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Leopold Hess (Jagiellonian University, Krakow)

Moral subjectivity in Leibniz

In the introduction to her well-known book on Leibniz’s Metaphysics (1989, p. 2), Catherine
Wilson remarks that on the problem of freedom Leibniz had no more to say than any other
determinist (though probably no less). The principal aim of this paper is to show that this opinion is
wrong and that Leibniz, though certainly a determinist, held a very original theory of freedom.
The problem of determinism can be understood as a consequence of the combination of
three claims, each of them prima facie plausible. Firstly, any event in the physical world is fully
determined by its proper, physical causes; and by “full determination” we should understand that,
given the causes, the effect follows necessarily. Secondly, all human actions are events in the
physical world. Thirdly, there is no freedom if there is no actual choice, i.e. a choice between at
least two equally possible alternatives. For events of the physical world, however, there can be no
alternatives, since they are fully determined by their causes. In consequence, it seems that there can
be no freedom.
This, of course, is not merely a question of logics, or even metaphysics. The problem of
determinism has far-reaching consequences for practical philosophy, morality, theology and
jurisprudence. It is a traditional and widely held (even if not universally accepted) belief that
without freedom there can be no responsibility for one’s actions, thus no morality and no justice.
Leibniz was naturally well aware of that.
Philosophers have struggled with this puzzle for centuries, at least since the time of
Epicurus. The scientific revolution of the 17th century, which promised a complete explanation of
the world in terms of mathematical physics made the problem even more acute. By the time of
Leibniz two possible answers lay on the table, associated primarily with the names of Descartes on
the one hand and Spinoza and Hobbes on the other (one might argue against the historical adequacy
of this association, but that is not the issue here).
Hobbes’ and Spinoza’s solution was to embrace the problem together with its consequences,
and in effect to deny the existence of any real freedom or responsibility. The only source of
morality and justice, on this view, can be the positive law grounded in some sort of social contract.
The concepts of freedom, responsibility, good and bad are only a matter of convention and have no
counterparts in the real world. This of course ran against the deepest of Leibniz’s philosophical,
moral and theological convictions. There is no need to go into any detail here; it is enough to say
that Leibniz was strongly committed to the claim that there are objective reasons of good (rationes
boni) in the natural world, convention-independent grounds for a moral assessment of deeds.
Therefore he could in no way accept the conclusions of the Spinozistic solution to the problem of
The other alternative was the Cartesian solution which amounted to denying the validity of
the first two premises of the problem. For Descartes human actions might in fact present themselves
as events in the physical world, but they are only the manifest effects of the decisions of a free will
that is not a part of it. Thus, human actions form a special class of events, a member of which can
be a cause but never an effect of other physical events. The will, which is the sole cause of an
action, is not determined in its decisions in any way. No matter what happens in the physical world,
it can decide to act this way or another. There are always possible alternatives for action. Thus
human freedom is preserved, and so is morality.
This solution, however, positing a “freedom of indifference”, as Leibniz calls it, is equally
unacceptable for him. His most basic metaphysical law, the principle of sufficient reason, cannot
allow for events that are not fully explained by their proper causes. There can be no undetermined
acts of the will, or else there would be something which does not have a sufficient reason. This
argument is ubiquitous in Leibniz’s writings, let me just give a single quote from his
correspondence with Clarke as an example:

“1. In absolutely indifferent thing there is [no foundation for] choice, and
consequently no election or will, since choice must be founded on some reason or
principle. 2. A simple will without any motive is a fiction, not only contrary to
God’s perfection, but also chimerical and contradictory, inconsistent with the
definition of the will […]”
(Leibniz’s Fourth Letter, transl. Roger Ariew)

