Monday, March 29, 2010

Hume on Morality (Part 1): Historical Background

This post is part of my series on Hume's moral philosophy. The series works from the article "The Foundations of Morality in Hume's Treatise" by David Fate Norton in the Cambridge Companion to Hume. For an index, see here.

As noted in the index, this series looks at Hume's answers to the questions of moral ontology and moral epistemology. Hume's answers fit within the context of certain trends in late 17th, early 18th century philosophy. In this opening post, we will examine these trends.

This entails a quick summary of the moral theories of four dead, white European males: Samuel Clarke, Anthony Ashley Cooper (3rd Earl of Shaftesbury), Bernard Mandeville, and Francis Hutcheson.

Those of you who are averse to intellectual history should still find this pretty interesting (particularly since it shows how little has changed in this area).

1. Samuel Clarke
Clarke stakes out a fairly standard theistic/natural law position on the foundations of morality. To Clarke, every contingent ontological entity (such as a human beings) owes its existence to a necessary, unchanging, infinite, and personal being. This being is perfectly good and just.

All created beings have essential and eternal differences in their properties and attributes. These differences make some actions morally right and some morally wrong. To put it another way, there is a direct correspondence between moral goodness and our essential nature.

We come to know about these moral distinctions through the operations of our reason. In much the same way that we come to appreciate scientific and mathematical principles. The only difference is that we can voluntarily accept or reject moral distinctions. We cannot do the same for mathematical or scientific principles. For example, it would be impossible to deny the truth of "1+1=2".

That said, Clarke argued that although we can reject moral truths, it would be absurd to do so: we would know that we were doing something irrational.

2. Anthony Ashley Cooper (3rd Earl of Shaftesbury)
Shaftesbury's moral theory begins in a similar vein to that of Clarke. He makes an appeal to something called the "frame of nature", which is the systematic interconnection of every living thing. Each living thing has an appropriate locus within this frame. They do good by sticking to this locus; they do bad by trying to upset the applecart.

A more interesting aspect of Shaftesbury's work was his analysis of virtue and vice. The virtuous act, he argued, was more than simply a positive contribution to the welfare of others: it was an act that was the product of a rationally determined motivation to do good.

For example, suppose a man threw some bread out of the window of his car because he wished to despoil some aesthetically pleasing landscape. Unbeknownst to him, the bread is taken and eaten by a homeless and destitute beggar. Contrast this with a man who willing gives a loaf of bread to the beggar in the hope that it will be of some comfort to him. Although both acts have the same consequence, to which would the term "virtuous" more appropriately attach? I suspect we all know the answer to that.

Shaftesbury was deeply critical of the influential moral and political theorists Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. He felt that both men tried, in their theories, to eliminate true virtue. Hobbes did this by reducing all supposedly virtuous acts to self-interested acts that were performed for mutual advantage. Locke was more subtle but committing the same mistake as Hobbes by concluding that virtue was a product of cultural convention.

3. Bernard Mandeville
Alas, I could not find a picture of Bernard Mandeville but the above is a facsimile of the title page of his most famous work The Fable of the Bees. Mandeville's key argument was that morality was a sham. An artificial system of thought, foisted upon us in order to prevent us from following our true self-interests.

Mandeville agrees with Shaftesbury: the virtuous act is the product of a rational motivation to do good. He simply thinks that a close examination of human action reveals that such motivations do not exist. Indeed, on closer inspection we find that all actions stem from passions (anger, pride, fear, happiness, pity etc.); and that all passions are self-interested. It just so happens that some passions benefit the public.

But if Mandeville's analysis is correct, a question arises: whence all this talk of virtue? Mandeville answers with an inventors story (we might put evolutionary just-so stories in a similar class these days). Simply described, the governor's of society worked out that there were not enough tangible material resources available to reward all people for their good acts or to punish people for bad acts. So they substituted intangible rewards and punishments, i.e. moral flattery and moral condemnation.

These intangible rewards and punishments are not in our interest, but we have been duped into thinking that they are.

4. Francis Hutcheson
The final member of the pre-Hume quartet, Francis Hutcheson, tried to defend Shaftesbury from Mandeville's attack. He argued, contra Mandeville, that some human activities clearly testify to the reality of virtue. For example:
  • The moral approval and disapproval of people who are dead. (This can't be done in self-interest since these people cannot improve our lot in life).
  • The fact that we assess someone's motive irrespective of how their actions may have affected us.
  • The fact that although we can bribed to perform a morally vicious action, we cannot be bribed into think such an action is virtuous.
Thinking that reality of virtue is well-established, Hutcheson proceeds to the following question: what feature of human nature needs to be presupposed in order to explain virtue? It is at this point that Hutcheson rubs up against modern theories of evolved moral instincts.

Hutcheson argues that there must be a moral sense with volitional and cognitive components. On the volitional side, the moral sense motivates us to perform our actions with general benevolence and desire for the happiness of others. On the cognitive side, the moral sense allows us to discriminate between the motivations of other people.

It is important to note that Hutcheson did not feel he was reducing virtue and vice to a set of feelings produced by a moral sense. On the contrary, he thought the moral sense was responding to objective, observer-independent moral properties.

Hume, as we shall see in the remainder of this series, begged to differ.

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