Premise Of Hume In his Treatise of Human Nature, David Hume outlines his theory of human morality. Humes argument is the notion that human morality is not based on rational thought and reason, but rather is a consequence of our passions. Because passions themselves can never present themselves as the product of any sort of reasoning, it would be illogical to ever judge a moral action as rational or irrational. This, therefore, raises the question, what is the role of reason in moral thinking? This paper will outline Humes arguments on morality and attempt to discern the role of reason in morality. Additionally, it will explore the ultimate motivating factors of passionate thinking in an attempt to discern what sort of philosopher Hume really is. The basic premise of Humes arguments on morality is simply that our actions are not governed by reason, but rather by passion or as Hume states, that reason alone can never be a motive to any action of the will; and secondly, that it can never oppose passion in the direction of the will.(413) Reason to Hume, is the discovery of truth or falshood.
Truth or falshood consists in an agreement or disagreement either to the real relations of ideas, or to real existence and matter of fact.(458) It is Humes understanding that rational thinking can only apply in ascertaining relationship between objects in the real world, as in an example of a scientist who uses reason to conclude that apples fall from trees because of a force called gravity. However, because reason does not apply to ideas and thoughts of the mind itself, it followed from this assertion that reason cannot move anyone to action. As Hume states, Abstract or demonstrative reasoning, therefore, never influences any of our actions, but only as it directs our judgment concerning causes and effects; which leads us to the second operation of the understanding.(414) Passions, on the other hand, are not subject to an understanding of truth or falshood. They are internal thoughts, original motivations in the mind separate from the outside world. As Hume writes, Now tis evident our passions, volitions, and actions, are not susceptible of any such agreement or disagreement; being original facts and realities, complete in themselves, and implying no reference to other passions, volitions, and actions.
Tis impossible, therefore, they can be pronounced either true or false, and be either contrary or conformable to reason. (458) If this is the case, then the ultimate conclusion is that we can never judge our own motivating passions as rational or irrational. This notion of passions being neither reasonable nor unreasonable is important because it is Humes belief that it is our passions that ultimately motivate our behavior. For Hume, the underlying motivations in humans arise from the notions of pleasure and pain. Tis obvious, that when we have the prospect of pain or pleasure from any object, we feel a consequent emotion of aversion or propensity, and are carryd to avoid or embrace what will give us this uneasiness or satisfaction.(414) Thus, it is our internal desire, or passion, to limit suffering and maximize pleasure, and thus this is ultimately the founding motivator for our actions. Morality has an obvious influence on our actions. We as humans perceive the scenarios that surround us and act on them either in accordance or in specific opposition to our morality.
Morals, therefore, have a definitive influence on the actions we take. As Hume states, Since morals, therefore, have an influence on the actions and affections, it follows, that they cannot be derivd from reason; and that because reason alone, as we have already provd, can never have any such influence. Morals excite passions, and produce or prevent actions. Reason of itself is utterly impotent in this particular. The rules of morality; therefore, are not conclusions of our reason.(457) It is Humes conclusion that since morality motivates us towards actions and reason does not, then morality cannot be a result of some rational decision making that occurs in our minds, and instead due to our internal passions and desires.
This philosophy raises a few questions. First of all, what is the place of reason in Humes philosophy? At a certain point in the text, Hume claims that Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them. (415) This is a bold statement on Humes part since it could imply that not only should we act on our passions, but also rationalize our actions to conform to these passions. Yet, if this was true, then regardless of what action we take, whether it is mass murder, robbery, or any other blatantly socially immoral action, that the rationality should only come afterwards. However, Hume is a little more reserved later in the text. At a later point he writes, It has been observd, that reasoncan have an influence on our conduct only after two ways: Either when it excites a passion by informing us of the existence of something which is a proper object of it; or when it discovers the connexion of causes and effects, so as to afford us means of exerting any passion.(459) Ultimately for Hume, rationality does play a role in moral judgments and actions. Reason is the basis of forming connections in the real world as previously stated. Therefore, for an act to be rational, it must form rational connections in the real world.
