lighthearted examples, not to fall into pointlessly ridiculous behaviour. My students, having every reason to believe me fit and sane, would not expect me to break into aimless songs in the middle of my lecture, or try to stand on my head. If I did so they would be deeply concerned about my health. They would have no reason for that if ‘any action could come from any man at any time’ — I might be as likely to leap out of the window as to continue my talk. But they have in fact every reason not to expect me to fall into ridiculous behaviour. It is not the way of academic teachers, or indeed of any other persons normally. There is no indication of my being an exception, and my students can count on that, in the first place, because they have no reason to suspect that I would ever, least of all in normal circumstances, want to expose myself to ridicule or put my work and career at risk.

But they also have every reason to believe, in much the same terms, that there is little likelihood, in any normal circumstances, that I would consider it a duty to behave in these ways. Circumstances could always make a difference. The course to which I am deeply averse may become attractive with sufficient inducement. It is not easy to think of an inducement that would persuade me to throw all academic caution and pride to the winds. Not even for the vastest fortune, I would say; but ingenuity might invent such circumstances. It might also, more easily, invent circumstances in which I might find it a duty to behave with an absurdity of which I would not at the time be free to account. It could well be a duty to do so if in some strange way that would prevent an atrocity or stop a madman from pressing the button to set off an explosive device. But there would have to be unusual circumstances to account for this deviation from what we would normally assume.

In normal circumstances, and in the light of all that is usually evident about me, my friends and my students would not expect pointlessly ridiculous behaviour from me. Even the most eccentric must draw the line somewhere. And this is because there is no reason to suppose that I could come to want to behave in that way or consider it my duty.

In changed circumstances, as I have intimated, the case could be different, and in normal conditions the gap between duty and interest, in the form indicated already, opens in diverse ways, to be noted again, according to character and circumstances. Where there is no such gap the continuity and predictability of conduct continues.

This seems to be as conclusive a reply as any such could be to the supposition that a libertarian is committed to a view of the random character of all our conduct utterly at odds with the normal accepted continuity of character and conduct.

I turn, therefore, to the second objection. The nerve of this again is the anxiety that the crucial choice, as conceived by the libertarian, is no different from randomness or chance. Nothing determines the choice in any sense. It does not flow from anything in my nature, or from what is usually thought to make me the person I am. It would seem then that it has nothing to do with me — or with anybody else. The area for it is prescribed by what I am, but within this area all is open.

I am putting this as strongly as I can — for two reasons. Firstly, I believe that it determines the attitude of many who might otherwise be sympathetic to the libertarian view. An action which does not reflect the sort of person I am seems to be entirely detached from everything else, it is just an odd inexplicable happening. How could that be imputed to me? The second reason is that the answer at this point is peculiarly difficult to present philosophically, notwithstanding that it reflects, in my view, what is most familiar and unmistakable to us in our awareness of ourselves. Awareness of oneself, as subject and agent in experience, is unique and without parallel in the world around us. This has long bedevilled the discussion of the subject and led to sharp and seemingly irresolvable confrontation of opinions held with the same firmness of conviction, and the bewilderment about their opposites, on both sides. It is very natural to look for some affinity between various features of the world as we generally find it and the self or whatever makes us persons. When this is not, in the normal way of things, forthcoming, when reference is made to ‘a something’, in the words I have more than once quoted from James Ward, which still cannot be described or identified in the normal way, the tendency is to dismiss it as just nothing.

I am not without sympathy with this reaction, if only because I am anxious myself to insist that the self which is all-pervasive in our experience is beyond categorisation in the normal way. We know, unambiguously it seems to me, who or what we are in being so, but, for that very reason, what we are tends to evaporate in our reflective contemplation of it. But it is, nevertheless, to one’s own awareness of oneself that we must turn at this point. There is, I submit, such an awareness of oneself, one that presents no particular problem beyond its radical difference from everything else we have to handle, a lack of continuity with our apprehension of external things; and while, in other contexts, we expect some account, in principle at least, of how changes come about, in the case where the self operates irrespective of its dispositional nature and the states so prescribed in some situation, there is nothing to be said other than take note of the self making a choice in a quite unique and peculiar way which is, all the same, quite meaningful as a fact of our experience. The choice may appear, on some way of viewing things, to be random and capricious. But in fact it is the least random, it is what we ourselves most firmly determine, the supreme exhibition of our unique functioning in the way of what it is to be a person.

