Responsibility And Will Power

The development of science (meaning by that term knowledge with regard

to physical nature in contradistinction to philosophy or the relation

of nature to man) in modern times has brought about in some minds a

hesitant, if not frankly contradictory attitude towards the

question of free will. There are many scientists who not only doubt

the existence of free will, but insist that there cannot be such a

thing. For them, man like the animals is determined to do things from

without rather than from within. The stronger motive compels him.

There may be a weighing in the balance of motives, but that is a

question of intellect and not of will. It is true that the stronger

motive may be one that is less alluring to nature or to sense than

some of the others which clamor for a hearing, but it is eventually

the stronger motive that compels. A man may desire something that does

not belong to him very much, but the consciousness that it does not

belong to him and that to take things that do not belong to him is

unworthy of him will override his covetousness and so he remains

honest if he has been trained to regard things that way. After all,

the old maxim, "Honesty is the best policy," is founded on some such

reasoning as this, since only one who is at heart dishonest would

consider men as swayed by the thought that to be honest is the most

profitable, instead of being the right, and therefore the only proper


The argument for free will that appeals to most men is the

consciousness that we are free and that at any given moment we can do

a thing or not do it, just as suits us. If two things are presented

to us we can do that one which seems right to us to do, or we can do

both of them, or we can permit ourselves to be led into the wrong,

though always acknowledging to ourselves that it is the wrong and

feeling downcast, or at least disturbed, that we should let ourselves

be led away from higher motives. Even in this case the determinist

insists that we are determined from without by motives due to our

training, to our education along certain lines with the influence of

the environment in which we live, to the special sentiment that we

have within us as a consequence of the influences of preceding life.

Such determination, however, does not come from without us, but from

within. It is the result of the formation of our wills in a particular

direction. The argument is, therefore, a begging of the question. A

man may have formed the habit of doing evil things and then finds it

easy to do them without compunction. On the other hand, the exercise

of his will in doing what he considers right, in spite of the fact

that it may not be pleasant at the moment, is a training of the will

founded on its essential freedom. There is an essential distinction

between right and wrong, and we have it in our power, as many a man

has done, to follow the right even though it costs our life.

Bad Temper.--A typical example of supposed determinism, which proves

exactly the opposite of what is sometimes urged, may be noted with

regard to exhibitions of temper. As Clouston declares in his

"Unsoundness of Mind" (Methuen, London, 1911), "an uncontrollable

temper is in many cases very like and nearly allied to an unsoundness

of mind. It is certain that bad temper may gradually pass into

technical insanity and that a considerable number of persons who are

passing or have passed into insanity exhibit as the most marked

symptom morbidness and violence of temper. 'It's just temper. Doctor,'

is one of the most common remarks that I have heard made to me by

patients' friends. I think that it is quite certain that in most cases

much might be done in youth to establish a reasonable control over

temper where it is inclined to be uncontrolled, so preventing serious

discomforts in life both to its possessor and to others. In many cases

I am satisfied that this education would have the effect of

preventing unsoundness of mind also, arising out of uncontrolled

temper." There are many examples in the literature of hagiology

particularly, from which it is clear that men have learned to control

even violent tempers and by self-discipline and training in

self-control have even become rather quiet, gentle individuals. The

truth of such examples is attested too well to be discredited. This

question of training, then, is extremely important.

