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An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. (1748)

Sect. VIII. Of Liberty and Necessity

David Hume.

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An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding.

David Hume.

Sect. VIII. Of Liberty and Necessity

                             PART I.

  62. It might reasonably be expected in questions which have been
canvassed and disputed with great eagerness, since the first origin of
science and philosophy, that the meaning of all the terms, at least,
should have been agreed upon among the disputants; and our
enquiries, in the course of two thousand years, been able to pass from
words to the true and real subject of the controversy. For how easy
may it seem to give exact definitions of the terms employed in
reasoning, and make these definitions, not the mere sound of words,
the object of future scrutiny and examination? But if we consider
the matter more narrowly, we shall be apt to draw a quite opposite
conclusion. From this circumstance alone, that a controversy has
been long kept on foot, and remains still undecided, we may presume
that there is some ambiguity in the expression, and that the
disputants affix different ideas to the terms employed in the
controversy. For as the faculties of the mind are supposed to be
naturally alike in every individual; otherwise nothing could be more
fruitless than to reason or dispute together; it were impossible, if
men affix the same ideas to their terms, that they could so long
form different opinions of the same subject; especially when they
communicate their views, and each party turn themselves on all
sides, in search of arguments which may give them the victory over
their antagonists. It is true, if men attempt the discussion of
questions which lie entirely beyond the reach of human capacity,
such as those concerning the origin of worlds, or the economy of the
intellectual system or region of spirits, they may long beat the air
in their fruitless contests, and never arrive at any determinate
conclusion. But if the question regard any subject of common life
and experience, nothing, one would think, could preserve the dispute
so long undecided but some ambiguous expressions, which keep the
antagonists still at a distance, and hinder them from grappling with
each other.

  63. This has been the case in the long disputed question
concerning liberty and necessity; and to so remarkable a degree
that, if I be not much mistaken, we shall find, that all mankind, both
learned and ignorant, have always been of the same opinion with regard
to this subject, and that a few intelligible definitions would
immediately have put an end to the whole controversy. I own that
this dispute has been so much canvassed on all hands, and has led
philosophers into such a labyrinth of obscure sophistry, that it is no
wonder, if a sensible reader indulge his ease so far as to turn a deaf
ear to the proposal of such a question, from which he can expect
neither instruction or entertainment. But the state of the argument
here proposed may, perhaps, serve to renew his attention; as it has
more novelty, promises at least some decision of the controversy,
and will not much disturb his ease by any intricate or obscure

  I hope, therefore, to make it appear that all men have ever agreed
in the doctrine both of necessity and of liberty, according to any
reasonable sense, which can be put on these terms; and that the
whole controversy has hitherto turned merely upon words. We shall
begin with examining the doctrine of necessity.

  64. It is universally allowed that matter, in all its operations, is
actuated by a necessary force, and that every natural effect is so
precisely determined by the energy of its cause that no other
effect, in such particular circumstances, could possibly have resulted
from it. The degree and direction of every motion is, by the laws of
nature, prescribed with such exactness that a living creature may as
soon arise from the shock of two bodies in motion in any other
degree or direction than what is actually produced by it. Would we,
therefore, form a just and precise idea of necessity, we must consider
whence that idea arises when we apply it to the operation of bodies.

  It seems evident that, if all the scenes of nature were
continually shifted in such a manner that no two events bore any
resemblance to each other, but every object was entirely new,
without any similitude to whatever had been seen before, we should
never, in that case, have attained the least idea of necessity, or
of a connexion among these objects. We might say, upon such a
supposition, that one object or event has followed another; not that
one was produced by the other. The relation of cause and effect must
be utterly unknown to mankind. Inference and reasoning concerning
the operations of nature would, from that moment, be at an end; and
the memory and senses remain the only canals, by which the knowledge
of any real existence could possibly have access to the mind. Our
idea, therefore, of necessity and causation arises entirely from the
uniformity observable in the operations of nature, where similar
objects are constantly conjoined together, and the mind is
determined by custom to infer the one from the appearance of the
other. These two circumstances form the whole of that necessity, which
we ascribe to matter. Beyond the constant conjunction of similar
objects, and the consequent inference from one to the other, we have
no notion of any necessity or connexion.

  If it appear, therefore, that all mankind have ever allowed, without
any doubt or hesitation, that these two circumstances take place in
the voluntary actions of men, and in the operations of mind; it must
follow, that all mankind have ever agreed in the doctrine of
necessity, and that they have hitherto disputed, merely for not
understanding each other.

