The text is taken from my copy of the fourth edition, 1842. This version of Political Justice, originally published in
1793, is based on the corrected third edition, published in 1798.
OF FREE WILL AND NECESSITY
Second part of the present book. - Definition
of necessity. - Why supposed to exist in the
operations of the material universe. - The case
of the operations of mind is parallel. - Indi-
cations of necessity - in history - in our judge-
ments of character - in our schemes of policy
- in our ideas of moral discipline. - Objection
from the fallibility of our expectations in human
conduct. - Answer. - Origin and universality
of the sentiment of free will. - The sentiment
of necessity also universal. - The truth of
this sentiment argued from the nature of
volition. - Hypothesis of free will examined.
- Self determination. - Indifference. - The
will not a distinct faculty. - Free will disadvan-
tageous to its possessor. - Of no service to
THUS we have engaged in the discussion of various topics respecting the mode in which improvement may most successfully be introduced into the institutions of society. We have seen, under the heads of resistance, revolution, associations and tyrannicide, that nothing is more to be deprecated than violence and a headlong zeal, that everything may be trusted to the tranquil and wholesome progress of knowledge, and that the office of the enlightened friend of political justice, for the most part, consists in this only, a vigilant and perpetual endeavour to assist the progress. We have traced the effects which are to be produced by the cultivation of truth and the practice of sincerity. It remains to turn our attention to the other branch of the subject proposed to be investigated in the present book; the mode in which, from the structure of the human mind, opinion is found to operate in modifying the conduct of individuals.
Some progress was made in the examination of this point in an earlier division of the present work.1 An attentive enquirer will readily perceive that no investigation can be more material, to such as would engage in a careful development of the principles of political justice. It cannot therefore be unproductive of benefit that we should here trace into their remoter ramifications the principles which were then delivered; as well as turn our attention to certain other considerations connected with the same topic which we have not hitherto had occasion to discuss. Of the many controversies which have been excited relative to the operation of opinion, none are of more importance than the question respecting free will and necessity, and the question respecting self-love and benevolence. These will occupy a principal portion of the enquiry.2
We will first endeavour to establish the proposition that all the actions of men are necessary. It was impossible that this principle should not, in an indirect manner, be frequently anticipated in the preceding parts of this work. But it will be found strongly entitled to a separate consideration. The doctrine of moral necessity includes in it consequences of the highest moment, and leads to a more bold and comprehensive view of man in society than can possibly be entertained by him who has embraced the opposite opinion.
To the right understanding of any arguments that may be adduced under this head, it is requisite that we should have a clear idea of the meaning of the term necessity. He who affirms that all actions are necessary means that the man who is acquainted with all the circumstances under which a living or intelligent being is placed upon any given occasion is qualified to predict the conduct he will hold, with as much certainty as he can predict any of the phenomena of inanimate nature. Upon this question the advocate of liberty in the philosophical sense must join issue. He must, if he mean anything, deny this certainty of conjunction between moral antecedents and consequents. Where all is constant and invariable, and the events that arise uniformly correspond to the circumstances in which they originate, there can be no liberty.
It is generally acknowledged that, in the events of the material universe, everything is subjected to this necessity. The tendency of investigation and enquiry, relatively to this topic of human science, has been more effectually to exclude the appearance of irregularity, as our improvements extended. Let us recollect what is the species of evidence that has satisfied philosophers upon this point. Their only solid ground of reasoning has been from experience. The argument which has induced mankind to conceive of the universe as governed by certain laws has been an observed similarity in the succession of events. If, when we had once remarked two events succeeding each other, we had never had occasion to see that in dividual succession repeated; if we saw innumerable events in perpetual progression, without any apparent order, so that all our observation would not enable us, when we beheld one, to pronounce that another, of such a particular class, might be expected to follow; we should never have formed the conception of necessity, or have had an idea corresponding to that of laws and system.
