This post is part of the Mod Squad’s Author Meets Critics on Antonia LoLordo’s “Locke’s Moral Man”.
The contents of this post are entirely the work of Samuel Rickless.
I am very pleased to be able to comment on LoLordo’s exceedingly clever, carefully researched, and original synthesis of various sub-topics in Locke exegesis in the service of constructing an overall picture of Lockean moral agency. LoLordo’s main thesis is that, according to Locke, “[t]o be a moral agent is to be free, rational, and a person” (2). As it turns out, however, the three characteristics that LoLordo takes to be individually necessary and jointly sufficient for Lockean moral agency are also, so she thinks, conceptually interconnected. The freedom that is supposed to be necessary for moral agency, which LoLordo identifies with “the capacity to suspend the prosecution of one’s most pressing desires and deliberate about the best course of action”, “requires both rationality and personal identity” (63). Persons, LoLordo argues, are modes (that is, dependences on substances, rather than substances) characterized by a sufficient degree of understanding and rationality (84). And the kind of rationality required for moral agency, she argues, is constituted by “abstraction, reflection, and suspension”, such that any being in possession of all three of these abilities “is a free person” (104). Thus, in the end, a free being is a rational person, a rational being is a free person, and a person is a rational (and hence free) being. This may appear at first to be a complicated picture, but my sense is that by the end of the book LoLordo has argued for something approaching a kind of moral trinitarianism: the three conditions on Lockean moral agency that she identifies are really, at bottom, just one.
In this post, I will concentrate on LoLordo’s reconstruction of Locke’s views on freedom, and the bearing that she takes this reconstruction to have on a proper understanding of the relation between Lockean freedom and Lockean moral agency. The basic elements of LoLordo’s reconstruction are these:
- There are two kinds of powers (or abilities): active powers and passive powers. In the early editions of the Essay, “the idea of active power is typically the idea of the capacity to [make a] change”, while in later editions “it tends to be the idea of the underlying source of that capacity” (31).
- “Active power [in the ‘source’ sense] is unique to spirits” (33), where “to be a spirit is to think and have the power to produce motion by thought” (107), and is in fact “simply their will” (33). Therefore, “the exercise of active power is simply volition” (33), where volition is the sort of mental act that causes the sorts of actions (whether these be actions of the mind—thoughts—or actions of the body—motions) that are called ‘voluntary’ (27).
- An agent S “acts freely in performing action a [i.e., possesses freedom of action with respect to a] iff (i) S does a because S wills to do a [i.e., S’s doing a is voluntary], and (ii) if S had not willed to do a, S would not have done a” (27). Thus: “[L]iberty is an active power just by virtue of will being an active power. The extra element that makes an action free as well as voluntary—that if the agent had willed otherwise she would have done otherwise—imports no new activity” (33).
- Mere possession of active power (or will, or freedom of action) does not distinguish those who are moral agents from those who are not, for “animals possess active power” (38), and hence have wills and consequently freedom of action (under certain circumstances), without being moral agents (38, 41).
- There are “two different notions of liberty” (51), namely, freedom of action and “the sort of full-fledged free agency that derives from having the capacity to suspend the prosecution of one’s most pressing desires and deliberate about the best course of action” (63).
- Thus: What distinguishes beings who are moral agents from beings who are not is full-fledged free agency, rather than freedom of action.
- Suspension of desire-prosecution cannot be voluntary: “We do not suspend because we will or desire to suspend. Suspension precedes the determination of will by desire” (49). The proper attitude towards what causes suspension is agnosticism: the most plausible conclusion is that “Locke simply does not know what, if anything, causes suspension. He clearly thinks he knows what ought to move us to suspend, but there is little reason to think he claims to know whether—or by what—we are causally necessitated to suspend.” (59)
- Thus: An account of the metaphysical basis of desire-suspension (and hence metaphysical ground of moral agency), as traditionally conceived, though perhaps not vacuous or impossible, is unnecessary for ethics/politics (1, 134).
