"Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger . . . 'Tis as little contrary to reason to prefer even my own acknowledg'd lesser good to my greater."
(Hume, Treatise, Book II Part iii Chapter 3).
Does Hume have good reason to assert these apparent paradoxes?

In answering this question, I will first examine just what it is that Hume is in fact asserting with these "apparent paradoxes", and discuss why it is that they are only "apparent".  Then I will examine why I think that Hume does indeed have good reasons for making these bold and (at the time) controversial assertions.  This examination will constitute a very brief overview of the reasoning that Hume uses to support his primary conclusion of "moral emotionalism".  My conclusion, as will become obvious, is that Hume does have good (although perhaps not perfectly persuasive) reason to assert these apparent paradoxes.

What is Hume saying with these assertions?

By his assertion of these apparent paradoxes, Hume is reinforcing a particular point.  It is a fundamental tenet of Hume's Moral Philosophy that it is the passions (in particular sympathy), and not reason, that motivates action.  In Hume's terminology, "reason" is restricted to the fields of "relations of ideas" and "matters of fact". 

"All the objects of human reason or enquiry may naturally be divided into two kinds, to wit, Relations of Ideas, and Matters of fact. Of the first kind are the sciences of Geometry, Algebra, and Arithmetic . . . [which are] discoverable by the mere operation of thought . . . Matters of fact, which are the second object of human reason, are not ascertained in the same manner; nor is our evidence of their truth, however great, of a like nature with the foregoing."
            [Hume, David; An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, pg 11]

Since Hume concludes that moral evaluations involve neither "relations of ideas" nor "matters of fact", he relegates reason to an ancillary role.  In Book III of his "A Treatise of Human Nature", Hume is quite clear that he considers that motivation to action comes from the passions, and not from reason.

"Since morals, therefore, have an influence on the actions and affections, it follows, that they cannot be deriv'd from reason; and that because reason alone, as we have already prov'd, 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.
                        [Hume, David; A Treatise of Human Nature, pg 235]

"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."
                        [Hume, David; A Treatise of Human Nature,]

Since Hume reasons that moral approbation can not be a judgment of reason, he concludes that it is an emotional response.  Specifically, a spectator's moral approval is a type of pleasure that we experience when considering an agent's qualities -- including when the agent is the spectator of himself.

It is Hume's psychological theory that our emotions, feelings, and desires (what he calls "passions") are original, vivid and lively perceptions and not copies of perceptions (what he calls "ideas").  Those emotional reactions that "arise immediately from good or evil, from pain or pleasure" that we actively experience [Treatise] or think about in prospect [Treatise] he refers to as "direct passions" and include desire (for pleasure), aversion (of pain), hope, fear, grief, and joy.  With these, he groups an amorphous bunch of instinctive responses like bodily appetites.  And he includes here the desire that good comes to those we love and harm to those we hate, even though they do not proceed from pain and pleasure but produce them [Treatise].  What he calls the "indirect passions" (pride, humility, shame, love, hatred) he describes as being generated in a second-hand way (by way of our direct passion of sympathy with the thought or experience of pain or pleasure in others).  So it is the experience of pleasure or pain, or the expectation of pleasure or pain that is the foundation upon which our preferences are based.

If the "destruction of the whole world" is not regarded with an expectation of pain while "the scratching of my finger" is regarded with an expectation of pain, then it is to be expected that one's passions would result in a preference for the former over the latter.  Similarly, even though one's reason may have judged as a matter of fact that one good is greater than another, it would not be a contradiction to discover a greater expectation of pleasure from one's acknowledged lesser good that from one's greater good.  (The bowl of ice cream is a more pleasurable anticipation than an hour at the gym -- even though the latter is indubitably to my greater good.)

What Hume is therefore saying in these statements is that there is no basis in "relations of ideas" or "matters of fact" from which to establish, support, or condemn our preference for "the destruction of the whole world" over "the scratching of my finger" or a preference for "my own acknowledg'd lesser good" over "my greater".  His effort to be deliberately provocative is an attempt to emphasize his argument that the preferences involved derive from the passions, not from any reasoning about "relations of ideas" or "matters of fact".  The assertions only appear paradoxical if one accepts the incorrect (to Hume) premise that reason does have something to say about our preferences.  The paradoxes disappear once one grasps Hume's argument that our preferences are not within the proper realm of reason.

Does Hume have good reasons for these assertions?