It has been pointed out that the consciousness of freedom to which an

appeal is made in this argument for free will is shared with us by the

insane even in the performance of many acts that we know are compelled

in certain ways. Insane persons reason themselves into a peculiar

state of mind, in which they represent to themselves that they have

been persecuted, for instance, by a particular person and then they

become persecutors in turn and do harm. As they see their act, it is

often a species of self-defense. They themselves have no

consciousness, or, at most, a very dim and hazy realization of the

inner compulsion to which they are subjected at the time of the act

and sometimes talk quite rationally and discuss the motives which

impelled them to do things, just as if they were free. We recognize,

however, the distinction between this delusion of the insane and the

rational state of mind of the sane. We have no definition for

insanity, that is, no formula of words, which will absolutely include

all the insane and at the same time exclude all the sane, but we have

a practical working knowledge that enables us to judge rather well

between those who are compelled to do things by delusions, and those

who do them from motives that are rationally weighed and that

influence a will that is free to follow them as it pleases. We hold

the rational man responsible for his acts because he knows he was free

not to do them. We punish him partly because he should not have done

them and partly because we want him not to do them again, and we know

that punishment will help him to keep from committing crime, because

it will support his free will against his inclinations, when the time

of trial comes again.

Above all, we are conscious of our own responsibility. We know that

when we do wrong we are worthy of blame. We know that when we allow

covetousness to lead us into the appropriation of what does not belong

to us we are deserving of punishment, because we need not have done

it, but we yielded to unworthy motives. We know that while anger may

be blind we can control it, at least those of us who are fully in

possession of our intellectual and voluntary powers, so as to keep

from doing violence, even in the heat of it. This dealing with

ourselves is the best proof that we have of our recognition of our

freedom of will. We are responsible, and what we genuinely do not will

to do is not accomplished. Our will may be bent by many attractions,

but we know that these motives are not compelling unless we allow them

to be. When a child tells us that he did something because he could

not help it, we either feel sorry for him because he is not yet in

possession of his full faculties or else we laugh at this excuse.

There is a tendency to admit this excuse as having a meaning, but only

by those who themselves come into court with hands assoiled in some

way and who are looking for pardon from others for offenses, and who,

above all, want to feel that they can pardon, or at least excuse,


In recent years we have seriously impaired the idea of responsibility

in the minds of the general public by a foolishly sentimental

mercifulness to criminals. If a man under indictment for murder can

show that he has ever previously in his life acted even slightly

irrationally, or if he has been peculiar in certain ways, provided, of

course, he has money enough to pay for the opinions, there will be an

abundance of expert testimony to declare that he is irresponsible and

should not be punished. As a consequence, in many cases justice fails.

We are reaping the harvest of this pseudo-scientific invasion of law.

Human life is cheaper in no country in the world than it is in

America. Our murder rate is going up by leaps and bounds, while that

of Canada remains almost stationary, and the reason is that while nine

out of ten of all our murderers do not receive the death penalty and

many of them escape serious punishment of any kind, nearly as large a

proportion of Canadian murderers are punished by death. A man may have

his responsibility somewhat impaired and yet retain sufficient free

will so that he deserves to be punished for serious crimes. It is hard

to decide in certain cases, but in most cases the decision is not

difficult if, with the right sense of justice, morbid sentimentality

is put aside.

[Footnote 59, the following lengthy citation is from an article on

"Responsibility and Punishment," in the American Journal of

Medical Science, 1909.]

While the doctrine of free will is so clear it is still true that

the question of responsibility for actions, and above all for

criminal actions, is not so simple as many people used to proclaim

it in the past. No two men are free to perform an act or not to

perform it in quite the same way. Familiar examples are ready to

hand: One man finds no difficulty at all in resisting the

inclination to take spirituous liquor to excess; another finds it a

most difficult feat, often apparently impossible for him to refrain

from indulging to excess almost whenever the opportunity offers, or

at least whenever he gets a taste of liquor. This difference between

the two men is founded in their very nature. It would be utterly a

mistake to praise the one for his abstinence or to blame the other

under certain circumstances for his indulgence. Between these two

classes there are others quite different individually. Some of them

have a slight tendency, and, fearing the worst, do not indulge in

it; some of them have a marked tendency which they are able to

resist under most circumstances without very much difficulty once

they have made up their minds; some are sorely tempted, fall

occasionally, yet never become habitual drunkards. For each of these

men there is a different responsibility, and so far as they are to

be punished a different punishment must be meted out, for it is our

effort in the modern time to make the punishment fit the criminal

and not the crime.

