an English journalist and politician who helped found the British Labor Party and was a strong advocate of socialism. In this selection, he defends hard determinism on what he regards as essentially common-sense grounds, arguing that everything that a person does is determined by the combination of heredity and environment, and hence that no one is ever free to do other than he or she does, or morally responsible, or deserving of either blame or praise. His argument is not dependent in any important way on the general thesis of causal determinism.Robert Blatchford (1851–1943) was
Blatchford’s motive for advocating this conclusion is intensely practical: he wants to convince us that even the “bottom dogs” in society, people who seem may utterly beyond redemption and entirely unworthy of sympathy or concern, are not responsible for the way they are and so do not deserve the punishments and other negative treatment they receive. His argument is perhaps best understood as a pair of challenges to other views: what alternative is there to an action being rigidly determined by heredity and environment, and how can an action that is determined in this way be free (in the sense required for moral responsibility)?
A Defense of Hard Determinism, from
Not Guilty: A Defense of the Bottom Dog</ITAL></TTL></FM>
The Author’s Apology
...I claim that men should not be classified as good and bad, but as fortunate and unfortunate; that they should be pitied, and not blamed; helped instead of being punished.
I claim that since we do not hold a man worthy of praise for being born beautiful, nor of blame for being born ugly, neither should we hold him worthy of praise for being born virtuous, nor of blame for being born vicious.
I base this claim upon the self-evident and undeniable fact that man has no part in the creation of his own nature.
I shall be told this means that no man is answerable for his own acts.
That is exactly what it does mean.
But, it will be urged, every man has a free will to act as he chooses; and to deny that is to imperil all law and order, all morality and discipline.
I deny both these inferences, and I ask the reader to hear my case patiently, and to judge it on its merits.
Where Do Our Natures Come From?
...I deal with heredity before environment, because it is needful to take them one at a time, and heredity comes first; as birth before schooling.
But we must not fall into the bad habit of thinking of heredity and environment apart from each other, for it is both , and not either of them that make man’s character.
It is often said that neither heredity nor environment accounts for a man’s conduct. And that is true. But it is true, also, that heredity and environment account for every quality in the human “make-up.”…
Now, what do we mean by “heredity”?
Heredity is “descent,” or “breed.” Heredity, as the word is here used, means those qualities which are handed down from one generation to the next. It means those qualities which a new generation inherits from the generation from whom it descends. It means all that “is bred in the bone.” If a man inherits a Grecian nose, a violent temper, well-knit muscles, a love of excitement, or a good ear for music, from his father or mother, that quality or feature is part of his heredity. It is “bred in him.”
<ITAL>every quality of body or of mind, is inherited from his parents and their ancestors. And the whole of those qualities—which are the child—are what we call “heredity.”Every quality a child possesses at the moment of birth,
No child brings into the world one single quality of body or mind that has not been handed down to it by its ancestors.
Now, since a child inherits some qualities from its father and some from its mother, it follows that if the father and mother are different from each other, the child must differ from both, and yet resemble both. For he will inherit from the father qualities which the mother has not inherited from her ancestors, and he will inherit from the mother qualities which the father did not inherit from his ancestors. So the child will resemble both parents, without being an exact copy of either. It “varies” from both parents by inheriting from each.
What is environment?
When we speak of a man’s environment we mean his surroundings, his experiences; all that he sees, hears, feels, and learns, from the instant that the lamp of life is kindled to the instant when the light goes out.
By environment we mean everything that develops or modifies the child or the man for good or for ill.
We mean his mother’s milk; the home, and the state of life into which he was born. We mean the nurse who suckles him, the children he plays with, the school he learns in, the air he breathes, the water he drinks, the food he eats. We mean the games he plays, the work he does, the sights he sees, the sounds he hears. We mean the girls he loves, the woman he marries, the children he rears, the wages he earns. We mean the sickness that tries him, the griefs that sear him, the friends who aid and the enemies who wound him. We mean all his hopes and fears, his victories and defeats; his faiths and his disillusionments. We mean all the harm he does, and all the help he gives; all the ideals that beckon him, all the temptations that lure him; all his weepings and laughter, his kissings and cursings, his lucky hits and unlucky blunders: everything he does and suffers under the sun.
I go into all this detail because we must remember that everything that happens to a man, everything that influences him, is a part of his environment.
It is a common mistake to think of environment in a narrow sense, as though environment implied no more than poverty or riches. Everything outside our skin belongs to our environment.
Let us think of it again. Education is environment; religion is environment; business and politics are environment; all the ideals, conventions, and prejudices of race and class are environment; literature, science, and the Press are environment; music, history, and sport are environment; beauty and ugliness are environment; example and precept are environment; war and travel and commerce are environment; sunshine and ozone, honour and dishonour, failure and success, are environment; love is environment.
I stress and multiply examples because the power of environment is so tremendous that we can hardly over-rate its importance.