  65. As to the first circumstance, the constant and regular
conjunction of similar events, we may possibly satisfy ourselves by
the following considerations. It is universally acknowledged that
there is a great uniformity among the actions of men, in all nations
and ages, and that human nature remains still the same, in its
principles and operations. The same motives always produce the same
actions: The same events follow from the same causes. Ambition,
avarice, self-love, vanity, friendship, generosity, public spirit:
these passions, mixed in various degrees, and distributed through
society, have been, from the beginning of the world, and still are,
the source of all the actions and enterprises, which have ever been
observed among mankind. Would you know the sentiments, inclinations,
and course of life of the Greeks and Romans? Study well the temper and
actions of the French and English: You cannot be much mistaken in
transferring to the former most of the observations which you have
made with regard to the latter. Mankind are so much the same, in all
times and places, that history informs us of nothing new or strange in
this particular. Its chief use is only to discover the constant and
universal principles of human nature, by showing men in all
varieties of circumstances and situations, and furnishing us with
materials from which we may form our observations and become
acquainted with the regular springs of human action and behaviour.
These records of wars, intrigues, factions, and revolutions, are so
many collections of experiments, by which the politician or moral
philosopher fixes the principles of his science, in the same manner as
the physician or natural philosopher becomes acquainted with the
nature of plants, minerals, and other external objects, by the
experiments which he forms concerning them. Nor are the earth,
water, and other elements, examined by Aristotle, and Hippocrates,
more like to those which at present lie under our observation than the
men described by Polybius and Tacitus are to those who now govern
the world.

  Should a traveller, returning from a far country, bring us an
account of men, wholly different from any with whom we were ever
acquainted; men, who were entirely divested of avarice, ambition, or
revenge; who knew no pleasure but friendship, generosity, and public
spirit; we should immediately, from these circumstances, detect the
falsehood, and prove him a liar, with the same certainty as if he
had stuffed his narration with stories of centaurs and dragons,
miracles and prodigies. And if we would explode any forgery in
history, we cannot make use of a more convincing argument, than to
prove, that the actions ascribed to any person are directly contrary
to the course of nature, and that no human motives, in such
circumstances, could ever induce him to such a conduct. The veracity
of Quintus Curtius is as much to be suspected when he describes the
supernatural courage of Alexander, by which he was hurried on singly
to attack multitudes, as when he describes his supernatural force
and activity, by which he was able to resist them. So readily and
universally do we acknowledge a uniformity in human motives and
actions as well as in the operations of body.

  Hence likewise the benefit of that experience, acquired by long life
and a variety of business and company, in order to instruct us in
the principles of human nature, and regulate our future conduct, as
well as speculation. By means of this guide, we mount up to the
knowledge of men's inclinations and motives, from their actions,
expressions, and even gestures; and again descend to the
interpretation of their actions from our knowledge of their motives
and inclinations. The general observations treasured up by a course of
experience, give us the clue of human nature, and teach us to
unravel all its intricacies. Pretexts and appearances no longer
deceive us. Public declarations pass for the specious colouring of a
cause. And though virtue and honour be allowed their proper weight and
authority, that perfect disinterestedness, so often pretended to, is
never expected in multitudes and parties; seldom in their leaders; and
scarcely even in individuals of any rank or station. But were there no
uniformity in human actions, and were every experiment which we
could form of this kind irregular and anomalous, it were impossible to
collect any general observations concerning mankind; and no
experience, however accurately digested by reflection, would ever
serve to any purpose. Why is the aged husband-man more skilful in
his calling than the young beginner but because there is a certain
uniformity in the operation of the sun, rain, and earth towards the
production of vegetables; and experience teaches the old
practitioner the rules by which this operation is governed and

  66. We must not, however, expect that this uniformity of human
actions should be carried to such a length as that all men, in the
same circumstances, will always act precisely in the same manner,
without making any allowance for the diversity of characters,
prejudices, and opinions. Such a uniformity in every particular, is
found in no part of nature. On the contrary, from observing the
variety of conduct in different men, we are enabled to form a
greater variety of maxims, which still suppose a degree of
uniformity and regularity.

  Are the manners of men different in different ages and countries? We
learn thence the great force of custom and education, which mould
the human mind from its infancy and form it into a fixed and
established character. Is the behaviour and conduct of the one sex
very unlike that of the other? Is it thence we become acquainted
with the different characters which nature has impressed upon the
sexes, and which she preserves with constancy and regularity? Are
the actions of the same person much diversified in the different
periods of his life, from infancy to old age? This affords room for
many general observations concerning the gradual change of our
sentiments and inclinations, and the different maxims which prevail in
the different ages of human creatures. Even the characters, which
are peculiar to each individual, have a uniformity in their influence;
otherwise our acquaintance with the persons and our observation of
their conduct could never teach us their dispositions, or serve to
direct our behaviour with regard to them.

