Category Archives: Hume’s Treatise

I like this guy.

Whether Everything That Begins to Exist Has a Cause?

I suggest so, contrary to Hume.

But suppose Hume persists and says that the following proposition is still possible:

(1) "Something will happen somewhere at some time in the future without a cause."

So, suppose I get up tomorrow and observe a dead fish lying on the coffee table. "Ah-hah!" I say. "This sucker just popped into existence uncaused." I can see that.

Nothing whatsoever can be affirmed about these random occurrences, because to attribute any property to them is partially to determine them. The preposterously random stuff happens at 100% random locations in the universe, at a random frequency, at frequencies that change at random, etc., all as completely unpredictable and without a pattern as the decimal expansion of an irrational number.

But to introduce chaos into this world in this fashion is to pay a hefty price. If that was our universe, I don't think we'd have survived as a species in it.

Thus, I simply deny that we are living in a universe like that. Even if (1) is possible, it is not actual. I think that is good enough.

The principle that everything that begins to exist has a cause may have some use in theology. Regarding that, we cannot proceed from the possibility of (1) to the idea that a universe can come into existence without a cause. (1) proposes that an object within our peculiar universe and capable of being supported by it can appear in space and time uncaused. But "before" the universe, there was no environment in which stuff could appear, nor space, nor time, nor apparently the randomness-generating mechanism. The principle is uniquely plausible in regard to the emergence of the universe as a whole.

Hume on the Free Rider Problem

An early discussion of this is found in Treatise, 3.2.7:

Two neighbors may agree to drain a meadow, which they possess in common; because it is easy for them to know each others mind; and each must perceive, that the immediate consequence of his failing in his part, is, the abandoning the whole project.

But it is very difficult, and indeed impossible, that a thousand persons should agree in any such action; it being difficult for them to concert so complicated a design, and still more difficult for them to execute it; while each seeks a pretext to free himself of the trouble and expense, and would lay the whole burden on others.

Political society easily remedies both these inconveniences. Magistrates find an immediate interest in the interest of any considerable part of their subjects. They need consult nobody but themselves to form any scheme for the promoting of that interest. And as the failure of any one piece in the execution is connected, though not immediately, with the failure of the whole, they prevent that failure, because they find no interest in it, either immediate or remote.

Thus bridges are built; harbors opened; ramparts raised; canals formed; fleets equipped; and armies disciplined everywhere, by the care of government, which, though composed of men subject to all human infirmities, becomes, by one of the finest and most subtle inventions imaginable, a composition, which is, in some measure, exempted from all these infirmities.

Thus, regarding conscription, for example, we can say that the only two desirable outcomes are "everybody fights" and "nobody fights." If only some, such as the bravest, fight, then they all perish due to insufficient numbers, and the rest of the cowards are slaughtered shortly thereafter or enslaved by the conquerors.

Now conscription is usually to be condemned, but only because wars made easier though it are to be condemned. Without the government, the only possible outcome is "nobody fights." The government permits the community to have a choice in this matter, i.e., between "nobody fights" and "everybody fights." Perhaps "nobody fights" is in a given case / usually / under laissez-faire / always the right choice, but the government allows the choice to be made, as opposed to letting the default situation of "nobody fights" arise willy-nilly.

This post concludes my live blogging of Hume.

Allegiance, 2

Of course, the problem of allegiance is more complicated than Hume makes it appear. One can say all he wants, as Mises does, that:

One must take exception to the often-repeated phrase that government is an evil, although a necessary and indispensable evil. What is required for the attainment of an end is a means, the cost to be expended for its successful realization.

It is an arbitrary value judgment to describe it as an evil in the moral connotation of the term. (HA, 719)

Let us then grant that "government" as such is a good thing. But "government" performs numerous acts. It has "policies" that go far beyond mere catching and punishing violent criminals. Suppose then that 99% of a particular government's rules and regulations are in fact anti-social and precisely contrary to the welfare of the great majority of the citizens. If, as Hume maintains, the chief cause of allegiance to a sovereign is self-interest, as social cooperation is impossible without the state, then do policies that hurt society undermine the ruler's legitimacy? At what point is a (fully self-interested) revolution recommended?

Merely repeating that "government is good" gives us no clue as to what kind of government is good.

Consider as an example Rothbard's hilarious deconstruction of the idea that the entirety of the goodness of "government" consists in equality before the law:

Let us postulate, for example, two possible societies.

One is ruled by a vast network of Hayekian general rules, equally applicable to all, e.g., such rules as:

everyone is to be enslaved every third year; no one may criticize the government under penalty of death; no one may drink alcoholic beverages; everyone must bow down to Mecca three times a day at specified hours; everyone must wear a specified green uniform, etc.

