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Reading Notebook 2, Hume: What is the Basis of Moral Judgment

by: Anna Kelly

Reading Notebook 2, Hume: What is the Basis of Moral Judgment HSHU 204-01

Marketplace > Catholic University of America > PHIL-Philosophy > HSHU 204-01 > Reading Notebook 2 Hume What is the Basis of Moral Judgment
Anna Kelly

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About this Document

These notes cover "An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals," sections 5, 6, and appendix one. Contains a summary, a response to reading questions, and notes.
Human Action and Government
Dr. Michael M. Gorman
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This 3 page Class Notes was uploaded by Anna Kelly on Sunday April 17, 2016. The Class Notes belongs to HSHU 204-01 at Catholic University of America taught by Dr. Michael M. Gorman in Winter 2016. Since its upload, it has received 6 views. For similar materials see Human Action and Government in PHIL-Philosophy at Catholic University of America.


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Date Created: 04/17/16
Anna Kelly Dr. Michael Gorman Honors Philosophy 102: Human Action and Government 13 January 2015 Reading Journal 2: “An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals,” by David Hume, pages 13­38 1. Short Summary and Main Themes in the reading (with explanation of key claims/concepts) a. Section 1 of Hume’s work focused on the origin of morals and why they are important. First, he addresses the fact that there are some people who, either by their firm belief in their principles, or desire to play devil’s advocate,  will never be convinced by reason and must be disregarded when creating an argument about the origin of morals. Immediately after, he launches into a discussion of the origin of morality, and whether they originate from reason  or from internal knowledge (which he calls sentiment). While modern and ancient philosophers disagree in their  interpretation, he states, ultimately they are both incorrect, because they disregard the inconsistency in their  arguments. Hume states that moral distinctions must be discernable by pure reason, or we would not attempt to  reason our way through it, however, this is not the only measurement of what is ethical. According to Hume,  “what exists in the nature of things is the standard of our judgements; what each man feels within himself is the  standard of sentiment” (14). If truths do not take any sort of logical stance, they will never affect our behavior,  argues Hume, but if we take the sentiment out of morality, it will no longer be relevant, and thus both reason and  sentiment determine morality. The question remains then, how much do reason and sentiment determine  morality? Hume approaches this question by addressing personal merit; whether or not qualities are perceived as  good or bad determines their moral status. b. After stating that any system of ethics must be based on observation and deduction to be considered valid, Hume  states that the social virtues, benevolence and justice, must be addressed first, because their status gives a general  explanation that explains the other virtues. Benevolent virtues, or virtues that are to the benefit of mankind and  secure the goodwill of others, make up the highest virtuous state that humans can attain, and are of divine nature.  Nothing can compensate for these virtues, which improve the situation of humanity by their influence and provide influence to the benevolent and happiness to all around them, which underlines the importance of utility to the  social virtues. Hume claims that utility is necessary to morality because it establishes clear guidelines about duties and helps resolve conflicts because it always holds the true interests of mankind, which is universal benefit and  happiness. c. Hume then addresses the concept of justice, claiming that like benevolence, the merit of justice comes from its  usefulness and utility, stating that “public utility is the sole origin of justice, and that reflections on the beneficial  consequences of this virtue are the sole foundation of its merit” (20­21). Hume argues, however, that justice is  dependent on the conditions of the society it belongs to. He states that in an ideal world, there would be no such  thing as justice, as it would be useless and ceremonial, as all people would have enough of everything and there  would be no need to divide up possessions. Additionally, if there was an ideal and benevolent humanity, states  Hume, there would be too much generosity in the world to need justice. Conversely, in a society deprived of  necessities of life, justice would give way to self­preservation, or that if men were completely independent from  one another, there would be no such thing as justice or any other “social virtue.” This upholds his claim that  justice owes its existence to the utility it brings to society; if justice is useless in a specific circumstance, then its  obligation upon mankind is “suspended.” Society is usually in a state of balance between “every man for himself” mentality and perfect generosity, and thus because of this is usually subject to codes of justice. However, Hume  believes that the use and purpose of justice is to preserve happiness and security through the upholding of order,  and that if justice is no longer useful, then it is no longer applicable, either in theory or in individual laws. Hume  also writes that if situations, such as the behavior of a criminal, are such that they are no longer to the benefit of  society, that they must be eradicated, which is done through actions like the incarceration of a criminal. He goes  on to discuss how people often do not treat others with justice, especially uncivilized nations and women, and  argues that because people do not live in isolation, they have an obligation to act justly toward others.  d. Having established that justice is based on the utility of the society that uses it, Hume goes on to say that laws are  for the purpose of promoting the good of mankind and serving society. He begins by stating that if humans were  creatures with reason but without human nature, that they would decide what laws would be best for the public by assigning the largest amount of goods to the most virtuous person. However, this would only be practical in a  theocracy and even then, human nature would destroy its utility and the society because there would be no fixed  rules of conduct. Going on to create an argument about what kinds of laws are acceptable, Hume states that there  is no such thing as natural equality among people, but laws can help equalize people, although perfect equality is  not only impractical but harmful because it weakens the power of law. Thus, we can only make laws that are  useful and beneficial, while keeping in mind the nature of man. However, if there are multiple good possibilities  for a law, then comparisons/analogies are used to prevent ambiguities. When both analogies and utility cannot  create a good law, then civil law, which is determined by a legislator and a constitution and “extends, restrains,  modifies, and alters” natural law and ultimately replaces it in uncertain situations, determines what is to be done.  Hume then goes on to differentiate the difference between superstition and justice in determining laws, stating  that superstition creates silly and frivolous rules about how to behave and what rules are necessary and moral,  while justice helps determine the well­being of mankind and society and is therefore ethical. He concludes by  stating once again that “the necessity of virtue to the support of society is the SOLE foundation of that virtue, and  since no moral excellence is more highly esteemed, we may conclude, that his circumstance of usefulness has, in  general, the strongest energy, and most entire command over our sentiments” (34).  e. Finally, Hume addresses political society, stating that government is useful because otherwise it wouldn’t exist,  and that we are only required to be loyal to it because it brings advantages to society. Rules of justice pertain to  political societies in dealing with eachother and with individuals. However, unlike individuals, nations need not  be associated with or interact with one another. Justice is not as important because it is not as useful, and because  morality and justice are closely linked, if a nation can sometimes suspend justice, this is not immoral so long as  the nation is acting in its own interests and customs. This utility and preservation of self­interest is the origin of  laws, which are based on a standard of right and wrong. 2. Something I found difficult to grasp: a. I actually understood Hume’s arguments for the most part. There were times when I found his rhetoric confusing,  but active note­taking helped alleviate this.  3. Objections to the author’s work: a. There were several times in which I noticed that Hume seemed to be using a kind of circular reasoning in which  he stated that the reason and evidence for something was the origin of that thing (for example, when he defended  justice, e.g. “Utility for the public is the main reason for and cause of justice and the benefits of justice are the  foundation of its merit”). I found this confusing because I was unsure whether or not he was in fact using circular  reasoning or not, and whether that meant I should challenge his points or not. I also disagree that utility is the  determining factor in whether or not humans must act justly, because I believe that natural law has a greater  influence than just allowing anarchy if justice is impractical or not permitted. I don’t think people should abandon their ethics in times of trouble.  4. Class discussion points a. Some points I would like to discuss: i. Determine more thoroughly whether ethics comes from sentiment or reason ii. Discuss relative morality (does everyone view morality in the same way?) iii. Discuss morality and utility; do we have an obligation to act morally in times of crisis iv. Go through some of his examples, specifically the examples of chastity and property, and explain  how he is using them to support his argument


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