Philosophies of Thought: David Hume

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David Hume argues that there is a difference between what we believe to be “reason” versus what we think is “moral”. Ultimately he proposes that “reason” is based on science–a matter that is factual and not swayed by bias or feeling (2+2=4). Alternatively, what we consider to be “moral” is based on the feelings evoked in response to a subject or occasion (murder feels bad, so it must be bad). 

1. Morals cannot be derived from reason. Reason has no consequence, it stands only as fact. Morality has a consequence, it produces actions that reflect moral values.

“Since morals, therefore, have an influence on the actions and affections, it follows, that they cannot be deriv’d from reason…Morals excite passions, and produce or prevent actions. Reason of itself is utterly impotent in this particular. The rules of morality, therefore, are not conclusions of our reason. . . .”

2. In examining why morality is derived from feelings, not reason, we find that morals occur when we are faced with a situation that makes us feel good or bad–and these sentiments guide our perception of whether such action is moral or immoral. Here we find that murder is bad because it feels wrong.

“Take any action allow’d to be vicious: Wilful murder, for instance. Examine it in all lights, and see if you can find that matter of fact, or real existence, which you call vice . In whichever way you take it, you find only certain passions, motives, volitions and thoughts. There is no other matter of fact in the case. The vice entirely escapes you, as long as you consider the object. You never can find it, till you turn your reflexion into your own breast, and find a sentiment of disapprobation, which arises in you, towards this action. Here is a matter of fact; but ’tis the object of feeling, not of reason. It lies in yourself, not in the object. So that when you pronounce any action or character to be vicious, you mean nothing, but that from the constitution of your nature you have a feeling or sentiment of blame from the contemplation of it. Vice and virtue, therefore, may be compar’d to sounds, colours, heat and cold, which, according to modern philosophy, are not qualities in objects, but perceptions in the mind”

3. “This is” versus “this ought to be”. Hume recommends that readers take note of how authors propose arguments about “what is” and “what ought to be”. “What is” denotes facts, science, and reason. “What ought to be” denotes opinion and morality. There is a bridge that separates these two which requires explanation to bridge the two.

” In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remark’d, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary way of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when of a sudden I am surpriz’d to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not , I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought , or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is, however, of the last consequence. For as this ought , or ought not , expresses some new relation or affirmation…”

4. What is good? What is bad? We know the answer to this given by understanding whether an action makes us feel good or bad. If murder makes us feel bad, then it is bad. Feeling is what bridges reason with morality.

“…we are brought back to our first position, that virtue is distinguished by the pleasure, and vice by the pain… any action or sentiment upon the general view or survey gives a certain satisfaction or uneasiness in order to shew the origin of its moral rectitude or depravity, without looking for any incomprehensible relations and qualities, which never did exist in nature, nor even in our imagination, by any clear and distinct conception.”

This post was inspired by the Edx Course “Ideas of the 20th Century”

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