Hume Liberty and Necessity

1 January 2017

Hume wants to discuss what liberty and necessity mean and whether or not they can be compatible with each other. This is all really a discussion of Hume’s view of free will and determinism, and how they can be easily reconciled through compatibilism where for example both liberty and necessity are required for morality. He starts off by considering the idea of necessity and defines it as, “the constant conjunction of similar objects, and the consequent inference from one to another” (Hume 150).

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He wants to talk about its relation to what he calls liberty. He defines his hypothetical liberty as, “A power of acting or not acting, according to the determinations of the will” (Hume 159). This sounds like free will, meaning that people have the ability to act or not act in certain ways. He wants to deny any possibility of chance, because he’s an empiricist, and if you have the possibility of chance, what can you ever really know about the world.

In every case, Hume is going to want to go out into the world and see where things come from even these ideas of liberty and necessity to see if there is a way to have both. To take it further, he goes on to claim that we’re all compatibilists without even realizing it. In order to explain his reasoning, he makes three arguments: the necessity argument, the spontaneity argument, and the anti-libertarianism argument. For the necessity argument, he says that when we look at the world around us, it appears that there is some constant conjunction between a person’s character and the actions that they make.

This is very similar to his argument about cause and effect, but in this example, we’re no longer comparing things like billiard balls knocking into one another causing the other ball to move, he’s applying this idea of cause and effect to people. He basically says that people with a certain character will always go with the resulting action. This is an example of the constant conjunction between similar objects that he talks about and in this case, the similar objects would be the person and their action.

For the second half of the necessity definition, involving inference, Hume says we make inferences between people’s character and their actions, and then he goes on to say that without making these inferences about people, we wouldn’t be able to function. For the spontaneity argument, Hume wants to address what the distinction between a free action and an unfree action is in relation to his idea of liberty. He says that free action can be distinguished from unfree action not because it doesn’t have a cause, but rather that it has a different type of cause than unfree action.

Basically, he’s saying that responsible or morally free actions are caused by our own motives, while if there is an unfree action, it is caused by some external thing meaning something outside yourself is causing you to do this action. So with regards to the spontaneity argument, the person doing the free action has a conjunction to the action they’re doing, because it was done by their own desires or motives. Meaning if it was not an accident caused by some external thing making you do an action, you are held responsible for that action and were therefore determined by your own will.

For the anti-libertarian argument, Hume wants to say that freedom of indifference, which is Descartes’ idea, would make moral responsibility impossible, because a liberty really does not exist. He says you couldn’t blame something that just happened on someone who had nothing to do with it. For a libertarian there would be no possibility of being held responsible, therefore morality would be impossible. So basically, Hume believes that liberty and necessity are compatible, because they really deal with different ideas.

For example, liberty comes with a lack of constraint and necessity comes with the idea of cause and effect conjunctions. Therefore, compatibility is people have the liberty to do whatever they choose to do, but they can also be determined by their own desires to do something as well. Hume’s idea of freedom is radically different than Descartes. For Descartes, there are two types of freedom: freedom of indifference and freedom of inclination. Freedom of indifference is the freedom to assent to something ithout evidence of it or to assent to something obscurely.

This is the lowest kind of freedom, because in this case, it can go either way meaning a good or bad outcome. In freedom of inclination, we have clear and distinct perceptions of something and you cannot help but assent to it. It’s sort of like God is somewhat forcing us along. According to Descartes, this is the highest form of freedom, because in this case, we could potentially be free from error since we’re going along in accordance with that perfect being.

I want to argue in favor of Hume, because Descartes’ idea of freedom, doesn’t really seem to be an actual freedom, because some perfect being is putting these clear and distinct perceptions in your head, so there is really no choice in the matter. On the other hand, I’m not entirely sure that you can always make inferences about people’s character like Hume says. I understand that he believes that change is something we experience in the world, but I don’t know if we could make inferences with people that we’ve just met, even though I guess we do expect them to act a certain way.

The example we discussed in class about the boyfriend randomly breaking up with you would definitely be an exception to the rule though, because how could you make inferences about someone who you think is one way and then is a completely different person the next. Other than that, I do believe that Hume has a stronger argument, especially in the sense that more people will be able to relate to his idea that freedom and determination can be compatible.

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