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Is Choice an Illusion?: Godwin’s Thoughts on Man

If we don’t have free will, could we know it? William Godwin offers some speculative answers and discusses the implications of free will.

Editor’s Note

As mentioned in the previous essay, Godwin’s Thoughts on Man observes that modern social sciences are fundamentally rooted in the premise that individuals are the most basic social units and they act solely according to self-interest, broadly construed. This constituted a major advance beyond the confines of “Berkleian” hyper-skepticism and posed a serious challenge to those Godwin calls “the necessarians.” These thinkers believed that human beings did not possess the capacity for choice and all actions could be reduced to material, physical causes. Certainly, Godwin does not dispute the irrevocable connection between cause and effect, nor does he believe that mere mental action can affect the physical world. He even goes so far as to agree that all of physical reality was exactly as it “should” be and could not possibly be otherwise: “since first the machine of the universe was set going, every thing in inanimate nature has taken place in a regular course, and nothing has happened and can happen, otherwise than as it actually has been and will be.” “But,” he continues, “we feel, that it is otherwise in the universe of mind.”

Indeed, we cannot seem to alienate ourselves entirely from the will. Yes—as we explored in the last item—we may become “lost” in action, absorbed by the physicality of our task, but the will never truly leaves and the mind is never completely quieted within or vacated from the body. The physical and the mental intertwine so intimately within the process of action that it appears to the actor indistinguishable from a freely made choice. Thus, “in the determinations and acts of living beings each occurrence may be or not be, and waits the mastery of mind to decide whether the event shall be one way or the other, both issues being equally possible till that decision has been made.” Essentially, we all pass an endless series of Turing tests and by doing so, convince each other that we must act within the scope of a generally acceptable ethic. The overwhelming sense of free agency that accompanies real lived experience is so powerful as to sharply curtail individual passions and harmful interpersonal behavior. Our recognition of our own free will has stark implications for the potential dangers posed by the unrestrained wills of others.

Despite his defense of free will, however, Godwin concedes that there is still value in the mechanistic view of humanity. If nothing else, at least it allows us the opportunity to explore the deepest and most challenging moral choices individuals must make. It enables us to treat people and their struggles from an unbiased, independent, and relatively disinterested perspective that we might understand before we criticize. The belligerent assertion of absolute free will easily amounts to its own sort of harmful and unethical behavior (scolding and busybodying), whereas a slight inclination toward the mechanistic imagination allows observers of human behavior to sympathize, empathize, and coexist with different standards of ethics and a wider variety of people. This sort of benevolent, considerate, and individualist disposition is, for Godwin, indispensable, and is without doubt worthy of a reconsideration in our own turbulent, conflict-wracked age. 

Anthony Comegna, PhD
Assistant Editor for Intellectual History


By William Godwin


The question, which has been attended with so long and obstinate debates, concerning the metaphysical doctrines of liberty and necessity, and the freedom of human actions, is not even yet finally and satisfactorily settled.

The negative is made out by an argument which seems to amount to demonstration, that every event requires a cause, a cause why it is as it is and not otherwise, that the human will is guided by motives, and is consequently always ruled by the strongest motive, and that we can never choose any thing, either without a motive of preference, or in the way of following the weaker, and deserting the stronger motive.

Why is it then that disbelief or doubt should still subsist in a question so fully decided?

For the same reason that compels us to reject many other demonstrations. The human mind is so constituted as to oblige us, if not theoretically, at least practically, to reject demonstration, and adhere to our senses.

The case is thus in the great question of the non-existence of an external world, or of matter. How ever much the understanding may be satisfied of the truth of the proposition by the arguments of Berkeley and others, we no sooner go out into actual life, than we become convinced, in spite of our previous scepticism or unbelief, of the real existence of the table, the chair, and the objects around us, and of the permanence and reality of the persons, both body and mind, with whom we have intercourse. If we were not, we should soon become indifferent to their pleasure and pain, and in no long time reason ourselves into the opinion that the one was not more desirable than the other, and conduct ourselves accordingly.

But there is a great difference between the question of a material world, and the question of liberty and necessity. The most strenuous Berkleian can never say, that there is any contradiction or impossibility in the existence of matter. All that he can consistently and soberly maintain is, that, if the material world exists, we can never perceive it, and that our sensations, and trains of impressions and thinking go on wholly independent of that existence.

But the question of the freedom of human actions is totally of another class. To say that in our choice we reject the stronger motive, and that we choose a thing merely because we choose it, is sheer nonsense and absurdity; and whoever with a sound understanding will fix his mind upon the state of the question will perceive its impossibility.

In the mean time it is not less true, that every man, the necessarian as well as his opponent, acts on the assumption of human liberty, and can never for a moment, when he enters into the scenes of real life, divest himself of this persuasion.

