Hume’s View of Morality Based on Sentiment
For thousands of years, a major issue of moral philosophy has been whether morality is based on reason or sentiment. In ancient Greece, some viewed morality as being a matter of feelings while others believed that goodness was a matter of intelligence. Hume discusses each view in his Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals. However, Hume comes to the conclusion that, “morality is determined by sentiment” (Hume 160).
Hume maintains the view that if moral judgments are derived from reason, they can be right or wrong. However, if they are based on sentiment, there can be no dispute. It other words, one can dispute truth but not taste. Hume supports his view with two main arguments. Hume describes the notion of amiability when he says, “Virtue…belongs to be amiable, and vice odious. This forms their very nature of essence” (Hume 75). Here, he proclaims that morality produces in us certain feelings, like love or hate, which reason alone cannot produce. In other words, it is part of our nature of virtue to produce a sentimental response. Reason alone cannot determine what emotional response in we will have to something, thus reason cannot be the origin of our ideas of virtue and vice. The second main argument is the notion of motivation. Here he proclaims that moral distinctions move us to action. Reason alone can’t give us reason to act. One has to have sentiments of want or aim or desire in order to act. In Appendix I of EPM, Hume give five arguments supporting his two main claims. The first four support the idea of amiability while the final supports the idea of motivation.
First, in support of Hume’s view of amiability, reason is only able to determine two things: relations between two things and matters of fact. Hume describes this as, “giving some appearance of truth…and employ(s) comparisons, instead of instances” (Hume 158). This means that reason can only state specifics and does not give grounds for analysis beyond those facts. In other words, reason is insufficient in determining approval or disapproval of an action. For example, if someone steals an item from a store, facts can only tell us what was taken, how he did it, how long it took, etc. Reason cannot say if the action is right or wrong, it only describes the details. Sentiments or feelings give a person the ability to decide if an action is virtuous or not.
The second argument has to do with differences between mistakes with references to principles and mistakes concerning matters of fact. Hume goes on to describe how, for example, if someone is killed, one does not know all the circumstances or relationships that were involved. Therefore, one does not know if the act was intentional or unintentional until all the evidence is evaluated. Only then, he proclaims, can our, “sentiments of blame or approbation…pronounce the action as criminal or virtuous” (Hume 161). Therefore, sentiments, and not reason, determine if an act should be admired or blamed.
The third argument describes the similarities between an awareness of moral and natural beauty. Hume proclaims that natural beauty has to do with, “proportion, relation, and position of parts”. Therefore, he describes, it is absurd to think that beauty is determined by the perception of relations (Hume 161). Most people only know beauty when they see it. It’s quite difficult to describe to someone why one thinks an object is beautiful. Also, what’s pleasing to one person may not be to another. Therefore, beauty cannot be given by reasons. The motive for why someone thinks an object is beautiful comes from within. Our senses tell us when something is pleasing. Conversely, if someone sees an object that is not aesthetically pleasing, the motive for this is also obtained from within. Similarly, moral beauty can determine if an action is virtuous, not by facts, but rather by the feelings resulting from the action, i.e. pleasure or pain. Morality, like beauty, is therefore not defined by reasons but rather from sentiment.
In the fourth argument, Hume gives a comparison of the relationships between moral agents and inanimate objects. For example, Hume describes how humans do not disapprove of a young tree destroying its parent in order to be able to grow taller and stronger, but it’s illegal for a human to kill its parent in any aspect. Even though there’s a relationship between parent and child in both cases, one act is deemed illegal by how one feels about the situation. Even though the facts show a similar relationship between the two cases, fact does not explain how one act is deemed immoral or moral. Therefore, as Hume puts it, “if morality consisted merely in relations, (both) would, no doubt, be equally criminal” (Hume 162).