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William Kingdon Clifford.

The scientific basis of morals : and other essays, viz. : right and wrong, the ethics of belief, the ethics of religion online

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

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 follow 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 condition, and also that the form of statement I have adopted
exhibits more clearly the reason why the condition is necessary. We
may say that an action is involuntary 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 inclination, 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.

But since it is just in this distinction between voluntary 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 voluntarily do anything, and there are two courses open to
me. I may describe the things in themselves, my feelings and the
general course of my consciousness, trusting 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 physical action. I shall do both,
because in some respects 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 consultation 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 center,
and so on to the muscles, without consulting the cerebrum; while
involuntary action the message is passed on from the sensory center
to the cerebrum, there translated into appropriate motor stimuli,
carried down to the motor center, and so on to the muscles. There
may be other differences, but at least there is this difference. Now
on the physical side that which determines, what groups of cerebral
fibers 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 accomplished 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 re-enforced nerve-message gets to the vaso-motor
center, some part of it may be so predominant that a message goes
straight off to the arteries, and sends a quantity of blood to the
nerves supplying 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 particular 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, except 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
intellectual 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 responsible,
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
motives 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 Reason, and the Will,
and the Ego; which is only responsible when motives 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 because I am permanent; in
so far as from my actions of that date an inference may be drawn
about my character now, it is reasonable that I should be treated as
praiseworthy or blamable. 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 connections between 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 instantaneous 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 responsible 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 forging.

Let us now endeavor 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 character? Suppose, however, that this indeterminateness is only
partial; that the character does add some restrictions 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 precisely 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: - [5]

'Nay, were we even to admit as true what we cannot 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 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 infinite 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 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 inferences 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 determining them; as, on the other hand, necessity
(Naturnothwendigkeit) is that property of all irrational beings which
consists in their being determined to activity by the influence of
outside causes.' ('Metaphysics of Ethics,' chap. iii.)

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 - 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 experience 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 'on the other
side.' There is no doubt about the deliverance 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 immediate deliverance of my consciousness assure me
that the uniformity of nature does not apply to human actions.

It is perhaps necessary, in connection 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 to be pedantic, the matter is after all very
simple. Suppose that I am made to run by feeling a chill. When I
begin to move my leg, I may observe if I like a double series of
facts. I have the feeling of effort, the sensation of motion in
my leg; I feel the pressure of my foot on the ground. Along with
this I may see with my eyes, or feel with my hands, the motion of
my leg as a material object. The first series of facts belongs to
me alone; the second may be equally observed by anybody else. The
mental series began first; I willed to move my leg before I saw it
move. But when I know more about the matter, I can trace the material
series further back, and find nerve-messages going to the muscles of
my leg to make it move. But I had a feeling of chill before I chose
to move my leg. Accordingly, I can find nerve-messages, excited by
the contraction due to the low temperature, going to my brain from
the chilled skin. Assuming the uniformity of nature, I carry forward
and backward both the mental and the material series. A uniformity
is observed in each, and a parallelism is observed between them,
whenever observations can be made. But sometimes one series is known
better, and sometimes the other; so that in telling a story we quite
naturally speak sometimes of mental facts and sometimes of material
facts. A feeling of chill made a man run; strictly speaking, the
nervous disturbance which co-existed with that feeling of chill made
him run, if we want to talk about material facts; or the feeling of
chill produced the form of sub-consciousness which co-exists with
the motion of legs, if we want to talk about mental facts. But we
know nothing about the special nervous disturbance which co-exists
with a feeling of chill, because it has not yet been localized in the
brain; and we know nothing about the form of sub-consciousness which
co-exists with the motion of legs; although there is very good reason
for believing in the existence of both. So we talk about the feeling
of chill and the running, because in one case we know the mental side,
and in the other the material side. A man might show me a picture of
the battle of Gravelotte, and say, 'You can't see the battle, because
it's all over, but there is a picture of it.' And then he might put
a chassepot into my hand, and say, 'We could not represent the whole
construction of a chassepot in the picture, but you can examine this
one, and find it out.' If I now insisted on mixing up the two modes
of communication of knowledge, if I expected that the chassepots
in the picture would go off, and said that the one in my hand was
painted on heavy canvas, I should be acting exactly in the spirit
of the new materialism. For the material facts are a representation
or symbol of the mental facts, just as a picture is a representation
or symbol of a battle. And my own mind is a reality from which I can
judge by analogy of the realities represented by other men's brains,
just as the chassepot in my hand is a reality from which I can judge by
analogy of the chassepots represented in the picture. When, therefore,
we ask, 'What is the physical link between the ingoing message from
chilled skin and the outgoing message which moves the leg?' and the
answer is, 'A man's Will,' we have as much right to be amused as
if we had asked our friend with the picture what pigment was used
in painting the cannon in the foreground, and received the answer,
'Wrought iron.' It will be found excellent practice in the mental
operations required by this doctrine to imagine a train, the fore part
of which is an engine and three carriages linked with iron couplings,
and the hind part three other carriages linked with iron couplings;
the bond between the two parts being made out of the sentiments of
amity subsisting between the stoker and the guard.

