We Choose According to the Greatest Apparent Good (On Freedom of the Will: Part I, Section 2b)

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We must take note of two things to get a good grasp on the idea that the will and the apparent greatest good always coincide.

1. First, in saying “good” I mean “agreeable. What I call “appearing good to the mind” is that which seems pleasing to the mind. Certainly, if something appears disagreeable or even bad, it would not tend to engage the mind’s inclination or choice (and so also with something that appears indifferent, i.e., neither agreeable no disagreeable). If anything tends to move the Will it can only be because that thing appears to suit the mind. To say otherwise would be a direct and plain contradiction.

“Good” also means avoiding or removing things that are disagreeable, uneasy or evil. The removal of uneasiness is in itself please and agreeable. This is what Mr. Locke believes to determine the will. When he says that “uneasiness” determine the will, this can only mean that the aim that controls that act or preference is the avoidance or removal of uneasiness. That would be the same as choosing what is easier.


2. When I say that the will and the greatest apparent good always coincide, I am talking only about the immediate object of the act of volition, rather than some object that is only indirectly or remotely related to that act. Many volitional acts bear some remote connection to a goal or object that is different from the thing presently chosen. For example when a “drunkard” has a drink in front of him, the immediate objects are simply whether to drink it or leave it alone. If he chooses to drink it then that choice was more pleasing to him than to leave it alone.

There are, of course, objects to which that drunkard’s action are connected more indirectly and remotely: the present enjoyment he believes he will get from taking a drink and the future misery he believes will result from his drinking. He might decide that the future misery will be more unpleasant than it would be, at the moment, to abstain from drinking. However, neither of those two things is the object about which this discussion is concerned. The act of Will I am referring to concerns only present drinking or refusing to drink. Whether he choose to drink or abstain, that choice is the immediate object of his Will. If he chooses a present pleasure rather than a future advantage (to drink rather than avoid future misery), then we can say that that less present pleasure appears more pleasing to him than a future advantage at a distance. On the contrary, if he chooses a future advantage, then that is what suits him best. In either case, the present volition and the greatest apparent good coincide.

I have chosen to say that “the Will always is as the greatest apparent good” rather than “the Will is determined by the greatest apparent good” because I see very little distinction between the mind’s preferring and the appearance of being most agreeable to the mind. Strictly speaking it may be more precise to say that the voluntary action produced by the mind’s choice is determined by whatever appears most agreeable rather than the choice itself. But volition is always determined by those influences on the mind that cause it to appear most agreeable. Those influences include not merely the object itself, but also the manner in which it is viewed as well as the state and circumstances of the mind viewing it. Listing everything that influences the mind in its perception of something as pleasing would probably require its own book. Rather than do that, I will outline some general ideas [N.B.: in the next post].


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