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Chapter V: Choices

I have been setting out the view that moral responsibility requires a choice between fully open alternatives, a choice such that it could be different even though everything else remained the same. I have tried to cope with some of the major difficulties which this view presents. But there is much in the recent literature of the subject of which further account must be taken, and especially the grave misgiving which many have about the alleged appeal to an immediate experience of making peculiarly moral choices of this kind from time to time as occasion requires.

This misgiving has been very clearly and effectively expressed again by Professor Nowell-Smith in two related articles in Mind which seem to me peculiarly important for the subject today, as they sum up and present approaches to these topics which are widely current today and may be found implicit in many discussions which are not as clear and comprehensive as the views advanced by Nowell-Smith. The first paper, entitled ‘Free Will and Moral Responsibility’.1 is an excellent presentation of the view I have already noted, namely that ‘there is no such thing as moral value, as such’,2 but that certain actions can be brought about or prevented by praise or blame or other rewards and punishment. We have no need in this context to look beyond actions ‘that we believe to be alterable in this way’.3 I have indicated already why I believe that this falls very far short of what we have in mind when we speak of morally good or bad by whatever precise designation we note them. I turn therefore to the sequel to Professor Nowell-Smith’s first article, his ‘Determinists and Libertarians’,4 and shall be concerned especially with the difficulty he finds in the notion of having immediate awareness of the open nature of some of the choices we make.

Our starting point here is the old perplexity about the deep and seemingly irreconcilable disagreements of philosophers. What seems quite evident to one is totally false or senseless to another equally competent person. The solution which Nowell-Smith suggests is that we fall into confusion as between different levels at which our utterances may be made. There are ‘statements made in ordinary language which, at the common sense level, seem to be obviously true’.5 Then there are philosophical statements, with words like ‘potency’, ‘the self’ etc. which go well beyond ordinary language. There is no need to condemn these. There may be a case for some of them, we are not confined to ordinary language. Finally, we have statements that lie half-way between the other two, and this is where confusion is engendered, for the half-way statements can deceive us into taking statements made at one level, the philosophical one, as if they belonged to the common-sense level.

At the common sense level a free choice must be genuinely open. I am not free to choose what is not on the menu. We might likewise say that I was not free to do something which would hurt the feelings of a friend, or which was patently silly. But the fact that we can quite properly say things like this for day-to-day purposes has nothing to do with the philosophical thesis that we could have willed a higher course even though character and circumstances were what they were. The latter thesis is a philosophical one and cannot be settled by what is proper to say in special situations from day to day. There are many ways in which we may say that we are free, but they may not be germane to what the philosopher maintains. I may believe that I am bound to act in accordance with my motives and my character, but it would still make good sense to say that I had chosen a peach rather than a pear.

So far there is nothing to dispute. Few would maintain today that we must not pass beyond ordinary language in philosophy. Nor need we deny that philosophers may be sometimes at odds because they take some half-way statements in opposite ways. How extensively this happens is another matter. But Professor Nowell-Smith goes further. He notes that in philosophy we have logical analysis and interpretation, never a reporting of a datum or a feeling, and never a rough statement adequate for limited day to day purposes. But if logical analysis and interpretation are needed in these ways, it follows, or so it is suggested, that immediate awareness or introspection is ruled out. The libertarian, for this reason, cannot appeal to ‘an immediate awareness of freedom’.

I sympathise much with the suspicion of a facile appeal to immediate awareness, even when it is handled with exquisite skill by so notable a philosopher as G. E. Moore in his ‘A Defence of Common Sense’ and other related writings. Berkeley and recent phenomenalists are not refuted in that way. Nor will it do, as a I have stressed elsewhere, for Norman Malcolm, in presenting his view that dreams are not some kind of experience, to refuse to pass beyond what we would normally say about dreams. But while caution is commendable here, it does not follow that, at certain points in philosophical analysis and interpretation, some immediate awareness may not be involved. Our interpretation must have something to go upon.

But we must look more closely at the way Nowell-Smith proceeds. He starts here with a relatively minor point, or so it seems to me. This concerns the alleged ‘feeling of freedom’ by which libertarians are apt to set great store. It is true that they do this, and it is thus assumed that it is this feeling that we have to introspect. But the word ‘feeling’ is notoriously ambiguous. We speak of ‘feeling sure’ or of ‘feeling anxious’. But emotion has little, if any, place here. We are thinking mainly of being sure or anxious. Likewise, the feeling of freedom, whatever emotional accompaniment it may have, is primarily the assurance that we are free in the way specified. The real question is whether there is, or can be, ‘an immediate awareness of freedom’. It is this that Nowell-Smith is seriously concerned to challenge.

His procedure, in doing so, seems to turn mainly on assimilating the case of moral choice to modal statements in general. These are matters we settle on evidence, however simple and easy the answer may sometimes be. When we say ‘It may rain or it may not’ we rely on certain observations and our knowledge, already established, of the way certain things happen. Even the old salt who feels in his bones, or at one glance at the sky, that there is a change in the weather, relies in essentials on the same procedures, even if he is not well able to set them out.

This will apply also to the choices we normally make. These come, in the final account, out of the state of our characters — our ‘make-up’ as we loosely say — at the time. They are in the last resort determined, although this leaves room for speaking quite properly of making a choice. The choice will turn on the way our likes and dislikes sort themselves out at the time, in the way already described. We are free in such matters because, subject to the circumstances, what we do depends on what we are like, and in this way we can quite properly say that we are ourselves making the choice.

