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Hume vs. Kant: the Nature of Morality

By bestestbuddy Nov 28, 2005 1637 Words
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, human beings do deserve considerations in the goals we should have and the means we use to accomplish them. Kant believes that the first class (or humans) are to be considered in how one acts morally. Reason alone is the element Kant believes motivates moral actions rather than Hume¡¦s senses.

In 1781, Kant argued against Hume in an attempt to work past what he saw as the unacceptable conclusions of David Hume. Kant differentiated two kinds of imperative statements. The first, the hypothetical imperative, has the general ¡§for if you want to achieve p then you should do x¡¨. The second, the categorical imperative, gives no choice: ¡§you should do x.¡¨ Hypothetical imperatives are unproblematic because they give out mundane statements of fact. Categorical imperatives, on the other hand, are highly problematic. One¡¦s natural reaction would be to question the statement and ask why. The Kantians, however, do not try to answer the question why. Instead, they tell people that they should not worry about why.

In Kant¡¦s view, only if a person is acting solely on the categorical imperative, such as doing something out of duty, can the act be morally good . If someone is acting out of the hypothetical imperative, he or she has an ulterior motive in acting in that way and are therefore not acting out of duty but are pursuing a certain end. They need not be acting in self-interest, but if they act because of a desire to act in that way, this is not morally worthy. You can still act morally if it gives you pleasure, as long as the reason for your action is solely out of duty. Kant gives the example of someone, who without any motive of self-interest, finds joy in helping others. They act out of the pleasure that it gives them to do so. In this case the person¡¦s action has no true moral worth. Only when this person performs this act without any motivation, does their action have genuine moral worth. The key to moral action is freedom of the will.

After careful analysis of this categorical imperative, critics wondered how someone would then be inspired to ever do anything moral. Although Kant provides an answer, it is fairly disappointing. He argues that we all take a great deal of interest in the moral law, and that the moral law is valid for us not because it interests us, but rather, because it is valid for us as men, since it had sprung from our will as intelligence and hence from our proper self. He states that there is no possibility in knowing why we are interested in universal maxims and therefore morality, as the rational part of us exists outside time and space and we can therefore not achieve any understanding of it is this world. Having based his entire view of morality on the idea of the categorical imperative, Kant is unable to substantiate his claim that we are capable of acting on reason alone. He merely dodges the issue by saying that there is no possibility of understanding how a categorical imperative can motivate.

Nonetheless, this does not invalidate the rest of Kant¡¦s argument. It is still possible to argue that morality can only occur through the categorical imperative while holding the Humean idea that reason alone can never motivate, and so conclude that morality does not exist in reality.

Morality is an enigma. While forming one¡¦s own moral theory, one would have to presuppose that man believes in God or man does not believe in God. It is circular reasoning. To combine both Hume and Kant¡¦s philosophies, the two very different theories must be dissected and only the most compatible parts must be kept. Although these philosophers made a point to argue against one another, it is possible to bring them together as long as we assume there is a God and that God is good. The categorical imperative, as argued by Kant, is a theory that could be interweaved with Hume¡¦s virtue-centered morality. Whereas one should not ask the question ¡§why am I doing this¡¨, one should know whether or not what they have done was right. When Abraham was asked to kill his son in the name of God he did not question God¡¦s authority. However out of reward for trusting the higher power, Abraham was stopped and told by God that he was only being tested. Therefore, when man performs his duty without questioning the usefulness of his task, he will be rewarded by God by receiving such feelings as joy and pleasure. This will also prove to man that he has done the right thing and God is thankful to him.

Hume and Kant both made a significant break with past moral theorists in putting forward a morality that does not, according to Kant, need the idea of another being above man, for a man to recognize his duty. Whereas past moral theories had seen duties as laid down by God, Hume and Kant saw morality as rooted in humans themselves. However from here their theories diverge. Hume sees moral judgments as being caused by sentiments of pain or pleasure within an agent as reason alone can never motivate and Kant sees the only moral actions as being those caused by reason alone or the categorical imperative.

Works Cited

1.Kuehn, Manfred. Kant A Biography. 1st ed. Cambridge University Press, 2001. 2.Edwards, Paul. The Encyclopedia of Philosophy Volume 7 & 8. 1st ed. Simon and Schuster MacMillan, 1996.

3.Cohen, M. J., and John Major. History in Quotations, Reflecting 5000 years of World History. Cassen, 2004.

4.The Philosophers In The Age of The Philosophes „² cite passage
5.¡§David Hume¡¨. 5 June 2005

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