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Chapter IV: Freedom and Character

The main alternative to the view of freedom and accountability I have outlined is that usually known as ‘self-determination’. This comes, in the form in which we are most familiar with it today, from nineteenth century idealism. This owed most to Hegel, drawing upon Kant. It was shown how the self, as subject in experience, permeates all experience and affects the self as agent as well as subject. Within the unity of our awareness our desires are viewed in relation to one another in a way that changes their strength and quality. This is a point of great importance, and the development of it in idealist philosophy presents a major part of the achievements of that movement of thought. I have noted already1 the emphasis on various universes of desire, and there are also new and elevated desires possible for creatures with our sort of self-consciousness and unified awareness, desires which are not possible for brutes. This constitutes a very important sense of creativeness, expressed in art and science and religion as well as in morality. It is a distinctive part of what it is to be human. Its importance cannot be over-estimated, and we owe much, in psychology as in philosophy, to idealist writers, notably Green and Bradley, for their deployment of it.

It is another matter, however, whether this form of self-determination meets the requirements of freedom in the properly moral sense. There need be no dispute about the aptness of the term ‘self-determination’ in the context where it is used. It is as selves, as creatures aware of more than the passing state, that we are enabled to survey our situations more in their wholeness, to see the significance of immediate matters in a broader perspective, even though we may only do this imperfectly. Our rationality confers this special quality on our selfhood and so sets us apart from brutes. But when all this is allowed, it remains that the measure in which we modify our desires internally in this fashion, and thereby modify our conduct, is a feature of the sort of creatures we happen to be and varies from one person to another in a way which we do not modify in a final sense. Some are by nature more rational than others, and how our desires are modified in relation to each other in some particular case is ultimately a feature of the sort of person one happens to be. There may be sharp and dramatic changes within the sort of internal monitoring and modification indicated, but whether or not this happens is as inevitable as anything else in the last analysis. Self-determination, in the present sense, remains a form of determinism. However much we present its internal character, the result at any time cannot be other than it is.

It is thus not enough for Bradley, following very clearly here the largely disregarded work of T. H. Green, to show the difference between warring influences bearing upon us, or isolated impulses with a fixed strength of their own, and the more internally formative process of desires for ends of which we can be, in various measures, reflectively conscious and capable of taking a long view of what we want on the whole. Bradley contrasts the ‘determinism’ or ‘necessity’, and ‘necessitarianism’, in his terms, of merely warring impulses with the free self-determination of rational agents; and he opposes both to the libertarianism which he equates with the randomness which leaves us with the expectation that any act could come from any man at any time. He rejects the alternatives to his own position, as he sees them, with typical derision; and many have followed him closely in this in several influential writings on the subject such as the much discussed paper by R. E. Hobart in Mind, 1934, entitled ‘Freewill as Involving Determinism’.

The necessitarian, according to Bradley (and he seems to be thinking especially of Locke2), is thinking in terms of ‘the coarsest and crassest mechanical metaphors of pulls and pushes, drawings and thrustings, which we believe to exist not anywhere except in the lowest phenomena of the natural world’3. In ‘reading our determinists, the one chance of their terms bringing anything at all before the intellect, is for us to keep in sight a thing called a will, pushed and pulled by things called motives; or else certain “Aforces” called motives, acting within a given space called self, and, by their “Acompositions”, resulting in no movement at all or a movement called “wills”; uncertain whether such movement is a movement of the whole “Acollection”in the space called self, or a movement only of part of that collection’4.

The result of this kind of ‘determinism’ is that we ‘entirely lose sight of the “I”’, a position which is ridiculed in much the same terms as the equally famous criticism of the doctrine of ‘the association of ideas’, it being in this same context in Ethical Studies5 that we have the familiar quip, ‘who collects Mr. Bain?’ The determinist, it is added, ‘ignores or denies the identity of the self in all the acts of the self, and without self-sameness we saw there was no possibility of imputation’.6

This is fine, and so is the eloquent repudiation of the notion of a person as some kind of space in which warring motives fight it out. But when all this is welcomed, and the self, and its sameness, is so firmly reinstated as the essential condition of accountability, the doubt remains whether the self, as envisaged by Bradley, meets the case. It is not even certain what genuine independent reality our selfhood has for Bradley, notwithstanding the eloquent insistence upon it. For him, as for other idealists, the self ultimately tends to become a ‘centre of unification’ within the whole of being in which its distinctness tends to disappear. But without pursuing the matter here further into final metaphysics, we may insist that the genuineness and sameness of the self, so much vaunted by Bradley, tends to be reduced — one might almost say, dissolved — into the way our exercise of understanding moulds and modifies our desires from one time to another. This process, although not mechanical in the sense which Bradley derides, is somewhat formal and has, in any case, its own inevitability. The self, in this determination, is no other, in essentials, than the self in cognition; and how things shape themselves for us in the subtle modification of our aims within the unity of our rational awareness comes about with the same unavoidableness as other processes in which one’s intellect has the decisive part.

What Bradley, and so many others, including today many who owe little to the idealist tradition, have to offer, in their doctrine of ‘self-determination’, is only a superior form of determinism. The issue, in the last analysis, is inevitable. Moreover, the freedom which is envisaged here is a matter of degree. In practice, we are more or less rational. Our intellectual grasp varies much from one person to another, the range and resilience of the mind, its mastery, is more fully exhibited in high feats of the understanding, in science or related matters, and in creative art or literature. There is clearly freedom here of a remarkable order, we are immensely proud of such achievements in our long history. But the freedom presented here, in scintillating achievement, is less markedly evident in the work of more mundane minds and much reduced for those with diminished or retarded powers of understanding. The artist and the scientific innovator are free in a way which is not true of the rest of us.