To sum up: the uniformity of nature in human actions has been
denied on the ground that it takes away responsibility, that it is
contradicted by the testimony of consciousness, and that there is a
physical correlation between mind and matter. We have replied that
the uniformity of nature is necessary to responsibility, that it is
affirmed by the testimony of consciousness whenever consciousness is
competent to testify, and that matter is the phenomenon or symbol of
which mind or quasi-mind is the symbolized and represented thing. We
are now free to continue our inquiries on the supposition that nature
is uniform.

We began by describing the moral sense of an Englishman. No doubt
the description would serve very well for the more civilized nations
of Europe; most closely for Germans and Dutch. But the fact that we
can speak in this way discloses that there is more than one moral
sense, and that what I feel to be right another man may feel to
be wrong. Thus we cannot help asking whether there is any reason
for preferring one moral sense to another; whether the question,
'What is right to do?' has in any one set of circumstances a single
answer which can be definitely known.

Clearly, in the first rough sense of the word, this is not true. What
is right for me to do now, seeing that I am here with a certain
character, and a certain moral sense as part of it, is just what
I feel to be right. The individual conscience is, in the moment
of volition, the only possible judge of what is right; there is
no conflicting claim. But if we are deliberating about the future,
we know that we can modify our conscience gradually by associating
with people, reading certain books, and paying attention to certain
ideas and feelings; and we may ask ourselves, 'How shall we modify
our conscience, if at all? what kind of conscience shall we try to
get? what is the best conscience?' We may ask similar questions about
our sense of taste. There is no doubt at present that the nicest things
to me are the things I like; but I know that I can train myself to
like some things and dislike others, and that things which are very
nasty at one time may come to be great delicacies at another. I may
ask, 'How shall I train myself? What is the best taste?' And this
leads very naturally to putting the question in another form, namely,
'What is taste good for? What is the purpose or function of taste?' We
should probably find as the answer to that question that the purpose or
function of taste is to discriminate wholesome food from unwholesome;
that it is a matter of stomach and digestion. It will follow from
this that the best taste is that which prefers wholesome food, and
that by cultivating a preference for wholesome and nutritious things
I shall be training my palate in the way it should go. In just the
same way our question about the best conscience will resolve itself
into a question about the purpose or function of the conscience - why
we have got it, and what it is good for.

Now to my mind the simplest and clearest and most profound philosophy
that was ever written upon this subject is to be found in the 2d and
3d chapters of Mr. Darwin's 'Descent of Man.' In these chapters it
appears that just as most physical characteristics of organisms have
been evolved and preserved because they were useful to the individual


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Online LibraryWilliam Kingdon CliffordThe scientific basis of morals : and other essays, viz. : right and wrong, the ethics of belief, the ethics of religion → online text (page 4 of 10)