To be quite explicit there are two matters we should distinguish here, the circumstances and our own state of mind. To determine what we can choose we have to establish what is outwardly or physically possible. I cannot choose to leap over a wall that is not there, or choose a pear if there are none on the plate. But if there is a wall or a pear, and I am not inhibited by other physical conditions, it makes good sense, up to a point, to say that I have a choice. But my physical capacities also come in. I cannot choose to leap over a wall that is ten feet high. This, in turn, may be understood in two ways. I am physically incapable of leaping that high, and also we are normally, perhaps invariably, incapable of setting ourselves or willing to do what we are convinced we cannot accomplish. Both these are subsidiary matters and refer to a freedom of choice which we may usefully designate as such, but which is not to be confused with the choice we make internally in the way our desires align themselves in relation to one another to induce the movement of reaching for the pear. Among the conditions which affect the internal alignment are thoughts like ‘If I choose the peach this will make the child unhappy, and that choice is therefore not open to me’. Physically I can reach for the peach quite easily, but being a sensible person not given to teasing a child, I just cannot do that. ‘I am not free’, we might say, but this turns on what sort of person I am and the alignment of my thoughts and desires at the time. It presents no problem beyond that, any more than my prudence or fear if I am threatened. The issue is not in the last resort in doubt; and what the permutations are, and in what context we find it appropriate to speak of choosing, is settled, as far as it can be, by observation and principles established already.

In a very general sense we may be said to be choosing all the time, all our conduct is choice, since it flows from the alignment from moment to moment of our likes and our understanding of our situation. It is what we do in this way, it depends on us and not on external compulsion. Even under threat, and in circumstances where it would not be thought proper or prudent to defy the threat and in which I might then sensibly say ‘I had no choice, he had the gun at my head’, it would still be literally possible to defy the threat. It would be my doing if I did so and earned our praise for heroism or regret for foolhardiness. In all such cases, where we might say that in the last analysis I was free — it was up to me — there are other aspects of the total situation in which I could most appropriately say that I was not free — ‘I had no choice, the gunman had me covered’. Convention and convenience determine these variations in our use of ‘choice’, and they are such that without vicious paradox we may well say that we are free and not free at the same time.

It is these variations that make it perfectly proper for Nowell-Smith to observe that we speak quite as readily of spontaneity, feeling of freedom, alternative courses etc. in circumstances that do not involve the peculiar choice between what we want as a whole and our duty (as it seems) in which the libertarian locates the special fully open choice he espouses. Nowell-Smith regards the denial of freedom in contexts other than the moral one more paradoxical than the belief in freedom in moral choice.6

But what we have first to note here is that the variations in the uses of ‘freedom’, and its synonyms, are much to be expected (the same holds for this term and its like such as ‘nature’ in politics also) and must not be straightway invoked to settle major issues in philosophy and serious reflection. I can quite properly say that I am writing these words now of my own accord, walking freely at intervals around the room, sipping my tea as I choose. But this leaves the major issues about freedom and determination quite unaffected.

A point of more immediate importance, and more central to Nowell-Smith’s objections, is that, in all the cases I have listed, and in endless variations of like ones, including situations where we would speak more specifically of having to choose — the plate of fruit is held before me, or I am offered a new job etc. — in all these cases, short of a properly moral conflict, the question of what possibilities are open, what alternatives we have, is settled either in terms of physical facts or of ingredients in my nature such as the continuous alignment of my likes in relation to each other. I will certainly know at the time that I prefer the peach; and what it would take for me to decline it, or prefer the pear, would depend on further understanding of myself and what goes to make me the sort of person I am; and these are not things we settle by immediate awareness, but by observations and correlations of evidence.

The situation at this stage, as Nowell-Smith rightly insists, is essentially the same as that of establishing any other propensities and capacities. We test the capacities of a machine in the same way, and we learn from a wide range of knowledge what structures of various sorts can do. We may do this swiftly, ‘at a glance’ if we have the requisite experience, but the extensive experience is involved. In the same way, notwithstanding our awareness of our states at the time, and our privileged position in recalling these, there is much elaborate correlation of what we find, and much liability to error in matters that fluctuate in relation to each other. To establish what is open to me, in the present sense, is to consider what I actually want and do in relation to the strength of other proclivities of mine which come into the picture; and this is much more elaborate than immediate awareness, however in other respects it proceeds.

It seems very plausible therefore to conclude generally that the alleged immediate awareness of freedom is ruled out from the start. Capacities and their like are not established in that way. But it should also not be difficult to see what is wrong with this approach. It holds for choices in the wide range which does not involve a properly moral factor, choosing a dish from the menu, a book from the library. In principle these are predictable, and often in practice. They flow from strains of character about which we learn from our own experience and that of others who observe us. In practice this is not always possible, and we are sometimes wrong. But in all such cases we are concerned with aptitudes and dispositions. There is no immediate awareness of these. But the free choice of the libertarian falls altogether outside such assessments.

