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  • Hume's Moral Philosophy and Contemporary Psychology ed. by Philip A. Reed and Rico Vitz
  • Angela Calvo de Saavedra
Philip A. Reed and Rico Vitz, eds. Hume's Moral Philosophy and Contemporary Psychology. Routledge, 2018. Pp. 386. Hardback ISBN 978-1-138-74475-2, $140.

Hume's Moral Philosophy and Contemporary Psychology, edited by Philip A. Reed and Rico Vitz, is a collection of 14 essays intended to explore fruitful connections between David Hume's theory of the passions and ethics and contemporary experimental and cognitive psychology. Although recent moral philosophers have become interested in psychological discoveries in order to refine their normative approach to morality by means of a better empirical understanding of the workings of the mind, this trend has been typically developed by Aristotelian scholarship. Hence, the purpose of this volume is to "fill a gap in the literature" by (i) introducing Hume as a powerful interlocutor in the field of moral psychology, and (ii) showing how Hume's science of man remains valid for contemporary debates on topics such as emotions, virtues, sympathy, empathy, and motivation.

The essays focus on a wide range of topics within Hume's moral psychology, but they can be grouped into four central categories as follows: (i) the challenges of the so-called "situationists" to virtue ethics and how Hume's moral theory can respond to them; (ii) the crucial role of sympathy in Hume's ethics and its relationship with empathy; (iii) Hume's account of the passions and contemporary insights on human motivation; (iv) the possibility of the refinement or cultivation of the passions, connected with Hume's suggested therapies. I will first describe the central claim of each essay and then I will turn to a general assessment of the insights and limits of the book taken as a whole.

In the opening essay, "Beyond the 'Disease of the Learned'. Hume on Passional Disorders," Margaret Watkins uses Hume's personal experience with the disease of the learned to explore the relationship between mental illness and vice. Her claim is twofold: first, it is diffcult on Humean principles to "make a firm distinction" between mental illness and vice. Margaret holds that since both concepts involve a disorder in the passions they should be understood as "lying among a wide continuum" (9). Secondly, Hume suggests a therapy of the passions that can be applied in both situations: the movement from delicacy of passion towards delicacy of taste. Although Watkins does not explore the plausibility of Hume's therapeutic suggestion, it might be promising to connect it with the development of art therapy in contemporary clinical psychology.

The next three essays focus on some of the challenges posed by the situationists to normative virtue ethics, and show how Hume's moral psychology can successfully respond to them. Philip Reed, in "Hume on the Rarity of Virtue," addresses the implication for Hume's virtue ethics of recent experimental studies [End Page 143] in social psychology demonstrating that, in general, people do not possess the virtues. Reed's claim, based on a detailed analysis of Hume's texts, is that he is not committed "to the diffusion of virtue" (41). Erin Frykholm's essay, "Spontaneity, Intuition and Humean Virtue" examines the impact on a Humean account of virtue of empirical data indicating that "people do not act reliably virtuously" and that, in our immediate responses to situations, affects and non-conscious workings of the mind play a crucial motivational role (63). Rico Vitz, in "Character, Culture, and Humean Virtue Ethics: Insights from Situationism and Confucianism," takes on the situationist's sceptical view about character traits conceived as "constant, stable, and evaluatively integrated"—called globalism (99)—and persuasively argues that this criticism does not reach Hume's moral philosophy, since Hume is not committed to globalism.

The next 6 essays reflect on Hume's sympathy, its relationship with empathy and its reliability as the foundation of morality. In "Empathy, Altruism and Hume," Katharina Paxman, after a conscientious exploration of the moral limitations typical of people suffering from Autism Spectrum Disorders, suggests that Hume's sympathy, understood as affective empathy, can explain how, lacking cognitive empathy, autists are competent to make sound moral...


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