Hume's theory of morality
I will begin with a short discussion on Hume's account on Ethics and then quote
half a page from the book I use as my guide in this quest (Roger Scruton - A Short
History of Modern Philosophy). These few paragraphs basically present Hume's theory
of morality in a nutshell. Hume has been greatly influential in the field and
I am sure that as you read this you will recognise certain ideas/concepts that
have found their way in the thinking of the contemporary Western person.
Why are theories and systems of ethics important? Because, it seems that morality
guides all important human action in the social context (this question will be
answered many times in the future and in different ways).
The main difficulty with moral systems is finding a way to assert their objectivity.
They seem to be based on subjective and contingent views or even whims. Moral
systems contain propositions about what "ought to be". The problem is
finding the necessarily true "is" type of propositions that support
them. The proposal that there is no such deductive relation between an "is"
and an "ought" is known as "Hume's Law". This basically means
that morality cannot be objective. In philosophical terms this is not as bad as
it sounds. Something not being objective basically means that it bears no relation
to the world of objects (if one accepts the existence of such a world). The remaining
question is whether morality (objective or not) can be universal in its expression
and necessary even if it only appears in human beings as a mere peculiarity of
Another difficulty that Hume raised concerning the objectivity of moral systems
has to do with the genealogy of moral action. Actions are generated by motives,
but reason alone, Hume argued, can never provide a motive to action. All reason
can do is present us with a picture of the means to given ends; it cannot persuade
us either to adopt those ends or to reject them. Reason is confined in its operation
to matters of fact and the relations among ideas. Reason cannot and does not motivate
action - it simply helps you satisfy your desires which have their origin not
in reason but in passion. If passion dictates the destruction of the world, reason
will simply lay out the means to that end. It is therefore 'not contrary to reason
to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger',
Hume says. He also argues that no amount of reasoning can persuade the evil man
(a man with evil desires) to any course of action except that which already attracts
him. Thus Hume extends his general attitude of scepticism to ethics as well.
It can be seen at this point that a theory of moral sentiments (passions) that
motivate moral action has to provided. For Hume moral sentiments hold immovable
centrality in human nature. Here is the passage from the book that describes Hume's
theory of moral sentiments:
Hume insists that despite apparent local variations, there is a basic uniformity
of moral sentiment among human beings. In every locality and in every period in
history, men have been drawn to favour some things and disapprove of others, through
the innate disposition, inseparable from human nature, to sympathise with their
It is from the sentiment of sympathy, the origin and object of which lies in man's
social condition, and from the benevolence which alone makes that condition possible,
that the world comes to appear to us as decked out in the colours of morality.
But we should not therefore think that 'right' and 'wrong' are properties that
inhere in things independently of our disposition to approve or disapprove of
them. By an extension of the Lockean idea of a secondary quality, Hume argued
that there is no fact of the matter other than our moral sentiments. He says 'Vice
and virtue...may be compared to sounds, colours, heat and cold, which are not
qualities in objects, but perceptions in the mind.' With the result 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
As we can see, Hume gives to the concepts of sympathy/empathy central importance.
In the course of this thread these concepts will be systematically explored.