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Philosophy E166: Ethical Theory


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Title: Philosophy E166: Ethical Theory

Philosophy E166 Ethical Theory
  • Week Seven
  • Hume on Threats to Ethics from Naturalism,
    Atheism and Relativism

Humes Fideism of Nature
  • Since both skepticism and naturalism are
    prominent in Humes text, an interpretation that
    succeeds in making them work in tandem is to be
    preferred, other things being equal. The view
    that results I shall sometimes refer to as Humes
    fideism of nature, for reasons that will become
    clear as we proceed. (LHMP, p. 22)

Hume on Staying Skeptical
  • But this skepticism cannot, as Rawls writes, be
    sustained except by solitary philosophical
    reflection, and then not for long, revealing to
    us that for the most part other psychological
    forces such as custom and imagination regulate
    our everyday beliefs and conduct (LHMP, p. 23).

The Outcome for Hume of Radical Skepticism
  • . The upshot of this philosophical pilgrims
    progress toward Humes radical skepticism is
    someone who shares the beliefs of ordinary people
    on everyday matters, and who when going beyond
    this does so with circumspection guided by
    probability and the weight of the evidence. As
    for matters beyond experience, belief is
    suspended (LHMP, p. 24)

Humes Epistemological Skepticism
  • Rawlss definition accepts a scheme of beliefs
    as meaningful and intelligible but questions the
    grounds and reasons for them.
  • The skepticism comes in because all Adam has to
    go on in accounting for his predictions is simply
    his past experience.
  • There is an early rock bottom in the explaining
  • Theres nothing that justifies the inference
    other than habit and custom.

Reason Does Not Penetrate, Yet We Get on Quite
  • There is a bedrock to our explanation that comes
    very early.
  • Reason does not penetrate very far into the
    nature of the world.
  • All that we have before us are these patterns of
  • And yet we get on quite well in the world. We
    get on with the expectations, even though those
    expectations are the mere result of past patterns.

Hume We Are Freed from Superstitions
  • For Hume a fundamental objective of philosophical
    reflection ought to be freedom from the
    enthusiasms and superstitions of religion,
    which lead to social differences and political
    corruption (LHMP, p. 14)
  • To be free of those superstitions is to live in a
    better world. The one thing that philosophy can
    do is contribute to that.

How Hume Arrives as This View
  • Hume, on Rawlss interpretation, does not defend
    his view by reason.
  • It appears not as the result of reason but rather
    as the result of these two psychological forces
  • the skepticism created by reflection and the
    natural, nonreflective psychological
    propensities (Rawlss term) of custom and
  • the imagination (LHMP, p. 24)

Hume Differs from the Modern Positivist Faith in
  • Not based on an alleged contrast between moral
    judgment and judgments in science.
  • Not based on typical view that science is
    rational and based on sound evidence but morals
    not rational or based on evidence.
  • He thinks morals not based on reason.
  • Hume extends his skepticism to science as well.
  • Moral skepticism part of fideism of reason.
    (LHMP, p. 14.)

Summary of Humes Conclusions about Reason and
  • I shall endeavor to prove first, that reason
    alone can never be a motive to any action of the
    will and secondly, that it can never oppose
    passion in the direction of the will.
  • (Treatise, II.iii.3.1)

Hume The Surface of the Mind
  • For Hume, the mind consists of its surface.
  • There are patterns in the way that the elements
    of the mind interact or deploy or co-occur.
  • There is nothing to know of the internal
    mechanics of the mind.
  • All that we can know directly is what we
  • The main constituents of the mind are the
    perceptions of the mind.
  • There are two kinds of perceptions
  • 1) impressions and
  • 2) ideas.

The Makeup of Impressions
  • Of impressions, in The Treatise, there are two
  • those of sensation and
  • those of reflection.
  • Reflections are categorized into
  • passions,
  • desires, and
  • emotions.
  • The sensations we have are sensory, bodily, and

Distinctions Among Passions How They Arise
  • Firstly, there are distinctions among passions
    according to how they arise.
  • a) direct passions the passions that arise
    immediately from pleasure or pain, or from good
    and evil (which makes Hume look like somewhat of
    a hedonist)
  • b) indirect passions the passions that arise
    from pleasure or pain, but involve complicated
    conditions, usually involving some mixture of
    ideas and impressions
  • Think, for example, of malice. Malice is
    ordinarily directed at a particular person and
    arises in a particular context. Love is
    likewise. Love arises contextually in a way that
    requires certain impressions and certain ideas.
  • c) original passions the passions that do not
    arise from pleasure or pain directly or
    indirectly, but do produce pleasure or pain

Distinctions Among Passions How Constituted
  • There is the important distinction made according
    to how the passions are constituted
  • whether they are turbulent or not, or, in other
    words, whether they are felt in an intense way or
  • We, therefore, make the distinction between
  • calm and
  • violent passions

Distinctions Among Passions Their Effects
  • This is a focus on what the passions effects
  • We want to make the distinction between
  • strong and
  • weak.
  • Theres a natural tendency to confuse the calm
    with the weak. A calm passion can be a strong
    passion and, thus, have many effects.

