What Influences the Mind to Choose? (On Freedom of the Will: Part I, Section 2c)

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The previous post in this series ended as follows: “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.”

I. The nature and circumstances of the object. This may be whether the object, viewing it as it is in itself, appears beautiful and pleasant or deformed and irksome to the mind. It includes the apparent degree of pleasure or trouble resulting from the object (or its consequences). These must be viewed as parts of the object as it appears to the mind’s view of a proposed choice. Lastly, with respect to the nature and circumstances of the object, are the apparent state of pleasure or trouble as they appear across a span of time. All things being equal, the mind will choose a present pleasure rather than one at some point in the future. The nearness in time is a circumstance of the object by which it appears more pleasing than the alternative.

II. The manner of view. The degree of apparent pleasure is an influence, but so is the manner of view. Consider two ways that this bears on an object that is connected with future pleasure. First, think about the degree to which the mind believes the pleasure to be in the future. Certain happiness is more pleasing than uncertain. All things being equal, a mere probable pleasure will be chosen over a less probable one. Second, consider how well the mind grasps a future pleasure. We have a clearer understanding of some things rather than others. For instance, the things we can immediately sense are usually more lively in our minds that things we can only imagine. “My idea of the sun when I look upon it is more vivid, than when I only think of it.” Our idea of the sweetness of a fruit tends to be stronger when eating it than when we only imagine it. Still, sometimes our ideas of things that we can only think about are stronger than at others times. This strength of an idea is one thing that greatly affects the mind in acts of volition. When one must choose between two future pleasures, the one that is more vivid to the mind will be chosen even if both options are otherwise considered the same and equally certain. Therefore, if one is presented with several future enjoyments, each with varying degrees of apparent enjoyment and probability then, all things being equal, the agreeableness of a particular option will be a combination of all those factors along with the strength of the idea of that thing to the mind.

In addition, one’s state of mind in viewing a choice contributes to the agreeableness or disagreeableness of that choice. This includes the mind’s natural temper as well as modes of thinking developed by education, custom, or some other means. A choice may seem less pleasing to one person, but not to another. Similarly, the same choice might not always appear agreeable even to the same person. Some find satisfaction in following reason, while others follow their appetites or passions. Some find it more pleasing to “deny avaricious inclination than to gratify it,” but others prefer “to gratify the vilest appetites.” These are just a few examples, among many possible others, of how different things will be most pleasing not only to different people, but also to the same people at different times.

Perhaps, however, we do not really need to distinguish between the “state of mind” and the apparent nature and circumstances of the object or the manner of view. Strictly speaking, we might say that a different state of mind only alters the agreeableness of a choice by altering how the nature and circumstances of the object appear or by changing the manner of view of an object to be stronger or weaker. However, I think it is safe to say that volition always consists of the greatest apparent good (as already explained). All things considered, the mind will always choose the thing that appears most pleasing, given the direct and immediate object of decision. If the immediate object of one’s will is his own actions, then he wills the actions that appear most agreeable to him. If, at this moment, it is most pleasing to him to walk (or speak or remain silent) then he now will to walk (or speak or remain silent). If the experience of humanity has shown us anything that is obvious and universal, it is certainly that “when men act voluntarily, and do what they please, then they do what suits them best, or what is most agreeable to them. To say, that they do what pleases them, but yet not what is agreeable to them, is the same thing as to say, they do what they please, but do not act their pleasure; and that is to say, that they do what they please and yet do not what they please.”


Thus, in a sense it appears that “the will always follows the last dictate of the understanding.” “Understanding” must be defined broadly: it includes not simply reason or judgment, but rather “the whole faculty of perception or apprehension.” It would not be true to say that the Will always follows the last dictate of understanding, if we define the understanding to include only “what reason declares to be best.” This is a different matter from the thing that now appears most agreeable in light of all the factors that combine to form the mind’s present perception of a thing. The dictate of reason certainly plays a role in the combination of influences which move the Will. Indeed, reason ought to be taken into account “in estimating the degree the degree of that appearance of good which the Will always follows.” Reason may be consistent with other factors or it may fall on the other side of the scale, “resisting the influence of other things.” However, reason may sometimes be overcome by the greater weight of other factors, resulting in an act of the Will that “is determined in opposition to it.”

I hope the preceding discussion has illustrated and confirmed the assertion  I made at the beginning of this section [i.e., Section 2): the Will is always determined by the strongest motive. This is a crucial point to establish as the basis for the rest of the discussion. I hope the truth of it will be clear “before I have finished what I have to say on the subject of human liberty.”


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