Dr. Ari Santas’ Notes on

Hume’s Enquiry, Section VIII: Of Liberty and Necessity




A.     The Issue

      ·  The problem of free will is age old; it arise in two different ways:

1)      Scientifically: if we believe that the universe obeys universal deterministic/mechanistic laws, and humans are subject to these laws (as they seem to be), then it appears that our actions are not free but determined

2)      Theologically: if we believe that God is the ultimate author of all that happens, in total control of the world, then our actions would appear to be not really ours, but a determination of His will

      ·  Either way, it appears that we are not in control of our own actions

            ·  If this is so, why punish or praise anyone for anything they do?

·  These kinds of questions have led thinkers to wonder whether we are free, and if so, to what degree and in what sense

·  There are a variety of positions on the question of free will vs. determinism


B.     Variety of Views

·  Free Will: this view basically states that human beings are radically free, completely unconstrained by the laws of nature (when they choose to act)

·  Many of these proponents are dualists, claiming that the mind follows different laws (its own) and cannot be affected by the laws of nature (Descartes)

·  But not all free will proponents are dualists (Sartre)

            ·  Fixed past, no fixed future

· Hard Determinism: (also called strict determinism) this view states that humans are completely bound (mind and body) by the laws of nature, and that all our actions can be accounted for by biological or physical laws

      ·  Behaviorists tend to hold this view (Watson, Skinner)

·  Soft Determinism: (also called compatibilism) states that free will and determinism are ultimately compatible (hence the name)

      ·  This is the view that Hume holds


Part I


A.     Hume-s View of the Controversy

·  Begins by stating that when engaging in argument, you must start with an agreement on the meaning of the terms used

·  Now, one would think that on a topic debated as long as this one (two thousand years!), we would at least have gotten that much straight

·  But we have not:  As a matter of fact, Hume thinks that the controversy continues precisely because people have not agreed on their terminology

·  One of the biggest problems in moral philosophy, says Hume, is in the ambiguity of the terms

      ·  Remember ideas are inherently more confused than impressions

·  This is precisely the problem in the present debate

·  He hopes to settle it once and for all by fixing his terms and sticking to their defined meanings

·  What is necessity?  What is liberty?


B.     (Empirical) Necessity

·  Before we can answer whether humans act under laws of nature - necessity - we need to get clear on what it is

      ·  For Hume, empirical necessity is not logical necessity

      ·  Nor is it a property of nature that we directly observe

·  Necessity, causal law, force, are all reducible to that twofold definition of cause :

1)      Constant conjunction: uniform patterns in experience

2)      Resulting inference: one idea leads to the other

·  Habit, remember, connects 1 and 2: without it, we would be clueless, regardless of how many times it was observed

      ·  The hamster example

·  To show that humans act under laws of nature - necessity, we need only look for:

1)      Uniformity

2)      Inference


C.     Uniformity in Human Behavior

·  It is explicitly (by words) or implicitly (by deeds) acknowledged by everyone that human behavior is greatly uniform

      ·  In all ages and places, humans behave the same way

·  Like motives produce like actions no matter where you go

·  Should a traveler return with stories of a land where men show no hate, avarice, or greed, but only love, generosity, or friendship, we would know he is a liar, just as if he reported centaurs and dragons

·  Just reflect on your dealings with human beings and you will realize how much uniformity we rely on

      ·  Pay for burger, they give it to you

      ·  Turn in paper, I grade it

      ·  Make wedding vows, they are kept…or are they?


D.     Lack of Uniformity: A Qualification

      ·  Obviously, human behavior is not completely uniform

      ·  That is because humans are very complex beings

      ·  Our behavior is a function of several things

            ·  Upbringing by society (inculcation)

            ·  Biological factors (hormones and instincts)

            ·  Personal idiosyncrasies (own experience)

      ·  Hume has two comments on this lack of uniformity

1)      There is an analogous lack of uniformity in the workings of nature, when dealing with all complex mechanisms, we have so many factors, it is difficult to sort them out

2)      Even so, in both cases, if we were intimately familiar with all the details, we           could find regularity (uniformity) in the behavior


E.      Moral Inferences

·  Hume contends that just as we observe uniformities in nature and  make legitimate inferences, we do so as well in human behavior

            ·  In nature, we observe constant conjunctions, some more uniform than others

            ·  The more uniform, the stronger the inference

·  For humans, the same holds: we observe constant conjunctions between certain motives and circumstances and actions

·  Again, the more uniform, the stronger the inference

            ·  The prisoner (pg. 60 in Hackett Volume)

            ·  The purse (pg. 61)

·  Hume thinks that there is no difference in principle between the study of nature and that of human beings

      ·  Events:

                  ·  Body to body (physical)

                  ·  Mind to mind (psychical)

                  ·  Body to mind (psycho-physical)

                  ·  Mind to body (psycho-physical)


F.      Liberty

      ·  What does it mean, asks Hume, to say something has liberty?

·  It does not mean that there is no connection between one-s actions and motives, inclinations

      ·  How then could we act!?

      ·  No one denies this!

·  It means that there is an ability to act or not act, according to choice (remember Aristotle?)

·  Everyone agrees that we have this, unless we are prisoners

·  Without the connection we would not be free agents

·  Furthermore, necessity (in this sense) does not preclude liberty

·  Since necessity is in the mind of the observer, not in the events themselves, or actions can be under necessity and still be the product of choice

·  Someone may be able to infallibly predict our behavior, and yet that does not make us unfree

·  Pre-knowledge does not equal determinism (control is needed also)


G.     Compatibilism

      ·  Both the doctrines of free will and (hard) determinism are metaphysical positions:

            ·  They make claims about ultimate forces in nature

      ·  Liberty and Necessity are not metaphysical doctrines:

·  Necessity refers to the fact that we observe patterns, whether they occur in human behavior, or in nature

·  Liberty refers to the fact that people act according to their choice

·  These common sense notions are not incompatible, though the metaphysical doctrines are:

·  We do have patterns in behavior, but this is not to say we are not the authors of what we do!

            ·  I choose to exercise every day

            ·  You can predict my behavior because of this

            ·  But it is still my choice!

·  More importantly, perhaps, this view helps us realize that actions are mostly a function of habit, and habits can be changed - that is freedom



Part II


A.     Liberty, Necessity, and Moral Agency

      ·  Is morality possible, given Hume-s necessity?

·  Hume contends that his view is not only compatible with morality, but morality requires it

·  Morality requires necessity:

1)      How could we punish or praise any behavior if it were not attributable to the agent?

            ·  Denial would separate action from the agent

2)      What good would reward and punishment be if there were no connection between the agent, his circumstances, and the action?

            ·  Denial would make sanctions useless

      ·  Morality requires liberty:

·  If one cannot act as s/he chooses, they are not responsible for the act, so it could not be held against them, or in his/her favor