Friday, March 12, 2010

David Hume on Religion (Part 4): The Perversion of Morality

This post is part of my series on Hume's critique of religion. For an index, see here. The series works off an article by J.C.A. Gaskin in the Cambridge Companion to Hume.

In this post I will take a look at Hume's views on morality and religion. The take-home message is straightforward: Hume thinks that religion invariably distorts and perverts our natural moral sentiments. There is much to unpack in that message, so let's start unpacking.

Natural Sympathy and Moral Obligation
The first step in Hume's argument is the development of a reasonably coherent account of morality that is devoid of religious content. Hume bases this account on "sympathy", which is the human ability to feel and understand the pain, suffering, joy and elation of other human beings.

Because we share a reasonably common nature, we have certain common responses to the actions of others: we dislike actions that induce misery and like actions that increase happiness. So some actions meet with common approval and some meet with common disapproval.

Common approval and disapproval are, for Hume, the basis of natural moral discriminations. Moral rules are thus sourced in human nature and not in some supernatural force.

But maybe the religious person could argue that even if morality has its basis in the happiness of human beings, we need religious belief to make the commitment to moral rules motivationally salient. Without such belief, we will always be tempted to act in a self-regarding and unsympathetic manner. In effect, this person is arguing that religion must be the source of moral obligation.

Hume disagrees. His account of natural moral obligation is quite unique in secular philosophy and is located in sections 9.14-15 of the second Enquiry. His main point, which many will be familiar with, is that "passion" or emotion is the only source of obligation. This is because passion is the only thing that can motivate us ("reason is the slave of the passions").

Living is society with others, there are certain interests that press upon our passions and motivate us to do good. These include: (i) self-interest in doing to others what we would like them to do to us; (ii) a desire to be well-thought of by others; and (iii) desire for "inward peace of mind, consciousness of integrity [and] a satisfactory review of our own conduct."

A better account of Hume's moral theory could be made (I may return to it someday), but that will suffice for now because the goal here is to show how religion corrupts our natural morality.

The Religious Perversion of Morality
Hume consistently equivocates in his defence of natural morality. For example, he will say "all others things being equal", this is how morality would work. These ceteris paribus clauses are designed to acknowledge that morality is frequently distorted by social practices and intellectual beliefs. The distorter-in-chief being religion.

How does religion distort morality? Hume saw some of this first hand. He argued that the strength of religious commitment was often such that it made people lose touch with their natural moral sentiments. The passion for religion overcame all other passions. This had some terrifying manifestations as, for example, in the cases of witch burning and the righteous infliction of pain on others.

Hume would probably argue that non-religious ideologies, such as communism, can have a similar effect. Indeed, we should be extremely wary of anybody who is passionately consumed by an ideology. That way, madness lies.

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