Aggression and The Problem of The Will
The fundamental question is: what have you made of your life?
J. P. Sartre (La Question)
As a man thinketh so he is. Man is tending to become what we have thought that he is.
J. W. Krutch
The primary question concerning aggression in conflict situations is whether it is inevitable that at least sometimes we will come to blows or go to war – inevitable not because we perceive it as the only means of achieving a satisfactory solution to the conflict but because it is biologically or psychologically determined that in situations where we are faced with certain stressful stimuli, or have been conditioned in a certain way, we will necessarily react violently. If people are innately violent and there are major limitations on free-will in making rational or conscious choices about the direction their lives will take then the proposal of a method of nonviolent resolution to conflict entailing an eschewing of violence and malice in the face of frustrations, and which requires difficult choices on the most fundamental of moral issues, appears to have little validity. The questions concerning the avoidability of violence, and free-will versus determinism are complex, but the current state of knowledge in these areas can be interpreted as being quite compatible with satyagraha.
Aggression is a necessary element of day-to-day living when it manifests itself in the applied form of self-assertion. This is important because "through the aggressive drive to actualise the self…..each individual develops as a person". In his later writings Adler referred to aggression as the "striving for perfection" or "upward striving" and Clara Thompson points out that "Aggression is not necessarily destructive at all. It springs from an innate tendency to grow and master life which seems to be characteristic of all living matter”. The problem arises when aggression exhibits itself in the pure rather than applied form. It is in this sense that the word aggression will be used. The words "aggression”, “violence" and "nonviolence" will be discussed as methods of struggle "that is actions, or activities considered or performed by parties to a dispute as means of conducting the conflict and trying to achieve the ends disputed".1
According to some, violence is determined by instinct while to others it is learned or has psychologically based causes. The biological theories concerning man's aggression can be divided into two schools of thought. Konrad Lorenz is the leading figure among the ethologist (the "instinct" school), while the behaviourist school is typified by such archrivals of Lorenz as Ashley Montagu and J. P. Scott. Lorenz argues that people are aggressive by instinct and that this aggression includes intra-species aggression. Aggression for Lorenz means violence with malice between members of the same species when both want the same thing. "There cannot be any doubt", he writes, "in the opinion of any biologically minded scientist, that intra-specific aggression is, in man, just as much of a spontaneous instinctive drive as in most other higher vertebrates.”2
The thesis of the ethologists is that humans, as well as other animals, are innately aggressive and this often leads to violence when conflict situations arise. Human violence leads to bloodshed and death more frequently than similar violent behaviour among other animals because people do not have the same built-in inhibitory behaviour responses. According to Lorenz, most other animals have deadly teeth and claws which enable them to kill extremely efficiently. To ensure the preservation of the species as a whole they have corresponding mechanisms that allow them to discontinue the violent actions once the enemy has deferred to their superior strength. The less well naturally armed an animal is the less well the response is developed. Humans, the argument goes, are very poorly armed and consequently the compensatory response is also poorly developed. Lorenz believes that "the invention of artificial weapons upsets the equilibrium of killing potential and social inhibitions". He goes on to argue that what remains of these already weak mechanisms is weakened still further by our present ability to kill at a distance:
The distance at which all shooting weapons take effect screens the killer against the stimulus situation which would otherwise activate his killing inhibitions. The deep, emotional layers of our personality simply do not register the fact that the working of a forefinger to release a shot tears the entrails of another man.3
For Lorenz, therefore, aggression is not merely a learned mode of reacting to frustration but is biologically determined. He has powerful allies amongst the psychoanalysts for this argument. Later in his life when Freud finally admitted the existence of an aggressive instinct independent of sexuality he was able to claim: "Conflicts of interest between man and man are resolved, in principle, by the recourse to violence. It is the same in the animal kingdom, from which man cannot claim exclusion." He continues: "the slaughter of a foe gratifies an instinctive craving" and "the upshot of these observations…is that there is no likelihood of our being able to suppress humanity's aggressive tendencies.''4
In Civilization and its Discontents, Freud makes the point even more strongly:
…men are not gentle creatures who want to be loved…they are, on the contrary, creatures among whose instinctual endownments is to be reckoned a powerful share of aggressiveness... Homo hommi lupus [man is a wolf to man]. Who in the face of all his experience of life and of history, will have the courage to dispute this assertion? As a rule this cruel aggressiveness waits for some provocation or puts itself at the service of some other purpose, whose goal might also have been reached by milder measures. In circumstances that are favourable to it, when the mental counter forces which ordinarily inhibit it are out of action, it also manifests itself spontaneously and reveals man as a savage beast to whom consideration towards his own kind is something alien.5
In Freud's view this aggressive instinct was linked with his familiar death instinct in that it was primarily directed against the self. In an attempt to preserve the self these instincts had to be diverted – the choice for him was that either we ourselves or others became the objects of our aggression. The consequence, he claimed, of renouncing outwardly directed destructiveness leads to turning its force back upon ourselves.6
Freud seems to be pointing to the inevitability of aggression. Lorenz does, however, offer a solution to the problem of violence in mankind. It is based on the recognition of the innateness of this trait by policy makers and the consequent organisation of the functioning of society in such a way as to take cognizance of, and allow an outlet for, this drive in a ritualised fashion, for example, by encouraging more sporting (including international sporting) activities.