I contend that every one of these eight theses is false. Instead, I will argue that in the later editions of the Essay Locke conceives of active power not as the underlying source of the capacity to make changes, but as the capacity to make changes by one’s own power (rather than by the power of another); that active power is not unique to spirits and should not be identified with the will, which is merely one among many active powers; that Locke’s conception of freedom of action is merely the ability to do as one wills (which he takes to include the ability to forbear what one wills to forbear), that he isn’t concerned with providing necessary and sufficient conditions for acting freely or for free actions, and that freedom of action, properly conceived, includes neither a voluntariness condition nor a counterfactual condition; that although (non-human) animals have many active powers, they do not possess wills or freedom of action, and hence animals provide no reason to think that something in addition to freedom of action is required for moral agency; that there is indeed only one notion of liberty, namely freedom of action, and that the ability to suspend is merely a species of this freedom; that what distinguishes beings who are moral agents from beings who are not is freedom of action generally, which includes the power to suspend; that suspension of desire can, and indeed must, be voluntary, and that what causes such suspension is the volition to suspend, itself usually determined by uneasiness at the thought of not suspending; and that although Locke may indeed be agnostic about the metaphysical grounds of moral agency, he is not thoroughly agnostic about all metaphysical aspects of his theory of freedom.
Let me now consider each thesis in turn.
1. I agree with LoLordo that Locke thinks of power in general as the capacity to change or be changed, and that Locke’s views about the nature of active power changed from the early editions to the later editions of the Essay. But I deny that Locke’s later conception of active power is as the underlying source of change. LoLordo rests her case for this claim mostly on Ruth Mattern’s “Locke on Active Power and the Obscure Idea of Active Power from Bodies” (Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science 11 (1980): 39-77). Mattern (1980, 71) argues that whereas in the early editions of the Essay Locke officially defines active power as the ability to make change, in the later editions Locke officially defines active power as the capacity to do something by one’s own choice. On this interpretation, mere bodies (such as billiard balls) possess active power according to the early definition, but do not possess active power according to the late definition. In the early editions, Mattern argues, Locke claims that human beings acquire an obscure, imperfect, and inadequate idea of active power from the observation of bodies (see E II.xxi.4 and E II.xxiii.28). [The idea is obscure and inadequate because (it is at least possible that) bodies do not really make change, but merely communicate motion that they have received from without.] But in the later editions, if Locke had addressed the point directly, “he would have denied that we get any idea of active power at all [by observing motion transfer]” (1980, 71).
Mattern rests the entirety of her case for this interpretation on a single passage (from E II.xxi.72) added to the fourth edition of the Essay in 1700. But this passage does not say what Mattern thinks it says. Locke there does not say that bodies do not possess active powers. He says, instead, that “there are instances of [Motion], which, upon due consideration, will be found rather Passions than Actions”, because “in these instances, the substance that hath motion…receives the impression whereby it is put into that Action purely from without” (E II.xxi.72—underlining added). In other words, some bodies on some occasions do not possess active powers even though they are thought to possess such powers. But it does not follow from this that no bodies possess active powers. Indeed, Locke goes on to say that “[s]ometimes the Substance…puts it self into Action by its own Power, and this is properly Active Power” (E II.xxi.72—underlining added). Locke’s main point is that “the Active Power of motion is in no substance which cannot begin motion in it self, or in another substance when at rest” (E II.xxi.72). And what he seems to be saying is that we are sometimes mistaken, but also possibly sometimes right, in thinking that bodies possess active powers. It is clear that Locke takes the mere communication of motion (as in the case of billiard ball collisions) to be an exercise of something other than active power. But whether bodies of themselves can cause themselves or other bodies to move without merely communicating motion that they have received from other bodies is something that Locke leaves entirely open.
In 1696, four years before the publication of the fourth edition of the Essay, Locke published his Reply to the Bishop of Worcester’s Answer to his Second Letter, which was the third and longest of three open letters to Edward Stillingfleet. In this letter (parts of which I discuss at greater length below), Locke emphasizes the fact that God has the power to superadd powers to matter (and not merely to spirit), including the power of “spontaneous or self-motion” (W4: 464). He writes: “God creates an extended solid substance, without the superadding any thing else to it, and so we may consider it at rest: to some parts of it he superadds motion…: other parts of it he frames into plants…: to other parts he adds sense and spontaneous motion” (W4: 460). He goes on to say that although material substances cannot have the power of self-motion “from themselves” and we cannot conceive how such a power can be in material substances, there is “no reason to deny Omnipotency to be able to give a power of self-motion to a material substance, if he pleases, as well as to an immaterial” (W4: 465). These passages very strongly suggest that Locke thinks that some bodies have the power to move themselves (as opposed to the power of being moved by other bodies or other minds), even if they do not have this power from themselves, i.e., by their own nature.