Nowell-Smith proceeds within the ambit of a determinist scheme of things and the sorts of modalities, ultimately relative to the degree of our knowledge, of which this allows. If this is the only way we may speak of capacities, or if the way we normally establish what is possible is presumed to be the only way, then the libertarian has been neatly put out of court. He cannot, for logical reasons, be aware of what he claims to be aware of. He cannot have the benefit of the doubt, like someone who claims to have seen an unlikely monster. For a possibility is not a thing in that sense. ‘The issue is clearly concerned with the logical role of the modal words “can” and “could”; and, it is surely clear that this issue could not be settled by introspection’7. We can dismiss the libertarian without more ado as we would a person who claimed to see a square-circle.

But the claim that we are able to make free moral choices is not in the class of the powers we acquire and exercise in the normal way. It refers to a unique situation, in which capacities and like dispositions figure only in setting the situation within which a moral choice is made. There is no question of trying to settle how far we are endowed with a power of some special kind with which to resist temptation. There just is no such endowment, and it is a travesty of the libertarian’s claim to insist that he is just invoking one. The terms we use are often common to those we have in normal modal contexts, and this is not easy to avoid without becoming cumbersome in day to day talk. But no one should be misled by that. It should be quite plain, from the excellent literature of the subject, that there is no invoking of a measurable proclivity in the normal way. It is oneself making a choice to do one’s duty, or not to do it, in a way that is not itself affected by any propensity or power in one’s own make-up. We cannot rule this out or the awareness of it because it is out of line with modalities and predictions in other contexts. We can only ask whether in fact we do make the choices in question. There is certainly nothing to rule them out.

Nowell-Smith finds further support for his case in the metaphysical nature of the terms in which the libertarian case is sometimes set out — ‘formed character’, ‘conative dispositions’ etc. But recent libertarians have no monopoly of mildly technical terms of this sort; and they usually write with exceptional clarity. I doubt whether any competent person is misled, and if the requirement to stay within ordinary language is mandatory, we could well get by with words like ‘the sort of person I am’. The point for Nowell-Smith is that terms like ‘formed character’, ‘embedded’, as he alleges not very convincingly for me, ‘in a large and complex mass of psychological theory’, involve metaphysics. ‘But a metaphysician is not a reporter; he is an interpreter of what he ‘sees’; and it is over the interpretation that philosophical disputes arise’.8

This seems to me a very unprofitabe line. Nowell-Smith himself speaks of ‘interpreting what he “seess”’. We do not build our metaphysics out of nothing, and there must be some ingredients of any plausible metaphysics that are not themselves entirely dissolved into the interpretation. We do not make the world or our experience when we offer explanations, and there must be some items of which we can only say that this is how they seem to us. We may revise our view, but that does not undermine the propriety of noting how things seem as a vital part, and often a healthy restraint, on metaphysical speculation.

There seems to be little merit, therefore, in the present attempt to foreclose on an appeal to immediate awareness of moral freedom of choice. In the same vein, misgivings are aired about the word ‘self’. In compounds like ‘self-adjusting’, ‘self-centred’, we are not referring to a special object, but to certain motions, actions, motives etc. To say that ‘this was an act of Jones’ self, is no more than to say that ‘Jones did it’.9 But we clearly cannot leave the matter there, if we are to think and philosophise at all. We have to ask what is involved in ‘Jones’s doing it’, and before long we find ourselves talking of ‘selves’ etc. Nowell-Smith repudiates this on the grounds that, if the self is not part of the agent, like a motive, it must be a substance beyond our attributes; and for this there can be no criterion. The self vanishes into one’s character as a mere series of ‘irruptions into the “causal chains”’.

This brings us to the crux again. If there is no case to be made for the view of the self as more than its particular states and attributes, the case of the libertarian with whom Nowell-Smith is concerned falls to the ground. The moral choice as presented earlier has no meaning except as the activity of a self as an abiding entity which cannot be described in the same way as attributes of character. Its being elusive in that sense in no way precludes its being known by each one in being such a self and among other things making, and thus being immediately aware of making, a choice which, subject to the situation, has no determinant other than one’s making it.

I have already set out elsewhere the case for personal identity in the sense indicated, and there is no need to return to that point expressly now. It may be properly complained however that Nowell-Smith, in directing so much of the barrage of his criticisms against the writings of C. A. Campbell on freedom of will, should be giving such a very short shrift to the view of personal identity which finds one of its most impressive presentations ever in the work of that writer, including Scepticism and Construction, even though Selfhood and Godhood was not available at the time Nowell-Smith was writing — ‘Ryle on the Intellect’ was.

The remainder of what Professor Nowell-Smith has to say in this context consists mainly of a tidying up of what he has offered already as his central theme. But there is one further submission he makes that is very relevant to current controversy. He seems to take it that both determinists and indeterminists alike are extensively committed to a crudely mechanical analogy for character and conduct. Even if a person is not thought of strictly as just a complex machine, it is assumed that in a more ‘obscure’ or ‘elusive’ way, our desires and motives ‘are somehow like mechanical forces’.10 I am much surprised that Nowell-Smith should say this. It seems gravely unfair to determinists and indeterminists alike.