Likewise in point of character too. We all recall the way Plato extolled the freedom of the man who had attained ‘mastery’ of himself in a balanced personality, and how much he derided the man who ‘knows no order or necessity in life,’ but he calls life as he conceives it pleasant and free and divinely blessed, and is ever faithful to it’.7 The just man excels in the ‘internal management of his soul, his truest self and his truest possessions… in the truest sense he sets his house in order, gaining the mastery over himself; and becoming on good terms with himself through discipline, he joins in harmony those different elements, like three terms in a musical scale — lowest and highest and intermediate, and any others that may lie between those — and binding together all these elements he moulds the many within him into one, temperate and harmonious’.8

But, in this celebrated passage, Plato is discussing the just man. The unjust is at the opposite extreme, and like the tyrant city ‘full of extreme slavery and lack of freedom’, ‘It will ever be dragged about by a madness of desire, and be full of confusion and remorse’,9. We may likewise speak, in a more religious context, of the superior freedom of the saint, and of being ‘the slave of Christ’ whose service is also ‘perfect freedom’. The attainment of some superior freedom in this way is a familiar theme in much religious literature besides the Bible. But it is the freedom of superior attainment, not the freedom which is common to the sinner and the saint and which they both exercise in the same way and to the same degree.

The self-determination of which Bradley is thinking is exhibited best in our highest attainments, depending on superior endowments and circumstances. It is the freedom of excellence and an essential feature of that excellence. It is ipso facto diminished in failure. The sinner is here much less free than the saint. All is a matter of degree, of more of less freedom. But moral freedom is not any mode or feature of attainment, it is neither attainment nor failure, but the essential condition of both. It does not depend, like other forms of creativity, on either gifts of nature or fortune, on endowment or circumstance. It is wholly by the self and of itself. There are no aids, no weighting; no one has the advantage over others, no one has here a start in life. Here, more than anywhere, we are all equal, in the awesome solitariness of our supreme personal agency. Creativity here is unique, and it is an essential part of being human. It is the one place where we are wholly on our own, and each one in the same way as others. There is no greater leveller than our moral existence, and, as I shall be maintaining, this is of prime importance for our understanding of our place and function in the general order of things.

The setting for our moral choices is of course determined by endowment and circumstance. Some are much more fortunate than others in both respects. This is why our temptations vary so much. The temptations of age are not usually the temptations of youth, nor those of the prosperous those of the deprived. These may have weaknesses in common, and we may all be taken by surprise by traits of character of which we had little awareness. But generally we can be reasonably sure of being safe from certain forms of temptation. Few who read these lines are likely to have had to resist the temptation to rob a bank or cause grievous bodily harm. That does not come within their way of life. To put it at its lowest, it would be most unwise, they would put their work and happiness in grave peril, and the likelihood of bungling it and being caught would be very great indeed. Quite apart from prudence of this elementary sort, most of us would abhor the prospect of violence and crime of this sort. We would wish at all costs to avoid it. We have no force of temptation to resist in such matters. That may change with drastic change of circumstance or some complication of our nature which erupts unexpectedly. There are ‘wiles of the devil’, and no one should feel so superior as to be wholly immune to them. But generally there are areas where we feel reasonably safe, and forms of wickedness to which we give no serious thought.

Saintly people are normally thought to be beyond the reach of certain forms of shortcoming. That is part at least of what their saintliness means. They may, and some of their own confessions suggest that, have in their nature some propensities towards the cruder forms of wickedness. There are many strands in our natures and many complexities. Not even the best can let down their guard altogether; and we are warned on very high authority not to do so, or to presume too much. But, in the case of saintly persons, one must assume that, however grim and fierce the struggle may be within themselves, the superior ingredients in their nature can be presumed upon to prevail without reinforcement from any source other than that which operates on nature itself. The victory is assured from resources within the saintly person himself or some further influence to which he is sensitive. One would also assume that in many areas a holy person has extensive immunity.

It is not the saint alone that has such immunity. Quite ordinary persons find many forms of wickedness repellent. We vary much in our proclivities and aversions. Evil propensities may also take many forms, and their subtleties may take us by surprise. Imagination is a great disturber of ordinary attitudes, for evil as well as for good. What repels us at one time may have much allurement at another. But normally we feel that many forms of evil, at least in certain manifestations, have no attraction for us. Some others, to which we might in some way be drawn, are subdued, and virtually overwhelmed altogether, by other concerns we have; and we normally take no account of them. It would need drastic change of circumstances to bring them within our way of life. For others, differently placed or otherwise endowed, some of the things we discount will be serious issues. They may, likewise, be little drawn to some bad things to which we are prone.

