David Hume’s Understanding of Moral Philosophy (Ethics)June 26, 2021
Despite all his skepticism, Hume also carefully considered ethical issues. The opening sentence of book 3 of On Human Nature is: “Morality is a subject that concerns us more than any other.”
His interest in this subject was so great that he thought he would do in the field of morality what Galileo and Newton had done in natural science.
In On Moral Principles, “moral philosophy is in the same condition that preceded Copernicus’ time… Just as an older science with its abstract general principles had to move towards a more experimental method, it is time for philosophers to attempt an appropriate reform of ethical conflicts.” he wrote. Hume therefore disliked any ethical system, however subtle or ingenious, that was not based on fact and observation.
For Hume, the basic fact of ethics is that moral judgments are not only regulated by reason, but by sympathy-sympathy; Of course, reason can play a significant role in debates about ethical decisions, but it is not sufficient on its own for any moral praise or blame. The limits of the role that reason plays in morality are to make judgments on matters of fact and relationships. However, ethical judgments about good and evil are not limited to factual matters or relationships. For example, why do we judge murder as a crime? Is what we call crime a matter of fact?
If you describe the action, the weapon used at the time of the event, in short, even if you put together all the details of the event, the faculty of reason is still not isolated from the fact of affixing the label of crime. And again, this action may not always be seen as a crime under all circumstances. The same act can be seen as self-defense or official execution. The judgment of good or bad is made after all the facts are known. The good or bad of an action is not a new phenomenon discovered or inferred by reason, and ethical discourse is not like mathematical reasoning. Additional facts and relationships can be deduced from a few facts about the triangle or circle. But goodness, like beauty, is not something to be deduced additionally through reason as a deductive conclusion. “Euclid fully explained all the qualities of the circle, but did not say a single word about its beauty in any proposition” (cited in Stumpf, 1994: 288).
The reason for this is obvious. Because beauty is not an attribute of the circle. It is not found in any part of the line; its parts are equidistant from a centre. Beauty is an effect produced by this form-circle in the human mind; This effect manifests itself in the emotional sphere. Because if we want to find a case of fact or real existence in this field, what are we going to find? Whatever path we take, only certain passions, drives, desires and thoughts. There is no other case. All this is a matter of emotion, not reason, they are not in the object but in us.
Hume was aware that he was establishing an ethical system on the faculty of emotion, sentiment, or sympathy, and reducing ethics to a matter of enjoyment would be a very risky situation. Because in this way, moral judgments became subjective and relative. Also, making emotion or sentiment a source of praise and blame implied that our ethical judgments would derive from a criterion of our individual self-interest and self-love. Hume denied these claims, emphasizing that ethical sensitivity is found in all people; saying that people praise or condemn the same actions, he added that praise and satire do not come from a very narrow self-love.
For him, sympathy or sympathy should be taken as a principle no more general than in human nature. It is through this human capacity that we often go the way of praising virtuous acts performed wherever and whenever. No aspect of self-interest can be discovered in these actions, or any relationship connected with our current happiness and security; These are very different things. Also, a generous, brave, noble deed performed by an enemy cannot prevent us from liking it. As a result of these considerations, Hume became convinced that the capacity for empathy-sympathy we humans have provides an adequate explanation for our judgments of praise and blame.
Hume’s concept of moral sense and empathy is in sharp contrast to traditional ethical theories. In these theories, morality emerges in the relation of actions to an ethical rule; such an ethical theory seeks to describe an action as good or bad in terms of whether it conforms to the ethical rule or not. But Hume does not accept the hypothesis that there are ethical rules, because such a hypothesis is far from being fully understood and can never be made plausible. Conversely, Hume proposes an alternative hypothesis for ethics: if a mental act or quality gives an observer a pleasing feeling of appreciation, then it can be described as a virtue and vice versa.