  67. I grant it possible to find some actions, which seem to have
no regular connexion with any known motives, and are exceptions to all
the measures of conduct which have ever been established for the
government of men. But if we would willingly know what judgement
should be formed of such irregular and extraordinary actions, we may
consider the sentiments commonly entertained with regard to those
irregular events which appear in the course of nature, and the
operations of external objects. All causes are not conjoined to
their usual effects with like uniformity. An artificer, who handles
only dead matter, may be disappointed of his aim, as well as the
politician, who directs the conduct of sensible and intelligent

  The vulgar, who take things according to their first appearance,
attribute the uncertainty of events to such an uncertainty in the
causes as makes the latter often fail of their usual influence; though
they meet with no impediment in their operation. But philosophers,
observing that, almost in every part of nature, there is contained a
vast variety of springs and principles, which are hid, by reason of
their minuteness or remoteness, find, that it is at least possible the
contrariety of events may not proceed from any contingency in the
cause, but from the secret operation of contrary causes. This
possibility is converted into certainty by farther observation, when
they remark that, upon an exact scrutiny, a contrariety of effects
always betrays a contrariety of causes, and proceeds from their mutual
opposition. A peasant can give no better reason for the stopping of
any clock or watch than to say that it does not commonly go right: But
an artist easily perceives that the same force in the spring or
pendulum has always the same influence on the wheels; but fails of its
usual effect, perhaps by reason of a grain of dust, which puts a
stop to the whole movement. From the observation of several parallel
instances, philosophers form a maxim that the connexion between all
causes and effects is equally necessary, and that its seeming
uncertainty in some instances proceeds from the secret opposition of
contrary causes.

  Thus, for instance, in the human body, when the usual symptoms of
health or sickness disappoint our expectation; when medicines
operate not with their wonted powers; when irregular events follow
from any particular cause; the philosopher and physician are not
surprised at the matter, nor are ever tempted to deny, in general, the
necessity and uniformity of those principles by which the animal
economy is conducted. They know that a human body is a mighty
complicated machine: That many secret powers lurk in it, which are
altogether beyond our comprehension: That to us it must often appear
very uncertain in its operations: And that therefore the irregular
events, which outwardly discover themselves, can be no proof that
the laws of nature are not observed with the greatest regularity in
its internal operations and government.

  68. The philosopher, if he be consistent, must apply the same
reasoning to the actions and volitions of intelligent agents. The most
irregular and unexpected resolutions of men may frequently be
accounted for by those who know every particular circumstance of their
character and situation. A person of an obliging disposition gives a
peevish answer: But he has the toothache, or has not dined. A stupid
fellow discovers an uncommon alacrity in his carriage: But he has
met with a sudden piece of good fortune. Or even when an action, as
sometimes happens, cannot be particularly accounted for, either by the
person himself or by others; we know, in general, that the
characters of men are, to a certain degree, inconstant and
irregular. This is, in a manner, the constant character of human
nature; though it be applicable, in a more particular manner, to
some persons who have no fixed rule for their conduct, but proceed
in a continued course of caprice and inconstancy. The internal
principles and motives may operate in a uniform manner,
notwithstanding these seeming irregularities; in the same manner as
the winds, rain, clouds, and other variations of the weather are
supposed to be governed by steady principles; though not easily
discoverable by human sagacity and enquiry.

  69. Thus it appears, not only that the conjunction between motives
and voluntary actions is as regular and uniform as that between the
cause and effect in any part of nature; but also that this regular
conjunction has been universally acknowledged among mankind, and has
never been the subject of dispute, either in philosophy or common
life. Now, as it is from past experience that we draw all inferences
concerning the future, and as we conclude that objects will always
be conjoined together which we find to have always been conjoined;
it may seem superfluous to prove that this experienced uniformity in
human actions is a source whence we draw inferences concerning them.
But in order to throw the argument into a greater variety of lights we
shall also insist, though briefly, on this latter topic.

