Philosophy 433                         History of Ethics                                   Darwall                                    Winter 2008




I Moral distinctions from a “moral sense”.  As against his rationalist opponents, Hume argues, following Hutcheson, that "moral distinctions [are] deriv'd from a moral sense."  Part of what he means here is in no dispute:  if we lacked any feeling or pleasurable or painful sentiment gained by reflecting on passions, characters, and actions, then we would not be capable of making any moral judgments.  None of our thoughts would have moral content.  Whether morality itself would not exist depends on some difficult questions that we will begin to get into.  Now we will begin to see how Hume's views resemble, and how they differ from, Hutcheson's.  One point of contrast is already clear.  Hume makes much of the fact (?) that morality and moral judgment is inherently motivating, whereas this claim plays no significant role in Hutcheson's thought.


II  Hume’s metaethics: the background.  What is Hume's metaethics?  Is he a naturalist?  An emotivist?  Or a projectivist or error theorist?  [By the way:  a good discussion of this in the secondary literature is J. L. Mackie, Hume's Moral Theory.]

            Hutcheson, recall, held that moral goodness is the property of a (motivated) action, contemplation of which causes approbation and desire of the agent's happiness in a spectator.  This is a kind of metaethical view we might call naturalism.  Let me explain. 

            Metaethics concerns itself with both the metaphysics and epistemology of ethics.  On the metaphysical side, it asks:  what property, if any, is goodness, virtue, rightness, justice, etc.  In this way it differs from normative ethics, which asks, either in general or specifically, what things are good, virtuous, right, just, etc.  Metaethics is concerned with the nature of ethics itself.  The fundamental metaethical question that both Hutcheson and Hume address is:  what is virtue? 

[sidenote:  both thinkers' views are examples of what is known as an "ethics of virtue".  An ethics of virtue takes virtue to be the fundamental ethical category, and attempts to answer the question of what a person should do, i.e., of which act or choice is right or best, by first answering the question of what traits of character or motives are virtuous, and then determining what a person with such virtuous traits or motives would do.  Aristotle is another example.]

            Now Hutcheson tells us quite clearly what property he takes virtue or moral goodness to be.  He says that it is the same property of an action, contemplation of which causes approbation in a spectator.  And he argues that this property is benevolence.  Since the property of being the  property contemplation of which causes approbation in us and the property of being benevolent (which, as it happens, are the same property) are (is?) a natural property--i.e. a part of nature,

knowable empirically as we know any part of nature--Hutcheson is a naturalist.  He thinks that ethical properties are natural properties.

            But is this Hume's position?  Sometimes, Hume says things that sound naturalist, but sometimes he says other things that can be taken in other ways, and that have actually stimulated different metaethical positions.  [One of the most interesting facts about the later influence the Treatise was the stimulus it provided both to emotivism and projectivism in metaethics.]


III  Hume’s metaethics: texts and options. Consider the following texts:

            A.  "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 from the contemplation of it." (469/301)

            B.  "To have the sense of virtue, is nothing but to feel a satisfaction of a particular kind from the contemplation of a character.  The very feeling constitutes our praise or admiration.  We do not infer a character to be virtuous, because it pleases:  But in feeling that it pleases after such a particular manner, we in effect feel that it is virtuous.  The case is the same as in our judgments concerning all kinds of beauty, and tastes, and sensations." (471/303)

            cf.  "Vice and virtue, therefore, may be compar'd to sounds, colours, heat and cold, which according to modern philosophy, are not qualities in objects, but perceptions in the mind." (469/301)  and  "Thus the distinct boundaries and offices of reason and taste are easily ascertained.  The former conveys the knowledge of truth and falsehood:  the latter gives the sentiment of beauty and deformity, vice and virtue.  The one discovers objects as they really stand in nature, without addition or diminution:  the other has a productive faculty, and gilding or staining all natural objects with the colours, borrowed from internal sentiment, raises in a manner a new creation."  (Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, p. 294)

            A. suggests a naturalist reading:  virtue is the property of being such as to cause a certain sentiment on contemplation.