It is clear that such a society, though meeting all the Hayekian criteria for a noncoercive rule of law, is thoroughly despotic and totalitarian.

Let us postulate, in contrast, a second society which is totally free, where every person is free to employ his person and property, make exchanges, etc. as he sees fit, except that, once a year, the monarch (who does literally nothing the rest of the year), commits one arbitrary invasive act against one individual that he selects.

Which society is to be considered more free, more libertarian? (EoL, 228-9)

So, political philosophy starts with an awareness of the problem of enforcement of justice; it does not end with it.

Hume on Allegiance

To build on Hume, people obey government agents out of fear; but support the institution of government as a whole out of self-interest, if Hume is right that "the execution of justice, in the stability of possession, its translation by consent, and the performance of promises, is impossible, without submission to government." (3.2.8)

Hume, Property, 2

Hume distinguishes nicely between

three different species of goods, ... the internal satisfaction of our mind, the external advantages of our body, and the enjoyment of such possessions as we have acquired by our industry and good fortune.

[I] We are perfectly secure in the enjoyment of the first.

[II] The second may be ravished from us, but can be of no advantage to him who deprives us of them.

[III] The last only are both exposed to the violence of others, and may be transferred without suffering any loss or alteration; while at the same time, there is not a sufficient quantity of them to supply every one's desires and necessities. (3.2.2)

I think that [II] permits us to argue that each person owns his own body.

Hume makes another brilliant point a little later in the text.

After men have found by experience, that their selfishness and confined generosity, acting at their liberty, totally incapacitate them for society; and at the same time have observed, that society is necessary to the satisfaction of those very passions, they are naturally induced to lay themselves under the restraint of such rules, as may render their commerce more safe and commodious.

To the imposition then, and observance of these rules, both in general, and in every particular instance, they are at first induced only by a regard to interest; and this motive, on the first formation of society, is sufficiently strong and forcible.

But when society has become numerous, and has increased to a tribe or nation, this interest is more remote; nor do men so readily perceive, that disorder and confusion follow upon every breach of these rules, as in a more narrow and contracted society.

Ah-hah. In a small society (SS), then, such as one that consists of just Crusoe and Friday under normal conditions of moderate scarcity, Friday's every act to benefit from cooperating with Crusoe will also happen to be just according to the laws of a large society (LS). For example, if Crusoe and Friday divide their labor such that Crusoe specializes in catching fish; and Friday, in gathering berries; then as far as Friday is concerned, Crusoe for him is just a remarkable if mysterious machine, Crusoe-Matic 9000, that efficiently converts berries into fish. It would be foolish for Friday to try to break CM-9000 and grab the few fishes inside without depositing the requisite amount of berries. He won't find any more in there the next day, and the machine may up and zap him with an electric bolt while he sleeps. The fact that Friday must respect the CM-9000's manual of operation is just a fact of nature. Call this fact "natural law" and the fishes that appear in the machine every day for use by Friday, Crusoe's "property."

As society grows "to a tribe or nation," it becomes large and theft of all kinds may becomes profitable. The harm to society as a whole from an individual act of injustice is negligible, yet it benefits the thief considerably. Thus, we need the institutions of justice in LS to threaten punishment to lawbreakers in whose place in SS mere self-interest sufficed.

I think this works much better than the labor theory of property [1], [2].

Calculation, 2

A third problem is that even if Crusoe knew the solution in terms of the highest point on the PPF (that is, the new m, n,... z, ...), he'd still be faced with numerous choices of allocating the resources to produce these amounts, given multiple technologies for producing the same things (such that perhaps the optimum is achieved when 30% of P7 is produced by method X; 20%, by Y; and 50%, by Z). How complex is this supposedly easier problem?

An Advanced Slave Economy

First of all, slavery is an advance over autarkic total war in the Hobbesian state of nature. A slave is better off under this system than outside the polis. He has personal and job security.

But such an economy, if it is to "work," must be accompanied precisely by division of productive activities between tribes. (Division of labor comes later, under feudalism.) There is trading going on between the socialist family-states.

Modern socialism would envision a return to a slave society without any such division of productive activities between tribe governments / entrepreneurs. This is the essence of the socialist calculation problem. An attempt to establish global socialism must result either in perfect stagnation or, since this is not really a possibility, in economic chaos. There is no way for the central planner to calculate a way toward improvements of production based on new knowledge. Human progress under socialism is impossible.

