Liberty Matters

On Nicholas Capaldi’s David Hume


David Hume turned me into a skeptic. This is less because I became a philosophical skeptic—and I can see why Nicholas Capaldi views Hume as someone who showed why it is classical philosophy that leads to a debilitating philosophical skepticism—than because I became a political one. The more I read Hume the more difficult I found it to regard most efforts to reform political institutions, or set out the principles by which to do so, as guided by wit and wisdom rather than questionable motives and question-begging assumptions. Hume's genius as a philosopher came to be appreciated long after his merits as an historian were well established, but it is worth noting that his genius as a man was that this skepticism did not draw him either into contempt for his fellow human beings or despair about the human condition. Perhaps this is why I so appreciate not only the deftness of Capaldi's summary of Hume's intellectual contribution but also the insight offered by his jaunty prose into the beautiful mind of le bon David. I take it as given that we are both Humeans in the broadest sense.
That said, however, there are matters with which to take issue—or at least about which to raise a few skeptical worries. In the most general terms, the worry is about whether Capaldi has been Humean enough or been carried away by a bout of enthusiasm, even while rightly eviscerating a variety of superstitions. Hume is not a philosophical or ideological "libertarian," as Capaldi acknowledges in as many words. If a philosophical libertarian is someone for whom claims of property, whether in one's person or in parts of the world, have some objective basis, such an advocate would find no comfort in Hume's deconstruction of this kind of ethical naturalism. If an ideological libertarian is someone with a program of reform, such an advocate would probably consider Hume's cautious and prudent approach too pragmatic and perhaps even insufficiently principled. As Capaldi observes, Hume cannot be "classified" in this way. This brings us to the puzzle, then, of Thesis Eight: Liberty is the Central Theme.
The problem here is not that Capaldi has somehow contradicted himself. He is, after all, trying to make a subtle point: that favoring liberty does not make one a libertarian (of either of the sorts noted above), and it would not do to accuse him of anything so clumsy. It is his elucidation of Thesis Eight that is the source of perplexity. Capaldi writes: "The ultimate ontological reality is the individual human agent; there is no institution or practice that transcends the individual; the legitimacy of any practice is based on the acquiescence of individuals. Acquiescence is not consent. There is no philosophical argument for liberty: it is the default position." There are four claims here that demand more careful scrutiny.
The first claim is that, according to Hume, the "ultimate ontological reality is the individual agent." Could Hume or any Humean make such an assertion? Hume's account of personal identity famously questions the possibility of offering a coherent account of any such thing as the self, since all that empirical (self-) examination yields is a bundle of impressions that can establish nothing definitive about any singular identity. Observation of the external world would undoubtedly reveal the existence of other people, but that would do nothing to warrant the conclusion that individual human agents are the "ultimate ontological reality," even if we read this to mean "ultimate ontological social reality" (as we clearly should, since the claim is not that Hume considers biological human individuals to be the ultimate units of physical reality). One might attribute such a view to Hume, but the evidence that he held it is scant—if any can be found at all.
The puzzle deepens when we turn to the second claim, that "there is no institution or practice that transcends the individual." It is not completely clear whether this claim follows from the first, or if each implies the other, or if the second is simply a further claim that clarifies the meaning of the first and contributes to the defense of the larger thesis about the centrality of liberty. Let us assume it is the latter. The most plausible interpretation of this statement is that Capaldi means that Hume holds that no institutions or practices could come into being or remain except for the human agents that give them existence. A practice is not a practice unless human agents give it life by exercising their agency. An institution cannot exist unless it is populated by human agents: there can be no soldierless armies, judgeless judiciaries, teacherless schools, or spouseless marriages. All this seems commonsensical enough, and most people would accept the claim if this is what it means. Yet these institutions are not made up of generic "individual agents" but of "soldiers" and "judges" and "teachers" and "spouses": identities or roles that are socially created—which is to say, created by institutions and practices. If there are no "transcendent" institutions that have an existence except for the activity of individuals, the same holds true for individuals themselves, who could have no existence (save a biological one) except for the institutions that created them. Nor would it do to solve this chicken-and egg-problem with an "origin" story, suggesting that it all started with (primitive) individuals, unless we want to risk falling into the trap of thinking we need to find a first cause—a trap, Capaldi reminds us, from which we were rescued by Hume.
The point of scrutinizing these first two claims is to suggest that something is amiss in Capaldi's general contention that Hume's social ontology must begin with individual agents. I do not mean that Hume must believe in the existence of transcendent institutions— only that he has no need to posit the social ontology Capaldi identifies. There are, to be sure, numerous passages (notably in Book III of the Treatise) in which Hume writes as if social institutions were created by pre-institutional or pre-social individuals, but these should surely be read with the "as if" firmly in mind. We clearly do the same with Hobbes: we do not take at face value his assertion in Leviathan that men in the state of nature sprang from the ground "like mushrooms": it is a methodological rather than an ontological assumption. Similarly, Hume's individualism is purely methodological.
