Popular Science Monthly/Volume 59/October 1901/Free-Will and the Credit for Good Actions

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WE can imagine what would be the emotion of a college professor if the president of the institution were to shake him warmly by the hand and congratulate him upon the fact that, although he had been freely admitted for a year to the book-stack of the college library, he had not stolen so much as a single volume. We can conceive the embarrassment of a clergyman whose bishop would feel impelled to give expression to his satisfaction at the fact that, during a visit extending over a week or more, he had not been distressed by hearing any word of profanity or observing any act of violence. 'What in the world can the man have been expecting of me?' exclaims the indignant recipient of such a compliment. 'Does he take me for a blackleg? Perhaps the next time he sees me he will take it upon himself to felicitate me on having so far escaped the gallows.'

The fact is that whenever we speak of a man as deserving credit for this or that worthy action, our compliment is accompanied by something very like a criticism. It is implied that the action is one not easy to perform, at least in the given instance. We do not ordinarily think a mother deserves great credit for taking good care of her infant, or a father for supporting his family when he has it in his power to do so. We assume that these things are easy and natural, and quite in accord with the impulses which control the individual. But we do think a woman deserves credit for adopting and lavishing her care upon motherless children that have no special claim upon her, and a man for laboring to feed those who are not bound to him by the closest of natural ties. Were it as easy to care for the children of others as to care for one's own, were the impulse to do so just as strong, we should never think of such actions as especially creditable. They would undoubtedly be good actions, but it is one thing to recognize actions as good and quite another to single them out as deserving of credit. It is a good thing for a college professor not to steal, and for a clergyman to avoid acts of violence, but we never think of remarking upon the fact that their conduct is creditable, when we have nothing better to say of them than that they possess these negative virtues.

Some virtues we expect of men generally. We assume that the right course is the easy one to take, or, at least, is relatively easy, and we scarcely think of praising the average man for coming up to this standard. Some virtues we expect of certain classes of men, and not in the same degree of others. We expect, for example, a greater foresight and power of self-control in those who have enjoyed educational advantages and whose horizon has been widened. And we expect a much greater sensitiveness to moral considerations on the part of those who have had the inestimable advantage of good moral training, and have been brought up in a good home. We Judge a man according to the class in which we find him; if he falls below the expected standard of excellence, we blame him, and if he rises above it, we regard him as worthy of credit. But besides these class-standards, which may be very numerous, we have individual standards which we apply when we come to know individual men well, and these express our judgment of the actual moral condition of the individual.

We have, perhaps, known our friend Smith for ten years or more, and have clearly perceived that he readily falls a prey to irascible impulses. He himself deplores the fact, and resolves to express himself more temperately when things happen to ruffle him. We see him on some trying occasion with flushed cheek and the flash in his eye that has heretofore heralded the tempest. But the expected storm does not come; the good resolution has triumphed, and the clouds roll away without emptying themselves as the weather-wise had fully expected them to do. Of course we give Smith no little credit for this victory, and if we really know him intimately we probably endeavor to let him know, in some tactful way, that we admire his magnanimity and self-control. Or perhaps the individual to whom we give credit for a rather unexpected act of self-denial is our son Tommy, whom we have known rather intimately for a number of years, and with whose impulses and capabilities we think we are fairly well acquainted. The boy has on various occasions found stolen jam irresistibly sweet, and neither reflections upon the possibilities of detection and punishment nor the feeble stings of an immature conscience have sufficed to deter him from tasting that sweetness. But we discover that, on a certain occasion, opportunity has not been lacking. There has been a prolonged conflict between the law in his members and the law in his mind, and the latter has come off victorious. We praise Tommy for his continence, make him feel that he has left the field covered with glory, and we devise means of implanting in his small mind the conviction that honesty is not a thing to be regretted.

In this last instance we have, I think, a good indication of what we really mean by the credit that is given to this or that good action, and of the standard by which we measure it. We think of an action as creditable when we recognize the presence of warring impulses, and regard the good decision as a victory over a more or less redoubtable enemy. The more evenly balanced the force in the field, the more creditable we consider a choice of the right. When we feel personally responsible for the conduct of the individual concerned, we recognize the degree of credit he has earned as a moral claim upon us for payment in coin of some sort. The payment may consist in expressions of approval, in evidences of confidence or of affection, in marks of respect; or it may consist in a large portion of jam at the next distribution, a visit to the circus or a trip to the country. This payment, which parents and teachers do not fail to make if they properly realize their responsibilities, is not made because the child is good, for good actions performed easily and without a struggle are not singled out for reward in this way. It is made because the child needs to he made good, and we roughly proportion the reward to the amount of encouragement needed to keep the child moving along the path of moral development.

