Hume, David (1711–76)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DB040-2
Version: v2,  Published online: 2005
Retrieved January 16, 2019, from

5. Free will

The question of whether the human will is free or necessitated is one of the most pressing issues raised by the scientific revolution, one that is central to morality and to the conception of the place of human beings in nature. Hume applies his account of causal reasoning and causal necessity to its solution (THN 2.3.1–2; EHU 8). He holds that his two definitions of ‘cause’ determine the only two possible requirements for the causal necessity of human actions: (1) constant conjunction with particular types of antecedent conditions; and (2) susceptibility to association-plus-inference. Since human actions of particular kinds are constantly conjoined with particular kinds of antecedent motives, character traits and circumstances, he argues, and since these constant conjunctions clearly can and do provide a basis for inference and association on the part of observers, it follows that human actions are causally necessitated. Hume himself is a determinist, holding – on the basis of induction from the past successes of natural science in finding determining causes for events – that every event results from previous conditions in accordance with exceptionless laws of nature. However, what he calls the ‘doctrine of necessity’ does not require determinism, but rather only the general predictability of human action. For his primary opponents are not indeterminists, but rather defenders (such as Samuel CLARKE) of a distinction between physical causes that necessitate their effects, on the one hand, and ‘moral’ causes (such as human motivations) that allegedly do not necessitate their effects, on the other. Since we do not feel the impression of necessary connection when we ourselves deliberate and act, Hume argues, we suppose that our own actions are not necessitated. But this conclusion is belied by the constant conjunction of these actions with motives, traits and circumstances, and by the fact that external observers do feel the impression of necessary connection when they predict or infer our actions.

Because we mistakenly suppose that there are two kinds of causation – necessitating and non-necessitating – we also suppose that there is a kind of freedom or ‘liberty’ that allows constant conjunction, thus supporting association and inference, without causal necessitation. In fact, however, this is impossible; and the only kind of ‘liberty’ that is opposed to necessity is the liberty of indifference or chance – that is, the absence of causation and hence of predictability. As a determinist, of course, Hume denies that there is in fact any liberty of indifference at all, although he regards this as a conclusion from experience; but he also denies that anyone would wish their actions to be a matter of chance, for then one’s actions could stand in no causal relation to one’s motives, character and circumstances. The kind of liberty that we do have and want, he argues, is the liberty of spontaneity that consists simply in the absence of constraint – that is, the power to have one’s acting or not acting determined by one’s will. Indeed, both causal necessity and the liberty of spontaneity are required for moral responsibility, for one cannot be blamed for what is not caused by one’s character, nor for what is contrary to one’s will. The fact that the human will is causally determined by motives, traits and circumstances that are themselves, in turn, causally determined by other factors not ultimately subject to the will does not, in Hume’s view, interfere in any way with the kind of freedom required for moral responsibility. Hume’s treatment of the topic of ‘liberty and necessity’ is one of the best-known defences of compatibilism – the view that the kind of freedom required for moral responsibility is compatible with the causal determination of human deliberation and action – and constitutes an important element in his attempt to integrate the study of human nature into the natural world.

In An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding, Hume also considers two ‘objections’ to religion derived from the bearing of causal necessity and moral responsibility on the doctrine that God is the ultimate cause of the entire universe. The first objection is that this doctrine absolves human beings of responsibility for their crimes, on the grounds that what God causally necessitates must be good; the second is that the doctrine requires us to deny the moral perfection of the deity and to ‘acknowledge him to be the ultimate author of guilt and moral turpitude in all his creatures’ (EHU 8.33). Against the first objection, Hume argues that we may properly blame human beings for character traits that evoke sentiments of moral disapprobation regardless of their more distant causes. The second objection, however, he pronounces to be beyond the power of human philosophy to resolve – thus, in effect, leaving the objection to stand against theistic cosmology and theodicy.

Citing this article:
Garrett, Don. Free will. Hume, David (1711–76), 2005, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DB040-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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