If as Lorenz, Freud, and others claim, humans are innately aggressive then talk of the notion of "brotherly" love is a mere platitude.Lorenz's critics take delight in indicating that the people s who engage in the most sport are not generally those that are the least violent off the sports field after having discharged their instinctual aggressive drives in a ritualised manner.7 Often the meekest members of our society do not like competitive sports at all – the theory does not explain the existence of nonviolent people. The critics go on to point out that animals are not necessarily intrinsically aggressive as Lorenz claims, weakening the value of his extrapolations from animals to humans.8
The other side of this nature/nurture debate is headed by those authorities who maintain that violent behaviour is learned – our culture providing the young with many violent models, illustrating the argument by pointing to peaceful cultures where such models are absent.9 Therefore, they say, such forms of behaviour "are to a great learned and arbitrary, and we could change them should we choose to do so”.10 Montagu asserts that "men and societies have made themselves according to the image they have had of themselves, and they have changed in accordance with the changing image they have developed".11
If violent aggression is biologically innate then the nonviolent management of conflicts may well be impossible. As long as there is doubt about this hypothesis it may be bad faith to opt for the Lorenzian approach:
…for those who are ready to grasp at such an explanation of human aggression it provides relief for that heavy burden of guilt most individuals carry about with them for being as they are. If one is born innately aggressive, then one cannot be blamed for being so.12
Montagu points out that this "tendency to accept violence as a normal form of behaviour" may become acceptable to us "when we are told that it is man's nature to be violent, a bequest from his prehistoric ancestors".13 The biological determinist may be even more dangerous than merely allowing individuals to go on acting in the potential bad faith that they are unaccountable for their violent actions – they may in fact be creating a real self-fulfilling dimension to social prophecy. A widespread belief that human wars are instinctive, for example, would tend to make them inevitable. Acceptance of the determinist position in this area could lead to a crippling of the move, or even the possibility of a move, towards a nonviolent form of conflict resolution.
