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  • Gilding and Staining and the Significance of Our Moral Sentiments
  • Jacqueline Taylor (bio)

In Part 3 of Projection and Realism, P. J. E. Kail offers an original and thought-provoking analysis of Hume's views on morality. Kail seeks to make sense of Hume's talk of projection and realism. Kail's stated aim is to help us understand Hume's own views, rather than some new Humean view. Part 3 is thus a contribution to the literature on Hume's meta-ethics. Kail's particular approach presents two challenges to the student of Hume's works. First, Kail gives us a set of terms that are not Hume's; this includes a distinction between explanatory projection and feature projection; a distinction between two forms of realism, metaphysical hedonism and the identification of moral value with natural properties of character traits; and a distinction between what Kail terms relational value and essential value. The first challenge is thus to ascertain how well this terminology maps onto the substance of Hume's arguments. The task of meeting the first challenge is made difficult by the strategy Kail employs to build a cumulative case for his mitigated, naturalistic realism. Kail first draws on what is now well known in the literature as the Comparison, that is, the argument that beauty and virtue are like sensible perceptions such as color, and exist only as perceptions in the mind, to show that at the pre-theoretical level, we make an error in attributing essential value to those things we take to be virtuous or beautiful. He then draws a parallel between the early modern understanding of the functional nature of bodily pains and pleasures and a similar functional nature of the moral sentiments. This parallel, if successfully drawn, militates against the characterization of Hume's moral theory as an error theory and shows how we can make sense of our experience of the essential value [End Page 89] of beauty and virtue. Kail's arguments here range across Hume's texts, sometimes without much consideration of the particular contexts in which Hume presents his views. The second challenge facing the student of Hume's texts is thus to ascertain how faithful Kail's interpretations are when compared with a more systematic reading of Hume's ethical texts. I shall argue here that Kail's terminology fails to capture adequately the subtleties of the distinctions Hume makes between moral qualities and our sentiment-based responses to them. I shall also argue that some of Hume's texts that Kail quotes or draws on, read in their larger context, fail to support Kail's claims.

I shall first give a brief sketch of the main arguments of chapters 7 and 9, and then make the case for my reservations about Kail's reading and analysis of Hume. Chapter 7 begins with a historically-situated reconsideration of the meaning of Hume's comparison between our perception of beauty or virtue and sensible perceptions of colors, sounds, tastes, and so on. Kail draws on passages familiar to readers of Hume: Treatise, Appendix 1 in the Enquiry concerning the Principles of Morals, "Of the Standard of Taste," page 235, and three passages from the essay, "The Sceptic," pages 165, 166n, and 171. In these passages, Hume (or perhaps in the case of the skeptic, a persona) urges that, like color or sound or taste, beauty and virtue are not properties of objects; they cannot be established as facts in the way that, for example, the diameter and circumference of the circle can. Our perception of things as beautiful or virtuous arises, rather, because of the nature and fabric of the constitution and sentiments of the human mind. According to Kail, the Comparison is intended to explain why our pre-theoretical concepts of beauty and virtue, as the objects of evaluation, are of them as essentially valuable. Kail glosses essential value as things that are valuable or desirable of themselves (he here follows Hume in the passage he quotes). Kail rejects the idea that in invoking the Comparison Hume has in mind Locke's (or Descartes') primary-secondary quality distinction and instead argues that Hume draws...


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pp. 89-95
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