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Saturday, April 20, 2013

David Hume, Ethics Notes and Outline


David Hume lived from 1711-1776
  • be careful of reason, for when you apply any deduction, any conclusion is only as strong as it's original premise
  • just about any incident is justifiable if you accept a certain starting premise, and by using reason alone, arrive at that incident as a conclusion
  • Tacit consent – if you don't like it, leave
    • but a solitary life in the state of nature is much less than civil society
    • and what about when they are unable to leave?
  • reason does not show morality, it shows logicality
  • should we not be worried when our only barometer of good is reason: remember,
    False can imply false, and the implication will still remain true
  • “Reason is the slave of the passions”
  • passions – all the feeling, emotional part of us
    • Hume worries if we base our choice on reason alone, then we run into the problem that a good syllogism is persuasive
  • what motivates: hunger, thirst
    • reason helps us discern how

  • Hume's moral system is influenced by his views about human nature
  • human nature: fairly independent, roughly equal, fairly rational
  • too much emphasis on reason → miss an important aspect of human nature
    • we are feeling, sentimental beings
  • it is rational for beings like this, when the state of nature has gone ary, to consent and form some civil society
    • any rational being would consent (this is hypothetical, part of social contract theories)
  • rational + passionate
  • sentiments – 1. approval
    2. approbation/disapproval
  • reason is instrumental in morality as a calculating faculty
    • reason has no moral value
    • reason provides insight, it allows us to understand the good
    • Plato: we apprehend the good through reason
      • our rationality is what distinguishes us from other creatures
  • for hume, reason is a mental instrument: reason calculates, reason compares, reason concludes, reason infers
    • but reason does not provide any content or substance
    • reason is the mental faculty that compares ideas or experiences
    • reason combines ideas
  • some Hume history: Hume was an empiricist – the best approach to understand is through experience
    • experience is the fundamental validation for all truth claims
    • if anything is asserted as a matter of truth, it has to be traceable rationally to some experience with the world
    • Locke was an empiricist as well
    • both men believe the human mind begins a blank slate, upon which experience writes itself
    • there is no a priori content
    • experience provides content for the mind
    • experience is not simply sensory experience, it includes feeling-emotion
    • also – what we cannot trace back to experience, we have no grounds for asserting as truth
    • did a work on causation
      • a strictly empirical analysis on causation
      • the central piece of causation is necessity
        • 'show me the necessity'
    • in reference to necessity: causation
    • we are using past events to make judgments about future events, and these involve necessity
    • for hume: we cannot say anything will happen unless it does: the future cannot be inferenced in such a way that creates a necessity
    • basically: we can't predict the future without making reference to the past
    • constant conjunction – one thing seems to follow another thing
  • where, in the act of punting a puppy, is there a wrong?
    • What does wrong look like?
    • Is there a little spark?
    • We have to have the proper tools to perceive things
      • you can't hear light
      • you can't taste color
    • reason lacks content – it has got nothing to derive, it is a tool but provides no premises
    • the moral content is not in reason
    • these sentiments are our measure for right and wrong
    • morality is about feeling, passion
    • morality is about this feeling to approve/disapproves
    • when I observe this, I have this feeling of disapproval, and this feeling of disapproval attached to an event is wrong
    • “reason is slave of the passions”
      • passions motivate
      • pleasure and pain are powerful motivators for action
    • in choking a person:
      • disengaging from choking is motivated by an imagination of approval if that action were taken
      • so ethics is always future oriented
      • morality looking backwards allows me to make a judgment in the future
      • science is interested in the past to better understand what may happen in the future
      • morality is prescriptive
  • so morality looks like this: given a predictive should (based on past experience), we can put forth a prescriptive moral should



  • the basis for moral judgments are moral sentiments
    • these sentiments are part of human nature, natural
    • every ethical theory thus far has tried to anchor their picture of morality in something about human beings
      • Plato – natural rationality, soul as being ration, we are able to comprehend the good through this capacity for reason
      • Aristotle – in our rational nature, but more so as our telos, our end as an excellent human being, a rational social being; there is a natural end that all human beings strive for
      • Locke – consent is the act of a free, rational self-interested being agreeing to the terms, consenting is morally significant because it is anchored in a view of equal creation of all human beings
    • Hume: the human being is a feeling being
    • our most important capacity is not that for reason, but the capacity for sympathy (fellow-feeling – Adam Smith)
      • human ability to feel with someone, empathy, to feel for or with another person, whether friend or stranger
      • reason does not move a person to action
        • in the moment of action, reason is not the operative capacity
    • this anchors morality in human nature
    • Hume is not constructing a speculative argument
      • Hume is an empiricist
      • conception of human nature is not a priori
      • Hume draws on evidence
    • generally humans have like responses

      • relativism:
        • Consider X
          I have an approving response to X
          X is right to do
          → I ought to do x
      • ethical subjectivism:
        • I ought to do what I feel is right
          → whatever I feel is right is what I ought to do
        • I feel X is right
        • → therefore I ought to do X

    • the origin of society is in family, so what we learn from family supports all the rest that could be learned from society
      • car crash example in class...
  • all that can be said, as an empiricist:
    • generally, people have like responses
    • therefore, it might be inappropriate to judge those who are incapable of reason
    • Locke: one must be of age to reason about right and wrong
    • Hume: one must be able to get the feeling of right and wrong
  • sympathy and sentiments can be cultured – can be refined, developed; especially through experience
  • how can you say something is true or false if it is about a feeling?
    • this implies a final, certain answer
    • for Hume, one cannot ever say something is morally true, certain, absolute, because there may be a circumstance in the future that shows it to be false
  • Hume's virtues
    • consent not the important factor
    • some include: humane, good-natured, beneficence, benevolence, generous, friendly, grateful, merciful
    • all these virtues are rooted in sympathy
    • these are natural virtues – features of character which are beneficial to self or other, are pleasing to self
    • as one stifles sensitivity one loses these virtues
    • Artificial/Social Virtues
      • not derived from sympathy
      • rather, it is derived from utility to society (social utility)
      • utility – of benefit to society
      • social virtues only apply to society
      • ex. justice – one cannot be just in the state of nature: there is no one to be just with
      • Hume: justice is the most important social virtue
      • if we lack justice in a society in which justice is required, we are all at risk
        • however, if we were perfectly humane and fully capable of complete empathy, whether we had abundance or lived in an extreme of deprivation & want, there would still be no need for justice
        • these virtues are to be the aim
      • justice is relevant when living in a society of equals
      • animals are worth of us being naturally virtuous toward them is moral, but treating a cat with justice is not because in cats are not equals
    • whenever virtues occur, they are met with a feeling of approval
      • even if you are not beneficial of someone's generosity, approval is felt
      • whether or not you are the recipient of these, there is a general feeling of appreciation
      • Hume: one should respond to virtues with the right kind of feeling

  • justice is not the whole extent of morality
  • the other part of morality is the virtue, of benevolence
    • if everyone were in touch enough with their compassion, there would be no need for justice
    • why would I share with those who are depraved, because I can put myself in your place, I imagine what it must be like for you and it moves me to act, to share
  • because animals are not equals, we need not be just toward them
    • this does not mean that morality is not tied to justice though, justice applies in a society of equals
    • just because something is outside the bounds of justice does not mean it is outside the bounds of morality
    • also, we may be wrong about what the true nature of the thing which we are judging to be not equal
    • Hume wants his account of morality to critically assess social structures
      • treating equals as not equals is unjust
      • this requires us to have a breadth of experience
      • prejudice: pre-judge (prior to experience)

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