In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

191 A PERSONAL ELEMENT IN MORALITY In his quest for the truth about moral life, Hume steers between the Scylla of Sentiment and the Charybdis of Reason. Sentiment operating alone, as a basis for morality, would threaten to engulf humanity with as many relativistic moral truths as there are individuals. Reason alone would produce objective, impersonal truths, but these would be powerless to move us. Hume's developed theory ingeniously shows how Reason and Sentiment can operate together, to produce judgments based on feelings which are nonetheless impersonal and objective (T 581-584; E 227-229). Hume is acutely aware (as we shall see below) that there exists a considerable disparity between the impartiality required of us by moral theory and what in practice people think when it comes to moral matters. There would seem to be only two ways of accommodating this fact. One is to regard the disparity as a mark of the moral mediocrity of ordinary people; we are not as objective in our judgments as we could be. The other way is to treat the disparity as a token of failure and inadequacy in the theory; our best philosophical reasoning about morals fails to capture its subject matter without distortion. Our rational powers fall short, not only in Book I of the Treatise, where the task is to explain the foundation of our beliefs, but also in Book III, where Hume attempts to elucidate moral life. Certainly the first way would reduce the gap to some extent; some people, perhaps many, are moral truly low achievers. I want to show that Hume also suggests the second way; he is willing to deflate the 192 pretensions of philosophy, even when it comes to his own state-of-the-art efforts. I. The Objectivity of Certain Feeling-Based Judgments In the moral arena of life we make judgments which are based on feelings, on 'certain sentiments of pleasure or disgust' (T 581). "To have the sense of virtue, is nothing but to feel a satisfaction of a particular kind from the contemplation of a character" (T 471). Of course not just any feeling will do; it must be of a peculiar kind, which we can experience only under specific conditions. At first Hume characterizes the necessary condition as follows: 'Tis only when a character is considered in general, without reference to our particular interest, that it causes such a feeling or sentiment, as denominates it morally good or evil (T 472) . Later on Hume provides a fuller account. Characteristically he elaborates in response to an anticipated objection. The objection is that our sympathetic feelings of pleasure and pain fluctuate wildly, depending mainly upon our distance, so to speak, from the character we assess, in space, time, and kind of relationship. Our moral judgments do not vary in this way; we give the same approbation to the same moral qualities in China as in England (T 581). So (it is concluded) our moral judgments do not rest upon sympathy. Hume's response is that, as a necessary condition for moral judgment and communication, we must "fix on some steady and general points of view" (T 581-2). He proceeds to employ an analogy with our situation regarding perception of (and communication about) the things which make up our common world. 193 Here a man obviously cannot consider things 'only as they appear from his peculiar point of view' (T 581). For instance I cannot describe my desk to a friend by reporting on how I perceive it at this moment — because at this moment the light is dim and I am standing across the room from the desk. If I were to do a painting of the scene before me, the desk would be black, its top a trapezoid shape on the canvas. What I say, however, is that I have a walnut desk of a medium brown color and it has a rectangular top. I say, in effect, how the desk would look under standard conditions of light and perspective. In the Enquiry version Hume spells out his analogy more fully. Again he addresses the case in which our sentiments, e.g., about two men, one distant and...


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 191-205
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.