Gandhi firmly believed in the basic goodness and nonviolent nature of humanity. Wholly unlike Lorenz, who believes that the unreasonable intra-specific aggression resulting in bloody conflicts and wars engaged in by supposedly reasonable human beings, can only be explained in terms of aggressive innate drives, Gandhi observes that "human intercourse is either violent or nonviolent. Fortunately for humanity, nonviolence pervades human life and is observed by men without special effort".14 He points out that if humankind was not basically nonviolent it “would have been self-destroyed ages ago". Gandhi believed that history recorded happenings outside of the ordinary. Because nonviolence is the everyday form of interaction for humankind, "History does not and cannot take note of this fact."15
J. P. Scott, also arguing against the instinctivists, has shown that in the face of aggression animals will try out a series of reactions and settle on the one that appears to give the best effect. Where the defender is weaker and/or less experienced than the attacker the eventually settled upon technique may well be nonviolent (taking, for example, the form of submission). After reviewing several experiments, which by training either increased or decreased violence among animals, Scott asserts: "We may conclude that training has a powerful effect on aggression, both in magnifying the motivation towards it, and repressing fighting. It follows hat you can understand yourself in terms of the kind of training to which you have been subjected.”16
The neobehaviourists (for example, B. F. Skinner) go one step further claiming that human behaviour is completely determined by past environmental rewards. As Eric Fromm points out, however this totally ignores human passions and claims that they will always behave as their self-interest requires, that egotism and self-interest are more important than all other human passions."17
In arguing against these learning theory determinists, Scott maintains that individuals can consciously not only understand the source of violently aggressive impulses but teach themselves to be less violent. If experience is the best teacher, and people can reason out why they act the way that they do, then they have the potential to conclude that in the long run nonviolence may give the best effect in conflict situations by breaking the nexus between violence and further violence. As a method it may prove to be the most expedient. Finally Scott concludes that people can train themselves to be nonviolent: “The best scientific method for the control of undesirable aggression is that of passive inhibition, which means that you form a habit of non-fighting simply by not fighting.”18 Gandhi believed similarly, stating: “I am an irrepressible optimist. My optimism rests on my belief in the infinite possibilities of the individual to develop nonviolence." He continued, pointing out, "If the method of violence takes plenty of training, the method of nonviolence takes even more training, and the training is much more difficult than the training for violence," but "The very first step in nonviolence is that we cultivate in our daily life, as between ourselves, truthfulness, humility, tolerance, loving kindness."19
Lannoy, an interpreter of Gandhi, summed up this area succinctly when he stated that:
Nonviolence is a synthesis arrived at by resolving an inner conflict between aggressive and non-aggressive instincts Nonviolence is not an instinct but an ethical stance which demands training and self-discipline.20
Aggressive behaviour has been accounted for not only as the manifestation of an innate violent drive determined by genetic factors, or as a learned way of responding to particular situations, but also as a reaction, to frustrations. Frustrations arise when feelings of strong needs are coupled with feelings of being prevented from satisfying those needs:
Fighting arising from competition for dominance, food, sexual partners or territory clearly attests to the role of external stimulation in animal aggression. The aggressive activity in these cases is the product of some perceived obstacle to the attainment of a desirable goal state.21
Very often this obstacle will be another human being, leading to a conflict situation:
Frustration is... likely to lead to aggression because in many cases the cause of frustration is another individual, and attacking him will drive him away or cause him to stop his activity. In other words, aggression is a useful response in many frustrating situations.22
Frustration, of course, need not lead inevitably to aggressive conflict or anger. Where it leads to increased effort, as opposed to avoidance, it can result in the discovery of new solutions to the problems at hand. Where a person causes frustrations in another there is, however, no guarantee that the other will act in the most constructive way possible. Furthermore the party posing the frustration inducing obstacle may not be aware that they are causing an aggressive response. The aggression may be directed at a third party. Gandhi himself was no psychologist,23 he did, however, realise that if frustration is the chief trigger of hostile aggression then living in ways that cause less frustration to those with whom we come into contact would tend to reduce aggression. As we have noted, all frustration is not followed by aggression; therefore, it is not the necessary out come – although perhaps it is perceived as the most appropriate given the alternatives at the time. With the introduction of further alternatives it may no longer be regarded as the most appropriate outcome in similar circumstances. The Gandhian approach to conflict resolution is based on the provision of such an alternative.