Hence it follows that all that, strictly speaking, we know of the material universe is this uniformity of events. When we see the sun constantly rise in the morning, and set at night, and have had occasion to observe this phenomenon invariably taking place through the whole period of our existence, we cannot avoid receiving this as a law of the universe, and a ground for future expectation. But we never see any principle or virtue by which one event is conjoined to, or made the antecedent of, another.
Let us take some familiar illustrations of this truth. Can it be imagined that any man, by the inspection and analysis of gunpowder, would have been enabled, previously to experience, to predict its explosion? Would he, previously to experience, have been enabled to predict that one piece of marble, having a flat and polished surface, might with facility be protruded along another in a horizontal, but would, with considerable pertinacity, resist separation in a perpendicular direction? The simplest phenomena, of the most hourly occurrence, were originally placed at an equal distance from human sagacity.
There is a certain degree of obscurity, incident to this subject, arising from the following circumstance. All human knowledge is the result of perception. We know nothing of any substance, a supposed material body, for example, but by experience. If it were unconjoined, and bore no relation, to the phenomena of any other substance, it would be no subject of human intelligence. We collect a number of these concurrences, and having, by their perceived uniformity, reduced them into classes, form a general idea annexed to that part of the subject which stands as the antecedent. It must be admitted that a definition of any substance, that is anything that deserves to be called knowledge respecting it, will enable us to predict some of its future probable consequences, and that for this plain reason that definition is prediction under another name. But, though, when we have gained the idea of impenetrability as a general phenomenon of matter, we can predict some of the variations to which it leads, there are others which we cannot predict: or, in other words, we know none of these variations but such as we have actually remarked, added to an expectation that similar events will arise under similar circumstances, proportioned to the constancy with which they have been observed to take place in our past experience. Finding, as we do by repeated experiments, that material substances have the property of resistance, and that one substance in a state of rest, when struck upon by another, passes into a state of motion, we are still in want of more particular observation to enable us to predict the specific varieties that will follow from this collision, in each of the bodies. Enquire of a man who knows nothing more of matter than its general property of impenetrability what will be the result of one ball of matter impinging upon another, and you will soon find how little this general property can inform him of the particular laws of motion. We suppose him to know that motion will follow in to the second ball. But what quantity of motion will be communicated? What result will follow upon the collision, in the impelling ball? Will it continue to move in the same direction? Will it recoil in the opposite direction? Will it fly off obliquely; or will it subside into a state of rest? All these events will be found equally probable by him whom a series of observations upon the past has not instructed as to what he is to expect from the future.
From these remarks we may sufficiently collect what is the species of knowledge we possess respecting the laws of the material universe. No experiments we are able to make, no reasonings we are able to deduce, can ever instruct us in the principle of causation, or show us for what reason it is that one event has, in every instance in which it has been known to occur, been the precursor of another event of a given description. Yet this observation does not, in the slightest degree, invalidate our inference from one event to another, or affect the operations of moral prudence and expectation. The nature of the human mind is such as to oblige us, after having seen two events perpetually conjoined, to pass, as soon as one of them occurs, to the recollection of the other: and, in cases where this transition never misleads us, but the ideal succession is always found to be an exact copy of the future event, it is impossible that this species of foresight should not be converted into a general foundation of inference and reasoning. We cannot take a single step upon this subject which does not partake of the species of operation we denominate abstraction. Till we have been led to consider the rising of the sun tomorrow as an incident of the same species as its rising today, we cannot deduce from it similar consequences. It is the business of science to carry this talk of generalization to its furthest extent, and to reduce the diversified events of the universe to a small number of original principles.
Let us proceed to apply these reasonings concerning matter to the illustration of the theory of mind. Is it possible in this latter theory, as in the former subject, to discover any general principles? Can intellect be made a topic of science? Are we able to reduce the multiplied phenomena of mind to any certain standard of reasoning? If the affirmative of these questions be conceded, the inevitable consequence appears to be that mind, as well as matter, exhibits a constant conjunction of events, and furnishes all the ground that any subject will afford for an opinion of necessity. It is of no importance that we cannot see the ground of that necessity, or imagine how sensations, pleasurable or painful, when presented to the mind of a percipient being, are able to generate volition and animal motion; for, if there be any truth in the above statement, we are equally incapable of perceiving a ground of connection between any two events in the material universe, the common and received opinion, that we do perceive such ground of connection, being, in reality, nothing more than a vulgar prejudice.
