An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding | Study Guide

David Hume

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An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding | Section 8 : Of Liberty and Necessity | Summary



Part 1

In this section, Hume turns his attention toward human action. He has already discussed it in relation to Section 7's focus on the idea of a necessary connection between objects and events. Here, the focus is on whether or not human actions are free. More specifically, he applies what he has concluded about the necessary connection between causes and effects.

Hume thinks debates about human freedom generally arise from a failure to consistently use terms. His proposal is to end disagreement by providing "a few intelligible definitions" for "liberty and necessity." First, however, he points out that, on the one hand, most people accept natural causation, or determinism. That is, they accept the view that events in nature are causally related. At the same time, however, they reserve for human action a freedom that puts human choice and voluntary action outside the causal chain. This, Hume thinks, is a mistake.

Human motives and the actions that issue from them can be explained in the same terms that account for objects and events: constant conjunction. A person's actions can be predicted because the motives that produce them are the same. Any diversity of effects—that which is not expected of a particular person—can be accounted for in the same way that one accounts for diversity in the effects of objects. More specifically, diversity in human action is the result not of unpredictability, but of an ignorance of appropriate causes. Confidence in predictability is as much a matter of custom as is the confidence in causation.

To say one is free, or at liberty, then, is to say that one has "a power of acting or not acting, according to the determinations of the will." It is no more the case that one's actions are not determined than it is the case that chance is real. It is, instead, the case that to be at liberty is to be unconstrained or prevented from doing what one wants. Doing what one wants means being moved by a specific motivation. Hence, a motive determines the will. Necessity has already been defined in terms of causal necessity, which Hume takes to be only the constant conjunction of events from which one is inferred from the other.

Part 2

Hume first defines necessity in two ways, which he asserts to be, "at bottom, the same." The first is "the constant conjunction of like objects, or the inference of the understanding from one object to another."

Human actions are caused by a person's "character, passions, and affections." It is these sources that allow for moral praise and blame. They are causes, and so actions are determined, but they arise internally and so are not externally imposed. As such, the actions are one's own; one is responsible for them. It would be a grievous mistake to hold someone morally responsible for something they were forced to do or did by chance.

Two conditions must be met, then, for one to be free and for one's actions to be praised or blamed. They are the absence of some sort of external constraint and the motive, passion, or character of the agent that caused the action.

The feeling of approval or disapproval, moreover, is immediately consequent upon the relevant action. These feelings align with "the peace and security of human society" on the one hand and "public detriment and disturbance" on the other. They do not, however, arise from some internal impression. Instead, they arise from an agent's character traits or mental disposition. To hold one morally responsible, then, is to experience a moral sentiment directed to that person. Consequently, to hold someone morally responsible is not to make a judgment about them, but to experience a particular feeling.


Both the ideas of causation and necessary connection are more than the experience of successive events. They are beliefs about how and when these events are expected to occur. As such, the events function as causes or effects, despite the fact that what is taken as a cause or an effect is, strictly speaking, entirely distinct.

Hume endorses a view known as compatibilism. This view asserts that events are determined but that this is compatible with human freedom and moral responsibility. So long as one is not prevented from doing what one wants, one is free. Determinism is the view that, since everything is determined, there is no freedom. Indeterminism, on the other hand, is the view that, since not everything is determined, freedom is possible.

Hume's view is that to say indeterminism misunderstands the nature of freedom. The indeterminist thinks that freedom requires being able to choose differently than one does, under the same circumstances. Instead, Hume thinks, freedom is properly understood as an absence of constraint rather than an uncaused will. Indeed, as Hume argues in Part 2, the indeterminist's view of freedom is inconsistent with moral responsibility.

In applying the same concepts to explain human action as he applied to the relations between objects, Hume provides another feature of his proposed science of the human mind. Human actions are events in the world, according to Hume, and should be treated as such. Human motives are to human actions as causes are to effects; willing to save a child from drowning in a pool bears the same type of relation as one between a billiard ball striking another billiard ball.

An especially striking point in this part of Section 8 is that Hume's analysis of moral responsibility is psychological. He is less concerned with the standard sort of rational argument whereby one infers moral responsibility from an action than he is with the feeling of praise or blame directed at the agent of that action. Moreover, this feeling is intimately connected with the belief that a person is morally responsible—recall that beliefs are not rationally determined but instead are the result of the mind's uniting two constantly conjoined events in a new way, that is by cause and effect. Consequently, belief about moral responsibility is the result of experiences with conjoined motives and behaviors.

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