Our temptations vary; how far, in essentials, may not be easy to determine. Envy can take many forms and disguises. The libertine is not the only sensuous creature, and how we fare in the inner citadels of imagination and reverie, not only in respect to sensuous excesses but also to cruelty and sadism, may not always be reflected in outward proclivity. Even those who share a similar outlook and ideals may find themselves, through circumstance or temperament, exposed to very different strains and disturbances of character. Tolstoi and Gandhi had many major ideals in common, Gandhi admired Tolstoi’s work and learnt from him. But Tolstoi allowed himself indulgences out of line with the commitment he himself advocated. Gandhi would have found these, to say the least, a trying deviation from the Spartan regime and discipline which had become normal for him. It does not follow that Gandhi (and Tolstoi) would not have had other occasions on which his duty, as he saw it, would be out of accord with his main inclinations at the time. He had sometimes to take a course which was highly unpopular with his followers and would seem to them a reversal and betrayal of the policy Gandhi himself had advocated. This would not be easy. It would be hard to determine how far Gandhi adhered to his course because of the toughness of his character or because this had been supplemented by a further free choice to rise to his duty in spite of conflicting predominant inclinations. It would be rash to assume that even Gandhi was never subject to serious strain of that sort.

If it should happen that a person’s character had been so perfected that, either from natural conformity with what seemed the course of duty or because the awareness of duty ensured, as we saw might happen, conformity of inclination with it, then we would speak, in that context, of a ‘holy will’, not in a specifically religious sense but in the properly ethical sense which Kant had in mind in the use of that term which is now familiar in philosophy. It stands simply for a will which, notwithstanding the irksomeness of some course, would, by the constitution of one’s character, conform to what was morally required.

The likelihood of there being a holy will is a little increased by the fact that resistance to temptation is apt to reduce the force of it. If we resist some addiction the force of it diminishes. It is easier to resist another time. To that extent the gap is closed between duty and inclination. To those who are already, by nature or circumstance, well endowed, their properly moral triumph will bring them closer to the stage that will dispense with the necessity — duty and inclination will wholly coincide. It is doubtful whether such a stage is reached by ordinary mortals. If it should be we would be disposed to look for special contributory factors, preeminently religious ones. But for most persons, including those most notably committed to high endeavour, the incidence of serious temptation will remain constant. We have seen that temptations vary. The good man and the saint, in becoming largely impervious to some temptations, may find themselves exposed to new ones incidental to their further attainment. Spiritual pride may become more virulent. Such has been the experience of notable saints. They have described themselves as ‘the prince of sinners’. In part they mean that ‘the old man’ has not been wholly ousted by the new, the cruder yearnings lurk in the shadows; or they may be overwhelmed by a religious, rather than an ethical, sense of unworthiness before God — they are ‘as dust’, as ‘nothing’. But they are also probably much disturbed by vistas of new heights to be scaled, of new possibilities of failure and achievement, new demands and new depravities exposed by the more exalted state of their souls, the perils of finer sensitivities.

Most of us may certainly reckon with having to do continuous battle with ourselves. Where we usually find ourselves strong we may unexpectedly find ourselves weak. The areas where evil does not trouble us alternate with those where it is most insidious. There is no ‘laying down of arms’ in that war. The pilgrim will not cease his vigilance; the strife is never over; we may be surprised by evil as well as joy, ‘Screwtape’ does not rest. If not the prey of more turbulent evil we may drift all the more easily into the besetting sin of good and well-intentioned people, corroding lack of moral fibre and cowardice that may so easily disguise itself as good sense and complaisance. Corruption takes many forms, and not only when the devil disguises himself as an angel of light. We may see through the disguise and yet cling to our comfort. In the present state of the world and our own society, a world of such unprecedented prosperity in the midst of unspeakable need and distress on a massive scale, who will presume to say that the inclinations of his heart are always towards the best and the highest as he sees it?

We have not to malign ourselves to say this. There is a vast reservoir of good in human nature, far more good in my view than evil. It may not seem so when we look at the state of the world, its violence, brutality and ruthlessness, calculated coldblooded cruelty, its spite and envy, ingratitude, fulsomeness, pride and callous ambition, and barbarous interminable wars, and the ease with which we continue our engaging pursuits in the midst of squalor. Even so I think the mass of mankind is more sinned against than sinning in all these things. The complexities of our situation, our amazing rapid advances in science and technology, the shrinkage of the world-wide community in new modes of communication and transport, these and other advances have put us at the mercy of impersonal systems that have made it easier for the time for the ruthless few to prey upon the many and expose them to perils and uncertainties that confuse and corrode the good will that is more native to them.

This is hardly the place to weigh ourselves generally in the balance; and, if we were to try, the attempt might prove futile. All I need to establish at the moment is that for most persons, in the present existence, and perhaps for all, the dark areas in which we find ourselves little disposed to what we deem best and highest are little reduced and leave us with a constant challenge to rise above the infirmities of our nature in response to the call of duty.

This heightens for us also the absurdity of supposing that we could afford to be lax in the eradication of vices, of faintness of heart or of positive proclivity to evil, in the hope of expanding the area within which there may be properly moral triumph over recalcitrant inclination. We overlook here, in the first place, the exceptional inherent worth of fine qualities of character and the duty at all times to cultivate and strengthen them in all ways that are possible. Moral worth is not the only good even if it is superior, though not perhaps incommensurable with others. Virtues matter also. We can in any case count on there being lasting extensive need of properly moral endeavour in any state of ourselves that we can foresee in our present existence. If, as is so highly improbable, the gap should so close as to leave us all with only perfected holy wills, we can well leave that to providence. It is far from being our present state.

