Hume's position in ethics, which is based on his empiricist theory of the mind, is best known for asserting four theses: (1) Reason alone cannot be a motive to the will, but rather is the slave of the passions (see Section 3) (2) Moral distinctions are not derived from reason (see Section 4). (3) Moral distinctions are derived from the moral sentiments: feelings of approval (esteem, praise) and disapproval (blame) felt by spectators who contemplate a character trait or action (see (...) Section 7). (4) While some virtues and vices are natural (see Section 13), others, including justice, are artificial (see Section 9). There is heated debate about what Hume intends by each of these theses and how he argues for them. He articulates and defends them within the broader context of his metaethics and his ethic of virtue and vice. Hume's main ethical writings are Book 3 of his Treatise of Human Nature, Of Morals (which builds on Book 2, Of the Passions), his Enquiry concerning the Principles of Morals, and some of his Essays. In part the moral Enquiry simply recasts central ideas from the moral part of the Treatise in a more accessible style; but there are important differences. The ethical positions and arguments of the Treatise are set out below, noting where the moral Enquiry agrees; differences between the Enquiry and the Treatise are discussed afterwards. (shrink)
Hume's moral philosophy makes sentiment essential to moral judgment. But there is more individual consistency and interpersonal agreement in moral judgment than in private emotional reactions. Hume accounts for this by saying that our moral judgments do not manifest our approval or disapproval of character traits and persons "only as they appear from [our] peculiar point of view..." Rather, "we fix on some steady and general points of view; and always, in our thoughts, place ourselves in them, whatever may be (...) our present situation" (T 581-82), in order to "correct" our situated sentiments. This seems to create two serious difficulties for Hume's theory. First, moral evaluations become inductive, empirical beliefs about what we would feel if we really occupied the imagined common point of view, and hence are the deliverances of causal reason; this contradicts Hume's claim that the making of a moral evaluation is not an activity of reason but of sentiment. Secondly, given Hume's thesis that the passions do not represent anything else, he cannot say that our moral evaluations will better represent the object being judged if they are made from the common point of view. This leaves no clear reason to adopt it, rather than making judgments from our real position. Hume says that left to our particular points of view, we will encounter contradictions and be unable to communicate, but it is hard to see why. My interpretation resolves these two difficulties. I argue that every time we reflect upon someone's character from the common point of view, we feel an actual sentiment of approbation or disapprobation, which may alter and merge with the situated sentiment or may fail to do so, leaving two different feelings about the same character. Furthermore, whenever we make moral evaluations we also simultaneously make objective, causal judgments about the love and hatred, pride and humility that the trait will produce. We routinely take up the common point of view in order to achieve truth and consistency in our causal judgments, to avoid grave practical problems. (shrink)
Hume’s moral philosophy makes sentiment essential to moral judgment. But there is more individual consistency and interpersonal agreement in moral judgment than in private emotional reactions. Hume accounts for this by saying that our moral judgments do not manifest our approval or disapproval of character traits and persons “only as they appear from [our] peculiar point of view... ” Rather, “we fix on some steady and general points of view; and always, in our thoughts, place ourselves in them, whatever may (...) be our present situation” (T 581-82), in order to “correct” our situated sentiments. This seems to create two serious difficulties for Hume’s theory. First, moral evaluations become inductive, empirical beliefs about what we would feel if we really occupied the imagined common point of view, and hence are the deliverances of causal reason; this contradicts Hume’s claim that the making of a moral evaluation is not an activity of reason but of sentiment. Secondly, given Hume’s thesis that the passions do not represent anything else, he cannot say that our moral evaluations will better represent the object being judged if they are made from the common point of view. This leaves no clear reason to adopt it, rather than making judgments from our real position. Hume says that left to our particular points of view, we will encounter contradictions and be unable to communicate, but it is hard to see why.My interpretation resolves these two difficulties. I argue that every time we reflect upon someone’s character from the common point of view, we feel an actual sentiment of approbation or disapprobation, which may alter and merge with the situated sentiment or may fail to do so, leaving two different feelings about the same character. Furthermore, whenever we make moral evaluations we also simultaneously make objective, causal judgments about the love and hatred, pride and humility that the trait will produce. We routinely take up the common point of view in order to achieve truth and consistency in our causal judgments, to avoid grave practical problems. (shrink)
