Week 2 – David Hume – An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals

Alright, Week 2!  I know everyone’s champing at the bit to write about David Hume. 🙂  This weeks readings are An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals and “Of the Standard of Taste.”  Go to!

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Filed under David Hume, politics, sensation, sense, taste

One response to “Week 2 – David Hume – An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals

  1. Just Some Laplander

    The following are a few outlined notes composed after our discussion in class last night. An attempt is made to clarify what I think Hume is getting at on a few points, and better respond to some objections—though none of it is systematic. It is offered for the sake of what value it may be to others, and the understanding that I wrote for myself.

    * Sentiment and Consequentialism
    + The utilitarian creed (act always so as to produce the greatest
    happiness for the greatest number) is not one I think Hume would agree
    with—at least in the direct sense in which it is usually meant.
    – Hume is strongly opposed to the early liberal thinkers and French
    philosophs whom he thinks represent a source of pernicious
    “rationalism” in politics which seeks to supplant functional
    institutions of government and morality with prescriptives emanating
    from pure reason but which have no basis in experience or precedent in
    history.
    1) The extent to which Mill’s maxim is a purely rational principle,
    and the extent to which its critics (often correctly) show it to be
    at odds with received moral opinion is enough to disqualify it
    here.
    2) No rational principle (like the utilitarian formula) can supply
    moral conduct as such since morality (on Hume’s account) inheres in
    actual moral practices which represent the motivations of
    sentiment, refined though successful performance in practice, and
    reinforced through habituation.
    – (In Hume one very strongly detects the Aristotelian notion that
    morality is a /tekhnê/ (practice) and approaches excellence only
    when and where its practice becomes a matter of /hexis/
    (habit)—that it has become habitual is evidence of consistent
    successful performance.)

    * Sentiment and depravity
    + As Aristotle said: “it is not in depraved beings that we should seek
    what is natural…”
    – If I had never seen a dog before and inquired as to what one was, you
    would not show me a three-legged dog—it is not representative of its
    kind.
    – Likewise you would not exhibit abnormal specimens of humanity, or
    abnormal human circumstances to explain what is representative of
    humanity and its day-to-day existence.
    – The sociopath’s lack of compunction, or the force and fraud people
    leverage against one another in war represent the abnormal /type/
    on the one hand and the abnormal /situation/ on the other.
    – Hume contends that sentiment is a thing which is susceptible to
    refinement or change through habituation.
    – Thus it is that our social /habit/ of living peacefully in society
    must be /overcome/ if we are to be /useful/ in war. Thus the need to
    develop new habits which is what training for war and the act of
    killing entails.
    + In short these are examples which “prove” the rule regarding an
    operative sentiment, rather than discredit the notion itself.

    * Sentiment: a Natural or Divine explanation?
    + To say Hume has trouble establishing the existence of sentiment is also
    to say he has difficulty establishing its source.
    – Assuming it is innate and universal, two explanations can account for
    this:
    1) That it is instilled in us by a providential God who has benevolent
    intentions toward humanity and wisely recognizes (even if we don’t)
    that our lives will be enriched if we treat each other with certain
    regard and implanted impulses in our beings tending toward that
    end.
    – (Regarding Hume’s atheism, I maintain that he is not opposed to
    religion, or even religion in morality and politics, but
    religious “enthusiasm” and this only because it conduces to
    discord and violence. C.f. Hobbes)
    – He is an atheist, but not the smug, gloating sort of atheist
    (all too common) who tends to be so tiresome and shallow.
    – (While Hume is famous for discrediting certain famous “proofs”
    for the existence of God, all these disproofs amount to is that
    God is not a concept which experience can supply—that the
    existence of such a being is a question of faith, not reason or
    experience. Hume knows this.)
    – Kant will conclude the same thing in his own way: God is an
    empty category, but a category nonetheless.
    2) That it is imprinted on our DNA (so to speak), inheres in the
    structures of the mind, and is the product of an evolutionary
    sequence where by those individuals better suited to live peaceably
    among members of their own kind have a better chance of survival
    among them, and likewise that such a group has a better chance of
    survival then do isolated individuals.
    – (And I think the emphasis is on “living peaceably” not
    “benefiting the collective”—the “collective” is benefited
    well enough if the former condition is consistently adhered to.)
    – That is Hume’s /point/ when he contends that justice
    itself—submitting our conduct impartially to a set of
    rules—is useful to society though not always to us.
    – We have here a recognition that the an act is moral (or just)
    /independent/ of its consequences—yet there are beneficial
    consequences (utility) to everyone consistently acting this
    way.
    – That those who strive always to “benefit the collective” are
    (like religious “enthusiasts”) often sources of violence:
    particularly against the marginalized, the minorities, and (the
    smallest minority of all) the individual.
    – Now if sentiment is not innate (still in Hume’s terms) it then must be
    an essential impulse in conduct which represents a distillation of
    experience up to that point—and its degree of refinement
    proportional to extent and quality of these experiences, and perhaps
    our reflections on them.
    – Accepting this does not really change much in terms of what is
    actually observed. Sentiment ends up conducing to civility (in
    nearly all cases) since living in society requires this, and our
    aggregate experiences are experiences of living in society.
    – The most significant difference is really that sentiment can no
    longer (notionally) claim /a priori/ universality. But that where you
    find sentiment expressed which is exotic, bizarre or “repugnant”
    you will also (invariably) find an appropriately exotic bizarre or
    repugnant context of experience conducing to it.

    * Sentiment and its Education
    + Regardless of whether sentiment is innate (divine or natural) or
    emergent it is never “complete;” and this is because morality is a
    /practice/ and like any other practice (like riding a bicycle) it is
    something one gets better at the more one engages in it.
    – We all (in the qualified sense) have a faculty of balance which we
    immediately recognize when we get on the bicycle for the first
    time.
    – We have some vague notion of what actions balance /requires/ to stay
    on the bicycle.
    – Knowledge of bicycle riding /theory/ might help us a bit, but will
    still have to be translated in to practice—and this is never
    spontaneous or even fluid.
    – And even without theory our innate faculty of balance and its
    refinement as we practice will ensure that we will eventually get
    the practice right.
    – Once we have achieved a certain proficiency we may be able to
    reflect /after the fact/ how we got there and construct our own
    rational understanding of /how/ a bicycle is ridden which we can
    communicate to others—but will likewise be of no immediate benefit
    without practice.
    + Likewise, with sentiment. Even if it is innate, it is invariably
    incomplete in the beginning because it is untrained. It is perfected
    through practice and habituation until one reaches a point where one
    acts morally out of habit itself—not reflection.
    – Consider how you engage in familiar day-to-day moral acts yourself and
    consider to what extent you /think/ before acting.
    – The /thinking/ comes in after the fact (when we are asked for an
    explanation), embark on an “inquiry” like Hume, or when we are
    confronted with an unfamiliar situation which past experience does not
    immediately inform.

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