There are few philosophers today who have not taken the full force of the idealist lesson about the way our desires are modified in relation to one another in our awareness of them. They are not the warring forces, each with its power fixed in itself, of which Bradley spoke so scathingly in his famous chapter.11 Determinists have themselves been only too willing to go along with Green and Bradley in this matter, and they have indeed made these particular insistences of idealist writers central to their own case for moral freedom as self-determination within an essentially determinist framework, in line with the course the idealists themselves prescribed. This has been sufficiently noted already. But leading libertarians have also been as willing as any to go along with idealist insights here, indeed those are commended with vigour and persistence by the libertarian whose work Nowell-Smith has especially in mind here, namely C. A. Campbell. He took his start from considerable acceptance of the idealist teaching in which he was nurtured, and especially in his account of self-realisation in his major works and specifically in articles like ‘Moral Intuition and the Principle of Self-realisation’12 and ‘Moral and Non-Moral Values’,13 pre-eminently the latter which should be essential reading for all who concern themselves with these matters.

The submission which Nowell-Smith makes, very wide of the mark in this case, is that the libertarian, starting with a mechanical analogy, conceives of the alleged effort of will as another mechanical force of precisely the same nature as the others. It is just one further power with which we are endowed. ‘If the mechanical analogy is correct’, we are told, ‘it would seem to be axiomatic that anything which opposes or reinforces a force must be another force’.14

But ‘force’ is ambiguous here. If it means an additional force of like nature to the alleged mechanical forces, it can only be some special part of our natural endowment, and it can be pointed out, as Nowell-Smith does, that any suggestion that the effort might have been stronger leads to the postulation of some yet further endowment in the form of a further superior force as part of our total mechanical endowment. But apart from the total misrepresentation of Campbell and other libertarians, in the ascription to them of mechanistic views of motives and character which they have been themselves forward in repudiating, the idea of a free effort of will is totally travestied.

One of the things on which Campbell has been most insistent is that the moral effort of will is not in the least like the exercise of some other measurable capacity. This is the central theme of his important, but not sufficiently heeded, paper on ‘The Psychology of Effort of Will’.15 The attempts of Mc Dougall and others to align the effort of will with other conative tendencies, and thereby make it explicable in a scientific or some similar way, is vigorously repudiated in favour of the view that there is nothing to be said about the moral effort other than that the agent makes it in a way which consists entirely in his making it without pre-determining conditions of any sort, beyond the conditions which set the situation which requires the choice — and that, for this reason especially, the agent cannot fail to be aware of making, or failing to make, at least adequately, the effort to comply with what seems to him morally required.

Attention is also drawn to some similarities in the possible predictability of action on a determinist and indeterminist view. We can be broadly certain of how people’s tastes and attitudes will shape themselves in various respects, but it is rarely if ever that we can do this with exact precision. Our friends surprise us on occasion and we surprise ourselves. The knowledge we have of one another and even of our own natures is incomplete and fallible, the permutations in which our likes emerge are subtle and sometimes obscure. To make an exact science of them is hardly possible. But such an impression and uncertainty as we meet in this way is altogether different in a radical way, and not as a matter of degrees and complexities, from the inherent unpredictability of properly moral choice. The situation there is entirely different.

There is much ambiguity therefore in the statement Nowell-Smith makes: ‘There seems to be no crucial difference in principle between the reliance that we place on the accuracy of a bank clerk and the reliance we place on his integrity’.16 This is quite sound if integrity refers to character. But it is quite a different matter in the event of character being so weak or corrupt as to expose the clerk, in some situation, to a temptation he can only overcome by a properly moral effort of will. Within that area there is no like reliance to be placed at all, beyond gauging the strength of the temptation.

Mr. Nowell-Smith’s philosophical concern here seems to be to show that the sort of things the libertarian is anxious to conserve are equally well ensured on a proper understanding of a determinist view. Once we throw over the crudities of mechanistic ideas, we provide all that the situation requires. But, in this procedure, it is overlooked, very oddly for our time, that libertarians have been among the first themselves to stress those matters which determinists like Nowell-Smith rely upon most for their case. The libertarian is not simply reacting against mechanistic accounts or analogies of character and conduct, but also insisting, as his special claim, that the necessary corrections to mechanistic views such as Nowell-Smith is very effectively making fall far short of what is required to make proper sense of moral accountability.

In a further move it is observed that attributes and character as a whole do not affect our attitudes and conduct at a particular time in the same way as a cause brings about the effect. This is obviously true. A trait of character is not an antecedent cause. But it is all the same a determinant — otherwise why mention it? The relation between character and the attitudes it induces is not easy to specify, and different views will be held about it. For Nowell-Smith ‘The connexion between character and conduct is indeed a necessary one; but it is a logical and not a causal connexion’.17 There is a strong suggestion that the necessity is a strictly formal one. Action out of line with a trait of character set up by observation is to that extent impossible. But many would think that there is more involved, notwithstanding that a characteristic is only known in the observations that establish it. Much will turn here on general views about causal necessity, and I would urge also that a view, such as I hold, that mental events and attributes belong to a subject which is more than they, deepens the normal link between attribute and event, without in any way precluding the subject from rising above it in the special situations which make this intelligible in the way described. It would certainly be hard to maintain that the linkage between a trait of character and a state of mind at a time is entirely arbitrary, without destroying the very notion of a trait of character.

What matters is that character, however we understand it and its operation, is a determinant of our likes and dislikes, our feelings, hopes, expectations etc. at a particular time and thereby also of what we shall do in the absence of conditions which make a contrary choice understandable, such as a conflicting claim of duty.

