F.H. Bradley on responsibility, free will, and determinism



In Essay 1 of Ethical Studies, Bradley has three aims (1927: 1-2):

To identify vulgar beliefs about what it is to be responsible.

To determine whether these beliefs agree with the philosophical doctrines of Free Will and Necessity.

If not, to identify in what respects they are incompatible.


The word ‘vulgar’ is used as an insult at present, but when Bradley writes of the vulgar he does not mean to insult. In fact, he often sounds as if he is on the side of the vulgar.

He aims to describe beliefs about responsibility that are there in people prior to or in the absence of philosophical reflection.

A later philosopher might have presented their aim as to present ordinary beliefs, or common sense beliefs, or folk beliefs.


Bradley considers the view that it is worthless to pursue his aims, because philosophical doctrines do not stand or fall with how well they fit with common opinion. He responds that, nevertheless, advocates of some philosophical doctrines claim that what they advocate fits with common opinion and so it is worth considering whether this is true or not (1927: 2). Advocates of the doctrine of Free Will, to be explained later, make this claim.


Beliefs about responsibility

Bradley thinks that a person who has not arrived at views about responsibility through philosophical reflection believes the following (1927: 4):

to be responsible is to answer,

to answer for what one has done and not done,

at a tribunal which is a moral tribunal.


Bradley captures vulgar beliefs metaphorically, referring to a moral tribunal. As I understand him, he means this.

One can ask oneself, ‘Was it morally acceptable to do that?’ for anything one has done and ‘Was it morally acceptable to not do that?’ for omissions – things one could have done, but did not do – and one should be able to give a justified answer, for anything one has done or for any omission (1927: 4). The same questions may be posed by another, and once again one should be able to answer it (though one may not always be obliged to). This is what it is to be responsible, for the vulgar.


Bradley decides not to refer continuously to omissions, when discussing responsibility, leaving it to the reader to adapt the material to cover such cases. I shall do the same.


Beliefs about punishment

Bradley identifies two vulgar beliefs about punishment (1927: 4):

if a person has done something bad – something morally wrong – then and only then should they be punished;

punishment is the only way to ‘settle moral debts’.


Regarding the first belief, Bradley thinks that what distinguishes a philosophical or a debauched morality from vulgar morality is rejecting one or both of these beliefs as false.


Regarding the second, Bradley again uses a metaphor, this time the metaphor of settling debts. I understand the metaphor as follows: a bad thing that one has done requires some reaction, so that it can no longer be regarded as a problematic fact about oneself, and the only reaction that can remove the requirement is punishment.


Beliefs about responsibility for a deed

Bradley identifies two conditions in order for me to be responsibility for a deed (1927: 5-6):

I must be the same person as the person to whom the deed belongs;

and the deed must be mine.


These two conditions sound the same, at least in contemporary English.

Regarding the first condition, the self-sameness condition, Bradley recognizes talk of ‘I was a different person then’, but makes it clear that by ‘same’ he means what is now called numerical identity. (One does not usually say that two people have lived in a house, if a census would say that one person has lived there alone since the beginning, even if that person has changed significantly with experience.)


Bradley goes on to identify three conditions for when a deed is mine, switching to the term ‘act’ when specifying these conditions (1927: 6-7):

(i)            The act must have issued from my will, not from compulsion.

(ii)          The person who did it must have been intelligent at the time.

(iii)         The person who did it must have been a moral agent – must have been capable of knowing the moral quality of acts.


Regarding condition (ii), it is not entirely clear what Bradley means by this, but certainly some element of awareness is what he has in mind:

“No one who does not possess a certain minimum of general intelligence can be considered a responsible being; and under this head come imbecile persons, and, to a certain extent, young children. Further, the person whose intellect is eclipsed for a time—such eclipse being not attributable to himself—can not be made accountable for anything. He can say, and say truly, ‘I was not myself’; for he means by his self an intelligent will.” (1927: 6-7)


Bradley observes that there are matters which are not properly dealt with by vulgar beliefs (1927: 7-8).

A plain man, he says, could not tell us how much awareness is required in order for an act to be mine.

A plain man could also not tell us what an act is.


What is an act?

Although he thinks that a plain man could not say what an act is, Bradley does try to explain the plain man’s understanding of what an act is on behalf of such a man. His interpretation can be captured as two propositions (1927: 7-8)

An act involves the mind changing the outer world by means of the body so that the outer world now has features which were previously only within the mind, that is to say, only conceived of;

the carrying out of an act is also a change in the self in that it is now a permanent feature of the self that it has performed this act.


What is the Free Will doctrine?

Bradley uses the term ‘Free Will’ to refer to a doctrine that asserts the existence of the self and that the self has a will, but whose chief claim is negative – it is about what is not the case rather than what is the case:

“In this bearing, Free-will means Non-determinism. The will is not determined to act by anything else; and, further, it is not determined to act by anything at all.” (1927: 11)


Incompatibilities between the Free Will doctrine and vulgar beliefs

The Free Will doctrine entails that a person’s actions cannot be predicted beforehand.

The plain man, says Bradley, would disagree.


They believe that those who know them can predict what they would do in various circumstances (1927: 13).

Expressions like, ‘You should have known that I would never have done that,’ are common.

People are pleased when a friend anticipated their actions beforehand.