That mind is a topic of science may be argued from all those branches of literature and enquiry which have mind for their subject. What species of amusement or instruction would history afford, if there were no ground of inference from moral antecedents to their consequents, if certain temptations and inducements did not, in all ages and climates, introduce a certain series of actions, if we were unable to trace a method and unity of system in men's tempers, propensities and transactions? The amusement would be inferior to that which we derive from the perusal of a chronological table, where events have no order but that of time; since, however the chronologist may neglect to mark the regularity of conjunction between successive transactions, the mind of the reader is busied in supplying that regularity from memory or imagination: but the very idea of such regularity would never have suggested itself if we had never found the source of that idea in experience. The instruction arising from the perusal of history would be absolutely none; since instruction implies, in its very nature, the classing and generalizing of objects. But, upon the supposition on which we are arguing, all objects would be irregular and disjunct, without the possibility of affording any grounds of reasoning or principles of science.
The idea correspondent to the term character inevitably includes in it the assumption of necessity and system. The character of any man is the result of a long series of impressions, communicated to his mind and modifying it in a certain manner, so as to enable us, a number of these modifications and impressions being given, to predict his conduct. Hence arise his temper and habits, respecting which we reasonably conclude that they will not be abruptly superseded and reversed; and that, if ever they be reversed, it will not be accidentally, but in consequence of some strong reason persuading, or some extraordinary event modifying his mind. If there were not this original and essential conjunction between motives and actions and, which forms one particular branch of this principle between men's past and future actions, there could be no such thing as character, or as a ground of inference, enabling us to predict what men would be, from what they have been.
From the same idea of regularity and conjunction arise all the schemes of policy in consequence of which men propose to themselves, by a certain plan of conduct, to prevail upon others to become the tools and instruments of their purposes. All the arts of courtship and flattery, of playing upon men's hopes and fears, proceed upon the supposition, that mind is subject to certain laws, and that, provided we be skilful and assiduous enough in applying the motive, the action will envitably follow.
Lastly, the idea of moral discipline proceeds entirely upon this principle. If I carefully persuade, exhort, and exhibit motives to another, it is because I believe that motives have a tendency to influence his conduct. If I reward or punish him, either with a view to his own improvement, or as an example to others, it is because I have been led to believe that rewards and punishments are calculated to affect the dispositions and practices of mankind.
There is but one conceivable objection against the inference from these premises to the necessity of human actions. It may be alleged that "though there is a real coherence between motives and actions, yet this coherence may not amount to a certainty, and of consequence, the mind still retains an inherent activity, by which it can at pleasure supersede and dissolve it. Thus for example, when I address argument and persuasion to my neighbour, to induce him to adopt a certain species of conduct, I do it not with a certain expectation of success, and am not utterly disappointed if my efforts fail of their object. I make a reserve for a certain faculty of liberty he is supposed to possess, which may at last counteract the best digested projects."
But in this objection there is nothing peculiar to the case of mind. It is just so in matter. I see a part only of the premises, and therefore can pronounce only with uncertainty upon the conclusion. A philosophical experiment which has succeeded a hundred times may altogether fail in the next trial. But what does the philosopher conclude from this? Not that there is a liberty of choice in his retort and his materials; by which they baffle the best-formed expectations. Not that the established order of antecedents and consequents is imperfect, and that part of the consequent happens without an antecedent. But that there was some other antecedent concerned, to which at the time he failed to advert, but which a fresh investigation will probably lay open to him. When the science of the material universe was in its infancy, men were sufficiently prompt to refer events to accident and chance; but the further they have extended their enquiries and observation, the more reason they have found to conclude that everything takes place according to necessary and universal laws.
