Excerpts from Henry Hazlitt’s Foundations of Morality

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Excerpts from Henry Hazlitt’s Foundations of Morality

Chapter 27: Free Will and Determinism

Let us begin with the Determinists. They are right in asserting the omnipresence of Cause and Effect. They are right in asserting that everything that happens is a necessary outcome of a preceding state of things. This is not merely the discovery and conclusion of the whole body of modern science. It is an inescapable necessity of thought itself. As Henri Poincare put it: "Science is determinist; it is so a priori; it postulates determinism, because without this postulate science could not exist.

By the same reasoning, the Libertarian concept of a person or "self" or an individual "will" that stands outside the chain of causation, uninfluenced by the previous state of affairs, is wholly untenable.

But there is a common confusion of Determinism with Materialism. The Materialistic Determinists press on from the inescapable assumption that every effect has a cause to the arbitrary assumption that all causation, even in human action, must be physical or chemical causation. They assume that all thoughts, values, volitions, decisions, acts, are the product of physical, chemical, or physiological processes going on in the human body. In such a view the human mind or will can originate nothing. It transforms outward pressures and forces, or inward chemical changes, into ideas or acts, or the illusion of "volition" or "free will," much as a dynamo automatically transforms motion into electricity or an engine automatically transforms steam, electricity, or gasoline into motion in a fixed determinate ratio. In this view, moreover, the "self" or the human "will" hardly has even as much physical existence as the dynamo or the engine. The "will" is merely the name for an automatic and predictable process. Everything acting on it is a cause, but it itself seems to be a cause of nothing. A man acts for the same reason that a mechanical doll may walk. The mechanism in the former case is merely more complicated.

Now there is doubtless some connection between body and mind or, say, between chemicals and drugs, on the one hand, and human actions on the other. This has been shown in recent times by the effects on mind and action of a multiplicity of drugs. Men have, in fact, known from time immemorial about the effects on mind and action of alcohol. It has yet to be shown, however, that these effects will ever be completely measurable, determinate, and predictable.

But though we know there is some connection between body and mind, between chemistry and consciousness, we still do not know the precise nature of that connection or how it operates…We know very little even about the process by which new ideas arise out of previous ideas. We know practically nothing about the way in which ideas arise out of chemical or physiological processes. The gap between chemistry and consciousness remains unbridged. We still have not the slightest knowledge of how the one world is or can be transformed into the other.

…The point is further developed by Joseph Wood Krutch in The Measure of Man. In the debate during the second half of the nineteenth century between the mechanists and the humanists, he writes, the humanists made the "egregious tactical error" of permitting the issue to depend on the existence of the "soul" instead of on the existence of consciousness:

This permitted the chemists to say, "I cannot find the soul in my test tube," without exposing clearly the fallacy of his argument. If he had been compelled to say, instead, "I cannot find consciousness in my test tube," the reply would be simple: "I don't care whether you can find it there or not. I can find it in my head. Chemistry, by failing to find it, demonstrates nothing except the limitations of its methods. I am conscious, and until you show me a machine which is also conscious I shall continue to believe that the difference between me and a mechanism is probably very significant; even perhaps that what I find in that consciousness is better evidence concerning things to which consciousness is relevant than the things which you find in a test tube...."

The problem of the apparent discontinuity between the two realms still remains. How a material body can be aware of sensations is perhaps the thorniest of all metaphysical problems. It is as hard to imagine how we get from one realm to the other, what is the connection between the world of things and that of thoughts and emotions -- as it is to imagine how one might manage to enter the mathematician's world of the fourth dimension. But . . . the physical body does think) and feel. Much as the physical scientist may hate to admit what he cannot account for, this fact he can hardly deny. The seemingly impossible is the most indisputably true.

Of even greater practical importance than the fallacy of Materialism is the fallacy that confuses Determinism with Fatalism. The doctrine of Determinism merely asserts that nothing happens without a cause, that every state of affairs is the outcome of a preceding state of affairs. Without this assumption all prediction would be impossible and all reasoning would be futile. But the doctrine of Determinism, while it does necessarily assert that the past was (in one sense) inevitable, given the physical, social, and individual forces, actions, choices, and decisions that actually took place, and while it also asserts that the future will be determined in the same way, does not assert that this future can necessarily be known in advance. Nor does it assert that a given event will take place regardless of what you or I may do to promote or prevent it. Yet this is the assumption implicit in Fatalism.

People slip into this fallacy either through confused theological assumptions or confused causal assumptions. Their theological argument runs something like this: "God must have existed before the Universe that He created. He must be both omnipotent and omniscient. If He is both omnipotent and omniscient, He must have both foreseen and intended everything that has happened from the beginning of time and everything that will happen into eternity. It is all written in the Book of Fate. Nothing that I can do can change it."

The Materialist Fatalist argument is curiously similar to this. "Because everything that happens has a cause' and because everything is interconnected with everything else, the future is necessarily already contained in the present. Whatever will be, will be. Even my own 'Will' is an illusion. My choices and decisions are as foreordained as anything else." One fallacy they share in common is to take into account every force and cause and factor except the wishes, choices, and decisions -- in brief, the will -- of the agent himself. Either this is left out, as if it counted for nothing, or it is assumed that every other force and factor is active, and only a man's will is nonexistent or passive -- something that is acted upon, but that acts upon nothing.

Determinism in the true sense does not exempt anyone from moral responsibility. It is precisely because we do not decide or act without cause that ethical judgments serve a purpose. We are all influenced by the reasoning of others, by their praise or blame, by the prospect of reward or punishment. The knowledge that we will be held "responsible" for our acts by others, or even that we will be responsible in our own eyes for the consequences of our acts, must influence those acts, and must tend to influence them in the direction of moral opinion.

There is no irreconcilable antithesis between Determinism and Free Will when both are rightly understood. Determinism simply assumes that everything, including our every act and decision, has a prior cause. But it does not assert or assume that every cause or force acting on us is outside of us. On the contrary, it assumes that our own character, which we ourselves have helped to form, our own past habits, resolutions and decisions, help to determine our present acts and decisions, and that these in turn will help to determine our future acts and decisions. And Free Will, rightly understood, means that we are not necessarily the slaves of our immediate appetites, but are free to make the choice among alternatives of conduct that we consider most rational. We are free to choose our ends. We are free, within limits, to choose what we consider to be the most appropriate means to our ends.

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