Hume, David (1711–76)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DB040-2
Version: v2,  Published online: 2005
Retrieved January 16, 2019, from

11. The foundations of morality

Many of Hume’s predecessors – like his successor KANT and many others – held that moral distinctions are made by reason. According to Clarke, for example, morality was a matter of relations of ‘fittingness’ that could be discerned and demonstrated, like geometrical relations, through reason. Hume denies that moral distinctions are derived from reason alone. For this, he offers three arguments in the Treatise (THN 3.1.1). The first argument concerns the non-representational character of the objects of moral evaluation. Reason is a kind of discovery of truth or falsehood, which is a relation of agreement or disagreement that ideas have either to other ideas or to ‘real existence and matters of fact’. Because passions, volitions and actions are non-representational, however, they are not subject to such agreement or disagreement, and hence cannot be either contrary or conformable to reason. The second argument concerns the motivational force of moral distinctions. Since morals have an immediate influence on action and affections, while reason alone has already been shown to have no such influence, Hume argues, it follows that morals cannot be derived from reason alone. The third argument involves Hume’s familiar strategy of surveying the kinds of reasoning. Moral distinctions cannot be derived from demonstrative reason, he claims, since all demonstrative reasoning depends on four of the philosophical relations of ideas – resemblance, contrariety, degrees of a quality, or proportion in quantity or number. If there is some further relation that can serve as a basis for the drawing of moral distinctions by demonstration alone, it must first be discovered; and, furthermore, it must be shown both how it can be limited to the relations between the mind and external objects (as morality is) and how it can provide motivation to any being capable of demonstrative reasoning (since morality is inherently motivating). Yet moral distinctions also cannot be derived from probable reasoning, for the virtue or vice of an action does not appear merely upon reasoning concerning matters of fact about the action; rather, it becomes apparent only upon turning one’s attention to one’s own sentiments.

Hume’s investigation of the causal basis of the key transition in probable inferences yields first a negative answer – ‘not reason’ – and then a positive answer: ‘custom or habit’. So, too, his investigation of the origin of moral distinctions yields first a negative answer – ‘not reason alone’ – and a positive answer. The positive answer, in this case, is ‘a moral sense’. The moral sense consists in the capacity to feel specific sentiments of moral approbation and moral disapprobation when considering a person’s character ‘in general’ – that is, as it affects persons considered generally, independently of one’s own self-interest.

In some cases, a trait may produce approbation or disapprobation immediately, but typically it does so through sympathy with those who are affected by it – either its possessor or others, or both. Sympathy is, like probable inference, a mechanism by which perceptions are enlivened. In sympathy, however, one infers from circumstances or behaviour the feelings and sentiments of others, and this lively idea constituting belief that another person has a given feeling or sentiment is further enlivened by the current impression of oneself, as a result of the associative relation of resemblance between one’s idea of the other person and one’s idea or impression of oneself. The result is that the belief itself rises to the level of an impression, so that one sympathetically feels the other person’s inferred state of mind oneself. Thus, when an individual has a character trait that produces pleasure for the individual or for others affected by that individual, an observer feels sympathetic pleasure, which then causes in the observer the further pleasant sentiment of moral approbation; when an individual has a feature of character that produces pain for the individual or others affected by that individual, the observer feels sympathetic pain, which then causes the further unpleasant sentiment of moral disapprobation.

As these sentiments give rise to abstract ideas, features of character producing moral approbation come to be called ‘virtues’ and those producing moral disapprobation come to be called ‘vices’. Actions, in turn, are considered virtuous or vicious in so far as they are manifestations of virtuous or vicious character traits. Accordingly, Hume offers two definitions of ‘virtue’ or ‘personal merit’ parallel to his two definitions of ‘cause’: virtue is ‘every quality of the mind, which is useful or agreeable to the person himself or to others’ (EPM 9.12) or ‘whatever mental.  . . quality gives to a spectator the pleasing sentiment of approbation’ (EPM Appendix 1.11). Actual moral sentiments may vary with the strength of one’s sympathy, itself partly a function of one’s distance, in various respects, from the individual evaluated and to those affected by the individual. In order to reconcile differences of sentiment among individuals and within the same individual at different times, we naturally come to ‘correct’ for peculiarities of perspective, much as we correct our judgments of sensory and aesthetic qualities. In the case of moral qualities, we do so by taking up imaginatively a ‘general point of view’ as the proper perspective from which to make moral judgments.

In claiming that moral distinctions are derived from a moral sense and not from reason alone, Hume is not denying that reasoning plays an essential role in the drawing of moral distinctions. Reasoning is required to determine the character traits of others, and reasoning is required in order to determine the likely effects of those traits on the possessor and others. Reasoning may also be required to determine what one’s sentiments would be from ‘the general point of view’ when one is not actually occupying it. Although he is often interpreted as an expressivist non-cognitivist in ethics – that is, as holding that moral judgments express sentiments and are not strictly susceptible of truth or falsehood (see EMOTIVISM), Hume’s account of the ‘correction’ of moral sentiments through the ‘general point of view’ in the construction of abstract ideas of vice and virtue leaves room for a cognitivist interpretation as well, making the moral sense more closely analogous to senses for other qualities.

For Hume, as for ancient virtue ethicists (see VIRTUE ETHICS), the primary object of evaluation is personal character, rather than actions, and the primary terms of moral evaluation are ‘virtuous’ and ‘vicious’, rather than ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ or ‘good’ and ‘bad’. Because he maintains that moral distinctions depend on sentiment rather than on reason alone, Hume rejects the ideal of a morality that would have to be accepted by any rational being; and, indeed, he emphasizes that there is no reason to suppose that an intelligent deity would have the same moral sense as human beings. Morality, for Hume, is inherently motivating, to those who have a moral sense, because the moral sentiments themselves are pleasures and pains, and, as such, they also readily give rise to pride or love (which are further pleasures) and humility or hatred (which are further pains). He fully approves of morality, for the moral sense bestows approbation both on the having of a moral sense and on its own operations. At the same time, however, he treats morality as a natural phenomenon to be understood by the science of man. Indeed, he holds that by understanding the basis of morality in human nature, one is better equipped to reflectively improve one’s moral evaluations (recognizing, for example, that the ‘monkish virtues’ such as celibacy, fasting, mortification and self-denial are not truly virtues) and to recommend morality more persuasively to others.

Citing this article:
Garrett, Don. The foundations of morality. Hume, David (1711–76), 2005, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DB040-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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