The term voluntarism (from the Latin voluntas, “will”) applies to any philosophical theory according to which the will is prior to or superior to the intellect or reason. More generally, voluntaristic theories interpret various aspects of experience and nature in the light of the concept of the will, or as it is called in certain older philosophies, passion, appetite, desire, or conatus. Such theories may be psychological, ethical, theological, or metaphysical.
Voluntaristic theories of psychology represent men primarily as beings who will certain ends and whose reason and intelligence are subordinate to will. The outstanding classical representatives are Thomas Hobbes, David Hume, and Arthur Schopenhauer.
Hobbes, for example, thought that all voluntary human behavior is response to desire or aversion, which he brought together under the name “endeavor”; he based his ethical and political theories chiefly on this claim.
Hume maintained that reason has no role whatever in the promptings of the will; that “reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” Schopenhauer, the outstanding voluntarist of them all, believed that the will is the very nature or essence of man and indeed of everything, identifying it with the “thing-in-itself ” that underlies all phenomena.
The point of all such theories can best be appreciated by contrasting them with the more familiar theories of rationalism found, for example, in Plato’s dialogues or René Descartes’s Meditations. Plato thought that men ideally perceive certain ends or goals by their reason and then direct their wills to the attainment of these ends or goals.
This is why he thought no man could knowingly will evil. Thus in the Symposium he traced the ascent of the soul toward higher and higher ends, the supposition being that these ends are apprehended first by the senses and then ultimately by the pure or unfettered intelligence, which enlists the will or desire for their pursuit.
The corruption of a man was for Plato precisely the dominance of the will, that is, of a man’s appetites or desires, this being a deviation from what human nature ideally should be. Descartes, similarly, supposed that the understanding first grasps certain ideas or presents certain ends to the mind and that the will then either assents or withholds its assent, thus following rather than directing the understanding.
Voluntarist theories reject this general picture as the reversal of the truth. Ends and goals, according to these theories, become such only because they are willed; they are not first perceived as ends and then willed. Hume in particular maintained that no sense can be made of the idea, so central to Plato’s philosophy, of reason directing the passions, or even of its ever conflicting with them.
Reason, he argued, is concerned entirely with demonstrations (deduction) or with the relations of cause and effect (induction). In neither case can it give us ends or goals. Mathematics is used in mechanical arts and the like, but always as a means of attaining something that has nothing to do with reason.
|fallacious or irrational|
The computations of a merchant, for example, can be fallacious, but the ends for which they are undertaken can in no sense be fallacious or irrational. They can only be wise or foolish, that is, such as to promote or to frustrate other ends that are again products of the will. Similarly, Hume thought that no discovery of causal connections in nature can by itself have the least influence on the will.
Such discoveries can only be useful or useless in enabling men to choose appropriate means to certain ends, which are in no way derived from reason. “It can never in the least concern us to know,”Hume said, “that such objects are causes, and such others effects, if both causes and effects be indifferent to us.” Reason therefore can never produce actions or impulses, nor can it oppose them.
An impulse to act can be opposed only by a contrary impulse, not by reason. There can, accordingly, be no such thing as a conflict between reason and passion, and the only way in which willed behavior can be “irrational” is for it to be based upon some misconception—for instance, on some erroneous conception of what is a fit means to the attainment of an end that is entirely the product of the will.
The theories of other voluntarists do not differ essentially from Hume’s theory, although there are differences of emphasis. All agree that men are moved by their impulses, appetites, passions, or wills and that these are incapable of fallacy or error.
There is thus no such thing as a rational or irrational will, although one may will imprudently in relation to other things that one wills. J. G. Fichte expressed this idea when he said that a free being “wills because it wills, and the willing of an object is itself the last ground of such willing.”
It is obvious that the voluntarist conception of human nature contains implications of the highest importance for ethics. If ends or goals are entirely products of the will and the will is neither rational nor irrational, then ends themselves cannot be termed either rational or irrational and it becomes meaningless to ask whether this or that end is really good or bad independently of its being willed.
Hobbes drew precisely this conclusion. To say that something is good, he said, is to say nothing more than that it is an object of one’s appetite, and to say that something is bad is only to say that one has an aversion to it. Good and bad are thus purely relative to desires and aversions, which are, of course, sometimes quite different in different men.
Wise behavior, on this conception, can be nothing other than prudence, that is, the selection of appropriate means to the attainment of whatever goals one happens to have. Hobbes thought that there is one goal, however, that is fairly common to all men: the goal of self-preservation. His political philosophy thus consisted essentially of formulas by means of which men can preserve themselves in safety and security within a commonwealth.
Essentially the same ideas were defended by Socrates’ contemporary, Protagoras, and are reflected in his maxim that “man is the measure of all things.” They also find expression in the philosophy of William James and are, in fact, an important aspect of pragmatism in general. James thought that things are good solely by virtue of the fact that they are “demanded,” that is, that someone wants them or lays claim to them, and he noted that such a demand might be for “anything under the sun.”
