A Thematic Compilation by Avi Sion

24. Chapter Twenty-Four


1.   Freewill


Next, let us consider Hume’s opinions regarding freewill. Given his opinions with regard to the self and to causation, we can with relative ease anticipate the way his thinking will go with regard to human volition and ethics.

Since Hume has denied the self, he cannot be expected to believe in volition in the ordinary sense, i.e. in freedom of the individual soul to will or not-will something irrespective of influences one way or the other. Therefore, one would expect him to opt for some sort of determinism[1]. Although he has denied causation, or our knowledge of it, in the physical realm, this does not logically exclude causation in the “mental” realm, so such determinism would be consistent for him.

Yet, he struggles to salvage for human beings some vestige of volition. We are not in his view mere rubber balls that react to events in wholly predictable ways. We are it seems somewhat free to do what we feel like doing. Our actions are related to our character, desires, passions; it is such distinctive attributes of ours that make these actions our own. We are thus determined by impulses, preferences and emotions – or rather, they are ‘us’, we are their sum total. This is consistent with his view of the self as an aggregate of passing mental phenomena.

This is of course not what we would call free will. It is rather slavery to random passions. Hume admits as much when he says: “Reason is, and ought only to be, slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them”[2]. By this he means that, though induction and deduction provide us with information that may affect our actions, they cannot determine it. According to him, only the passions can truly move us; it is ultimately with them that we identify and go.

Now, this tells us a lot about the way Hume’s mind works, and even about the way many other people’s minds work, but it does not accurately reflect the full range of human nature. It may apply to some of the people some of the time, but does not apply to all of the people all of the time. For though it is true that reason does not necessarily affect our actions, it is also true that passions need not do so. Just as the information reason gives us can influence our actions but may well be ignored, i.e. is not determining – so it goes for the passions. We do not have to be slaves of our passions or identified with them; we are in fact distinct from them and able to transcend them.

It is true that many (maybe even most) people are not aware of this freedom of the will, and let their passions rule them. Some people, by the way, are similarly ruled by their reason, i.e. they are tormented by family, social, political or religious obligations, and unable to resist them. But such passivity or dependence is not normal or inevitable; it is a curable sickness of the soul. The passions, like reason, can only really ‘influence’ the soul, not ‘determine’ it – the soul still in all cases has the capacity and the responsibility to choose between them and decide which way to act. This is clear to anyone who practices self-control.

We can with effort learn to rule over our own minds, and indeed such policy is wisdom itself. But this demanding virtue depends on our making a clear distinction between causation (or deterministic causality) and volition (or personal causality), and on our understanding what ‘influence’ means.

A person is said to be influenced by something to act (or not act) in a certain way if the person’s perception or conception of the thing makes acting in that way easier (or harder). Such facilitation (or on the contrary, impedance) of the will is never determining: the person remains free not to will in the direction of (or against) the influence; he or she can still go the other way. The potentiality of the will is increased (or decreased), but the person still has the final choice.

Thus, influence is a special sort of conditioning of voluntary action. The action is not caused (in the sense of causation) directly by the event or thing influencing it – but rather, our awareness to some degree of that event or thing (be it concrete or abstract) affects us (the doer of the deed), by making such action more or less easy than it otherwise would be. The influential thought pushes us or slows us down, but we still (so long as we have freewill) have to make an effort to actualize anything.

Once we understand the causal relation called influence, we can distance ourselves from our passions and even from our reason, and view them all as mere influential information, to be taken into consideration in motivating or deciding action, but which should never be allowed to usurp the sovereignty of the soul, who ultimately alone commands the will and is responsible for its orientations. But Hume cannot see this, because he is himself still too unconscious and too involved in his passions. Having denied the very existence of a self or person, he naturally misconceives the will as subservient to the passions.

Thus, Hume confuses his personal opinions and behavior with general truths about human nature. Here again, we find him making inaccurate observations and over-generalizing. He does not always realize the hypothetical nature of his propositions, and the need to try to establish them with reference to precise inductive procedures. Since he has misconceived induction to begin with, he has incapacitated himself methodologically.

