• Greg

Voluntary Acts and States

Updated: Mar 7

A portion of "Doctrine of the Will" By Asa Mahan (1799 - 1889) - President of the Oberlin Collegiate Institute

THE Will, as I have already said, exists in a trinity with the Intelligence and Sensibility. In respect to the operations of the different departments of our mental being, I lay down the two following propositions:

1. Obligation, moral desert, &c., are directly predicable only of the action of the Will.

2. For the operations of the other faculties we are accountable so far forth only as the existence and character of such operations depend upon the Will. In other words, it is for voluntary acts and states only that we are accountable. This I argue because,

1. Obligation, as we have seen, consists only with Liberty. All the phenomena of the Intelligence and Sensibility, in the circumstances of their occurrence, are not free, but necessary. Accountability, therefore, cannot be predicated of such phenomena. We may be, and are, accountable for such phenomena, so far forth as their existence and character depend upon the Will: in other words, so far forth as they are voluntary, and not involuntary, states of mind.

2. The truth of the above proposition, and of that only, really corresponds with the universal conviction of the race. This conviction is expressed in two ways.

(1.) When blame is affirmed of the operations of the Intelligence or Sensibility, it is invariably thus affirmed: “You have no right to entertain such thoughts or sentiments. You have no right indulge such feeling’s.” In other words, praise or blame is never directly predicated of these operations themselves, but of the action of the Will relatively to them.

(2.) All men agree, that the moral character of all actions, of all states of mind whatever; depends upon intention. In no point is there a more universal harmony among moral philosophers than in respect to this. But intention is undeniably a phenomenon of the Will, and of that exclusively. We must therefore admit, that moral obligation is predicable of the Will only, or deny the fundamental convictions of the race.

3. The truth of the above propositions is intuitively evident, the moment the mind apprehends their real import. A man, as he steps out of a warm room, amid the external frosts of winter, feels an involuntary chill over his whole system. We might with the same propriety attribute blame to him for such feelings, as for any other feelings, thoughts, or perceptions which exist alike independent of his Will, and especially in opposition to its determinations.

4. If we suppose all the voluntary acts and states of a moral agent to be, and always to have been, in perfect conformity to moral rectitude, it is impossible for us to impute moral guilt to him for any feelings or thoughts which may have risen in his mind independently of his Will. We can no more conceive him to have incurred ill desert, than we can conceive of the annihilation of space. We may safely put it to the consciousness of every man whether this is not the case. This renders demonstrably evident the truth, that moral obligation is predicable only of the Will.

5. With the above perfectly harmonize the positive teachings of Inspiration. For example. “Lust, when it is conceived, bringeth forth sin.” The involuntary feeling does not constitute the sin, but the action of the Will in harmony with that feeling.

6. A single supposition will place this whole subject in a light perfectly conspicuous before the mind. We can readily conceive that the Will, or voluntary states of the mind, are in perfect harmony with the moral law, while the Sensibility, or involuntary states, are opposed to it. We can also with equal readiness make the opposite supposition, to wit, that the Sensibility, or involuntary states, are in harmony with the law, while the determinations of the Will are all opposed to it. What shall we think of these two states? Let us suppose a case of no unfrequent occurrence, that the feelings, or involuntary state of the mind, are in perfect harmony with the law, while the action of this Will, or the voluntary states, are in determined opposition to the law, the individual being inflexibly determined to quench such feelings, and act in opposition to them. Is there any virtue at all in such a state of mind? Who would dare to say that there is? Is not the guilt of the individual aggravated in proportion to the depth and intensity of the feeling which he is endeavoring to suppress? Now if, as all will admit, there is no virtue at all, when the states of the Sensibility are in harmony with the law, and the determinations of the Will, or voluntary states of the mind, are opposed to it, how can there be guilt when the Will, or voluntary states, are in perfect harmony with the law, and the Sensibility or involuntary states, opposed to it? This renders it demonstrably evident that obligation and moral desert of praise or blame are predicable only of the Will, or voluntary states of mind.

7. We will make another supposition; one, if possible, still more to the point. The tiger, we well know, has received from his Maker, either directly or through the laws of natural generation sustained by the Most High, a ferocious nature. Why do we not blame the animal for this nature? The answer, perhaps, would be, that he is not a rational being, and is therefore not responsible for anything. Let us suppose, then, that with this nature, God had associated Intelligence and Free-Will, such as man possesses. Why should the animal now be held responsible for the bare existence of this nature, any more than in the first instance, when the effect, in both instances, exists, alike independent of his knowledge, choice, and agency? A greater absurdity than this never lay upon the brain of a Theologian, that the mere existence of rationality renders the subject properly responsible for what God himself produces in connection with that rationality, and produces wholly independent of the knowledge, choice, and agency of that subject. Let us suppose, further, that the animal under consideration, as soon as he becomes aware of the existence and tendencies of this nature, holds all its impulses in perfect subjection to the law of love, and never suffers them, in a single instance, to induce a voluntary act contrary to that law. Is it in the power of the Intelligence to affirm guilt of that creature? Do we not necessarily affirm his virtue to be great in proportion to the strength of the propensity thus perfectly subjected to the Moral law? The above illustration renders two conclusions demonstrably evident:

1. For the mere existence of any constitutional propensity whatever, the creature is not and cannot be responsible.

2. When all the actions of the Will, or voluntary power, are in perfect harmony with the moral law, and all the propensities are held in full subjection to that law, the creature stands perfect and complete in the discharge of his duty to God and Man. For the involuntary and necessary actings of those propensities, he cannot be responsible. It is no part of my object to prove that men have not derived from their progenitors, propensities which impel and induce them to sin; but that, for the mere existence of these propensities, together with their necessary involuntary action, they are not guilty.


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