  The mutual dependence of men is so great in all societies that
scarce any human action is entirely complete in itself, or is
performed without some reference to the actions of others, which are
requisite to make it answer fully the intention of the agent. The
poorest artificer, who labours alone, expects at least the
protection of the magistrate, to ensure him the enjoyment of the
fruits of his labour. He also expects that, when he carries his
goods to market, and offers them at a reasonable price, he shall
find purchasers, and shall be able, by the money he acquires, to
engage others to supply him with those commodities which are requisite
for his subsistence. In proportion as men extend their dealings, and
render their intercourse with others more complicated, they always
comprehend, in their schemes of life, a greater variety of voluntary
actions, which they expect, from the proper motives, to co-operate
with their own. In all these conclusions they take their measures from
past experience, in the same manner as in their reasonings
concerning external objects; and firmly believe that men, as well as
all the elements, are to continue, in their operations, the same
that they have ever found them. A manufacturer reckons upon the labour
of his servants for the execution of any work as much as upon the
tools which he employs, and would be equally surprised were his
expectations disappointed. In short, this experimental inference and
reasoning concerning the actions of others enters so much into human
life that no man, while awake, is ever a moment without employing
it. Have we not reason, therefore, to affirm that all mankind have
always agreed in the doctrine of necessity according to the
foregoing definition and explication of it?

  70. Nor have philosophers ever entertained a different opinion
from the people in this particular. For, not to mention that almost
every action of their life supposes that opinion, there are even few
of the speculative parts of learning to which it is not essential.
What would become of history, had we not a dependence on the
veracity of the historian according to the experience which we have
had of mankind? How could politics be a science, if laws and forms
of government had not a uniform influence upon society? Where would be
the foundation of morals, if particular characters had no certain or
determinate power to produce particular sentiments, and if these
sentiments had no constant operation on actions? And with what
pretence could we employ our criticism upon any poet or polite author,
if we could not pronounce the conduct and sentiments of his actors
either natural or unnatural to such characters, and in such
circumstances? It seems almost impossible, therefore, to engage either
in science or action of any kind without acknowledging the doctrine of
necessity, and this inference from motive to voluntary actions, from
characters to conduct.

  And indeed, when we consider how aptly natural and moral evidence
link together, and form only one chain of argument, we shall make no
scruple to allow that they are of the same nature, and derived from
the same principles. A prisoner who has neither money nor interest,
discovers the impossibility of his escape, as well when he considers
the obstinacy of the gaoler, as the walls and bars with which he is
surrounded; and, in all attempts for his freedom, chooses rather to
work upon the stone and iron of the one, than upon the inflexible
nature of the other. The same prisoner, when conducted to the
scaffold, foresees his death as certainly from the constancy and
fidelity of his guards, as from the operation of the axe or wheel. His
mind runs along a certain train of ideas: The refusal of the
soldiers to consent to his escape; the action of the executioner;
the separation of the head and body; bleeding, convulsive motions, and
death. Here is a connected chain of natural causes and voluntary
actions; but the mind feels no difference between them in passing from
one link to another: Nor is less certain of the future event than if
it were connected with the objects present to the memory or senses, by
a train of causes, cemented together by what we are pleased to call
a physical necessity. The same experienced union has the same effect
on the mind, whether the united objects be motives, volition, and
actions; or figure and motion. We may change the name of things; but
their nature and their operation on the understanding never change.

  Were a man, whom I know to be honest and opulent, and with whom I
live in intimate friendship, to come into my house, where I am
surrounded with my servants, I rest assured that he is not to stab
me before he leaves it in order to rob me of my silver standish; and I
no more suspect this event than the falling of the house itself, which
is new, and solidly built and founded.- But he may have been seized
with a sudden and unknown frenzy.- So may a sudden earthquake arise,
and shake and tumble my house about my ears. I shall therefore
change the suppositions. I shall say that I know with certainty that
he is not to put his hand into the fire and hold it there till it be
consumed: And this event, I think I can foretell with the same
assurance, as that, if he throw himself out at the window, and meet
with no obstruction, he will not remain a moment suspended in the air.
No suspicion of an unknown frenzy can give the least possibility to
the former event, which is so contrary to all the known principles
of human nature. A man who at noon leaves his purse full of gold on
the pavement at Charing Cross, may as well expect that it will fly
away like a feather, as that he will find it untouched an hour
after. Above one half of human reasonings contain inferences of a
similar nature, attended with more or less degrees of certainty
proportioned to our experience of the usual conduct of mankind in such
particular situations.

