Hume’s Critique of Rationalist Ethics

Hume’s critique of Rationalist ethics

Hume’s empiricism ruled out bot reason and Religion in ethics, particularly because of their intangible matter. Instead, Hume claimed that ethics and moral decisions is distinguished by emotional consideration. Hume also believed that, because reason is ruled out of his rationalist ethical approach, facts and logic cannot determine ethics and moral value. Hume’s absolute distinction of ethics is between what is, and what ought to be. In fact, Hume when so far as to establish a logical fallacy known as “Hume’s Guillotine”.

“’Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the world to the scratching of my   finger. ‘Tis not contrary to reason for me to choose morality…”


A reason as to why Hume claimed that reason cannot be at the basis of moral life is that ideas and facts alone lack any motivating power. Hume’s argument is a persuasive, albeit realist, approach to ethics; initially, it seems logical that moral actions are based on analysis of what action grants greater emotional ease, or lesser emotional pain, as a consequence of the situation. Yet, using a Utilitarian approach to determining morality is as though man reasons to conclude which action takes the least toll on emotional pain, or greatest measure of natural generosity.

Unfortunately, Hume does not provide us with any reason for his confidence in the ultimate triumph of benevolence over egotism (and malevolence). It is though Hume assumes that man, even a sceptic, must trust his belief of genuine human kindness with certainly more trust than man’s self-control and morality.

As well as this issue, it is observed that man is not entirely moral or nice, and instead often taking on the role of benevolence for our own desire of greed and selfish nature. Hume has a rather optimist trust that man desires ethical code more so than their own selfish benefit. Hume’s belief is a rather emotional determinist approach to ethics; for, in the midst of making a moral decision, intuitive emotions and desires arise to determine our moral decisions – leaving rationality to swim in the depths of our mind, unable to grasp for air. The Iliad displays quite an accurate depiction of a case of emotional determinism, in which Achilles abandons what is rationally thought of an ethical decision, for his emotional desire.

Of the extracted texts from A Treatise of Human Nature, Hume introduces his premise of argument that morality is emotive by acknowledging that Mainstream Western Philosophy regards reason more so than passion, and how the two are considered polar opposites of each other. Jeff McMahan, however, considers that moral action is interpreted by the brain’s cognitive function and intuition, rather than being entirely based on rationality or emotive responses.

Hume establishes that passion is due for consideration in ethical decision making, and notes that he plans on elaborating on his premise by proving that “reason alone can never be a motive to an action,” and, “that it can never oppose passion in the direction of will…” (1) Hume founds the assumption that ethical thinking is not adequate with reason, but rather passion, by observing that reason is the analysis, and discovery, of truth. Hume’s foundation investigates ethics in a rather subjective, expressionist, perspective – as opposed to objective ethics.

Because of this subjective approach, Hume continues by stating that false judgement by reason draws “no manner of guilt” as a consequence when an immoral action, based on false judgment, should subsequently bare emotional pain. For example, if one were to commit an immoral action, such as thievery, the consequence may be a feeling of guilt, and their guilt impacts on their decision on whether or not to turn themselves in for committing the crime. In this respect, emotion naturally evokes the sense of distinguishing morality from immorality.

Hume also points out that reason can, however, impact on moral decision making, but only when it “excites a passion by informing us of the existence of something which is a proper object of it; or when it discovers the connection of causes and effects.”

In the previous hypothetical situation presented, the thief may use reasoning in order to conclude whether or not he/her should hand themselves’ in, but their reasoning is due to the guilt being a result, or “effect”, of their action, leaving them with the impression that thievery is essentially wrong.

Jeff McMahan, in Moral Intuition, argues the validity of intuition as a factor for morality, and whether intuition consists of any cognitive, rational or emotive elements. Throughout the extracted reading, McMahan focuses on two primary theories concerning the nature behind intuitive ethics; the first being a metaphysical, occult approach, while the second theory suggests that “intuitions are indubitable.”

The latter theory regarding intuition’s veridicality is almost immediately dismissed by McMahan as he establishes that intuitive nature can, and is often, doubted through reasoning, as well as varying between cultural and religious background. Peter Singer, a moral Philosopher, is quoted in the extracted texts, suggesting “that all the particular moral judgments we intuitively make are likely to derive from discarded religious systems.” Singer’s statement further validates McMahan’s thesis that intuition is a cognitive function which is very, if not entirely, dependent on the individual’s cultural & religious background. McMahan’s approach to ethics is similar to Hume’s in the respect that both theses regard ethics as being relativist.

As well as this, McMahan takes into consideration man’s general intuitive thought, particularly referred to as common sense. McMahan notes that our common sense of nature and the external world has often led us to believe falsehood. In the chapter “Theory Unchecked by Intuition” (97), the example of science overruling our original perception of the world is founded. In this comparison between science (specifically physics) and instincts, McMahan acknowledges that man regards science as more reliable than their instinctive counterpart, as the studies in science are much more concise and explanatory, as well as coexisting with the laws of nature.

Personally, I consider morality to be quite significantly dependent on all three philosophical factors – emotive, intuitive and rational. It seems rational to assume that intuition often determines whether or not something is immoral, but only in the confines of a brief moment in making a moral decision. Like McMahan established, however, intuition is relative between cultures and different religious backgrounds. Yet it is in man’s nature to rationally consider the implications of a decision based on whether or not it is ethical. As previously suggested by Hume in the hypothetical situation of the thief, ethical reasoning could potentially be due to our emotional state at the time.

If I were to “pick a side”, then I would most certainly determine my moral principles not by my instinct, or passion, but rather from reasoning. For, although cultural relativism is abundant, I do believe that an objective critique of morality can be established through rationality and logic. It is entirely possible to allow reason, passion and intuition coincide with each other in meta-ethics. Through reason, one can establish that passion generally determines moral decisions, particularly in the spur of the moment, and our intuition understands that, through experience, which emotions are negative and which emotions are positive. So, from this correlation of three different philosophical standpoints, one can quite easily understand where they fit into place.



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