It would be impossible for a human to form passionate beliefs about an object unless reason formed connections between that object and some sort of mental perception. For example, a gun, simply as an object could never evoke any sense of passion, unless it was reasoned that guns are related to shootings and killings, and killing would be a painful occurrence. Therefore, reason is required to evoke the connection of the gun with a passion of displeasure. As Hume states, as nothing can be contrary to truth or reason, except what has a reference to it, and as judgments of our understanding only have this reference, it must follow, that passions can be contrary to reason only so far as they are accompanyd with some judgment or opinion.(416) Therefore, while passions are the driving force of action, the relationship between passion and the object of that passion must be based on reason. Since passion, as previously mentioned, is a mental function solely unrelated to reason and original in the sense that it is not based on any sort of previous grounded reason, .a passion can never, in any sense, be calld unreasonable, but when founded on a false supposition, or when it chuses means insufficient for the designd end(416) At first glance, this statement might make Hume a psychological hedonist.
It suggests that if we act on our passions, passions that are based in the ideas of avoiding pain and experiencing pleasure, then none of our actions can be irrational. So, for example, one might make the conjecture that even though going to school is good for me, my passions are saying that my bed is cozy and warm, and therefore I dont want to wake up and actually go to school. Obviously the sole driving factor in this scenario would be the simply pleasure of staying in bed instead of getting up and catching the bus. Yet if this is true, why do most high school students end up going to school anyway? As previously mentioned, rational thought is required to form connections in the real world with passions. Thus, it is Humes belief that the idea of going to school is rationally connected to the notion of a job, and career, money, and enlightenment, all three of which might bring someone pleasure.
To Hume, each student would wake up in the morning with two passions, one to go to school and one to stay home and sleep. Ultimately one passion wins, as Hume states, When two passions are already producd by their separate causes, and are both present in the mind, they readily mingle and unite, tho they have but one relation, sometimes without any. The predominant passion swallows up the inferior, and converts it into itself. (420) It is not the simple desire for pleasure and avoidance of pain that is the sole factor in forming. Rather, a human is willing to do acts because reason dictates that certain actions and objects will ultimately lead to a certain sense of pleasure.
However, because the pleasure isnt directly connected to the action itself, Hume can never be a psychological hedonist. Can we state that Hume is a psychological egoist? Perhaps the dominant passion that ultimately wins is the passion that a person feels will lead them to the best possible situation, i.e. going to school instead of sleeping in. However, while it is usually the case that students go to school and get an education, Hume would never argue that the person who did not go to school was in any way irrational. As he states, Actions may be laudable or blameable; but they cannot be reasonable or unreasonable(458) Therefore, it would be possible that a someone could carry out an act that was not in their best interest and Hume would still not conclude that they were unreasonable, and thus Hume can not be a psychological egoist.
Therefore, Hume is a sort of philosophical psychologist. His work is interesting in its explanation of how our moral thinking work, but if we are to conclude that we are truly moral slaves to our passions, then how can we develop some practical sort of moral framework for our own societies? Ultimately Hume has little to say to those who commit acts that society views as irrational, because Hume can never views those acts as irrational themselves. While we all know that every student should go to school, Hume would never condemn anyone as rational or irrational for not. The only solace in Humes argument is the notion that there are actions that are laudable and blamable. As Hume writes, it may teach us, that moral distinctions arise, in a great measure, from the tendency of qualities and characters to the interest of society, and that tis our concern for that interest, which makes us approve or disapprove of them. (579) Hume believes that it is this interest in our own society that will move most passions to act in the best interest of that society, and so that each society can have a moral code in which to live in.
Thus, Humes notion of passion above reason is not simply that reason is a slave to passion. Rather, while ultimately it is passion that motivates us to action, and therefore we can never call an action rational or irrational based on that premise, reason plays a key role in determining to what objects we will direct our passions towards.