The Cartesian solution to the problem of determinism focused on the question of choice,
assuming that there is no real choice where there is full determination. The above quote shows that
Leibniz rejects this very assumption, and even reverts it, claiming that there is no real choice where
there is indifference. This already suggests that in his answer to the problem of determinism,
Leibniz does not deny any of its three premises, instead questioning only their consequences. There
can be, he agrees, no freedom without choice, but the fact that all human actions are fully
determined does not imply that they are not effects of a free choice.
In order to see how Leibniz can make sense of this claim it will be helpful to reformulate the
problem of determinism. Instead of talking about alternative possibilities, we can put the problem in
terms of the distinction between human action and animal behavior.
According to Descartes, animal behavior is to be explained mechanistically just as any other
event in the physical world. Both for him, and for Leibniz, although for the different reasons, the
important distinction runs between the free actions of humans and all other kinds of events.
Nevertheless, it is convenient to speak here of animal behavior instead of physical events in general,
as it presents important similarity to human action, since we can attribute to it some kind of inner
determination, as opposed to a purely external determination of events such as the movement of the
planets or the operation of a windmill. This inner determination might be characterized in terms of
intentionality, but need not be. In any case, there is some prima facie plausibility in drawing the line
between the realm of animals, humans included, and the rest of the physical world. Accordingly,
Leibniz frequently presents the question of responsibility for actions in terms of the distinction
between humans and other animals, and not humans and other physical beings in general. A quote
from his notes on Bayle’s Dictionary is characteristic:

“Because these rational substances [i.e. human beings] have a double status or
position: one physical, like all animals, as a consequence of their bodily
mechanism, and the other moral, as a result of which they are in society with God,
as citizens of the city of God.”
(transl. R. S. Woolhouse, Richard Francks)

We can say that in all respects pertaining to their physical nature, human beings and other
animals are perfectly alike. Their behavior is fully determined – as is any other event in the natural
world. Humans do not have any more free choice – in the sense of the capability to choose between
alternate possibilities – than beasts have. And yet, there is something that makes human actions
susceptible of moral assessment. On the other hand, we do not hold animals morally responsible for
what they do. This is the fundament of the commonsensical distinction between an action and mere
Actions however must be free, or else, as was already said, their author could not be made
responsible for them and could not hold any moral “status or position”. Therefore, human actions
must have some property that mere animal behavior does not have, and which makes it possible to
attribute to human beings freedom and responsibility. This property, however, cannot have anything
to do with the freedom of indifference, to which Leibniz is so strongly opposed.
The standard approach to the problem of determinism, as it was defined at the beginning of
this paper, is to first argue that human actions can be considered free, despite their being fully
determined, and then to conclude that they can also be subject to moral assessment. If, however, we
reformulate the problem in terms of the difference between human action and animal behavior,
another way of thinking seems to open. We can first look for whatever it is that makes human
beings responsible for their actions. Since morality requires freedom, if they are morally
responsible, we must conclude that they are also free in an essential sense. It is this way of thinking
that Leibniz follows, not the standard one.
A quote from the Conversation on Freedom and Fate shows in a concise way the approach
that Leibniz adopts towards the problem of determinism:

“[…]it is true that we have spontaneity within ourselves, and that we are the
masters of our actions, which is to say that we choose what we will; but we will
what we find good, which depends on our taste and the objects, and not on our
(transl. Lloyd Strickland)

We can see a characteristic dialectic of the concept of “choice” here. Whatever we will, we
choose, says Leibniz, but we do not choose what we will. In other words, we act voluntarily, we are
the masters of our actions, but the reasons that we have for choosing are not themselves a matter of
our choice. Our actions follow our will, but our will is fully determined. We are responsible, but we
are not “indifferent”.
The purpose of this paper is to explore in what sense can Leibniz say that we are the masters
of our actions, despite the fact that they are as determined as any other event in the natural world.
The answer that Leibniz gives to this problem is a very original one. It points to a special
relationship that moral subjects hold to their own selves, by which they acquire a unique kind of
self-knowledge. This relation is made possible by and grounded in the capacity for reflection, which
is what distinguishes humans from animals, accounting also for our rationality. It is this self-
knowledge that gives us mastery over our actions and makes us responsible for them.
The argument will advance in three steps. First, I will explore the relation between
responsibility and identity. Second, I will present Leibniz’s arguments that moral identity cannot be
reduced either to mere memory nor to physical identity, which is shared by humans and other
animals. Moral identity requires self-knowledge. Third, I will show how the capacity for self-
knowledge distinguishes human beings from animals and makes them proper moral subjects. In
conclusion, I will point to some consequences of Leibniz’s conception.

