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John Locke on Power and Free Will

All quotes from Essay Concerning Human Understanding, B.II Ch.XXI

The notion of personal will — and its freedom — is one that has caused endless discussion throughout the annals of Western philosophy. However, for John Locke, this question is absurd. In Book II, Chapter XXI of An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Locke presents a theory of freedom. The text itself went through five revisions, with significant changes appearing in edition two and the posthumous edition five. Yet, his conception of freedom is a novel one. Locke’s understanding of action, the will, and liberty, as we will see, results in his taking the question “Do we have free will?” to be incoherent.

How does he support this conclusion? That is the question this essay will aim to answer. Moreover, it seems to me that Locke’s chapter On Power (B.II Ch.XXI) does not receive enough attention in modern debates regarding human will. Here’s to endeavoring to change that.

Action and powers

To begin, it would be beneficial to say a word about action and powers in Locke’s construction. Locke begins with a recognition of our ability to begin and forbear actions of our minds and the movements of our bodies. It is true for Locke that the action a mind or body takes is closely related to the concept of power, of which he separates into two kinds: active and passive.

A power, for Locke, is that which allows some entity to change or be changed by another. The active power is that which changes; the passive is that which is changed. Thus, as is highlighted in Locke’s example, when a ball is struck by a billiard stick, a ball receives the change and “obeys” (through its ability to do so) the motion of that billiard stick; that is, the ball which is struck is said to be passive whereas that which struck it is serving as an active power.

The action, likewise, are things that we actually do, not merely receive; e.g., the getting shoved by an individual on the rugby field is a happening received, while the showing of another is an active delivery of force. These actions, it should be noted, are not just of the motions of the body for Locke; they also pertain to motions of the mind. This is why Locke includes forbearance within his definition of an action; the mental action to halt oneself from proceeding is, in another way, something we actively do.

However, the question now remains, how are these actions brought about, these powers put to use? The answer for Locke begins with the conception of the will, which is itself a power

The will as a power

The will, according to Locke, is the faculty with which we place considerations before others such that we prefer that consideration more than we do not, and that we have the capacity to actually perform or actualize this action if in liberty; similarly with bodily motion, the will is that which we prefer to initiate movement more than we do its rest and that we have the capacity to actually perform this act if in liberty.

The act of exercising this power is what Locke calls volition or willing — and everyone has it.

Although we will address what Locke means when using the term liberty in due course, it is worth first looking at the potential limits on this power.

Locke uses a clear example of a person who prefers to fly.

The individual, although he may prefer the growing of wings to not, or to the action of moving through the air to walking, it is something the mind has no power over. Similarly, Locke uses the example of pain; that is, while it may be the case that one prefer the pain one is experiencing at a given time to go away, it is of course something by which the mind can not exert power (will) upon to change.

Thus, it must be added to the definition of will that the capacity to exert or actualize the power be essential. Locke then goes on to claim the mind determines the will through “uneasiness” and the desire to remove it. Additionally it is understood that the will, like all powers, belong only to agents.

Thus, for Locke, the conception of asking whether the will is free is absurd; that is, powers like being free are only applicable to agents — persons or beings who can have powers — not other powers; other powers can not have the power of, say, freedom. And, since we have already said the will is a power, it can not itself have any other power attached to it — the will can not “be free.”

Limitis on the will as a power and Liberty

Given the nature of the will, Locke goes on to make claims about liberty and voluntary action, such that in combination with the understanding of will previously outlined, one can continue to assert that the question “Do humans have free will?” to be absurd.

Locke provides no explicit definition of voluntary and it is therefore problematic in terms of interpretation. However, I take Locke to mean “voluntary” as describing any action that is caused by volition that wants that action to occur whereby the ability to use the power (i.e.,the will) is accessible; conversely, involuntary describes an action that runs counter to one’s volition or will.

To illustrate “voluntariness”, I shall point to a useful example produced by Locke. The scenario imagined involves a person who is walking on a bridge and the bridge collapses beneath her, which causes her to fall. We, to see clearly a voluntary action, ought to focus upon the part in which the bridge collapses and the individual is falling. While the individual is falling, it seems that the individual is certainly able to prefer not to be falling; however, does is this sufficient for describing the action as voluntary?

At first glance, one may be inclined to say yes; this, however is dependent upon one’s accepting preference as the will, and although Locke is keen on, for the sake of convenience in articulation, using the term, he makes clear it does not quite encapsulate the true meaning of the term “willing”.

Here, I believe is an example in which the limits of the word “preference” and its usefulness is reached. That is, to say that one has the ability to prefer something is not enough; for it to constitute as a true use of the will, the willing of a thing must also be accompanied by the capacity to actualize the thing willed (e.g., flying) if in liberty. So it can be said that while falling in the air, the action “falling” can not be understood as voluntary, as it does not meet the criteria of the term’s definition regarding the use of the will.

However, this example is also useful for introducing two other major concepts of Locke’s understanding of the will: the concept of liberty and necessity. Although it may be less clear as to the definition of voluntary and its application, Locke makes it much clearer as to the definition and application of liberty.

The bridge case has a person falling against her preference (assuming the individual prefers not to fall off a bridge); however, the preference to not fall can not be actualized upon volition (although that is due to him willing something beyond the use of his agency) and is therefore not in liberty.

Therefore we can say that liberty is the power one has when one is able to actualize volition through the power of the will; in this sense, liberty is conditional on a being a.) having been endowed with the power of will b.) exerting that power (volition), and c.) being able to actualize it.

In a simpler way, liberty is the power to do an action when an action has been willed. This is why a tennis ball cannot have — or be in — liberty. That which can not be actualized is what Locke says is in necessity. For example, the individual with the “convulsive arm who strikes himself and his friends” is not at liberty, but in necessity.

It seems then, one could potentially voluntarily act while not being at liberty to do so.

Although the flying and the bridge case do not fit this mold — as one can not will to fly or forbear impossibilities — the case in which one is locked in a room against his will certainly could; that is, one could will that she be let out (and has the capacity to leave once the door is unlocked), but is unable to actualize this volition due to the door blocking the path. This individual is voluntarily acting, according to Locke, but is under necessity.

Here we see how Locke’s conception of the will is a swift departure from the common western dialectic and serves as an interesting point of departure into future, alternative conversations surrounding the will.

Although, the question pertaining to the freedom of will is absurd for Locke, there are yet many questions left open, leaving the discussion yearning further consideration. For example, is the relationship between voluntary action and liberty problematic? Is Locke a compatibilist? Does that have bearing on his conception of voluntary action and freedom? These are all questions left unanswered, but worth considering in a further discussion — one in which Locke might take center stage as the philosophical thinker he was.



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Anthony DiMauro

Anthony DiMauro

Anthony DiMauro is a freelance writer in New York City. J.D. Candidate. NYU philosophy alum. You can follow him on Twitter @AnthonyMDiMauro