Why do we have a moral duty to fulfill promises? Hume offers what today is called a practice theory of the obligation of promises: he explains it by appeal to a social convention. His view has inspired more recent practice theories. All practice theories, including Hume’s, are assumed by contemporary philosophers to have a certain normative structure, in which the obligation to fulfill a promise is warranted or justified by a more fundamental moral purpose that is served by the social (...) practice of promising or adherence to it. Recent practice theories do have this structure, but, I argue, Hume’s own does not. Hume’s account, while it does trace the origin of promises to convention, is instead a causal explanation of the moral sentiments we have toward fulfillment and violation of promises, sentiments he regards as normative in themselves and not susceptible of further warrant. He explains how a collectively-invented social practice becomes morally obligatory for us to conform to, without deriving its moral authority from a more basic principle. I discuss one objection often made to practice theories that, in its application to Hume, presupposes the incorrect interpretation, and show that while it is telling for Hume’s descendants, for Hume it misses the mark. Instead I make a different challenge to Hume, and suggest how he might meet it. (shrink)
In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:Hume Studies Volume XX, Number 2, November 1994, pp. 179-194 Symposium A version of this paper was presented at the symposium on A Progress of Sentiments by Annette C. Baier, held at the Pacific Division Meetings of the American Philosophical Association, Los Angeles, March 1994. On an Unorthodox Account of Hume's Moral Psychology RACHEL COHON One can learn a great deal about Hume's Treatise from Annette Baier's fascinating book, (...) A Progress of Sentiments.1 It is in places dazzling, in others revelatory, occasionally puzzling, and everywhere interesting. Having said that, I proceed to criticize one aspect of it. Belief and the Passions My topic is Baier's interpretation of Hume's moral psychology. First I sketch out the striking differences between Baier's View of Hume's moral psychology and what I call the Standard View. Then I consider some of Baier's reasons for her unorthodox reading. I argue that Baier's View of Hume's moral psychology is motivated in part by a particular, unstated understanding of Hume's theory of the passions. As a consequence of this, I argue, Baier denies Hume the use of an especially strong argument against the moral rationalists' theory of motivation and morality, for that strong anti-rationalist argument (sometimes called the influence argument) depends upon a support that is incompatible with Hume's theory of the passions as Baier implicitly understands it. But without the influence argument, Hume's case against the moral rationalists would be much weaker. The relevant portion of the Standard View, on the other hand, makes better sense of Hume's campaign against Samuel Clarke and others, because it embraces the support Hume offers for the influence argument. So, in this one respect, I shall argue that a portion of the Rachel Cohon is at the Department of Philosophy, Stanford University, Stanford CA 94305 USA. 180 Rachel Cohon Standard View of Hume's moral psychology is superior to Baier's View. But whether we should reject Baier's View in favor of the relevant portion of the Standard View depends, of course, upon whether we can consistently reject the unstated interpretation of Hume's theory of the passions on which Baier's View seems to be based. Baier explicitly sees her version of Hume's moral psychology as shaped by the account of the passions in Book II. And Baier's discussion of the role of belief in the causation and individuation of the passions is illuminating. It helps guard against a common oversimplification of Hume's claim about the motivating power of reason. Baier reminds us that passions are impressions of reflection, and hence must be introduced in the mind by an impression or an idea; i.e., each passion is caused by certain ideas or impressions. Passions are "thought-caused" and "idea-mediated" (160). Anger, for example, "is always directed at someone for some perceived insult, injury or harm" (161). It has a "subject" or cause, the injury the person is thought to have done one. In one place Baier refers to the causes of passions as their "appropriate reasons" (164). The causes are "thoughts about what is or is likely to become the case" (161). For something to be a passion at all rather than a mere pleasure or pain, some idea must be present to cause it. Passions do, indeed, have their hedonic components, such as the two pleasures included in pride. But for pride to be the passion it is, rather than some other, "one must believe the fine thing to be one's own" (161). A particular belief is what identifies the passion. Even desire is influenced by a belief or idea, and subsequently is often called "preference " (164). Thus, since reason produces beliefs, and beliefs are the crucial, identifying causes of passions, reason has a thorough-going influence on passion. And since passions are what move us to act, reason provides indispensable causal input into volition and action. It is easy but inaccurate to describe Hume as saying that belief, or reason, does not cause action. Furthermore, besides having a characteristic cause, many passions have an intentional object distinct from their cause. For anger, this "object... (shrink)
: Hume's account of the virtue of fidelity to promises contains two surprising claims: 1) Any analysis of fidelity that treats it as a natural (nonconventional) virtue is incorrect because it entails that in promising we perform a "peculiar act of the mind," an act of creating obligation by willing oneself to be obligated. No such act is possible. 2) Though the obligation of promises depends upon social convention, not on such a mental act, we nonetheless "feign" that whenever someone (...) promises he performs such an act. This paper explains both in light of the philosophical questions about promising that lie behind Hume's investigation, his virtue theory, and the general difficulties he believes we face trying to understand virtues that are in fact artificial in terms of our common-sense, natural conception of virtue. It extracts a lesson for contemporary virtue ethics about the motive of duty. (shrink)
This chapter contains section titled: The Moral Sentiments Sympathy The Distinction between Natural and Artificial Virtues Honesty with Respect to Property Fidelity to Promises The Natural Virtues and Sympathy The Common Point of View Specific Natural Virtues Conclusion: Sympathy and Justification References Further reading.
