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Essays - Moral Liberty And Reign Of Law

Lecky: "The eternal question of free-will and determination is a subject upon which it is idle to suppose that a modern writer can do more than define the question and state his own side."

James: "A common opinion prevails that the juice has ages ago been pressed out of the free-will controversy, and that no new champion can do more than warm up stale arguments which every one has heard. This is a radical mistake. I know of no subject less worn out or in which inventive genius has a better chance of breaking open new ground not perhaps of forcing a conclusion by assault, but of deepening our sense of what the issue between the two parties really is of what the ideas of fate and free-will imply."

Dr. Johnson: "Sir, I know I'm free, and that's the end of it."

A COMPLETE discussion includes three main parts:

The first shows that determining arguments are not decisive or conclusive. Liberty is possible.

The second shows as positive proof that in crises of deliberation we are conscious of a reserve power by which we can freely enforce this motive or that. Therefore liberty is real.

The third shows from the ethical principle that their underlying postulate is freedom. Liberty is necessary.

A full discussion would require a treatise, rather than a paper.

We shall attempt only to give a condensed statement of part of the argument under each main division.


Considered in its entirety, an act originated by a free volition consists of four parts:

(1) Conception of the act; not free.

(2) Deliberation survey of motives; not free.

(3) Decision, adoption, and enforcement of a particular motive; free.

(4) Execution; not free.

Not all actions are free, but we must ask, Are any?

Take, for instance, the illustration of a man in a rowboat: the question is not whether he always rows, but whether he ever does, or only drifts.

Not whether motives influence the will, but whether they compel it not whether the current makes no difference which way he moves, but whether he must always simply drift downstream.

However, even if it could be shown that volition always follows the strongest motive, that would not be conclusive against freedom; for it only shows at most that if the man rows at all he only rows downstream.


The Deterministic argument attempts to show moral Liberty is not possible. There are two great divisions of the Deterministic argument:

The first, drawn from facts of nature: scientific determination. The second, drawn from principles of reason: metaphysical determination.

The Deterministic argument from science is based on: First, history and statistics: (compare writers like Buckle, Draper, Leslie Stephens, Morselli).

History shows perpetual examples of the same causes, physical and social, producing invariably the same results. (Thus a rise in thermometer increases certain vices.)

Statistics show that acts called free are subject to certain fixed laws: that circumstances being the same, classes of actions, i. e., theft, murder, suicide, dropping unaddressed letters, etc., occur in constant ratio to population.

The fallacy of these universal conclusions from particular premises, to show that many or even most actions are necessitated by circumstances, would not prove that all are; one exception being sufficient to afford ground for liberty.

We have the gratuitous assurance that irregularity is and must be the necessary mark of liberty. Why should not liberty work regularly if it chooses? In other words, they assume that liberty is subject to a necessary law in order to prove that it is subject to other necessary laws.

Another fallacy: The fundamental conception of the syllogism that you can collect only in the conclusion what is distributed in the premises it must not contain more. Take the case of crime.

The law of statistics determines only the abstract or ideal criminal, not a real one; only a numerical ratio, not an objective existence. The result, determined by statistics, however accurate, lies wholly within the logical or ideal order and can exercise no efficiency or compulsive force in the order of the real, and therefore cannot affect the liberty of the individual.

In addition we have the Deterministic argument from physical science: Using the conservation of energy.

Du Bois Raymond thus declares: "The state of the entire world, comprising therein that of each and every human brain, is at each instant the necessary mechanical result of its preceding state and the necessary mechanical cause of its succeeding state. We cannot admit that two cerebral events (and therefore two mental acts or phenomena, whatsoever) are equally possible in a given moment, for the cerebral molecules can only be disposed in one way at one time, and, as the kind of result necessarily depends on that one disposition, but one kind of result is possible at any given time. For one molecule to alter its place or disposition arbitrarily would be as great as for Jupiter to break from its orbit. Now, since every mental phenomena is accompanied by cerebral changes molecular movements every act of will, if free and self-originated, would necessarily constitute an addition to the sum of energy or force in the universe."