            B., however, especially when taken together with the two quoted passages following, suggests a different view.  First, according to A it would seem that we would infer a character to be virtuous because it pleases, but Hume explicitly rejects this.  Taking this together with the passage from the Enquiry suggests an emotivist reading of Hume. 

            Emotivists believe that the function of ethical thought and language is not to report or describe the way things are, but simply to express feelings or attitudes.  Thus, if I say that malevolence is a vice, I am not asserting that proposition that malevolence has some property, being a vice, which proposition is true if, in reality, malevolence has this property, false if it doesn't.  Rather, I am expression my negative sentiments about malevolence.  I am "staining" malevolence with the negativity of my sentiment. 

            But there is a possibility other than naturalism or emotivism that is suggested by the last three passages.  This is projectivism or the error theory (which we discussed in our study of Hobbes).  This theory begins from the observation that most people would reject the suggestion that they were simply expressing their feelings, and not also asserting something they think true, when they say, for example, that malevolence is a vice.  As Hume himself says of our judgments

regarding a character we find pleasing on reflection "we feel that it is virtuous."  If we do not infer a character to be virtuous because it pleases, we are hardly likely to think that in saying that it is virtuous we are asserting nothing but only expressing our pleasure.

            On the contrary, the projectivist says, when we have this feeling we project it onto reality, we see the world as though it had the "objectified feeling," and assert that it does.  [Consider what the analogous claims would be for "colours and sounds"]  The only problem is that, as it happens, there are no such ethical properties in reality as our sentiments lead us to suppose.  Thus, all of our ethical judgments are literally false.

            Here, then, are three metaethical alternatives:  naturalism, emotivism, and projectivism.  It seems that there are Humean texts that support each of these.  Which did Hume believe?  The most likely hypothesis, I think, is simply that Hume was never in a position to distinguish these analytically.  Indeed, it is only relatively recently (in the past forty years or so) that philosophers have done so.


IV Hutchesonian resonances.  So far we have not investigated very far into what Hume takes the moral sentiment to be.  There are features of Part I, Section II that would lead one to think that he means to be following Hutcheson in thinking that approbation and condemnation are the distinctive ideas of moral judgment:

            (a)  The title of the section would have been taken to be a direct association with Hutcheson.

            (b)  When he considers the objection that on his theory anything at all could be virtuous or vicious, "whether animate or inanimate, rational or irrational" (471/303) he gives two replies, each of which echoes Hutcheson directly.

                        (i) He says that not "every sentiment of pleasure or pain, which arises from characters and actions, [is] of that peculiar kind, which makes us praise or condemn." [cf. Hutcheson's 'approbation' and 'condemnation'.]

                        (ii)  The second reply (473/304) echoes a different aspect of Hutcheson's theory; I'll leave you to work out why.

            Just after, however, Hume makes these "Hutchesonian" replies, his thinking takes a distinctly non-Hutchesonian turn from the middle of 473/304 on.


V The turn away from Hutcheson.  At 473/304 Hume asks the following:  "From what principles is it ["this pain or pleasure that distinguishes moral good and evil"] deriv'd, and when does it arise in the human mind."  Here he is asking for a general psychological explanation of the moral sentiment.  Now recall that Hutcheson's account of moral approbation is that we have a moral sense, i.e. a fundamental disposition to have this response.  Hume rejects this idea in his next sentence. 

            ". . . 'tis absurd to imagine, that in every particular instance, these sentiments are produc'd by an original quality and primary constitution."  His reason is this:  "for as the number of our duties is, in a manner, infinite, 'tis impossible that our original instincts should extend to each of them . . . "  Hutcheson's hypothesis that there is an "original instinct", a moral sense, is simple enough, because he believes we respond with approbation only to instances of benevolence.  Hume

denies this, however.  Like Butler, he thinks that there are many other motives and traits we approve of other than benevolence, justice, for one.  [Recall here Butler's "Dissertation on Virtue"] 

            If there were an original instinct, it would have to be an extremely complicated one.  Supposing that there is such an instinct, therefore "is not conformable to the usual maxims, by which nature is conducted, where a few principles produce all that variety we observe in the universe."  Here we have Hume the follower of Newton's "experimental method", who is anxious to provide the simplest explanations possible, and not to commit himself to anything beyond what experimental

evidence can secure.