Philosophers do not have special powers of ‘insight’ into truth, independent of logical scrutiny and correction. They think like everyone else by inductive means, and they can make mistakes like everyone else if they are not careful.


2.         The Is-Ought Dichotomy


David Hume’s views and opinions on many philosophical topics seem (to me) to be driven by the desire to exempt himself from ‘morality’. That often seems to be the underlying driving force or motive of all his skeptical philosophy, what it all manifestly tends towards. By denying induction, causation, the self and an effective power of freewill, he is justifying the idea that “anything goes” in knowledge and in personal behavior. This overall trend is again confirmed when we consider some of his positions regarding ethical reasoning.

Hume questions the possibility of deriving prescriptive statements, which tells us what we ought to do or not do, from descriptive statements, which tell us the way things are or are not. The distinction between these two sorts of statement is in his opinion so radical that one cannot be reduced to the other. This means effectively that moral or ethical propositions have no formal basis in fact, i.e. they cannot be claimed as true in an absolute sense. There is no logical way, in his view, to deduce or induce an “ought” from an “is”.

Prescriptive statements are then, according to Hume, at best just practical advice on how to pursue our self-interest and the interests of the people we value (or more broadly, sympathize or empathize with). This is a kind of pragmatism or utilitarianism, in lieu of heavier moral notions of duty or obligation. In this way, ethics is made essentially amoral – an issue of convenience, a mere description of the ways we might best pursue our arbitrary values. The implication is one of relativism and convention.

It should be added that Hume’s conclusion with a non-ethics or relativistic ethic is consistent with his position on freewill. For if we do not really have freewill, but are inevitably driven by our passions, and moreover can rely on them rather than reason for guidance, then we have no need for ethics. Ethics is only meaningful if we have a real power of choice and must therefore take decisions.

Hume’s view of ethical logic is an interesting mix of truth and falsehood, which is why many have agreed with him and many have found it difficult to refute him. Ethics is of course a vast and complex subject, and I do not propose here to treat the topic in detail[3]. I would just like to show briefly how and why Hume’s approach, for all its seeming skeptical mastery, is here again superficial and narrow.

The issue raised is primarily formal. What are prescriptive propositions and how do they relate to descriptive ones? The obvious answer to the question would be that prescriptions relate ends to means. I ought to do (or not-do) this if I want to (or not-to) obtain or attain that. The ‘ought’ (or ‘should’ or ‘must’) modality is essentially the bond in a specific kind of if-then proposition, with a desire or ‘value’ as antecedent and an action or ‘virtue’ as consequent.

Such if-then propositions are not themselves descriptive, but are deductively derived from descriptive forms. When we say “if we want so and so, then thus and thus is the way to get it”, we are affirming that “thus and thus” is/are cause(s) of “so and so”[4]. The latter is a factual claim, which may be true or false. It follows that the prescriptive statement can also be judged true or false, at least in respect of the correctness of the connection implied between its antecedent and consequent.

Be it mentioned in passing, prescriptive statements may be positive (imperatives) or negative (prohibitions). As well, note, the negations of prescriptive statements, viz. not imperative (exempt) and not prohibited (permitted) are also significant ethical modalities. But for brevity’s sake we will here only concentrate on imperatives, for the rest logically follows.

We see from our above definition of an imperative that it is conditional. Good or bad mean good or bad for something or someone. The imperative is only true as such if we grant that the value pursued is indeed of value. But how can we ever know whether any of our values are valuable in an absolute sense? This is Hume’s query, and it is quite valid. But his conclusion that values are formally bound to be arbitrary (i.e. cannot be deduced from plain facts) is open to challenge.

Our task is to show that we can arrive somehow at categorical imperatives[5], i.e. ethical standards that can ground and justify all subsequent conditional imperatives. One conceivable way to do so is to use a dilemmatic argument: ‘Whether you want this or that or anything else, the pursuit of so and so would in any case be a precondition’.

