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A Theory of Moral Objectivity (Section 4c - Hume)

By Robert M. Ellis, originally written as a Ph.D. thesis 'A Buddhist theory of moral objectivity' in 2001. This html version copyright 2008.

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4c)      Hume


i)                    The beginning of modern nihilism


Returning to the more or less chronological structure of my account of nihilism, I will now make a great leap from Aristotle to the modern period of truly nihilistic thought. In considering modern nihilism the structure of my account will bifurcate, considering firstly the development of scientism from Hume to Wittgenstein, secondly the development of existentialism from Nietzsche to the postmodernists, and also in between these including some consideration of pragmatism, which shares some features of both types of nihilism.


Before embarking on an account of Hume’s nihilism, though, it will be useful to briefly consider the nature of the gap between Aristotle and the Classical Sceptics on the one hand, and modern scientism on the other. It would probably be an exaggeration to claim that there was no nihilism at all in the West throughout the medieval period, but more accurate to say that what there was developed partially and unsystematically within a framework of largely eternalist premises. While the ideological cement of the social order remained an appeal to absolute ethics, even those who disobeyed or denied those ethics tended to substitute another form of eternalism. And those whose thought led them in a scientistic direction (such as William of Ockham in the early 14th century) still did so within an overall framework of eternalism because they did not apply their scientism to ethics.


Socially, economically and politically, the development of nihilism was only made possible by the upheavals of the Renaissance and Reformation, which I have already examined in the context of the history of Christian eternalism[1]. These events seem to have enabled a general development of individualism, Scepticism and hedonism during the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The individualism was associated chiefly with the new standards of judgement on religious issues applied during the Reformation, the Scepticism with the rediscovery of the classics and the spread of information through printing, and the hedonism with economic progress and the plunder of the New World, which created unprecedented wealth. During this period the intellectual resources required for a nihilist philosophy were slowly being gathered, and crucially the key influences in this development proved to be Aristotle and Sextus Empiricus.


The discovery of Aristotle occurred much earlier than that of Sextus Empiricus, with the transmission of Aristotle texts from the Muslims to the Christian world in the mid 12th century[2]. This gradually led to an increasing sense of a conflict between philosophical reason and Christian revelation in the late medieval period, leading to responses which varied between the Augustinian insistence on the primacy of revelation and the relativistic “twofold truth” associated with Averroës[3], with Aquinas’s attempts to appropriate Aristotle into the structure of Christian theology in between. Aristotle’s naturalistic epistemology thus offered one of the main challenges to eternalist dogmatism which helped to precipitate the intellectual upheavals of the Renaissance, despite the fact that, by the time the Renaissance emphasis on observation had begun to create a modern science in the sixteenth century, it was Aristotelian scientific beliefs which then became the dogmatic stumbling-block.


The influence of Sextus Empiricus, however, seems to have been decisive in providing a more direct stimulus for the development of thought which was much more fully nihilistic. The impetus seems to have come from the publication of an accessible translation of Sextus Empiricus in the mid 16th century, which influenced such figures as Montaigne, Pascal, Descartes and Hume[4]. The approach of Descartes, which I have already examined, was an attempt to assimilate Scepticism to an eternalist ethic, whilst that of Montaigne (and Erasmus before him) resembled that of the Classical Sceptics in that they took their religious and ethical context for granted and used Sceptical arguments to deny that there were any rational grounds for changing ones conventional position[5].


In Pascal and Hume, however, we get the emergence of a new kind of attitude, a use of Scepticism which, whilst drawing on the arguments of Sextus Empiricus, differs from him greatly in tone and purpose. As Popkin writes:

The Sextus patient is a “laid-back” Californian, a Reagan looking happy at an unintelligible, maybe hostile world. The modern sceptic, Pascal or Hume, is frantic, living a nightmare, searching desperately for truth and reality.[6]


It seems that for the first time Scepticism appears truly threatening, perhaps because the security of the eternalist delusion which had held sway for so long was finally crumbling. For Sextus and for Montaigne, the conventional framework of values could be taken for granted and the Scepticism, whatever its pretensions at completeness, was partial. For Hume, though, Scepticism seemed loaded with the possibility of the abyss, and a new and more honest ground of value was needed in response to the challenge before all sense of reality gave way. If in the end he concluded that Scepticism could only be applied partially, it was not through lack of examination of what he took to be its full implications.