Frustrations leading to violence may also have a deeper psychological cause than merely being a reaction to certain situations. Rochlin, for example, argues that aggression stems from threats, real or imagined, to the self-esteem of an individual leading to hostility, hatred and eventually violence. Adler, likewise, argued that aggression is one form of neurotic behaviour used to safeguard self-esteem. Rollo May maintains that "deeds of violence in our society are performed largely by those trying to establish their self-esteem, to defend their self-image, and to demonstrate that they too are significant", while Toch suggests that "violence feeds on low self-esteem, and a sense of inadequacy". Others have gone as far as to suggest that "the unhappiness that arises from the frustration of action and consequently thwarted self-realisation and deprivation of freedom is nearly bound to be violent".24 If violence is caused even in part by the frustrations of powerlessness then in a conflict situation there is hope for the avoidance of violence if the conflict is conducted in such a way as not to threaten the self-esteem of the opponent. Satyagraha, the Gandhian technique of conflict resolution, never aims at defeating the opponent, only to convert them, thus avoiding the possibility of increasing his feelings of inadequacy and to take the argument from the other side, "Nonviolence affords the fullest protection to one's self-respect and sense of honour.”25
It would appear, therefore, that there is no single proven cause of violence. It appears, according to Gunn, to have three determinants, (1) weapons, (2) precipitants, and finally (3) human attitudes. Of these, he says, attitudes are "by far the most important because, basically, it is man's view of himself, his inner aggressive needs, his relationship with fellow man that finally determines whether violence occurs or not. If violent attitudes were to disappear altogether, then precipitants could not trigger a fight and weapons would lie idle".26
In summary, to quote Gandhi: "Man's nature is not essentially evil; brute nature has been known to yield to the influence of love. You must never despair of human nature.”27 In the Gandhian framework of conflict resolution "a soberly optimistic view of man's potential (based on recognition of mankind's attainments, but tempered by knowledge of its frailities) is a precondition for social action to make actual that which is possible".28
The problem of the will
In the last part of this chapter we noted Scott's contention that people can choose to be nonviolent. This presupposes that individuals have the will to choose the type of behaviour they would like to exhibit and consciously train themselves to make this part of their normal way of behaving.
Gandhi did not have much to say directly on the question of whether man has free will or whether his actions are determined, and what he did say is often obscure or contradictory. His sparse statements on the matter include the following: "Man has got choice, but as much of it as a passenger on a ship has. It is just enough for him. If we don't use it, then we are practically dead”; "Man is the maker of his own destiny in the sense that he has the freedom of choice as to the manner in which he uses his freedom. But he is no controller of results"; "My belief in the capacity of nonviolence rejects the theory of permanent inelasticity of human nature”; "Man can change his temperament can control it, but cannot eradicate it”; "... how far a man is free and how far a creature of circumstance – how far free-will comes into play and where fate enters the scene – all this is a mystery and will remain a mystery". He also pointed out that "we cannot command results; we can only striv" and that "it is man's privilege to overcome adverse circumstances". Finally, he is quoted as saying: "It is true that we are not quite as free as we imagine. Our past holds us." In the following sentence, however, he warned against putting too much emphasis on this by saying: "But like all other doctrines it may well be ridden to death. We are the makers of our own destiny. We can mend or mar the present and on that will depend the future."29
This collection of somewhat contradictory Gandhian rhetoric becomes clearer when it is placed beside Gandhi's philosophy in action, when it is viewed in the light of the tasks that he set for himself. As Horowitz rightly points out: "The doctrine of free will in social action is implicitly assumed in Gandhi's philosophy. It is free will which leads the man of character from a competitive, egoistic approach to life to the practice of altruism.30 Bondurant adds that "the element which leaves no doubt as to the distance of Gandhi's position from that of the determinist is his insistence upon the power of man's will together with reason to effect changes in his society.”31
The free-will/determinist debate is one of the most difficult of philosophical problems with, as O'Connor maintains, neither the determinists nor the libertarians (proponents of the argument for free will) providing arguments that suffice to establish their case. Both sides hold ideological positions "that are utterly opposed to each other and offer little in the way of common ground".32 This debate, however, does have an important bearing on Gandhi's view of humanity and consequently the ability of each individual to deal with conflict situations so as to maximise not only tangible payoff but also a feeling of self, of dignity. As Davis points out, if the determinist, position is true then during a conflict situation the arguments manifest themselves mechanically. He asks rhetorically what it would be to win such an argument and answers: "It would mean that one of us put out considerations which appealed psychologically to the other, and with such a force as to determine one antagonist's mind to the other's position. But who is to say that truth has prevailed?”33