In these terms we can also correct one grave misrepresentation of the libertarian view. Some have supposed that the libertarian is committed to the notion of some once-for-all choice which covers all that we have to do as moral agents. I shall note again10 the way it is thought that the libertarian is forced to this strange position. It is certainly a very peculiar one, and I can make little of it. When was this momentous choice made? Presumably at some initial stage of our existence. But babies do not make moral choices, and they have no comprehension of such things. Did we choose before birth? If so we need to be told more about a purported previous existence. How is that established? The doctrine of Karma need not be completely deterministic; but when it is not, there is much in the course of one life, and not some one over-all choice, which determines our opportunities in another — and those are also genuine on their own account. Is the supreme initial choice a timeless one? That at least has been suggested, but it is peculiarly difficult to know how such a choice, even if it is meaningful at all, could be involved in the day-to-day occurrences of our present life as moral agents.

The libertarian, in short, is in very desperate straits if he has to fall back on the notion of a once-for-all choice. Moral philosophy ought to be concerned with what we normally find our moral experience to be like, and that is something which we have throughout the course of our mature existence. Some occasions are more momentous than others, and these may have moral features which have far-reaching effects on the subsequent course of our lives. But the decisions we take at such times are not always ethical ones, and, even when they are and grave moral issues are at stake, no one supposes that this exhausts our moral undertaking for the rest of our lives. Moral issues, some very grave and others less important, come in a variety of ways in the course of one life. There are moral claims to be heeded all the time, and properly moral choices to be made.

It is not in fact in a series of momentary choices that moral endeavour consists, even major moral crises extend further than that. We do not have eruptions into moral existence, we are moral agents all the time, even though there is much in the on-going course of our lives that is not explicitly moral or ethical. There are some ethical aspects to most that we do and these expand or contract into constantly changing deviations of duty and interest. Moral endeavour has to be sustained, as part of living, through fluctuations of aims and duties in the normal round, and even when it flares into the tensions of acute crises of moral doubt or indecision, this is not something wholly external imposed upon the normal tenor of one’s life. It arises from normal living in its roundness; and its distinctness, as moral awareness and effort, is not jeopardised or dissolved away in the weaving of it into the general pattern of our existence in the round. Being a moral creature is not a thing apart. We are moral in virtue of all else that we are. But there is a sustaining of moral purpose, in the ongoing course of our total situation, which becomes more acute and marked as our own aspirations and our duties draw apart or again conflate as in the optical illusion when a number of lines at a large railway station seem to merge and again draw apart as our train passes rapidly over them.

There are certainly momentous decisions, in conviction as in performance, but these are blended into our sustaining of other purposes, and while the properly moral firmness may falter or weaken and break, we have to remember how much it embodies itself in other features of our situation which contain the momentum to give continuity beyond the strictly moral endeavour. The totally open nature of moral choice itself is not, even in its own operation, as disruptive as might be supposed, though the trend, as indeed in other ways also, may be reversed. How much an initial decision needs to be reinforced and extended by further ones, and how dispositional factors affect it in the resulting sustaining of our purposes in conduct as a whole, will vary much from one situation to another. Some distinctively open decisions will stand out more sharply than others, but it may often, in retrospect, not be easy to single out the properly moral factor.

The one thing we have to avoid is a crudely episodic picture of moral choice. It will, in virtue of its openness, be liable to fluctuations of a sort not found elsewhere; the struggle continues, with success or failure as the case may be. This is unavoidable, it is what freedom and accountability involve. It is the core of our moral being and the risk it carries. Nothing guarantees a triumphal issue here, but the moral endeavour itself is a sustained contending in which there may be much more or less success from moment to moment, not of necessity a total reversal; and, in the meantime, there will be injected into the situation of moral struggle, to modify the course and tenor of it, pertinent ingredients from the dispositional parameters of the choice itself. We function in our total agency in which moral choice has its part.

The distortion I warn against has some similarity to the curious presentation of alleged acts of will in some recent accounts of mental activity, especially those which tend to reduce our seeming on-going mental processes to behaviour as controlled by our dispositions. In that picture an act of will would be thought of as some alien eruption into our conduct from some source altogether outside it, an occasional charging up it would seem. I would thus stop the composition of this sentence to perform, in the interval of that suspension, the act of will to continue as I would be doing. There are of course no such acts of will, and it is no surprise that critics who looked for them in these ways did not detect any. We are willing all the time to do what we do as we are doing it, I sustain my purpose to go on composing and writing the sentences, and the rest as I proceed. But that does not mean that willing evaporates or is dissolved into the rest of behaviour.

We have, in the same way, to avoid the besetting temptation of philosophers, which makes the subject peculiarly difficult, namely that, in seeking clarity and precision, we present a too crudely simplistic picture of things. A moral decision is not a blind and total disruption of everything else, it shapes itself in a special context, and the strains themselves will vary from moment to moment according to the course our purposing takes and the repercussions, favourable or otherwise, of forces upon which the moral purposing itself makes some impact. We have to take our lives (or living) as they are, not in mechanistic distortions but as the lives of persons in their wholeness, singling out what is distinctive in its proper way and its place. That is not a merging of everything in everything else, but a viewing of all as part of a living whole.

By failure to do that some have come, crudely in the repudiation of all distinctive continuous willing, and, more understandably, in the failure to note and recognise peculiarly moral choices and endeavour, to a grievous impoverishment of their total comprehension of our situation as human beings. They are apt to deny, in great sincerity, that they ever have the experience of making the moral choices I am describing. I suggest that, here as so often in the philosophy of mind, they are not looking in the right way. They are looking for the choice as some peculiar episode, with credentials entirely of its own, in detachment from the living way of things in a fluid situation in which moral endeavour takes its ever-changing course and may not always be prominent or present at all.

