Locke on the Will and Freedom
Some Lecture Notes

© by Dr. Jan Garrett

Last modified February 25, 2004

Chapter 21 of Locke's Essay, "Of Power," is a long chapter, over 50 pages in the original; it is very interesting for what it reveals about Locke's conception of the moral subject and his position in the age-old controversy concerning free will and determinism, or in his terms, liberty and necessity. It also contains passages which indicate that he has a hedonist conception of happiness, though one entirely compatible with a fairly conventional version of Christianity.

If we were to trace the ancestry of David Hume's later famous skeptical treatment of the idea of cause, we would have to study closely Locke's treatment in this chapter of the same idea.

L. begins his discussion of power by referring to the sequences of events which we experience, and the fact that some of these sequences appear to be regular:

after events of type C, events of type E (regularly occur)
From this we form the idea that one thing has the possibility of making a second change, and the second the possibility of being changed. Fire has the power to melt gold, gold the power to be melted by fire.

Power is therefore either active (e.g., fire in our example) or passive (e.g., gold in our example).

[Q19] We receive the idea of passive power from almost all sensible things (ii 21.4). One billiard ball receives motion from another; the recipient ball exhibits passive power. Locke is doubtful, however, that the ball from which the motion is transferred is truly active. The first ball, he says, only communicates to the second the motion it received from the billiard stick. But neither the balls nor the billiard stick originate the motion. And in general, says Locke, bodies give us at best an obscure idea of active power.

[Q20] We find in ourselves, Locke holds, the original of our idea of active power.

The idea of the beginning of motion we have only from reflection on what passes in ourselves, where we find by experience that barely by willing it, barely by a thought of the mind, we can move the parts of our bodies which were before at rest. . . . This power which the mind has . . . to order the consideration of any idea, or the forebearing to consider it; or to prefer the motion of any party of the body to its rest, and vice versa in any particular instance is that which we call the will. (Chapter 21, Sections 4-5)
[Q21] The idea of Liberty, he says, (21.8) 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 preferred to the other; where either of them is not in the power of the agent to be produced by him according to his volition, there he is not at liberty, that agent is under necessity.
This definition seems to dissolve the problem of free will because freedom does not pertain to the will but to the features of action that are subsequent to the will. Thus, a prisoner who wills to leave his cell but cannot because the door is locked is not at liberty; a physically weak individual who cannot walk three mph is not at liberty to do, though he may will to do so.

In the realm of thinking as well as action, we are in some respects at liberty, in others under necessity. A waking person is under necessity to think, i.e., to have some ideas or others, but often at liberty to contemplate the ideas he chooses. A person being tortured on the rack, says Locke, is not at liberty to expel the idea of pain from his mind.

[22]Thus Locke thinks the question whether the human will is free is an "unreasonable, because unintelligible, question" (21.14) The will and liberty are two powers, both are powers of a human being. It makes sense to ask whether a human being has a will (for if he is in a permanent coma he does not); it makes sense to ask whether a human being is at liberty to do one thing or another. But it does not make sense to ask whether the will is free, which is to ask whether a power has a power.

[Q23] Exploring the question further (21.24), Locke allows himself to be asked whether a man is at liberty to will or not to will, and his answer is, no, he is not at liberty to will or not to will because he often has to choose between one action and another, which is to say, faced with action proposals, he necessarily wills, i.e. chooses.

But Locke admits a further question, what determines the will?

To this I answer, the motive, for continuing in the same state or action, is only the present satisfaction in it; the motive to change, is always some uneasiness: nothing setting us upon the change of state, or upon any new action, but some uneasiness. (21.29)
It is important to distinguish will from desire, he maintains. We can choose an action which is contrary to one of our desires, but not to our desires collectively considered. The reason is that "what determines the will in regard to our actions" is "some uneasiness which a man is at present under." Desire is "an uneasiness of the mind for want of some absent good." (21.31)

Locke's theory of human motivation is a species of psychological hedonism. In effect, it seems to me, he is a determinist with respect to human action: there are causes for our desires and uneasiness; these desires determine the will; considered in itself, a man's will is not determined to one action as opposed to the other, but in real life it is determined by the balance of present uneasiness. But for Locke there is no problem of free will, freedom or liberty, on the one side, or necessity, on the other, is subsequent to the willing or choosing.

Unlike the so-called hard determinist, for whom

P) our wills are determined
C) we are not free or responsible
Locke holds that the determination of the will does not in itself make us unfree and does not remove us from blameworthiness. Unlike the metaphysical libertarian, such as Kant or Sartre, for whom
P) we are responsible agents
C) our wills (Kant) or original choices (Sartre) are not det'd
Locke would accept no such entailment.

