David Hume's Morality Theory

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Hume's Moral Philosophy
First published Fri Oct 29, 2004; substantive revision Fri Aug 27, 2010 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. * 1. Issues from Hume's Predecessors

* 2. The Passions and the Will
* 3. The Influencing Motives of the Will
* 4. Ethical Anti-rationalism
* 5. Is and Ought
* 6. The Nature of Moral Judgment
* 7. Sympathy, and the Nature and Origin of the Moral Sentiments * 8. The Common Point of View
* 9. Artificial and Natural Virtues
* 10. Honesty with Respect to Property
* 10.1 The Circle
* 10.2 The Origin of Material Honesty
* 10.3 The Motive of Honest Actions
* 11. Fidelity to Promises
* 12. Allegiance to Government
* 13. The Natural Virtues
* 14. Differences between the Treatise and the Moral Enquiry * Bibliography
* Other Internet Resources
* Related Entries

1. Issues from Hume's Predecessors
Hume inherits from his predecessors several controversies about ethics and political philosophy. One is a question of moral epistemology: how do human beings become aware of, or acquire knowledge or belief about, moral good and evil, right and wrong, duty and obligation? Ethical theorists and theologians of the day held, variously, that moral good and evil are discovered: (a) by reason in some of its uses (Hobbes, Locke, Clarke), (b) by divine revelation (Filmer), (c) by conscience or reflection on one's (other) impulses (Butler), or (d) by a moral sense: an emotional responsiveness manifesting itself in approval or disapproval (Shaftesbury, Hutcheson). Hume sides with the moral sense theorists: we gain awareness of moral good and evil by experiencing the pleasure of approval and the uneasiness of disapproval when we contemplate a character trait or action from an imaginatively sensitive and unbiased point of view. Hume maintains against the rationalists that, although reason is needed to discover the facts of any concrete situation and the general social impact of a trait of character or a practice over time, reason alone is insufficient to yield a judgment that something is virtuous or vicious. In the last analysis, the facts as known must trigger a response by sentiment or “taste.” A related but more metaphysical controversy would be stated thus today: what is the source or foundation of moral norms? In Hume's day this is the question what is the ground of moral obligation (as distinct from what is the faculty for acquiring moral knowledge or belief). Moral rationalists of the period such as Clarke (and in some moods, Hobbes and Locke) argue that moral standards or principles are requirements of reason —...
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