History of Modern Ethics
Stephen Darwall
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Hume Lecture 4

I. So far we have not investigated very far into what Hume takes the moral sentiment to be. There are features of Part I, Section II that would lead one to think that he means to be following Hutcheson in thinking that approbation and condemnation are the distinctive ideas of moral judgment:

(a) The title of the section would have been taken to be a direct association with Hutcheson.

(b) When he considers the objection that on his theory anything at all could be virtuous or vicious, ``whether animate or inanimate, rational or irrational'' (471) he gives two replies, each of which echoes Hutcheson directly.

(i) He says that not ``every sentiment of pleasure or pain, which arises from characters and actions, [is] of that peculiar kind, which makes us praise or condemn''. [cf. Hutcheson's `approbation' and `condemnation'.]

(ii) The second reply (473) echoes a different aspect of Hutcheson's theory; I'll leave you to work out why.

Just after, however, Hume makes these ``Hutchesonian'' replies, his thinking takes a distinctly non-Hutchesonian turn from the middle of 473 on.

II. At 473 Hume asks the following: ``From what principles is it [``this pain or pleasure that distinguishes moral good and evil''] deriv'd, and when does it arise in the human mind.'' Here he is asking for a general psychological explanation of the moral sentiment. Now recall that Hutcheson's account of moral approbation is that we have a moral sense, i.e. a fundamental disposition to have this response. Hume rejects this idea in his next sentence. ``. . . 'tis absurd to imagine, that in every particular instance, these sentiments are produc'd by an original quality and primary constitution.'' His reason is this: ``for as the number of our duties is, in a manner, infinite, 'tis impossible that our original instincts should extend to each of them . . . '' Hutcheson's hypothesis that there is an ``original instinct'', a moral sense, is simple enough, because he believes we respond with approbation only to instances of benevolence. Hume denies this, however. Like Butler, he thinks that there are many other motives and traits we approve of other than benevolence, justice, for one. [Recall here Butler's ``Dissertation on Virtue''] If there were an original instinct, it would have to be an extremely complicated one. Supposing that there is such an instinct, therefore ``is not conformable to the usual maxims, by which nature is conducted, where a few principles produce all that variety we observe in the universe.'' Here we have Hume the follower of Newton's ``experimental method'', who is anxious to provide the simplest explanations possible, and not to commit himself to anything beyond what experimental evidence can secure. Roughly, then, if Hutcheson were right about what we approve, then it might be reasonable to explain our approvings by the hypothesis of a moral sense. Since, he is wrong about that, since we approve a complex multiplicity of traits and motives, we need to look for some simpler explanation. And Hume thinks he has one. Moreover, the explanation he gives moves his thought, in one important respect, much closer to utilitarianism than Hutcheson's ever was.

III. To understand Hume's psychological theory of the moral sentiment, we need first to grasp the notion of sympathy which is central to it. Roughly speaking, Hume's theory will be that the moral sentiment arises by sympathy with the expected and usual effects of the motives or traits one contemplates.

Now, by sympathy Hume does not mean what we usually mean. We usually have in mind some kind of concern for others. Empathy is a feeling-with the other person, putting ourselves in his shoes to feel what he feels. And sympathy is a positive concern for him and for his feelings. What Hume means by sympathy is neither of these. It is rather a kind of ``emotional infection'', as the German philosopher Scheler would later call it. It is like empathy in the sense that one comes to feel something like the same feelings of those with whom one ``sympathizes'', but unlike empathy in that in involves no placing of oneself in the other's perspective. It is more like catching the same mood as others that one is with--say, in a joyous celebration, or a wake.

In Book II, Part I, Sect. XI Hume presents a whole theory of sympathy. Its main function is to explain how it can be that one can go from the mere idea of someone's feelings, to feeling oneself something like what the other person is feeling--in Hume's terms, how one can go from an idea of the feeling to an impression.

His theory is this. Suppose one thinks of one's sister being sad. You begin with an idea of her feeling. Now Hume thinks that we always have ``intimately present with us'' an impression of ourselves (317). Depending on how psychologically close the person is to us whose feelings we are thinking about, the impression of ourselves will more or less enliven the idea we have of their feelings into an impression, into something like the feelings themselves. So because of the closeness of one's sister, one comes to a vivid feeling of sadness oneself.

Now we needn't worry too much about the details of this theory which is pretty wild as it stands. Whether Hume's explanation of how we can come to have feelings that are similar to those we are thinking of is sound or not, we can still acknowledge that the phenomenon occurs. And it is the phenomenon that plays the crucial role in his explanation of the moral sentiment.

