What does Hume mean by his claim that "it is not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger"?
What consequences for morality does he draw from his understanding of this claim?

In order to address these questions, I will first explore what Hume means by his claim.  I will then discuss the place of that claim within Hume's understanding of morality.  In doing so, I will argue that since the claim is the consequence of Hume's understanding of Morality rather than vice versa, the second question must be understood in a retro-grade manner.

What does Hume mean by his claim?

With this apparently paradoxical claim, 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.  Hume's analysis of morality distinguishes between three distinct roles: the agent, the receiver, and the spectator.  The moral agent is the person who performs an action.  The receiver is any person affected by the action.  The spectator is the person who approves or disapproves of the action.  Hume allows that the three roles might be personified within the same individual.  Consequently, Hume argues that a spectator's moral approval is a type of pleasure that the spectator experiences 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 (to pain), hope, fear, grief, and joy.  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, and the motivation for our actions.

Therefore, 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.  What Hume is saying with this claim 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."  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".

What are the consequences of this claim?

From the foregoing, it can be seen that Hume's understanding of his claim (that "it is not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger") is clearly a consequence of his moral theories, rather than the genesis of them. 

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 (or 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.

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.

Hume's segregation of moral roles has a consequence with regards to the nature of the moral imperatives.  In the context of current debates in moral theory, one of the consequences of Hume's understanding of morals is that morality is constituted by hypothetical rather than Kantian categorical imperatives. 

Hume's underlying premise is that all motivation to action by agents and moral valuation by spectators depends upon the ultimate "end-in-itself" of pleasure (or the avoidance of pain), and that all valuations (moral or otherwise) are based on the pursuit of that ultimate end.  Given Hume's theories that (i) all agent motivation depends upon the desires/passions of the agent; that (ii) moral attitudes within the spectator depend upon the desires/passions of the spectator, but attach to the actions of agents (and to agents only in virtue of their actions); and that (iii) the same action can be morally praised and morally condemned in different circumstances;  it is obvious that Hume's understanding of morality constitutes a system of hypothetical imperatives. 

"All imperatives command either hypothetically or categorically.  The former present the practical necessity of a possible action as a means to achieving something else which one desires (or which one may possibly desire).  The categorical imperatives would be one which presented an action as of itself objectively necessary, without regard to any other end."
            [Kant, Immanuel; Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, Section II, as quoted in
            Foot, Philippa; Morality as a System of Hypothetical Imperatives, pg 305]

Further, given Hume's theory that all motivation -- whether moral or otherwise -- is governed by the same pursuit of the end-in-itself of pleasure (or avoidance of pain), it is clear that Hume would not countenance any distinction between moral and non-moral (ie pragmatic) imperatives.  Hence, again, all imperatives would be considered hypothetical.

Within Hume's theory of agent motivation and spectator evaluation, McDowell's arguments to the effect that the motivation to moral action may be somehow related to how the agent views (and hence evaluates) the circumstances, would not alter the consequence that any moral motivation that ensues would still by hypothetical -- a pursuit of the end of pleasure by some means, even if what is considered pleasure might be governed by how the agent regards the circumstances.

Therefore, only on the basis of his theories of the moral sentiments and the inefficacy of reason as a source of motivations, can Hume claim that "it is not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger."  It is not at all clear that Hume does, or even can, draw any consequences directly from his understanding of this claim.  The question must therefore be interpreted in a retro-grade fashion --as referring to Hume's understanding of morality that grounds the claim.  And under that interpretation, his entire moral theory would have to be considered a "consequence of his understanding of the claim".



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

Foot, Philippa; "Morality as a System of Hypothetical Imperatives", in The Philosophical Review, Vol 81, No 3 (July, 1972) pp 305-316

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.

McDowell, John & McFetridge, I.G.; "Are Moral Requirements Hypothetical Imperatives" in Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Supplementary Volumes, VOl 52 (1978), pp 13-29 & 31-42.

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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