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because the rule of uniformity does not hold good.
Whenever a man exercises his will, and makes a volun-
tary choice of one out of various possible courses, an
event occurs whose relation to contiguous events cannot
be included in a general statement applicable to all
similar cases. There is something wholly capricious and
ij disorderly, belonging to that moment only ; and we have
* no right to conclude that if the circumstances were ex-
actly repeated, and the man himself absolutely unaltered,
he would choose the same course.

It is clear that if the doctrine here stated is true, the
ground is really cut from under our feet, and we cannot
deal with human action by the scientific method. I
shall endeavour to show, moreover, that in this case,
although we might still have a feeling of moral appro-
bation or reprobation towards actions, yet we could not
reasonably praise or blame men for their deeds, nor


regard them as morally responsible. So that, if my
contention is just, to deprive us of the scientific method
is practically to deprive us of morals altogether. On
both grounds, therefore, it is of the greatest importance
that we should define our position in regard to this con-
troversy ; if, indeed, that can be called a controversy in
which the practical belief of all mankind and the consent .
of nearly all serious writers are on one side.

Let us in the first place consider a little more closely
the connexion between conscience and responsibility.
Words in common use, such as these two, have their
meanings practically fixed before difficult controversies
arise ; but after the controversy has arisen each party
gives that slight tinge to the meaning which best suits its
own view of the question. Thus it appears to each that
the common language obviously supports their own view,
that this is the natural and primary view of the matter,
and that the opponents are using words in a new mean-
ing and wresting them from their proper sense. Now
this is just my position. I have endeavoured so far to
use all words in their common every-day sense, only
making this as precise as I can ; and, with two excep-
tions, of which due warning will be given, I shall do my
best to continue this practice in future. I seem to my-
self to be talking the most obvious platitudes ; but it
must be remembered that those who take the opposite
view will think I am perverting the English language.

There is a common meaning of the word ' responsible,'
which though not the same as that of the phrase ' mo-
rally responsible,' may throw -some light upon it. If
we say of a book, ' A is responsible for the preface and
the first half, and B is responsible for the rest,' we mean


that A wrote the preface and the first half. If two
people go into a shop and choose a blue silk dress to-
gether, it might be said that A was responsible for its
being silk and B for its being blue. Before they chose,
the dress was undetermined both in colour and in
material. A's choice fixed the material, and then it was
undetermined only in colour. B's choice fixed the
colour ; and if we suppose that there were no more
variable conditions (only one blue silk dress in the shop),
the dress was then completely determined. In this sense
of the word we say that a man is responsible for that
part of an event which was undetermined when he was
left out of account, and which became determined when
he was taken account of. Suppose two narrow streets,
one lying north and south, one east and west, and
crossing one another. A man is put down where they
cross, and has to walk. Then he must walk either north,
south, east, or west, and he is not responsible for that ;
what he is responsible for is the choice of one of these
four directions. May we not say in the present sense of
the word that the external circumstances are responsible
for the restriction on his choice ? We should mean only
that the fact of his going in one or other of the four
directions was due to external circumstances, and not to
him. Again, suppose I have a number of punches of
various shapes, some square, some oblong, some oval,
some round, and that I am going to punch a hole in a
piece of paper. Where I shall punch the hole may be
fixed by any kind of circumstances ; but the shape of
the hole depends on the punch I take. May we not say
that the punch is responsible for the shape of the hole,
but not for the position of it ?


[t may be said that this is not the whole of the
meaning of the word ' responsible,' even in its loosest
sense ; that it ought never to be used except of a con-
scious agent. Still this is part of its meaning ; if we
regard an event as determined by a variety of circum-
stances, a man's choice being among them, we say that
he is responsible for just that choice which is left him
by the other circumstances.

When we ask the practical question, ' Who is respon-
sible for so-and-so ? ' we want to find out who is to be
got at in order that so-and-so may be altered. If I want
to change the shape of the hole I make in my paper, I
must change my punch ; but this will be of no use if I
want to change the position of the hole. If I want the
colour of the dress changed from blue to green, it is B,
and not A, that I must persuade.

We mean something more than this when we say
that a man is morally responsible for an action. It
seems to me that moral responsibility and conscience go
together, both in regard to the man and in regard to
the action. In order that a man may be morally
responsible for an action, the man must have a con-
science, and the action must be one in regard to which
conscience is capable of acting as a motive, that is, the
action must be capable of being right or wrong. If a
child were left on a desert island and grew up wholly
without a conscience, and then were brought among
men, he would not be morally responsible for his actions
until he had acquired a conscience by education. He
would of course be responsible, in the sense just explained,
for that part of them which was left undetermined by
external circumstances, and if we wanted to alter his


actions in these respects we should have to do it by
altering him. But it would be useless and unreasonable
to attempt to do this by means of praise or blame, the
expression of moral approbation or disapprobation, until
he had acquired a conscience which could be worked
upon by such means.