The third claim in Thesis Eight is that the legitimacy of any practice is based on the acquiescence of individuals—and by "acquiescence" Hume does not mean "consent." The correctness of this claim depends very much on what we understand by the expression "the legitimacy of a practice." If Capaldi's point is that Hume tells us that when we say a practice is legitimate we are saying nothing other than that people have gone along with, or acquiesced in it, then he is perfectly correct. Hume's explanation is a semantic one: this is what legitimacy means—that people have acquiesced. It does not mean they have consented; it does not mean they like it; it does not even mean they prefer it to anything else. There is no further, deeper, normative claim—such as a claim that the practice in question really is legitimate. The same holds true for obligations: there are no ultimate obligations in some deeper, normative, sense. Somehow it came about that we "feign'd" obligations of all sorts, and before we knew it we believed such things had a real existence, though they never have.
All of this must be entirely familiar to a Hume scholar of Capaldi's distinction, so I bring the matter up not to teach him something new but to draw attention to the real source of my anxiety. This is the fourth claim in his Thesis Eight: that there is no philosophical argument for liberty, which is the default claim. It is perfectly correct to say that Hume offered no such thing as a philosophical argument for liberty, but it is quite another to suggest that he considered liberty to be the default claim. Now here much turns on what is meant by the expression "the default claim." I take it that Capaldi could mean either of two things. On the one hand, he could mean that for Hume liberty was the natural condition of mankind and that departures from liberty were aberrations. This seems straightforwardly implausible since, as Capaldi makes amply clear in his remarks on Hume's History of England, Hume was all too conscious that the attainment and continued enjoyment of liberty in Britain was an historical achievement and not one replicated to any great degree in many places or for most of mankind's past. On the other hand, Capaldi could mean that for Hume liberty was the default normative position such that any departure from liberty had to be justified. There are philosophers who have held such a view, Immanuel Kant (at least in some interpretations) among the classical thinkers and John Rawls (in A Theory of Justice) and Stanley Benn (in A Theory of Freedom) among the moderns. But it is hard to see Hume as holding any claim of this sort.
It is true that Hume does not offer a philosophical defense of liberty. But neither does he say that any departure from liberty must be justified. He was, after all, as Capaldi is at some pains to remind us (in Thesis Six), a moral pluralist. How could a moral pluralist suggest the fundamental importance of one value above all others and assert that it is the default standard from which all departures must be justified? Hume, as far as I can discern, made no such claim. He may have loved liberty. He certainly expressed the view that liberty was the condition of human perfection,[31] though he insisted in the same sentence that authority was no less important because it brought the social stability that was equally necessary for human flourishing. Hume could no more assert that liberty was the default than he could say that stability was. In the Humean worldview, we hover uncertainly between these two extremes, and the danger comes when we are tempted to dart too hastily and enthusiastically towards one or the other.
Liberty is undoubtedly one of the most important themes in Hume's political thought. I am yet to be convinced that it is the central one. None of this is to disparage the man or deny his philosophical insight. Nor is it to question the insightfulness of Nicholas Capaldi's essay, against which I can raise only these few quibbles in an effort to be more Humean than he!
John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1971).
Stanley Benn, A Theory of Freedom (Cambridge University Press, 1988).
[31.] Essay V "Of the Origin of Government" in David Hume, Essays Moral, Political, Literary, edited and with a Foreword, Notes, and Glossary by Eugene F. Miller, with an appendix of variant readings from the 1889 edition by T.H. Green and T.H. Grose, revised edition (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund 1987). </titles/704#Hume_0059_145>:
In all governments, there is a perpetual intestine struggle, open or secret, between Authority and Liberty; and neither of them can ever absolutely prevail in the contest. A great sacrifice of liberty must necessarily be made in every government; yet even the authority, which confines liberty, can never, and perhaps ought never, in any constitution, to become quite entire and uncontroulable. The sultan is master of the life and fortune of any individual; but will not be permitted to impose new taxes on his subjects: a French monarch can impose taxes at pleasure; but would find it dangerous to attempt the lives and fortunes of individuals. Religion also, in most countries, is commonly found to be a very intractable principle; and other principles or prejudices frequently resist all the authority of the civil magistrate; whose power, being founded on opinion, can never subvert other opinions, equally rooted with that of his title to dominion. The government, which, in common appellation, receives the appellation of free, is that which admits of a partition of power among several members, whose united authority is no less, or is commonly greater than that of any monarch; but who, in the usual course of administration, must act by general and equal laws, that are previously known to all the members and to all their subjects. In this sense, it must be owned, that liberty is the perfection of civil society; but still authority must be acknowledged essential to its very existence: and in those contests, which so often take place between the one and the other, the latter may, on that account, challenge the preference. Unless perhaps one may say (and it may be said with some reason) that a circumstance, which is essential to the existence of civil society, must always support itself, and needs be guarded with less jealousy, than one that contributes only to its perfection, which the indolence of men is so apt to neglect, or their ignorance to overlook.