This same thing holds true for many other forms of crime. Some men

readily lose sight of the distinction between mine and thine, and

possess themselves of their neighbors' goods almost without

realizing that they have done wrong. They are rare, and we have been

accustomed to call these people kleptomaniacs. Between these and the

man who hesitates to steal, even when starving or for his starving

children, there are many degrees of inclination and disinclination

toward stealing. The same thing is true to a more noteworthy degree

with regard to anger. Anger, the old saw says, is a brief madness.

In America we say very frankly that a man who is very angry is mad.

In this brief madness he may be led to do things which he would not

do at all in his sober senses. Some men easily get into one of these

awful fits of anger in which their responsibility is lessened, while

others have a calm phlegmatic disposition from which they are

scarcely aroused even by the worst forms of abuse or injury, or even

physical suffering.

It is evident in all these cases that in order to measure how much

of punishment ought to be meted out for acts committed it is more

necessary to know the individual than his act. This often becomes an

extremely difficult matter, for after the commission of crime

every effort is made to make out as little responsibility as

possible for the criminal. The easiest way to do this has been to

use the insanity plea. As already stated, we have no definition of

insanity. It is easy to understand then that there will be a

disagreement among physicians as to who is or is not insane, and the

result is almost sure to create doubt which tends to obscure the

principles on which are based the proper punishment of crime. Now

this system is founded on certain wrong principles as regards the

administration of Justice. While it is difficult to decide with

regard to a man's insanity or sanity, it is not difficult to decide

with regard to his punishment when the ordinary purposes of

punishment are kept well in view.

The old idea of punishment used to be that of revenge. A man had

done a wrong, and what would ordinarily be held a wrong had to be

done to him in order that the scales of Justice should be maintained

level. At the present time we have no such idea at all. Punishment

has two main purposes--the prevention of further disturbance of

social order by the particular criminal, and the deterrence of

others from like acts. If a man takes away the life of another we do

not take away his because thus Justice will be obtained, but we take

it away to prevent him from ever doing anything of the same kind

again. A man who has committed murder is more likely to do it again

than another. He has committed one breach of social order; we shall

prevent him forever from committing another of the same kind. This

is the very best deterrent to such crimes that there is. It will be

said, of course, that these men could not refrain from doing their

acts. It is doubtful, however, whether this contention is true in

the great majority of cases, and the proper punishment of such as

occur furnishes the best possible motive to help others from the

commission of like acts.

This holds true for children at a time when their sense of

responsibility for their acts is as yet undeveloped. They can be

taught, even very early in life, by properly applied punishment,

that need not be severe, that they must not do certain things, and

then they will not do them, or at least, will do them much less.

This is true not only for perfectly rational children, but also for

those that are to some degree irrational. Punishment is of great

importance in the training of children of low grade intelligence,

and there is scarcely any child, however wanting it may be in

intellect, that cannot be disciplined into conduct that makes it

much less bothersome than would ordinarily be the case. This is well

known and it is also well known that the attempt to manage such

children without punishment would be extremely difficult, not to say

impossible. They do not reason about the thing, they are not quite

responsible for their acts; but they do connect punishment with what

they have done, and are in many cases deterred from doing it again,

especially while they realize that authority is near them and that

punishment is inevitable. These are the principles on which the

adjudication of punishment for crime must be measured. There is

nothing else that can be done if society would preserve itself and

its members from those who are irresponsible even in minor degrees.

