Popular Science Monthly/Volume 73/October 1908/Something New in Freewill




IT has been maintained that all men are born free and equal. Shall we accept this very broad statement as it stands? or shall we repudiate it as a palpable untruth, an absurd exaggeration of the actual state of things?

There can be no doubt that from certain points of view, abundant objection can be brought against it. Is a baby free to go where it pleases? Or a child of five to discipline its parents, and control the key to the pantry? Is a boy free to vote? Or to raise money on a note? Is a lady free to play poker on the curb-stone? Or a clergyman to supplement his insufficient salary by serving during the week as end-man in the performances of a minstrel troupe? Is a banker free to close his establishment every time that there is a football game between Yale and Harvard? Freedom! Where is freedom? We are all of us hedged about by restrictions of a thousand sorts, and we are not hedged about by the same restrictions. What I am free to do, another is not free to do; and what he may do is forbidden to a third. Where is this freedom attributed to all men? Some men incarcerated in cells by legal process appear to be conscious that they are not free. The larger number not thus provided for talk much about their freedom, especially at certain seasons of the year, but when we subject them to critical inspection, we find that they only seem to be free to do certain things determined by such circumstances as age, character, sex, station in life, official position, and a multitude of others. Each human being is certainly not free to do what every other is free to do. What a droll world it would be if he were!

And as for equality—talk not of it! Would any man in his senses maintain that a baby not yet "shortened" is equal in size, weight and intelligence to a senator or a college president? Is a boy equal in foresight and power of self-restraint to a man of forty? Are all school-children equal in mathematical ability or in artistic skill? Are all women equally beautiful and equally talkative? The man who really believed in the equality of human beings would make the candidates for the presidency of the United States pull straws, or would toss up a copper to decide whom he should marry. Even if we confine ourselves to men as "born," as still in the cradle, we can not regard them as equal—the hydrocephalous infant is not to be confounded with the normal child, nor the Bushman's baby with the offspring of the Anglo-Saxon.

But, it may be objected with impatience, why all this insistence upon what is so perfectly evident? Why whisper around the secret of all the world—the very first thing that our common experience of mankind brings to our notice? We do not have to wait for science to tell us that men are not so outrageously free and so ridiculously equal. Science corroborates what common experience reveals, of course; but does not every one know of himself that when we warm up over the subject of the rights of man, and grow pardonably oratorical, we never intend to be understood with a literal exactness?

Yes, everybody knows, under normal circumstances, that men are not alike, and that it would be the very height of all that is unreasonable to expect all to act in the same way. No man of sense goes to the thistle for figs, or to the penitentiary for saints. And as human beings differ, and may reasonably be expected to find the attainment of the halo difficult in varying degrees, and the descent to Avernus easy, easier or easiest, according to their proclivities and to the help furnished them by their environment, everybody knows that there is no sense in treating all men alike, if our object is, as it ought to be, the betterment of society. One man does not need special inducements to be good; one has to have a cake dangled before him; one would be cut to the quick if the cake were merely hinted at. One man needs a gentle admonition, as his feet begin to move on the above-mentioned slope; a second must have a pretty sharp jerk, if he is to be stopped in his downward career; a third whizes by with such an impetus that to lay hands suddenly upon him is to endanger his comfort and happiness. Shall we treat them all alike, and call it even-handed justice?

Everybody, I say, knows, under normal circumstances, that it is folly to expect men to act alike, when they are not alike; to look to see them influenced in the same way by the same object of desire or aversion; to hope to make them better by offering the same rewards or by holding up the same threats of punishment. The same heavy dumpling that will lure the hungry schoolboy to the paths of virtue, will drive the aged dyspeptic to the vice of imprecation.

But men only know this, be it marked, under normal circumstances. We must recognize the fact that men—not stupid men, or ignorant men, but men of the highest intelligence and of much learning—are capable of putting all this resolutely behind them, and of knowing nothing save that all men are free and equal, when they fall into the clutches of a certain strange metaphysical theory.

