Passion as the Criterion for Moral Judgment
Ethics is the study of human conduct or in other words the study of moral behavior. All humans use ethics in their daily actions and decisions, but not many have the opportunity to probe into the core of ethics. When Socrates said in 399 B.C., The unexplained life is not worth living he was encouraging man to examine his way of life and ways of moral decision making. Ethics not only aims to discover the rules that should govern a moral life, but the goods one should aim to acquire in their life time. Ethics aims to explain why and how man acts the way he does and to shape the way man lives and acts,. Some philosophers say that reason is the criterion for making moral judgments, others say that duty and obligation rule moral decisions. Eighteenth century philosopher David Hume gave a different outlook on what makes man act the way he does. Hume takes an almost Epicurean stance and proclaims that mans passions overrule reason and direct mans moral actions and judgments. Moral judgments are manifestations of human sentiments and passions.
Hume states that the passions are the only way to understand morality. The nature of moral values is to be discovered through the passions. Hume rejects that reason is the criterion for moral judgments, and bases most of his Treatise of Human Nature on refuting reason as the basis for moral actions.
Hume strongly opposes the idea that moral judgments are the conclusion of reason. The role of reason in relation to moral judgments is to be only in relation to the passions. Reason must be slave to mans passions. Reason is to help man find his moral obligations and duties, but reason does not produce or act on obligation or moral duty; mans passions motivate one to act.
Passion is the criterion for all moral judgments because there are no absolute moral values. Moral values differ from one person to the next because they are based on human experience. Passions, along with moral judgments, exist for each man.One cannot tell another that what they feel is wrong or unreasonable. It is a personal experience and no one can judge ones sentiments or feelings. Since reason is the discovery of truth or falsehood, reason cannot be the basis for moral judgments. Moral judgments differ from man to man; why else would there be so much crime and wrongdoing in this society? Actions may be to blame in certain situations, but they cannot be called reasonable or unreasonable. If reason rules moral actions there would be no wrong in society because all people would follow the same moral code of conduct, but because man acts from his experience, passions, and sentiments not all men follow the same rules.
Many philosophers disagree with Humes idea of passions guiding human moral judgments. Among Humes strongest opposition would be the ancient philosophers Socrates and Plato. Both men believed that reason was the basis for moral judgments. Socrates thesis on reason was that only reason could lead man to truth and understanding. For Socrates rationality was the basis for morality. Plato believed that only through reason could man arrive at true knowledge. He thought that reason is an integral part of morals and its role is to gain knowledge and wisdom to fulfill the soul. Plato believed that human nature is reason and hence reason is good because human nature is good. Humans of today have proved Plato wrong; not all human nature is good. Plato also stated that, Opinion without knowledge is always a shabby sort of thing. One who holds a true belief without intelligence is just like a blind man who happens to take the right road. Plato held intellectual knowledge and reason with the highest regards. He also believed that there is a fight between passion and reason, but Hume rejects that notion and says that the passions and reason can never oppose each other because a passion can never be called unreasonable. A passion can never be called unreasonable because it is a human sentiment that no one has the right or authority to judge or condemn.
Hume gives two good arguments as to why the criterion of moral judgment is not reason.In his first example he uses an example of a parent tree giving birth to a sampling which then grows and kill the parent tree. Hume ponders why this instance is considered normal for the tree, but in the case of man it would not be considered moral. Hume compares this situation to ingratitude towards parents in human nature.
The question arises among philosophers, whether the guilt of moral deformity of this action be discovered by demonstrative reasoning, or be felt by an internal sense, and by means of some sentiment, which the reflecting on such an action naturally occasions. This question will soon be decided against the former opinion(reason), if we can show the same relations in other objects, without the notion of any guilt or iniquity attending them.(Johnson 183).Ingratitude towards ones parents is considered wrong, and probably immoral, but man thinks nothing of a sappling overpowering and killing its parent. Man cannot reason this, it is ones feelings and sentiments that make the decision.
Hume feels that using reason as an approach is cold and detached. A man that uses only reason leaves his heart out of his decisions. This is where I am in the most agreeance with Hume. Hume states that, Reason exerts itself without producing any sensible emotion(Johnson 176). A complete man acts on accordance of his passions.
Humes second example to explain that reason is not the basis for moral choices is in the case of human incest. He poses the question, …Why incest in the human species is criminal, and why the very same action, andthe same relations in animals have not the smallest moral turpitude and deformity?Incest is accepted in animals because they do not have the reason to discover the immortality of the actions.If man guided his judgments by reason, the action of incest would be moral or immoral regardless of the species.
Animals are susceptible of the same relations, with respect to each other, as the human species, and therefore would also be susceptible of the same morality if the essence of morality consisted in these relations. Their want of a sufficient degree of reason may hinder these duties from existing; since they must antecedently exist, in order to their perceived.Reason must find them, and can never produce them. (Johnson 184). Hume feels his argument is sound. For the problem must first exist for it to be subject to mans reason and is therefore independent of reason.
Another critic of Humes philosophy is Immanuel Kant. Kant says that reason cannot guide man, but can influence ones will to act. This statement opposes Humes position that reason does not control ones desires. Kant does not associate will with desire or the passions that Hume discusses. Kants idea of a priori ideas opposes Humes experimental approach. Kants idea that man should act prior to the experience and with no regard to the situation contradicts Humes experimental/situational approach to passions governing moral decisions. Humes idea of passions depends a lot on mans prior life experiences. Kant believes that happiness and being moral are not the same. Hume would argue that man may have a duty to be happy, but the degree to which we are happy cannot be judged morally. It is not true that the happier one is the more moral one is.Hume argued in his Treatise that reason doesnt influence the will, but Kant says that reason influence the will, but does not guide ones actions.
Humes position on passions governing moral judgments fits todays society well.Socrates and Plato may have wrote on what was true in their society, but their positions on reasoning being the criterion for moral actions is no longer valid in the 20th Century.Humans are spontaneous and emotional. They act in their own good, for their own emotional sake at the time. In todays fast paced world not many people stop to reason through their actions.Hume established that moral judgments have no objective foundation, but are only subjective in character.
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