In this matter practical experience is well worth the while. The

lower order of creatures, the animals, we do not consider

responsible for their acts in the same way as human beings. We know

the value, however, of punishment in deterring them. A dog, for

instance, by being whipped a few times when he is young, can be

taught not to steal things to eat, and taught that there is an

inevitable connection between the taking of such things and the

infliction of such punishment. I shall not soon forget my first

lesson in philosophy from a dear old professor, who, talking of the

memory of animals, demonstrated that they had a memory, from the

ordinary experience of mankind with regard to them. "If a cat does

something naughty in your room," he said, "you rub its nose in it,

and it will not do it again." The cat had no idea that it was doing

wrong. According to its way of life it was not doing wrong. It

learned, however, from sensory experience that it must not do this

sort of thing under special circumstances, and after the lesson has

been once thoroughly learned there is no more trouble of this kind.

Individuals who are of less mental stability than normal require,

indeed, more careful discipline than average men. The rational may

be managed by sweet reasonableness. The defective child must be made

to realize that certain actions will surely be followed by

painful punishment, though, of course, the main purpose of modern

care for such children is to watch over them so diligently as to

prevent them getting into mischief. This is after all what we do

with the animals, and we realize the necessity for it. Defective

human beings approach the animal in their lessened power to resist

impulses, and they must be treated in the same way. If we were to

save the animals in an excess of tenderness toward them, because we

held to the notion either that they did not know any better or else

could not resist their impulses, and then permitted them to do

things without punishment, we should either have to get rid of

animals entirely, or else life would be one continuous readjustment

of things to animal ways. Since defectives occur in the general

population, it must be realized that far from being less rigid with

them in the matter of meting out punishment for things they do that

are harmful to others, we must be even more strict with them.

Otherwise, we will have to take the bitter consequences of our own


It does not make so much difference if the thoroughly rational

individual occasionally escapes punishment for something done, but

whenever the subrational escapes, he is encouraged to do it again.

More than that, the example of his punishment is needed for others.

So far as possible, punishment must inevitably follow crime in the

world, in order to impress the subrational and deter them from

yielding to impulses. Far from being less deserving of punishment in

every sense in which a modern penologist cares to inflict

punishment, these individuals are more impressed by it, and, above

all, need to be more impressed by it. When the subrational know that

they can do things without being severely punished for them, they

will always abuse that state of affairs. The thoroughly rational man

may be depended on to do his duty as a rule without the need of

punishment hanging over him. This is not true for the others, and

hence the greater increase in crime, and above all in murder, which

has made human life cheaper in this than in any other country in the

world, as the direct consequence of recent abuses in our penal


It has become very clear now that in recent years we have come to

take entirely too lenient a view in these matters, and that many

criminals who deserved to be punished, both because in this way they

would be prevented from future crime and others deterred by the

knowledge of their punishment, have been allowed to escape Justice.

The tendency is toward too great mercifulness, which spoils the

character of the nation, just as leniency to the developing child

spoils individual character. Men may very well be insane, in the

broad meaning of that term, in the sense that they have done

irrational things, but then there is almost no one who has not. The

responsibility of most men for a definite action is quite clear in

the sense that if they are punished they will not do it again, or

will be less likely to do it again, while if they are not punished

their escape becomes a suggestion to themselves and to others to

repeat such acts. It is for the subrational that we most need to

insist on punishment. The cunning of the insane is proverbial, and

this extends also to the subrational, and many of these folk realize

that their difference from others, their queerness, as their folks

call it, is quite enough to make a verdict of insanity in their case

assured with the present lax enforcement of law. If the present

state of affairs continues in this matter, we are simply allowing

ourselves to be led by the nose by these cunning people into the

perpetuation of a state of affairs in which they may do what they

like because we have become foolishly oversensitive in the matter of

inflicting punishment.