  71. I have frequently considered, what could possibly be the
reason why all mankind, though they have ever, without hesitation,
acknowledged the doctrine of necessity in their whole practice and
reasoning, have yet discovered such a reluctance to acknowledge it
in words, and have rather shown a propensity, in all ages, to
profess the contrary opinion. The matter, I think, may be accounted
for after the following manner. If we examine the operations of
body, and the production of effects from their causes, we shall find
that all our faculties can never carry us farther in our knowledge
of this relation than barely to observe that particular objects are
constantly conjoined together, and that the mind is carried, by a
customary transition, from the appearance of one to the belief of
the other. But though this conclusion concerning human ignorance be
the result of the strictest scrutiny of this subject, men still
entertain a strong propensity to believe that they penetrate farther
into the powers of nature, and perceive something like a necessary
connexion between the cause and the effect. When again they turn their
reflections towards the operations of their own minds, and feel no
such connexion of the motive and the action; they are thence apt to
suppose, that there is a difference between the effects which result
from material force, and those which arise from thought and
intelligence. But being once convinced that we know nothing farther of
causation of any kind than merely the constant conjunction of objects,
and the consequent inference of the mind from one to another, and
finding that these two circumstances are universally allowed to have
place in voluntary actions; we may be more easily led to own the
same necessity common to all causes. And though this reasoning may
contradict the systems of many philosophers, in ascribing necessity to
the determinations of the will, we shall find, upon reflection, that
they dissent from it in words only, not in their real sentiment.
Necessity, according to the sense in which it is here taken, has never
yet been rejected, nor can ever, I think, be rejected by any
philosopher. It may only, perhaps, be pretended that the mind can
perceive, in the operations of matter, some farther connexion
between the cause and effect; and connexion that has not place in
voluntary actions of intelligent beings. Now whether it be so or
not, can only appear upon examination; and it is incumbent on these
philosophers to make good their assertion, by defining or describing
that necessity, and pointing it out to us in the operations of
material causes.

  72. It would seem, indeed, that men begin at the wrong end of this
question concerning liberty and necessity, when they enter upon it
by examining the faculties of the soul, the influence of the
understanding, and the operations of the will. Let them first
discuss a more simple question, namely, the operations of body and
of brute unintelligent matter; and try whether they can there form any
idea of causation and necessity, except that of a constant conjunction
of objects, and subsequent inference of the mind from one to
another. If these circumstances form, in reality, the whole of that
necessity, which we conceive in matter, and if these circumstances
be also universally acknowledged to take place in the operations of
the mind, the dispute is at an end; at least, must be owned to be
thenceforth merely verbal. But as long as we will rashly suppose, that
we have some farther idea of necessity and causation in the operations
of external objects; at the same time, that we can find nothing
farther in the voluntary actions of the mind; there is no
possibility of bringing the question to any determinate issue, while
we proceed upon so erroneous a supposition. The only method of
undeceiving us is to mount up higher; to examine the narrow extent
of science when applied to material causes; and to convince
ourselves that all we know of them is the constant conjunction and
inference above mentioned. We may, perhaps, find that it is with
difficulty we are induced to fix such narrow limits to human
understanding: But we can afterwards find no difficulty when we come
to apply this doctrine to the actions of the will. For as it is
evident that these have a regular conjunction with motives and
circumstances and characters, and as we always draw inferences from
one to the other, we must be obliged to acknowledge in words that
necessity, which we have already avowed, in every deliberation of
our lives, and in every step of our conduct and behaviour.*

  * The prevalence of the doctrine of liberty may be accounted for,
from another cause, viz. a false sensation or seeming experience which
we have, or may have, of liberty or indifference, in many of our
actions. The necessity of any action, whether of matter or of mind, is
not, properly speaking, a quality in the agent, but in any thinking or
intelligent being, who may consider the action; and it consists
chiefly in the determination of his thoughts to infer the existence of
that action from some preceding objects; as liberty, when opposed to
necessity, is nothing but the want of that determination, and a
certain looseness or indifference, which we feel, in passing, or not
passing, from the idea of one object to that of any succeeding one.
Now we may observe, that, though, in reflecting on human actions, we
seldom feel such a looseness, or indifference, but are commonly able
to infer them with considerable certainty from their motives, and from
the dispositions of the agent; yet it frequently happens, that, in
performing the actions themselves, we are sensible of something like
it: And as all resembling objects are readily taken for each other,
this has been employed as a demonstrative and even intuitive proof
of human liberty. We feel, that our actions are subject to our will,
on most occasions; and imagine we feel, that the will itself is
subject to nothing, because, when by a denial of it we are provoked to
try, we feel, that it moves easily every way, and produces an image of
itself (or a Velleity, as it is called in the schools) even on that
side, on which it did not settle. This image, or faint motion, we
persuade ourselves, could, at that time, have been compleated into the
thing itself; because, should that be denied, we find, upon a second
trial, that, at present, it can. We consider not, that the fantastical
desire of shewing liberty, is here the motive of our actions. And it
seems certain, that, however we may imagine we feel a liberty within
ourselves, a spectator can commonly infer our actions from our motives
and character; and even where he cannot, he concludes in general, that
he might, were he perfectly acquainted with every circumstance of
our situation and temper, and the most secret springs of our
complexion and disposition. Now this is the very essence of necessity,
according to the foregoing doctrine.