The law of conservation of energy disposes completely, then, of the possibility of moral liberty in man.

In criticism of this argument, we observe first, that the principle of conservation of energy was arrived at, not by induction in the sphere of the real, but as a conclusion of pure mathematics.

In 1847 Helmholtz, in the twenty-sixth year of his age, published his essay on the Conservation of Force" (Uber die Erhaltung der Kraft). He showed that "if the forces acting between material bodies were equivalent to the attraction and repulsion between the particles of those bodies, the intensity of which depends only on the distance, then the motion of any material system would be subject to a certain equation from which can be deduced the fact that the vital energy of the system is always constant."

The criticism of this argument lies in the fact that mathematics is not an absolutely perfect instrument; it has its incompatibilities. For example : the v7 represents, as the mathematician Lambert wrote to his friend the philosopher Kant, an unthinkable nothing (nichtgedenkbares Unding), yet algebra handles such expressions.

Common sense and reason alike teach that no exact area can be enclosed so long as the bounding lines do not absolutely close in each other; yet the solution of the cissoid shows it has a definite area.

This law has been verified, so far as verified by experiment at all, in the domain of physics and chemistry, where liberty is never attributed. It has not been and cannot be verified to any degree of exactitude in the domain of living beings.

Its verification in the realm of the real being dependent on experiment, absolute exactitude can never be attained. Compare Joule's most careful experiment: The quantity of work necessary to raise one gramme of water through one degree centigrade is equal to the work which a gramme would perform in falling through a height of, first, water heated by friction in a brass vessel-424.9 metres; second, mercury in an iron vessel, two experiments-425. and 426.3 metres; third, two experiments, a conical ring rubbed against another surrounded by mercury-426.7 metres and 425.6 metres.

Here, then, is room left for liberty to increase the sum of energy in a degree that might still be imperceptible to scientific detection or measurement.

But suppose, instead of the accuracy of physical laws being established to sixth place of decimal, it was the sixtieth? The mathematical physicist and others have shown that a mechanism may be conceived so perfectly constructed that an infinitesimal force would suffice to disrupt the equilibrium and set it in motion; e. g., a sphere on the point of a cane. Why may not brain be the same kind of exquisitely adjusted machine?

Faraday thought the theory of gravitation in flat contradiction of the principle of conservation of energy; because,

First, it acts instantaneously.

Second, it is indifferent to intervening bodies.

Third, it is inexhaustible; planets by the million would attract each the same.

Fourth, a gravitating body possesses the power of creating or annihilating force.

When we hear the cry continually dinned in our ears to-day that to admit any degree of moral liberty in man would put all science in jeopardy of wreck and confusion, it is in place to ask what, as matter of fact, is the logical value of these imperious claims of science to an exactitude so absolute that it must per-force banish liberty? Let Professor Jevons* answer:

"Serious misconceptions are entertained by some scientific men as to the logical value of our scientific knowledge of nature. It is feared by many and maintained by some that the progress of scientific method must result in dissipating the fondest beliefs of the human heart, e. g., the existence of a personal God and the moral liberty of man. My strong conviction is that before a vigorous logical scrutiny the Reign of Law will prove an unverified hypothesis, the uniformity of nature an ambiguous expression, and the certainty of our scientific inferences to a great extent a delusion."

There is really no such thing as exact science of nature and her laws. The law of nature is like a curve, a curve of the third order, one of the highest degrees of complex curve. Its true equation is very different from the equation of a perabola.

"There must always be an analogous possibility in regard to those natural laws which seem to be most thoroughly verified, that there may be isolated phenomena, really a part of the whole, of which our law as stated takes no ac-count. Our whole system of natural law may be in reality little better than a castle in the air. For nowhere in the whole realm of natural and physical science can we find certainty."

