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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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