Descartes: Causality and Moral Responsibility Essay

Submitted By sudarshan1993
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Pages: 7

The debate concerning free will has plagued philosophers for ages. In Section VIII of An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (“Of Liberty and Necessity”), Hume discusses this issue, arguing that when human freedom (‘liberty”) and causation (“necessity”) are properly understood, there is no conflict. In this paper, I will try to elucidate Hume’s argument for this conclusion. I will also provide a critical examination of his argument, providing reasons why one would find his argument unconvincing. At the outset, it is useful to define some terms and understand the problem of free will. The basic problem of free will comes down to the notion of moral responsibility. We think of people as morally responsible for their actions only when they perform the action “freely” of their own choice. Determinism is the position that given a set of conditions and the laws that describe the physical universe, there is only one outcome of events possible based on these laws. We are physical beings subject to this sort of physical determinism. The universal determinist wants to say that this can be extended to human action. Given this sort of predictability of human action then, it would seem we do not make our choices “freely”. Rather, our actions are only the latest in the long line of events running back to the origin of the universe. Hume argues that this determinism is not only true but also necessary for both free will and moral responsibility when properly understood. This argument is one of the

earliest and most influential statements of the “compatibilist” position- that free will can be reconciled with causal determinism. Hume beings Enquiry, Section VIII by noting that the debate over whether we have free will or whether our actions and choices are determined is a confused one. Hume claims that all that is needed to end the debate are a few “intelligible definitions”. He aims to provide these definitions of necessity or causation and liberty or freedom to show that we are both free and yet our actions follow necessarily. Hume’s compatibilist account is closely dependent on his theory of causation that has been formulated and defended in earlier sections of the Enquiry. We cannot form any conception of an ordered world without the idea of causal connection between things. However, we cannot observe this cause. We may say that event “A” causes event “B”, but all we observe is event “A” followed by event “B”. We cannot observe a causal link between the two events. It also does not matter that repetition of the event produces the same result. That is, we cannot conclude that A causes B even if the two events always follow each other. Hume's effort to rescue our strong notion of cause-effect is to identify that, though there may be no observable necessary connection in nature, the mind does imagine a necessary connection between two events when it perceives that they are constantly conjoined. That is, if a certain event follows from a certain other event with good regularity, that second event impresses itself upon our imagination and leads us to believe that that second event will indeed follow. If that second event invariably follows from the first event, our belief becomes quite strong, and we are led to create a necessary connection in our minds between the first event and the second. Thus, the impression of

the first event invariably leads to the idea of the second event in our minds. We begin to speak of the first event as necessarily "causing" the second event. Therefore, our ideas of causation and necessity arise from our experience of constant conjunction, the observation that two events go together frequently, and the resulting inferences we make. This has a significant upshot for determinism. Determinism ceases to rely on events being causally necessitated, and relies only on our perception of them as being causally necessitated. Hume wants to now extend this theory onto human action. He says we can observe constant…