A child is not born with a conscience; but with the rudiments of a conscience: the materials from which a conscience may or may not be developed—by environment.
A child is not born with capacities, but only with potentialities, or possibilities, for good or evil, which may or may not be developed—by environment.
A child is born absolutely without knowledge. Every atom of knowledge he gets must be got from his environment.
How Heredity and Environment Work
There are many who have some understanding of heredity and of environment when taken separately who fail to realise their effects upon each other.
</P>The common cause of the stumbling is easy to remove.
It is often said that two men are differently affected by the same environment, or what seems to be the same environment, and that therefore there must be some power in men to “overcome” their environment.
...the contest between a man and his environment is really a contest between heredity and environment….
A given environment will affect two different men differently, because their heredity is different.
They are taken at birth into an environment of theft, drunkenness, and vice. They are taught to lie, to steal, and to drink. They never hear any good, never see a good example.
Harry, the degenerate, will take to evil as a duck to water. Of that, I think, there is no question. But what of Dick, the healthy baby?
Dick is born without knowledge. He is also born with undeveloped propensities. He will learn evil. His propensities will be trained to evil. How is he to “overcome his environment and become good”? He cannot . What will happen in Dick’s case is that he will become a different kind of criminal—a stronger and cleverer criminal than Harry.
But, I hear some one say, “we know that children, born of thieves and sots, and reared in bad surroundings, have turned out honest and sober men.” And the inference is that they rose superior to their environment.
But that inference is erroneous. The fact is that these children were saved by some good environment, acting against the bad.
Two children may be born of the same parents, reared in the same hovel, in the same slum, taught the same evil lesson. But they will meet different companions, and will have different experiences.
And we shall always find that the man who rises above his environment has really been helped by good environment to overcome the bad environment. He has learnt some good . And that learning is part of his environment. He must have been taught some good if he knows any, for he was born destitute of knowledge.
It is a mistake to think of heredity as all good, or all bad. It is mixed. We inherit, all of us, good and bad qualities.
It is a mistake to think of environment as all good or all bad. It is mixed. There are always good and bad influences around every one of us.
It is a mistake to think that any two men ever did or can have exactly the same environment.
The free will delusion has been a stumbling block in the way of human thought for thousands of years. Let us try whether common sense and common knowledge cannot remove it.
We reply that the will is ruled by heredity and environment.
To begin with, the average man will be against me. He knows that he chooses between two courses every hour, and often every minute, and he thinks his choice is free. But that is a delusion: his choice is not free. He can choose, and does choose. But he can only choose as his heredity and his environment cause him to choose. He never did choose and never will choose except as his heredity and his environment—his temperament and his training—cause him to choose. And his heredity and his environment have fixed his choice before he makes it.
The average man says “I know that I can act as I wish to act.” But what causes him to wish?
The free will party say, “We know that a man can and does choose between two acts.” But what settles the choice?
There is a cause for every wish, a cause for every choice; and every cause of every wish and choice arises from heredity, or from environment.
For a man acts always from temperament, which is heredity, or from training, which is environment.
And in cases where a man hesitates in his choice between two acts, the hesitation is due to a conflict between his temperament and his training, or, as some would express it, “between his desire and his conscience.”
Let us suppose a case. A young woman gets two letters by the same post; one is an invitation to go with her lover to a concert, the other is a request that she will visit a sick child in the slums. The girl is very fond of music, and is rather afraid of the slums. She wishes to go to the concert, and to be with her lover; she dreads the foul street and the dirty home, and shrinks from the risk of measles or fever. But she goes to the sick child, and she foregoes the concert. Why?
Because her sense of duty is stronger than her self-love.
Now, her sense of duty is partly due to her nature—that is, to her heredity—but it is chiefly due to environment. Like all of us, this girl was born without any kind of knowledge, and with only the rudiments of a conscience. But she has been well taught, and the teaching is part of her environment.
We may say that the girl is free to act as she chooses, but she does act as she has been taught that she ought to act. This teaching, which is part of her environment, controls her will.
We may say that a man is free to act as he chooses. He is free to act as he chooses, but he will choose as heredity and environment cause him to choose. For heredity and environment have made him that which he is.
Macbeth was ambitious; but he had a conscience. He wanted Duncan’s crown; but he shrank from treason and ingratitude. Ambition pulled him one way, honour pulled him the other way. The opposing forces were so evenly balanced that he seemed unable to decide. Was Macbeth free to choose? To what extent was he free? He was so free that he could arrive at no decision, and it was the influence of his wife that turned the scale to crime.
Was Lady Macbeth free to choose? She did not hesitate. Because her ambition was so much stronger than her conscience that she never was in doubt. She chose as her over-powering ambition compelled her to choose.
And most of us in our decisions resemble either Macbeth or his wife. Either our nature is so much stronger than our training, or our training is so much stronger than our nature, that we decide for good or evil as promptly as a stream decides to run down hill; or our nature and our training are so nearly balanced that we can hardly decide at all.