With these passages in mind, we may come to see it as no accident that some of Locke’s examples of active powers attributed to inanimate bodies throughout the Essay (examples that Locke did not remove in the later editions, despite the fact that they are quite salient in the early editions) are not analyzable as cases of mere motion transfer. The Sun, we are told, “has a power to blanch Wax” (E II.xxi.1; E II.xxiii.10), and a load-stone (magnet) has “the power of drawing Iron” (E II.xxiii.7, 9). And, indeed, as Locke was well aware, when a body is simply dropped from a height, it will fall to earth because of gravitational attraction, despite not having been (in any intelligible way) impelled to move, and when amber is rubbed it will, while itself at rest, attract hair and other light bodies that are not already in motion. In none of these cases does the substance possessing the relevant active power move (whether by borrowed motion or otherwise). In providing these examples, then, Locke may well be pointing to the very real possibility that some bodies under some circumstances have the ability to cause, without merely communicating, motion or change in other bodies.
LoLordo (32-33) briefly discusses a few more passages that she thinks support the view that Locke in the later editions of the Essay takes active power not to be present in bodies. First, she quotes from E II.xxi.4, in which Locke claims that we acquire “but a very obscure Idea of an active Power of moving in Body, whilst we observe it only to transfer, but not produce any motion”, and notes that at E II.xxiii.28, Locke contrasts “the power of communication of Motion by impulse” with “the power of exciting Motion by Thought”. She concludes from these passages that “bodies can provide the idea of transmitting power [editorial query: should “power” here be replaced by “motion”?] but not the idea of generating it” (33). But this is not accurate. Even in the case of billiard-ball collisions, bodies can provide us with the idea of generating motion. Locke’s point at E II.xxi.4 and E II.xxiii.28 is that the idea we acquire from the observation of billiard-ball collisions and their ilk is obscure, not that it is non-existent. Next, LoLordo quotes from E II.xxi.73, where Locke says that the idea of “Mobility, or the Power of being moved” is received “by our Senses…from Body”, and the idea of “Motivity, of the Power of moving” is received “by reflection…from our Minds”. This might be read to suggest that the idea of motivity is not acquired from sense perception. But it is possible that Locke is simply being conservative and careful in not explicitly saying that the idea of motivity is acquired through the senses. Certainly the passage does not explicitly state that such an idea could not be acquired by sense, and it would be surprising if it did, given that it appears in the early editions of the Essay. Finally, LoLordo quotes from E II.xxiii.17-18, where Locke claims that “[t]he primary Ideas we have peculiar to Body, as contradistinguished to Spirit, are the cohesion of solid, and consequently separable parts, and a power of communicating Motion by impulse”, while “[t]he Ideas we have belonging, and peculiar to Spirit, are Thinking, and Will, or a power of putting Body into motion by Thought”. But this passage does not say that bodies do not have active power to move themselves or other bodies. All that Locke claims here is that the idea of body includes, whereas the idea of spirit does not include, the ideas of cohesion and of communicating motion by impulse; and that the idea of spirit includes, whereas the idea of body does not include, the ideas of thinking and of putting body into motion by thought. The fact that the idea of body does not include the idea of putting body into motion by thought does not entail that the idea of body does not include the idea of putting body into motion, period; and even if it did, it would not follow that bodies themselves do not have a power that is not included in their nominal essence. Indeed, this is a quite general point: the fact that the nominal essence of a baseball does not include the idea that it can be used as a paperweight does not entail that a baseball itself cannot be used as a paperweight.