Since for Leibniz human actions are as determined as animal behavior or any other physical
event, freedom and moral responsibility cannot depend on some property of the actions themselves.
There is nothing to the nature and content of the action or its intention, or the decision that causes it
or its motives that would not be fully explained by underlying causes in essentially the same way
any other event can, in principle, be explained. Therefore, what makes a human being responsible
for its own actions must be some property of the subject itself. Leibniz, as we have seen in the quote
from his notes on Bayle, attributes to human beings a moral status or position. We are essentially
moral subjects, in addition to being animals (and physical entities). However, we are not moral
subjects because our actions are susceptible to moral assessment, by virtue of being the effects of
the freedom of indifference, or anything else. Contrariwise, our actions can be morally assessed
because they are the actions of moral subjects. Responsibility is always and foremost someone’s
responsibility. Only if there is a subject who can take responsibility for her actions, they can really
be considered actions and not just behavior or random events. We do not hold animals morally
responsible for what they do primarily because in their case there is no one to be blamed or praised.
Thus, the problem of responsibility leads to the problem of moral subjectivity. We need to establish
what constitutes a moral subject in order to be able to solve the puzzle of determinism.
The question of subjectivity can be reframed as the question of identity. In order to ascribe
moral responsibility to a person, we must first of all identify her as a person, as a someone, a single
subject that is the author of the actions in question. It is easiest to see the nature of this problem if
we present it in a temporal dimension: what makes a person responsible for her past actions is
undoubtedly that what makes her the same person now and in the past. Leibniz indeed approaches
the problem in this way, but we should bear in mind that the temporal dimension is only of
secondary importance. Whatever are the grounds for personal identity over time they have to derive
from personal identity in a given moment. A person can be held responsible for her past actions
only if she was responsible for them at the time she was committing them in the first place.
Leibniz discusses the problem of personal identity at length in the second book of the New
Essays. His discussion aims primarily at refuting Locke’s claim that what constitutes identity over
time are consciousness and memory. In the most simple words, Locke says that someone is the
same person over periods of time and is responsible for her past actions in virtue of the memory she
possesses of the previous moments of her life and her states and actions of which she was conscious
at the time. The continuity of the memory accounts for identity.
Leibniz argues against it invoking various examples and thought experiments that involve
discontinuities of memory, false memories and lapses of consciousness. His principal claim is that a
soul always retains some traces of its former states, but they are not always conscious and thus
cannot be considered memories in the Lockean sense. In principle, a person could have no
conscious access to her past, while holding instead some set of totally false memories. However, it
is only the real past that one can be held responsible for, and one always is, since the traces of
memory do not vanquish, and at least in the eyes of God they remain to be valid grounds for blame
or praise.
Put in this way, Leibniz’s argument obviously presupposes some strong claims of his
metaphysics. We can, however, make sense of it in a way that is independent of them and more
consistent with our common-day view of the human mind. Consciousness and memory cannot be
by themselves sufficient for personal identity and moral responsibility because of they intentional
nature. Consciousness must always be consciousness of something and the same goes for memory.
And if the object of memory is not real, if it is a false memory, than it is intuitively plausible that
we cannot hold a person responsible for it. Therefore, the moral relevance of memory can only be
derived from the moral relevance of its object – a person is responsible for something she
remembers doing only if she really did it. Identity cannot be grounded in memory, because memory,
in order to be true, must be grounded in identity.
This does not prove, of course, that consciousness and memory are not necessary conditions
of identity and responsibility, as Leibniz seems to claim, but they are certainly not sufficient
conditions. Consciousness and memory, because of their intentional nature, in fact presuppose
identity. The identity that memory presupposes, however, is not personal and moral identity, but
only what Leibniz calls physical identity. It is a matter of natural fact: a human being remains the
same human being for a long period of time, just as an animal remains the same animal and a planet
remains the same planet.
Leibniz has of course a sophisticated metaphysical answer to the question what accounts for
physical identity of “substances”. We do not need to concern ourselves with this. No matter what
explanation one assumes for it, it is a matter of fact that things endure. They are whatever they are
and they retain their identity over periods of time, though certainly not forever. So do humans, and
there is no reason to suppose that our physical identity is grounded in any other principle than it is
in case of animals (one might argue that the case is different with inanimate objects – as Leibniz in
fact did – but that should not concern us here, either).
It might seem that this does not bring us much closer to answering the question of moral
subjectivity. However, it is important for Leibniz’s argument that there is a real foundation for our
sense of identity and responsibility that is more objective than consciousness and memory. This
foundation is common to us and other animals, so we must now ask what aspect of identity is not.
Leibniz gives a very specific answer to this.
Before I proceed, let me quote a longer passage from the New Essays (II xxvii) that
summarizes all the issues that will be essential for the following discussion.

