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Hume Studies Volume 27, Number 1, April 2001, pp. 3-83 Moral Skepticism and Moral Naturalism in Hume's Treatise NICHOLAS L. STURGEON Section I I believe that David Hume's well-known remarks on is and ought in his Treatise of Human Nature (T 469-70)1 have been widely misunderstood, and that in consequence so has their relation to his apparent ethical naturalism and to his skepticism about the role of reason in morality. My aim in this paper is to display their connection with these larger issues in Hume's work by placing them in a more illuminating light. Readers may wonder whether there is anything left to say about the passage containing these remarks; they may also share Barry Stroud's suspicion that the vast literature focused on this one paragraph has "given it an importance and point out of all proportion to its actual role in the text of the Treatise."2 But I have some new things to say. I agree, moreover, that many recent discussions, in projecting twentieth-century assumptions onto Hume's text, have accorded this passage the wrong sort of importance: that is part of what I want to correct. But getting clear about what Hume is saying here is, I shall argue, a way of moving familiar and obviously central questions about his views on morality into an unfamiliar but revealing focus. Hume's is-ought thesis is commonly, and I believe correctly, seen as an application of his more general skepticism about the capacity of reason to discover "moral distinctions." But that general skepticism is usually taken, in turn, to conflict with those many passages in which Hume Nicholas L. Sturgeon is Professor of Philosophy, Sage School of Philosophy, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY 14853-3201, USA. e-mail: 4 Nicholas L. Sturgeon appears to say, in a reductive and naturalistic vein, that ascriptions of moral virtue and vice simply state certain empirical facts, facts about our own sentiments . My central thesis, however, is that Hume's view that there is a logical gap between is and ought is not merely consistent with his reductive naturalism , but actually depends on it. It is precisely because moral ascriptions state the facts that they do about our sentiments that no ought can be derived from an is and, a bit more generally, that reason is unable to discover moral distinctions . Hume's skepticism about reason in ethics depends, I shall argue, on his reductive ethical naturalism. This is not the usual understanding of Hume's views, and it will require careful explanation and defense. I shall proceed in several stages. My first step, in Section II, will be to argue that Hume's naturalism is at least consistent with his skepticism about reason, and in particular with his remarks about is and ought. I shall show this by focusing on a difficulty often taken to epitomize the conflict between these two strains in his thought: namely, that the paragraph containing these remarks (T 469-70: henceforth, the is-ought paragraph) and the one immediately preceding it (which I shall call the matter -of-fact paragraph (T 468-9)) appear, on their most natural readings, flatly to contradict one another.3 On the most common reading of the is-ought paragraph , it assumes the existence of two classes of statements, «-statements and oM^hr-statements, and declares that no member of the latter class can be derived entirely from members of the former. In the preceding paragraph, however, Hume appears in the guise of an ethical naturalist and subjectivist, and, if we take him at his word, simply equates a moral judgment with one asserting what he himself calls a "matter of fact," albeit a psychological fact about oneself: So that when you pronounce any action or character to be vicious, you mean nothing, but that from the constitution of your nature you have a feeling or sentiment of blame from the contemplation of it. (T 469) But, one supposes, if a moral assessment of an action or character is equivalent in meaning to a description of one's sentiments, then it can be derived from that description, and there...


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