Again, facts of science are not determined with absolute ac-curacy. All instruments of measurement are faulty; the plum-met line is never vertical; mercury surface of 5 inches departs from the horizontal plane by 1/10,000,000 of an inch; pendulum vibrations are only perfect for infinitely small arcs; definite combining proportions in chemistry are only approximate, for no balance is or can be perfect; results never do absolutely accord. The law of gravitation as mathematically deduced applies directly only to infinitely small particles; the true law may be a vastly more complex statement, including in one formula not only the relation of sensible masses at sensible distances, but relations of molecules and atoms at infinitesimal distances.

To go a little further, let us recur to Kant's objection to moral liberty (Scientific Professor, University of Edinburgh) : A free act, he says, would be a violation of the principle of causality and of uniformity in nature; for by definition it does not result from antecedent phenomena, forming a necessary link in the chain of causation; it would be a solution of continuity, an absolute commencement, a real miracle in nature.

In criticism of this, we agree that a free act is a kind of miracle in nature, but we deny that it is therefore an infraction or violation of the principle of causality. The principle of causality demands that every change have a cause; but in the case of a real miracle, if God the first cause allows at a given time His power to descend, so to speak, upon the chain of second causes, interrupting some force or forces in nature so as to produce phenomena that these secondary causes could not otherwise produce, the effect would surely have a cause, although that cause could not be found in the ordinary way by searching vigorously along the line of antecedent phenomena. The line of search would be not backward, but upward. How can it affect the principle of causation whether we look back or look up to find the cause?

Now so the will acts; it is a power, a cause above the chain of cause and effect in nature, acting down upon it.

The principle of uniformity, properly understood, does not conflict with moral liberty. It is at most a conclusion having a high degree of probability in its favor, but absolutely incapable of demonstrative certainty. But, even if demonstrated, it would only apply to causes and effects already at work or existing in the world. It does not forbid the intervention of new causes. It is in part a hypothetical and not an unqualified or absolute universal declaration. Its true formula is, "If causes remain the same, the effects will be the same." It does not pronounce that the causes will be or will not be the same. Now, as in all conditional or hypothetical propositions, the affirmation rests solely upon the relation or link between the two terms, and by no means limits reality to the contents of those terms. Hence, the principle of uniformity does not exclude the intervention of new causes, e. g., free volition, producing new effects in the realm of nature.

Therefore, liberty is possible.

Let us look now to the argument for determinism from principles of reason.

This was never better stated than by Leibnitz:

"The free act has its cause in the will itself. But why does any given act or volition come forth at any given time rather than another? Not by chance this would deprive the act of all intelligence no longer an act of will. Now as we demand a cause for the reality of a voluntary act, so we must demand a reason to be given to account for the quality of the act; that is, why it is this act and not another. This reason is the idea of the act to be accomplished, joined to the idea of its moral value or utility. It is, in a word, the MOTIVE. Motive determines, then, the act of will; motive is not free, therefore the volition it determines is not free."

Our first reply: Motive is the condition, not the efficient cause of the free act. Motives are ideas or conceptions of the intelligence. They are representative, not dynamic. They light up the field of choice and disclose the end, but it is the will which selects that end by its own free power. (Illustration: A man in darkness; flash of lightning.) So the motive renders the act of will possible and intelligent, but does not produce it.

Deterministic reply: A motive is never a simple idea; some measure of feeling, desire, or impulse always enters into its composition, and though the idea be contemplative only and not active, yet the feeling element accompanying it is dynamic; and the motive having the most of this element compels its own realization. The strongest motive rules the will; therefore the will is not free.

First reply: It is not denied that motives influence the will. The question is, do they compel it? Even if proved, it only means the will always follows the strongest motive. Which only shows that the man in the boat rows with the stream; still, he may be rowing independently all the time.

Second reply: Let us consider what we mean by strongest motive. Is it the greatest good in the judgment of the intellect? So Socrates, Plato, Spinoza, Descartes. But every-day experience contradicts this. We find the will choosing an insignificant good that is near in preference to a vastly greater good far off.