“[Both a beast’s soul and the soul of man] preserve real, physical identity; but it is
consonant with the rules of divine providence that in man’s case the soul should
also retain a moral identity which is apparent to us ourselves, so as to constitute the
same person, which is therefore sensitive to punishments and rewards. […] an
identity which is apparent to the person concerned – one who senses himself to be
the same – presupposes a real identity obtaining through each immediate transition
accompanied by reflection, or by the sense of I; because an intimate and immediate
perception cannot be mistaken in the natural course of things. […] As regards
‘self’, it will be as well to distinguish it from the appearance of self and from
consciousness. The ‘self’ makes real physical identity, and the appearance of self,
when accompanied by truth, adds to it personal identity.”
(transl. Peter Remnant, Jonathan Bennett)

Leibniz presents here a very precise scheme. In agreement with what was said before, he
claims that both animals and human beings preserve physical identity, but a man’s soul should also
retain a moral identity that constitutes a person and makes her “sensitive to punishments and
rewards”, that is, morally responsible for her actions. This moral identity is related to the
appearance of the self. The self makes physical identity and the moral identity should not be
equated with it. Only when the self is apparent to the person concerned, the personal and moral
identity is constituted.
The crucial point here is the appearance of the self, by virtue of which human beings are
moral subjects, while animals are not, lacking the appearance, though not lacking the self. It is clear
that Leibniz does not equate this appearance of the self with mere consciousness, as Locke’s
conception would suggest. He characterizes it in several ways. This appearance is what makes the
person to sense herself to be the same. It is reflection and it is a sense of I. Finally, it is an intimate
and immediate perception.
One concept among these that is certainly familiar to any reader of Leibniz and is of great
importance in many respects is, of course, “reflection”. It is a very rich, complex and ambiguous
concept that plays an essential role in Leibniz’s psychology, epistemology and metaphysics. I could
not even start to present all of its facets here. I will focus only on those aspects that are of direct
relevance to the issue of moral responsibility.
First of all, Leibniz repeatedly claims that capacity for reflection is what essentially
distinguishes human beings from animals. It is primarily connected with our capability of knowing
eternal and necessary truths and it is the source of the most basic metaphysical concepts, that of
unity, substance etc. But it also accounts for our self-awareness, our knowledge of our selves (what
exactly is the connection between these two aspects is notoriously unclear).
Let me give two more quotes that will illustrate the importance of reflection for our self-
knowledge and our moral status:
“And it is by the knowledge of necessary truths, and by the abstractions they
involve, that we are raised to acts of reflection, which make us aware of what we
call myself, and make us think of this or that thing as in ourselves.”
(Monadology, §30, transl. R. S. Woolhouse, Richard Francks)

“[…]the principal difference is that [animals] do not know what they are, nor what
they do, and so they cannot reflect, and therefore can never discover necessary and
universal truths. It is also for the lack of such self-reflection that they have no
moral quality […] But the intelligent soul, which knows what it is, and can say that
word ‘I’, which says so much, not only metaphysically remains and subsists more
than the others, but also morally remains the same and constitutes the same
(Discourse on Metaphysics, §34, transl. R. S. Woolhouse, Richard Francks)

