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HUME'S OBLIGATIONS Hume's general theory of morals is mainly concerned with explicating moral good and bad, virtue and vice. And so it is not surprising to find that when, at the end of his Section 'Of the origin of justice and property' in the Treatise he turns to the question of the moral quality of justice, the formulation is 'Why we annex the idea of virtue to justice, and of vice to injustice. ' (T498)-1 He does, however, have a theory of obligation as well, which is completely in line with his general theory; although he does not say very much about it, it is both clear and important. Hume opens one of his most important paragraphs on obligation by stating the principle that ought implies can: No action can be requir'd of us as our duty, unless there be implanted in human nature some actuating passion or motive, capable of producing the action. (T518) We can only be under an obligation to do actions, the motives for which are within the range of natural human motivation. He then goes on to spell out what this means for our idea of obligation: This motive cannot be the sense of duty. A sense of duty supposes an antecedent obligation : And- where an action is not requir' d by any natural passion, it cannot be requir ' d by any natural obligation; since it may be omitted without proving any defect or imperfection in the mind and temper, and consequently without any vice.(T518) In other words, we have an obligation to perform an action (1) if the motive for this action is a natural human motive, (this is the principle that ought implies can, and it is a necessary condition for obligation); and (2) if our non-performance of the action is a sign that we are missing a quality in our character (and consequently a motive for the action) , which it is a defect or imperfection in the mind and temper to be missing. What Hume means by defect or imperfection is strongly indicated on the previous 8. page: All morality depends upon our sentiments; and when any action, or quality of the mind, pleases us after a certain manner, we say it is virtuous; and when the neglect, or non-performance of it, displeases us after a like manner, we say that we lie under an obligation to perform it. (T517) The imperfection, of which the non-performance of an obligation is a sign, is thus a quality which is subject to a certain kind of displeasure, namely a displeasure which is similar to the pleasure which accompanies our perception of virtue. But now we know from Hume's general exposition of the emotional background to moral evaluation that this latter pleasure arises in conjunction with a peculiar indirect passion, which is closely akin to, and in a way nothing but a corrected version of love, and which we call moral appro2 bation. And this, of course, leads us to expect that the displeasure in question here arises in conjunction with the indirect passion which is akin to hatred and is known as moral disapprobation. That this is what Hume intends is strongly supported by a short treatment of obligation much earlier in the Treatise: When any virtuous motive or principle is common in human nature, a person, who feels his heart devoid of that principle*, may hate himself upon that account, and may perform the action without the motive, from a certain sense of duty,... (T479, my ital.)3 If we put all those pieces together, we can see fairly clearly what Hume's theory of obligation was. Obligation has to be seen against a background of the natural and common qualities of human character and the accompanying motives: if a man either lacks a certain quality, or in a particular situation does not have the common or natural motive, he may yet perform the action which this quality and motive would have led him to do, if he had had it; he may see, if he looks upon the situation as men commonly and naturally do, i.e. as an impartial spectator, that then he...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1947-9921
Print ISSN
0319-7336
Pages
pp. 7-17
Launched on MUSE
2011-01-26
Open Access
No
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