Nonfiction > Henry Craik, ed. > English Prose > Vol. III. Seventeenth Century
Henry Craik, ed.  English Prose.  1916.
Vol. III. Seventeenth Century
The Greater Good does not Determine the Will
By John Locke (1632–1704)
From Essay concerning Human Understanding

IT seems so established and settled a maxim by the general consent of all mankind that good, the greater good, determines the will, that I do not at all wonder that when I first published my thoughts on this subject I took it for granted; and I imagine that by a great many I shall be thought more excusable for having then done so, than that now I have ventured to recede from so received an opinion. But yet upon a stricter inquiry, I am forced to conclude that good, the greater good, though apprehended and acknowledged to be so, does not determine the will, until our desire, raised proportionably to it, makes us uneasy in the want of it. Convince a man ever so much that plenty has an advantage over poverty; make him see and own that the handsome conveniences of life are better than nasty penury: yet as long as he is content with the latter, and finds no uneasiness in it, he moves not; his will never is determined to any action that shall bring him out of it. Let a man be ever so well persuaded to the advantages of virtue, that it is as necessary to a man who has any great aims in this world or hopes in the next, as food to life; yet, till he hungers or thirsts after righteousness, till he feels an uneasiness in the want of it, his will will not be determined to any action in pursuit of this confessed greater good; but any other uneasiness he feels in himself shall take place, and carry his will to other actions. On the other side, let a drunkard see that his health decays, his estate wastes; discredit and diseases and the want of all things, even of his beloved drink, attends him in the course he follows; yet the returns of uneasiness to miss his companions, the habitual thirst after his cups at the usual time, drives him to the tavern, though he has in his view the loss of health and plenty, and perhaps of the joys of another life: the least of which is no inconsiderable good, but such as he confesses is far greater than the tickling of his palate with a glass of wine or the idle chat of a soaking club. It is not want of viewing the greater good; for he sees and acknowledges it, and, in the intervals of his drinking hours, will take resolution to pursue the greater good; but when the uneasiness to miss his accustomed delight returns, the greater acknowledged good loses its hold, and the present uneasiness determines the will to the accustomed action, which thereby gets stronger footing to prevail against the next occasion, though he at the same time makes secret promises to himself, that he will do so no more; this is the last time he will act against the attainment of those greater goods. And that he is from time to time in the state of that unhappy complainer, video meliora proboque, deteriora sequor; 1 which sentence, allowed for true, and made good by constant experience, may this, and possibly no other way, be easily made intelligible.
  If we inquire into the reason of what experience makes so evident in fact, and examine why it is uneasiness alone operates on the will, and determines it in its choice; we shall find that we, being capable but of one determination of the will to one action at once, the present uneasiness that we are under does naturally determine the will, in order to that happiness which we all aim at in all our actions; forasmuch as whilst we are under any uneasiness, we cannot apprehend ourselves happy, or in the way to it. Pain and uneasiness being, by every one, concluded and felt to be inconsistent with happiness, spoiling the relish even of those good things which we have; a little pain serving to mar all the pleasure we rejoiced in. And therefore that which of course determines the choice of our will to the next action, will always be the removing of pain, as long as we have any left, as the first and necessary step towards happiness.  2
Note 1. I see the better course, and approve it: I follow the worse. [back]

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