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Phil 160 Enquiry of the Principles of Morals By David Hume.

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1 Phil 160 Enquiry of the Principles of Morals By David Hume

2 Hume’s Approach Hume takes a generally naturalistic approach to explaining behavior and ideation. His earlier work, A Treatise of Human Nature, sought to ground philosophical discussion in observations of the kinds of beings we are. His approach to ethics is no different, and the Enquiry represents a refinement of his perspective expressed in the Treatise.

3 Impressions vs. Ideas One distinction crucially important to understanding Hume: Impressions: Immediate information from the senses. Ideas: are complex notions built up out of our impressions.

4 From whence is morality derived? Reason Moral proofs are supplied Moral arguments are intelligible, and nobody argues about mere sentiment Sentiment Nobody has strong reactions to purely rational exercises. Why do we care so much about morality if it is ultimately derived from reason?

5 Utility Hume’s main purpose is to settle the question of the ultimate source of morality, but puts off the question until the end of the essay. Whatever the answer to the question, it is worth pointing out that what is useful to us and what is dangerous or useless to us tends to affect how we feel about the beauty or ugliness of things.

6 Our aesthetic impressions: Useful and thus beautiful: Waving fields of grain, loaded vineyards, cooperation, etc. Useless and therefore ugly: Brambles, thorns, serpents, etc.

7 When appearances deceive: Of course, Hume concedes, some things look terrible but are really good for us, and some things look good that aren’t really good. It is the task of our faculty of reason to tell the difference between them by investigation and the application of reasoning.

8 Benevolence as a social virtue: Hume devotes Section II to an examination of benevolence (good-will). It is notable that benevolence is a purely good virtue. Wealth or power can be misused or envied, but pure benevolence is not susceptible to either. This is an impression we receive from those who demonstrate benevolence (it is sentiment). As before, some things look benevolent (e.g. alms- giving) but are ultimately not useful. It is the task of reason to sort these things out (to give us an idea of what benevolence is).

9 Justice: Hume devotes the third section to this second major social virtue. To illustrate some tings about the anture of justice, he asks us to consider some thought experiments:

10 Resources: Abundance In the situation in which there is more than enough of everything for everybody, the rules of justice would be meaningless. It would be a kind of paradise. Scarcity In the situation in which there is not enough of anything for anybody, the rules of justice are suspended. In a shipwreck, it is no crime to grab onto what floats, whether it belongs to you or not.

11 Justice and Resources: Given that we live in a situation with less than plenty, but not so little that survival is our only concern, the laws of justice have application for us.

12 Character: A Just man among Ruffians In this case, the man must grab a sword and buckler, no matter who it belongs to and defend himself. The rules of justice are of no benefit without cooperation. A Ruffian among the Just The rules of Justice are suspended in the case of the ruffian. Ordinarily we would not be able to fine or imprison people, but in this case, we must to preserve justice for everyone who cooperates.

13 A just-so story of the origin of Justice: Of course the “state of nature” never really existed, but the idea of it explains why certain people (probably families to start with) band together and cooperate for mutual benefit and protection. Say that then many families unite to the same purpose, you have the beginnings of a larger scale society.

14 Particular rules of Justice Initially, it seems as if we ought to reward those who would do the most good with the most resources (and much of our social structure is arranged to encourage this). This is called meritocracy Hume says it is difficult because merit is so obscure and difficult to pin down

15 Absolute equality Although there is certainly something wrong with too extreme a rich/poor gap, Hume points out that absolute resource equality would not work. – The differences in peoples’ talents would make the absolute equality not last long. – If we continually redistribute things to maintain absolute equality, people have no incentive to do anything useful at all.

16 The origins of Justice Some parts of our notion of justice seem instinctual, while others are clearly the result of reason and custom. Both, however, are susceptible to the ultimate usefulness to society at large.

17 Natural mechanisms that encourage justice and morality: When we witness others in pain, we often feel some measure of that pain ourselves, or have a strong reaction to it. Same with the pleasures of others. This represents mechanisms of sympathy and empathy whereby we recognize what causes good for others and bad for others. These mechanisms tend to reinforce moral and just cooperation.

18 The source of ethics Hume finally turns back to the initial question. In many ways both positions are right but insufficient. Hume concludes that without the particular sentiments that we have we cannot explain moral feelings and reactions. However, reason has a crucial role to play in examinations of what is useful to us and what is not.

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