History of Modern Ethics
Stephen Darwall
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Hume Lecture 3

I. As against his rationalist opponents, Hume argues, following Hutcheson, that ``moral distinctions [are] deriv'd from a moral sense''. Part of what he means here is in no dispute: if we lacked any feeling or pleasurable or painful sentiment gained by reflecting on passions, characters, and actions, then we would not be capable of making any moral judgments. None of our thoughts would have moral content. Whether morality itself would not exist depends on some difficult questions that we will begin to get into. Now we will begin to see how Hume's views resemble, and how they differ from, Hutcheson's. One point of contrast is already clear. Hume makes much of the fact (?) that morality and moral judgment is inherently motivating, whereas this claim plays no significant role in Hutcheson's thought.

II What is Hume's metaethics? Is he a naturalist? An emotivist? Or a projectivist or error theorist? [By the way: a good discussion of this in the secondary literature is J. L. Mackie, Hume's Moral Theory.]

Hutcheson, recall, held that moral goodness is the property of a (motivated) action, contemplation of which causes approbation and desire of the agent's happiness in a spectator. This is a kind of metaethical view we might call naturalism. Let me explain.

Metaethics concerns itself with both the metaphysics and epistemology of ethics. On the metaphysical side, it asks: what property, if any, is goodness, virtue, rightness, justice, etc. In this way it differs from normative ethics, which asks, either in general or specifically, what things are good, virtuous, right, just, etc. Metaethics is concerned with the nature of ethics itself. The fundamental metaethical question that both Hutcheson and Hume address is: what is virtue? [sidenote: both thinkers' views are examples of what is known as an ``ethics of virtue''. An ethics of virtue takes virtue to be the fundamental ethical category, and attempts to answer the question of what a person should do, i.e., of which act or choice is right or best, by first answering the question of what traits of character or motives are virtuous, and then determining what a person with such virtuous traits or motives would do. Aristotle is another example.]

Now Hutcheson tells us quite clearly what property he takes virtue or moral goodness to be. He says that it is the same property of an action, contemplation of which causes approbation in a spectator. And he argues that this property is benevolence. Since the property of being the property contemplation of which causes approbation in us and the property of being benevolent (which, as it happens, are the same property) are (is?) a natural property--i.e. a part of nature, knowable empirically as we know any part of nature--Hutcheson is a naturalist. He thinks that ethical properties are natural properties.

But is this Hume's position? Sometimes, Hume says things that sound naturalist, but sometimes he says other things that can be taken in other ways, and that have actually stimulated different metaethical positions. [One of the most interesting facts about the later influence the Treatise was the stimulus it provided both to emotivism and projectivism in metaethics.]

III Consider the following texts:

A. ``when you pronounce any action or character to be vicious, you mean nothing, but that from the constitution of your nature you have a feeling or sentiment of blame from the contemplation of it.'' (469)

B. ``To have the sense of virtue, is nothing but to feel a satisfaction of a particular kind from the contemplation of a character. The very feeling constitutes our praise or admiration. We do not infer a character to be virtuous, because it pleases: But in feeling that it pleases after such a particular manner, we in effect feel that it is virtuous. The case is the same as in our judgments concerning all kinds of beauty, and tastes, and sensations.'' (471)

cf. ``Vice and virtue, therefore, may be compar'd to sounds, colours, heat and cold, which according to modern philosophy, are not qualities in objects, but perceptions in the mind.'' (469)

and ``Thus the distinct boundaries and offices of reason and taste are easily ascertained. The former conveys the knowledge of truth and falsehood: the latter gives the sentiment of beauty and deformity, vice and virtue. The one discovers objects as they really stand in nature, without addition or diminution: the other has a productive faculty, and gilding or staining all natural objects with the colours, borrowed from internal sentiment, raises in a manner a new creation.'' (Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, p. 294)

A. suggests a naturalist reading: virtue is the property of being such as to cause a certain sentiment on contemplation.

B., however, especially when taken together with the two quoted passages following, suggests a different view. First, according to A it would seem that we would infer a character to be virtuous because it pleases, but Hume explicitly rejects this. Taking this together with the passage from the Enquiry suggests an emotivist reading of Hume. Emotivists believe that the function of ethical thought and language is not to report or describe the way things are, but simply to express feelings or attitudes. Thus, if I say that malevolence is a vice, I am not asserting that proposition that malevolence has some property, being a vice, which proposition is true if, in reality, malevolence has this property, false if it doesn't. Rather, I am expression my negative sentiments about malevolence. I am ``staining'' malevolence with the negativity of my sentiment.

But there is a possibility other than naturalism or emotivism that is suggested by the last three passages. This is projectivism or the error theory (which we discussed in our study of Hobbes). This theory begins from the observation that most people would reject the suggestion that they were simply expressing their feelings, and not also asserting something they think true, when they say, for example, that malevolence is a vice. As Hume himself says of our judgments regarding a character we find pleasing on reflection ``we feel that it is virtuous''. If we do not infer a character to be virtuous because it pleases, we are hardly likely to think that in saying that it is virtuous we are asserting nothing but only expressing our pleasure.

On the contrary, the projectivist says, when we have this feeling we project it onto reality, we see the world as though it had the ``objectified feeling'', and assert that it does. [Consider what the analogous claims would be for ``colours and sounds''] The only problem is that, as it happens, there are no such ethical properties in reality as our sentiments lead us to suppose. Thus, all of our ethical judgments are literally false.

Here, then, are three metaethical alternatives: naturalism, emotivism, and projectivism. It seems that there are Humean texts that support each of these. Which did Hume believe? The most likely hypothesis, I think, is simply that Hume was never in a position to distinguish these analytically. Indeed, it is only relatively recently (in the past forty years or so) that philosophers have done so.

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