The basic scientism of Hume’s work, then, is a response to Scepticism. Hume’s motivation is a fundamentally moral one[7], but he attempts to substitute for eternalistic dogma an account of human values based on human knowledge derived through experience. He does this with a degree of systematic honesty that moves on the philosophical debate massively, but at the same time makes empiricist assumptions analogous to Aristotle’s which shape the subsequent scientistic tradition and keep it firmly within the realm of dualism. I shall now examine some of the aspects of  Hume’s philosophy which comprise this scientism.


ii)                  Ideas and impressions


Hume’s method of establishing the empirical basis of knowledge consists in an appeal to nature accompanying an admission of the uncertainty attending all inductive reasoning. Whilst Scepticism is taken seriously enough to lead Hume into a momentary despair, he is confident in the ability of nature to force us to make affirmative judgements and thus lift us out of it[8]. This naturalism thus enables him to recommend an indirect realism or “the double existence of perceptions and objects”[9] whereby perceptions are judged according to grounds of nature, objects as distinct from perceptions on grounds of reason. But Hume clearly does not think unperceived objects are of more than theoretical interest, since although they rob our perceptions of certainty, he strongly rejects all attempts to reach certainty by any other means than perception. The basis of his scientism, and particularly of his descriptivist ethics, lies in his naturalism, and the basis of this is laid at the very beginning of his Treatise of Human Nature in the form of his doctrine of ideas and impressions.


Hume regards ideas and impressions as qualitatively similar in that both are types of perception, differing only in “their degree of force and vivacity”[10]. He also separates both ideas and impressions into simple and complex types, enabling him to maintain a type of empirical atomism whereby complex ideas or impressions are always reducible to simple components, and simple ideas are ultimately derivable from simple impressions[11]. This enables Hume to follow Locke in describing the human understanding as a tabula rasa, devoid of innate ideas, building up knowledge purely through a process of experience. Since each simple impression consists of a representation of the world, any complex idea about the world is simply a paler compounded version of it, and does not have to go through any process of translation from the medium of perception to that of theorisation. Although Hume admits that our initial impressions of objects are by no means certain, when we adopt our apparently unavoidable naturalism it seems that, because of this interchangeability between ideas and impressions, we can achieve an optimum degree of certainty according to the coherence of our impressions.


Hume maintains this account of ideas as more forceful and vivacious impressions by appealing to something similar to modern prototype theory, the empiricist interpretation of which fits Hume’s view that “The image in the mind is only that of a particular object, though the application of it in our reasoning be the same, as though it were universal”[12]. In prototype theory, categorial concepts have been shown by empirical experiments to have particular associations with best examples conformable to a subject’s experiences of that category. For example, in the experiments of Eleanor Rosch, robins and sparrows were consistently taken as better examples of the category bird than owls or penguins. This has sometimes been taken to imply that, in Hume’s language, the idea of a bird was somehow reducible to its prototypical example, with the further implication (which Hume does not draw) that there were no real defined ideas, only relatively applied impressions, in actual human semantic practice. However, as Lakoff points out in relation to this example, Rosch’s findings “are consistent with the interpretation that the category bird has strict boundaries and that robins, owls and penguins are all 100 percent members of that category. However, that category must have additional internal structure of some sort that produces these goodness-of-example ratings”[13].


The difficulty here arises from the representationalist assumption Hume makes that the way in which our concepts represent our experiences is in some way more essential to them than the role they play in our activities. When Hume tried through direct introspection to trace general ideas in his mind, he could not come up with any because the exercise he was engaged in was functionally framed so as to pick out particular representational images. We cannot come up with a representational image of the category “bird”, just as, as Hume remarks, we have no “adequate idea” of a thousand. When asked to come up with such a representational image we come up only with prototypes. This does not mean, however, that we cannot apply such an idea, since we can identify which sorts of object do or do not fall into the category “bird”, and count out a thousand objects, or use the concept of a thousand in arithmetic with further practical applications. Hume offers us no reason why we should think of ideas in these reductive representational terms, only in terms of their prototypes, rather than their pragmatic application, apart from the assumed need to establish a representational reality as a basis of moral reasoning.


Hume’s approach here has proved much more influential than the relative crudity of his arguments (by modern philosophical standards) might lead one to imagine[14]. The influence of his arguments may be explicable by the respect in which they reflect the premature non-dualism of eternalism in a scientistic context. For hidden in the apparently incrementalist assertion of a continuity between impressions and ideas is the denial of a discontinuity between the egoistic projection of rational dichotomies and its absence. To deny the independence of ideas is to deny the self-defined independence of the ego. Without the recognition of this discontinuity there is no possibility of overcoming dualism, since one has moved prematurely into a purely conceptual idea of non-dualism in which egoistic idea and non-egoistic impression are not separated. Without recognition of the conceptual identifications of the ego, however, its desires cannot be harnessed to any project of integration. Hume’s doctrine of ideas and impressions thus readily provided a basis for dogmatic empiricism, which followed an established dualist pattern of the appropriation of the power of non-dualist ideas to dualist ends.


