This post is part of the Mod Squad’s Author Meets Critics on Antonia LoLordo’s “Locke’s Moral Man”.
(continued from yesterday’s post)
The contents of this post are entirely the work of Samuel Rickless.
4. LoLordo is ultimately interested in the necessary and sufficient conditions for counting as a moral agent. Much of her discussion of active power, will, and freedom is designed to establish that, on Locke’s view, none of these three features distinguishes moral agents from non-moral agents, for “animals possess active power” (38), and hence have wills and consequently freedom of action, without being moral agents (38, 41). I agree with LoLordo that Locke takes animals to possess active power, for he takes them to have the ability to move their bodies (and other bodies too) without relying on borrowed motion to do so. But LoLordo errs in supposing that Locke takes animals to have will (or freedom), for there is strong textual evidence that this is something Locke denies. The relevant textual evidence comes from an extended discussion of superaddition in Locke’s third letter to Stillingfleet.
In the relevant passage, Locke is criticizing those (including, presumably, Stillingfleet) who think that God can superadd to matter some properties not already contained in the essence of matter, but that God cannot superadd to matter thought, reason, and volition. The passage is noteworthy because it reveals what kinds of properties Locke thinks would need to be added to mere matter to get plants, animals, and, if such were possible, material spirits:
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, but it has still the essence of matter: other parts of it he frames into plants, with all the excellencies of vegetation, life, and beauty, which are to be found in a rose or a peach-tree, &c. above the essence of matter in general, but it is still but matter: to other parts he adds sense and spontaneous motion, and those other properties that are to be found in an elephant. Hitherto it is not doubted but the power of God may go, and that the properties of a rose, a peach, or an elephant, superadded to matter, change not the properties of matter; but matter is in these things matter still. But if one venture to go one step further, and say, God may give to matter thought, reason, and volition, as well as sense and spontaneous motion, there are men ready presently to limit the power of the omnipotent Creator, and tell us he cannot do it; because it destroys the essence, “changes the essential properties of matter.” (W4: 460)
It is clear from this passage both that Locke takes animals, such as elephants, to possess sense and spontaneous motion (i.e., the power to move themselves without relying on borrowed external motion) and that animals lack those properties in addition to sense and spontaneous motion that would be needed to turn them into material spirits, namely thought, reason, and importantly, volition. In Locke’s universe, then, animals have sense and spontaneous motion, but no will or volition. When animals move themselves, then, it is not by thought or volition, but rather by instinct, as when a spider spins its web, a bee dances, or a dog buries a bone. In none of these cases does Locke envisage the animal giving its body the mental order to excrete, shimmy, or dig.
In his inimitable attempt to pound Stillingfleet into submission by repetition ad nauseam, Locke then goes over the very same points, spinning each part in greater detail. First, he argues that after creating bare extended solid substance, God superadds motion to it in order to make the planets revolve around remote centres and to make either matter move in crooked lines or matter attract matter, all without destroying the essence of matter (W4: 461). He then moves on to “the vegetable part of creation”, which “is not doubted to be wholly material” (W4: 461), and yet which is acknowledged to contain “excellencies and operations”, presumably superadded by God again without destruction of matter’s essence. Moving “one step farther”, Locke considers “the animal world”, to account for which Locke supposes that God superadds to matter “life, sense, and spontaneous motion”, and, for the continued existence of species, the “power of propagation” (W4: 462). Locke then moves “one degree farther”, considering the possibility of God’s superadding to matter the power to think or will (engage in “voluntary motion”) (W4: 463). Here again, Locke supposes that although animals are alive and possess the faculty of sensation in addition to the powers of self-motion and propagation, they do not possess the faculty of thinking or willing. Locke therefore does not take the active power of self-motion to be sufficient for the power of willing, and presupposes that animals do not have wills. It follows, then, that animals do not possess freedom of action either, given that, as his example of the tennis ball is designed to show, Locke takes the possession of a will to be necessary for the possession of freedom of action. Importantly, all of this leaves room for an interpretive possibility that LoLordo rejects, namely that having a will or possessing freedom of action is, by Locke’s lights, sufficient for moral agency. Indeed, this strikes me as the default interpretation.
5. LoLordo agrees with Yaffe (Liberty Worth the Name: Locke on Free Agency, Princeton University Press, 2000) in thinking that Locke works with “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). Where LoLordo differs from Yaffe is with respect to the content of full-fledged free agency: for Yaffe such agency is a form of self-transcendence, in which the agent’s volitions are determined by the good (or the agent has the power to bring it about that her volitions are determined by the good), whereas for LoLordo such agency is a form of self-determination, in which the agent’s volitions are determined (i.e., made determinate) by the agent’s reason (48).
In previous work (“Gideon Yaffe’s Liberty Worth the Name: Locke on Free Agency”, Locke Studies 1 (2001): 235-55), I argue that Yaffe’s interpretation of Locke is mistaken. Locke works with a single conception of freedom that does not change throughout the five editions of the Essay. This is the conception of freedom encapsulated in the definition of freedom of action described above, namely the ability to do, or not do, as one wills. It would be nice to know what LoLordo finds objectionable in my criticisms of Yaffe, but in the meantime it is worth discussing why the ability to suspend the prosecution of one’s desires is not, as LoLordo thinks, “the third and final power [over and above will and freedom] discussed in 2.21” (42).