In the larger world beyond the nursery and the school, rewards for creditable behavior are not always distributed in the same unmistakable way. A good deal of creditable behavior appears to be unrewarded. The reason is not far to seek. Men generally are not occupied in educating each other just as parents and teachers educate those under their charge. They have not the same sense of responsibility; and, further, they have not, in many cases, the power to grant rewards. But it is easy to see that, where men are at all sensitive, as civilized human beings surely ought to be, to the moral or immoral character of the actions of their fellows, they are quick to judge of actions as creditable or discreditable, and they have the disposition to mete out to the doer some sort of reward or some sort of penalty. The reward may be no more than a look of admiration or a word of appreciation, and the penalty no more than a slight coldness of manner; but love of approbation is a strong motive to action, and just such rewards and penalties as these may have an enormous influence in determining to right conduct. And where certain men exercise over others a control at all analogous to that exercised by the parent or teacher, we find that they are very apt to reward creditable behavior much as these do. The unusual devotion of this or that employee, the conspicuous bravery of the soldier, are not commonly passed over as matters that deserve no substantial recognition. The good behavior of the convict is accounted as sufficient reason for shortening the term of his imprisonment. Look where we will, we find that there is a general tendency among men to regard the creditable actions of their fellows as having some sort of a claim to reward, and when we look into the nature of this claim, we find that its force rests upon the fact that we instinctively regard ourselves as in some way responsible for the behavior of others, and, consciously or unconsciously, take it upon ourselves to encourage them to act as they should act.

Now we not infrequently hear that, if the position taken by the determinist is right, our notions of the creditable or discreditable character of actions must be wholly erroneous. What the determinist really holds I have tried to make clear in an earlier number of this magazine.[1] He holds that human actions could be completely accounted for if we really knew all their antecedents. Among these antecedents he reckons the character, the inherent or acquired impulses, of the individual. It is only the fatalist that overlooks these, and fatalism is something very different indeed from determinism. The determinst maintains that the question: 'Why did this man act in this particular manner?' is never a foolish question, although we may in any particular instance be ignorant of the answer. He assumes that there is always some cause or causes that can account for the result. The 'free-willist,' on the other hand, maintains that no complete answer to such a question can be given, not because we are ignorant, but because human actions are not necessarily the results of causes. If we ask him: 'Why did this man elect to put his hand in his pocket and take out a copper for the beggar on the street?' he is capable of answering: Must because he did,' and this 'because' is no better than a 'woman's reason,' i. e., it is no reason at all. It amounts to asserting that, in so far as human actions are 'free,' they have no cause whatever, and the search for an explanation of their occurrence is wholly futile.

But what can induce any man to hold that we cannot regard actions as creditable in so far as they can be accounted for by antecedents of some sort, and that we must regard them as creditable only in so far as they are causeless? The position is one often enough taken, and probably there is no one of my readers who has done some reading in ethics who has not met with this opinion. It is clear that there is nothing in what I have said above about the credit we allow to good actions, that cannot be assented to by a determinist. He admits that men differ greatly in character, and that, in the same circumstances, two different men may act in very different ways. He admits that men's characters may change, and thinks it his duty to influence them to change in the proper direction. Rewards and punishments he regards as a part of the machinery which brings about the gradual moralization of the race. He sees no objections to distributing rewards where they will do the most good and the least harm; and he points to the actual practise of mankind in evidence of the fact that men generally have unconsciously embraced the principle upon which he insists, and do constantly act upon it. Yet the 'free-willist' maintains that he is wholly in error, and that credit and discredit must be allowed upon a very different principle. Does the 'free-willist' take this position 'freely,' i. e., for no reason at all? or may we assume that he does so because it seems to him at least a plausible one? If he says what he does just 'because he does,' it is, of course, useless to argue with him. He is not what we call a rational being, and is not moved to embrace this or that conviction by evidence. But being myself a determinist, I will be more generous with him than he is with himself, and will maintain that he is not so wholly unreasonable as he represents himself to be. I will look for some motive which may explain why he takes so strange a position.