This brings us to a further consequence of the view I am commending — a very important one for practice. It will never be easy, if I am right, for anyone other than the agent himself to make assessments of moral worth with any precision. Evaluation is always a matter of sensitive judgment. But, in the estimation of properly moral worth, we have the complication of trying to determine, from the evidence available, how much is due to natural qualities of character and its strength, and how much a further moral effort is needed. Outwardly, the signs of one may not be very different from those of the other. In the case of moral failure the position is less acute. For we may have good reason here to conclude that the agent was aware of the wrongfulness of the course he was taking, or believed it to be wrong; and we may thus properly conclude that he failed to make the effort required to overcome his reluctance to take that course. Some measure of moral evil may thus be certainly presumed. But there is also much that remains obscure to the outside observer. Just what was the force of the contrary inclination, how much effort was made before reaching the point of capitulation? It is not futile to speculate about such things; we may know enough about a person’s likes and aversions, and his character in a general way, to estimate, in some measure, the pull of the inclination that took him away from his duty. But even here also much of the story may be hidden.

But, if the action is estimable and thought to be so by the agent, the assessment is peculiarly difficult for the outsider, for he may find it very difficult to judge how much is due to the natural conformity of character with obligation, to virtue in the sense we have noted, and how much was due to reinforcement of natural disposition, or the curbing of it, in a moral effort to rise to the claims of duty in the special situation where our character, or our dominant inclinations, were not at the time conformable to that duty. The better we know the agent the greater is the chance that we can judge whether a free moral effort was required in that case — and how difficult it would be in the sense of opposing inclination. But even in the case of persons we know well, there may be hidden sources of strength and virtuous concern not evident hitherto and perhaps just elicited by the exigencies of this particular situation.

The agent himself is much better placed. For he himself cannot fail to be aware of making a moral effort. It is what he himself most peculiarly does in his own most distinctive agency. It does not, in any sense, just happen to him, it is what he himself, of himself as I have put it, does. In retrospect the agent himself may waver. For when various drives combine, some in support of one another and others disruptive, it is easy for some strain to masquerade as a genuine moral directing of conduct. This may induce some doubt about the reliability of our impressions of such allegedly moral situations. But when memory is not remote or dim, the likelihood of conflating matters that are radically different is much reduced. The question may then be put, ‘How does it come about that many, reflecting on their own case, deny that they are ever aware of making the sort of choice or effort I have been describing? Would one not expect a completer consensus?’

The answer, if it were to be exhaustive, would take us far afield into the general question — why do philosophers disagree? But it may suffice here to remind ourselves that only very recently there were eminent philosophers who roundly denied that they ever performed acts of will or were aware of on-going mental processes other than outward behaviour or changing states of our bodies. Such denial is bewildering to others. If the genuineness of mental states can be called in question, in all sincerity, and if there are many, the majority it would seem of late, who confess to no awareness of themselves as distinctive subjects of experience beyond some combination of passing states and their conditions, an awareness which others affirm with the greatest assurance, then it is a good deal less daunting to find persons who declare that they recognise nothing in their experience corresponding to the peculiar strains and permutations of moral endeavour as depicted here.

Indeed, there are equally sharp disparities of view on other related matters, such as the general soundness of any ethical notions in distinction from reactions and contrivances of our own. I remain therefore firm in the submission that, however we account for disparity of reports about allegedly basic features of experience, and about the philosophical verdict upon them, the agent in properly moral action is bound to be aware of making a genuinely open choice at the time of being so engaged. It is not fatal to such a claim that, in further reportage and disquisition upon it, there should be such remarkable disparity of view. In such an impasse we can only urge one another to reflect again.

It may be observed, however, in further support of what I have been maintaining, that the supposition of our own accountability, with its accompanying sense of guilt and remorse, together with a peculiar and seemingly distinctive revulsion towards certain forms of conduct in our condemnation of it, are so deeply rooted in our attitudes and reactions, at present as in the past, that it is no trivial matter to question their soundness or the reality they seem to reflect — and in this soundness there seems to be a central place for a requirement of accountable conduct emanating from a unique commitment of the self in which the final authorship is entirely its own. Against this background we may find ourselves reluctant to question the control we seem in fact to exercise in situations of seeming conflict of duty and inclination.

We can count then on the individual agent being properly aware of his own moral situation at the time and his own reaction to it. But it is otherwise when it comes to assessing the attainments and failures of other people. Not that we are quite at a loss. We can learn much and deduce how much comes from character and how much from further effort. But this is an area in which there are many uncertainties; and caution is the order of the day. This applies especially when it comes, not to making our own assessment, but to giving it expression. In conduct which is plainly laudable we need not stint ourselves, for it does not matter much for ordinary commendation how praise is apportioned between virtue and properly moral excellence. We cannot encourage the latter by praise, for it lies in the sphere beyond the range of that sort of influence. But praise is not solely for encouragement. It has its own place in the fittingness of personal relations and the sharing of joy. The recipient can apportion it as seems best, if at all.