Hume’s understanding of impressions as the basic building-blocks also starts off on the assumption of a false contrast with ideas, as impressions are taken to be objective raw sense-data rather than a formation of sense-data interpreted through the medium of ideas. Far from recognising the complexity of the relationship between impressions and ideas, then, Hume is reducing all ideas to impressions. The distinction which needs to be made is not that between actual impressions as tabula rasa experiences and ideas as subject to dualistic distortion, but between  the unavoidable perceptual conditioning of ones mental and physical constitution and the avoidable conditioning of dualism. Within these two categories (each of which contains both “ideas” and “impressions”) the incrementality Hume offers might then be useful. Perhaps one reason for the lack of a needed distinction here can be found in Hume’s formula to explain the incrementality of ideas and impressions according to “force and vivacity”: two concepts which may need to be distinguished. For “force” suggests the power of an experience to cause us to respond with desire or aversion, whereas “vivacity” suggests only the strength of an experience or degree of awareness engaged with it, and if defined in this way the strength of one does not imply any necessary relationship to the strength of the other. Whilst Hume wants to say that impressions, being more immediate, have more force and vivacity than ideas, it appears that ideas often have more force and less vivacity, whilst impressions have more vivacity and less force: the point of interchange of these relative values is then definitive of the distinction between these two types of experience.  


Hume applies his account of ideas in a similar way to that in which Aristotle applies his teleological account of objects, as a way of making the universe human-shaped and knowable. If our ideas are all derived from simple impressions, all ideas, to be “just”, must be imaginable in the sense of being derivable from rearranged simple impressions, and those that are not imaginable are thus to be rejected. He thus rejects the infinite divisibility of space on the grounds that no actual extension of space can be smaller than our idea of it, presumably assuming that if our ideas can be indivisible this must also apply to our impressions and to the world they represent[15]. On the same criteria it appears that Hume should reject the idea of infinity altogether, since we can form no adequate representational idea of it. These conclusions seem to run contrary to Hume’s indirect realism and his admission that objects cannot be known to be as they are perceived with certainty, which if consistently applied would suggest that reality may be infinite even if perception is not. They also run contrary to his earlier admission that ideas can be applied in a universal way: for even if it is true that our ideas, considered as particular experiences, are finite, why should it be problematic that they represent the infinite in a sphere where the concept of the infinite has a useful application? It is at least no more problematic than the use of the term “thousand” despite our lack of a “just” idea of it.


The best explanation for Hume’s inconsistencies here seems to be that a more consistently-applied Scepticism would undermine the values that he wants to promote, which are those of the scientistic promotion of knowledge as universal value and the dismissal of other grounds of universal value. The notion of a correct (or “just”) empirical judgement has been allowed to dogmatically dominate the account of ideas and impressions because, as Stroud suggests[16], Hume was mainly interested in creating an account of empirical knowledge which would be useful to him later, particularly it seems in his exposition of a descriptivist ethics.


iii)                Belief and causality


Hume’s account of ideas and impressions lays the groundwork for his accounts of belief and causality, both of which are important not only for supporting Hume’s naturalism (and hence his ethical descriptivism) but also in forestalling a psychological approach of the kind which might enable Humean empiricism to be interpreted in a more non-dualist fashion.


For Hume a belief is “A lively idea related to or associated with a present impression”[17], being distinguished from other ideas merely by its liveliness and by its association with an impression which triggers it. Beliefs are thus incorporated into the incremental scale of ideas and impressions. Hume is determined to avoid any kind of epistemological foundationalism in his account both of belief and of truth, because this would involve him in assumptions about the causality of our beliefs which he believed to be merely speculative. A belief appears to us with greater force when it is based on a greater coherence of explanation, and for this reason he regards a true belief as differing from an untrue one purely because of the degree of force with which it appears to us[18]. This force Hume attributes usually to “that solidity and force which…attend those ideas that are established by reasonings from causation”, but it may also be established purely through the use of the imagination[19].


For Hume an account of causality must then be dependent on an account of belief (not vice-versa), for his fundamental assumption is that nothing useful can be said about the causation of belief without entering into speculative metaphysics, whilst our beliefs about causation can be examined phenomenalistically in accordance with the doctrine of impressions, the degree of liveliness and thus the coherentist truth of a causal claim being increased by the amount of inductive evidence available. