Front Page Titles (by Subject) SECTION VIII: Liberty and Necessity considered with respect to Morality. - Sketches of the History of Man, vol. 3
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SECTION VIII: Liberty and Necessity considered with respect to Morality. - Henry Home, Lord Kames, Sketches of the History of Man, vol. 3 
Sketches of the History of Man Considerably enlarged by the last additions and corrections of the author, edited and with an Introduction by James A. Harris (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2007). 3 Vols. Vol. 3.
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Liberty and Necessity considered with respect to Morality.
Having in the foregoing sections ascertained the reality of a moral sense, with its sentiments of approbation and dis-approbation, praise and blame; the purpose of the present section is, to shew, that these sentiments are consistent with the laws that govern the actions of man as a rational being. In order to which, it is first necessary to explain these laws; for there has been much controversy about them, especially among divines of the Arminian and Calvinist sects.
Human actions, as laid down in the first section, are of three kinds: one, where we act by instinct, without any view to consequences; one, where we act by will in order to produce some effect; and one, where we act against will. With respect to the first, the agent acts blindly, without deliberation or choice; and the external act follows necessarily from the instinctive impulse.* Voluntary actions done with a view to an end, are in a very different condition: into these, desire and will, enter: desire to accomplish the end goes first; the will to act in order to accomplish the end is next; and the external act follows of course. Desire considered as what influences the will, is termed a motive. Thus, hearing that my friend is in the hands of robbers, I burn with desire to free him: desire influences my will to arm my servants, and to fly to his relief. Actions done against will come in afterward.
But what is it that raises desire? The answer is ready: it is the prospect of attaining some agreeable end, or of avoiding one that is disagreeable. And if it be enquired, What makes an object agreeable or disagreeable; the answer is equally ready, that our nature makes it so. Certain visible objects are agreeable, certain sounds, and certain smells: other objects of these senses are disagreeable. But there we must stop; for we are far from being so intimately acquainted with our own nature as to assign the causes. These hints are sufficient for my present purpose: if one be curious to know more, the theory of desire, and of agreeableness and disagreeableness, will be found in Elements of Criticism (a) .
With respect to instinctive actions, no person, I presume, thinks that there is any freedom: an infant applies to the nipple, and a bird builds a nest, no less necessarily than a stone falls to the ground. With respect to voluntary actions, done in order to produce some effect, the necessity is the same, tho’ less apparent at first view. The external action is determined by the will: the will is determined by desire: and desire by what is agreeable or disagreeable. Here is a chain of causes and effects, not one link of which is arbitrary, or under command of the agent: he cannot will but according to his desire: he cannot desire but according to what is agreeable or disagreeable in the objects perceived: nor do these qualities depend on his inclination or fancy; he has no power to make a beautiful woman appear ugly, nor to make a rotten carcase smell sweetly.
Many good men apprehending danger to morality from holding our actions to be necessary, endeavour to break the chain of causes and effects above mentioned, maintaining, “That whatever influence desire or motives may have, it is the agent himself who is the cause of every action; that desire may advise, but cannot command; and therefore that a man is still free to act in contradiction to desire and to the strongest motives.” That a being may exist, which in every case acts blindly and arbitrarily, without having any end in view, I can make a shift to conceive: but it is difficult for me even to imagine a thinking and rational being, that has affections and passions, that has a desirable end in view, that can easily accomplish this end; and yet, after all, can fly off, or remain at rest, without any cause, reason, or motive, to sway it. If such a whimsical being can possibly ex-ist, I am certain that man is not the being. There is perhaps not a person above the condition of a changeling, but can say why he did so and so, what moved him, what he intended. Nor is a single fact stated to make us believe, that ever a man acted against his own desire, who was not compelled by external force. On the contrary, constant and universal experience proves, that human actions are governed by certain inflexible laws; and that a man cannot exert his self-motive power, but in pursuance of some desire or motive.
Had a motive always the same influence, actions proceeding from it would appear no less necessary than the actions of matter. The various degrees of influence that motives have on different men at the same time, and on the same man at different times, occasion a doubt by suggesting a notion of chance. Some motives however have such influence, as to leave no doubt: a timid female has a physical power to throw herself into the mouth of a lion, roaring for food; but she is withheld by terror no less effectually than by cords: if she should rush upon the lion, would not every one conclude that she was frantic? A man, tho’ in a deep sleep, retains a physical power to act, but he cannot exert it. A man, tho’ desperately in love, retains a physical power to refuse the hand of his mistress; but he cannot exert that power in contradiction to his own ardent desire, more than if he were fast asleep. Now if a strong motive have a necessary influence, there is no reason for doubting, but that a weak motive must also have its influence, the same in kind, tho’ not in degree. Some actions indeed are strangely irregular: but let the wildest action be scrutiniz’d, there will always be discovered some motive or desire, which, however whimsical or capricious, was what influenced the person to act. Of two contending motives, is it not natural to expect that the stronger will prevail, however little its excess may be? If there by any doubt, it must arise from a supposition that a weak motive can be resisted arbitrarily. Where then are we to fix the boundary between a weak and a strong motive? If a weak motive can be resisted, why not one a little stronger, and why not the strongest? In Elements of Criticism (a) the reader will find many examples of contrary motives weighing against each other. Let him ponder these with the strictest attention: his conclusion will be, that between two motives, however nearly balanced, a man has not an arbitrary choice, but must yield to the stronger. The mind indeed fluctuates for some time, and feels itself in a measure loose: at last, however, it is determined by the more powerful motive, as a balance is by the greater weight after many vibrations.
Such then are the laws that govern our voluntary actions. A man is absolutely free to act according to his own will; greater freedom than which is not conceivable. At the same time, as man is made accountable for his conduct, to his Maker, to his fellow-creatures, and to himself, he is not left to act arbitrarily; for at that rate he would be altogether unaccountable: his will is regulated by desire; and desire by what pleases or displeases him. Where we are subjected to the will of another, would it be our wish, that his will should be under no regulation? And where we are guided by our own will, would it be reasonable to wish, that it should be under no regulation, but be exerted without reason, without any motive, and contrary to common sense? Thus, with regard to human conduct, there is a chain of laws established by nature, no one link of which is left arbitrary. By that wise system, man is made accountable; by it, he is made a fit subject for divine and human government: by it, persons of sagacity foresee the conduct of others: and by it, the prescience of the Deity with respect to human actions, is clearly established.
The absurd figure that a man would make acting in contradiction to motives, should be sufficient to open our eyes without an argument. What a despicable figure does a person make, upon whom the same motive has great influence at one time, and very little at another? He is a bad member of society, and cannot be rely’d on as a friend or as an associate. But how highly rational is this supposed person, compared with one who can act in contradiction to every motive? The former may be termed whimsical or capricious: the latter is worse; he is absolutely unaccountable, and cannot be the subject of government, more than a lump of matter unconscious of its own motion.
Let the faculty of acting be compared with that of reasoning: the comparison will reconcile every unbiassed mind to the necessary influence of motives. A man is tied by his nature to form conclusions upon what appears to him true at the time. This indeed does not always secure him against error; but would he be more secure by a power to form conclusions contrary to what appears true? Such a power would make him a most absurd reasoner. Would he be less absurd in acting, if he had a power to act against motives, and contrary to what he thinks right or eligible? To act in that manner, is inconsistent with any notion we can form of a sensible being. Nor do we suppose that man is such a being: in accounting for any action, however whimsical, we always ascribe it to some motive; never once dreaming that there was no motive.
And after all, where would be the advantage of such an arbitrary power? Can a rational man wish seriously to have such a power? or can he seriously think, that God would make man so whimsical a being? To endue man with a degree of self-command sufficient to resist every vitious motive, without any power to resist those that are virtuous, would indeed be a valuable gift; too valuable indeed for man, because it would exalt him to be an angel. But such self-command as to resist both equally, which is the present supposition, would be a great curse, as it would unqualify us for being governed either by God or by man. Better far to be led as rational creatures by the prospect of good, however erroneous our judgement may sometimes be.
While all other animals are subjected to divine government and unerringly fulfil their destination, and considering that man is the only terrestrial being who is formed to know his Maker and to worship him; will it not sound harsh that he alone should be withdrawn from divine government? The power of resisting the strongest motives, whether of religion or of morality, would render him independent of the Deity.
This reasoning is too diffuse: if it can be comprehended in a single view, it will make the deeper impression. There may be conceived different systems for governing man as a thinking and rational being. One is, That virtuous motives should always prevail over every other motive. This, in appearance, would be the most perfect government: but man is not so constituted; and there is reason to doubt, whether such perfection would in his present state correspond to the other branches of his nature (a) . Another system is, that virtuous motives sometimes prevail, sometimes vitious; and that we are always determined by the prevailing motive. This is the true system of nature; and hence great variety of character and of conduct among men. A third system is, That motives have influence; but that one can act in contradiction to every motive. This is the system I have been combating. Observe only what it resolves into. How is an action to be accounted for that is done in contradiction to every motive? It wanders from the region of com-mon sense into that of mere chance. If such were the nature of man, no one could rely on another: a promise or an oath would be a rope of sand: the utmost cordiality between two friends would be no security to either against the other: the first weapon that comes in the way might be lethal. Would any man wish to have been formed according to such a model? He would probably wish to have been formed according to the model first mentioned: but that is denied him, virtuous motives sometimes prevailing, sometimes vitious; and from the wisdom of Providence we have reason to believe, that this law is of all the best fitted for man in his present state.
To conclude this branch of the subject: In none of the works of Providence, as far as we can penetrate, is there display’d a deeper reach of art and wisdom, than in the laws of action peculiar to man as a thinking and rational being. Were he left loose to act in contradiction to motives, there would be no place for prudence, foresight, nor for adjusting means to an end: It could not be foreseen by others what a man would do the next hour; nay it could not be foreseen even by himself. Man would not be capable of rewards and punishments: he would not be fitted, either for divine or for human government: he would be a creature that has no resemblance to the human race. But man is not left loose; for tho’ he is at liberty to act according to his own will, yet his will is regulated by desire, and desire by what pleases and displeases. This connection preserves uniformity of conduct, and confines human actions within the great chain of causes and effects. By this admirable system, liberty and necessity, seemingly incompatible, are made perfectly concordant, fitting us for society, and for government both human and divine.
Having explained the laws that govern human actions; we proceed to what is chiefly intended in the present section, which is, to examine how far the moral sentiments handled in the foregoing sections are consistent with these laws. Let it be kept in view, that the perception of a right and a wrong in actions, is founded entirely upon the moral sense. And that upon the same sense are founded the senti-ments of approbation and praise when a man does right, and of disapprobation and blame when he does wrong. Were we destitute of the moral sense, right and wrong, praise and blame, would be as little understood as colours are by one born blind.*
The formidable argument urged to prove that our moral sentiments are inconsistent with the supposed necessary influence of motives, is what follows. “If motives have a necessary influence on our actions, there can be no good reason to praise a man for doing right, nor to blame him for doing wrong. What foundation can there be either for praise or blame, when it was not in a man’s power to have acted otherwise. A man commits murder, instigated by a sudden fit of revenge: why should he be punished, if he acted necessarily, and could not resist the violence of the passion?” Here it is supposed, that a power of resistance is essential to praise and blame. But upon examination it will be found, that this supposition has not any support in the moral sense, nor in reason, nor in the common sense of mankind.
With respect to the first, the moral sense, as we have seen above, places innocence and guilt and consequently praise and blame, entirely upon will and intention. The connection between the motive and the action, so far from diminishing, enhances the praise or blame. The greater influence a virtuous motive has, the greater is the virtue of the actor, and the more warm our praise. On the other hand, the greater influence a vitious motive has, the greater is the vice of the actor, and the more violently do we blame him. As this is the cardinal point, I wish to have it considered in a general view. It is essential both to human and divine government, that the influence of motives should be necessary. It is equally essential, that that necessary influence should not have the effect to lessen guilt in the estimation of men. To fulfil both ends, guilt is placed by the moral sense entirely upon will and intention: a man accordingly blames himself for doing mischief willingly and intentionally, without once considering whether he acted necessarily or not. And his sentiments are adopted by all the world: they pronounce the same sentence of condemnation that he himself does. A man put to the torture, yields to the pain, and with bitter reluctance reveals the secrets of his party: another does the same, yielding to a tempting bribe. The latter only is blamed as guilty of a crime; and yet the bribe perhaps operated as strongly on the latter, as torture did on the former. But the one was compelled reluctantly to reveal the secrets of his party; and therefore is innocent: the other acted willingly, in order to procure a great sum of money; and therefore is guilty.
With respect to reason, I observe, that the moral sense is the only judge in this controversy, not the faculty of reason. I should however not be afraid of a sentence against me, were reason to be the judge. For would not reason dictate, that the less a man wavers about his duty, or, in other words, the less influence vitious motives have, the more praise-worthy he is; and the more blameable, the less influence virtuous motives have.
Nor are we led by common sense to differ from reason or from the moral sense. A man commits murder, overcome by a sudden fit of revenge which he could not resist: do we not reflect, even at first view, that the man did not desire to resist; and that he would have committed the murder, tho’ he had not been under any necessity? a person of plain understanding will say, What signifies it whether the criminal could resist or no, when he committed the murder wittingly and willingly? A man gives poison privately out of revenge. Does any one doubt of his guilt, when he never once repented; tho’ after administering the poison it no longer was in his power to draw back? A man may be guilty and blame-worthy, even where there is external compulsion that he cannot resist. With sword in hand I run to attack an enemy: my foot slipping, I fall headlong upon him, and by that accident the sword is push’d into his body. The external act was not the effect of Will, but of accident: but my intention was to commit murder, and I am guilty. All men acknowledge, that the Deity is necessarily good. Does that circumstance detract from his praise in common apprehension? On the contrary, he merits from us the highest praise on that very account.