We must, therefore, not be deterred or misled by expectation of firm analogies with external things. Awareness of oneself is different, and there is nothing peculiarly bewildering in the notion of the self making its untrammelled choice in some situations provided that this is understood in the context of the uniqueness of selfhood and the manifestation of it, as a matter of our own experience, in a very special way when the occasion calls for an open choice, a choice that is worlds apart from other determinations and the randomness which is only meaningful, if at all, in the context of those determinations.

This may seem to call for closer examination than I am offering now, and a fuller defence, but I must plead that such has been the main topic of several more extended writings of mine on the subject. The case I present now, and the answer at this point to what seems an exceptionally formidable objection to a libertarian view of choice, stands or falls with the view I have defended elsewhere about the unique inwardness of self-awareness and the meaningfulness of the notion of a subject which is other than its passing states or any patterning of them or the dispositions they reflect. The self as known to itself is other than all these, however closely involved, as I have also much stressed that it is, in them all. Only such a self could make an ultimately open, undetermined choice. But that we are such, and that, on certain occasions and in some respects, we have the special experience of making such choices, I have no doubt and can only invite others to reflect whether they do not find their experience the same.

It will be well now to bring out more explicitly the difference between choice in the properly moral sense and other sorts of choices or decisions we may be said to make. In the commonest day-to-day use of ‘choice’ we are thinking only of the way our preferences sort themselves out in relation to one another from moment to moment. Some of these are trivial and come about with such ease that we barely note them. I walk round one side of a puddle rather than another, or more to one side rather than another to avoid an oncoming person on the pavement, I take my turn round the garden in one course rather than another. Hardly anything hinges on what I do in these ways. It is all trivial and costs no effort. In other cases I may ponder more. Shall I continue my walk into the forest or go home the shorter way? This may depend on the time or a glimpse of threatening clouds. There may be more hesitation, but no very great pondering. A person partial to chocolates may have a box held out to him and hold his finger hovering over it while he makes his choice or ‘makes up his mind’. It is soon settled. But even in trivial cases, and where the decision is smooth and straightforward, there is some consideration which inclines us one way rather than another or, as we sometimes put it, ‘makes us’ decide as we do.

This is sometimes disputed, it being argued that, at least where there is no obvious reason to go one way rather than the other, we just choose. As this is taken by some to be also an example of some sort of randomness in our conduct I shall return to it again. But for the moment I shall content myself with noting that it seems clear to me that there always is some consideration, however trivial and implicit, which governs our choice, if only where our eye lights on a box of sweets or how we are moving already on the lawn or where the light falls. This may be barely perceptible and no note taken of it, but there must always be something. Our walk is not reflex action or merely mechanical.

In other cases where more is involved and where the decision calls for more pondering, in examining a menu or buying a dress or, more weightily, buying a house or changing one’s job, we think hard and hesitate much up to the point where the choice is finally made. I do not myself believe that, in such cases, there is anything we may call ‘the choice’ over and above the way our preferences sort themselves out in the light of the consideration we give the matter, sometimes more and sometimes less thoughtfully, mainly as a matter of temperament and the importance we accord the matter. It is usually plain that a decision cannot be postponed too long. We must decide, if only to drop the matter. But that thought itself will be one consideration, and the effect may be to precipitate a hasty decision at the last, when it is plain that there can be no more delay; and this may also give some impression of a decision as an impulsive fiat which does not grow out of anything other than itself — ‘I just stopped thinking about it and made up my mind’ etc. But it would be quite wrong, in my view, to suppose that, even in more impulsive or impetuous action, there is nothing whatsoever that guides my choice in such cases or that there is any choice beyond the way various ingredients in my own make-up at the time combine in the sorting out of my preferences, easily or under pressure of time and circumstance, to bring the process to a head.

