Hume vs. Kant: the Nature of Morality

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From the origin of Western philosophical thought, there has always been an interest in moral laws . As Hume points out in A Treatise of Human Nature, ¡§morality is a subject that interests us above all others.¡¨ Originally, thoughts of how to live were centered on the issue of having the most satisfying life with ¡§virtue governing one¡¦s relations to others¡¨, as written by J. B. Schneewind in Modern Moral Philosophy. Nevertheless, the view that there is one way to live that is best for everyone and the view that morality is determined by God came to be questioned, and it is this that led to the emergence of modern moral philosophy.

Moral debates continued to see good as merely that which gives happiness or pleasure. Schneewind wrote ¡§what we ought to do is always a function of what it would be good to bring about: action can only be right because it produces good.¡¨ It was the departure from this idea that was perhaps the most important aspect of the works of both Immanuel Kant and David Hume. Each put forward a morality that does not require a higher being or god for a man to recognize his moral duty.

Hume¡¦s moral theory arose out of his belief that reason alone can never cause action. Hume proclaimed virtue is always accompanied by a feeling of pleasure and correspondingly vice by a bad feeling or pain. We are compelled to commit a virtuous action because it creates pleasant feelings and we avoid doing a vicious act because it would cause pain. This moral theory is, therefore, a virtue-centered morality rather than the natural-law morality, which saw morality as coming from God.

Hume believed there to be two types of virtues: artificial and natural. Artificial virtues are qualities that society molds into its citizens. It includes such things as justice, chastity, allegiance and obeying laws. On the other hand, more supererogatory virtues are classified as natural. Friendship, benevolence, meekness, charity, good humor and generosity are all part of this group. In addition, Hume included such characteristics as cleanliness and handsome. Hume¡¦s critics were quick to point out this paradox. Certain natural virtues, as he called them, did not depend on an individual¡¦s will. So how could they be considered virtues? It is not within one¡¦s power to be handsome and even witty and charming. Yet Hume¡¦s point of view was clear. To organize yourself ¡V your physical ¡V your thoughts and ideas will quickly proceed to be organized .

The very first written response to Hume¡¦s moral theory was probably a letter written to Hume by Francis Hutcheson in response to Hume¡¦s artificial and natural virtue theory2. Although the letter written by Hutcheson does not survive, Hume¡¦s reply provides an insight into Hutcheson¡¦s three distinct criticisms. Hutcheson first argues that Hume¡¦s theory is too technical . He then goes on challenging Hume¡¦s position that justice is artificial . He suggests that justice is natural in the sense that it serves a human purpose or end. Hutcheson lastly criticizes Hume for classifying natural abilities such as wit as virtues4. In addition to this criticism, others argued that, contrary to Hume, we have a natural sense of justice, and that Hume classified too many qualities as virtues. Hume¡¦s theory was dangerous and risked undermining morality. Critics such as George Anderson, in particular, attempted to have Hume excommunicated.

Kant uses deontological ethics to base his morality on reason alone. Kant divides the world into two classes, beings with reason and a will like humans and things that are considered inanimate and do not possess these qualities. The first class are independent beings with their own purpose; having the capacity to reason and determine their own actions. The second class, inanimate things, such as a rock or tree, do not possess reason or will and do not require consideration in our deliberations about what goals should be or the means to achieve them. However,...
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