The determinist position holds that all events follow immutable laws and therefore an act of will, too, is always determined by the innate character and motives of the individual. Decision therefore being necessary rather than free. This is because individuals have neither made nor can control their character or motives – they are the necessary products of the innate tendencies and external influences which have been effective during their lifetime.34
In the same vein many psychologists claim that the unconscious influences motivates action which we would otherwise consider to be free. Hospers has gone as far as to hold that "The unconscious is the master of every fate and the captain of every soul."35 Freud himself noted that we often felt that we did have a free will but that we also realise that for many of our decisions there is no conscious motivation..."what is thus left free by the one side receives its motivation from the other side, from the unconscious; and in this way determination in the physical sphere is still carried out without any gap.”36
The behaviourists, led by Skinner, come to similar conclusions. Skinner himself maintains that we will get over our simplistic notions of free will when more is learned in the field of behavioural psychology - "We will have to abandon the illusion that men are free agents, in control of their own behaviour, for whether we like it or not we are all controlled.''37
He finds delight in quoting Voltaire when the latter remarked that liberty is "When I can do what I want to do” with the proviso that "I can't help wanting what I do want." To him a man "who possesses a 'philosophy of freedom' is one who has been changed in certain ways by the literature of freedom", and the idea of an autonomous individual is merely "a device used to explain what we cannot explain in any other way. He has been constructed from our ignorance, and as our understanding increases, the very shaft of which he is composed vanishes.”38
In value laden language, Skinner claims that in the "pre-scientific view" the individual is seen as being
free to deliberate, decide and act, possibly in original ways and he is given credit for his successes and blamed for his failures. In the scientific view . . . a person's behaviour is determined by genetic endowment traceable to evolutionary history of the species and the environmental circumstances to which as an individual he has been exposed.39
As new evidence comes to light both credit and blame will be shifted from the individual to the environment. The inevitable consequences of this knowledge will, he asserts, naturally be resisted by "those who are committed to traditional values".40
Lorenz and the instinctivists, as we have already seen, believe that our behaviour is subject to the same causal laws of nature as all animal behaviour. To think of ourselves as being different, even to the point of having free will is, they claim, a self-deception.
Eric Fromm, in a summary of these arguments, pointed out their necessary consequence:
In spite of the great differences between instinctivistic and behaviouristic theory, they have a common basic orientation, they both exclude the person, the behaving man, from their field of vision. Whether man is the product of conditioning, or the product of animal evolution, he is exclusively determined by conditions outside himself, he has no part of his own life, no responsibility, and not even a trace of freedom: Man is a puppet, controlled by strings – instinct or conditioning.41
This of course answers none of Skinner's accusations that such a view is merely the intransigence of a "pre-scientific" traditionalist. The argument has been put that a belief in determinism may be more beneficial to the individual and society than holding onto the notion of free will. Farrer, for example, suggests that unlike free will, determinism is at least a practical faith, informing us not to despair of causal explanation - "it holds before us the hope of causal explanation, it gives us a programme to work upon".42 If we continue to believe, as Gandhi would have us believe, that we have "our lives to make", our attitudes may be so affected that we will suffer the "ordeal of Phaeton”.43
The belief most of us have in freedom of our wills is itself determined, say the determinists, and this may have the positive aspect of forcing us to work harder at situations than if we believed that there was no relationship between our actions and the outcome; the price we must pay for such belief, however, as Farrer noted, is the possible burden of guilt or remorse over a failure.
The libertarians counter with the argument that a belief in the determinist position may be an indulgence in bad faith – how can people be blamed or be deserving of punishment when they were powerless to either decide rightly or to abstain from wrong actions?44
Libertarians offer many varied definitions for the free will theory. O'Connor defines an act as free “if and only if the agent could have done otherwise, all circumstances remaining the same",45 while Lamont claims that a person:
who consciously comes to a decision between two or more genuine alternatives…is free to do so and is not completely determined by his heredity, education, economic circumstances and past history as an individual.46
For Lamont causal principles do operate: "Your inborn qualities and characteristics are the hand you are dealt; your freedom of choice is the way you play it."47 Campbell, the leading contemporary advocate of free will, goes a little further believing that not all human actions or decisions are predetermined either by heredity or the environment. Such causal principles do operate, he claims, but some actions transcend these causal laws. This "contra-causal freedom . . . posits a breach of causal continuity between a man's character and his conduct".48 This definition seems to most closely approximate Gandhi's position.