In a final observation No well-Smith offers an attractive explanation of the way the self seems to disavow certain elements in its own nature, but not by way of the resistance to them which the libertarian claims. He is not thinking of the normal or familiar conflict of ingredients in our nature, as that would hardly match up to the force of the opposition of the self to what seems to be also its nature as the libertarian treats it. He is not thinking of cases where ‘I simply want to do two incompatible things’.18 It is rather that there are certain cravings which ‘conflict with my general conception of what is best for me, of the sort of life that I ought to lead!19 They become ‘ruling passions’, ‘forces or tyrants’,20 and they may be likened to ‘external forces or hostile beings’.21 This is very plausible and might have a place of importance in the study of character, but it hardly coincides with what we have normally in mind in moral condemnation — of ourselves or others.

In support of his proposal Nowell-Smith insists that ‘Conscientiousness and its opposite are no doubt very important and in some ways peculiar and puzzling characteristics; but they are characteristics none the less’.22 This overlooks the two meanings which ‘conscientiousness’ may have as either highminded traits of character and virtues, including, as we have seen, being attracted to one’s duty as such, or as the performance of duty in ways which are out of accord with one’s character as a whole. The genuineness of the former and its importance should not obscure for us the distinctively significant conscientiousness of properly moral action which is not a characteristic, but a crucial untrammelled choice and sustaining of purpose — with all the natural odds against it.

The views advanced by Nowell-Smith, as I have been noticing them, provide an excellent focus for much that we find in a spate of recent writings on freedom and accountability. This is hardly the place to survey such work in detail. But I append briefly here some typical examples of the course such discussion has taken as it bears on the main submissions made hitherto in this study.

In recent discussions of the libertarian view of freedom there appear to be two major and converging themes. One is concerned with the notion of the agent in moral action as more than the system of one’s inclinations or dispositions or the course of one’s life. In one place such a self is actually described as ‘the timeless subject of ideas’.23 The idea of a ‘pure ego’ has certainly been thought of in that way, and it is notoriously difficult to see how a self which is ‘transcendental’ to that extent could be operative in the course of the temporal existence we have. How God can be said to be active in history and human experience is quite another matter, involving consideration of the peculiar transcendence of God, which has no immediate relevance here. We make our ethical choices as part of the on-going process of our lives here and now, and although philosophers may toy, for speculative purposes, with the notion of some once-for-all choice, possibly before our birth in this world, we are in fact held accountable, praised or blamed, expressly for what we have done in some particular situation here and now, and at various other times in the course of our lives. But it is not the supposedly timeless character of the ‘pure self’ that causes deep misgiving. Independently of that it is thought that such a self is so isolated from the rest of existence, or so elevated above the normal determining factors, as not to be able to engage in any of the actual business of the way we conduct ourselves from moment to moment.

In the second main theme we have a strong disinclination to allow any radical distinction, so far as the nature of choice itself is concerned, between moral evaluation and any other. As it is bluntly put by C. K. Grant, ‘what is the difference, from the point of view of the agent, between choosing whether to tell a lie or the truth, and choosing whether to drink tea or coffee? If we are free in the one case we are surely free in the other’.24 A consequence of this line is that great ingenuity and philosophical skill is exercised in various analyses of choice in general to show that it does, or does not, conform with the requirements of some particular view of responsibility. That the choice itself may be of a special sort made possible in the peculiar circumstances of properly moral conduct is overlooked. I think this has much bedevilled the discussion of the subject in recent times.

One important example of the latter case is the notion of freedom as ‘self-determination’, as formulated most explicitly in traditional idealist thinking and commented upon already in this work. The freedom under discussion comes to be thought of in this way as the same, in essentials, in matters of understanding or in art and aesthetics or in general personal relations as in any situation where consideration of distinctively moral praise or blame is concerned. This diverts attention from the considerations that appertain especially to moral evaluation. But I shall not dwell further on this particular example.

Reverting to the first of the themes I have noted, it may well be the case that the difficulty of presenting the notion of the self as more than attributes and the like which may be described and indicated in this way is apt to leave the impression of the self as a something that floats in a world all of its own or some alien entity we bear around that has nothing specific to do with anything else in our lives. It may not be easy to avoid that impression and this makes that topic itself one of those which it is peculiarly difficult to handle philosophically. But, in my earlier study of this question,25 I have been especially at pains to insist on the peculiarly close involvement of the self in everything else in our lives. It is the same self which makes the special moral choice as ponders over a philosophical problem, feels pain, likes this or that, is elevated by praise or hurt by condemnation or abuse, who loves some person, and so on. It is me in all these instances and the like. I do not know, as I have stressed elsewhere, what it would be like to be me doing nothing, aware of nothing etc. For the self to be ‘more’, in the sense indicated, far from condemning it to empty isolation from everything else, places it indispensably at the very core of all our existence. It is all-pervasive, and that itself is a major reason why philosophers, looking for a precise peculiarity, tend to overlook it and its importance.

With these considerations in mind we can see that there is nothing exceptionally problematic about endowing the self which we most peculiarly are with a capacity to choose irrespective of the way our likes and dislikes arrange themselves at some time when the total situation is such as to make this choice meaningful in the way indicated earlier.