A very little reflection upon what 'free-willists' have written reveals that that motive is not far to seek. It is the old confusion of indeterminism, or 'freedom' in a special sense of the word, with freedom in the usual sense, freedom from compulsion. No man in his senses thinks of praising or blaming any one for acts performed under compulsion. If a stronger than Tommy seizes his small hand, forces his fingers to close upon a key and turn it, pries open his mouth and fills it with jam, no sane parent would dream of punishing the involuntary offender. And if a stronger hand catches the boy as his fingers are stealing towards the lock, and drags him forcibly away from the fascinating spot, no one but a fool would regard the precipitate retreat as a triumph of virtue that calls for the crown of some substantial reward. It may or may not be a desirable thing to be born with red hair, but surely no one will maintain that it is a creditable thing. When he is acting under compulsion, Tommy's actions are no more a matter of choice than is the color of his hair, and we recognize this fact in judging him. On this point all classes of moralists are agreed—actions can be creditable or discreditable only if they are voluntary, or only if the actor is free.

We ought never to forget, however, that freedom in this sense of the word means only freedom from compulsion, a freedom to act out the impulses inherent in one's own nature. It is a totally different thing from 'freedom,' that philosophical fiction that has played so large a part in polemical literature. But it is easy to confuse things that pass by the same name, and when the 'free-willist' hurls at us the contemptuous question: 'Do you mean to assert that there can be any credit for actions which we do not freely do?' we too often make haste to affirm that there cannot be, without stopping to ask him whether he means the word freely to be understood with or without the quotation marks. He himself fails to perceive that the word is ambiguous; and seeing, as we all do, that only free actions are deserving of credit, he makes this true of 'free' actions. He thus comes to deny credit to every action that is not causeless. It is evident that he has no good reason for such an assertion, but he has at least a reason; he has simply fallen into a confusion, and to do this is human, while to embrace a doctrine 'freely,' or for no reason at all, appears positively inhuman.

We have seen that, from the point of view of the determinist, it seems an eminently reasonable thing to regard certain good actions as deserving of credit rather than others, and to strive to reward them. We have seen also that we can estimate roughly, at least, the amount of the reward that it is desirable to give. There appears to be nothing absurd, and nothing hopelessly mysterious in the whole matter, although our ignorance of human character, its impulses, the motives that can be expected to lead to this or that action, and, indeed, of the whole machinery of human life, is and must remain very great. But what if we adopt the hypothesis of the 'free-willist'? Let us suppose for the moment that actions can be regarded as creditable only in so far as they are 'free' or causeless, and let us see whether this will cast a brighter light upon the corner of ethics with which we are concerned.

The first difficulty which meets us is a seemingly hopeless uncertainty as to what actions are 'free' and the degree of their 'freedom.' We watch Tommy from a distance as he loiters about in the region of the pantry. Evidently there is a struggle going on within him. He advances his hand; he withdraws it; he takes a step forward; he looks about apprehensively; he touches the key; he stops to reflect. Finally he sighs, and walks away without having done the deed. Of what warring forces has his little mind been the theater? Were the combatants but two—love of jam and 'free-will'? Can we measure the amount of the latter by the degree of opposition which it has met and overcome in the former? Certainly not. Tommy has been whipped before for this offense. He has been talked to seriously on many occasions, and he is not a bad-hearted boy. Fear of detection may influence him more or less; the beginning of a love for virtue and a rather well-developed love of approbation count for something. He has within him a germ of self-respect. All these things are enlisted on the side of right conduct, and the potent influence of just such forces as these even a 'free-will' parent frankly recognizes. No philosopher who has had the fortune to have a son, and who has cared anything about him, has ever delivered him over bodily to the tender mercies of 'free-will.' He keeps prodding at 'free-will,' so to speak, in a more or less deterministic way. It may be his trump card, but he is never willing to throw away the rest of his hand. Accordingly, we must assume that the battle has not been a duel, but a general mêlée. What measure of credit can 'free-will' assume for the result? How shall we apportion our reward for the victory? Does the boy deserve no credit except in so far as be has acted 'freely'?

Moreover, how are we even to know which action should be rewarded? The determinist has no great difficulty in picking it out, for the mere sight of the struggle is to him an indicatioon that encouragement is needed and should be given. The 'free-willist' can, of course, not regard the reward as an encouragement, for it is foolish to attempt to encourage 'free-will.' Could it be 'encouraged' it would evidently not be 'free.' And if this notion of encouragement wholly drops out, there appears no reason why actions performed after a struggle should be regarded as creditable rather than actions performed without any struggle at all. Suppose that Tommy has attained such a fixity of character that he can pass the pantry door twenty times without apparent effort. Does this mean that he has lost his love of jam? May it not mean that he is subject to such generous bursts of 'free-will' that all fleshly inclinations are overcome as soon as they are born? Then why should he not be rewarded more generously than before, when he had such dribblings of 'free-will' as scarce sufficed to bring him out of the combat alive?

