Hume and Morality



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Moral Sentiment
It does not follow that all actions are of equal value. On Hume's view, the judgments and recommendations of traditional morality arise not from reason, but from a moral sense. As a straightforward matter of fact (discoverable by experience), virtue is always accompanied by a feeling of pleasure, and vice by a feeling of pain. Thus, we praise an instance of virtuous action precisely because it arouses in us a pleasant feeling, and we avoid committing a vicious action because we anticipate that doing so would produce pain. Our feelings provide a natural guide for moral conduct.

Hume worked out the details of this account in Book III of the Treatise. The ideas of benevolence, utility, and justice arouse our deepest and most pervasive feelings, he maintained, and these feelings in turn motivate us toward actions of moral worth. I offer assistance to those in need because it makes me feel good to do so, and I am fair in my dealings with others because it would make me feel bad if I were not. All of morality rests firmly upon the natural human inclination to seek pleasure and avoid pain.

This noncognitive derivation of morality from emotion rather than from reason may seem hopelessly subjective at first glance, but remember that on Hume's view our confidence in causal efficacy has a similar source. I do what is morally right in the same way that I believe there is an external world—by following my natural inclinations in the absence of rational evidence. Thus, Hume regarded himself as having provided morality with a status no less significant in human life than that of natural science.

Here are four paraphrased quotes from Hume:



1. Thought can neither justify or condemn an emotion, unless it is based on a false assumption or makes a mistake about which means will lead to which ends. It is not against reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to my finger getting scratched.

2. Systems of morality usually begin with reasoning about matters of fact, for example about God or about human psychology. Then suddenly they switch, and instead of saying 'is' and 'is not' they begin to say 'ought' and 'ought not'. But premises about 'is' do not lead to conclusions about 'ought'.

3. My claim is that when two things repeatedly occur together, for example flame leading to heat, or an object's being solid and its having weight, then we become accustomed to expect one when the other appears. No one who has seen only one object move after another collides with it could deduce that all objects will when other objects collide with them. All the conclusions we draw from experience, therefore, are really the results of habit, not reasoning.

4. Imagine what it would be like if we went through a library keeping my philosophy in mind. Take any book, for example a theology book or an old-fashioned philosophy book. Ask:'Does it contain any reasoning about the physical world, based on evidence?' No. Burn it, then, for it can contain nothing but fraud and illusion.

Questions on Hume's Ethics


1. How do Hume's ethics relate to his beliefs about induction?

2. Would you say Hume believed in 'Reason over passion' OR 'Passion over reason'?

3. Which ideas, according to Hume, arouse the strongest feelings in us?

4. How does Hume justify this very subjective view of morality?

5. Match the letters of the sentences below, to the numbers of Hume's four quotes.

(a) You cannot deduce an ought from an is.


(b) Desire is arbitrary.
(c) We should not take seriously any theory that is neither mathematical nor scientific.
(d) Inductive reasoning is founded on habits.


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