Is there any evidence that this is the correct position however? We all feel that we do on occasions make choices which go against our strongest desires and which require an effort of will. Campbell claims that this freedom operates only in situations where moral temptation forces the self into making a decision between duty and inclinations. His only proof for this position, one which would not satisfy the determinists, is that through introspection people "feel certain of the existence of such activity from the immediate practical experience of themselves".49 Over one hundred years ago Sidgwick framed this "common sense" argument in similar terms, stating that the one "argument of real force" against the determinist position is "the immediate affirmation of consciousness in the moment of deliberate action".50
Along with Scott, and certainly along with Gandhi, other libertarians have maintained that free will is at least partially dependent on knowing the self through analysis of motives. Benn and Peters point out:
Many causal connections discovered by psychologists may only hold good provided that the people whose actions are predicted in accordance with the law remain ignorant of what it asserts. And it is practically impossible to ensure that this is the case. So, if people know the causes on which a prediction of a certain type of behaviour is based, and if they deliberate before acting they may do something different from what is predicted just because they recognise these causes.51
In this scenario the reconstruction of lives and changing of habits may be a long and difficult task. The first and ultimately crucial step in this process is to make the decision to alter one's behaviour. According to Davis, "one may not desire particular right things, but one may desire to begin to desire them”.52 In other words individuals have it within their power to build up habits in themselves or to tear down already existing habits. In this non-fatalistic line of thought “Deliberations and choice may not precede every action, but habits are set up as a result of such deliberation and choice".53
An even more radical free will line of argument is taken by the existentialist writers, especially Sartre, for whom historical forces, heredity and environment do not determine human behaviour. They try to justify the freedom of the individual by placing the will in a position of primary importance in human nature. Although our lives may “naturally tend in the direction our past and our circumstances have inclined us, and thus we tend to drift through life almost always following the course of least resistance"54 making life easier and removing the awesome responsibility of feeling the inadequacy of our present lives, for Sartre such behaviour is living in bad faith, for him man defines himself by his actions – we make ourselves what we are by what we do.
Sartre is diametrically opposed to writers such as Skinner in his beliefs of human freedom. Where Skinner claims that our lives are determined but we like to think that we are free, Sartre maintains that we are free but like to deny it. In defining "man's situation as a free choice, with no excuses and no recourses", Sartre claims, "every man who takes refuge behind the excuse of his passion, every man who sets up a determinism, is a dishonest man,"55 a person acting in, as he calls it, bad faith.
Sartre believes that we have no essential human nature; we become whatever we choose to become by doing and feeling what we choose; in other words, we choose not merely our actions but also our characters and our morality. He strongly disagrees with the notion that there is a distinction between "wholly free acts, determined processes over which the free will has power, and processes which on principle escape the human will", individuals, in his words, are "condemned to be free".
……..for human reality, to be is to choose oneself, nothing comes to it either from outside or from within which it can receive or accept. Without any help whatsoever, it is entirely abandoned to the intolerable necessity of making itself be – down to the slightest detail. Thus freedom is not a being; it is the being of man.56
Knowing that we can, act otherwise than we do gives rise to "anguish" – a consciousness of our freedom. This is such a vastly burdensome responsibility that it is far easier to live in the self-deception of bad faith pretending that we do not have this freedom.
As with the Skinnerian analysis, there is no proof that Sartre's interpretation of this complex philosophical position is the correct one. Besides the disadvantages of possible feelings of guilt at not living up to one's expectations of oneself when all possibility of excuse has been removed, and the possibility of using a belief in unlimited individual power to change as an excuse to forestall the taking of any action, this existential belief in human freedom has many positive aspects. Most importantly, it is a statement enjoining people to strive to take part in the creation of the type of world they believe in:
….in creating the man that we want to be, there is not a single one of our acts which does not at the same time create an image of man as we think he ought to be. To choose to be this or that is to affirm at the same time the value of what we choose, because we never choose evil. We always choose good, and nothing can be good for us without being good for all . . . I am creating a certain image of man of my own choosing. In choosing myself, I choose man... Certainly, many people believe that when they do something, they themselves are the only ones involved, and when someone says to them, "What if everyone acted this way?" they shrug their shoulders and answer, "Everyone doesn't act that way." But really what one should always ask himself, "What would happen if everyone looked at things that way?”57
When Gandhi claims that life should be a quest after truth, and that this must be sought continuously – as the choice of actions in the Sartrean schema must continually be made – he is not saying that the choice of a satyagrahi lifestyle is merely a choice for the self, but that it is also a universalisable choice for all. A truth-seeking life can be "what is to be chosen” but one based on falsehood and deception cannot, for truths can do without lies while untruths cannot do without the truths they must be measured against. Gandhi places great store by the transcendental nature of truth – for him it is analogous to the existential search for freedom.