In the paper to which I have alluded already,26 Professor Ebersole brings the two themes I have noted very close together. He first sets out, very soundly it seems to me, what ‘ordinary usage’ or, as he also puts it, what ‘the ordinary intelligent, and intelligible person who is uncontaminated by philosophy or science’ insists upon as the conditions of moral praise or blame and responsibility. The main condition is freedom of choice between various desires leading to action. But this need not be at the time of action or immediately preceding it. Our actions are determined by motives in the form of dispositions. But for an action to be accountable there must be somewhere, among its antecedents, a choice that was not itself causally determined. I should have myself said that, in that case, it was for the initial choice that we were accountable. But we can let that go, for Ebersole thinks there is a fatal flaw in the notion of a ‘choice which is wholly or partly undetermined’. For it cannot be enough that ‘the choice be uncaused’. That is too negative and can only be relevant if ‘the person himself “threw the balance” one way or the other in the act of choosing’.27 That, however, cannot be the case.

This is because a person or agent, capable of affecting the balance as required ‘is not constituted by a sequence of past events, and dispositions’. Nothing will serve but ‘the self, the ego, the person acting presumably not through the past but directly on the undetermined desire’. Here ‘the commonsense man completes his story’, and the philosopher taking it up ‘with simple-minded ontology’ brings us to the notion of a ‘timeless subject’ or a ‘pure ego’ which is ‘a pathetic piece of metaphor’ or mythology. Adherence to our ordinary thought on the subject must fail.

There is, it is also urged, ‘another condition for the ordinary use of “free”’ which ‘reinforces the conclusion that the conversational term “free” is never applicable’.28 This is ‘that free choices are data of experience’ — ‘I recognize a free choice when I experience one’,29 I recognize the ‘wavering, considering, and final resolution as the free act’. This however is impossible, firstly and not too impressively it seems to me, because we might seem to have such a recognition when we do things under hypnosis. We realize later that we were not in fact free. There are, however, I submit, very peculiar conditions attaching to states of hypnosis, and, one might add, of dreams where we may seem also conscious of acting freely. We have good reasons for distinguishing between such states and normal waking consciousness; and to allow highly restricted abnormal situations to outweigh the evidence of full many-sided waking awareness seems very presumptuous to say the least. The main weight must surely rest on what we clearly find to be the case in normal experience, however hard it may be to account for the exceptions.

Two further arguments are adduced. Firstly, as the undetermined choice affecting our present action may precede the action by a considerable time, we may have little awareness of it at the time of the action for which we are accountable, indeed it may have been obliterated, sunk deep into our unconsciousness. The moral of this is, I submit, that it is for the original free choice and for any aspects of our present situation which may also confront us with a moral choice — the present disposition not being directly legislative when opposed by a claim of duty — that we are accountable in the properly moral sense.

The second argument is that the purported ‘absence of a cause’ is ‘negative in form’ and that we could never ‘be directly aware of the absence of a strand in the causal net which preceded an action’. This might well hold if we had to establish the existence of an undetermined strand in some independent way, it is not relevant to our own immediate awareness of our experience in the course of that experience, including the free effort of will which the subject may be making at the time. This is especially what Ebersole seems to overlook and underestimate. It highlights the oddity of locating the purportedly crucial factor in our accountability in some undetermined, perhaps freakish, event remote from the course of conduct for which we are responsible at the time. Ebersole takes a dim view of our being thought responsible for ‘moments of conscious choice’. He is certain ‘that actions are condemned which are not free in this sense’, as when we run over someone in a car in a state of abstraction which we could have avoided by being more alert and careful about our state earlier. I think again that it would be the earlier lack of care and concern that would come under direct moral condemnation. Our very explicit awareness of what we are about seems in fact to be a prime condition of strictly moral evaluation, and that, I submit, is what ‘ordinary ways’ and the thought of ‘the ordinary intelligent’ person demand. It is not surprising that Ebersole concludes that ‘the conversational term “free” is never applicable’.

If it is not applicable what is the remedy? It is that, in seeking to understand moral praise and blame as reward or punishment, we should be looking, not primarily to the past but to the future, to the effect which such expedients may have on our future behaviour or that of others. There are two candidates here — it is maintained. One is the retributive theory. This is thought to require a ‘pure ego’ and to fail precisely for that reason. The pure ego as such ‘never changes’ and as it functions in moral action through undetermined choice its functioning cannot be affected by punishment, it ‘is insulated against the temporal nexus of causes and effects. Chastising a pure ego is either like teaching ethics to a quadratic equation or like teaching metaphysics to a bandersnatch’30.

This is a curious line to take. For, as Ebersole himself observes, ‘a retributive theory would have to hold that pain and suffering when added upon a crime were right regardless of the consequences’.31 The point of the retributive theory is that it is thought directly appropriate to punish the offender independently of any further good. It seems irrelevant in this case to say that the punishment will have no effect. I do not hold with the retributive theory, but it seems clearly beyond the reach of the trap which is laid for it here.

It seems wrong also — and this is a point of more importance for us here — to isolate the self, as so many seem to understand it, from all else that goes on in our lives, to make it some kind of useless adjunct to be parodied in the words just quoted. It is the one self, the total person in all experience, in joy and suffering and perceiving and pondering — and in planning what the course of its life is to be. Our motives and dispositions are those of the person who also lives through a distinctive moral situation and makes open choices. These choices are not themselves affected by praise or blame, but the subsequent frame of mind of the agent will be and it is most appropriate that it should and that he be induced to ponder it and make a sound assessment of himself in his total situation.

