Steve Cooke

measuring the boundaries of our nation by the sun

Getting cosy with David Hume

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David Hume's ancient face.

Famous quotations please me, and Hume had some clever things to say - so here are a couple of his:
"Generally speaking, the errors in religion are dangerous; those in philosophy only ridiculous" and "A wise man, therefore, proportions his belief to the evidence."

I’ve been up to my neck in metaethical texts and readings on political obligation recently, but sadly, none of it’s been part of my reading project. Tonight I’m remedying that with a reading by James Harris on the 18th century Scottish philosopher, David Hume.

One thing I regret about the time spent doing my PhD is that I didn’t spend enough of it reading people like Hume. Since I had no intention of taking more than three years to finish, I became ruthless in my selection of relevant readings (or, rather, I did after year one). My own research is focussed on political theory and applied ethics – so during my PhD questions of moral judgement and motivation, and of human nature, addressed by Hume, didn’t grab my attention. Now that I’ve finished the PhD I’ve been making time to read more widely and more carefully. I’m pleased to have learn (from Harris) that Hume wrote an applied ethics essay ‘On Suicide’, which I’ve now added to my reading list.

I’m conscious already that I’ve yet to give any flavour of what Hume has to say about morality. I’ll remedy that in a moment, but I’m also conscious that so far I’ve violated all of the principles of writing for the web that I took care to follow in my previous incarnation working for ten years as a web developer. So, I’m going to try to keep it simple.

One area I don’t plan to get into is how we should interpret Hume’s words. Harris is forced by the format he’s writing for to discuss different interpretations of Hume’s work. I find disagreements over whether a particular author meant this, that, or the other, pretty tedious. I’d rather know whether the argument revealed by a particular interpretation is a good one, than whether it was an argument genuinely advanced by an author that nobody can ask for verification from in any case.

Nor am I going to discuss the ground-breaking influence Hume had on utilitarianism (the ethical theory that we should act so as to maximise utility, and minimise disutility, where utility is expressed as happiness, pleasure, well-being or some-such, and disutility is expressed as suffering, unhappiness etc.). And I’m not going to write much about his treatment of virtues, despite his thought-provoking claim that virtues can be divided into those whose value is derived from their social utility – promise keeping, allegiance, and justice, and those we accept without reflection – beneficence, generosity, clemency, etc.

Rather, it is Hume’s theory of moral motivation, and the threat it poses to the idea that there can be objective moral truths, that fascinates me most (sadly not discussed in any detail by Harris). The argument below leads to non-cognitivism (the theory that there are no moral properties or moral facts – see:

It starts with two premises:

1. Moral judgements are intrinsically motivating (i.e., if we judge something to be the right thing to do, we are motivated to act by that fact alone and not because we possess a desire or disposition to do what we judge to be right). This is known as moral judgement internalism.

2. Beliefs cannot motivate by themselves, they require additional conative states (desires, emotions, feelings etc) to generate motivation. As an example, take the belief that people in France tend to speak French – this is a true belief, but it doesn’t motivate me to do anything. Similarly, the belief that there is chocolate in the cupboard doesn’t motivate me to eat that chocolate without an accompanying desire, perhaps provoked by hunger, to eat chocolate. Beliefs are subject to tests for truth – it is a matter of truth or falsity that people in France tend to speak French, and that there is chocolate in my cupboard (there isn’t).

Since, if moral judgements are intrinsically motivating, and beliefs are not, the two premises together lead to the conclusion that moral judgements are not beliefs. Furthermore, if moral judgements are not beliefs, then they cannot be true or false, and therefore moral judgements cannot be true.

There are some very good responses to this little argument, which aim to show that moral judgements express propositions (and hence are truth-apt), or that morality can be objective (or at least that its objectivity cannot be ruled out by the argument). Some challenge premise one ( Svavarsdóttir’s written some wonderful stuff), and others premise two (Kant is the paradigm example), but, in the spirit of not over-writing, I’ll leave it to you to investigate for yourself.

Alternatively, you can tear me to bits in the comments section (or Hume, Kant or Svavarsdóttir if you prefer). Hopefully, you’ll at least have seen why I find all of this philosophy malarkey interesting.


Author: Steve C

I work in normative ethics, specialising in animal and ethics and political philosophy.

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