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Hume Studies Volume XXVI, Number 1, April 2000, pp. 109-127 The Notion of Moral Progress in Hume's Philosophy: Does Hume Have a Theory of Moral Progress? ALIX COHEN The notion of progress, and especially moral progress, is at the heart of reflections about human nature in the eighteenth century.1 As a philosopher of the Enlightenment, one would have thought Hume would have proposed an account of this issue. But prima facie, it appears hard to relate the notion of moral progress to Hume's philosophy: firstly because it does not appear explicitly in his corpus; and secondly, and more importantly, because it seems to raise two major difficulties with respect to his moral philosophy. The first difficulty is that, according to Hume, moral judgments are not based on reason but on sentiments: "The distinction of moral good and evil is founded on the pleasure or pain, which results from the view of any sentiment , or character."2 Therefore, contrary to the common understanding of the concept of "enlightenment," the enlightened moral point of view is not at first sight enlightened by any knowledge of the object of judgment. 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. (T 468-469) The second difficulty is that the notion of moral progress seems to lead to a contradiction. It needs to be supported by the conception of a universal, or at least uniform, human nature: if the principles of human nature were to be Alix Cohen is at the Université de la Sorbonne, Paris, France, e-mail: alixcohen@wanadoo.fr 110 Alix Cohen relative to particular circumstances, any moral judgment about history or actions belonging to different situations would be rendered illegitimate. But the requirement of the uniformity of human nature then seems to leave no room for the possibility of improvement, which is also required in order to support a theory of progress. I intend to endorse the claim that Hume's theory can avoid these difficulties by holding that the principles of human nature are in themselves uniform, but that their practical realization differs according to particular circumstances . Therefore, his philosophy can support a theory of moral progress by reconciling two apparently contradictory requirements: 1. Human nature must in some way be uniform to allow the possibility of moral judgments by independent spectators. 2. Human nature should not be immutable to allow the possibility of progress in general, and of a progress in morals in particular. Moreover, to support a theory of moral progress that is both self-consistent and consistent with the rest of his philosophy, I think Hume has to fulfill three further conditions : 1. Different situations and circumstances influence the application of moral principles. 2. Moral judgments are the objects of a moral taste that is educated and improved by experience. 3. The progress of civilization has an influence on the morality of the people. I aim to show that Hume fulfills these requirements and that he advocates a moral philosophy which permits the notion of moral progress. The key to the problem will be clearly to distinguish between human nature considered as a "body of principles" that is common to all human beings, and human nature as malleable and influenced by society and political structures (what we could call the "social nature" of human beings). I intend to argue that even though the issue of moral progress is not examined as such, Hume was concerned with the question so far as it was essentially related to his conception of the progress of civilization in general, and of the improvement of political institutions in particular. 1. The Universality of Moral Principles One of Hume's objectives is to isolate the principles that govern human morality . By an empirical methodology, he tries to reject all the contingencies and select only the similarities between different moral behaviors. Hume Studies The Notion of Moral Progress in Hume's Philosophy 111 By means of this guide [the principles of human nature], we mount up to the knowledge of men's inclinations and motives, from their...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1947-9921
Print ISSN
0319-7336
Pages
pp. 109-127
Launched on MUSE
2011-01-26
Open Access
No
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