  73. But to proceed in this reconciling project with regard to the
question of liberty and necessity; the most contentious question of
metaphysics, the most contentious science; it will not require many
words to prove, that all mankind have ever agreed in the doctrine of
liberty as well as in that of necessity, and that the whole dispute,
in this respect also, has been hitherto merely verbal. For what is
meant by liberty, when applied to voluntary actions? We cannot
surely mean that actions have so little connexion with motives,
inclinations, and circumstances, that one does not follow with a
certain degree of uniformity from the other, and that one affords no
inference by which we can conclude the existence of the other. For
these are plain and acknowledged matters of fact. By liberty, then, we
can only mean a power of acting or not acting, according to the
determinations of the will; that is, if we choose to remain at rest,
we may; if we choose to move, we also may. Now this hypothetical
liberty is universally allowed to belong to every one who is not a
prisoner and in chains. Here, then, is no subject of dispute.

  74. Whatever definition we may give of liberty, we should be careful
to observe two requisite circumstances; first, that it be consistent
with plain matter of fact; secondly, that it be consistent with
itself. If we observe these circumstances, and render our definition
intelligible, I am persuaded that all mankind will be found of one
opinion with regard to it.

  It is universally allowed that nothing exists without a cause of its
existence, and that chance, when strictly examined, is a mere negative
word, and means not any real power which has anywhere a being in
nature. But it is pretended that some causes are necessary, some not
necessary. Here then is the advantage of definitions. Let any one
define a cause, without comprehending, as a part of the definition,
a necessary connexion with its effect; and let him show distinctly the
origin of the idea, expressed by the definition; and I shall readily
give up the whole controversy. But if the foregoing explication of the
matter be received, this must be absolutely impracticable. Had not
objects a regular conjunction with each other, we should never have
entertained any notion of cause and effect; and this regular
conjunction produces that inference of the understanding, which is the
only connexion, that we can have any comprehension of. Whoever
attempts a definition of cause, exclusive of these circumstances, will
be obliged either to employ unintelligible terms or such as are
synonymous to the term which he endeavours to define.* And if the
definition above mentioned be admitted; liberty, when opposed to
necessity, not to constraint, is the same thing with chance; which
is universally allowed to have no existence.

  * Thus, if a cause be defined, that which produces any thing; it
is easy to observe, that producing is synonimous to causing. In like
manner, if a cause be defined, that by which any thing exists; this is
liable to the same objection. For what is meant by these words, by
which? Had it been said, that a cause is that after which any thing
constantly exists; we should have understood the terms. For this is,
indeed, all we know of the matter. And this constancy forms the very
essence of necessity, nor have we any other idea of it.

                            PART II.

  75. There is no method of reasoning more common, and yet none more
blameable, than, in philosophical disputes, to endeavour the
refutation of any hypothesis, by a pretence of its dangerous
consequences to religion and morality. When any opinion leads to
absurdities, it is certainly false; but it is not certain that an
opinion is false, because it is of dangerous consequence. Such topics,
therefore, ought entirely to be forborne; as serving nothing to the
discovery of truth, but only to make the person of an antagonist
odious. This I observe in general, without pretending to draw any
advantage from it. I frankly submit to an examination of this kind,
and shall venture to affirm that the doctrines, both of necessity
and of liberty, as above explained, are not only consistent with
morality, but are absolutely essential to its support.

  Necessity may be defined two ways, conformably to the two
definitions of cause, of which it makes an essential part. It consists
either in the constant conjunction of like objects or in the inference
of the understanding from one object to another. Now necessity, in
both these senses, (which, indeed, are at bottom the same) has
universally, though tacitly, in the schools, in the pulpit, and in
common life, been allowed to belong to the will of man; and no one has
ever pretended to deny that we can draw inferences concerning human
actions, and that those inferences are founded on the experienced
union of like actions, with like motives, inclinations, and
circumstances. The only particular in which any one can differ, is,
that either, perhaps, he will refuse to give the name of necessity
to this property of human actions: But as long as the meaning is
understood, I hope the word can do no harm: Or that he will maintain
it possible to discover something farther in the operations of matter.
But this, it must be acknowledged, can be of no consequence to
morality or religion, whatever it may be to natural philosophy or
metaphysics. We may here be mistaken in asserting that there is no
idea of any other necessity or connexion in the actions of body: But
surely we ascribe nothing to the actions of the mind, but what
everyone does, and must readily allow of. We change no circumstance in
the received orthodox system with regard to the will, but only in that
with regard to material objects and causes. Nothing, therefore, can be
more innocent, at least, than this doctrine.