Independently of radical issues of this sort, there seems no reason why a person who has, in the exercise of genuinely open choice, made a bad choice should not find his motives or dispositions, and his actual state of mind at some further time, affected by the thought of the punishment which he or others have suffered. The force of some temptation may be much weakened in this way or perhaps eliminated altogether. This is not a properly moral gain, and may not even be a virtue unless the upholder of the reformative theory is right in supposing that punishment may bring about a genuine change of heart. But it establishes at least that punishment is not precluded from bringing about the practical gain expected of it even though the offender has erred in the exercise of untrammelled freedom. There are things that matter besides moral attainment, and the character and practical attitudes of members of society are one of them. Punishment does not fail of its practical importance on a libertarian view.

Nor does remorse. Ebersole himself stresses that remorse is not just an occasional pang but a more abiding attitude of mind — a ‘prospensity’ — which may affect future conduct. But even so it is directed in the first place to the past occasion and finds its significance there. It is an inherently worthwhile change of attitude to what we have done and is not reducible to resolve about future conduct. This is overlooked, as is the basic meaning of condemnation, by oneself or others, in relating moral condemnation expressly to ‘traits and dispositions which may be acquired and lost’.32 Initially, moral condemnation is the recognition of the badness of what has been done.

Ebersole’s main objection to the retributivist view is that he thinks (rightly, in my view, but contrary to famous advocates of that view like Bradley) that it presupposes a strictly undetermined choice. The terms which reflect retribution ‘are never applicable because there are no “free choices” in the ordinary sense of “free”’. ‘My conclusion,’ he adds ‘is that we cannot rely on common-sense beliefs’.33 In my own view we are unwise to stray too far from the common-sense view in this matter.

From this point Ebersole takes the familiar alternative of interpreting freedom, in the sense required in moral condemnation, in terms of someone being ‘in such a state that he will favourably respond to condemnation’.34 The past wrong is only needed as a clue to this condition. We look soberly to what is required to ‘deter’ or to modify future conduct in some like way. This does not, it seems, require either determinism or indeterminism, though the former is favoured. Moral considerations are irrelevant to that controversy, its provenance is elsewhere in the analysis of scientific method.35

This is closely in line with the proneness of very many writers on moral responsibility of late to concentrate attention on the meaning of freedom which we would find most common in ordinary parlance, as if there were only one major sense in which we were free, and then offer this as the kind of freedom required by our moral accountability, in total disregard of the peculiarity of moral evaluation and the very special conditions it requires. This, as I have much stressed, does very little justice to the special problem of moral freedom, and it much confuses the issue by diverting attention from the special conditions attending that problem.

An excellent example is found in a typically lively and vigorous article entitled ‘Determinism’36 by Professor A. C. MacIntyre. This is expressly concerned with the impression we have that determinism seems to be, and is as MacIntyre understands it, incompatible with human responsibility. The paper, indeed, sets out with Professor Flew’s familiar attempt to settle this problem in terms of the paradigm case. We are warned not to take this ‘high priori road out of our dilemma’.37 But, in spite of this warning, the discussion proceeds entirely on the basis of a view of freedom which places human behaviour generally beyond the reach of the sort of determinism which the sciences seem to require.

The proffered solution is in terms of the concept of ‘rational behaviour’,38 which means here that ‘a man who is behaving rationally will alter his behaviour if, and only if, logically relevant considerations are adduced’.39 This does not imply that a man (behaving rationally) will always so alter ‘his behaviour in actual fact’.40 But there must be the sort of deliberation and reflection which makes this possible. A person must be amenable to reason to this extent. I do not wish here to challenge anything that MacIntyre says in his account of freedom in these terms. My complaint is that freedom, in the present sense, will characterize a great deal of conduct where questions of moral praise or blame would not normally arise, as in choosing tea or coffee. It could apply to very important decisions, about taking a job for example, where no distinctively moral challenge was involved. We might not be disposed to take either of the two available posts if we thought it was wrong.

MacIntyre fully admits this. He holds that ‘Distinctively moral behaviour enjoys no privileges’,41 adding that ‘the concept of rational behaviour is far wider than the area of moral choice’.42 He also admits that, although our behaviour is free in a very important way when we are not impervious to rational considerations, this does not preclude, but rather requires, our conduct to be subject to influences. We could only regard the appropriately reflective behaviour as ‘the result of determining causes, if we counted as a cause of behaviour anything which influenced behaviour at all’.43 ‘But obviously rational behaviour is caused in that there are necessary conditions for its occurence’.44 But that is just where the rub is.

It can be admitted that there is an important sense in which we could help what we did if we are sufficiently in possession of our faculties that at some point at least we would be deterred by representations made to us. Of those who are ‘so far gone’ that nothing of the sort would stop them, we might well say ‘Poor things, they just cannot help it’. But this does not give us all we need for proper moral blame. If, on account of all the factors involved, including deliberation by the agent, the action was bound to be just what it was, and not in the irrelevant tautologous sense that everything is what it is, then we could still plead that, in the sense appropriate to distinctive moral blame, we could not have done other than we did.

The same may be said of a more cautious statement of the notion of freedom, as involving deliberation or reflection, by Professor D. D. Raphael.45 He maintains that an act, in these terms, ‘is both necessary (for a spectator, or for the agent on subsequent reflection) and free (for the agent at the unreflective moment of action).46 This brings out the affinity of this kind of approach to Hegelian and post-Hegelian idealism where it is often stressed that, without precluding the generalizations of statistical studies, there can be no complete prediction of specific actions, as the unity of consciousness may make a difference up to the final moment of decision. Like others Raphael is unhappy with the restriction of free will ‘to situations of moral “temptations”, where pressing desires conflict with thought of duty’.47 This is where I think the strength of the libertarian case is under-estimated. It is for the same reason that Mr. Justus Hartnack exclaims that ‘If it should be maintained that to be free means to go against all my wishes it would be absurd’.48 It only seems absurd if we fail to take account of situations in which we are challenged by a claim of duty to which we may or may not respond.

