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Hume on passions as source of morality


To: Craig S.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Hume on passions as source of morality
Date: 22nd February 2011 11:58

Dear Craig,

Thank you for your email of 13 February, with your essay for the University of London BA Moral Philosophy module, in response to the question, ''Hume argues that reason never moves us to act, but that morality does. This leads him to claim that passion, not reason, is the source of morality.' Discuss.'

This is a good essay, although you had me somewhat wrong footed, as I expected that your criticisms of Hume's (seemingly) overly restrictive view of reason was shaping up to an anti-subjectivist view of moral judgement. Yet from your conclusion, I gather that your view is subjectivist, if not crassly so.

Your very last sentence, echoing Kant on concepts and intuitions suggests a line of argument which could have an important bearing here, and which deserves to be explored, so I will look at this first.

It's easy enough to see why 'moral emotions without reason are blind'. What would that mean? Say, a person who relied on immediate emotional impulse to make any moral decision, or to perform any action whatsoever. But we know that the very idea is absurd. At the very least, you have to cognize the situation, make a judgement about the kind of circumstance you are reacting to. You see a lad running with a woman's handbag. Is he a mugger running off with the spoils, or did he notice the woman accidentally drop the purse and is running to catch up with her?

Hume has a perfectly good account of this. He would say that our emotions attach to kinds of behaviour -- theft, or the return of lost property -- and it is the business of perception and reason to ensure that those emotions attach to the appropriate target.

'Reason without moral emotions is empty.' The inclusion of the term 'moral' is significant. Pure reason (the caricature of Mr Spock in Star Trek) is incapable of functioning even at the most basic level without some motivating desire. Mr Spock is motivated by a powerful sense of curiosity, to say the least. Reason and logic alone won't take you to the conclusion of a logical proof unless you care about reaching a conclusion. But why do we need the qualification 'moral'?

The moral objectivist would say that this is putting the cart before the horse. Yes, we have moral emotions as Hume observes, it is not necessary to take a course in moral philosophy or learn about the categorical imperative. But Kant anticipates that point right at the beginning of the Groundwork. Ordinary, untutored moral consciousness recognizes that the only thing that is good without qualification is the 'good will'. Everything depends on the underlying motivation. You must desire the good for the right reasons. On further philosophical analysis, those reasons are seen to arise from the very notion of rationality itself. The very possibility of morality depends on our recognition that we are all equal as rational law-giving members of the 'kingdom of ends'.

You cite the example of the psychopath with the damaged amygdala. As you state, this gives support to an evolutionary ethics. One of my UoL students, Stuart, is a strong believer in this view. In an email exchange I put to him the case of the Alien (Sigourney Weaver movies). Consider a race of beings have no need for ethics or morality. Solitary and self-sufficient, their practical reasoning follows just what a human 'psychopath' would choose. God help us if they ever land on Earth. Reasoning or appeals to their 'Vogonity' (Hitchhiker's Guide) would be futile.

Or would it? Maybe one of these Aliens is sufficiently curious about the history of human philosophy to read Kant. Is it conceivable that, contrary to every urge of its genes, the Alien might undergo a moral epiphany, discover its true fellowship with all rational beings in the universe? Well, anything is possible. The point is about 'nature'. Hume and the evolutionary ethicists have no doubt that the question I have raised is either factual or nonsensical. Kant would disagree.

McDowell (my former thesis supervisor at Oxford) is an interesting case. Your discussion here is rather allusive and doesn't really convey the point of his attack on Foot's view about morality as a system of hypothetical imperatives. For McDowell, there are certain facts about the world which you can only 'see' if you have the right feelings (e.g. that an action was 'kind'). Well, I'd take one of my Aliens and give it a few hundred years and all the information about human culture that can be gathered. I think it would do a pretty good job of recognizing 'kind' actions without feeling the least impulse to be kind. McDowell's point is rather fragile, a mere tweak to Humean subjectivism nothing more.

My own view (in Naive Metaphysics and the Pathways Moral Philosophy program) was objectivist although not Kantian, but I have become rather jaded with it. Right now, I'm not sure what I believe. However, reading your essay, I don't see anything that Hume would want to disagree with regarding the question of reason and feeling. Hume is looking at the big picture, his 'hyperbolic' claims do not need to be taken literally.

All the best,