Philosopher David Hume on Liberty and Necessity Summary

SECTION VIII: on Liberty and Necessity

62-64. Communication depends upon the supposition that other minds are like one's own and that another's terms are affixed to the same ideas as one's own. Otherwise reasoning together would be fruitless. To discuss the origins of worlds beyond human capacity or the region of spirits is to waste time beating the air. This pertains to the long disputed question concerning liberty and necessity. It has been sophistry where a few intelligible definitions would have ended the controversy.

It has long been believed that every motion is prescribed with exactness by the laws of nature. But from where comes this idea? We can only know that one event follows another, not that one was produced by another. Only conjunction is known, not connection or the relation of cause and effect.

65-66. The same events follow the same causes. The same motives always produce the same actions. Ambition, avarice, self-love, vanity, friendship, generosity, public spirit and other passions, mixed in degrees and distributed throughout society, have been and always will be the source of all actions. Do you want to know the tempers behind the course of action of the ancient Greeks and Romans? Study those of the French and English today. The chief use of history is to discover the principles of human nature formed by observations. As earth, water and the other elements were to Aristotle, and as plants and minerals are to the natural philosopher, so the records of wars are to the historian: part of the content to be examined by the science of history.

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If a traveler should come with a story of a country where its people lacked avarice, ambition, and revenge, and only lived in friendship and generosity, you would detect the falsehood to be as if he spoke of centaurs, dragons, and miracles. Your experience would give you this judgment through the advantage of knowing the uniformity in the operation of the passions as an aged farmer, with his knowledge of the operations of the sun and rain, has an advantage over a child lacking this experience. This does not mean that outcomes of behaviour can be predicted precisely. Not all people in the same circumstances act precisely the same way.

67-69. But we anticipate this from our experience of nature which we observe does not have uniformity in outcomes. And for some actions we are unable to discern the motives. Some medicines do not bring the expected cure and we acknowledge that the human body is a complicated machine. A person of an obliging disposition shows an un obliging reaction perhaps because he has a toothache or is hungry. Nevertheless, we expect others to act within a certain perimeter of action.

70. History, politics and morality are sciences that assume a reasonably constant operation on actions. This acknowledges the doctrine of necessity, an inference from motives to voluntary actions and from characters to conduct.

The natural and moral evidence can be linked together. A prisoner surrounded by walls and bars and having an obstinate gaoler will seek his freedom by working on the stone and iron of the one rather than on the inflexible nature of the other. And when he is led to the scaffold he foresees his death as certainly from the fidelity of the guards as from the axe. Reflecting on the details of his situation, he knows the outcome is no less certain than if it were what we call a physical necessity.

So I expect my visiting friend not to rob me just as I expect my newly built house not to fall down. But he may be seized by an unknown frenzy and there could be a sudden earthquake and both of these occur.

71-73. Why do all acknowledge the doctrine of necessity in practice but not in words? Because they live by the belief that there is a necessary connection between cause and effect but do not feel it in their own minds. They differentiate between the connections they assume in physical necessity and those that they do not feel in their thoughts.

The question of liberty and necessity is attacked from the wrong end: from the soul and operations of the will rather than from the operations of the body and unintelligent matter. The place to begin is to apply science to matter and find, as explained above, that all that can be known is constant conjunction and not connection.

The issue of the doctrine of liberty and the doctrine of necessity is a verbal one. For what is meant by liberty? We cannot mean that our actions have no connection with our motives, inclinations and circumstances, and that therefore one does not follow from the other with a degree of uniformity. These are matters of fact. By liberty, then, we can only mean a power of acting or not acting according to the determinations of the will. Thus, liberty means that if we choose to remain at rest, we may; if we choose to move, we also may. But this is the situation of everyone who is not a prisoner in chains.

74. Any definition of liberty should first be consistent with plain matter of fact and second be consistent with itself. Such a definition should be acceptable to all. Since nothing exists without a cause of its existence, chance is merely a negative word. One can only pretend then that some causes are necessary and others are not. The reason is because of the definition of a cause must include a necessary connection with its effect. If liberty is opposed to necessity and not to constraint, it means the same thing as chance. But chance is not an option for it has no existence.

Part II

75-76. A common but equally blameworthy abuse of reasoning is to refute a hypothesis on the pretence of it having dangerous consequences for religion and morality. This does nothing but make the other person appear odious. If an action is good it cannot rebound to the honour of the one who acts even if it violates all the rules of morality and religion. No person is answerable to these rules and they must not be used as the reason for punishment or vengeance. To act wrongly in ignorance is to be blameless. To act without premeditation is to be less blameworthy than to proceed from deliberation. Repentance wipes off every crime if attended with a reformed life. Why? Because a person is a criminal only if he holds criminal principles in the mind. And without the doctrine of necessity, an act could not be deemed criminal due to a criminal mind.

77-81. Liberty, by the above definition, is also essential to morality. For actions can be given a moral value only if they are indications of the internal character, passions, and affections. If actions arise from external factors, they can give rise neither to praise nor blame. But if voluntary actions be subjected to laws of necessity, then there is a pre-determined chain from the original cause to every human act and there is no liberty. If we act because we are acted upon, and the Author of our volition is the Creator of the universe who sets a machine in motion with every subsequent event a necessary result, then our human actions in this situation have no moral value. For if to the Creator is all the praise, then to that Being also is all the blame. Mankind can plead ignorance and impotence; but this cannot be the plea of our Creator. He foresaw and ordained all the actions of mankind that we pronounce criminal. Either we must proclaim them not criminal, or the Deity -- and not man -- is accountable. But as both these positions are absurd, the doctrine behind them cannot be true.

There are two objections: first, if human actions can be traced back to the Deity, they cannot be criminal. Or second, if they are criminal, then we must remove the attribute of perfection from the Deity.

The answer to the first objection is that every ill -- whether physical or moral -- is an essential part of a benevolent system. Stoics made all events -- whether ill or good -- objects of joy. This does not appease a man who is racked with pains of the gout. It does please a man who is at ease and secure, undisturbed by pain or passion.

The answer to the second objection is difficult. It is a mystery as to how the Deity as the author of all actions cannot also be the author of immorality. Here, philosophy has learned modesty and has returned to her appropriate province: the examination of common life where her time can be used with better results and less doubts, uncertainty and contradiction!

Philosopher David Hume on Liberty and Necessity Summary

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