Third reply: Precisely, says Liberty. The less good moves the sensibility more because of its very nearness.

(For example: Endora five miles in diameter, pulls the earth thousands of tons. Levius [twenty times mass of the sun] pulls less than one hundred tons.)

The Determinist, then, insists the correct statement of his position is that the will yields infallibly to that which is immediately felt to be the greatest good.

Reply: We can never tell beforehand what will be the strongest motive; this can only be decided after the volition, and, in that sense, as Maniel well says, the strongest motive merely means the prevailing motive, as matter of fact prevails.

But further, conscience certainly seems to report quite the contrary. Do not such expressions as "doing a thing against my wishes," "in spite of myself," etc., indicate that if we do some-times prefer a good only felt to be greatest to a good rationally judged to be greatest, that we can and do reverse the action at times and consciously prefer a good which seems "greater to reason" to a good which more powerfully affects feeling, sensibility, de-sire? If this is not a fact, why is the fulfillment of duty so often a confessedly difficult matter? As Professor James says, "The definition of free moral action which best agrees with the facts of consciousness is action along the line of greatest resistance." That is, against the strongest motive rather than with it.

Our position is that while in many or most actions we are ruled by the strongest motive, yet we can and do on occasion adopt the weaker motive, enforce it, and make it prevail.

Again, therefore, Liberty is possible.


Consider the direct appeal to our individual consciousness. In the crisis of deliberate action I am conscious of a reserve power at my disposal with which I can enforce any particular motive and make it efficient. In a word, I am conscious of my freedom; and, as Maniel has said, "If I am conscious of freedom, I am free in reality, for in the psychic or spiritual realm consciousness is reality and the highest reality."

To this objection is made that both the possibility and reality of this experience have been denied. It is argued that consciousness, being a faculty of perception, its object must be real and present, actual. Now the actual volition, being a present fact, may be perceived by consciousness, but this actual volition is and can be no longer free. It is a fixed fact in nature. But the alternate volition being only possible, how can we perceive or predicate anything of its nature while in the possible state. The possible is that which is not; consciousness can perceive only that which is. Consciousness, therefore, cannot bear witness to our liberty.

This argument, indicated by Hobbes, was greatly elaborated and pressed with an air of assured triumph by J. S. Mill. To be conscious of free-will is to be conscious before choosing that we could choose otherwise. This is impossible. Consciousness can only declare concerning what I do or what I feel; but what I am simply capable of does not fall within the sphere of consciousness. We are conscious only of what is, not of what will be or may be.

In answer to this it will be readily granted that the future itself cannot be an object of perception; still we claim the possible may certainly be affirmed as such; e. g., if one perceives some actual reality which establishes or guarantees that possibility. Now this, it can be claimed, is just what does take place. Consciousness, at the moment of deliberation, perceives in the self (or will, if you please) a reserve force at its disposal that can, if applied, cause any one of several motives to be realized, and therefore makes any one of several motives possible. (Illustration: General with troops in reserve.)

But, says Mr. Mill: "We must still deny that you can be conscious of any power antecedent to its activity. For if we could be conscious of a force or feel an aptitude independent of all exercise present or part of that force, it would be a fact totally without analogy with the rest of our nature and experience."

We reply: Without doubt, consciousness of will as a power, and that independent of its actual exercise, is a unique fact. All defenders of free-will recognize that. But the uniqueness is to be expected, for freedom is unique. And further, as Forillie points out, we could not have consciousness of acts without this consciousness of free power. For how could I distinguish between what I do and what I merely feel or undergo if I perceive the act only as being done, realized, without any bond or connection with the free power whence it is derived?

For direct proof we have the universal practical belief in free-will or moral liberty. In fact, men believe in their liberty and attribute to themselves, right or wrong, the power of choosing between a plurality of resolutions, the antecedents remaining the same. Common sense has never been deterministic. It is objected, common sense is often common ignorance; universal belief, universal illusion. But we observe any such universal conviction is a fact; true or false, it is a fact. And as a fact it must be satisfactorily accounted for. The philosopher is not bound to accept all universal beliefs, but if he rejects them he must explain their origin.