Gandhi believed that individuals had the power to change themselves by force of will and although perhaps he would not have gone as far as Sartre when the latter claimed that our characters and emotions are totally and freely chosen by us, it should be remembered that Gandhi did not live long enough to be exposed to Sartre's writings. Although it is mere speculation, the existential current throughout Gandhi's own writings points to a strong likelihood that he would have felt an affinity with this strand of Sartre's thought. Gandhi, in line with his belief in the basic goodness of human nature, maintained that through self-suffering the conscience of a protagonist can be pricked to the degree that they will realise the nature of their behaviour after this forced confrontation and then have the ability to consciously decide to change their character by taking positive steps which will gradually turn this freely chosen mode of acting into a second nature.
Gandhi suggests that there is a powerful tool which can aid anyone in the quest for a changed nature. At first sight this tool – the vow – appears, paradoxically, to be one which contradicts the Sartrean notion of freedom: Sartre maintained that there is no limit to our freedom except "that we are not free to cease being free".58For the existentialists, however, it can be the exact opposite, because in the choice of committing oneself to one position rather than any of a series of other possibilities what the individual is doing is in effect choosing themselves. "It is out of its decision that the self emerges. A self is not given ready-made at the beginning. What is given is a field of possibility, and as the existent projects himself into this possibility rather than that one, he begins to determine who he shall be.”59
As Iyer correctly points out, for Gandhi, the vow "far from closing the door to real freedom, opens it". Vows enable acts which are not possible by ordinary self-denial to become possible through extraordinary self-denial." Vows are both a recognition of the fickleness of human nature and an additional aid to even the strongest minds." To Gandhi then "a vow really means unflinching determination, without which progress is impossible".60 As he pointed out, "The strongest men have been known at times to have become weak. God has a way of confounding us in our strength. Hence the necessity of vows." "The vow I am thinking of", he wrote, to distinguish it from public vows,
is a promise made by one to oneself. We have to deal with two dwellers within. Rama and Ravana. God and Satan. Ormuzd and Ahriman. The one binds us to make us really free, and the other only appears to free us so as to bind us tight within his grips. A "vow" is a promise made to Rama to do or not to do a certain thing, which if good we want to do but have not the strength unless tied down, and which if bad we would avoid but have not the strength to avoid unless similarly tied down. This I hold to be a condition indispensable to growth.61
Vows therefore can be used as a tool to remake the self, as an aid to the will, however, they are not to be taken lightly, for "A man who breaks a pledge he has deliberately and intelligently taken forfeits his manhood and becomes a man of straw.”62 Gandhi went as far as to say that "it is better to die than to break a vow knowingly and deliberately taken".63 Gandhi's use of the vow again reinforces the role played by free will in his philosophy.
As already noted none of these arguments can prove one side against the other in the freewill/determinist argument; however, if one does have the ability to do otherwise than one has in fact done in a given situation then one loses much by treating oneself as if one were not autonomous, did not have the freedom of will to make a choice. If one is free, then to treat oneself as otherwise, that is acting in bad faith, is to deny one's human essence, to degrade oneself, to forfeit one's humanity. If our next actions, our lives are predetermined and we act as though they were not, we have lost little.
Whether the unfolding knowledge of the emerging sciences of ethology and sociobiology will eventually prove that freedom and dignity, and therefore Gandhi's ethical scheme, are illusory is unanswerable at present. A refutation or vindication of the validity of Gandhi’s conclusions at this time rests on little more than ideological bias.
In the Gandhian model the individual comes to a conflict situation as one who is not innately aggressive and has the freedom of will to resolve conflicts in a nonviolent way freely chosen. This position can best be summed up by the following words from Green:
…man by his nature, is not irrevocably locked into any one form of behaviour, it is for him to choose what he will be... But choose he must. That is part of his nature. Other animals must suffer what the fates decree. Only man can make a moral choice. To abdicate that choice is to abandon mankind.64