Thomas Ralston on Freedom of the Will Part 3: The Argument From Universality

We continue with Ralston’s second argument for self-determinism from his Elements of Divinity:

2. Our next argument for the self-determining power of the mind over the

will is founded upon the history of the world in general.

Turn your attention to any portion or to any period of the world’s history and you find among all nations, in their very language and common modes of speech, terms and phrases expressive of the power which all men possess of determining, or being the authors of their own wills. You will find men speaking of the acts of their minds and the determinations of their wills as though they were free. And you will also find terms expressive of blame and of praise, clearly recognizing the principle that when a man does wrong he is blamed, because he might and should have avoided the wrong.  In all countries it is a fact that, in public estimation, a man’s guilt is extenuated in proportion as the impediments in the way of avoiding the crime are increased; and upon the same principle, when the difficulties in the way of avoiding the act are absolutely insurmountable, no one is then blamed for doing the unavoidable act.

This is not to suggest that there have never been philosophies which men have held that have minimized or rejected man’s power of self-determination as Ralston had previously made clear.  Rather, the point being made is that throughout history and in every culture men have acted with regards to praise or blame in such a way as to presuppose man’s self-determining power.  This can especially be seen in various systems of justice and self government throughout human history.

Again: the laws of all civilized nations punish the criminal upon the supposition that he might have avoided the crime. And if it could be made appear that, in the act in question, the man was not a self-willing agent, but was only a tool used by the force of others which he had not the power to resist, in this case, there is not a government upon earth that would not as readily punish the sword of the assassin as that man who was merely a passive instrument, having no power to resist.

This is an excellent point and cuts right to the heart of Calvinistic determinism undermining the claim that accountability for ones actions is compatible with divine determinism.  If we are but instruments that God uses to accomplish His will in such a way that we cannot possibly avoid doing the very acts that God has determined for us to do, then we should no more be blamed for such actions than the “sword of the assassin” or the gun in the hands of a killer.  No one would ever think to blame or punish the gun or sword rather than the killer who controlled it.  Calling the gun the “proximate cause” and the killer the “remote cause” does nothing to relieve the difficulty.  Likewise, it is just as absurd to blame men and count God innocent for the sins which God determined that they should perform in such a way that they had not the least bit power to resist or do otherwise.

Why, we might ask, are rewards and punishments connected with the statutory provisions of all countries, and held out before the community, if it be not to encourage to virtue and to deter from vice? And why should these sanctions be exhibited to the subjects of all civilized governments, if men have no power to influence their own wills? Will you exhibit motives and inducements to excite them to endeavor to control their wills, when they really possess no such power? I know it may be said that these motives are designed to fix, by a necessary and invincible influence, the will itself, independent of any active agency in the man. Nothing can be more absurd and contrary to fact than such a supposition. If motives are to fix the character of the will necessarily, why is the man called upon to attend to the motives, to weigh them carefully, and make a correct decision in reference to their real weight?

This is just a little teaser of the treatment that Ralston will later give to the subject of motives and how they relate to the will when dealing directly with the arguments of Mr. Edwards.

A farther consideration of the doctrine of motives will be assigned to another chapter. Under the present head we only add that all men, in all ages and in all places, have treated each other as though they believed they were free agents. If we discard this doctrine, and assert the principles of necessity, we must change universal customs which have stood from time immemorial, and rend the very foundations of society. If man be not a free agent, why is he held bound for the fulfillment of his promise, and censured in the failure thereof? Why is he held up as an object of scorn and detestation for any crime under heaven?

Again, Ralston is not denying that certain people or even societies have held to forms of determinism.  He is only pointing out that, regardless of such philosophies, people have universally treated each other as if they had some power of contrary choice.

Why, we might ask, are jails and penitentiaries, and various modes of punishment, more or less severe, everywhere prevalent in civilized lands? If the advocates of necessity really believe in the truth of their system, let them be consistent, and go throughout the civilized world and plead for the destruction of all terms of language expressive of blame or praise; let them decry the unjustifiable prejudice of nations, by which benevolence and virtue have been applauded, and selfishness and vice condemned. Let them proclaim it abroad, that the robber and the murderer are as innocent as the infant or the saint, since all men only act as they are necessarily acted upon; and let them teach all nations to abolish at once and forever every description of punishment for crime or misdemeanor. Such would be the consistent course for sincere necessitarians (pp. 186-188).

And again we see the difficulty in trying to live consistently with such philosophies.  All of us live and interact as if we have the power of self-determination, even if we hold to philosophies which deny that power.  In our next post Ralston will begin his appeal to Scriptures.


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