The Free Dictionary defines will as the mental faculty that enables an individual to choose of decide upon a particular course of action. It is in this light that some people hold the belief that the greatest good in view is what determines the will. This is based on the theory of utilitarianism mainly fronted by philosopher John Stuart Mill. Utilitarianism holds that an action is good if it brings maximum happiness for the greatest number of people. In essence, this means that such an action causes more happiness but less suffering. For example, politicians will pass a certain legislation if it brings the greatest good for most of the citizens.So does the greatest good in view determine the will? According to utilitarian views, the answer is yes. This can be derived from the definition of will that incorporates words such as choice and course of action. Before a person decides on a course of action to take, he or she calculates the good and bad outcomes that may result from the particular action. After this calculation, if the good outcomes outweigh the bad ones, then the person will choose to take that course of action. Locke did earlier state that it is the greater good that determines the will, but later withdrew it. He was in agreement that pursuing lasting happiness is of more importance to human beings than just momentary pleasure. While the pain that an individual might feel at the present might contribute to his or her present misery, it is the contemplation of happiness in the future that will motivate that individual to take a particular course of action. This is to say that the prospect of a greater good in the future determines the will and is the basis for human volition. However, Locke thinks that this is false. In his view, it is the present felt uneasiness that determines the will. According to Locke (234), though the greater good is acknowledged and apprehended to determine the will, it does not do so until an individual’s desire is raised to make him uneasy in wanting it. Locke observes that when a man is under present uneasiness, then he will act in order to eliminate it.
Locke’s argument is not entirely true because it assumes that a person has to be under some form of pressure in order to take a course of action. According to Locke (235), it is the uneasiness of desire that is guided by an absent good that determines human volition. This absent good can be pain or pleasure and will lead to a person undertaking voluntary actions. It is true that uneasiness impels a person to act because if one is contented then he or she has no motivation to change things. However, uneasiness is not sufficient alone to determine the will. This will is determined by the expectation that purposeful actions have the capability of removing or at least alleviating this felt uneasiness. When this condition of expectation is absent, then there is no will to act. This condition brings back the concept of the greater good into perspective. While the state of uneasiness may trigger an action, it is the thought of the greater good that may determine the preferred course of action for an individual. Take the example of an employee who feels uneasy about living in his current neighborhood where he pays cheaper rent. The immediate thought of action to alleviate this absent good is to move to a better neighborhood where he pays higher rent. However, after evaluating the situation, he thinks it better to stay in the same neighborhood and save the extra so that he can buy his own house in about 10 years to come. Buying his own house is the greater good for this person and is what has determined the course of action to take. This means that while the uneasiness creates a sense of desire and ignites the power to will, it is the greater good that ultimately determines the will. Usually, uneasiness will lead to decisions that seek to solve problems in the short-term while the greater good focuses more on the long-term. This is because man is capable of subduing his emotions, instincts and impulses, and not just act when he feels uneasy. For example, a man may have a burning desire to engage in sexual activity but can easily suppress this desire. This demonstrates that the present uneasiness does not necessarily determine the will.
Locke defends his argument by noting that if it was the greater good that determined the will, then once that proposed great good seizes the will, it would hold it fast in the pursuit of even the greatest good without letting it go ever again (236). Locke observes that since the will has power over and directs both a person’s thoughts and actions, then it has the power of holding the mind’s contemplation fixed to that good. Based on this observation, Locke therefore argues that if it is about happiness, then removing uneasiness is the first step to it. He cites a number of examples to illustrate this perspective. For example, a man who does not have much but is content with his situation will not see the advantages of having plenty and this will never have the determination to take any action that gives him plenty, until he feels uneasy in such a situation. There is another example of a drunkard. Such a man will look at the losses that drinking brings upon him and try to resist the drinking spot, but the uneasiness brought by the habitual thirst will always drive that man back to the drinking den. Probably the man has a view of the greater good of quitting drinking, and may take resolutions aimed at pursing the greater good when drinking. However, this will not compel him to take action against drinking but it is the uneasiness of the habitual thirst that will lead him to take the action of going the drinking spot. Locke’s point is that what motivates a person to continue in the same action or state is only the present satisfaction that the person finds in it. The presence of any form of uneasiness will motivate the change. Therefore, a motivating uneasiness can arise in us in two distinguished ways. One is through an external cause causing an immediate effect and two is through the lasting outcomes that are to be achieved by deliberately contemplating on the future rewards. Therefore, Locke observes that naturally, it is the present uneasiness that an individual is under that determines his or her will to take an action that will bring happiness to him or her.
Locke, John. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. The Electronic Classics Series, pp. 218-272.