On the principle that punishment deters, a man who has killed

another man, even under conditions that seriously impaired his

responsibility for the act and with evidence of previous lowered

mentality, must never again be free to live the ordinary life of

men. He must be under surveillance, and should be confined for life

in an institution for the criminally insane. For the subrational

such a sentence, if known to be inevitable, would usually be more

deterrent than even imprisonment in an ordinary prison for life with

all the possibilities for freedom which are presented by executive

clemency, pardoning boards, and the like. It is absurd to say that a

man may have such an attack of mental unsoundness as will lead him

to do so serious an act as taking away human life, and then be

expected to get over his mental condition so as not to be likely to

do the same thing again. Every alienist knows that this is not

true. Such acts, when really due to mental instability, occur either

in depressed or maniacal conditions, and these, as is now well known

from carefully collected statistics, inevitably recur, or in

weakened toxic conditions in susceptible subjects, and a return to

the old mode of life may at any time bring recurrences.

It is in the treatment of disorders of the will of various kinds that

the physician is brought to realize how much harm is done by the

teaching that determinism and not free will rules life. It is true

that we often find cases in which men and women cannot use their wills

or at least seem not to be able to use them. They are lacking in some

essential quality of human mentality. We find many human beings,

however, doing things that are harmful for them and that are so

inveterated by habit that it is extremely difficult to get away from

them. In every case the sane person can conquer and break the habit,

no matter how much of a hold it may have obtained.

We have heard much of the born criminal and of the degenerate and his

inevitable tendencies, but most of the theories founded on this phase

of criminal anthropology have gradually been given up as a consequence

of more careful and, above all, more detailed observation. Many

criminals bear the stigmata of so-called degeneration. Many of them

have irregular heads, uneven ears, some fastened directly to the cheek

and some with the animal peak, many have misshapen mouths and noses,

but, on the other hand, many people having these physical qualities

are good men and women, perfectly capable of self-control, honest,

efficient members of society, and it is evident that the original

observations were founded too exclusively on the criminal classes,

instead of on the whole population. It is important, then, to get away

from the notion of irresponsibility in these cases.

While men are free, yet each in a different way and the freedom of

their wills is as individual as their countenances, it must not be

forgotten that the freedom of the will is a function of the human

being, and, like all other functions, can be increased or decreased by

exercise or the lack of it. The old idea of "breaking the will" was as

much of a mistake as that other old-fashioned notion contemporary with

it of "hardening" children by exposing them to inclement weather and

severe physical trials. The will may be strengthened, however, by the

exercise of it and if not exercised it may not be expected, by

analogy, at least, to be as weak and flabby as muscles would be under

similar circumstances. The training of the will by self-denial and

self-control is extremely important. When there is an hereditary

influence, a family trait and not merely an acquired character, by

which the will rather easily passes out of control, there is all the

more need for the training of it in early youth. Without such training

men may find it impossible to make up their minds to deny themselves

indulgence of many kinds, but this is not because they have not free

will, but because this function has never been exercised sufficiently

to enable them to use it properly. A man who attempts to do gymnastic

feats without training comes a cropper. A man who is placed in

circumstances requiring hard muscle exertion will fail if his muscles

have not been trained to bear it. The same thing will happen with the


Unfortunately this training of the will has been neglected to a

considerable extent in modern education, and, above all, in modern

families, where the presence of but one or two children concentrates

attention on them, over-stimulating them when young, leading to

self-centeredness and, above all, discouraging self-denial in any way

and preventing that development of thorough self-control which comes

in the well-regulated large family. Besides, unfortunately it is just

the neurotic individuals who most need thorough training in

self-control and whose parents suffer from the same nervous condition

(for, while disease is not inherited, defects are inherited), that are

deprived of such regular training in self-control because of the

inability of their parents to regulate either themselves or others

properly. Here is the secret of the more frequent development of

neurotic symptoms in recent years. It is not so much the strenuous

life as the lack of training of the will so that the faculty of free

will can be used properly. Lacking this, hysterical symptoms,

unethical tendencies, lack of self-control become easily manifest. The

training that would prevent these should come early in life, and when

it does not it is very difficult to make up for it later. Just as far

as possible, however, it is the duty of the psychotherapeutist to

supply by suggestions as to training and discipline for the education

of the will that has unfortunately been missed.

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