Let us take separately into our consideration the laws of matter and of mind. We acknowledge generally in both an established order of antecedents and consequents, or of causes and effects. This is the sole foundation of human prudence and of all morality. It is because we foresee that certain effects will follow from a certain mode of conduct, that we act in one way rather than another…All the studies of the natural philosopher and the chemist, all our journeys by land and our voyages by sea, and all the systems and science of government, are built upon this principle, that from a certain method of proceeding, regulated by the precepts of wisdom and experience, certain effects may be expected to follow.

Yet, at the same time that we admit of a regular series of cause and effect in the operations both of matter and mind, we never fail, in our reflections upon each, to ascribe to them an essential difference. In the laws by which a falling body descends to the earth, and by which the planets are retained in their orbits, in a word, in all that relates to inanimate nature, we readily assent to the existence of absolute laws, so that, when we have once ascertained the fundamental principles of astronomy and physics, we rely with perfect assurance upon the invariable operation of these laws, yesterday, to-day, and for ever. As long as the system of things, of which we are spectators, and in which we act our several parts, shall remain, so long have the general phenomena of nature gone on unchanged for more years of past ages than we can define, and will in all probability continue to operate for as many ages to come. We admit of no variation, but firmly believe that, if we were perfectly acquainted with all the causes, we could, without danger of error, predict all the effects. We are satisfied that, since first the machine of the universe was set going, every thing in inanimate nature has taken place in a regular course, and nothing has happened and can happen, otherwise than as it actually has been and will be.

But we believe, or, more accurately speaking, we feel, that it is otherwise in the universe of mind. Whoever attentively observes the phenomena of thinking and sentient beings, will be convinced, that men and animals are under the influence of motives, that we are subject to the predominance of the passions, of love and hatred, of desire and aversion, of sorrow and joy, and that the elections we make are regulated by impressions supplied to us by these passions. But we are fully penetrated with the notion, that mind is an arbiter, that it sits on its throne, and decides, as an absolute prince, this may or that; in short, that, while inanimate nature proceeds passively in an eternal chain of cause and effect, mind is endowed with an initiating power, and forms its determinations by an inherent and indefeasible prerogative.

Hence arises the idea of contingency relative to the acts of living and sentient beings, and the opinion that, while, in the universe of matter, every thing proceeds in regular course, and nothing has happened or can happen, otherwise than as it actually has been or will be, in the determinations and acts of living beings each occurrence may be or not be, and waits the mastery of mind to decide whether the event shall be one way or the other, both issues being equally possible till that decision has been made.

Thus, as was said in the beginning, we have demonstration, all the powers of our reasoning faculty, on one side, and the feeling, of our minds, an inward persuasion of which with all our efforts we can never divest ourselves, on the other. This phenomenon in the history of every human creature, had aptly enough been denominated, the “delusive sense of liberty…”

I am fully persuaded, as far as the powers of my understanding can carry me, that the phenomena of mind are governed by laws altogether as inevitable as the phenomena of matter, and that the decisions of our will are always in obedience to the impulse of the strongest motive.

The consequences of the principle implanted in our nature, by which men of every creed, when they descend into the scene of busy life, pronounce themselves and their fellow-mortals to be free agents, are sufficiently memorable.

From hence there springs what we call conscience in man, and a sense of praise or blame due to ourselves and others for the actions we perform…

The affection we entertain for those towards whom our partiality and kindness are excited, is the life of our life. It is to this we are indebted for all our refinement, and, in the noblest sense of the word, for all our humanity. Without it we should have had no sentiment…and no poetry.—Love and hatred, as they regard our fellow-creatures, in contradistinction to the complacency, or the feeling of an opposite nature, which is excited in us towards inanimate objects, are entirely the offspring of the delusive sense of liberty…

And, as towards our fellow-creatures, so in relation to ourselves, our moral sentiments are all involved with, and take their rise in, the delusive sense of liberty. It is in this that is contained the peculiar force of the terms virtue, duty, guilt and desert. We never pronounce these words without thinking of the action to which they refer, as that which might or might not be done, and therefore unequivocally approve or disapprove in ourselves and others. A virtuous man, as the term is understood by all, as soon as we are led to observe upon those qualities, and the exhibition of those qualities in actual life, which constitute our nature, is a man who, being in full possession of the freedom of human action, is engaged in doing those things which a sound judgment of the tendencies of what we do pronounces to be good.

Duty is a term that can scarcely be said to have a meaning, except that which it derives from the delusive sense of liberty. According to the creed of the necessarian, it expresses that mode of action on the part of the individual, which constitutes the best possible application of his capacity to the general benefit. In the mean time, if we confine ourselves to this definition, it may as well be taken to describe the best application of a knife, or any other implement proceeding from the hands of the manufacturer, as of the powers of a human being.

But we surely have a very different idea in our minds, when we employ the term duty. It is not agreeable to the use of language that we should use this term, except we speak of a being in the exercise of volition.