Something is an absolute value if it is necessary to the pursuit of any and all arbitrary values one personally opts for. A relative value can be by-passed in the pursuit of other relative values, but an absolute value is one presupposed in every pursuit and must therefore be respected unconditionally.

Are there any such absolute values? Clearly, yes. An obvious such value is life itself: if one lacks life, one cannot pursue anything else; therefore life must be protected and enhanced. Another absolute value is the self – if the soul is the source of all our actions, good or bad, then the soul’s welfare is an absolute value. Whatever one wants, one needs the physiological and psychological means that make such pursuit at all possible – viz. one’s bodily and mental faculties. And most of all, one needs to be present oneself!

These are obvious examples. What do they teach us? If we wish to understand, use and validate ethical propositions, we have to realize what makes all such discourse possible and necessary. A simple illustration and proof of that is that if I tell you ‘don’t follow any ethical doctrine’, I am uttering an ethical doctrine, and therefore committing a self-contradiction.

Ethical propositions do not apply to inanimate objects. They apply only to living beings, because only such entities have anything to win or lose. But to apply them to all living beings is not correct, for though plants, insects and lower animals can objectively be said by us to have values, their functioning is either automatic or instinctive, and they cannot understand or voluntarily apply ethics.

Only humans, and maybe higher animals like chimps or dolphins, can have ethical thoughts and the power of will to carry them out. These thoughts are verbal or non-verbal in the case of humans, and necessarily non-verbal in the case of higher animals. Thus, in the last analysis, explicit ethical discourse concerns only human beings.

And we can say at the outset that to engage at all in ethical discourse, humans have to study and take into consideration their nature, their true identity. They have to realize their biological and spiritual nature, the nature of their physical-mental organism and the nature of their soul. Moreover, since biology and spirituality relate not just to the individual in isolation, but to larger groups and to society as a whole – ethics has to be equally broad in its concerns.

If this large factual background is ignored in the formulation of ethical propositions, one is bound to be arbitrary and sooner or later fall into error. In conclusion, we can develop an ethic that involves absolute values and is based on factual truths. Ethics is clearly seen not to be arbitrary, if we consider the conditions that give rise to it in the first place – viz. that we are fragile living beings, with natural needs and limits, and that we are persons, with powers of cognition, volition and valuation.

If all the relevant facts are taken into consideration, then, an “ought” encapsulates a mass of “is” information, and can therefore be regarded as a special sort of “is”. That is, if properly developed, an ethical statement can be declared true, like any other factual claim. It is ethical fact, as against ‘alethic’ fact. Of course, if not properly induced and deduced, an ethical can be declared false – but not all ethical propositions are false.

Hume failed to realize the said logical preconditions of any ethics, and therefore got stuck in the shallow idea that ethics cannot be deeply grounded in fact. Since the scope of his considerations was partial, he could at least see that an “ought” is to start with conditional, but he could not see further how it could eventually be made unconditional. He therefore wrongly concluded that inferring an “ought” from an “is” is fallacious reasoning. This was later pompously called “the naturalistic fallacy”[6].


3.         The Standards of Ethics


In the above discussion of the ethical means and ends, I pointed out that, for instances, life and soul were two things that could logically be affirmed to be natural and absolute standards of value, since they are preconditions of any ethical discourse, i.e. since ethical discourse is only applicable to beings with life and more specifically with soul, i.e. beings with powers of consciousness, volition and valuation like us humans.

As I have suggested in my work Volition and Allied Causal Concepts, the term “life” in this context does not just mean bodily life – though this is doubtless its primary meaning. The term can also legitimately be taken to refer to spiritual life, i.e. the life of the soul. Indeed, in the last analysis ethics is concerned with bodily welfare rather accessorily: its main concern is with the soul’s welfare.