It is commonly said, that there can be no virtue where there is no struggle. Virtue, it is true, is best known from a struggle: a man who has never met with a temptation, can be little confident of his virtue. But the observation taken in a strict sense, is undoubtedly erroneous. A man, tempted to betray his trust, wavers; but after much doubting refuses at last the bribe. Another hesitates not a moment, but rejects the bribe with disdain: duty is obstinate, and will not suffer him even to deliberate. Is there no virtue in the lat-ter? Undoubtedly more than in the former.
Upon the whole, it appears that praise and blame rest ultimately upon the disposition or frame of mind.* Nor is it obvious, that a power to act against motives, could vary in any degree these moral sentiments. When a man commits a crime, let it be supposed that he could have resisted the prevailing motive. Why then did he not resist, instead of bringing upon himself shame and misery? The answer must be, for no other can be given, that his disposition is vitious, and that he is a detestable creature. Further, it is not a little difficult to conceive, how a man can resist a prevailing motive, without having any thing in his mind that should engage him to resist it. But letting that pass, I make the following supposi-tion. A man is tempted by avarice to accept a bribe: if he resist upon the principle of duty, he is led by the prevailing motive: if he resist without having any reason or motive for resisting, I cannot discover any merit in such resistance: it seems to resolve into a matter of chance or accident, whether he resist or do not resist. Where can the merit lie of resisting a vitious motive, when resistance happens by mere chance? and where the demerit of resisting a virtuous motive, when it is owing to the same chance? If a man, actuated by no principle, good or bad, and having no end or purpose in view, should kill his neighbour, I see not that he would be more accountable, than if he had acted in his sleep, or were mad.
Human punishments are perfectly consistent with the necessary influence of motives, without supposing a power to withstand them. If it be urged, That a man ought not to be punished for committing a crime when he could not resist: the answer is, That as he committed the crime intentionally and with his eyes open, he is guilty in his own opinion, and in the opinion of all men. Here is a just foun-dation for punishment. And its utility is great; being intended to deter people from committing crimes. The dread of punishment is a weight in the scale on the side of virtue, to counterbalance vitious motives.
The final cause of this branch of our nature is admirable. If the necessary influence of motives had the effect either to lessen the merit of a virtuous action, or the demerit of a crime, morality would be totally unhinged. The most virtuous action would of all be the least worthy of praise; and the most vitious be of all the least worthy of blame. Nor would the evil stop there: instead of curbing inordinate passions, we should be encouraged to indulge them, as an excellent excuse for doing wrong. Thus, the moral sentiments of approbation and disapprobation, of praise and blame, are found perfectly consistent with the laws above mentioned that govern human actions, without necessity of recurring to an imaginary power of acting against motives.
The only plausible objection I have met with against the foregoing theory, is the remorse a man feels for a crime he sud-denly commits, and as suddenly repents of. During a fit of bitter remorse for having slain my favourite servant in a violent passion, without just provocation, I accuse myself for having given way to passion; and acknowledge that I could and ought to have restrained it. Here we find remorse founded on a system directly opposite to that above laid down; a system that acknowledges no necessary connection between an action and its motive; but, on the contrary, supposes that it is in a man’s power to resist his passion, and that he ought to resist it. What shall be said upon this point? Can a man be a necessary agent, when he is conscious of the contrary, and is sensible that he can act in contradiction to motives? This objection is strong in appearance; and would be invincible, were we not happily relieved of it by a doctrine laid down in Elements of Criticism (a) concerning the irregular influence of passion on our opinions and sentiments. Upon examination, it will be found, that the present case may be added to the many examples there given of that irregular influence. In a peevish fit, I take exception at some slight word or gesture of my friend, which I interpret as if he doubted of my veracity. I am instantly in a flame: in vain he protests that he had no meaning, for impatience will not suffer me to listen. I bid him draw, which he does with reluctance; and before he is well prepared, I give him a mortal wound. Bitter remorse and anguish succeed instantly to rage. “What have I done? I have murdered my innocent, my best friend; and yet I was not mad—with that hand I did the horrid deed; why did not I rather turn it against my own heart?” Here every impression of necessity vanishes: my mind informs me that I was absolutely free, and that I ought to have smothered my passion. I put an opposite case. A brutal fellow treats me with great indignity, and proceeds even to a blow. My passion rises beyond the possibility of restraint: I can scarce forbear so