This chapter contains section titled: Introduction The Basic Features of the Indirect Passions Why These Four Emotions? The Foundations of the Distinction, between Direct and Indirect Passions The Moral Sentiments References Further Reading.
Do the moral sentiments move us to act, according to Hume? And if so, how? Hume famously deploys the claim that moral evaluations move us to act to show that they are not derived from reason alone. Presumably, moral evaluations move us because (as Hume sees it) they are, or are the product of, moral sentiments. So, it would seem that moral approval and disapproval are or produce motives to action. This raises three interconnected interpretive questions. First, on Hume’s account, (...) we are moved to do many virtuous actions not by the sentiments of approval and disapproval, but by other sentiments, such as gratitude and parental love; so when and how do the moral sentiments themselves provide motives to act morally? The second question arises as a result of a position I defend here, that the moral sentiments are best understood as Humean indirect affections. Hume says that the four main indirect passions (pride, humility, love and hatred) do not directly move us to act. The second question, then, is whether their status as indirect affections nonetheless allows moral approval and disapproval to be or provide motives. Finally, if we make a natural assumption about how Hume thinks belief about future pleasure is connected to the desire to obtain it (I call it the signpost assumption), it turns out that the mechanisms for producing motives that most naturally come to mind are ones that are equally available to reason alone. This introduces the third question: given the constraints Hume imposes on the nature of the moral sentiments, is there a way in which they can move usto act that is not also a way in which reason alone does? I argue that, given the signpost assumption, while Hume has greatly constrained his options, his moral sentiments do have one very limited way of moving us to act that is not available to reason alone. However, there are reasons to doubt that Hume endorses the signpost assumption. Without it, our moral evaluations have a far greater capacity to produce motives to act. One important objection arises; but this problem can be solved by rejecting a further assumption about what counts as being produced by reason alone. (shrink)
Earlier versions of the four articles which follow were presented at a book panel session, on Rachel Cohon's Hume's Morality: Feeling and Fabrication, at the Hume Society meetings in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in August 2009.I am deeply grateful to Lívia Guimarães and Donald L. M. Baxter for planning this session, and to Elizabeth S. Radcliffe and Don Garrett for serving as my critics. I have been asked to begin by summarizing my book in a few minutes.Hume's Morality: Feeling and Fabrication (...) (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), is primarily an analytical, interpretive work about two main issues: the nature of ethical evaluation, according to Hume, and the artificial virtues. The book has two parts: "Feeling Virtue" .. (shrink)
Situationists in moral philosophy infer from empirical studies in social psychology that human beings lack cross-situational behavioral consistency: that is, for the most part, we human beings are not able to act in the same trait-relevant way across a range of distinct types of situations, because those situational differences trigger differences in behavior. In this paper we defend the following thesis: one who accepts this conclusion (that is, one who judges that human beings in general are not possessed of behavioral (...) consistency) cannot make a promise in good faith. This has important consequences for the ethical institution of promising and its associated reactive attitudes. (shrink)
I thank both my critics for their praise, their searching comments and objections, and their careful attention to my book. In the very short time allotted to respond to them both, I will address their objections in an integrated way, following the order of my book.Both Elizabeth Radcliffe and Don Garrett protest that for the last twenty years the noncognitivist reading has not dominated Hume scholarship in the way that I suggest when I include it in the common reading of (...) Hume's metaethics. In the book I admit that noncognitivism is not as popular among experts as the other two elements of the common reading, and I discuss the alternatives to it that have been proposed. But most of those who offer such alternatives. (shrink)
The present work lays the foundations for a proposed longer work in which I shall defend an answer to the question whether immoral action is necessarily irrational. Here I first examine the traditional formulations, by Hume and Kant, of the crucial positions in the controversy over whether reason does or does not require us to do right or act well, or forbid us to do wrong or be villainous, and I criticize the views of each of these philosophers. I then (...) show how this issue has been transformed in contemporary philosophy, and address myself specifically to one subsidiary issue, whether there necessarily is a reason for every person to do each act that he or she ought, morally, to do. I then develop and defend an analysis of reasons for action based on our common sense notion of reasons, an account according to which there can be a reason for someone to act even though he or she does nor recognize it. Some moral reasons scepticism is based on the assumption that in order for there to be a reason for someone to act, he must have a desire that he can expect to satisfy by so acting. Consequently I next provide a detailed analysis of the relationship between reasons for action and desires, and argue that, contrary to this assumption, desire-independent reasons are possible, and a number of considerations appear to function this way. I then suggest a new approach to the issue of reasons to be moral, using the results obtained so far and the idea of a pattern of nongoal practical reasoning that it is rational for someone to have. I sketch arguments that might be offered within this approach and some difficulties that will arise, and conclude that, given an objective theory of human values, it will support moral rationalism or something close to it, but without such a theory it will support moral reasons scepticism. (shrink)