It seems, then, that in order that a man may be
morally responsible for an action, three things are ne-
cessary :

1. He might have done something else ; that is to
say, the action was not wholly determined by external
circumstances, and he is responsible only for the choice
which was left him.

2. He had a conscience.

3. The action was one in regard to the doing or not
doing of which conscience might be a sufficient motive.

These three things are necessary, but it does not fol-
low that they are sufficient. It is very commonly said
that the action must be a voluntary one. It will be
found, I think, that this is contained in my third con-
dition, and also that the form of statement I have
adopted exhibits more clearly the reason why the con-
dition is necessary. We may say that an action is in-
voluntary either when it is instinctive, or when one
motive is so strong that there is no voluntary choice
between motives. An involuntary cough produced by
irritation of the glottis is no proper subject for blame or
praise. A man is not responsible for it, because it is
done by a part of his body without consulting him.
What is meant by him in this case will require further
investigation. Again, when a dipsomaniac has so great
and overmastering an inclination to drink that we cannot


conceive of conscience being strong enough to conquer
it, he is not responsible for that act, though he may be
responsible for having got himself into the state. But
if it is conceivable that a very strong conscience fully
brought to bear might succeed in conquering the in-
clination, we may take a lenient view of the fall and
say there was a very strong temptation, but we shall still
regard it as a fall, and say that the man is responsible
and a wrong has been done. 1

But since it is just in this distinction between volun-
tary and involuntary action that the whole crux of the
matter lies, let us examine more closely into it. I say
that when I cough or sneeze involuntarily, it is really
not I that cough or sneeze, but a part of my body which
acts without consulting me. This action is determined
for me by the circumstances, and is not part of the choice
that is left .to me, so that I am not responsible for it.
The question comes then to determining how much is to
be called circumstances , and how much is to be called me.

Now I want to describe what happens when I volun-
tarily do anything, and there are two courses open to
me. I may describe the things in themselves, my feel-
ings and the general course of my consciousness, trust-
ing to the analogy between my consciousness and yours
to make me understood ; or I may describe these things
as nature describes them to your senses, namely in terms
of the phenomena of my nervous system, appealing to
your memory of phenomena and your knowledge of phy-
sical action. I shall do both, because in some respects

1 [It seems worth noting that this very closely coincides with the
doctrine of modern English law on the question when and how far insanity
excludes criminal responsibility.]


our knowledge is more complete from the one source,
and in some respects from the other. When I look back
and reflect upon a voluntary action, I seem to find that
it differs from an involuntary action in the fact that a
certain portion of my character has been consulted.
There is always a suggestion of some sort, either the end
of a train of thought or a new sensation ; and there is an
action ensuing, either the movement of a muscle or set
of muscles, or the fixing of attention upon something.
But between these two there is a consultation, as it were,
of my past history. The suggestion is viewed in the
light of everything bearing on it that I think of at the
time, and in virtue of this light it moves me to act in one
or more ways. Let us first suppose that no hesitation
is involved, that only one way of acting is suggested,
and I yield to this impulse and act in the particular
way. This is the simplest kind of voluntary action.
It differs from involuntary or instinctive action in the
fact that with the latter there is no such conscious con-
sultation of past history. If we describe these facts in
terms of the phenomena which picture them to other
minds, we shall say that in involuntary action a message
passes straight through from the sensory to the motor
centre, and so on to the muscles, without consulting the
cerebrum ; while in voluntary action the message is
passed on from the sensory centre to the cerebrum, there
translated into appropriate motor stimuli, carried down
to the motor centre, and so on to the muscles. There
may be other differences, but at least there is this differ-
ence. Now on the physical side that which determines
what groups of cerebral fibres shall be set at work by
the given message, and what groups of motor stimuli


shall be set at work by these, is the mechanism of my
brain at the time ; and on the mental side that which
determines what memories shall be called up by the
given sensation, and what motives these memories shall
bring into action, is my mental character. We may
say, then, in this simplest case of voluntary action, that
when the suggestion is given it is the character of me
which determines the character of the ensuing action ;
and consequently that I am responsible for choosing that
particular course out of those which were left open to
me by the external circumstances.