Duty then means that which may justly be required of a human creature in the possession of liberty of action. It includes in its proper sense the conception of the empire of will, the notion that mind is an arbiter, that it sits on its throne, and decides, as an absolute prince, this way or that.

Duty is the performance of what is due, the discharge of a debt (debitum). But a knife owes nothing, and can in no sense be said to be held to one sort of application rather than another; the debt can only belong to a human being in possession of his liberty, by whom the knife may be applied laudably or otherwise.

A multitude of terms instantly occur to us, the application of which is limited in the same manner as the term duty is limited: such are, to owe, obligation, debt, bond, right, claim, sin, crime, guilt, merit and desert. Even reward and punishment, however they may be intelligible when used merely in the sense of motives employed, have in general acceptation a sense peculiarly derived from the supposed freedom of the human will.

The mode therefore in which the advocates of the doctrine of necessity have universally talked and written, is one of the most memorable examples of the hallucination of the human intellect. They have at all times recommended that we should translate the phrases in which we usually express ourselves on the hypothesis of liberty, into the phraseology of necessity, that we should talk no other language than that which is in correspondence with the severest philosophy, and that we should exert ourselves to expel all fallacious notions and delusions so much as from our recollection. They did not perceive what a wide devastation and destruction they were proposing of all the terms and phrases that are in use in the communications between man and man in actual life.—They might as well have recommended that we should rigorously bear in mind on the ordinary occasions of life, that there is no such thing as colour, that which we ordinary call by that name having no existence in external objects, but belonging only to our way of perceiving them.

The language which is suggested to us by the conception of the freedom of human actions, moulds the very first articulations of a child, “I will,” and “I will not;” and is even distinctly conveyed by his gestures, before he arrives at the power of articulation. This is the explanation and key to his vehement and ungovernable movements, and his rebellion. The petulance of the stripling, the fervent and energetic exertions of the warrior, and the calm and unalterable resolution of the sage, all imply the same thing. Will, and a confidence in its efficiency, “travel through, nor quit us till we die.” It is this which inspires us with invincible perseverance, and heroic energies, while without it we should be the most inert and soulless of blocks, the shadows of what history records and poetry immortalises, and not men.

Free will is an integral part of the science of man, and may be said to constitute its most important chapter. We might with as much propriety overlook the intelligence of the senses, that medium which acquaints us with an external world or what we call such, we might as well overlook the consideration of man’s reason, his imagination or taste, as fail to dwell with earnest reflection and exposition upon that principle which lies at the foundation of our moral energies, fills us with a moral enthusiasm, prompts all our animated exertions on the theatre of the world, whether upon a wide or a narrow scale, and penetrates us with the most lively and fervent approbation or disapprobation of the acts of ourselves and others in which the forwarding or obstructing human happiness is involved.

But, though the language of the necessarian is at war with the indestructible feelings of the human mind, and though his demonstrations will for ever crumble into dust, when brought to the test of the activity of real life, yet his doctrines, to the reflecting and enlightened, will by no means be without their use. In the sobriety of the closet, we inevitably assent to his conclusions; nor is it easy to conceive how a rational man and a philosopher abstractedly can entertain a doubt of the necessity of human actions. And the number of these persons is perpetually increasing; enlarged and dispassionate views of the nature of man and the laws of the universe are rapidly spreading in the world. We cannot indeed divest ourselves of love and hatred, of the sentiments of praise and blame, and the ideas of virtue, duty, obligation, debt, bond, right, claim, sin, crime, guilt, merit and desert. And, if we could do so, the effects would be most pernicious, and the world be rendered a blank. We shall however unquestionably, as our minds grow enlarged, be brought to the entire and unreserved conviction, that man is a machine, that he is governed by external impulses, and is to be regarded as the medium only through the intervention of which previously existing causes are enabled to produce certain effects. We shall see, according to an expressive phrase, that he “could not help it,” and, of consequence, while we look down from the high tower of philosophy upon the scene of human affairs, our prevailing emotion will be pity, even towards the criminal, who, from the qualities he brought into the world, and the various circumstances which act upon him from infancy, and form his character, is impelled to be the means of the evils, which we view with so profound disapprobation, and the existence of which we so entirely regret…

But, though the doctrine of the necessity of human actions can never form the rule of our intercourse with others, it will still have its use. It will moderate our excesses, and point out to us that middle path of judgment which the soundest philosophy inculcates. We shall learn, according to the apostolic precept, to “be angry, and sin not, neither let the sun go down upon our wrath.” We shall make of our fellow-men neither idols to worship, nor demons to be regarded with horror and execration. We shall think of them, as of players, “that strut and fret their hour upon the stage, and then are heard no more.” We shall “weep, as though we wept not, and rejoice, as though we rejoiced not, seeing that the fashion of this world passeth away.” And, most of all, we shall view with pity, even with sympathy, the men whose frailties we behold, or by whom crimes are perpetrated, satisfied that they are parts of one great machine, and, like ourselves, are driven forward by impulses over which they have no real control.

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