Socialist Calculation for Crusoe

The simplest economy would be production and consumption of two goods by one person. To imagine a typical neoclassical graph, we have the production possibility frontier (PPF) designating the trade-off between the goods and the optimum point on it that corresponds to the highest tangent indifference curve (IC).

In a real economy, there are many complications:

  1. There are multiple consumers, and so preferences cannot be aggregated into a single IC, nor interpersonal utility comparisons made.
  2. There are millions of projects producing consumer goods with millions of types of resources, so both the PPF and the IC are multi-dimensional. Technological recipes are complex.
  3. ICs shift due to changes in consumer preferences.
  4. PPFs shift due to new technologies and discoveries of new resources.
  5. Unpredictable acts of God occur all the time.

Let's abstract away from (1) by having only one person in our economy, Crusoe, who has somehow managed to build and operate an economy the size of our actual global economy. It is easy for him to rank bundles of consumer goods. (This will substitute nicely for our "heavenly" society, as well.) Let's suppose at some time Crusoe has an evenly rotating economy with a system of technological equations like this:

m*P1 = m*(5a1 + 7a2 + 10a15...)
n*P2 = n*(9a1 + 3a15 + 22a42...)
z*P1,000,000 = ...

P represents a product; a, some resource, whether original or produced. A utility is associated with each marginal P; Crusoe wants to arrange production by allocating resources in such a way as to maximize his happiness.

Resources like a1 are (1) scarce (Crusoe only has so many a1s), (2) heterogeneous (a1 cannot be fully substituted for a2), (3) partially specific (a1 can be used in production of many Ps). We do not grant Crusoe technological omniscience, so let's suppose he discovers a new way of producing P7. By taking 3 marginal units of a1 (say, 12a1) from 3*P1 for use in the new method, Crusoe unemploys 3 units of all the other resources: 21a2, 30a15, etc. Where shall they go in the whole scheme of things? Suppose we suggest that 8a2 go into P50, although there are many other possibilities. But that means that the factors complementary to a2 for producing P50, such as a104, a451, ..., also have to be increased. From what other projects shall they be taken away to be used in P50? And so on, in a branching fashion. The consequences of even a single change must result in the rearrangement of the entire production system. And there are numerous possibilities.

The problem is not to solve the system of equations; it's to generate a new system that's superior to the old one upon gaining some new knowledge. Crusoe's problem is to deal with novelties, to improve his production as he learns things previous unknown and unsuspected. At every moment, Crusoe is not only ignorant of numerous things; he doesn't even know what sorts of things he does not know. He is constantly surprised by new data.

With the new discovery, there is a new PPF. There are two distinct problems here. One is to find any improvement on the new PPF.

The other is to find the optimal point or point of highest utility on the new PPF.

Suppose now that Crusoe has access to a powerful computer. Can he program it to solve either of these problems? What sort of problem is it to find a better / best allocation of resources, computationally? Is it tractable or not? I suspect that neither is a class P-problem. I think they are both exponential-time O(2n) problems. Moreover, while the first problem is an NP-problem, as in, can be easily verified given a solution (simply compare the total utilities of the solution and the original system); the second problem is not even that, because to verify that a solution is best, you'd have to sift through all production possibilities, i.e., verifying a solution is as hard as finding it.

As a result, a real-world economy cannot be run by a single man even with great computational resources. It seems that Crusoe requires more people to own and run his factories. There must be a division not just of labor of workers within factories but also of productive activities among profit-seeking entrepreneurs running the factories. This is relevant to the question "What constrains the size of a firm?" Firms in the market economy cannot get too big, lest they become unable to adjust to new market data.

I conclude that Crusoe cannot run the world even if he is the sole human on earth and has a computer the size of the moon to assist him.

Hume on Private Property

Hume suggests that the cause of the institution of property is a combination of (1) "selfishness and limited generosity" and (2) scarcity of resources. If either failed to hold, there would be no need to distinguish between "mine and thine."

Regarding (2), even if apples, say, are superabundant, once I pick one off a tree, I've mixed my labor with it, and it would need to count as "mine." An attempt by another person to grab it while I ate it would be unjust. The same goes for air in my lungs and, most crucially, for the physical space my body occupies and my personal space. Further, maybe houses are plentiful, but only a few houses are on the beach, while most are not. There would be competition even within our Eden for such well-positioned houses.

