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Hume Studies Volume 30, Number 1, April 2004, pp. 51-85 Scratched Fingers, Ruined Lives, and Acknowledged Lesser Goods CASS WELLER It is not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger. It is not contrary to reason for me to choose my total ruin, to prevent the least uneasiness of an Indian, or person wholly unknown to me. It is as little contrary to reason to prefer even my own acknowledged lesser good to my greater, and have a more ardent affection for the former than the latter. (T 2.3.3.6; SBN 416)1 Everyone is familiar with the cases Hume parades in this passage when he dramatically displays just how far one's preferences and other passions can go without being contrary to reason. His general point is tediously clear. Whatever failing there is in one who prefers the destruction of the world to the scratching of his finger or chooses his total ruin to prevent the least uneasiness of a person wholly unknown to him, it is not a failing of reason, unless this preference and choice involve false suppositions of fact, existence, or mathematics. But they do not according to Hume. So they are not contrary to reason. At the same time, anyone who is given to worrying and fretting over the text will be initially somewhat at a loss to explain in any further detail the nature of the phenomena Hume flaunts as not flouting reason and how they relate to one another. For example, is the notion of preference at work that of a settled judgment of value or that of a blind impulse to be understood only in terms of strength of desire? Is the character Hume inhabits in the first person one who simply finds himself with a blind urge to keep his finger scratch-free or one who Cass Weiler is Associate Professor of Philosophy, University of Washington, Seattle, WA 98195, USA. e-mail: cjwr@u.washington.edu 52 Cass Weller has a settled policy of keeping his finger scratch-free viewed as more valuable than anything else. Is preferring my lesser good to my acknowledged greater good the practical counterpart of self-consciously believing that Ï• and not p? Or is it, rather, a common form of weakness? And if so, how is it related to the two previous cases? Although most discussions of Hume's views on practical reason refer to this passage, I know of no extended discussion of the three notorious cases.2 This is no doubt due in part to the fact that the details do not really matter for understanding the main point. A mental state not involving a false belief of experience or a priori reason cannot be contrary to reason.3 Nevertheless, I think it is a good idea to try and figure out just what Hume is saying and that by digging right here we may hope to uncover important aspects of Hume's theory of evaluation, motive, and reason. The task is to get a more detailed view of Hume's own theoretical understanding of the preferences and choices he exhibits as not contrary to reason, in particular whether a preference is an evaluative attitude, and how it may conflict with an acknowledged interest. To this end we will have to go beyond what is adequate for a reader's understanding of the preferences in their narrow rhetorical context. Hume himself invites the reader, inadvertently or not, to look for the wider Humean explanation of preferring one's acknowledged lesser good to the greater by deploying the analogy of a one pound weight's raising a hundred through the advantage of its situation. This idea connects with other passages in the Treatise, as we shall see, in particular with Hume's discussion of the preference for the contiguous over the remote at T 3.2.7 (SBN 534-9). With a clearer view of Hume's understanding of the preferences we will be in a better position to ask about the sort of criticism persons with such preferences are subject to. And, to tip my hand, we will see that Hume...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1947-9921
Print ISSN
0319-7336
Pages
pp. 51-85
Launched on MUSE
2011-01-26
Open Access
No
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