In this case, as in condemnation, there is also the affirmation and extolling of various standards of excellence in general terms, irrespective of the bestowing of particular praise. This presents no problem, beyond the practical one of what is most effective. We can praise and condemn in that mode. The preacher and the educator need have no qualms about the general denunciation of evil practices. It is when it comes to specific censure that we have problems, for, in directing our condemnation to an individual case, the determination of the degree of depravity is not simple or easy. How much is due to wrong-headed ideas, to the devil truly appearing as an angel of light, to blindness or fanaticism for which, at some stage, we may be to blame, but which has us now firmly in the power of its torrent, how much of the inner story of passion, fear and frustration do we know, what intimation can there be of partial but not successful resistance to evil? In the light of such hindrances to our total understanding of a situation, we need to be very careful how we judge. Some condemnation there must be, not merely for discipline or the general denunciation of evil practices and exposure of them, and not merely in repugnance to bad traits of character, but also in downright condemnation of moral evil. For here also there is a fittingness and maintenance of personal relations of integrity and respect. We owe it to one another to speak the truth in love.

There is usually much aversion to this, most of all in intimate contact. That is partly due to our own failures and imperfections of character. We know too well, and have been well taught, how easy it is to be preoccupied with the mote in a brother’s eye. In censure it is hard not to be ‘holier than thou’ or without pity and sensitivity. Self-righteousness and pride masquerade so easily as righteous indignation. For these and like reasons sensitive persons will be much averse to censure, but it does not follow that it is always out of place. The mode and style of it a sensitive person will take great pains to discover, but, as in remorse, there must be no cover for guilt, it must work its dread way into our hearts, in dismay and distress before a proper cleansing is possible. Love itself demands that there be this starkness within the ambit of it. Evil must be seen as it is, in ourselves or others, it must be confronted.

But however plain that may be, and however important it may be to give it due place in our relationships, intimate and more remote, we have always to be cautiously mindful of the limitations and uncertainties of any assessment of properly moral evil in others. In this obscure area, where so much may never be revealed, our judgment, while confident as far as available evidence goes, has to be tempered and contained in the awareness that the full inner story of the properly moral course of our lives is a secret reserved for the agent himself and God. We are not to play God for one another.

Assessment of the worth of various elements in our character, including our main inclinations at some time, will depend largely, though not wholly, on the ends to which such inclinations are directed and around which our main attitudes revolve. A desire is good in proportion as it is a desire for good things. for health and happiness of ourselves and others, a desire to amuse, to please, to help, to be together, to comfort, to instruct, to ease pain. It is bad to desire to hurt, to humiliate, to cheat or mislead for no compensating good, to oppress and torment — these are bad things and the desire for them is, for that reason, bad. But properly moral worth does not turn in the same way directly on the worth of the ends we set out to encompass. These come into the properly moral situation by setting the course of our duty. It is at least one major duty to produce all the good we can. But it is in the commitment to duty, however we think it established, that strictly moral worth is attained, and that in proportion to the strain when our inclinations are directed otherwise. It is the cost of our adherence to duty that establishes moral worth.

That is because it is in paying this price, or refusing to do so, that what we do is solely and entirely within our own control. It is on this that moral worth turns. That may seem, in a fashion, paradoxical. Are we to be judged morally quite independently of what we set out to do? By no means. We denounce certain people and say they they are evil because they are doing evil things. Good people do good things. But that is not the whole story. All depends on how we come to do things. If our nature inclines us that way, that is fine, but in the way of virtue. Moral worth is different. It also calls upon us to do what is good, but its peculiarity is that it requires us to do so even when not, by nature or character at the time, inclined to it. The proper moral worth depends solely on our adherence to what is required when this goes against the grain in the way noted. The strain this imposes is crucial, and that, pertaining to what is solely within our final control, is the determinant of properly moral worth.

This lends no support to the view that we may be morally good whatever we do, in some vague antinomian way. Our duties are set by certain features of the situation, including, on one view exclusively, the good we may promote. This enters in turn, fallible though we are, into our own estimation of where one’s obligation lies. We assume that others view much of this as we do, and on this basis we judge whether they have deliberately pursued certain ends in accordance with moral convictions or fallen away from this. Doing evil things usually discloses evil intent. But it is in the measure of our so falling away or, under the strain of inclinations mainly opposed to duty, adhering to our duty, that our conduct is properly good or evil in the moral sense. Other estimations of worth come into this issue in a subsidiary, but most important way, in the setting of the situation in which we are morally put to the test. It is how we fare in this test that matters explicitly in the moral sense, not any other evaluation.

This is how we are sometimes forced to withold moral condemnation of persons who have done what seems to us morally bad or wrong. We may have grounds for supposing that they themselves thought they were on the right course. It may sometimes be hard for us to concede this. Men appear, with high intentions, to have tortured other persons on the rack, to have burned them as witches or imposed on them spritual penalties which would at least have distressed or terrified the victims themselves. Political causes have led, in the case of some seemingly sincere people, to unspeakable atrocities. Richelieu, as depicted by Aldous Huxley in his Grey Eminence, is a notable instance. He knew better than most the barbarism which the Thirty Years War unleashed, but he persisted, genuinely idealistic and saintly person though he seemed to be, in a course which extended that war. There seems indeed to be little limit to what we may on occasion come to consider our duty.

To this we must reply, as earlier, that we do not ‘sin in ignorance’, though we may do great harm. We may also take a great deal of convincing that certain atrocious things were done in what seemed to the perpetrators of them the course of duty. Allowance must be made for turmoil and confusion, especially in major political conflict and war. With hindsight we may judge such matters with more sensitivity and balance than the crude black and white they tend to present at the time. Even so there is a limit, however uncertain its edges may be. It would be hard to convince us that Hitler and his associates were unaware of the wickedness of what they did. But even here, hard though it may seem to say so, we have to remind ourselves that the full story, as it is for God, may not be altogether what it seems to us. The blindness of fanaticism is no monopoly of our own age. Much of it may be found in holy scripture.