            Roughly, then, if Hutcheson were right about what we approve, then it might be reasonable to explain our approvings by the hypothesis of a moral sense.  Since, he is wrong about that, since we approve a complex multiplicity of traits and motives, we need to look for some simpler explanation.  And Hume thinks he has one.  Moreover, the explanation he gives moves his thought, in one important respect, much closer to utilitarianism than Hutcheson's ever was.


VI Sympathy.  To understand Hume's psychological theory of the moral sentiment, we need first to grasp the notion of sympathy which is central to it.  Roughly speaking, Hume's theory will be that the moral sentiment arises by sympathy with the expected and usual effects of the motives or traits one contemplates. 

            Now, by sympathy Hume does not mean what we usually mean.  We usually have in mind some kind of concern for others.  Empathy is a feeling-with the other person, putting ourselves in his shoes to feel what he feels.  And sympathy is a positive concern for him and for his feelings.  What Hume means by sympathy is neither of these.  It is rather a kind of "emotional infection", as the German philosopher Scheler would later call it.  It is like empathy in the sense that one comes

to feel something like the same feelings of those with whom one "sympathizes," but unlike empathy in that in involves no placing of oneself in the other's perspective.  It is more like catching the same mood as others that one is with--say, in a joyous celebration, or a wake.

            In Book II, Part I, Sect. XI Hume presents a whole theory of sympathy.  Its main function is to explain how it can be that one can go from the mere idea of someone's feelings, to feeling oneself something like what the other person is feeling--in Hume's terms, how one can go from an idea of the feeling to an impression.

            His theory is this.  Suppose one thinks of one's sister being sad.  You begin with an idea of her feeling.  Now Hume thinks that we always have "intimately present with us" an impression of ourselves (317/206).  Depending on how psychologically close the person is to us whose feelings we are thinking about, the impression of ourselves will more or less enliven the idea we have of their feelings into an impression, into something like the feelings themselves.  So because of the closeness of one's sister, one comes to a vivid feeling of sadness oneself.

            Now we needn't worry too much about the details of this theory which is pretty wild as it stands.  Whether Hume's explanation of how we can come to have feelings that are similar to those we are thinking of is sound or not, we can still acknowledge that the phenomenon occurs.  And it is the phenomenon that plays the crucial role in his explanation of the moral sentiment.


VII An associationist account of moral sentiment.  Another explanatory psychological principle Hume accepts is that our thinking proceeds from one idea to another by various "associations of ideas".  One such association is cause and effect.  If we think of something we may be led then to think of its usual effect; or perhaps, of its usual cause.  If I think of an apple falling from a tree, I may then think of its bouncing on the ground.

            Thus, when we think of motives and traits we believe usually to cause pleasurable feelings, either to the person who has the traits, or to others, we may then come to think of these pleasurable effects themselves.  And when we think of motives and traits we believe usually to cause painful feelings, either to the person who has the traits, or to others, we may come to think of these painful effects themselves.  These ideas of pleasurable or painful feelings will then be converted by sympathy into pleasurable or painful feelings. 

            Suppose one is thinking of benevolence, which one takes to cause pleasure in others.  One's disinterested contemplation of the motive will then carry one to thoughts of the pleasurable effects and then, by sympathy, to a pleasurable feeling.  Because this pleasurable feeling results from a disinterested contemplation of the motive, it is approbation, the feeling we express in calling benevolence a virtue.  [Actually, there are some more epicycles here--most likely, this sympathetic

disinterested pleasure causes a further pleasure which has the motive (and the person) as object, and this pleasure is approbation.]

            Similar remarks hold, with appropriate changes, for disapprobation.  By reflecting on motives and traits we take to have painful feelings as effects (say of the actions these motives and traits lead to), we are carried to think of the painful effects, and then, by sympathy to have a painful feeling ourselves.  This painful feeling, resulting from a disinterested contemplation of the motive or trait, is disapprobation.  [A similar caveat about epicycles applies here.]