  76. All laws being founded on rewards and punishments, it is
supposed as a fundamental principle, that these motives have a regular
and uniform influence on the mind, and both produce the good and
prevent the evil actions. We may give to this influence what name we
please; but as it is usually conjoined with the action, it must be
esteemed a cause, and be looked upon as an instance of that necessity,
which we would here establish.

  The only proper object of hatred or vengeance is a person or
creature, endowed with thought and consciousness; and when any
criminal or injurious actions excite that passion, it is only by their
relation to the person, or connexion with him. Actions are, by their
very nature, temporary and perishing; and where they proceed not
from some cause in the character and disposition of the person who
performed them, they can neither redound to his honour, if good; nor
infamy if evil. The actions themselves may be blameable; they may be
contrary to all the rules of morality and religion: But the person
is not answerable for them; and as they proceeded from nothing in
him that is durable and constant, and leave nothing of that nature
behind them, it is impossible he can, upon their account, become the
object of punishment or vengeance. According to the principle,
therefore, which denies necessity, and consequently causes, a man is
as pure and untainted, after having committed the most horrid crime,
as at the first moment of his birth, nor is his character anywise
concerned in his actions, since they are not derived from it, and
the wickedness of the one can never be used as a proof of the
depravity of the other.

  Men are not blamed for such actions as they perform ignorantly and
casually, whatever may be the consequences. Why? but because the
principles of these actions are only momentary, and terminate in
them alone. Men are less blamed for such actions as they perform
hastily and unpremeditately than for such as proceed from
deliberation. For what reason? but because a hasty temper, though a
constant cause or principle in the mind, operates only by intervals,
and infects not the whole character. Again, repentance wipes off every
crime, if attended with a reformation of life and manners. How is this
to be accounted for? but by asserting that actions render a person
criminal merely as they are proofs of criminal principles in the mind;
and when, by an alteration of these principles, they cease to be
just proofs, they likewise cease to be criminal. But, except upon
the doctrine of necessity, they never were just proofs, and
consequently never were criminal.

  77. It will be equally easy to prove, and from the same arguments,
that liberty, according to that definition above mentioned, in which
all men agree is also essential to morality, and that no human
actions, where it is wanting, are susceptible of any moral
qualities, or can be the objects either of approbation or dislike. For
as actions are objects of our moral sentiment, so far only as they are
indications of the internal character, passions, and affections; it is
impossible that they can give rise either to praise or blame, where
they proceed not from these principles, but are derived altogether
from external violence.

  78. I pretend not to have obviated or removed all objections to this
theory, with regard to necessity and liberty. I can foresee other
objections, derived from topics which have not here been treated of.
It may be said, for instance, that, if voluntary actions be
subjected to the same laws of necessity with the operations of matter,
there is a continued chain of necessary causes, preordained and
pre-determined, reaching from the original cause of all to every
single volition of every human creature. No contingency anywhere in
the universe; no indifference; no liberty. While we act, we are, at
the same time, acted upon. The ultimate Author of all our volitions is
the Creator of the world, who first bestowed motion on this immense
machine, and placed all beings in that particular position, whence
every subsequent event, by an inevitable necessity, must result. Human
actions, therefore, either can have no moral turpitude at all, as
proceeding from so good a cause; or if they have any turpitude, they
must involve our Creator in the same guilt, while he is acknowledged
to be their ultimate cause and author. For as a man, who fired a mine,
is answerable for all the consequences whether the train he employed
be long or short; so wherever a continued chain of necessary causes is
fixed, that Being, either finite or infinite, who produces the
first, is likewise the author of all the rest, and must both bear
the blame and acquire the praise which belong to them. Our clear and
unalterable ideas of morality establish this rule, upon unquestionable
reasons, when we examine the consequences of any human action; and
these reasons must still have greater force when applied to the
volitions and intentions of a Being infinitely wise and powerful.
Ignorance or importence may be pleaded for so limited a creature as
man; but those imperfections have no place in our Creator. He foresaw,
he ordained, he intended all those actions of men, which we so
rashly pronounce criminal. And we must therefore conclude, either that
they are not criminal, or that the Deity, not man, is accountable
for them. But as either of these positions is absurd and impious, it
follows, that the doctrine from which they are deduced cannot possibly
be true, as being liable to all the same objections. An absurd
consequence, if necessary, proves the original doctrine to be
absurd; in the same manner as criminal actions render criminal the
original cause, if the connexion between them be necessary and

  This objection consists of two parts, which we shall examine
separately; First, that, if human actions can be traced up, by a
necessary chain, to the Deity, they can never be criminal; on
account of the infinite perfection of that Being from whom they are
derived, and who can intend nothing but what is altogether good and
laudable. Or, Secondly, if they be criminal, we must retract the
attribute of perfection, which we ascribe to the Deity, and must
acknowledge him to be the ultimate author of guilt and moral turpitude
in all his creatures.

