David Hume on Morality

David Hume, an 18th century philosopher, stated that morality is based on sentiments rather than reason. He concluded this after he developed his “theory” of knowledge which stated that everything we could know was observable by the senses — he was a naturalistic philosopher. He then looked at situations in which he thought that there was an obvious “wrong” and he tried to identify the “matter of fact” vice in the situation. He immediately found that he could not find the vice within the facts of the situations.

For example, let us examine a boy who steals a toy at a store. A matter of fact about this situation is that a young human male has taken an item from a store. This is what happened. The senses and reason tell us a few other things too: the toy was a plastic squirt gun; the boy used his hands to take the toy; it took only a second for the boy to do this. Hume argued that no matter what we find about the situation with our senses and our reason, we will never find the actual existence or quality of vice. So then, if morality is not intrinsic to objects in a situation, what is morality?

Hume said that morality can be found within. When you observe an immoral act, you do not find any right or wrong about the situation when you consider only the objects involved in the act. “Only when you turn your reflexion into your own breast, and find a sentiment of disapprobation” will you find a right or wrong about the situation. Hume said that this was only a feeling or sentiment though.

Therefore morality is not something of our reason, for we could not find the existence of good or bad while examining the situation with our reason. Our reason only told us facts about what happened and how it happened. Morality then must a sentiment or feeling. Hume uses the example of the philosophical view of colors, heat and other such “qualities”. Hume says that modern philosophy considers such things as colors, heat and sound as simply perceptions and not definite qualities of any object. Colors and heat are objects of our observation, to be sure, but it can not be said for sure that such things are properties of an object. Take an apple for example. We see red, but red is our perception and is not necessarily an actual quality of the apple. To go even further we cannot even say for fact that an apple exists, and if the apple does not exist than surely red can not be a quality of it. All we really know is that we perceive an apple and in our perceptions it is red. This does not also imply the existence or qualities of the apple. Hume compares this type of thought to morality. Hume is trying to show that like observations of color and heat, morality is not something that can be found, for us, in an object, but instead morality is something which only exists within our world and comes from the sentiments in us.

Hume seems to be correct in declaring morality cannot be judge through the senses. We can only know what is afforded to us by our senses and our senses do not tell us when something is wrong or right. Something only becomes wrong or right when someone applies their feelings about certain actions to what they have seen or heard. The evidence for this is the disparity in people’s moral beliefs: what offends one person’s moral sentiments does not always offend another. While many people believe it is morally offensive to commit suicide in any situation, but in many cultures thought it more honorable to kill oneself than to admit defeat in a battle. These people did not see suicide in that situation as immoral. Morality is not something that is intrinsic in the objects or the action, since two different people would come to two different conclusions about the action of suicide. Instead it must be as Hume says; morality must be within us as a personal sentiment

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  • Bruce Barron

    Hume is correct in stating all knowledge comes through the senses. Only rational creatures know the difference between right and wrong.Dogs and cats are not moral or rational beings.They know nothing about right or wrong.
    With respect to the stealing of the apple. He said that one could not find the vice in the facts of the situation.We know from experience that this is wrong and it is self evident that it is wrong.In every act there is the act itself to be considered,the motive,and circumstances.To say that an act’s morality is based only on sentiment formed from some internal sentiment is to deny objective reality and truth and to state that morality is relative.Anyone who honestly evaluates this position sees immediately that this position is false.
    Right and wrong are not feelings determining whether the act is right or wrong.One is able to determine by an act of judgement concerning the good or evil of an act.This would be Hume’s act of reflection but it is still a mere sentiment that arises.It is the reason itself that judges of its own act and the acts of others. Hume denys this.
    His example of the apple and the perception of it being red and his denial of it being a property of an apple and then to state one cannot even be sure that it is an apple
    is absurd.Of course Hume is speaking of secondary qualities when he speaks of color and the like which do not provide objective facts which is an absurd claim as is evident to the senses.
    His notion that the apple might not even exist is equally absurd when presented to the senses.For Hume there is no concept of abstraction possible. For Hume morality is subjective and cannot be objective.
    Hume is right is saying that the senses cannot judge of morality but neither are sentiments the judge of morality.
    For Hume morality is subjective.It’s the way one feels about something that makes it right or wrong. There is no such thing as objectiive morality and morality is relative to one’s sentiments.
    Colours must adhere in some real object.There is no such thing as the colour red floating around without being in a subject and this subject is objectively real. Hume denys this. And so do a lot of other thinkers of his kind.
    If one cannot find the vice in the facts of the situation then where does one come by the sentiments.
    It is true that the mind reflects on the situation and knows whether the act is right or wrong.
    His example of suicide does not prove sentiment. Suicide is wrong because it is willful self murder.This is a moral judgement.There are societies that condone suicide but this is due to a faulty judgement.
    It is true that actions can evoke certain feelings such as anger,joy etc. But these sentiments do not tell us whether the act done is right or wrong. It may feel very good and joyfull to have sex with your neighbor’s wife but those do not determine the right or wrong of that act.
    With Hume it is difficult to say whether these sentiments are aquired or whether we are born with them.
    I for one disagree with this entire way of thinking.

  • http://jborges@hawaii.edu jon

    Hi Bruce
    Hume says that senses cannot judge of morality. Then you say, “but neither are sentiments the judge of morality.” What, then, is the basis of morality?

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  • Bruce Barron

    The basis of morality is right reasoning and the natural law.

  • Jon

    Well who decides what the “right” reasoning is, then???
    And, whatta ya mean by “natural law?”
    Are you referring to the Catholic church’s “Natural Law”, or the Stoic’s “Natural Law?”

  • Justin

    Buddhism didn’t work out so well for Tiger Woods.

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  • Maxx

    Hume also railed against the use of induction which is precisely what he is using on his views of morality. Whether or not feelings are inherent, or characteristically embedded in moral judgements is irrelevant if there is no higher standard than that of the individual concerned. Otherwise, morality is strictly subjective and we can have seven billion different standards on the planet.
    I cannot agree with Hume that moral judgments exclude the senses and the rationale. The senses are necessary to even perceive that a judgement is forthcoming. The senses must necessarily be the first step in the process of coming to a moral conclusion. If I cannot see what has happened, what is there to judge? And I must know that a moral issue has presented itself.
    Secondly, I must then use reason to discern whether or not what I have perceived is either true or false. Was it murder, or self-defense? However, some issues would seem to be more rapidly apparent than others. Regardless, the truism of any moral issue must first be established by reason before any moral judgement can be made.
    Feelings seem to more appropriately fall into the final process of the moral decision. This seems correct in the sense that an appropriate emotional response to a moral situation must necessarily entail the notion of first understanding and evaluating the situation. Otherwise, one may strike out in anger and wrongfully accuse or accost an innocent.
    Even Hume admitted he thought there was the slightest period of time between perception and before the feelings engaged themselves in the process.

  • noel

    if god his not in the picture betwin rigth or wrong ,there is no anser to morallity.