It is wonderful what abstract metaphysical reasonings will do. They have smothered the voice of seemingly indubitable fact, and have led men to deny the existence of the external world. They have induced some to maintain that every man has his own truth, which is true for him; and others to advance the doctrine that no truth is attainable by man. They have caused one philosopher to talk as though he had created the world; and another to declare that there is no evidence of the existence of minds in one's neighbors. Not the least remarkable feat is the production of the persuasion—a persuasion very tenaciously held to by some—that there is something cheering and even pious in the doctrine that men's actions are, to some degree, at least, quite unaccountable, and can not be expected to be congruous with the character and environment of the person in connection with whom they mysteriously make their inexplicable appearance.

This does not at all mean that we are in a measure ignorant of what individuals and classes of men will do under given circumstances. No man denies such ignorance on our part, and all men strive to lessen it. It means that no conceivable increase in our knowledge could be expected to help us—that we are not concerned with the question of knowledge or ignorance at all. It means that certain actions have nothing to do with what has preceded them; nothing with the character of the supposed agent, but who is really not the agent; nothing with his surroundings with the influences which have been brought to bear upon him. Such actions just appear; nobody causes them, nobody can prevent them. There is no reason why they should happen in connection with one man rather than with another, or at one time rather than at another. There is nothing in any one to call them into being or to inhibit them. The baby, the grown man, the hardened criminal, the philanthropist, the dullard, the man of genius, the devoted mother, the cold-hearted coquette—all these may suffer such actions, and there is no more reason for expecting one of these to serve as the stage for their appearance than there is for expecting another to serve as such. The play has nothing to do with the stage; it may break out anywhere!

O tempora! O mores! are there those who harbor such thoughts about their fellow-men? Indeed there are; this is the doctrine of the "freewillist," stripped of its domino and set out without disguise. I am convinced that it would not even get a hearing, were it not that we often confuse it with the very different doctrine that men are under certain circumstances free, and that we come to regard it as the opposite of that very unscientific doctrine fatalism.

Of freedom, "freedom," and fatalism I have already written at some length in The Popular Science Monthly,[1] and I shall not treat of them in detail here. But we have recently been offered some such curious "freewill" reasonings by Professor James, in that much-discussed little work "Pragmatism," that I can not but think that a brief examination of them will be found interesting. In any case it ought to be useful to some; for when an author writes with passion and vehemence there are those who are in danger of being swept away with the tide of his eloquence, and of forgetting that they must not close their eyes to the world of palpable and admitted fact that lies about them.

Professor James makes lively objection to the emphasis which some of us have laid upon the fact that there seems no sense in making a man responsible for what he did not do and could not prevent; in other words, in rewarding or in punishing him for "freewill" actions, which, by hypothesis, do not spring from anything that is in him, but just "happen" to the poor man. "Freewillists" have sometimes maintained that only such actions can be regarded as creditable or the reverse. It does not seem out of place for the man who sympathizes with common sense and with science to point out that to reward a man for what he did not do and can not do again, or to punish him for what he did not do and can not be prevented from having happen to him again, is highly absurd.

This answer of common sense to the position taken by the "freewillist," may, it is admitted, be good ad hominem, but it is declared to be otherwise pitiful. Every man, woman and child, with a sense for realities, ought, we are informed, to be ashamed to plead such principles as either dignity or imputability.

If a man does good acts we shall praise him, if he does bad acts we shall punish him—anyhow, and quite apart from theories as to whether the acts result from what was previously in him or are novelties in a strict sense. To make our human ethics revolve about the question of "merit" is a piteous unreality—God alone can know our merits, if we have any.[2]

Now the common-sense determinist, that is, the man who believes in human freedom in the ordinary signification of the word—who thinks that the good man will freely choose the good, the bad man the evil, the wise man the prudent course of action, the rash and imprudent the gaming table—the common-sense determinist, I say, can have no quarrel with the position, taken by Professor James, that utility must be consulted in carrying on the social business of punishment and praise. What more natural than that the man who believes human actions to be explicable, even if not always explained, and who has confidence in the efficacy of persuasion, reward and punishment, should consult the principle of utility. He wishes to attain certain philanthropic ends; he believes that they can be attained by the employment of the appropriate means; and he turns to the means.