long as to bid him draw; and that moment I stab him to the heart. I am sorry for having been engaged with a ruffian; but have no contrition nor remorse. In this case, I never once dream that I could have resisted the impulse of passion: on the contrary, my thoughts and words are, “That flesh and blood could not bear the affront; and that I must have been branded for a coward, had I not done what I did.” In reality, both actions were equally necessary. Whence then opinions and sentiments so opposite to each other? The irregular influence of passion on our opinions and sentiments, will solve the question. All violent passions are prone to their own gratification. A man who has done an action that he repents of and that affects him with anguish, abhors himself, and is odious in his own eyes: he wishes to find himself guilty; and the thought that his guilt is beyond the possibility of excuse, gratifies the passion. In the first case accordingly, remorse forces upon me a conviction that I might have restrained my passion, and ought to have restrained it. I will not give way to any excuse; because in a severe fit of remorse, it gives me pain to be excused. In the other case, as there is no remorse, things appear in their true light without disguise. To illustrate this reasoning, I observe, that passion warps my judgement of the actions of o-thers, as well as of my own. Many examples are given in the chapter above quoted: join to these the following. My servant aiming at a partridge, happens to shoot a favourite spaniel crossing the way unseen. Inflamed with anger, I storm at his rashness, pronounce him guilty, and will listen to no excuse. When passion subsides, I become sensible that the action was merely accidental, and that the man is absolutely innocent. The nurse overlays my only child, the long-expected heir to a great estate. With difficulty I refrain from putting her to death: “The wretch has murdered my infant: she ought to be torn to pieces.” When I turn calm, the matter appears to me in a very different light. The poor woman is inconsolable, and can scarce believe that she is innocent: she bitterly reproaches herself for want of care and concern. But, upon cool reflection, both she and I become sensible, that no person in sound sleep has any self-command, and that we cannot be answerable for any action of which we are not conscious. Thus, upon the whole, we discover, that any impression we occasionally have of being able to act in contra-diction to motives, is the result of passion, not of sound judgement.
The reader will observe, that this section is copied from Essays on Morality and Natural Religion.9 The ground work is the same: the alterations are only in the superstructure; and the subject is abridged in order to adapt it to its present place. The preceding parts of the Sketch were published in the second edition of the Principles of Equity.10 But as law-books have little currency, the publishing the whole in one essay, will not, I hope, be thought improper.
[* ]A stonechatter makes its nest on the ground or near it; and the young, as soon as they can shift for themselves, leave the nest instinctively. An egg of that bird was laid in a swallow’s nest, fixed to the roof of a church. The swallow fed all the young equally, without distinction. The young stonechatter left the nest at the usual time before it could fly; and falling to the ground, it was taken up dead. Here is instinct in purity, exerting itself blindly without regard to variation of circumstances. The same is observable in our dunghill-fowl. They feed on worms, corn, and other seeds dropt on the ground. In order to discover their food, nature has provided them with an instinct to scrape with the foot; and the instinct is so regularly exercised, that they scrape even when they are set upon a heap of corn.
[(a) ]Chap. 2.
[(a) ]Chap. 2. part 4.
[(a) ]See book 2. sketch 1. at the end.
[* ]In an intricate subject like the present, great care should be taken to avoid ambiguities. The term praise has two different significations: in one sense it is opposed to blame; in another, to dispraise. In the former sense it expresses a moral sentiment: in the latter, it expresses only the approving any object that pleases me. I praise one man for his candour, and blame another for being a double-dealer. These, both of them, imply will and intention. I praise a man for being acute; but for being dull, I only dispraise him. I praise a woman for beauty; but blame not any for ugliness, I only dispraise them. None of these particulars imply will or intention.
[* ]Malice and resentment, tho’ commonly joined together, have no resemblance but in producing mischief. Malice is a propensity of nature that operates deliberately without passion: resentment is a passion to which even good-natured people are subject. A malicious character is esteemed much more vitious than one that is irascible. Does not this shew, that virtue and vice consist more in disposition than in action?
[(a) ]Chap. 2. part 5.
[9. ]See Essays on the Principles of Morality and Natural Religion, 2nd ed., essay III, “Of Liberty and Necessity.” For 3rd ed., published in 1779, Kames made several changes to essay III and incorporated passages from the present section and from the following appendix.
[10. ]See Principles of Equity, 2nd ed., “Preliminary Discourse; being An investigation of the Moral Laws of Society.” The “Preliminary Discourse” was excised from Principles of Equity, 3rd ed.