IV. Another explanatory psychological principle Hume accepts is that our thinking proceeds from one idea to another by various ``associations of ideas''. One such association is cause and effect. If we think of something we may be led then to think of its usual effect; or perhaps, of its usual cause. If I think of an apple falling from a tree, I may then think of its bouncing on the ground.

Thus, when we think of motives and traits we believe usually to cause pleasurable feelings, either to the person who has the traits, or to others, we may then come to think of these pleasurable effects themselves. And when we think of motives and traits we believe usually to cause painful feelings, either to the person who has the traits, or to others, we may come to think of these painful effects themselves. These ideas of pleasurable or painful feelings will then be converted by sympathy into pleasurable or painful feelings.

Suppose one is thinking of benevolence, which one takes to cause pleasure in others. One's disinterested contemplation of the motive will then carry one to thoughts of the pleasurable effects and then, by sympathy, to a pleasurable feeling. Because this pleasurable feeling results from a disinterested contemplation of the motive, it is approbation, the feeling we express in calling benevolence a virtue. [Actually, there are some more epicycles here--most likely, this sympathetic disinterested pleasure causes a further pleasure which has the motive (and the person) as object, and this pleasure is approbation.]

Similar remarks hold, with appropriate changes, for disapprobation. By reflecting on motives and traits we take to have painful feelings as effects (say of the actions these motives and traits lead to), we are carried to think of the painful effects, and then, by sympathy to have a painful feeling ourselves. This painful feeling, resulting from a disinterested contemplation of the motive or trait, is disapprobation. [A similar caveat about epicycles applies here.]

V. Hume distinguishes between two kinds of virtues: the artificial virtues, which depend on the existence of human convention and artifice, and the natural virtues, which are quite independent of any convention or agreement. We will examine this difference, and particularly, the artificial virtues next time. I mention the distinction here because Hume makes his claims about the role of sympathy in explaining our finding traits of these two different kinds virtuous separately.

He is quite explicit about artificial virtues such as justice: ``justice is a moral virtue, merely because it has that tendency to the good of mankind'' and ``it appears that sympathy produces our sentiment of morals in all the artificial virtues''. (577) What makes such traits as justice virtues, then, is that they tend to the good of mankind, they tend to cause pleasurable feelings. [n.b. in the first instance he means feelings, not in a person contemplating justice, but in a person whom just actions directly affect--his point is to explain the pleasurable feeling in a spectator as arising out of sympathy with the pleasurable feelings of the persons positively affected by just actions.]

With natural virtues things are a bit more complicated, but by and large the same explanation holds. The complication is that Hume remarks the existence of a class of traits that are ``immediately agreeable'', some to the agent, some to others. Love, for example, is immediately agreeable to he who loves. In this case, the pleasurable feeling will not be an effect of the motive (love), it will be the very motive itself. Still, even here, it is because a spectator sympathizes with this feeling that he is led to feel disinterested approbation for it. In all cases, then, Hume thinks that approbation and disapprobation arise by sympathy with feelings that arise in the agent and others that are (believed) usually to be caused by the motive or character being contemplated, or that are the very motive itself.

VI. Now a very important difference between this theory and Hutcheson's is the following. For Hume, whether a trait is a virtue or not depends on what we might call the natural, or nonmoral goodness of the trait. It is because a trait causes pleasure, or is pleasurable, to the agent and those whom his actions affect, that it is a virtue. In this sense, moral goodness, or virtue, is derivative from natural goodness for Hume. Hutcheson rejects this, however. Benevolence is a virtue, not because it is pleasurable to the agent or causes pleasure to others. It is a virtue because it causes an immediate feeling of approbation which does not derive from surveying its naturally good consequences. Its moral goodness does not derive from its natural goodness.

This is a fundamental difference. Although Hutcheson advanced the utilitarian thesis that acts are best which cause the greatest happiness for the greatest number, that claim derived from the more fundamental thesis that benevolence is morally good, a thesis we know directly through moral sense. Hume, however, has no such moral sense. Moral sentiment is a feeling caused by reflection on the pleasurable feelings to which traits and motives give rise in agents and patients. Thus virtuous traits are those that have pleasurable consequences.

Note the irony. Hutcheson formally expresses the utilitarian formula, but only as a derivative thesis. Hume never endorses the principle of utility, but his more fundamental theory of moral sentiment and virtue is much more utilitarian than Hutcheson's ever was.

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