Hume’s Ethics

Hume’s Ethics

Contents
1. Introduction
2. Hume’s ethics as an emotive theory of ethics
3. Conclusion
4. Bibliography

David Hume is an outstanding Scottish philosopher of the 18th century whose views has a significant impact on the following generations of thinkers throughout the world. His sceptical arguments concerning induction, causation and especially religion, including his famous thesis that human knowledge arises only from sense experience and not from rational judgments, shaped the 19th and 20th century empiricist philosophy. His famous saying that ‘reason is the slave of the passions’ is a cornerstone of his ethical views largely explains the emotive character of his ethics.
Hume’s ethics as an emotive theory of ethics
In his works David Hume paid a lot of attention to ethical and moral problems he wanted to discuss these issues and presented his own particular views. At this respect it is worth to mention his moral theory basically depicted in Book 3 of the Treatise, titled “Of Morals”. The author basically discusses the principle issue of his ethics whether moral distinctions are derived from reason. To put it more precisely David Hume discusses the question concerning whether human moral approval is a rational judgment about conceptual relations and facts or an emotional response. On analysing such a dilemma, Hume arrives to the conclusion that it is rather an emotional response that has little, if has any at all, in common with reason. Moreover, it is necessary to underline that T.Z. Lavine in her discussion of Hume’s philosophy points out that according to him “reason provides the means, the instruments or devices, for gaining what the passions desire” (1984:180).
In general Hume is very critical in relation to his opponents who based their ethic theories on rationalistic account of morality. For instance, Hume’s criticises Samuel Clarke and presents several arguments against his rationalistic views, the most famous of which is an argument from arboreal parricide: “a young tree that overgrows and kills its parent exhibits the same alleged relations as a human child killing his parent; if morality is a question of relations, than the young tree is immoral, which is absurd” (Frankl 1985:233).
Furthermore, Hume also argues that moral assessments are not judgments about empirical facts. The philosopher states that it is impossible to find a fact that can be called immoral for any immoral action that is examined. In other words Hume stands on the ground that it is impossible to deduce statements of obligation from statements of facts. Consequently, as moral approval is not judgment of reason, Hume concludes that it must be an emotional response. To put it more precisely, a spectator moral approval is a type of pleasure that cannot be experienced when considering an agent’s qualities, moreover, this pleasure “produces additional feelings of love or pride within the spectator” (Frankl 1985:247).
Obviously Hume is very critical about the reason. For instance, he denies that reason has any important role in motivating or discouraging behavior, it is just a sort of calculator of concept and experience. What he believes is really important is what people feel about the behavior. In such a way it becomes obvious that Hume tends to instrumentalism, which state that an action or ethical notion is reasonable if and only if it serves the agent’s goals and desires, whatever they be. According to him, reason can enter the picture only as a lackey, informing the agent of useful facts concerning which actions will serve his goals and desires, but “never deigning to tell the agents which goals and desires he should have” (Frankl 1985:261).
At the same time, it is necessary to point out that in moral and ethical context such radicalism in Hume’s views is not so radical as it might seem to be. In fact the philosopher argues that immoral behavior is not immoral because it is against reason. He first claims that “moral beliefs are intrinsically motivated – if you believe killing is wrong, you will be ipso facto motivated not to kill and to criticise killing and so on” (Frankl 1985:295). However, he reminds that the reason alone can motivate nothing – reason discovers matters of fact and logic, and it depends on individual’s desires and preferences. Consequently, reason alone cannot motivate moral beliefs. On the other hand Hume does not absolutely deny the role of reason since it works though under the influence of human emotions and desires.
Furthermore, Hume advanced the idea that the explanation of moral principles is to be sought in the utility they tend to promote. At this respect it is quite noteworthy to mention that Hume argues that moral spectators approve of benevolence and benevolence is approved of because it has utility.
At the same time, it should be said that Hume’s ethic theory is not deprived of some controversial points. For instance, attempting to determine whether an agent’s motivating character trait is natural or artificial, he decides this one virtue at a time. For him, the natural virtues include benevolence, meekness, charity and generosity. By contrast, the artificial virtues include justice, keeping promises, allegiance and chastity. Paradoxically in fact, Hume classes the key virtues that are necessary for well-ordered state as artificial, and he classes only the more supererogatory virtues as natural.
Conclusion
Thus, taking into account all above mentioned, it is possible to conclude that Hume’s ethical views are based on denying the role of reason and exaggerating the role of human emotions, desires and preferences. At the same time his moral and ethical theory is to a certain extent controversial and often justly criticised. In fact he is not very persuasive mainly because his argument against moral rationalists seems to confuse questions of moral epistemology with questions of moral motivation. Hume can hardly be right to claim that from the fact that one is not motivated to do the right thing, it follows that one cannot understand what the right thing to do is. Finally his efforts to explain how moral distinctions arise from human passions seem to invoke the very kind of substantive, non-instrumental reasoning which he denies in his works.


Bibliography:
1. Lavine, T. Z. (1984). From Socrates to Sartre: The Philosophic Quest. New York: Bantam Books.
2. Frankl, Victor E. (1985). Man's Search for Meaning. New York: Washington Square Press.