But the common-sense determinist, like every one else who takes an interest in ethics, must find rather paralyzing the idea that we should eliminate from ethics the notion of "merit," and should praise and punish without taking into consideration what is in the person with whom we are dealing. That such a doctrine should be brought forward at all, can only be explained, I think, on the ground that the "freewillist," having been brought up to think that "freewill" actions are, above all others, the actions of which ethics must take account, and now being brought to a consciousness of the absurdity of talking about the merit or demerit of "free" actions, feels driven to the extreme statement that we must banish the notions of merit and demerit from ethics altogether.

To be sure, it is hinted that we are forced to drop all consideration of merit, not because we are assured that there is no such thing, but rather because we must remain in doubt as to who may justly lay claim to it, if any may—"God alone can know our merits, if we have any." So far as our dealings with our fellowmen go, however, it is as though there were no such thing; and with merit goes demerit; and, of course, their synonyms good and ill desert go, too. We must not look upon men as deserving or undeserving, for "God alone can know" in such matters as these.

Now I beg the reader to open his eyes upon his own life and that of his companions, and to ask himself whether he would ever dream of living through a day under the guidance of such ethical principles as are here suggested. Remember that the principles are these: he who does good acts is to be praised; he who does bad acts is to be punished; no consideration is to be had to what is in the agent, he is to be praised or punished "anyhow"; no act is to be looked upon as meritorious or the reverse, as creditable or discreditable.

Think of the frightful insults which one living a day under these principles would, by his indiscriminate praise, heap upon the unoffending heads of the good—the uncalled-for compliments paid to gentle old ladies on their keeping out of street brawls; the congratulations lavished upon the president of the temperance society in view of the fact that he passed a dozen saloons without going in; the warm grasp of the hand given to the college professor for his regular and studious habits. Think of the cruelty which would result from treating all offenders alike—the mature and the immature, the case-hardened and the man who has succumbed to sudden temptation. Think of the distortion of the moral judgment which must result from embracing the opinion that nothing is creditable or discreditable to anybody. That freshmen should skip like lambs does not seem unnatural or unbecoming; but that the venerable men who are set over them should disport themselves as rams must be regarded as discreditable, I submit, by any unbiased mind.

Such a day as the one referred to above would be a day in a thousand, and its description well worthy of the pen of a ready writer. 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.[3]

Persons in whom knowledge of the world's past has bred pessimism may, we are told, naturally welcome "freewill" as a melioristic doctrine. It holds up improvement as at least possible. "Freewill" is thus a general cosmological theory of promise.

It is very important to understand just what this means. It means that we may assume, as a relief from despondency, that things may happen in the future which have absolutely no ground in what has been or what is. We have, by hypothesis, no means of knowing anything whatever about these things to which we look forward. We can not frame a reasonable expectation of any kind—we only know that we may expect the unexpected.

Let us imagine Schopenhauer, the pessimist, and Candide, the merry optimist, banished together to a world of this lawless description, and condemned to pass a month in the same pension. The beds are hard, the coffee is weak, the dinner is not wholly satisfactory, and the company is mixed.

"Candide," says Arthur, after a week spent in mortifying the flesh, "how does this strike you?"

"I shall not answer you in the spirit of the exaggerated optimism which I once tried to cultivate," responds the sobered philosopher, "for the condition of things is, indeed, somewhat trying; but I know your weakness, and I feel it my duty to point out to you that, if we may not be optimists here, we may at least be meliorists. In such a world as this, no one can know what is going to happen next. In this general uncertainty there lies concealed a promise. Cheer up!"

"Cheer up?" thunders the German, "Candide, you are incorrigible. As you have abandoned your optimism, I should be ungenerous not to modify my pessimism; but beyond pejorism I can not, as a rational being, consent to go. You admit that things are bad; you admit that, for all we can know to the contrary, they may at any time be worse. That is enough for me—God alone can know how miserable the next week may find us."