It appears, then, that it is impossible to ascertain how much credit is to be allowed for any action, and that it is impossible to discover what actions are to be regarded as creditable. This does not seem encouraging, and may well tend to dampen our 'free-will' ardor. But we must pluck up our courage, for we are compelled to face a difficulty which is, if possible, more disheartening. Reflection discloses the fact that our theory forces us to deny the validity of the moral judgments that we have all our lives been passing upon our own actions and those of our fellows. This is so important a point that I must try to make it quite clear. It is a point passed over in silence by the 'free-willist.'

Let us suppose that Smith sees Jones struggling in the water, and makes desperate efforts to save him from drowning. His efforts are crowned with success, and Jones sits dripping on the bank, with a heart overflowing with gratitude. But he speedily discovers in Smith a creditor whose sole interest in the transaction was a pecuniary one. He saw his money drowning before his eyes, and he did his best to secure it. Does Jones now owe the man both money and gratitude, or does he owe him money alone? Let us suppose again that we have contemplated with satisfaction the temperate and orderly conduct, of a young man whom we have regarded as exposed to divers temptations. We feared he was going to be dissipated, and we have been agreeably disappointed. We give expression to our pleasure, and he informs us frankly that the least rumor of misconduct would lead his uncle to disinherit him. 'Wait,' he says 'until the old man dies, and you will see my good time begin.' Do we, after this avowal, regard him as a model, of virtue, and a youth to be held up as a pattern? No man rates as a philanthropist the scientific enthusiast who visits the sick with assiduity only in order to secure materials for his contemplated monograph on pain. Before we judge of human actions we try to find out something about their setting. We pry into motives and inquire regarding intentions. Precisely the same act may be good or bad, according to its context. It is not a moral act for a savage to save a man alive if he is spared with the intention of fattening and eating him later.

Now let us suppose that the action under discussion is my contribution of a dollar to the hoard of the beggar on the corner. Is it a creditable action? Is it even a moral action? Only the unreflective will undertake to answer off-hand that it is. I may have given that dollar in the hope that one more drinking-bout would finish the beggar, and relieve me of his unæsthetic presence when I take my daily walk. I may have given it out of pure vanity, and to compel the admiration of the pleasing young person who is waiting for the tram. On the other hand, I may have given it because I was touched by the sight of suffering, and was willing to make a sacrifice for the sake of relieving it. It seems the most natural thing in the world to judge that the action was, in the last case, a creditable one, but was not creditable in the others. We have been judging of actions in this way all our lives.

But what if the act was a 'free' one? What if it was not determined by my character and impulses and the peculiar circumstances in which I was placed? In this case it cannot be explained by my desire to be rid of the beggar's presence. The impression made upon me by the fair onlooker cannot account for it. The sight of the beggar's misery furnishes no explanation. We cannot ask why the act was done. It was a 'free' act. It simply appeared. It was not done for the sake of removing the beggar, tickling my vanity or relieving suffering; for just in so far as an act is 'free' it cannot be accounted for by any ideas antecedently in my mind or by my natural tendency to selfishness, to vanity or to generous movements of sympathy. It is, hence, an act without a setting—causeless, purposeless, blind. Is it a creditable act? Are such acts the only creditable acts? Surely we have turned our face resolutely away from the moral judgments of mankind when we have committed ourselves to the unnatural doctrine that only 'free' acts are deserving of credit.

It is quite inconceivable that men should with open eyes defend the doctrine of 'freedom' on moral grounds. When they attempt to do so, h is clear that they are really arguing in favor of freedom, a thing well worth fighting for, and dear to the heart of determinist and 'free-willist' alike. They have simply fallen into a confusion, and have confounded two things that are extremely unlike. I should be the last to maintain that the world could get on properly without philosophers, but I must frankly admit that the philosopher sometimes falls into error, and is very apt to take with him in his fall certain of the by-standers who, if left to themselves, would never have thought of tumbling into that particular ditch.
PSM V59 D544 Helmholtzian fog billow.png
Helmholtzian Fog Billow, named in honor of von Helmholtz, who first discussed such conditions.

  1. December, 1900.