This is when I yield to the impulse. But suppose I
do not ; suppose that the original suggestion, viewed in
the light of memory, sets various motives in action, each
motive belonging to a certain class of things which I
remember. Then I choose which of these motives shall
prevail. Those who carefully watch themselves find out
that a particular motive is made to prevail by the fixing
of the attention upon that class of remembered things
which calls up the motive. The physical side of this is
the sending of blood to a certain set of nerves namely,
those whose action corresponds to the memories which
are to be attended to. The sending of blood is accom-
plished by the pinching of arteries ; and there are special
nerves, called vaso-motor nerves, whose business it is to
carry messages to the walls of the arteries and get them
pinched. Now this act of directing the attention may
be voluntary or involuntary, just like any other act.
When the transformed and reinforced nerve-message
gets to the vaso-motor centre, some part of it may be so
predominant that a message goes straight off to the arte-
ries, and sends a quantity of blood to the nerves supply-


ing that part ; or the call for blood may be sent back for
revision by the cerebrum, which is thus again consulted.
To say the same thing in terms of my feelings, a particu-
lar class of memories roused by the original suggestion
may seize upon my attention before I have time to
choose what I will attend to ; or the appeal may be
carried to a deeper part of my character dealing with
wider and more abstract conceptions, which views the
conflicting motives in the light of a past experience of
motives, and by that light is drawn to one or the other
of them.

We thus get to a sort of motive of the second order
or motive of motives. Is there any reason why we
should not go on to a motive of the third order, and the
fourth, and so on? None whatever that I know of, ex-
cept that no one has ever observed such a thing. There
seems plenty of room for the requisite mechanism on
the physical side ; and no one can say, on the mental
side, how complex is the working of his consciousness.
But we must carefully distinguish between the intel-
lectual deliberation about motives, which applies to
the future and the past, and the practical choice of
motives in the moment of will. The former may be a
train of any length and complexity : we have no
reason to believe that the latter is more than engine
and tender.

We are now in a position to classify actions in respect
of the kind of responsibility which belongs to them ;
namely, we have

1. Involuntary or instinctive actions.

2. Voluntary actions in which the choice of motives
is involuntary.


3. Voluntary actions in which the choice of motives
is voluntary.

In each of these cases what is responsible is that
part of my character which determines what the action
shall be. For instinctive actions we do not say that I
am responsible, because the choice is made before I know
anything about it. For voluntary actions I am respon-
sible, because I make the choice ; that is, the character
of me is what determines the character of the action.
In me, then, for this purpose, is included the aggregate
of links of association which determines what memories
shall be called up by a given suggestion, and what mo-
tives shall be set at work by these memories. But we
-distinguish this mass of passions and pleasures, desire
and knowledge and pain, which makes up most of my
character at the moment, from that inner and deeper
motive-choosing self which is called Eeason, and the
Will, and the Ego ; which is only responsible when mo-
tives are voluntarily chosen by directing attention to
them. It is responsible only for the choice of one motive
out of those presented to it, not for the nature of the
motives which are presented.

But again, I may reasonably be blamed for what I
did yesterday, or a week ago, or last year. This is be-
cause I am permanent ; in so far as from my actions of
that date an inference may be drawn about my charac-
ter now, it is reasonable that I should be treated as
praiseworthy or blameable. And within certain limits
I am for the same reason responsible for what I am now,
because within certain limits I have made myself. Even
instinctive actions are dependent in many cases upon
habits which may be altered by proper attention and


care ; and still more the nature of the connexions be-
tween sensation and action, the associations of memory
and motive, may be voluntarily modified if I choose to
try. The habit of choosing among motives is one which
may be acquired and strengthened by practice, and the
strength of particular motives, by continually directing
attention to them, may be almost indefinitely increased
or diminished. Thus, if by me is meant not the instan-
taneous me of this moment, but the aggregate me of my
past life, or even of the last year, the range of my
responsibility is very largely increased. I am responsi-
ble for a very large portion of the circumstances which
are now external to me ; that is to say, I am responsible
for certain of the restrictions on my own freedom. As
the eagle was shot with an arrow that flew on its own
feather, so I find myself bound with fetters of my proper

Let us now endeavour to conceive an action which
is not determined in any way by the character of the
agent. If we ask, ' What makes it to be that action
and no other ? ' we are told, ' The man's Ego.' The
words are here used, it seems to me, in some non-natural
sense, if in any sense at all. One thing makes another
to be what it is when the characters of the two things
are connected together by some general statement or rule.
But we have to suppose that the character of the action
is not connected with the character of the Ego by any
general statement or rule. With the same Ego and the
same circumstances of all kinds, anything within the
limits imposed by the circumstances may happen at any
moment. I find myself unable to conceive any distinct
sense in which responsibility could apply in this case ;


nor do I see at all how it would be reasonable to use
praise or blame. If the action does not depend on the
character, what is the use of trying to alter the charac-
ter ? Suppose, however, that this indeterminateness is
only partial ; that the character does add some restric-
tions to those already imposed by circumstances, but
leaves the choice between certain actions undetermined,
and to be settled by chance or the transcendental Ego.
Is it not clear that the man would be responsible for pre-
cisely that part of the character of the action which was
determined by his character, and not for what was left
undetermined by it ? For it is just that part which was
determined by his character which it is reasonable to
try to alter by altering him.