LoLordo, like Yaffe, points to passages in which Locke writes that the power to suspend is “the great inlet, and exercise of all the liberty Men have” (E II.xxi.52) and “the source of all liberty” (E II.xxi.47), that in such a power “lies the liberty Man has” (E II.xxi.47). The fact that Locke describes the power to suspend as an “exercise” of human liberty might suggest that he takes it to be no more than an instance of freedom of action: just as I am free with respect to walking, or sitting still, or thinking of elephants, so I am free with respect to suspending the prosecution of my desires. This is my view of what is going on in the central sections of E II.xxi in which Locke discusses the doctrine of suspension. Not so for LoLordo. For her, the power to suspend is clearly not an instance of freedom of action, given that “[i]t seems obvious that beings can meet the 2.21.8 conditions for acting freely even if they do not possess the ability to suspend and deliberate”, for “all 2.21.8 requires for an action to be free is for it to be caused by a volition, and for it to be the case that if the agent had willed differently she would have acted differently” (43). [Note: There is a significant difference between saying, as LoLordo does here and at 33, “If the agent had willed not to a then she would not have done a”, and saying, as LoLordo does at 27, “If the agent had not willed to a then she would not have done a”.] But here LoLordo is being led astray by her mistaken belief that Locke uses E II.xxi.8 to provide necessary and sufficient conditions for acting freely. As I’ve already argued, Locke does nothing of the sort.
It is, in fact, relatively easy to see why the power to suspend is just a special case of liberty of action. First, Locke quite explicitly thinks of actions as encompassing both acts of mind (thoughts and volitions) and acts of body (motion): “All the Actions, that we have any Idea of, reducing themselves…to these two, viz. Thinking and Motion…” (E II.xxi.8). Second, Locke writes that the power to suspend is the power to “keep [any particular desire] from determining the will, and engaging us in action” (E II.xxi.50), that it is the power to “stop [desires] from determining [one’s will] to any action”, “to hold [one’s will] undetermined” (E II.xxi.52), and to “hinder [one’s passions] from breaking out, and carrying [one] into action” (E II.xxi.53). Interestingly, Locke compares suspension to “standing still, where we are not sufficiently assured of the way” (E II.xxi.50), and, as we have seen, standing still is for Locke a paradigm of forbearance. The most straightforward way to make sense of all this is to suppose that Locke thinks of suspension as forbearing willing to do what one’s most pressing desire is pushing one to do. As such, suspension is the forbearance of an act of mind, and hence counts as a mental (rather than bodily) action under Locke’s loose conception of action (E II.xxi.28). Metaphysically, freedom in respect of suspending one’s desires is no different in kind from freedom in respect of forbearing to daydream or draw an inference.
Why, then, does Locke describe the power to suspend as “the source of all liberty” and as the “great inlet, and exercise of all the liberty Men have”? The answer lies in statements about the power of suspension in nearby passages that LoLordo does not quote. Locke writes that the power to suspend is “the hinge on which turns the liberty of intellectual Beings in their constant endeavours after, and a steady prosecution of true felicity” (E II.xxi.52), that “to desire, will, and act according to the last result of a fair Examination” is “the end and use of our Liberty” (E II.xxi.47-48), that “the care of our selves, that we mistake not imaginary for real happiness, is the necessary foundation of our liberty” (E II.xxi.51), and that the power to suspend “was given [to human beings], that [they] might examine, and take care of [their] own Happiness, and look that [they] were not deceived” (E II.xxi.56). Locke’s main point here is that the point or function of the power of suspension is the attainment of happiness (namely, pleasure and the absence of pain), which is less likely to be achieved “whilst we precipitate the determination of our wills, and engage too soon before due Examination” (E II.xxi.47). For the forbearance to will gives us room to consider whether the course of action our most pressing desire is impelling us to take will produce a greater overall balance of pleasure and pain than any available alternative. Someone who allows herself to be driven by her most pressing desires may well be free, Locke says, but does not have freedom worth the name: for it is not “worth the name of Freedom to be at liberty to play the Fool, and draw Shame and Misery upon [oneself]” (E II.xxi.49). When one exercises the power of suspension, then, one not only exercises one’s freedom not to will to do what one’s desires recommend, one also increases the likelihood of achieving the end, use, and foundation of our liberty, which is the avoidance of misery and the acquisition of pleasure.
6. There is therefore no reason to suppose, with LoLordo, that what distinguishes moral agents from non-moral agents is the power to suspend, thought of as an active power distinct from both will and freedom of action. As far as I can see, there is no reason to deny that for Locke moral agents are just free agents, that is, agents who are able to do as they will. Such agents have the power to suspend, among other powers that are instances of freedom of action. But there is nothing (metaphysically) special about the power of suspension that differentiates it from freedom of mental action more generally: the former is no more than an instance of the latter.
