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30 HUME'S APOLOGY Imagine our reaction if some moralist were to pronounce, in all apparent seriousness, that even the best people do not live up to what morality requires of them, and it is a good thing that they do not. Suppose he then offers an apology in behalf of humankind, an excuse for our moral mediocrity: we are painfully limited creatures, our lives are so complex, events are so ambiguous, there are so many contingencies — in short, we can't help it. Besides, humanity is better off when people are not too strict in their moral stance. Certainly we would be surprised, even shocked, by these assertions. After a little reflection we would want to scrutinize the conception of morality which figures in this moralist's reasoning — has he been entranced by some false and unworkable ideal? Something has surely gone wrong. David Hume apparently has the viewpoint we have imagined. He offers the apology, the excuse, in a little-noticed footnote in the Enquiry Concerning Morals. If it were another philosopher we might let this strange note pass as a slip or oddity, but with 2 Hume we must take the apology seriously. The truth is that Hume's innocent-seeming footnote of moral apology precisely touches a sore spot in modern ethical theory, a point of instability which threatens to topple the whole edifice that rests on the twin cornerstones of Hume and Kant. Only recently has any clear awareness of the problem 3 begun to emerge in the philosophical literature. In this paper I will draw attention to the problem of which Hume's apology seems to be a warning sign. 31 I. Hume's Picture of Morality If we are to appreciate Hume's apology, we must first remind ourselves of the things morality, in Hume's view of it, requires of people. Hume's account of value is founded upon a general fact of nature, namely, that animals react with feelings in a wide variety of circumstances. These feelings may be crudely categorized as pleasures and pains. Our natural reactions form the basis for every judgment of value, however refined; at bottom what is good, in Hume's view, is pleasurable experience and what is bad is painful experience. There are two kinds of case to be considered. we may find something immediately pleasant or painful, as when we taste chocolate or burn our hand on the stove, or we may find that a thing produces a pleasant or painful result, as when manure makes plants thrive or salt kills the grass. In the latter kind of case the thing is good (or bad) because of its utility. For Hume all assertions concerning value must hinge on immediate feeling reactions, utility, or both. Now someone might hastily conclude that Hume must be a subjectivist in ethics. After all, if he thinks the whole enterprise of valuing things rests upon our feeling reactions, which are notoriously variable, then he must hold that value judgments are variable too. Moral communication becomes a matter of venting each individual's supply of feelings and radical relativism threatens to engulf us. However, we do not as yet have Hume's finished picture of morality; the most important qualification remains to be seen. Hume will effectively quell the threat of subjectivism by showing how we can and do adopt standards in the area 4 of feeling. We do so for the sake of being able to 32 communicate regarding values, especially the important moral values. The general problem of communication, for Hume, is the problem of transferring ideas (mental pictures) from one mind to another using language as a medium. In the Enquiry Concerning Morals it is taken for granted that we can communicate our ideas. Moral communication involves something more, namely, the transfer of feelings as well as ideas. If moral communication is successful, the parties involved will actually share a feeling. How do we manage to transfer feelings? we use language, but the words we use are special ones. They contain as part of their meaning, their sense, something which moral beings feel. The meaning of a word can include a pleasure or a pain, and not...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1947-9921
Print ISSN
0319-7336
Pages
pp. 30-45
Launched on MUSE
2011-01-26
Open Access
No
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