The case is exactly parallel with respect to mind. The politician and the philosopher, however they may speculatively entertain the opinion of free will, never think of introducing it into their scheme of accounting for events. If an incident turn out otherwise than they expected, they take it for granted that there was some unobserved bias, some habit of thinking, some prejudice of education, some singular association of ideas, that disappointed their prediction; and, if they be of an active and enterprising temper, they return, like the natural philosopher, to search out the secret spring of this unlooked-for event.
The reflections into which we have entered upon the laws of the universe not only afford a simple and impressive argument in favour of the doctrine of necessity, but suggest a very obvious reason why the doctrine opposite to this has been, in a certain degree, the general opinion of mankind. It has appeared that the idea of uniform conjunction between events of any sort is the lesson of experience, and the vulgar never arrive at the universal application of this principle even to the phenomena of the material universe. In the easiest and most familiar instances, such as the impinging of one ball of matter upon another and its consequences, they willingly admit the interference of chance and irregularity. In this instance however, as both the impulse and its consequences are subjects of observation to the senses, they readily imagine that they perceive the absolute principle which causes motion to be communicated from the first ball to the second. Now the very same prejudice and precipitate conclusion, which induce them to believe that they discover the principle of motion in objects of sense, act in an opposite direction with respect to such objects as cannot be subjected to the examination of sense. The power by which a sensation, pleasurable or painful, when presented to the mind of a percipient being, produces volition and animal motion, no one can imagine that he sees; and therefore they readily conclude that there is no uniformity of conjunction in these events.
But, if the vulgar will universally be found to be the advocates of free will, they are not less strongly, however inconsistently, impressed with the belief of the doctrine of necessity. It is a well known and a just observation that, were it not for the existence of general laws to which the events of the material universe always conform, man could never have been either a reasoning or a moral being. The most considerable actions of our lives are directed by foresight. It is because he foresees the regular succession of the seasons that the farmer sows his field, and, after the expiration of a certain term, expects a crop. There would be no kindness in my administering food to the hungry, and no injustice in my thrusting a drawn sword against the bosom of my friend, if it were not the established quality of food to nourish, and of a sword to wound.
But the regularity of events in the material universe will not of itself afford a sufficient foundation of morality and prudence. The voluntary conduct of our neighbours enters for a share into almost all those calculations upon which our plans and determinations are founded. If voluntary conduct, as well as material impulse, were not subjected to general laws, and a legitimate topic of prediction and foresight, the certainty of events in the material universe would be productive of little benefit. But, in reality, the mind passes from one of these topics, of speculation to the other, without accurately distributing them into classes, or imagining that there is any difference in the certainty with which they are attended. Hence it appears that the most uninstructed peasant or artisan is practically a necessarian. The farmer calculates as securely upon the inclination of mankind to buy his corn when it is brought into the market, as upon the tendency of the seasons to ripen it. The labourer no more suspects that his employer will alter his mind, and not pay him his daily wages, than he suspects that his tools will refuse to perform those functions today in which they were yesterday employed with success.3
Another argument in favour of the doctrine of necessity, not less clear and irresistible than that from the uniformity of conjunction of antecedents and consequents, will arise from a reference to the nature of voluntary action. The motions of the animal system distribute themselves into two great classes, voluntary and involuntary. "Voluntary action," as we formerly observed,4 "is where the event is foreseen, previously to its occurrence, and the hope or fear of that event, forms the excitement, prompting our effort to forward or retard it."
Here then the advocates of intellectual liberty have a clear dilemma proposed to their choice. They must ascribe this freedom, this imperfect conjunction of antecedents and consequents, either to our voluntary or our involuntary actions. They have already made their determination. They are aware that to ascribe freedom to that which is involuntary, even if the assumption could be maintained, would be altogether foreign to the great subjects of moral, theological or political enquiry. Man would not be in any degree more an agent or an accountable being, though it could be proved that all his involuntary motions sprung up in a fortuitous and capricious manner.
