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Hume's Treatise of Morals: and Selections from the Treatise of the Passions

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A book by David Hume

With an introduction by James H. Hyslop. This Elibron Classics book is a facsimile reprint of a 1893 edition by Ginn & Co., Boston.

Tags: Books
Author: David Hume
Publisher: Adamant Media Corporation
1 review about Hume's Treatise of Morals: and Selections...

Reason is the slave of passions

  • Sep 28, 2009
I read this book for a graduate seminar on ethics. Hume's An Enquiry Concerning The Principles Of Morals (EPM) along with his staunch empirical approach to epistemology, has garnered him recognition as a "great skeptic" of the rationalist tradition in philosophy and recognition as the greatest philosopher to write in English. Hume's ethical project is concerned with discovering how people's nature dictates moral behavior and in discovering the moral virtues that society deems useful. Hume separates himself from the classical Greek notion of how an agent acts virtuously when he posits his thesis that people are incapable of using reason to sway their emotions or substantially influence their wills. Hume's theory regarding the process that agents use to act is a departure from the classical Greek model in that it relies on passion and is devoid of the idea of using practical reasoning to overcome feelings of fear to accomplish a noble end. For Hume, only a person's passions can choose their ends, and he denies that reason has the ability to evaluate their ends. Hume's notions on reason vastly contradicts the vast majority of ancient and modern philosophers' beliefs, regarding the amalgamation of human emotion and reason producing the practical reasoning to guide an agent to act.

Hume's anti-rationalist assertion that reason cannot be the major factor producing moral action provides the foundation for his entire ethical theory. In essence, Hume uses a causality argument to explain virtues and vices and what motivates people to make moral choices. Hume argues that what moves people are sentiments of pleasure, such as, pride or love, or pain, such as humility or hatred, as they either observe actions by others or contemplate performing acts of their own. Hume adopts a subjective view to morality. He argues that one cannot use reason or science to deduce "truths" in ethics. Actions are deemed virtuous by a particular society through judgments of approval or distaste of people's sentiments when observing or contemplating a particular action. With this ethical model, Hume posits the notion that there are only two types of virtues, "natural" and "artificial," and that courage is a natural virtue since it brings the pleasurable sentiment of praise and pride to the one who acts courageously. Hume leaves very little if any room for reason to either direct the people will, or even work in conjunction with people passions or emotions to form any kind of practical reasoning a person can rely on to guide them on a path to ethical behavior.

Hume presents a four-point catalogue of sentiments in his EPM that he thinks comprise virtues, and they are similar to Descartes' list of passions. In fact, like Descartes' descriptions of his passions, Hume's descriptions of the virtues are done in a similar vain and take up the bulk of the book. Hume's virtue of courage is found in section seven of the EPM under his third category entitled, Qualities immediately agreeable to ourselves. Hume describes this third category of sentiments as a list of personal merits, "...which is useful or agreeable to the person himself or to others, communicates a pleasure to the spectators, engages his esteem, and is admitted under the honourable denomination of virtue or merit." (EPM, 2. 1. 9. 12). Hume states that, "The utility of COURAGE, both to the public and to the person possessed of it, is an obvious foundation of merit." This opening line in Hume's description is not counter to the classical Greek ideal of courage. (EPM, 2. 1. 7. 11). Hume goes on to state, "But to anyone who duly considers of the matter, it will appear, that this quality has a peculiar luster, which it derives wholly from itself, and from that noble elevation inseparable from it." (EPM, 2. 1. 7. 11). This line in Hume's description describes courage more in line with the ancient Greek notion of courage as depicted in Homer's Iliad. This is borne out in Hume's last line of his description wherein he writes, "Its (courage) figure, drawn by painters and by poets, displays, in each feature, a sublimity and daring confidence; which catches the eye, engages the affections, and diffuses, by sympathy, a like sublimity of sentiment over every spectator." (EPM, 2. 1. 7. 11).

I find it interesting that Hume is the first philosopher since the classical Greeks to recognize, whether for good or bad, the influence the arts play on people's passions and its effects on their actions; particularly in regards to the virtue of courage. In addition, Hume, who during his lifetime enjoyed a reputation as a historian of great renown, uses examples from history to explain in his EPM how the virtue of courage has favorably worked on people's passions. For example, he writes that, "The martial temper of the Romans, enflamed by continual wars, had raised their esteem of courage so high, that, in their language, it was called virtue, by way of excellence and distinction from all other moral qualities." (EPM, 2. 1. 7. 13). Once again, Hume addresses artistic influence in undeveloped cultures, including the Homeric era in Greece, "...who have not, as yet, had full experience of the advantages attending beneficence, justice, and the social virtues, courage is the predominant excellence; what is most celebrated by poets, recommended by parents, and instructors, and admired by the public in general." EPM, 134, (EPM, 2. 1. 7. 15). Even classical Greek philosophers commented on this phenomenon. Aristotle in his Poetics, observes and accepts the notion that the depiction of tragic heroes on stage greatly influences the Greek understanding of courage. On the other hand, Plato, in his Republic, railed against Greek tragedy as a pernicious influence arguing that Greeks should be influenced by reason and not their passions. This is why Plato was so careful to point out that the Guardians of the city had to be taught the right type of literature to develop their courage.

Hume's historically rich description of the virtue of courage and how it is a virtue of passion with little if any influence from reason, shows the evolutionary change for the virtue of courage is a stark break from all the previous philosophers.'. Hume leaves very little if any room for reason to either direct the people will, or even work in conjunction with people passions or emotions to form any kind of practical reasoning a person can rely on to guide them on a path to ethical behavior.

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