And an ordinary decent man believes that it can be predicted beforehand that he will not commit the foulest crimes.


Advocates of the Free Will doctrine say that if actions can be predicted beforehand, there is no responsibility, and that the plain man agrees (1927: 14).

Bradley gives examples where the plain man disagrees (1927: 15).

He tells us that the possibility of some predictability, apart from being entailed by a plain man’s conception of himself as a person who can be known by acquaintance, is also entailed by his beliefs about what being responsible for an act consists in and the belief that there can be such responsibility:

We saw that his notion of responsibility implied, together with rationality, a capacity for acting rationally; and further that this means to act with some regularity, to act so that your actions can be counted on, and, if counted on, then with more or less certainty predicted.” (1927: 15)


What Bradley says here is not transparently evident from the beliefs about responsibility presented above. He seems to be elaborating on the condition of intelligence for an act being mine. Since an act must be mine, in order for me to be responsible for it, and to be mine it must be done with some degree of intelligence, responsibility implies a capacity for acting rationally. And acting rationally implies acting with regularity, Bradley asserts here. The lack of clarity over the intelligence condition, noted earlier, makes the inferences here difficult to evaluate.


Prediction and vulgar beliefs

The vulgar allow for some prediction based on an acquaintance with a person’s character, but they do not allow for any prediction whatsoever.

Bradley also says that if the other is able to predict what a man will do without first observing the man’s habits and character, the man will feel that the other has some knowledge which he has no right to (1927: 17). But as Bradley interprets the plain man, the problem goes beyond this.


Bradley gives the example of a plain man, “at forty, being shown the calculation, made by another before his birth, of every event in his life, rationally deduced from the elements of his being, from his original natural endowment, and the complication of circumstances which in any way bore on him”. (1927: 15) Bradley refers to this kind of prediction as rational prediction, which is potentially confusing given earlier uses of “rational.” (1927: 18).


Bradley does not accept that it is possible to rationally predict a person’s life, but believes that if it were possible, the plain man would regard it as if he does not really have a self:

“If, from given data and from universal rules, another man can work out the generation of him like a sum in arithmetic, where is his self gone to? It is invaded by another, broken up into selfless elements, put together again, mastered and handled, just as a poor dead thing is mastered by man… To explain the origin of a man is utterly to annihilate him.” (1927: 20)


Bradley thinks that the plain man, though sure that he has a self, will not be able to say what his self is in order to properly justify thinking that rational prediction is incompatible with genuinely having a self. But if it is incompatible, then given his understanding of responsibility, if he thinks clearly he should say that it is incompatible with responsibility (1927: 21)


Bradley’s argument against rational prediction

Bradley thinks that rational prediction is actually impossible, however much data one has. In order to understand his argument, it is useful to distinguish two opposed theses about character:

(The collection thesis) A character is a collection of traits.

(The holistic thesis) A character is something whole and all of the parts of the whole are infused with the nature of the whole (1927: 23).


Bradley does not use these terms for the theses, but he accepts the holistic thesis. It has been worded above much as he words it, but needs elaboration. I suppose that the parts of the whole are traits one might isolate, such as being strong willed and being tolerant of others.


His argument is as follows:

(1)  Rational prediction is only possible if the holistic thesis is false, and the collection thesis is true.

(2)  The holistic thesis is true and the collection thesis is false.


(3)  Rational prediction is impossible.


Bradley says that a comparable argument applies to the stages of history (1927: 23). The arguments here are interesting, but suggestive and in need of further elaboration.


What is the Necessity doctrine?

Bradley uses Necessity, beginning with a capital letter, to refer to causal determinism: the thesis that there was an initial physical state of the world, which determined the next state, which determined the state after, and so on, including all of our actions.


Incompatibilities between the Necessity doctrine and vulgar beliefs

Bradley regards this doctrine as entailing the possibility of rational prediction of human action. Human beings may not be able to gather all the data or do the required calculations, but from the data and the laws, such prediction is in principle possible.


The Necessity doctrine, on this understanding, therefore conflicts with vulgar beliefs about when there is a self, as Bradley depicts those beliefs. If Necessity is true, there is no self, from the vulgar point of view, because rational prediction of human action is incompatible with there being a self.


The doctrine also does not allow for responsibility, according to vulgar beliefs, because having a self is a condition for responsibility.


Bradley associates the Necessity doctrine with a view of punishment according to which punishment should only occur if it will bring about beneficial changes in behaviour (1927: 30-31). He observes that this conflicts with vulgar beliefs about punishment: according to which a person should be punished if they are responsible for wrongdoing and they should only be punished in these circumstances (1927: 32).


Finally, he thinks that, for the vulgar, to talk about the will as if it were a physical thing which is affected by physical forces is to talk about something else, and not the will at all.


Some concerns about a physicalist understanding of the self

Towards the end of his essay, Bradley evaluates a conception of the self according to which the self is a collection of physical particles. He suggests that the advocate of the Necessity doctrine must endorse this conception.


One of the concerns he raises is that, if we picture the self as a collection of particles, there seems no way to picture this collection’s being aware of itself (1927: 38).


A related concern is that if a self thinks of itself as something singular, not a collection, then advocates of this conception will have to say that this is an illusion, but there is no clear answer as to what it is that has the illusion.



Bradley, F.H. 1927 (second edition, originally 1876). Ethical Studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press.