An obvious consequence of such extension of meaning is that those who believe in life after death (as in Judaism, Christianity and Islam) or in reincarnation (as in Buddhism and Hinduism) can construct an ethics without committing a logical error. That is to say, ethics is not necessarily limited to this life and this world.

Clearly, if we assume that our life goes on or returns in some form even after our body has died, it is logically quite okay (though at first sight it might seem paradoxical) to build an ethics in which the body might be deliberately risked or sacrificed in favor of the soul’s longer-term interest.

Those who view their life on earth as a mere visit in a longer journey naturally and quite logically evaluate their thoughts, words and deeds with reference to that broader context rather than in the narrow sense of physical survival. Although such survival is important to ethics, it can on occasion be overridden by more abstract, wider or higher considerations. Such occasions provide one with a test of one’s true values.

Of course, such self-sacrifice can easily be wrongly based on fantasy and illusion, since we do not know of the hereafter except by hearsay or presupposition. In most circumstances, it is wise to assume that one’s continued survival is the most beneficial course of action. But in special circumstances one might well judge that to accept some present evil would endanger one’s future life or lives. For example, some saintly persons have preferred to die rather than to be forced to kill an innocent person.

People can conceivably and sometimes do risk or give their physical lives in defense of their family, their people or nation, humanity as a whole, life as such, or in God’s service, because they perceive themselves, not as delimited bodies and independent individuals, but as parts of a larger whole – a group of people or of living things or the collective or root soul that is God. The value of one’s life is in such case a function of the value of the larger unit.

In sum, though we may use the term “life” as a short and sweet standard of ethical discourse, the term should not exclusively be understood in its simplest, material sense, but may logically be widened to admit more spiritual goals, whether this-worldly and other-worldly.


Drawn from Logical and Spiritual Reflections (2008), Book 1, chapters 6 & 7.



[1]           Parenthetically: to his credit, Hume realizes that freewill ought not be identified with mere spontaneous occurrence. Indeterminism, whether in the physical or mental realm, constitutes a determinism of sorts relative to human beings. If things happen to us at random, without any cause, we are subject to them as surely as if they were determinist causal factors. That is, their own lack of causes does not diminish their causal impact on us.

[2]           Treatise, Book II, Part III, Sect. iii.

[3]           Note that I do not believe it is the task of the ethical philosopher to foresee every situation in life, and prescribe optimum behavior for them. Certainly, the philosopher is called upon to consider difficult general cases and propose wise responses. But each situation is unique in some respects, so the main task in this field is to teach people to think for themselves – in sensitive, intelligent and logical ways – about ethical issues. Ethical philosophy is primarily ethical logic, and only secondarily deals with certain contents. It is not a totalitarian doctrine. Each person has to live his or her own life.

[4]           I won’t here go into the different determinations of causation. Suffices to say that obviously if A is the only way to X, then I can say: “I must do A to get to X”. But if there are alternative ways to X – say. A, B and C, then I can only say: “I must do A or B or C to get X” – i.e. my prescription is disjunctive.

[5]           It should be clear that, although I use this expression intentionally, I do not mean by it the same as Kant did. It is form, not content. I am here discussing formal ethical logic, not advocating a general or particular categorical imperative. Kant considers an imperative categorical if it is universal, i.e. applicable to everyone, all agents. Whereas in my view, a categorical imperative can be quite singular. What makes an imperative categorical, instead of hypothetical, is its necessity to all goals open to that agent. Logically, this is more symmetrical. What means are universal in this sense, i.e. universal to all goals (not necessarily all people)? Life, bodily wholeness and health, soul, cognition, volition, valuation, mental wholeness and health – these are means we always need to succeed, whatever our particular goals.

[6]           By George Edward Moore, in his Principia Ethica (1903). I say ‘pompously’ to stress that no logical fallacy is involved, in my view. The issue is a logical problem – but one open to solution. My rejecting this so-called fallacy is not intended to reject offhand Moore’s central thesis, viz. that of the intellectual primacy of the concept of ‘good’, i.e. that we tacitly understand the term in some way before any theory attempting to define it.

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