  79. The answer to the first objection seems obvious and
convincing. There are many philosophers who, after an exact scrutiny
of all the phenomena of nature, conclude, that the WHOLE, considered
as one system, is, in every period of its existence, ordered with
perfect benevolence; and that the utmost possible happiness will, in
the end, result to all created beings, without any mixture of positive
or absolute ill or misery. Every physical ill, say they, makes an
essential part of this benevolent system, and could not possibly be
removed, even by the Deity himself, considered as a wise agent,
without giving entrance to greater ill, or excluding greater good,
which will result from it. From this theory, some philosophers, and
the ancient Stoics among the rest, derived a topic of consolation
under all afflictions, while they taught their pupils that those
ills under which they laboured were, in reality, goods to the
universe; and that to an enlarged view, which could comprehend the
whole system of nature, every event became an object of joy and
exultation. But though this topic be specious and sublime, it was soon
found in practice weak and ineffectual. You would surely more irritate
than appease a man lying under the racking pains of the gout by
preaching up to him the rectitude of those general laws, which
produced the malignant humours in his body, and led them through the
proper canals, to the sinews and nerves, where they now excite such
acute torments. These enlarged views may, for a moment, please the
imagination of a speculative man, who is placed in ease and
security; but neither can they dwell with constancy on his mind,
even though undisturbed by the emotions of pain or passion; much
less can they maintain their ground when attacked by such powerful
antagonists. The affections take a narrower and more natural survey of
their object; and by an economy, more suitable to the infirmity of
human minds, regard alone the beings around us, and are actuated by
such events as appear good or ill to the private system.

  80. The case is the same with moral as with physical ill. It
cannot reasonably be supposed, that those remote considerations, which
are found of so little efficacy with regard to one, will have a more
powerful influence with regard to the other. The mind of man is so
formed by nature that, upon the appearance of certain characters,
dispositions, and actions, it immediately feels the sentiment of
approbation or blame; nor are there any emotions more essential to its
frame and constitution. The characters which engage our approbation
are chiefly such as contribute to the peace and security of human
society; as the characters which excite blame are chiefly such as tend
to public detriment and disturbance: Whence it may reasonably be
presumed, that the moral sentiments arise, either mediately or
immediately, from a reflection of these opposite interests. What
though philosophical meditations establish a different opinion or
conjecture; that everything is right with regard to the WHOLE, and
that the qualities, which disturb society, are, in the main, as
beneficial, and are as suitable to the primary intention of nature
as those which more directly promote its happiness and welfare? Are
such remote and uncertain speculations able to counterbalance the
sentiments which arise from the natural and immediate view of the
objects? A man who is robbed of a considerable sum; does he find his
vexation for the loss anywise diminished by these sublime reflections?
Why then should his moral resentment against the crime be supposed
incompatible with them? Or why should not the acknowledgement of a
real distinction between vice and virtue be reconcileable to all
speculative systems of philosophy, as well as that of a real
distinction between personal beauty and deformity? Both these
distinctions are founded in the natural sentiments of the human
mind: And these sentiments are not to be controuled or altered by
any philosophical theory or speculation whatsoever.

  81. The second objection admits not of so easy and satisfactory an
answer; nor is it possible to explain distinctly, how the Deity can be
the mediate cause of all the actions of men, without being the
author of sin and moral turpitude. These are mysteries, which mere
natural and unassisted reason is very unfit to handle; and whatever
system she embraces, she must find herself involved in inextricable
difficulties, and even contradictions, at every step which she takes
with regard to such subjects. To reconcile the indifference and
contingency of human actions with prescience; or to defend absolute
decrees, and yet free the Deity from being the author of sin, has been
found hitherto to exceed all the power of philosophy. Happy, if she be
thence sensible of her temerity, when she pries into these sublime
mysteries; and leaving a scene so full of obscurities and
perplexities, return, with suitable modesty, to her true and proper
province, the examination of common life; where she will find
difficulties enough to employ her enquiries, without launching into so
boundless an ocean of doubt, uncertainty, and contradiction!

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