Regarding (1), we might imagine a heavenly society marked by universal perfect charity. All people's wills are intertwined into a single vine-and-branches, with each loving everyone else as strongly as himself, such that each person feels not only his own pleasure but that of the whole. Interpersonal utility comparisons could then be made as easily as ranking one's own satisfactions by each person within his own heart. In such a society, Smith might labor not only to enjoy the fruits of his labor himself but also so that Jones can spend his money. Yet Smith still would enjoy the improved well-being of the whole union. We might indeed imagine all income going into a common storehouse, with distribution being made according to "need," i.e., according to the single universal values scale. Thus, Smith may produce an apple, but if Jones wants it more than Smith, then Jones gets it. Smith, loving Jones, would still appreciate a stronger desire being satisfied, even if it's not his own desire but Jones'. (It's a weird, but once in paradise, you'll get used to it.)

However, this alone does not obviate the need for private property in the means of production, as we'll see in the next post.

Hume’s Metaethics

He is a non-cognitivist and even emotivist, as is clear from passages like:

To have the sense of virtue, is nothing but to feel a satisfaction of a particular kind from the contemplation of a character. The very feeling constitutes our praise or admiration.

We go no farther; nor do we inquire into the cause of the satisfaction. We do not infer a character to be virtuous, because it pleases: But in feeling that it pleases after such a particular manner, we in effect feel that it is virtuous.

The case is the same as in our judgments concerning all kinds of beauty, and tastes, and sensations. Our approbation is implied in the immediate pleasure they convey to us. (3.1.2)

However, later on in the same chapter he proposes a powerful objection to his own theory.

Remember that the proper metaethics is (1) cognitivist, (2) actuated by duty not desires, (3) internalist. But the proper conception of physical goods is (1') non-cognitivist -- a thing's goodness (for me) is expressed in my enjoyment of it, (2') driven by 1st-order desires, and (3') also internalist, wherein the connection between judgment and motivation is that the motivation to pursue a pleasure causes the judgment "it is good" to be true.

If, following Hume, we mistakenly deem metaethics to be non-cognitivist + desire-driven, then how do we tell apart metaphysical goods (say, the nobility of charity or the wickedness of murder) from physical goods (say, the pleasure of eating ice-cream or the awfulness of the screech of monkeys)? "If virtue and vice be determined by pleasure and pain, these qualities must, in every case, arise from the sensations; and consequently any object, whether animate or inanimate, rational or irrational, might become morally good or evil, provided it can excite a satisfaction or uneasiness." Hume's first reply is that the pleasures and pains associated with virtue and vice are "peculiar" and presumably uniquely different from any pleasure produced by a merely material object.

Hume will then say than a wine, music, and man are good because they cause pleasure but for different qualities; thus, wine is good for its flavor; music, for its harmony; and man, for his virtue. But there is a problem. Wine and music are my bitches. They exist solely for my pleasure and are thrown away with contempt and indifference or even hatred when I find them tiresome. On the other hand, a girl is not a mere device that assists my masturbation. A human being is not a consumer good. At the very least, then, we must acknowledge that good wine is good physically, and a good man is good metaphysically. Hume is indicating that the goodness of both is, despite this obvious distinction, fully derivative from the pleasure they cause to us. This is plausible for wine. But wouldn't the man still be good, such as charitable or brave or loyal to his friends or cause even if I never knew of him? Isn't it in fact a test of my moral goodness to admire him for these virtues? I am not at this moment distinguishing between subjective vs. objective goodness, though this is a worthy subject in its own right; merely between judgment that is obtained from sentiment in physical good vs. sentiment that is obtained from judgment in metaphysical good. For the former, I love X, and then and because of it, X becomes good. For the latter, Y is good, and then I had better love Y (or else).

In addition, (1) "theft is wrong" means (2) "it is one's duty not to steal." But it is the meaning of "duty" that it restricts one's goals. One cannot, if he has a duty, aim at ends that conflict with the duty, and in fact it makes no sense to talk of "duties" if that is not accepted. So, understanding the concept of duty and accepting that you have a duty not to steal immediately by virtue of the meaning of term "duty" compels you to abstain from stealing. Proposition (1) motivates by cutting off certain desires at the root, such as desire to profit by a wrongful act. It motivates not by creating a desire but by destroying certain desires, by making them illegitimate. If one finds in himself a desire to steal yet recognizes that stealing is wrong, then he is led to suppress the desire posthaste.

Hume's second argument is problematic, as well. He writes that the peculiarity of the feelings that virtue excites in us lies in their nature of pride / humility and love / hatred. I have written that the former are aspects of self-love. Regarding the latter, hatred for a fellow man is unnatural, as in, never justified, thereby being below human nature; at the same time loving another human being is impossible without divine grace which is above nature. (Thus, falling in love is due to the bestowal of grace; and mothers, too, I think, are given grace to love their children.) Since his book is a treatise on human nature as opposed to beastliness or deiformity, Hume is not allowed to invoke hatred or love in his arguments.