2. LoLordo argues that, for Locke (at least in the later editions of the Essay), active power is unique to spirits, that it is their will, and that the exercise of active power is simply volition. In saying this, she (self-consciously) echoes Mattern’s claim that “active power is now defined as a capacity to do something by one’s own choice” (1980, 71). I suggested above that Locke allows for the possibility (indeed, the actuality) that some inanimate bodies possess active powers inasmuch as they are capable of producing motion in other bodies without borrowing their motion from some external cause. If this is correct, then, pace LoLordo and Mattern, active powers are not unique to spirits and cannot be identified with their wills.
LoLordo claims that E II.xxiii.18 “suggests…that the active power of spirits is simply their will”. This is roughly right, but LoLordo goes further, claiming that the idea of active power and the idea of will, though not identical, are co-extensive: “all exercises of active powers are volitions, and all volitions are the exercise of active power” (34). The passage she thinks establishes this result is the same one on which Mattern relies to make the same point, namely E II.xxi.72. There Locke writes: “But when I turn my Eyes another way, or remove my Body out of the Sun-beams, I am properly active; because of my own choice, by a power within my self, I put my self into that Motion. Such an Action is the product of Active Power.” But this passage says no more than that the ability to make parts of my body move by choice is an active power. What the passage conspicuously does not say is the converse claim that every active power is an ability to make one’s body move by choice, or that all exercises of active power are volitions. And, indeed, as I have argued, some exercises of active power (such as the exercise of a load-stone’s active power to move iron filings, or the exercise of the sun’s active power to blanch wax) are quite clearly not volitions.
3. LoLordo claims that Locke’s account of freedom of action is that S acts freely in performing action a iff (i) S does a because S wills to do a, and (ii) if S had not willed to do a, S would not have done a (27). She adds that she means “condition (ii) to capture Locke’s talk of a power to forbear” (27, n. 2). Now the first thing to notice about Locke’s account of freedom of action is that it does not purport to analyze what it is for an agent to act freely. What Locke says, as LoLordo notices, is that “so far as a Man has a power to think, or not to think; to move, or not to move, according to the preference or direction of his own mind, so far as a Man Free” (E II.xxi.8). This account of freedom reappears in several places in E II.xxi. Here are some examples:
So that the Idea of Liberty, is the Idea of a Power in any Agent to do or forbear any particular Action, according to the determination or thought of the mind, whereby either of them is preferr’d to the other. (E II.xxi.8)
Liberty is not an Idea belonging to Volition, or preferring; but to the Person having the Power of doing, or forbearing to do, according as the Mind shall chuse or direct. (E II.xxi.10)
But as soon as the Mind regains the power to stop or continue, begin or forbear any of these Motions of the Body without, or Thoughts within, according as it thinks fit to preferr either to the other, we then consider the Man as a free Agent again. (E II.xxi.12)
Liberty…is the power a Man has to do or forbear doing any particular Action, according as its doing or forbearance has the actual preference in the Mind, which is the same thing as to say, according as he himself wills it. (E II.xxi.15)
So far as any one can, by the direction or choice of his Mind, preferring the existence of any Action, to the non-existence of that Action, and, vice versa, make it to exist, or not exist, so far he is free. (E II.xxi.21)
In this then consists Freedom, (viz.) in our being able to act, or not to act, according as we shall chuse, or will. (E II.xxi.27)
Liberty ’tis plain consists in a Power to do, or not to do; to do, or forbear doing as we will. (E II.xxi.56)
Liberty is a power to act or not to act according as the Mind directs. (E II.xxi.71)
In saying these things, Locke is not providing necessary or sufficient conditions for acting freely. What Locke is doing is defining what it is for a man, person, or agent to be free. It may be that there is a way to extract necessary and sufficient conditions for acting freely from Locke’s necessary and sufficient conditions for an agent’s being free, but the extraction does not lie on the surface of the text and is clearly not among Locke’s concerns.