"But think of the promise," insists the man of hopeful temper, "is there nothing in that?"

"The promise? The promise of what?" is the scornful reply. "Who can take comfort in a promise so long as it is uncertain whether it is a promise to pay or a promise to extort payment? Your meliorism and my pejorism are the same thing, or two aspects of the same thing—the thing may best be described as discontent with the present and complete uncertainty touching the future."

Candide relapses into silence; he can not conscientiously load the dice of "freewill" and make them work together for good. He can not assure his companion that things are going to be better, when it is purely problematic whether there is going to be any change at all, and whether, if there be a change, it will be a change for the better or for the worse. He may not exercise a confidence in the Cosmos, or in God, or in anything, for "freewill" changes would not be "freewill" changes, if they had their ground in anything that is or has been. He sees clearly that the watchman which he has set on the wall to tell him of the night has no other task than to come down from time to time and inform him that it is conceivable that something may happen, but God alone can know what that something may be. Why keep a man out in the cold just for this? Let us rather bring him down and put him beside the fire.

And Schopenhauer is, I think, more nearly right than he usually was when he was in the body and on this planet, which science will not recognize to be a "freewill" planet. Surely it is not reasonable to take comfort in mere uncertainties as such—in promises which promise nothing. A reasonable hope, even a faintly reasonable hope, must have "some outlines and shadows" of a foundation, as Maritornes, though a sinner, had "some outlines and shadows of a Christian."

May we, then, harbor no hopes unless they are reasonable hopes? May we never hope against hope? May we never lighten dark hours by insisting that sometime the dawn must come?

I should be the last to insist that we must be as coldly rational as this. One of our problems is the problem of getting through life and of being happy and cheerful if we can. One can, as a help to this, embrace a faith, clearly recognizing that it is a faith and not a scientifically established doctrine. One can look on the bright side of things, knowing well enough that the bright side is not the only side, and yet preventing one's mind from dwelling upon what lies in the shadow.

I can not see that this would, in itself, do harm. We are concerned with a rule of life, and one may adopt such a rule without necessarily clouding one's intellect or repudiating the open mind. But when one undertakes to bolster up a faith adopted in this way, by the invention of arbitrary metaphysical hypotheses, which introduce confusion into the science of ethics, and which make of this orderly world in which we live a realm of anarchy, a scene of disorder, in which prudence and forethought and knowledge lose their significance—when one does this, one goes, I maintain, beyond what is permissible, and one does harm.

It has been well said that one must not judge of a man's intellect from the religious doctrines which he elects to embrace. It is the man who chooses these things; not the mere intellect. The man may be acute, and he may be learned; and he may, nevertheless, hold opinions which seem to us narrow and unenlightened. Too many things go to the determination of the religious belief of a given individual, to enable us to judge him in summary fashion.

And is it not somewhat the same in philosophy? I do not say that it ought to be just the same in philosophy; but, as a matter of fact, is it not much the same? He who supposes that the philosophers are free from the passions of other men does not know the history of human thought.

As to the "freewill" controversy, it has been penetrated through and through with passion and with prejudice. The real impulse which makes men "freewillists" showed itself more than two thousand years ago, when a man who cared little about meliorism and cared a great deal about doing as he pleased without external interference, invented the "freewill" doctrine, under the mistaken notion that it released him from the decrees of fate. Some men wish to be freed from fate from higher motives, and some from lower; but freed from it we all of us wish to be. And just so long as men confuse "freewillism" with the doctrine that men may be free, will they determine at all hazards to be "freewillists."

In their desperation, men of real ability will urge arguments that are not arguments, will propose remedies that are worse than any disease likely to overtake us in the course of nature. They must hold on to their leaky doctrine; is not anything preferable to a surrender to the decrees of fate? But they fight a losing battle, and the exercise must be a depressing one. Is it not better to go to the common-sense determinist or to the man of science, and learn that there is no such thing as fate, and that men may be free even in an orderly world?

  1. December, 1900, and October, 1901.
  2. "Pragmatism," p. 118.
  3. "Pragmatism," pp. 118-121.