Demonstrative Reason
  • Demonstrative reason, also called deductive
  • Conclusions are arrived at on the basis of the
    principle of contradiction.
  • Hume has the idea that mathematical proofs are
    based on reductio ad absurdum.
  • Contradiction is the main feature of mathematical
  • If you have a contradiction from a proposition,
    then there is a loss of interest in the

Inductive Reason
  • Inductive reasoning what we find outside math
    that is, associating a cause with an effect, or
    vice versa, on the basis of the experience of the
    constant conjunction of similar events.
  • One has a pattern of experience and, as a result
    of that pattern, one draws a conclusion
    inductively that all subsequent cases will follow
    the pattern.
  • Hume recognizes that sometimes these conclusions
    are probabilistic never demonstrative the
    result only from habit/custom and imagination.
  • What we have is means-ends reasoning.

Basic Statement of the Relation Between Reason
and assion
  • Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the
    passions, and can never pretend to any other
    office than to serve and obey them. Treatise

What Rawls Calls the Knockdown Argument for the
Basic Statement
  • A passion is an original existence, or, if you
    will, modification of existence, and contains not
    any representative quality, which renders it a
    copy of any other existence or modification. When
    I am angry, I am actually possessed with the
    passion, and in that emotion have no more a
    reference to any other object, than when I am
    thirsty, or sick, or more than five foot high. It
    is impossible, therefore, that this passion can
    be opposed by, or be contradictory to truth and
    reason since this contradiction consists in the
    disagreement of ideas, considered as copies, with
    those objects, which they represent. Treatise

Rawls on the Knockdown Argument
  • In this paragraph Hume states his knockdown
    argument to show that the passions cannot be
    contrary to reason a passion is simply an
    occurrent psychological state, an impression of
    reflection that occurs under certain conditions,
    gives rise to certain propensities, and prompts
    us to action. As such, a passion does not assert
    anything. Hume says that it has no representative
    quality since it is not a copy of any other
    existence. The passions assert nothing, and so
    they cannot contradict a truth established by
    demonstrative reasoning or experience. LHMP, p.

The Argument
  • (a) Contradiction consists in the disagreement
    of ideas, considered as copies, with those
    objects, which they represent and since
  • (b) A passion is not a copy of any other
    existence and therefore not an idea or made up
    of ideas, thus
  • (conclusion) (c) A passion cannot be
    contradictory to truth and reason.

Matisses The Green Stripe
Sometimes Passions Can Be Contrary to Reason
  • What may at first occur on this head, is, that as
    nothing can be contrary to truth or reason,
    except what has a reference to it, and as the
    judgments of our understanding only have this
    reference, it must follow, that passions can be
    contrary to reason only so far as they are
    accompanied with some judgment or opinion.
    Treatise II.iii.3.6

Two Senses
  • According to this principle, which is so obvious
    and natural, it is only in two senses, that any
    affection can be called unreasonable.
  • 1. First, When a passion, such as hope or fear,
    grief or joy, despair or security, is founded on
    the supposition or the existence of objects,
    which really do not exist.
  • 2. Secondly, When in exerting any passion in
    action, we choose means insufficient for the
    designed end, and deceive ourselves in our
    judgment of causes and effects. We choose a
    cause insufficient for the effect.

Where a passion neither founded on false
suppositions, nor chooses means insufficient
  • Where a passion is neither founded on false
    suppositions, nor chooses means insufficient for
    the end, the understanding can neither justify
    nor condemn it.
  • 1. It is not contrary to reason to prefer the
    destruction of the whole world to the scratching
    of my finger.
  • 2. It is not contrary to reason for me to choose
    my total ruin, to prevent the least uneasiness of
    an Indian or person wholly unknown to me.
  • 3. It is as little contrary to reason to prefer
    even my own acknowledged lesser good to my
    greater, and have a more ardent affection for the
    former than the latter.