But, on the other hand, to ascribe freedom to our voluntary actions is an express contradiction in terms. No motion is voluntary any further than it is accompanied with intention and design, and has for its proper antecedent the apprehension of an end to be accomplished. So far as it flows, in any degree, from another source, it is involuntary. The new-born infant foresees nothing, therefore all his motions are involuntary. A person arrived at maturity, takes an extensive survey of the consequences of his actions, therefore he is eminently a voluntary and rational being. If any part of my conduct be destitute of all foresight of the events to result, who is there that ascribes to it depravity and vice? Xerxes acted just as soberly as such a reasoner when he caused his attendants to inflict a thousand lashes on the waves of the Hellespont.
The truth of the doctrine of necessity will be still more evident if we consider the absurdity of the opposite hypothesis. One of its principal ingredients is self-determination. Liberty, in an imperfect and popular sense, is ascribed to the motions of the animal system, when they result from the foresight and deliberation of the intellect, and not from external compulsion. It is in this sense that the word is commonly used in moral and political reasoning. Philosophical reasoners therefore who have desired to vindicate the property of freedom, not only to our external motions, but to the acts of the mind, have been obliged to repeat this process. Our external actions are then said to be free when they truly result from the determination of the mind. If our volitions, or internal acts, be also free, they must in like manner result from the determination of the mind, or in other words, "the mind in adopting them" must be "self-determined." Now nothing can be more evident than that in which the mind excercises its freedom must be an act of the mind. Liberty therefore, according to this hypothesis, consists in this, that every choice we make has been chosen by us, and every act of the mind been preceded and produced by an act of the mind. This is so true that, in reality, the ultimate act is not styled free from any quality of its own, but because the mind, in adopting it, was self-determined, that is, because it was preceded by another act. The ultimate act resulted completely from the determination that was its precursor. It was itself necessary; and, if we would look for freedom, it must be to that preceding act. But, in that preceding act also, if the mind were free, it was self-determined, that is, this volition was chosen by a preceding volition, and, by the same reasoning, this also by another antecedent to itself. All the acts, except the first, were necessary, and followed each other as inevitably as the links of a chain do when the first link is drawn forward. But then neither was this first act free, unless the mind in adopting it were self-determined, that is, unless this act were chosen by a preceding act. Trace back the chain as far as you please, every act at which you arrive is necessary. That act, which gives the character of freedom to the whole, can never be discovered; and, if it could, in its own nature includes a contradiction.
Another idea which belongs to the hypothesis of free will is that the mind is not necessarily inclined this way or that, by the motives which are presented to it, by the clearness or obscurity with which they are apprehended, or by the temper and character which preceding habits may have generated; but that, by its inherent activity, it is equally capable of proceeding either way, and passes to its determination from a previous state of absolute indifference. Now what sort of activity is that which is equally inclined to all kinds of actions? Let us suppose a particle of matter endowed with an inherent propensity to motion. This propensity must either be to move in one particular direction, and then it must for ever move in that direction, unless counteracted by some external impression; or it must have an equal tendency to all directions, and then the result must be a state of perpetual rest.
The absurdity of this consequence is so evident that the advocates of intellectual liberty have endeavoured to destroy its force, by means of a distinction. "Motive," it has been said, "is indeed the occasion, the
sine qua non of volition, but it has no inherent power to compel volition. Its influence depends upon the free and unconstrained surrender of the mind. Between opposite motives and considerations, the mind can choose as it pleases, and, by its determination, can convert the motive which is weak and insufficient in the comparison into the strongest." But this hypothesis will be found exceedingly inadequate to the purpose for which it is produced. Not to repeat what has been already alleged to prove, that inherent power of production in an antecedent, is, in all cases, a mere fiction of the mind, it may easily be shown, that motives must either have a fixed and certain relation to their consequents, or they can have none.
