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Hume Studies Volume XX, Number 1, April 1994, pp. 19-35 From Spectator to Agent: Hume's Theory of Obligation CHARLOTTE BROWN Hume's initial objection to moral rationalism, and one that he takes to be decisive, is that the rationalists, by locating conscience in reason, locate it in an inactive part of human nature.1 Of course, the rationalists themselves took reason to be active. Samuel Clarke, Hume's main target, objected strenuously to Hobbes' idea that there are no moral obligations without a sovereign empowered to enforce them.2 According to Clarke, the good person is not someone prodded by sanctions to do what is right. Genuinely virtuous action is rational action and we do not need sanctions to do what we have a reason to do. We may be motivated simply by the rational intuition that an action is right, fitting, or obligatory.3 Thus, both Hume and his rationalist opponents agree that the moral faculty must be active. Hume, however, thinks that his arguments in Book II of the Treatise on the influencing motives of the will establish that reason by itself is perfectly inert (T 413-418). So Hume concludes that "reason is wholly inactive, and can never be the source of so active a principle as conscience, or a sense of morals" (T 458). That conscience is active is overwhelmingly apparent to Hume.4 According to Hume, common experience informs us that individuals are "often govern'd by their duties, and are deter'd from some actions by the opinion of injustice, and impell'd to others by that of obligation" (T 457). He also observes that philosophy is commonly divided into the speculative and the practical and, since morality is classified as practical, it is "supposed to Charlotte Brown is at the Department of Philosophy, Illinois Wesleyan University, Bloomington, IL 61702 USA. 20 Charlotte Brown influence our passions and actions" (T 457). As Hume explains elsewhere, practical moralists—parents, teachers, divines and legislators—aim to make us good by making virtue appealing. If morality had no influence on our passions and actions, it would be vain for us to take such pains to inculcate it. He also notes that "nothing wou'd be more fruitless than the multitude of rules and precepts, with which all moralists abound" (T 457). Hume offers two arguments to show that the rationalists, by locating conscience in reason, locate it in an inactive part of human nature. His first argument, sometimes called the argument from motivation, is simply this: moral judgments excite passions and produce or prevent actions, but rational judgments by themselves never move us to action (T 457). Since all parties to the debate agree that conscience has an influence on passions and actions, it follows that if Hume is correct in claiming that reason is inactive, then reason is not the source of moral concepts and judgments. As Hume comments, An active principle can never be founded on an inactive; and if reason be inactive in itself, it must remain so in all its shapes and appearances , whether it exerts itself in natural or moral subjects, whether it considers the powers of external bodies, or the actions of rational beings. (T 457) Hume's second argument relies on the claim that what reason does is to discover truth and falsehood (T 458). According to Hume, reasonableness is conformity to truth and unreasonableness is falsehood. Since actions, as Hume thinks he has previously shown, cannot be true or false, they cannot be reasonable or unreasonable (T 415-416, 458). But we do judge actions to be good or bad. Hume takes this argument to show that the goodness or badness of actions cannot be a matter of their being reasonable or unreasonable.5 He also thinks his argument proves the same point indirectly: The merit and demerit of actions frequently contradict, and sometimes controul our natural propensities...as reason can never immediately prevent or produce action by contradicting or approving it, it cannot be the source of the distinction betwixt moral good and evil, which are found to have that influence. (T 458) Hume concludes that since reason is inactive, "it can never be the source...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1947-9921
Print ISSN
0319-7336
Pages
pp. 19-35
Launched on MUSE
2011-01-26
Open Access
No
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