3. The Free-Will Controversy
Man chooses between modes of action incompatible
with one another. Such decisions, says the free-will doctrine,
are basically undetermined and uncaused; they
are not the inevitable outcome of antecedent conditions.
They are rather the display of man’s inmost disposition,
the manifestation of his indelible moral freedom. This
moral liberty is the essential characteristic of man, raising
him to a unique position in the universe.
Determinists reject this doctrine as illusory. Man,
they say, deceives himself in believing that he chooses.
Something unknown to the individual directs his will.
He thinks that he weighs in his mind the pros and cons
of the alternatives left to his choice and then makes a
decision. He fails to realize that the antecedent state of
things enjoins on him a definite line of conduct and that
there is no means to elude this pressure. Man does not
act, he is acted upon.
Both doctrines neglect to pay due attention to the role
of ideas. The choices a man makes are determined by
the ideas that he adopts.
The determinists are right in asserting that everything
that happens is the necessary sequel of the preceding
state of things. What a man does at any instant
of his life is entirely dependent on his past, that is, on
his physiological inheritance as well as of all he went
through in his previous days. Yet the significance of this
thesis is considerably weakened by the fact that nothing
is known about the way in which ideas arise. Determinism
is untenable if based upon or connected with
the materialist dogma.1
If advanced without the support
of materialism, it says little indeed and certainly
does not sustain the determinists’ rejection of the
methods of history.
The free-will doctrine is correct in pointing out the
fundamental difference between human action and animal
behavior. While the animal cannot help yielding
to the physiological impulse which prevails at the moment,
man chooses between alternative modes of conduct.
Man has the power to choose even between yielding
to the most imperative instinct, that of self-preservation,
and the aiming at other ends. All the sarcasms and
sneers of the positivists cannot annul the fact that ideas
have a real existence and are genuine factors in shaping
the course of events.
The offshoots of human mental efforts, the ideas and
the judgments of value that direct the individuals’ actions,
cannot be traced back to their causes, and are in
this sense ultimate data. In dealing with them we refer
to the concept of individuality. But in resorting to this
notion we by no means imply that ideas and judgments
of value spring out of nothing by a sort of spontaneous
generation and are in no way connected and related to
what was already in the universe before their appearance.
We merely establish the fact that we do not know
anything about the mental process which produces
within a human being the thoughts that respond to the
state of his physical and ideological environment.
This cognition is the grain of truth in the free-will
doctrine. However, the passionate attempts to refute determinism
and to salvage the notion of free will did
not concern the problem of individuality. They were
prompted by the practical consequences to which, as
people believed, determinism inevitably leads: fatalist
quietism and absolution from moral responsibility.
1. See below, pp. 94-9.
Theory & History, pp. 76-78, Ludwig von Mises