Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 73.djvu/354

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350
POPULAR SCIENCE MONTHLY

Lack of space forbids my attempting such a description, and in any case, I lack the imagination which would do justice to it. But, to show how impossible it is to eliminate from ethics a consideration of what is in the agents whose acts we are judging, and to eliminate the notions of merit and demerit, I shall dwell upon a single illustration.

Let us suppose that we are informed that each of two human beings has, on a certain day, told a fib, appropriated something which did not belong to him, and, in an outburst of temper slapped a companion. Let us suppose, further, that we are informed that, during the whole week following that unlucky day, neither of the persons in question has done anything of the sort, but has been truthful, honest and peaceable.

On a given day, both have done "bad acts"; shall we punish both "anyhow," or, at least, give expression to our disapproval? and shall our punishment or our disapproval be equally energetic in either case? For a week both have done "good acts"; shall we praise each "anyhow," and in each case with equal warmth?

One of the delinquents is Tommy, aged four; the other is a bishop supposed to be of sound and disposing mind. May we affirm that that unhappy day has not been more discreditable to the bishop than to Tommy? And does it seem sensible to say that the week following has not been more creditable to Tommy than to the bishop? If we talk in this way about the two, we shall find that in the home, in the school, on the street, and even among the philosophers, men will laugh at us; and we can not check their laughter with the pious ejaculation that "God alone can know" whether small boys and bishops have any merits at all, or can do anything creditable or discreditable. It is only the "freewillist" who will not laugh. Metaphysical theory seems to have cast a blight upon his sense of humor.

So much for the elimination from ethics of merit and demerit. The "freewillist," who declines to consider these notions at all, has, as we have seen, fallen into error. But he has, at least, been saved from the error of arguing, as "freewillists" have done in the past, that there must be such things as "freewill" actions, if we are to accord credit or discredit to any one. The argument is very swampy ground upon which to base such an imposing structure as the "freewill" doctrine. This Professor James admits; but, as the "freewill" doctrine must be built up at all hazards, and a lot of some sort must be found somewhere, Professor James offers us a bit of "pragmatic" property of his own, a few square yards of "real ground," which he thinks will sustain the weight of the edifice.[1]

Persons in whom knowledge of the world's past has bred pessimism may, we are told, naturally welcome "freewill" as a melioristic doc-

  1. "Pragmatism," pp. 118-121.