Whatever we make of the facts of particular cases and major upheavals, the point for us now is that neither soundness of opinion, nor the estimable, or the vile, nature of the ends we set out to accomplish, are the immediate determinants of moral worth. They are an indispensable feature of the situation in the fullness of its ethical character, but moral assessment turns on the degree of adherence to the course we ourselves deem to be right at the time, and on that alone; for that is all that we fully and finally have in our control in the way that makes properly moral assessment meaningful, as stressed already.

It will follow also that moral worth is a matter of degree, depending on the effort required and made to conform with what our obligations seem to require. Our own natures may, in some cases, conform so closely already to what we think we ought to do that only a mild additional effort is needed. At the other extreme it may be of great severity, and this, as I have insisted, will vary a great deal from one situation and person to another. In our actual assessment we have also to remember, if we judge any others than ourselves, that the struggle with evil may have been hard before the ultimate surrender, and that this goes also into the final reckoning.

But it is the effort that matters, however required, for outwardly momentous purposes or for more humble ones, for spectacular or more mundane ends. The effort made or not made (or not fully made) is all that matters for moral worth, however important, as they may well be, the other evaluational aspects of the situation as a whole. In resisting the conflation of moral with other ethical matters, the importance of the latter need not be diminished. But it is peculiarly important, for ethics and religion alike, that the distinctiveness of our properly moral existence be preserved. What seems paradoxical in the process of doing so is easily diffused when we think clearly about it; and the ultimate reward of thinking clearly about our ethical situation as a whole and of putting things in their place in the round, in the ethical context and beyond it, will be very great.

To this end we must also stress the difference between moral effort and other ways in which we may be properly said to make an effort. There is for example physical effort, which may not be morally demanding at all. It may be, in one’s desire to win a race or scale a peak, what we most eagerly desire. Not that there may not be a moral aspect of these undertakings as well. But that is not inevitable, and the physical effort as such although much more than physical, is not a moral one. It may indeed be one’s duty to desist from a physical effort, perhaps because it will imperil too many other fine things or take more time and attention than is proper, or there may be sound reasons for allowing someone else to win. The same holds of intellectual efforts, to win a game of chess, perhaps, or create a work of art or make a scientific discovery. But such efforts may sometimes be made for avowedly nefarious purposes, to commit a crime perhaps. There may be a moral effort to continue an intellectual effort, but the latter as such is morally neutral.

So is the effort, a little more in line with moral effort, we may make when one inclination is overcome by a stronger one. Some persons, for example, find it irksome to get out of a snug bed on a cold winter’s day. But they would find it more irksome to be late for work or to disrupt their plans for the day. They make the effort. A student finds it tedious to learn the rudiments of a new language, but he also makes the effort. He is keen to complete his course and he may be looking forward to having later a helpful and interesting fluency in another language. The issue is not seriously in doubt. A dominant interest prevails over a weaker and more isolated one. There is an effort, but it is a psychological one and remains, in the end, in the line of least resistance. The moral effort is different. It does not fall within character but outside it, it is wholly free, it is against the line of least resistance, it could have been otherwise and the issue thus remains in doubt until it is made. It is the core of our moral existence.

If we reject the view I have outlined hitherto, what is the alternative?

I used to say that it was a Socratic ethics. But it was pointed out to me by my friend, the late A. C. Ewing, that this was not adequate. On a Socratic view, we only do wrong, or resist the good, when we do not really appreciate just what the good is like. Error and ignorance become our only faults. This clearly will not do. For, apart from ignorance, there are many vices and corresponding virtues. There are good and bad traits of character, love, concern, courage and the like, on one side, and, on the other, hate, cruelty and cowardice. These have immense importance. The cultivation of good traits of character, the eradication of the bad, should be a prime concern. Even when there is little or nothing we can specifically do to encourage good qualities of character and deepen sensitivity to them, it remains important to recognise and appreciate them. This is a distinctive part of a close personal relationship, and it has its place on the broader canvas of our general role in the world around us. There is also the enrichment of life in other non-moral values which we may enjoy ourselves or encourage in others, health and happiness and fulfilment, to keep to very general terms. Ethical thinking will be concerned with all these, and the ways they may be promoted. There will still be depth and richness and meaning, even in the absence of moral good and bad. Life will not entirely lose its savour. There will be attainment, hope and expectation. Art and discovery will have their point, understanding will remain significant, we can learn from Spinoza when Pelagius is no longer relevant.

Even so, there will be a deep, underlying forlorness in all our concerns and undertakings. At no point can anything eventually be other than it is. If we have rich and satisfying lives, that is fine; if we are deprived and wretched, there is little, nothing in the last analysis, we can do about it. All will be as it is anyway. Within the peculiar proclivities and powers we have, there will be much activity, the poet will agonize, in ‘a fine frenzy’, to get the right word, the musician to make his melody sweet and harmonious, the scholar and scientist to make their discoveries, we shall have tender love, as also envy and hate. Some will set themselves to improve their own lot and that of others, there will be kindness and charity and earnest endeavour, as also destructiveness, perversity and hate. But in all these respects, good and bad alike, we shall do as we do subject to whatever propensities we happen to have; there is nothing, in the last analysis, we can do to change one jot of our own lives or the general course of things. It will all flow in its predetermined way from what there is already. We may not think of ourselves as the pawns of fate, and we certainly need not subscribe to physical determinism. Mental existence will play its own part in the course it takes. Intelligence will count, and those who excel may rejoice in that and take pride in it. But whether or not this happens is ultimately out of our hands. There may be no blind fate, but nothing can be finally other than it is. We have our destiny, and we shall be carried along with it, for good or ill; but all that lies ahead, loud though we may protest and agitate, that very agitation itself is as unavoidable as all there is now; the resignation, apathy, or acceptance which such thoughts may prompt will be just part of the general inevitability of all things. There is, at least, nothing that we ourselves can genuinely change.

