Philosophy 433                         History of Ethics                                               Darwall                                                Winter 2008




I  Hume vs. Hutcheson: naturalism?   Last time we noted how, unlike Hutcheson, Hume takes the sentiment which moral judgments express not to be irreducible or psychologically fundamental.  Rather, he explains them as arising through various other psychological mechanisms:  sympathy and the association of ideas.  This time we will focus on a problem that results for him from this strategy, and his solution to it.  This solution will show another way in which Hume's views differ importantly from Hutcheson's.  Whereas Hutcheson believes that there is a universal moral sense which both explains our moral judgments, and provides the conditions for their truth or falsity, Hume's view is much more complex.  It is likelier to be his view that coincidence of moral judgment is socially constructed, and that there is no independent moral truth at which they aim.


II Sympathy and the general point of view.  The problem arises at 581/371f.  Consider two agents with the same character and same motives.  One is someone near to one in "psychological space", the other is quite distant; suppose he is of another age.  Presumably we must believe that these two people are equally virtuous or vicious--that their qualities are equally deserving of "approbation or blame."  But, for Hume, our judgments of these qualities result from (or express, or are) feelings which he have when we think of the consequences of these qualities and sympathize with the pleasure or pain that are apt to result from them.  But we are psychologically closer to the persons affected by the qualities in the person nearer to us.  And sympathy works on a principle of "psychological distance."  We tend to be affected more through sympathy by our ideas of the feelings of those who are closer.  So, if our judgments result from (express, or are) the sympathetically produced feelings, then we will make different judgments of the vice and virtue of the person who is near and who is far.  "But," Hume writes, "notwithstanding this variation of our sympathy, we give the same approbation to the same moral qualities in China as in England.  How to solve this problem?


III Objectivity and point of view.  Hume notes that the same thing happens with our judgments of other experiential qualities.  We might take the example of color.  Here we correct our judgments by some standard.  We do not simply insist that the color we judge something to have must be the color it appears to us to have.  Rather, we suppose some ideal of "normal color viewing conditions" and express in our judgments of color, not necessarily our present color experience (the color something appears as though it has

here and now to us).  Rather, we judge the way we think the object would appear to us were we to view it under normal conditions.  Hume makes a similar proposal for moral judgment.

            "In general, all sentiments of blame or praise are variable, according to our situation of nearness or remoteness, with regard to the person blam'd or prais'd, and according to the present disposition of our mind.  But these variations we regard not in our general decisions, but still apply the terms expressive of our liking or dislike, in the same manner, as if we remain'd in one point of view.  Experience soon teaches us this method of correcting our sentiments, or at least, of correcting our language . . . " (582/372)

            This correction is necessary, because otherwise "we cou'd never make use of language, or communicate our sentiments to one another, did we not correct the momentary appearances of things." (581/371)  Thus, we need a standard for our judgments if we are to be talking about the same thing.


IV  What is the standard?  But what standard?  Hume talks about correcting our judgments from a "general point of view,"  but we still need to know what that is.  I leave you to work out his answer to this question in the Treatise.  It is extremely interesting.  But because it is pretty idiosyncratic, I want to turn to his treatment of this question in the Enquiry because it makes clear a social constuctionist strain in his thought. 

            Hume takes up the very same problem in the Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals in Section V.  Here is what he says:

            "The more we converse with mankind, and the greater social intercourse we maintain, the more shall we be familiarized to these general preferences and distinctions, without which our conversation and discourse could scarcely be rendered intelligible to each other.”

            "It is necessary for us, in our calm judgments and discourse concerning the characters of men, to neglect all these differences, and render our sentiments more public and social.” 

            "The intercourse of sentiments, therefore, in society and conversation, makes us form some general unalterable standard, by which we may approve of characters and manners.”

            The idea is that it is through concrete social discussion that we develop a general standard.  Moreover, Hume's theory of sympathy can itself explain how this standard arises.  Moral discussion will itself express sentiments.  And interlocutors will sympathetically reverberate with these feelings.  We can think of social discussion of morals, then, as a kind of tuning of large social orchestra, where what brings the various instruments into tune is that they are set to reverberate

with the other instruments.


V         Note how different a picture this is from Hutcheson's.  Moral judgments are no longer made true or false by the existence of a universal moral sense.  Rather, the validity, if not the literal truth, of judgments of vice and virtue results from consensus, created by concrete social discourse.