How Reason Interacts with Passion
  • The moment we perceive the falsehood of any
    supposition, or the insufficiency of any means
    our passions yield to our reason without any
    opposition. I may desire any fruit as of an
    excellent relish but whenever you convince me of
    my mistake, my longing ceases.

Why We Think Wrongly that Reason Controls Passion
  • Reason and here is means demonstrative reason
    and the inductive reasoning associated with
    cause-effect or means-ends exerts itself
    without producing any sensible emotion and
    except in the more sublime disquisitions of
    philosophy, or in the frivolous subtilties of the
    school, scarce ever conveys any pleasure or
    uneasiness. Hence it proceeds, that every action
    of the mind, which operates with the same
    calmness and tranquillity, is confounded with
    reason by all those, who judge of things from the
    first view and appearance. Now it is certain,
    there are certain calm desires and tendencies,
    which, though they be real passions, produce
    little emotion in the mind, and are more known by
    their effects than by the immediate feeling or

Justice and Convention
  • It has been asserted by some, that justice
    arises from HUMAN CONVENTIONS, and proceeds from
    the voluntary choice, consent, or combination of
    mankind. If by convention be here meant a promise
    (which is the most usual sense of the word)
    nothing can be more absurd than this position.
    The observance of promises is itself one of the
    most considerable parts of justice and we are
    not surely bound to keep our word, because we
    have given our word to keep it. But if by
    convention be meant a sense of common interest
    which sense each man feels in his own breast,
    which he remarks in his fellows, and which
    carries him, in concurrence with others, into a
    general plan or system of actions, which tends to
    public utility it must be owned, that, in this
    sense, justice arises from human conventions. For
    if it be allowed that the particular
    consequences of a particular act of justice may
    be hurtful to the public as well as to
    individuals it follows, that every man, in
    embracing that virtue, must have an eye to the
    whole plan or system, and must expect the
    concurrence of his fellows in the same conduct
    and behaviour. Did all his views terminate in the
    consequences of each act of his own, his
    benevolence and humanity, as well as his
    self-love, might often prescribe to him measures
    of conduct very different from those, which are
    agreeable to the strict rules of right and

The Boat Analogy
  • Thus two men pull the oars of a boat by common
    convention, for common interest, without any
    promise or contract thus gold and silver are
    made the measures of exchange Thus speech and
    words and language are fixed by human convention
    and agreement. Whatever is advantageous to two or
    more persons, if all perform their part but what
    loses all advantage, if only one perform, can
    arise from no other principle. There would
    otherwise be no motive for any one of them to
    enter into that scheme of conduct. EM, Ap. III,
    pars. 7-8

Humes Secondary Qualities View of Moral
Properties (Treatise
  • Nor does this reasoning only prove, that
    morality consists not in any relations, that are
    the objects of science but if examin'd, will
    prove with equal certainty, that it consists not
    in any matter of fact, which can be discover'd by
    the understanding. This is the second part of our
    argument and if it can be made evident, we may
    conclude, that morality is not an object of
    reason. But can there be any difficulty in
    proving, that vice and virtue are not matters of
    fact, whose existence we can infer by reason?
    Take any action allow'd to be vicious Wilful
    murder, for instance. Examine it in all lights,
    and see if you can find that matter of fact, or
    real existence, which you call vice. In
    which-ever way you take it, you find only certain
    passions, motives, volitions and thoughts. There
    is no other matter of fact in the case. The vice
    entirely escapes you, as long as you consider the
    object. You never can find it, till you turn your
    reflection into your own breast, and find a
    sentiment of disapprobation, which arises in you,
    towards this action. Here is a matter of fact
    but tis the object of feeling, not of reason. It
    lies in yourself, not in the object. So 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 from the contemplation of it.
    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 And this
    discovery in morals, like that other in physics,
    is to be regarded as a considerable advancement
    of the speculative sciences tho', like that too,
    it has little or no influence on practice.
    Nothing can be more real, or concern us more,
    than our own sentiments of pleasure and
    uneasiness and if these be favourable to virtue,
    and unfavourable to vice, no more can be
    requisite to the regulation of our conduct and