In Macbeth’s case the contest is quite clear and easy to follow. He was ambitious, and his environment had taught him to regard the crown as a glorious and desirable possession. But environment had also taught him that murder, and treason, and ingratitude were wicked and disgraceful.
Had he never been taught these lessons, or had he been taught that gratitude was folly, that honour was weakness, and murder excusable when it led to power, he would not have hesitated at all. It was his environment that hampered his will.
We say that a drunkard and a lifelong abstainer are free to drink or to refuse a glass of whisky. But we know that in both cases the action of the free will is a foregone conclusion.
In all cases the action of the will depends upon the relative strength of two or more motives. The stronger motive decides the will; just as the heavier weight decides the balance of a pair of scales.
In Macbeth’s case the balance seemed almost even: Lady Macbeth’s persuasion brought down the scale on the wrong side.
If the will were free, it would be independent of the temperament and training, and so would act as freely in one case as in another. So that it would be as easy for the drunkard as for the lifelong abstainer to refuse to drink; as easy for the thief as for the Cardinal to be honest; as easy for Macbeth as for Lady Macbeth to seal the fate of Duncan.
How, then, can we believe that free will is outside and superior to heredity and environment?
We all know that we can foretell the action of certain men in certain cases, because we know the men.
Guilty or Not Guilty?
We are to ask whether it is true that everything a man does is the only thing he could do, at the instant of his doing it.
This is a very important question, because if the answer is yes, all praise and all blame are undeserved.
All praise and all blame.
Let us take some revolting action as a test.
A tramp has murdered a child on the highway, has robbed her of a few coppers, and has thrown her body into a ditch.
“Do you mean to say that tramp could not help doing that? Do you mean to say he is not to blame? Do you mean to say he is not to be punished?”
Yes. I say all those things; and if all those things are not true this book is not worth the paper it is printed on.
Prove it? I have proved it. But I have only instanced venial acts, and now we are confronted with murder. And the horror of murder drives men almost to frenzy, so that they cease to think: they can only feel.
Murder. Yes, a brutal murder. It comes upon us with a sickening shock.... I have to plead for the bottom dog: the lowest, the most detested, the worst.
The tramp has committed a murder. It was a cowardly and cruel murder, and the motive was robbery.
But I have proved that all motives and all powers; all knowledge and capacity, all acts and all words, are caused by heredity and environment.
I have proved that a man can only be good or bad as heredity and environment cause him to be good or bad; and I have proved these things because I have to claim that all punishments and rewards, all praise and blame, are undeserved.
From Not Guilty: A Defense of the Bottom Dog (New York: Boni and Liveright, 1918).
1. Blatchford gives reasons for thinking that heredity and especially environment influence people’s choices, make it more difficult for them to do some things than others, and perhaps even rule out some choices entirely. Do any of these reasons, or any other reasons that he gives, make a strong case for the claim that what a person does is entirely determined by heredity and environment, so that no other alternative than what he did was genuinely possible for him?
2. Suppose that Blatchford is wrong in claiming that a person’s actions are entirely determined by his heredity and environment. One possibility is that there is a degree of randomness in human action: that there is more than one possible choice for a person with a specified heredity and environment in a particular situation and that it is a matter of chance which of the possible choices he or she will make. What would Blatchford probably say about a choice that is to this degree random, and do you think he would be right? Is there any further alternative besides complete determination by heredity and environment or partial determination plus a degree of randomness?
3. If Blatchford’s deterministic view is correct, does it follow that it is pointless to punish (or praise) people for what they do? Can you think of any justification for punishment that is compatible with hard determinism?
[i] C1 That there are hereditary inclinations to immorality in the way suggested here is something many people would nowadays reject. But it is enough for Blatchford’s purposes that some people are hereditarily more susceptible to environmental influences in the direction of immorality. And if even that isn’t true, then the role of environment just becomes larger, which would not affect Blatchford’s main conclusions.
[ii] C2 But how can Blatchford (or anyone else) justify the claim that two people with exactly the same heredity and environment will behave in exactly the same ways in the same circumstances. Even identical twins raised in the same house do not have exactly the same environment. How then can this claim be established if such cases never occur?
[iii] C2 This is an overstatement. “Overruling” heredity and environment would suggest that they have no influence at all. But it would be enough for at least some degree of freedom if these things influenced but did not completely determine a person’s actions—that is, if there were at least two significantly different alternatives open to him.
[iv] C2 That it is harder for one person to be sober than it is for another (which again seems obvious) doesn’t yet show that what each person does is entirely determined by heredity and environment.
[v] C2 But the fact that one person can will things that a second person cannot will does not show that everything they will is determined—that there are no significant alternatives open to them.
[vi] ST Does the fact that people’s behavior is mostly predictable show that it is entirely determined? If it were completely predictable, so that we could be “sure” what each person will do in every situation, would this establish determinism? (And is it plausible that people’s behavior is in fact completely predictable? Think of some examples here.)