This question has two levels of interpretation.  At the superficial level, it can be argued that Hume certainly does have good reason to emphasize his psychological theory that reason has nothing to say about our preferences, and that our preferences derive from a separate area of psychology -- the passions.  In view of his historical context, and in particular his specific intent of attacking the rationalism of his predecessor Rene Descartes, Hume was well advised to emphasize the differences he envisaged in the role of reason in Moral Philosophy.  The statements quoted in the essay's title are deliberately couched to evoke a strong reaction from any moral rationalist.  Thus appropriately focussing the attention on the different role that reason plays within Hume's moral philosophy.

At a deeper level of interpretation, this question can be seen as enquiring whether Hume has "good reasons" for the auxiliary role in which he places reason within his psychology of motivation and his moral philosophy.  Does he in fact have good reasons for the separation he establishes between the motivational efficacy of the passions, and the supportive role he describes for reasoning about "relations of ideas" and "matters of fact"?

Hume argues that all motivation depends upon desires.  No action can be motivated solely by belief.  Regardless of what beliefs we may hold, we are not motivated to act unless we have some kind of desire for the consequences of the action.  Since Hume then reasons that because moral values are inherently motivating, moral values can not be just beliefs.  Moral values must involve desires.  Of course, we have many more desires than fall within the realm of morals.  In his exploration of the psychology of motivation, Hume does not distinguish between specifically moral desires and other non-moral desires.  It is rather later, when he discusses the basis of moral reactions in the spectator and the role of the passion of sympathy that Hume marks the distinction.  Moral reactions derive from our sympathetically inspired desire for pleasure (and the avoidance of pain). 

Also Hume is quite clear that moral attitudes attach to actions, and to agents in virtue of their actions, and not to the desires and preferences themselves.  When you examine actions, Hume argues, one does not observe any moral properties.  Where is the property of disapprobation in an action that is morally reprehensible? 

"Take any action allow'd to be vicious:  Wilful murder, for instance. Examine it in all lights, and see if you can find that matter of fact, or real existence, which you call vice. In which-ever way you take it, you find only certain passions, motives, volitions and thoughts. There is no other matter of fact in the case. The vice entirely escapes you, as long as you consider the object. You never can find it, till you turn your reflexion into your own breast, and find a sentiment of disapprobation, which arises in you, towards this action. Here is a matter of fact; but 'tis the object of feeling, not of reason. It lies in yourself, not in the object. So that 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."
                        [Hume, David; A Treatise of Human Nature, pg 241]

The same action can be morally praised and morally condemned in different circumstances.  A complete description of the facts of the matter will not include any moral evaluations by observers.  And we excuse people for ignorance of non-moral facts, but not for having incorrect moral values.  Hume also observes that non-human things can stand in the same relations as humans can.  He uses the example of a tree destroying its parent, which is not morally wrong.  If morality is objective, then both a tree killing its parent and a man killing his father should be equally wrong.  Hence, moral judgements are not objective matters of fact.  They are based on the sympathetically inspired subjective experience (or anticipation) of pleasure or pain under the circumstances.

Finally, Hume's Moral Theory is based on the premise that all moral values depend upon some ultimate end (or "end-in-itself").  In Hume's case, his ultimate end is pleasure (or the avoidance of pain).  All moral values are based on the pursuit of that ultimate end.  But, as Hume observes, one cannot prove a priori that such an end-in-itself is "good".  The conclusion that pleasure (or the absence of pain) is "good" is based on an empirical observation of how people behave, and hence relies on a principle of induction that cannot be logically proved.  Thus, Hume argues that since these ends cannot be rationally proven to be good, moral values cannot be justified by reason.

So one would have to conclude that Hume does indeed have good reasons for asserting the apparent paradoxes that are quoted in the essay's title.

One final historical argument that would also suggest that Hume's reasons for asserting these apparent paradoxes are well founded is the observation that with very few exceptions, most moral philosophers since Hume, including those who have disagreed with his "moral sentimentalism" (ie. Kant) have started from the psychology of motivation presented by Hume.  So even if his reasoning was flawed in some fashion (and I, for one, do not believe that it is), it was sufficiently persuasive that even critics of his emotionalism take his reasoning seriously.



Fieser, James; "Hume: Moral Theory", The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, URL=, downloaded June, 2010.

Hume, David; A Treatise of Human Nature; Bennett's reformatted and annotated version, for easier reading, URL= ; downloaded June, 2010.

Hume, David; Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding; URL= ; downloaded  June, 2010.

Hume, David; Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals; URL= ; downloaded  June, 2010.

Morris, William Edward; "David Hume", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2010 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), forthcoming URL=<http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2010/entries/hume/>.

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