We who believe in uniformity are not the only
people unable to conceive responsibility without it.
These are the words of Sir W. Hamilton, as quoted by
Mr. J. S. Mill i 1

' Nay, were we even to admit as true what we can-
not think as possible, still the doctrine of a motiveless
volition would be only casualism ; and the free acts of
an indifferent are, morally and rationally, as worthless
as the pre-ordered passions of a determined will.'

' That, though inconceivable, a motiveless volition
would, if conceived, be conceived as morally worthless,
only shows our impotence more clearly.'

' Is the person an original undetermined cause of the
determination of his will ? If he be not, then he is not a
free agent, and the scheme of Necessity is admitted. If
he be, in the first place, it is impossible to conceive the
possibility of this ; and in the second, if the fact, though

1 Examination, p, 495, 2nd ed.


inconceivable, be allowed, it is impossible to see how a
cause, undetermined by any motive, can be a rational,
moral, and accountable cause.'

It is true that Hamilton also says that the scheme
of necessity is inconceivable, because it leads to an in-
finite non-commencement ; and that ' the possibility of
morality depends on the possibility of liberty ; for if a
man be not a free agent, he is not the author of his
actions, and has, therefore, no responsibility no moral
personality at all.'

I know nothing about necessity ; I only believe that
j nature is practically uniform even in human action. I
know nothing about an infinitely distant past ; I only
know that I ought to base on uniformity those infer-
ences which are to guide my actions. But that man is
a free agent appears to me obvious, and that in the
natural sense of the words. We need ask for no better
definition than Kant's :

'Will is a kind of causality belonging to living
agents, in so far as they are rational ; and freedom is
such a property of that causality as enables them to be
efficient agents independently of outside causes deter-
mining them ; as, on the other hand, necessity (Natur-
nothwendigkeit) is that property of all irrational beings
which consists in their being determined to activity by
the influence of outside causes.' 1

I believe that I am a free agent when my actions are
independent of the control of circumstances outside me ;
and it seems a misuse of language to call me a free
agent if my actions are determined by a transcendental
Ego who is independent of the circumstances inside me

1 ' Metaphysics of Ethics/ chap. iii.


that is to say, of my character. The expression ' free
will ' has unfortunately been imported into mental
science from a theological controversy rather different
from the one we are now considering. It is surely too
much to expect that good and serviceable English words
should be sacrificed to a phantom.

In an admirable book, ' The Methods of Ethics,' Mr.
Henry Sidgwick has stated, with supreme fairness and
impartiality, both sides of this question. After setting
forth the ' almost overwhelming cumulative proof ' of
uniformity in human action, he says that it seems ' more
than balanced by a single argument on the other side :
the immediate affirmation of consciousness in the
moment of deliberate volition.' 'No amount of ex-
perience of the sway of motives ever tends to make me
distrust my intuitive consciousness that in resolving,
after deliberation, I exercise free choice as to which of
the motives acting upon me shall prevail.'

The only answer to this argument is that it is not
4 on the other side.' There is no doubt about the deliver-
ance of consciousness ; and even if our powers of self-
observation had not been acute enough to discover it,
the existence of some choice between motives would be
proved by the existence of vaso-motor nerves. But
perhaps the most instructive way of meeting arguments
of this kind is to inquire what consciousness ought to
say in order that its deliverances may be of any use in
the controversy. It is affirmed, on the side of uniformity,
that the feelings in my consciousness in the moment of
voluntary choice have been preceded by facts out of my
consciousness which are related to them in a uniform



manner, so that if the previous facts had been accurately
known the voluntary choice might have been predicted.
On the other side this is denied. To be of any use in the
controversy, then, the immediate deliverance of my
consciousness must be competent to assure me of the
non-existence of something which by hypothesis is not in
my consciousness. Given an absolutely dark room, can
my sense of sight assure me that there is no one but
myself in it ? Can my sense of hearing assure me that
nothing inaudible is going on ? As little can the imme-
diate deliverance of my consciousness assure me that
the uniformity of nature does not apply to human

It is perhaps necessary, in connexion with this
question, to refer to that singular Materialism of high
authority and recent date which makes consciousness a
physical agent, ' correlates ' it with Light and Nerve-
force, and so reduces it to an objective phenomenon.
This doctrine is founded on a common and very useful
mode of speech, in which we say, for example, that a
good fire is a source of pleasure on a cold day, and that
a man's feeling of chill may make him run to it. But
so also we say that the sun rises and sets every morning
and night, although the man in the moon sees clearly
that this is due to the rotation of the earth. One
cannot be pedantic all day. But if we choose for once

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Online LibraryWilliam Kingdon CliffordLectures and essays by William Kingdon Clifford (Volume 2) → online text (page 11 of 22)