An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding – Of Liberty and Necessity – Hume

Hume, David. “Of Liberty and Necessity.” An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. New York: P.F. Collier & Son, 1909. Web. 20 Jan. 2015.

Hume’s argument in Section VIII of Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding is largely an argument by definition in which Hume asserts that the debate between free will and determinism continues due a lack of agreed upon definitions for each. He goes on to suggest that if definitions were given, the argument would become unnecessary as those in the debate would find themselves to actually have been in agreement all along. Given this, Hume sets out to define determinism, which he feels reconciles the disagreement. He does this by appealing to his understanding of necessity or the idea that a cause (or one thing necessarily brining about another) is defined by seeing constant conjunctions between things. Seeing such constant conjunction leads us to instinctively infer cause. Our inferences lead us to attribute necessity to that conjunction. Hume then takes this understanding and moves it to draw a parallel to free will. He argues there is a similarity between the constant conjunctions we attribute to causation and to human motives and actions. In other words, human behavior, according to Hume, is as predictable as other observable behaviors in the physical world. Hume argues that almost everything humans do takes for granted a larger uniformity of behavior to which all humans adhere. He goes to suggest that when either nature or people act in ways that surprise us, it is not because they have acted outside of these laws but because we, as observers, have missed something or because we remain unaware of an unseen motive that would explain their behavior within the confines of the understood laws. Essentially, Hume is ascribing determinism or absolute predictability (so far as all the parameters are known and understood) to human behavior. Yet, despite the fact that human’s observe human action as deterministic and infer human action using the same logic as they infer action about the physical world, most humans continue to attest that their actions aren’t deterministic. This comes, Hume argues, from the conceit that humans are more complex than the physical world or above it in some way. When humans consider themselves as acting outside of the same rules that govern the physical world, they remove the logic from which they are actually bound.

In terms of moral responsibility the issue is this: typically we assume that if a person has done something with no choice, we cannot morally hold them accountable for the result: they had no free will. By the same token, if a person acts of his or her own volition, he or she can be held accountable – they have engaged a choice. But, if as Hume argues, our behaviors are predictable and causally necessary, can any actions be attributed to free will, and if not how can any action be held to a moral responsibility? Hume takes the compatibilist stance to argue that even if our actions are deterministic, we can still have free will. The problem is resolved through the concept of motivation. If one conceives of an action and follow through with it/attempts to follow through with it, they have motivation. Their will and their action were aligned. When will and action are not aligned, there has been no free will.


The concept of motivation in terms of free will and agency is an essential one within the environment of games. In this arena one could argue that if a player’s motivation or will is aligned with a reciprocal action in the game, the game has provided the player with agency. If, however, the player’s will or motivation is curtailed and the player is forced to do something they wish not to do, the game has removed his/her agency.

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