Beyond the general conditions for an agent’s being free, namely having the ability to do or not do as one wills, Locke also provides more particular conditions for an agent’s being free in respect of a particular action or omission. Consider the following passages:
A Man’s Heart beats, and the Blood circulates, which ’tis not in his Power by any Thought or Volition to stop; and therefore in respect of these Motions, where rest depends not on his choice, nor would follow the determination of his Mind, if it should preferr it, he is not a free Agent. (E II.xxi.11—underlining added)
For if I can, by a thought, directing the motion of my Finger, make it move, when it was at rest, or vice versa, ’tis evident that in respect of that, I am free. (E II.xxi.21—underlining added)
I have the Ability to move my Hand, or to let it rest…: I am then in that respect perfectly free. (E II.xxi.71—underlining added)
Here it is plain what the conditions for an agent S’s being free in respect of action A are:
- S is free in respect of action A iff (i) S has the power to do A if S wills to do A, and (ii) S has the power to forbear doing A if S wills to forbear doing A.
Locke here presupposes as part of (i) and (ii) that S has a will, i.e., a power “to order the consideration of any Idea, or the forbearing to consider it; or to prefer the motion of any part of the body to its rest, and vice versa in any particular instance” (E II.xxi.5). For Locke claims that a tennis ball’s not being free in respect of its motion or rest derives from the fact that it does not have the power to think or will (E II.xxi.9). But notice that to say that S cannot be free (with respect to any action) unless S has a will is not to say that S cannot do a freely unless a is voluntary (i.e., unless S does a because S wills to do a). There is therefore no more than superficial similarity between what Locke says about the tennis ball and what LoLordo says about the conditions for acting freely.
LoLordo glosses an agent’s power to forbear doing a in counterfactual terms. As she sees it, S has the power to forbear doing a iff if S had not willed to do a, S would not have done a. Interestingly, the counterfactual gloss never appears in Locke’s text. The reason, I believe, is that Locke would not endorse, and indeed would oppose, such a gloss. As LoLordo notices (27, n. 2), Locke explicitly counts “holding one’s peace” as a forbearance (E II.xxi.28). Imagine, then, that Sally is a compulsive speaker, but suppose further that if Sally had not willed to speak, God would have glued her lips shut. According to LoLordo’s Locke, Sally has the power to hold her peace iff she would not have spoken if she had not willed to speak. Thus, in the Sally example, LoLordo’s Locke would say that Sally has the power to hold her peace. Not only is this counterintuitive, but it does not fit what Locke says. He writes: “if I can, by a…thought of my Mind, preferring one to the other, produce either words, or silence, I am at liberty to speak, or hold my peace” (E II.xxi.21). In other words, Locke is saying that Sally is free with respect to the action of holding her peace (or with respect to the action of speaking) if (i) she can produce silence if she wills to produce silence, and (ii) she can speak if she wills to speak. As Locke sees it, to determine whether Sally is free to hold her peace, we need to ask, not whether Sally would have failed to speak if she had not willed to speak, but rather whether Sally is able to forbear speaking if she wills to forbear speaking. (I conjecture that LoLordo may be reading Locke, anachronistically even if not consciously, through the lens of A. J. Ayer, who freely moves between the concept of an agent’s being free to act and the concept of an agent’s acting freely, and who also uses counterfactuals to analyze what it is for an agent to act freely.)
LoLordo claims that, for Locke, the active power of a spirit is its will. Faced with the problem that a spirit’s liberty, which is distinct from its will, also appears to be an active power, LoLordo counters as follows: “Locke is being at worst slightly careless here, for liberty is an active power just by virtue of will being an active power. The extra [counterfactual] element that makes an action free as well as voluntary…imports no new activity” (33). Most of this just strikes me as confused. It is true, as LoLordo says, that for Locke the will of a spirit is an active power, for it is a power to issue a mental order to the mind or body (E II.xxi.5). But, as I’ve argued, it is a mistake for LoLordo to suggest that her analysis of acting freely is an analysis of Locke’s freedom or liberty of action. So her conclusion that, for Locke, liberty is an active power just by virtue of will being an active power doesn’t follow. The truth, I believe, is that Locke’s freedom of action is a combination of two conditional active powers (the power to act in accordance with one’s volition to act + the power to forbear acting in accordance with one’s volition to so forbear), each of which is completely distinct from (and does not in any way result from) the will. It is therefore misleading to suggest that, at bottom, the only real active power of a spirit is its will. Under ordinary circumstances, a spirit also has the power to initiate thought (without borrowing anything from without), and this appears to be an active power if anything is.
(Rickless’s comments to be continued in tomorrow’s post)