Considered apart from the demands of sentient beings, nothing in the universe has any worth whatsoever. Hence James concluded that the only proper ethical maxim is to satisfy as many demands as possible, no matter what these happen to be, but at the “least cost,” that is, with the minimum of frustration to other demands.
It is clear that within the framework of voluntaristic theories like this, no meaning can be attached to asking what is truly worthy of one’s desires, unless this question is interpreted to mean “What is in fact satisfying of one’s desires?”; nor does it make sense to seek, as did Immanuel Kant, any metaphysical principles of morals.
Truth and falsity in ethics are exhausted in questions as to the truth or falsity of various opinions concerning the utility of proposed means to the achievement of ends, that is, to the satisfaction of appetite, desire, and demand. They have no relevance to any questions concerning ends themselves.
Just as the theories thus far described give prominence to the human will over human reason, so certain theological conceptions give prominence to the divine will. Perhaps the most extreme form of theological voluntarism is exemplified in the thinking of St. Peter Damian (1007–1072).
He maintained that human reason or “dialectic” is worthless in theological matters, for the simple reason that the very laws of logic are valid only by the concurrence of God’s will. God is omnipotent, he said, and can therefore render true even those things reason declares to be absurd or contradictory. It is thus idle for philosophers to speculate upon what must be true with respect to divine matters, since these depend only on God’s will.
A very similar idea has found expression in many and various forms of fideism, according to which the justification of religious faith is found in the very act of faith itself, which is an act of the will, rather than in rational proof.
Thus Søren Kierkegaard described purity of heart as the willing of a single thing and emphatically denied that such notions as reason and evidence have any place in the religious life. William James, following suggestions put forth by Blaise Pascal, similarly justified the will to believe, defending the absolute innocence, under certain circumstances, of religious belief entirely in the absence of evidence.
Many contemporary religious leaders, pressing the same notion, give prominence to the idea of religious commitment, suggesting that religion is primarily a matter of the will rather than of reason. This is, in fact, traditional in Christian thought, for even the most philosophical and rationalistic theologians, such as St.
Anselm of Canterbury, have almost without exception given priority to the act of faith, maintaining that religious belief should precede rather than follow rational understanding. This idea is expressed in the familiar dictum credo ut intelligam, which means “I believe, in order that I may understand.”
Perhaps no religious thinker has stressed the primacy of God’s will in questions of morality more than Kierkegaard, who seems to have held that the divine will is the only and the ultimate moral justification for any act. Strictly understood, this means that an action that might otherwise be deemed heinous is not so, provided it is commanded by God. In the fourteenth century this was quite explicitly maintained by William of Ockham.
William said that the divine will, and not human or divine reason, is the ultimate standard of morality, that certain acts are sins solely because they have been forbidden by God, and other acts are meritorious only because they have been commanded by God. He denied that God forbids certain things because they are sins or commands certain things because they are virtues, for it seemed to him that this would be a limitation upon God’s will.
There can be, he thought, no higher justification for any act than that God wills it, nor any more final condemnation of an act than that God forbids it. The moral law, accordingly, was for William simply a matter of God’s free choice, for God’s choice cannot be constrained by any moral law, being itself the sole source of that law. This view is frequently echoed in religious literature but usually only rhetorically.
A number of thinkers have believed that the concept of the will is crucial to the understanding of law, ethics, and human behavior generally; a few have suggested that it is crucial to the understanding of reality itself. Such suggestions are found in the philosophies of Fichte, Henri Bergson, and others, but in no philosophy does it have such central importance as in that of Arthur Schopenhauer. Schopenhauer thought that will is the underlying and ultimate reality and that the whole phenomenal world is only the expression of will.
He described living things as the objectifications of their wills and sought to explain not only the behavior but also the very anatomical structures of plants, animals, and men in terms of this hypothesis. The will was described by Schopenhauer as a blind and all-powerful force that is literally the inexhaustible creator of every visible thing.
The sexual appetite, which he considered to be fundamentally the same in all living things, was described by him as a blind urge to live and to perpetuate existence without any goal beyond that, and he denied that it had anything whatever to do with reason or intelligence, being in fact more often than not opposed to them. The religious impulse found in all cultures at all times was similarly explained as the response to a blind and irrational will to possess endless existence.
In the growth and development of all living things Schopenhauer discerned the unfolding of the will in nature, wherein certain things appear and transform themselves in accordance with a fairly unvarying pattern and in the face of obstacles and impediments, solely in accordance with what is willed in a metaphysical sense but entirely without any rational purpose or goal.
On the basis of this voluntarism, he explained ethics in terms of the feelings of self-love, malice, and compassion, all of which are expressions of the will, and he denied—in sharp contrast to Kant—that morality has anything to do with reason or intelligence. He argued that men have free will only in the sense that every man is the free or unfettered expression of a will and that men are therefore not the authors of their own destinies, characters, or behavior.
Like other voluntarists, Schopenhauer thus emphasized the irrational factors in human behavior and, in doing so, anticipated much that is now taken for granted in those sophisticated circles that have come under the influence of modern psychological theories.