Bradley rejected the utilitarian movement in ethics, as well as the positivist and empiricist schools that questioned metaphysics. He was a follower of Kant and the German Idealists Fichte, Schelling and Hegel. His idea of free will is greatly influenced by their enthusiastic endorsements of human freedom. Bradley stands opposed to his strict determinist countrymen like John Locke, David Hume, and John Stuart Mill. Bradley's idea of freedom is a sort of confused compatibilism, with a strong theistic element. In his first major publication, Ethical Studies, in 1876, he appended a note on freedom to his first essay, "The Vulgar Notion of Responsibility in Connexion with the Theories of Free Will and Necessity." (pp.55-57 of the second edition)
C. Freedom I am not going to try to treat such a subject as this by the way, but a very few words may be of use to the beginner. If we put it in as ordinary language as we can, the main difficulty is this — If there is a 'because' to my acts, responsibility seems to go ; and yet we have an irresistible impulse to find a 'because' everywhere. But is it not the sort of 'because' which gives all the trouble? (1) We may say there is one kind of 'because', and one only. Then I am put on a level with nature ; and whether you take your 'because' from mechanism, or start from will and put nature on a level with me, makes no practical difference, since in neither case do you distinguish. (2) We may say there is no 'because' for us, and may say, (a) We know will, and it is beyond the 'because'. It = chance. Or, (b) Will is unknowable. 'Because' is for thought only, and for intelligible objects. Neither of these assertions can hold; for, apart from metaphysical difficulties, we actually do predict volitions to a large extent. (3) We may admit the 'because' (or rather, since our will is rational, we may demand it), but may say, there is more than one sort of 'because'. There is mechanical 'because', but that is not adequate to the lowest life, still less to mind. And if we take this line, we may find that the 'because' which excludes accountability is only the 'because' which does not apply to the mind, but to something else. If 'must' always means the 'must' of the falling stone, then 'must' is irreconcilable with 'ought' or 'can'. Freedom will be a bare 'not-must', and will be purely negative. But how if the 'must' is a higher 'must'? And how if freedom is also positive — if a merely negative freedom is no freedom at all? We may find then that in true freedom the 'can' is not only reconcilable with, but inseparable from, the 'ought'; and both not only reconcilable with, but inseparable from, the 'must'. Is not freedom something positive? And can we give a positive meaning to freedom except by introducing a will which not only 'can', but also 'ought to' and 'must', fulfil a law of its nature, which is not the nature of the physical world? There is a view, which says to the necessitarian,'Are you not neglecting distinctions?'; to the believer in 'liberty', 'Are you sure you are distinguishing? Is there the smallest practical difference between external necessity and chance? Can you even define them theoretically, and keep them distinct? Is the opposite of a false view always true? Is it not much rather often (and always in some spheres) just as false?'; and to both, 'So long as you refuse to read metaphysic, so long will metaphysical abstractions prey upon you.' Or, to put the same thing in a slightly different way, we all want freedom. Well then, what is freedom? 'It means not being made to do or be anything. "Free " means "free from".' And are we to be quite free? 'Yes, if freedom is good, we can not have too much of it.' Then, if 'free' = 'free from', to be quite free is to be free from everything — free from other men, free from law, from morality, from thought, from sense, from — Is there anything we are not to be free from? To be free from everything is to be — nothing. Only nothing is quite free, and freedom is abstract nothingness. If in death we cease to be anything, then there first we are free, because there first we are — not. Every one sees this is not the freedom we want. '"Free" is "free from", but then I am to be free. It is absurd to think that I am to be free from myself. I am to be free to exist and to assert myself.' Well and good; but this is not what we began with. Freedom now means the self-assertion which is nothing but self-assertion. It is not merely negative — it is also positive, and negative only so far as, and because, it is positive. 'I am to assert myself and nothing else, and this is freedom.' So far as this goes we quite agree; but it tells us scarcely anything. I am to assert myself, but then what action does assert myself; or rather, what action does not assert myself? And if I am to assert nothing but myself, what can I do, so as to do this and nothing but this? What, in short, is this self, the assertion of which is freedom? 'My self', we shall hear, 'is what is mine; and mine is what is not yours, or what does not belong to any one else. I am free when I assert my private will, the will peculiar to me.' Can this hold? Apart from any other objection, is it freedom? Suppose I am a glutton and a drunkard; in these vices I assert my private will; am I then free so far as a glutton and drunkard, or am I a slave — the slave of my appetites? The answer must be, 'The slave of his lusts is, so far, not a free man. The man is free who realizes his true self.' Then the whole question is, What is this true self, and can it be found apart from something like law? Is there any 'perfect freedom' which does not mean 'service'? Reflection shows us that what we call freedom is both positive and negative. There are then two questions — What am I to be free to assert? What am I to be free from? And these are answered by the answer to one question — What is my true self?