It would certainly be implausible to suppose that major decisions we make in these ways come about at the point of decision in some random way irrespective of factors that have gone to the shaping of that decision. The measure in which reason is operative in this process varies. But however the process goes, there is an inevitability in the way our preferences change and shape themselves in relation to one another from moment to moment, nor is anything else of substance involved in what we would normally regard as choosing or making up our minds.

This in no way implies that idealistic factors have no place in our preferences. They will sometimes be very prominent, concern and regard for others, generosity, affection, sympathy and other fine propensities. There is no need to suppose that our preferences, because they are for each one his own, are invariably self-regarding. Priority is often given to the good of others. A person may die for his friends, and indeed for persons with whom he has no particular tie. But the adjustment of altruistic concerns to others within the shaping of our preferences at any time will come about in the same way, in all essentials, as any other choice we make in this sense. It will be a matter of what on the whole we prefer.

A special form, and in some ways a more controversial one, of the adjustment of preferences I have noted, concerns the impact which may be made on our desires and preferences by the belief that some course of action is morally required. The sense of duty would, in this case, bring about a natural conformity to itself. Some suppose, however, that this is not a tenable notion. Duty, they hold, is essentially other than desire, and, in that case, we would only invoke the notion of duty when it was a matter of responding, for or against it, in an ultimate open conflict of duty and interest. I thought this at one time myself. But my view now is that there is no reason why the sense that our duty lies in a certain direction should not itself be an important factor, perhaps a decisive one, in shaping our inclinations in that way. We might thus have a preference for our duty as such, a straight desire to do one’s duty. That would be very powerful and persistent for persons of noble nature. There are ways in which it may be encouraged and sustained, and it certainly ought to be.

But an inclination to do one’s duty as such, a natural response to what is found fitting or required, whether this comes about by training and cultivation or by some more inherent excellence and endowment of character, is in no way the same as the resolve to do one’s duty when not even the thought of its being one’s duty prevails over other inclinations in the shaping of our own preferences in relation to each other at the time. It is when we pass beyond the process of the shaping of preferences, and of choosing in that sense, that we have the open choice in which properly moral attainment or failure consists.

It is most important that this should be stressed. For the fact that an obligation may be involved, in the way indicated, in the adjustment of preferences and accordingly perhaps affect our conduct, may give the impression that all that is required in the way of morally responsible choice has been met. But there is a world of difference between a natural adjustment of this sort, coming about in the normal course of things within our natural endowment as affected by other factors, and the open choice which does not flow from anything other than itself and which, for that reason, we can ‘help’ in the fullest and most final way as required for the imputation of properly moral blame or the recognition of distinctively moral excellence. In this latter case, it is not any feature of our natural endowment or circumstances that matters, however elevated, but the supreme and peculiar exercise by the self, solely of itself, of the determination of the course it will set itself, subject of course to conditions by which the choice is set. It is on this latter choice, our uniquely moral enactment, that moral worth depends.

We have, in addition, to distinguish very carefully between moral choice, as already presented, and a further way in which, in common parlance at least, we may be said to be exercising a moral choice or making a moral decision. This concerns the preliminary process of deciding what is our duty, what, to the best of our understanding, is required of us in various respects at different times. This is often straightforward. Having settled for a certain way of life, a profession etc., as a proper course for us, that in itself will prescribe, for a good deal of the time, where our obligations lie; and our inclinations will largely be the same. Life would be impossible if we had to ponder at every turn whether what we were doing was right. We have straightforward ‘duties of our station’. The teacher should meet his class as arranged, the doctor should be in his surgery at specified times, he should visit patients ill at home. So much is normally plain without further thought. But problems may arise if the teacher or doctor begin to wonder whether they are in the right vocation; and, in a host of other ways, variations from the normal course of things may cause grave uncertainty as to where the path of duty lies. We are acutely aware at present of difficult problems in medical ethics, concerning some forms of contraception or abortion, for example, or the use of life-supporting machines. Over this area, even in the normal round, and still more in areas of general policy or commitment, it is often hard to determine what we should do.