Humes Argument Against Deriving Ought from
Is (Treatise
  • Hume I cannot forbear adding to these
    reasonings an observation, which may, perhaps, be
    found of some importance. In every system of
    morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have
    always remark'd, that the author proceeds for
    some time in the ordinary way of reasoning, and
    establishes the being of a God, or makes
    observations concerning human affairs when of a
    sudden I am surpriz'd to find, that instead of
    the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is
    not, I meet with no proposition that is not
    connected with an ought, or an ought not. This
    change is imperceptible but is, however, of the
    last consequence. For as this ought, or ought
    not, expresses some new relation or affirmation,
    tis necessary that it shou'd be observ'd and
    explain'd and at the same time that a reason
    should be given, for what seems altogether
    inconceivable, how this new relation can be a
    deduction from others, which are entirely
    different from it. But as authors do not commonly
    use this precaution, I shall presume to recommend
    it to the readers and am persuaded, that this
    small attention wou'd subvert all the vulgar
    systems of morality, and let us see, that the
    distinction of vice and virtue is not founded
    merely on the relations of objects, nor is
    perceived by reason.

Rawls Take on Paragraph 27
  • Rawls is probably correct that this paragraph
    does not add very much to the previous paragraph
  • But that it merely constitutes a summary of the
    case that Hume has been making against the
    rational intuitionist (such as Samuel Clarke) who
    tries to ground morality entirely in reason

Searles Famous How to Derive Ought from
Is (Philosophical Review 73 (1964), pp. 43-58)
Searles Example of How to Derive Ought from Is
Searles Argument that (3) Follows from (2)
The Judicious Spectator
  • Hume (par. 16, T581) In order, therefore, to
    prevent those continual contradictions, and
    arrive at a more stable judgment of things, we
    fix on some steady and general points of view
    and always, in our thoughts, place ourselves in
    them, whatever may be our present situation. In
    like manner, external beauty is determin'd merely
    by pleasure and tis evident, a beautiful
    countenance cannot give so much pleasure, when
    seen at the distance of twenty paces, as when it
    is brought nearer us. We say not, however, that
    it appears to us less beautiful Because we know
    what effect it will have in such a position, and
    by that reflection we correct its momentary

The Common Point of View
  • EM, sec. 9, par. 6 When a man denominates
    another his enemy, his rival, his antagonist, his
    adversary, he is understood to speak the language
    of self-love, and to express sentiments, peculiar
    to himself, and arising from his particular
    circumstances and situation. But when he bestows
    on any man the epithets of vicious or odious or
    depraved, he then speaks another language, and
    expresses sentiments in which, he expects, all
    his audience are to concur with him. He must
    here, therefore, depart from his private and
    particular situation, and must chuse a point of
    view, common to him with others He must move
    some universal principle of the human frame, and
    touch a string, to which all mankind have an
    accord and symphony.

The Common Point of View (cont.)
  • If he mean, therefore, to express, that this man
    possesses qualities, whose tendency is pernicious
    to society, he has chosen this common point of
    view, and has touched the principle of humanity,
    in which every man, in some degree, concurs.
    While the human heart is compounded of the same
    elements as at present, it will never be wholly
    indifferent to public good, nor entirely
    unaffected with the tendency of characters and
    manners. And though this affection of humanity
    may not generally be esteemed so strong as vanity
    or ambition, yet, being common to all men, it can
    alone be the foundation of morals, or of any
    general system of blame or praise. One man's
    ambition is not another's ambition nor will the
    same event or object satisfy both But the
    humanity of one man is the humanity of every one
    and the same object touches this passion in all
    human creatures.

Principle-dependent desires connected to rational
  • (i) To adopt the most effective means to our
  • (ii) To acquire reasonable beliefs about our ends
    and objectives.
  • (iii) To select the more probable alternative.
  • (iv) To prefer the greater good .
  • (v) To order our objectives (by priorities) when
    they conflict.

(No Transcript)
Principle-dependent desires connected to
principles of strict reason
Principle-dependent desires connected to
so-called reasonable principles
The Ideal of the Rational Agent
The Ideal of the Rational Agent (cont.)
By definition, then, a rational agent is
one whose character, whose con-
Rawls Hume never describes the general appetite
to good as a rational principle-dependent desire
Similarly, the two principles he endorses, he
discusses in the same psychological terms
Rawlss Idea about Humes Explanation for Relying
on the Merely Psychological
The Absence in Hume of a Conception of Practical
Reasoning as Moved by Principle-Based Desires
  • The bottom line is that in Hume and this is
    Rawlss point there is no room for explanation
    of human behavior in terms of its relying on
    norms on principles of rationality
  • Notice the contrast in this regard between Humes
    account of our reliance on norms of justice
    (i.e., conventions) and norms of rationality
  • But even with the norms of justice, missing is
    any authority to the norms