The attempted explanation is based (as Hobbes, Spinoza, and Bayle have claimed) on ignorance of motives. We reply: Our conviction of freedom, then, would be in inverse proportion to our knowledge of the motives which address the will; whereas, the reverse is the fact.

If we cannot render account of our acts, or give a reason or motive for them, the conviction of moral freedom is wanting in the case; we reject responsibility for an act so characterized. Far from believing on this ground such an act free, we deny it that characteristic; we say it was involuntary. The most rational explanation of this universal belief in moral liberty is, we submit, that it arises from our consciousness of a free power within us that can adopt and enforce (if need be) any particular motive, and make it effectual. Therefore, Liberty is real.


"The best argument for the reality of moral responsibility is the fact that it is impossible really to disbelieve it."

By way of indirect proofs we would point to the sentiment of responsibility which justifies rewards and penalties. Without moral liberty there can be no merit or demerit and consequently no just infliction of penalty or bestowal of reward.

Take the matter of legal punishment:

Take away moral liberty in man and you render impossible all moral justification of punishment.

The Determinist replies (Leibnitz):

Society can punish for its own defence, though man is not free, just as an individual could rightly bind or slay a maniac to save his own life, though the maniac is certainly not free.

Society can employ penalties as means of correction, as we do with animals which are not free.

Society can employ penalties as an example, as a means of intimidation.

We reply: All these reasons resolve themselves into the one first given self-defence. Self-preservation, then, is the sole reason to which society (guided by Deterministic views) can logically appeal when it arrogates to itself the right to punish. If this be so, society has no more right to call it punishment to hang a murderer than to kill a mad dog or to put out a fire.

Punishment, as Kant well says, must be justified independent of any and all consequences; solely from considerations drawn from the conduct and moral desert of him who undergoes it.

Let us state the case thus: A man (without moral liberty), necessarily and fatally moved by motives, commits a murder. Society, equally urged and controlled by necessity, arrests and executes him; not, in point of fact, because he committed murder, but that murders may not be committed. Now the only difference between society and the murderer is a difference in relative power. If the murderer had been more powerful than society his resistance would have been successful and equally legitimate, for the same (and the sole) motive which arms society against him arms him against society, namely, self-preservation. Of the two parties the RIGHTS are equal, the MOTIVES the same. The only meaning we can attach to the word " criminal" in his case is the fact of his relative weakness, his want of power to success-fully resist society.

On the Determinist principle, then, strength is the only right; superior power is not only an evidence of justice, but the very substance of it. The only escape from this, we submit, is to acknowledge the fact of moral freedom in man, and that punishment for crime is vindicated not simply by reason of society's superior power, but because the individual merits it in view of his moral freedom in wrongdoing. He is punished not simply be-cause he is a weak man, but a wicked man.

On Determinist principles, we repeat, justice and right in society, stripped of all disguises, are but synonyms for brute strength. Individual conscience itself is simply a more imperious form of imagination whose dictates by their peculiar persistency and vividness delude us into a belief of their special authority.

Finally: It has been most ingenuously contended that to banish moral liberty in man is to abolish all distinction between Truth and Error universally. Any kind of certitude becomes impossible. This has been elaborated especially by the French writers Secretan, Renovier, Naville, and particularly the Belgian philosopher Delboeuf.

If everything is necessarily determined, human opinions and beliefs are therefore necessarily determined. Contradictory opinions and beliefs then are equally true, for they are equally the product and expression of the same absolute and universal necessity. A necessary error, as Delboeuf puts it, is not an error; for example, if the ancients must necessarily have believed the earth immobile, nothing authorizes us to believe that in their time it was not so. For why should not the laws of physical nature change as well as the laws of thought, since both are by hypo-thesis equally necessary?

Therefore, Liberty is necessary.

( Originally Published 1914 )

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