[Q24] Locke does not quit here. What moves desire (as its goal) is happiness (21.41); "happiness . . . in its full extent is the utmost pleasure we are capable of," while "misery [is] the utmost pain." He relates the concepts of good and evil to happiness and therefore to pleasure and pain. "The cause of every less degree of pain, as well as every greater degree of pleasure has the nature of good, and vice versa." (21.42)

Locke makes the point that there is a difference between apprehending something as the greater good and willing or choosing to promote it. The only true springs of action are those felt, not those proven by argument. (21.35) This is a point that he did not clearly understand when he published the first edition of the Essay, but in the later editions he made it emphatically. The point is close to Aristotle's recognition of weakness of the will.

But Locke adds, in 21.46, that

by a due consideration and examining any good proposed, it is in our power, to raise our desires, in a due proportion to the value of that good, whereby in its turn, and place it may come to work upon the will, and be pursued. For good, though appearing, and allowed never so great, yet till it has raised desires in our minds, and thereby made us uneasy in its want, it reaches not our wills.
Interestingly, he makes the following claim which seems, contrary to much of what he says, to introduce a space of freedom behind the will:
The mind having in most cases, as is evident in experience, a power to suspend the execution and satisfaction of any of its desires, and so all, one after another, is at liberty to consider the objects of them; examine them on all sides, and weight them with others. In this lies the liberty Man has; and from the not using of it right comes all that variety of mistakes, errors, and faults which we run into, in the conduct of our lives, and our endeavours after happiness; whilst we precipitate the determination of our wills, and engage too soon before due examination. To prevent this we have a power to suspend the prosecution of this or that desire, as every one daily may experiment in himself. This seems to me the source of all liberty; in this seems to consist that, which is (as I think improperly) call'd free will. For during the suspension of any desire, before the will be determined to action, and the action . . . done, we have the opportunity to examine, view, and judge, of the good or evil of what we are going to do; and when, upon due examination, we have judged, we have done our duty, all that we can, or ought to do, in pursuit of our happiness; and tis not a fault, but a perfection of our nature to desire, will and act according to the last result of a fair examination.
But on Locke's psychology, the suspension of action until one has examined the consequences apt to flow from it or its alternates is itself an action, i.e., though of the mind over its own operations rather than of the mind directly over the body. This action, moreover, must itself be a product of willing, which itself, if it is to occur, must flow from a desire. And what can this desire be but the desire to act wisely, which is to say, successfully, coupled with the belief kept fixedly in mind that successful action is more likely just in case one carefully examines the consequences likely to flow from the available options.

Locke does not ask where the belief in the fruitfulness of examining the consequences of action comes from. I do not think we can say that it comes from resisting the impulse to act and taking the time out to examine the alternatives, but from

(1) having the leisure to examine options before choices become urgent,
(2) having others urge us to examine such options before choices become urgent,
(3) having these others model for us the process of examining such options before choice becomes urgent,
(4) having a desire to imitate or gain approval of these others,
(5) then actually discovering, when choice actually is made on the basis of such prior examination, that it was fruitful for us to have examined the options beforehand.
This is not an idle point if you think of how much grief can attend the failure of young people to think through, in advance, the consequences of their sexual choices.

That people do often act precipitously, Locke is well aware. He still holds such people blameworthy: "it excuses him not," he says,

because by a too hasty choice of his own making, he has imposed on himself wrong measures of good and evil; which, however false and fallacious, have the same influence on all his future conduct, as if they were true and right . . . If the neglect or abuse of the Liberty he had to examine what would really and truly make for his Happiness misleads him, the miscarriages that follow on it must be imputed to his own election. He had a Power to suspend his determination: it was given him that he might examine, and take care of his own happiness, and look that he were not deceived. (p. 271)
Is Locke letting indeterminism sneak in the back door here, just where his psychology should exclude it? At least, it seems to me, he is not trying very hard at this point in his Essay to prevent the reader from supplying an uncaused cause of action.

In my view, we need to recognize that the ordinary practice of assigning responsibility has a much closer connection to prephilosophical common sense than the practice of psychology and the designing of social institutions does. The ordinary practice of assigning responsibility traces causation back to the desire, beliefs and character of the agent and no farther. The perspective of the designer of social institutions, however, requires a search for causes of desire, belief, and character, and once that gets started, it is always possible to ask about prior determinants, forever pushing causation back in time and clearly never reaching a first cause (in this world, anyway).

To reduce the intellectual tension created by these different practices, it helps to realize is that we need both practices but for different purposes and at different times. We need to blame thoughtless people for their actions and to insist that they are responsible for them, and we need to do what we can to train people--to determine them--to be more thoughtful, however difficult that may be. Indeed, holding them responsible (thus sometimes punishing them) may be one of the ways to determine them for the better; but to recognize this is to shift from the ordinary perspective to the more reflective or theoretical one.