For first it must be remembered that the ground or reason of any event, of whatever nature it be, must be contained among the circumstances which precede that event. The mind is supposed to be in a state of previous indifference, and therefore cannot be, in itself considered, the source of the particular choice that is made. There is a motive on one side and a motive on the other: and between these lie the true ground and reason of preference. But, wherever there is tendency to preference, there may be degrees of tendency. If the degrees be equal, preference cannot follow: it is equivalent to the putting equal weights into the opposite scales of a balance. If one of them have a greater tendency to preference than the other, that which has the greatest tendency must ultimately prevail. When two things are balanced against each other, so much amount may be conceived to be struck off from each side as exists in the smaller sum, and the overplus that belongs to the greater is all that truly enters into the consideration.
Add to this, secondly, that, if motive have not a necessary influence, it is altogether superfluous. The mind cannot first choose to be influenced by a motive, and afterwards submit to its operation: for in that case the preference would belong wholly to this previous volition. The determination would in reality be complete in the first instance; and the motive, which came in afterwards, might be the pretext, but could not be the true source of the proceedings.5
Lastly, it may be observed upon the hypothesis of free will that the whole system is built upon a distinction where there is no difference, to wit, a distinction between the intellectual and active powers of the mind. A mysterious philosophy taught men to suppose that, when an object was already felt to be desirable, there was need of some distinct power to put the body in motion. But reason finds no ground for this supposition; nor is it possible to conceive (in the case of an intellectual faculty placed in an aptly organized body, where preference exists, together with a sentiment, the dictate of experience) of our power to obtain the object preferred) of anything beyond this that can contribute to render a certain motion of the animal frame the necessary result. We need only attend to the obvious meaning of the terms, in order to perceive that the will is merely, as it has been happily termed, "the last act of the understanding,"6
"one of the different cases of the association of ideas."7 What indeed is preference but a feeling of something that really inheres, or is supposed to inhere, in the objects themselves? It is the comparison, true or erroneous, which the mind makes, respecting such things as are brought into competition with each other. This is indeed the same principle as was established upon a former occasion, when we undertook to prove that the voluntary actions of men originate in their opinions.8 But, if this fact had been sufficiently attended to, the freedom of the will would never have been gravely maintained by philosophical writers; since no man ever imagined that we were free to feel or not to feel an impression made upon our organs, and to believe or not to believe a proposition demonstrated to our understanding.
It must be unnecessary to add any thing further on this head, unless it be a momentary recollection of the sort of benefit that freedom of the will would confer upon us, supposing it possible. Man being, as we have here found him to be, a creature whose actions flow from the simple principle, and who is governed by the apprehensions of his understanding, nothing further is requisite but the improvement of his reasoning faculty to make him virtuous and happy. But did he possess a faculty in dependent of the understanding, and capable of resisting from mere caprice the most powerful arguments, the best education and the most sedulous instruction might be of no use to him. This freedom we shall easily perceive to be his bane and his curse; and the only hope of lasting benefit to the species would be by drawing closer the connection between the external motions and the understanding, wholly to extirpate it. The virtuous man, in proportion to his improvement, will be under the constant influence of fixed and invariable principles; and such a being as we conceive God to be, can never in any one instance have exercised this liberty, that is, can never have acted in a foolish and tyrannical manner. Freedom of the will is absurdly represented as necessary to render the mind susceptible of moral principles; but in reality, so far as we act with liberty, so far as we are independent of motives, our conduct is as independent of morality as it is of reason, nor is it possible that we should deserve either praise or blame for a proceeding thus capricious and indisciplinable.
Book I, Chap. V.
The reader who is indisposed to abstruse
speculations will find the other members of the treatise sufficiently
connected, without an exprcss reference to this and the three following
chapters of the present book.
The reader will find the substance of the above arguments in a more
diffusive form in Hume's Enquiry concerning Human Understanding
being the third part of his Essays
Book I, Chap. V, p. 1l9.
The argument from the impossibility of
free will is treated with great force of reasoning in Jonathan
Edwards's Enquiry into the Freedom of the Will
Book I, Chap. V.