7. It is an interesting question whether Locke thinks that the suspension of desire itself can be voluntary. LoLordo thinks that Locke’s answer is that it can’t be. Her reason is this: “Suspension precedes the determination of will by desire—by any desire: ‘during this suspension of any desire, before the will be determined to action’ (2.21.47). Rather, when we suspend, what we are doing is putting on hold the process whereby desires normally determine volitions” (49). This interpretation strikes me as an overreading of the passage from E II.xxi.47. Locke’s point in the context may be captured as follows. Every human agent is buffeted by desires, the most pressing of which at any time pushes her to a particular action (say, eating the piece of chocolate cake in front of her). In such a case, she typically has the power to suspend the prosecution of the most pressing desire to act in a particular way (the desire to eat the piece of cake), in order to consider whether it would be better for her on the whole to act in that particular way (to eat the piece of cake). So when Locke says that suspension precedes the determination of will by any desire, he means that suspension precedes the determination of will by any desire to act in such-and-such particular way: he does not means that suspension precedes the determination of will by any desire, period.
If we do not overread the passage from E II.xxi.47, we see that it leaves room for the possibility that suspension of the prosecution of a desire to do a is a voluntary act of mind (really, a voluntary forbearance to will) that can be determined (i.e., made determinate) by a desire, namely the desire to suspend (rather than the desire to do a). In the typical case, in keeping with common sense, Locke would be saying that suspension occurs because one wills to suspend, and that one wills to suspend because one desires to suspend, and that one desires to suspend because one is uneasy at the thought that the hasty prosecution of one’s most pressing desire may lead to a notably suboptimal outcome. And indeed there is textual evidence that Locke understands suspension to be the kind of mental act that can be (and often is) voluntary. Locke writes: “Nor let any one say, he cannot govern his Passions, nor hinder them from breaking out, and carrying him into action; for what he can do before a Prince, or a great Man, he can do alone, or in the presence of God, if he will” (E II.xxi.53—underlining added). Here Locke says that in most cases human beings have the power to prevent their passions from carrying them into action, i.e., have the power to suspend the prosecution of their most pressing desires, and that this is something that they can do if they will it. This statement does not make sense unless it is presupposed that human beings can (and often do) will to suspend. In this respect, suspension, which is a forbearance to will, is really no different from any other mental act or forbearance. I have the ability to forbear obsessing by willing to forbear obsessing, to forbear replaying a popular tune in my head by willing to forbear replaying it, and so on. Similarly, I have the ability to forbear willing to eat the piece of chocolate cake, by willing to wait before choosing whether to eat that piece of cake. [Of course, all of this raises an infinite regress problem for Locke. If I suspend willing to eat the cake because I will to suspend prosecution of my desire to eat the cake, and I will to so suspend because I desire to will to so suspend, and yet I have the ability to suspend the prosecution of any of my desires (including the desire to will to so suspend) by willing, then it seems that I have the ability to will to suspend the desire to will to suspend the desire to eat the cake. And we are off and running. But that’s a problem for Locke, not a problem for Locke interpretation.]
If suspension is not the kind of mental action that can be willed, then, give Locke’s account of freedom of action, we cannot be free with respect to the act of suspending. But if Sally does not have the power to suspend or not suspend, as she wills, then it seems wrong to criticize her for her failure to suspend. And yet Locke is highly critical of human beings’ failures to suspend. He writes that “when we have [suspended in order to engage in examination of the potential consequences of our actions], we have done our duty” (E II.xxi.52), that “we may see how it comes to pass, that a Man may justly incur punishment, though it be certain that in all the particular actions that he wills, he does, and necessarily does will that, which he then judges to be good”, for “though his will be always determined by that, which is judg’d good by his Understanding, yet it excuses him not: Because, by a too hasty choice of his own making, he has imposed on himself wrong measures of good and evil…He has vitiated his own Palate, and must be answerable to himself for the sickness and death that follows from it” (E II.xxi.56). It follows that Locke is committed to the view that whether humans suspend or not is a matter of choice: for if an agent’s failure to suspend is something that happens regardless of her choices, then it seems wrong to criticize her for her failure to suspend.
8. LoLordo concludes from her claim that Locke is agnostic about the causes of suspension that his account of freedom does not require commitment to any metaphysical theses about its basis, or about the relative of virtues of libertarianism or necessitarianism. Because, as I have argued, Locke is not actually agnostic about what moves us to suspend, LoLordo’s conclusion does not follow. What we can say about Locke’s account of freedom is that, like Hobbes’s, it is compatible with necessitarianism. For even if all of our actions are causally necessitated, we are still free to act as long as we have the ability to do as we will. And we have such an ability as long as we are not subject to compulsions or restraints (E II.xxi. 13), such as locked rooms (E II.xxi.10), convulsions (E II.xxi.11), paralysis (E II.xxi.11), torture (E II.xxi.12), or chains (E II.xxi.50). This is not agnosticism, but straightforward (and metaphysical) compatibilism.
Tomorrow: LoLordo’s Replies to Rickless