Reflection is in the first place an epistemological concept that denotes a capacity for a
privileged kind of knowledge. It concerns primarily necessary truths, but it also makes us aware of
ourselves. And it is this introspective aspect of reflection that is of great importance for the question
of moral responsibility. As we saw in the quote from the New Essays, when reflection is focused on
the self, it produces an immediate and intimate perception, a sense of I. A person recognizes herself
in reflection as an enduring subject – and a subject that is capable of moral responsibility.
Now, the most important question here, and one to which Leibniz never gives an explicit
answer, is how exactly this kind of self-awareness or self-knowledge constitutes moral subjectivity.
Nothing in the content or object of reflection can account for it, since, as we have seen, a moral
subject is constituted only when both physical identity, the self, and the awareness of it, reflection,
are present.
Both in the New Essays and in the letter to Arnauld Leibniz emphasizes the importance of
the concept “I”. He equates reflection with a “sense of I” and says that “the intelligent soul, which
knows what it is, […] can say ‘I’”. The concept of “I” is a peculiar one because of its distinctive
self-referentiality. It denotes nothing apart from the very subject that employs it. And yet it is of
greatest importance for all our mental processes and is unique to humans, other animals being
devoid of any kind of self-knowledge (or at least that was the common opinion at the time of
Leibniz and for the next centuries).
The nature of the concept of “I” suggests an answer to the question about reflection and
subjectivity. It is not the object or content of reflection that constitutes moral subjectivity, but the
sole capability of self-awareness, that is the capability of a subject to adopt a specific relation
towards herself and, in consequence, towards her actions. Animals can have motives and reasons
for their activities of the same kind and nature that we do, and they can have as much choice
between alternative courses of action, but they cannot recognize their actions as their own. It is not
the existence of the self, the physical identity, that constitutes responsibility, but its “ownness”,
which accounts for a subject’s self-recognition – as a subject. When Leibniz states, as he so often
does, that no freedom of indifference is required for moral responsibility, but only the voluntariness
of actions, that is what should be understood by it. Our actions can be voluntary only because they
are properly ours.
That is why a reader can frequently have the impression that Leibniz does not treat the
problem of the inconsistence of freedom and responsibility with determinism seriously enough. He
repeatedly states that voluntariness of actions is sufficient to call them free and to held their author
responsible for them, as if he completely ignored the argument of his opponents that there is no
voluntariness where there is no real choice. However, what Leibniz means is that – plausibly
enough – having choice means nothing else than being the author of one’s own actions. His
opponents are wrong, however, in assuming that one can be an author of one’s own actions only if
one “could have done otherwise”. Nothing in the logic of subjectivity, according to Leibniz,
requires that. We are masters of our own actions by virtue of the sole fact that we recognize them as
our own and we recognize ourselves as moral subjects. And this act of self-recognition of a subject
is at the same time what constitutes the very subject herself.

Resuming, we see that Leibniz has a very sophisticated and original answer to the problem
of determinism. We are free, he claims, and morally responsible for our actions because we
voluntarily choose what to do. Our choices are fully determined by their proper causes, but it makes
them no less “our”. Our decisions belong to us – and that is all that is required by the concept of
voluntariness. To require in addition to that that they be results of some kind of “indifference” of
will in face of equally possible alternative choices is wholly unjustified. An indifferent will entails
randomness, not choice. We are free because we act for reasons that are properly our reasons.
What makes those reasons and choices that follow them ours is the fact that we are moral
persons. We are endowed with subjectivity that is unique to us and is not shared by animals, even
though they are equally determined in their behavior. What makes us moral subjects is a special
kind of relation that we bear to ourselves, which is constituted by our capacity for reflection. It is
this special kind of self-knowledge, awareness of one’s self, and together with it of one’s reasons,
choices and actions, that makes a person. A moral subject is constituted in the act of recognition of
herself as a moral subject, a master of her own actions, who can be held responsible for them.
I would like to finish with some remarks on the broader context of Leibniz’s conception. It
might be regarded as an anticipation of a line of thinking that begins with Kant and is quite
influential in contemporary philosophy. According to it, free will is not a question of fact. There is
nothing in the world that could not be explained by its proper physical causes, and therefore all our
actions are fully determined. This, however, has no implications for the problem of freedom and
moral responsibility, since the very concepts of freedom, responsibility, reasons for action etc. do
not belong to the same field, the same logical category as concepts that are supposed to describe
facts (i.e. states of affairs and events in the natural world). To look at the world as the domain of
natural facts, all of which are fully determined, and to look at it as the space in which human beings
exercise their freedom are two different perspectives. The difference between them can be spelled
out in various different ways, be it in terms of Kant’s transcendental divide between the world of
phenomena and the noumenal realm of intelligibility, or in terms of a distinction between “first-
person perspective” and “third-person perspective”.
Leibniz’s conception bears strong similarity to this way of thinking. According to him,
humans are free, while animals are not, not because of any difference in our natural constitution. In
reflection we do not discover some facts about us that distinguish us from animals. Instead, in
reflection we adopt a totally different perspective on ourselves – a perspective in which we are no
longer “spiritual automata” that behave in a fully determined way, but moral subjects that are
masters of their own actions. What is the strength of Leibniz’s conception in comparison with the
Kantian way of thinking is his denial of any discontinuity between the “realm of freedom” and the
“realm of nature”, which he justifies with his metaphysical theory of monads. This, however, is a
topic for quite another discussion.