The assimilation of moral choice to other choices is also much underlined in the argument of Professor W. I. Matson who complains49 that if an action is independent ‘of the agent’s character as so far formed’ it must be because we have a power or capacity to act in that way. But this capacity must be either innate or acquired. If innate it is part of our nature, if acquired we must have had the capacity to so acquire it — and so ad infinitum. In this as in the other instances I have cited there seems to be disregard of our own consciousness, as beings who are more than character or course of events, of making the very special and completely open choice which is only intelligible in the light of the distinctness and inwardness of persons outlined already.

Professor Matson comes to a bolder conclusion than the other writers I have noted, namely that moral responsibility, if not ‘a fiction concocted in the schools’, ‘refers to a very prevalent mode of moral thinking which I consider pernicious’, and he points instead ‘to Marcus Aurelius, to Spinoza, and to that paradigm of kindly humanity. Uncle Toby, who opined that the best thing to do was to “wipe it up, and say no more about its”’.50 There is much sense in this once we conclude that the sort of person one is at the time or one’s character is invariably decisive in the course of our conduct. Many sociologists have come today to the same conclusion, notably Lady Barbara Wootton who is strongly attracted to the view that ‘all our difficulties would, however, disappear, if we could but dispense with the whole idea of reponsibility altogether’.51 It does not follow, as I have stressed, that all evaluation goes by the board, much less that there will not be legal and social contexts in which we may continue to speak of responsibility, for social purposes, along the lines indicated by Professor Nowell-Smith. But the properly moral notion of responsibility and the related notions of guilt and remorse will require drastic modification and have perhaps to be abandoned altogether. I am not convinced that this is the proper course, and I shall be maintaining later that these radical ethical ideas, made intelligible by proper understanding of the self and its freedom, are indepensable for our appreciation of our proper relations to one another and to God.

  • 1.

    Mind, January 1948.

  • 2.

    op.cit., p. 55

  • 3.

    ibid, p. 56.

  • 4.

    Mind. July 1954.

  • 5.

    op.cit., p. 318.

  • 6.

    op.cit., p. 324.

  • 7.

    op.cit., p. 324.

  • 8.

    op.cit., p. 329.

  • 9.

    op.cit., p. 330.

  • 10.

    op.cit., p. 331.

  • 11.

    Ethical Studies, Chapter 1.

  • 12.

    Annual Philosophical Lecture to the British Academy, 1948.

  • 13.

    Mind. Vol XLIV.

  • 14.

    Mind. July 1954, p. 333.

  • 15.

    Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society. 1940.

  • 16.

    op.cit., p. 334.

  • 17.

    op.cit., p. 335.

  • 18.

    op.cit., p. 336.

  • 19.

    ibid, p. 336.

  • 20.

    op.cit., p. 336.

  • 21.

    ibid, p. 337.

  • 22.

    op.cit., p. 337.

  • 23.

    Frank B. Ebersole, ‘Free Choice and the Demands of Morals’, Mind, April 1952, p. 246.

  • 24.

    C. K. Grant. ‘Freewill. A Reply to Professor Campbell’, Mind, July 1952, p. 385.

  • 25.

    The Elusive Self, Chapter IV.

  • 26.

    Ebersole, op.cit., p. 245.

  • 27.

    Ebersole, op.cit., p. 245.

  • 28.

    Ebersole, op.cit., p. 246.

  • 29.

    op.cit., p. 246.

  • 30.

    op.cit., p. 248.

  • 31.

    op.cit., p. 249.

  • 32.

    op.cit., p. 249.

  • 33.

    op.cit., p. 250.

  • 34.

    op.cit., p. 254.

  • 35.

    See op.cit., p. 257.

  • 36.

    Mind. January 1957.

  • 37.

    op.cit., p. 32.

  • 38.

    op.cit., p. 34.

  • 39.

    op.cit., p. 35.

  • 40.

    op.cit., p. 36.

  • 41.

    op.cit., p. 36.

  • 42.

    op.cit., p. 34.

  • 43.

    op.cit., p. 38.

  • 44.

    op.cit., p. 36.

  • 45.

    ‘Causation and Free Will’, The Philosophical Quarterly, January 1952.

  • 46.

    op.cit., p.23.

  • 47.

    op.cit., p. 27.

  • 48.

    ‘Free Will and Decision’, Mind, July 1953. p. 372.

  • 49.

    ‘Irrelevance of Free Will to Moral Responsibility’, Mind, October 1956.

  • 50.

    op.cit., p. 97.

  • 51.

    Social Science and Social Pathology, p. 245. She also notes the views of J. E. Macdonald who ‘looks on “the concepts of responsibility and punishment popular in legal and psychiatric practice” as “a theological and metaphysical anachronismss”, best relegated to the “amusement of the religious and others of that kidneys”’, op.cit., p. 247. For my own discussion of Lady Wootton’s work see my Freedom and History, chapter 13.

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