The wonder is, indeed, that so many notable ethical thinkers should have been so little aware of moral perplexity. Locke was not deeply troubled about it, being more concerned about the best way to cope with such evil-doers as there are. T. H. Green believed, in spite of his sensitivity to new situations in industry and education and the ending of slavery, that if a person was sincere and conscientious, the way forward would forthwith declare itself for him. If we are in error or deep perplexity there is some evil streak in our motives. The Good Will defines its own content.1 This line in its turn owes much to Kant, though he might hesitate over duties of ‘less perfect’ obligation. It is amazing that there should have been such blandness over the range and depth of moral perplexity. It has tormented sensitive people from very early days, from Antigone to resistance workers of today, from persons in high places to the simplest, the soldier and the pacifist alike.

In our day there has been much deepening of moral doubt and perplexity. Some issues are momentous and may affect the very existence of mankind, but opinions are, understandably, deeply divided about them. Existentialist philosophers, deeply disturbed by the problems of peoples under alien rule, have given more prominence than others to matters of moral perplexity and their effect upon us. Some have despaired and drifted into various forms of relativism, some foolishly inane. Most who think seriously about the matter are aware how disturbing and agonizing it may be — and how damaging, not only to peace of mind, but to one’s total outlook and personality. How best to cope with perplexity does not concern us now, how much turns on matters of fact, the consequences, and how much on various evaluations of them, in rules, intuitions or whatever we favour? But of the gravity of the issues there can be no doubt, and a great part of our moral situation consists in coming to terms with moral doubts and perplexities and their impact upon us, in short with the many-sided agonizing business of deciding what in various circumstances we ought to do. Let no one underestimate the gravity of such decisions and of having to make them. But at the moment what I wish especially to emphasize is that, however important and bewildering, this is an altogether different matter from moral decision or choice in the proper sense with which we are concerned at present.

The proper moral choice, and our present theme, is not the question how we decide what we ought to do, and what this involves, but rather whether, when we have reason to believe, sometimes more and sometimes less firmly, that we ought to do something, we will in fact do so. Deciding what we ought to do is one thing, doing it another. The former has problems, and there are ways in which some forms of freedom may be involved. But neither it itself, nor the conditions it requires, are the same as the properly moral decision to do, or not to do, what presents itself as our moral obligation at the time.

Deciding what we ought to do is a matter of coming to a certain belief or conclusion. But we come to such a belief, or we do not, irrespective of any immediate willing. We cannot think other than we do at the time, whether or not we have a firm belief or waver. One’s will may come into the matter at other stages, according to the way we direct our attention, and that itself may, or may not, be a matter of open moral choice according to the circumstances. But at any particular time we think as we think, things seem as they seem, and it cannot be otherwise. What we believe is one thing, what we do another. This is why no proper moral blame attaches to belief as such, however regrettable in itself or its effects. In the last analysis we cannot alter what we believe at the time, and even when, under stress or criticism, we are induced to think again and this leads to a rapid change, this will in fact come about or it will not. We cannot decide that it will be other than it is.

It will thus be evident, I hope, how important it is not to conflate the process of deciding what we ought to do with doing it. This does not make belief unimportant — far from it. What we believe may have momentous consequences, it is sometimes disastrous. To seek the truth is itself one of our major obligations. But having sound opinions, even in morals or religion, is not the aspect of our existence which is directly the subject of moral evaluation, and that is because, in the last analysis, we cannot help what we think or choose to think other than we do. Moral worth depends on what we do when we can so choose.

This has not been sufficiently heeded by those who have recently brought the factor of choice in our experience into prominence. Their failure to do so has impoverished our understanding at the point where they have most to contribute, and has unfortunate practical effects. But we have now to add also that, while moral evaluation proper relates to conduct in a very special form, involving the choice I have described, there are other evaluations, those I have earlier denoted non-moral, of great importance. Having sound opinions and understanding is immensely important in itself as well as in its consequences. So is a concern for what is right, fortitude and resourcefulness, kindness and consideration, artistic sensitivity, charm and humour, for all of which and their like, at least in their effect on conduct, we may retain the term ‘virtue’. But virtue in this sense, notwithstanding its importance as a quality of character, is still sharply different from properly moral attainment ensured when devotion to one’s duty is not in line with our dominant inclinations.

  • 1.

    cf. my ‘Does the Good Will define its own content?’ in Ethics 1948 and reproduced in my Freedom and History, Chapter 1.

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