To me this is itself a sad and daunting reflection. We are co-workers only in a very restricted sense. However much our own natures and understanding are involved, there remains a gloomy and unrelieved inevitability about all that we are and do, we have no genuine part of our own to play, we modify nothing in and of ourselves, for all the selfhood that we have is itself embodied exhaustively in the propensities that have come together to make us the persons we are.

Thoughts of this kind, extended in further religious or metaphysical systems, have been extensively accountable for the apathy and distressful resignation of many peoples down the ages, poverty and misery must be endured in the knowledge that they cannot be mended unless there is something in the same inevitable course of things that will bring relief. We cannot push the wheel of this fate off its course, or, if we can, that is just what the wheel itself will bring. There is no wisdom beyond acceptance.

It is hard to see how this sad forlornness can be avoided on any form of determinism, however elevated. But I am concerned, in the present context, with the implication such repudiation of ultimate freedom may have for the way in which we generally think of ourselves as responsible creatures, having duties to fulfil, subject to peculiar praise or blame, guilty and given to remorse or repentance, sinful, wicked or whatever variation we play on these familiar themes. For our attitudes in all such matters will need to be drastically modified or, for the most part, abandoned altogether, if we have to surrender the sort of freedom which can alone make them meaningful.

There will be, as insisted already, distinctions of worth which will make our lives and encounters meaningful. But the notion of proper accountability, in a distinctively moral sense, will have to be abandoned — and all that goes with it. Such distinctions as we draw, in respect of our conduct and in other ways, will have to be assimilated to other non-moral distinctions of value we may make. There will be no difference of principle, and there will be much in common to the Socratic ethic I mentioned earlier. No one can help being stupid, but neither, on a determinist view, can anyone help having vicious desires which affect the course of conduct. If we are cruel and envious that cannot be helped. We may deplore such attitudes and admire their opposites, love and generosity, in and for themselves as well as for their results. But in essentials this will be akin to the congratulations we offer to an athlete or a poet and our commiseration with unfortunates who have no aptitude for such attainment. Moral and non-moral good will not be radically different.

In that case it is doubtful whether we can retain anything of the notion of responsibility in its normal sense, or the associate notions of guilt and remorse, except as devices, or forms of punishment, designed to affect the future conduct of possible offenders. Many thinkers nowadays come close to accepting these consequences. For Nowell-Smith, as we have seen, there is no difference between the kleptomaniac and the thief, except that the conduct of the latter, and others who learn of his fate, may be affected by punishment. Any notion of a more inherent difference goes by the board. It is thus not surprising that many take the implications of this position to the full length. They urge that we abandon talk of accountability altogether. The offender, in criminal wrong-doing or any other, is not unlike a sick person. He needs to be cured, and the treatment may be drastic, but it is treatment designed to cure and no more — there is no further evaluation. Thus Lady Babara Wootton can assure us that the very notion of responsibility is ‘a theological anachronism best left to the religious and that ilk’. In social science, and in the general view we take of offenders and the attitude proper to them, we only make the issue needlessly complicated if we retain, in enlighted days like ours, notions of guilt and responsibility and sin which cannot be fitted into the understanding and temper we have today.

It is thus not surprising that Mr. J. D. Mabbott,11 in defending the libertarian view, should refer to the account given by Christopher Isherwood of prisoners in the Garcia Morena prison in Ecuador who, in spite of appalling conditions, continued to be treated as human beings and would themselves resent being regarded ‘as misfits or types or cases’. They had done wrong and they knew it.

Our attitude to ourselves, and to one another, will need to be drastically altered if we are unable to regard ourselves as genuinely free and responsible agents, even though other distinctions of value will have their place. I believe that we are free and responsible, and also that it is immensely important, in the present state of society and culture and in the new perils of scientific and technological advances, to affirm the responsibility of individual persons. This is limited, but we are not impotent in the world around us. There are also many further implications, for religion and metaphysics, of the view I have been presenting. I shall return to these, but in the meantime I wish to look more closely at some of the particular points of importance that have been made in recent controversy about responsibility and freedom.


  • 1.

    p. 39.

  • 2.

    Ethical Studies, p. 32.

  • 3.

    ibid., p. 32.

  • 4.

    op.cit., p. 32.

  • 5.

    ibid. p. 36.

  • 6.

    ibid. p. 33.

  • 7.

    Republic, Book VIII. 561. (I quote A. D. Lindsay’s translation. J. M. Dent and Sons, publishers, here and later.)

  • 8.

    op.cit., Book IV. 443.

  • 9.

    ibid. 577.

  • 10.

    In chapters 9 and 10 and in the final volume in this series.

  • 11.

    Contemporary British Philosophy, Volume III. Ed. H. D. Lewis, pp. 289–309.

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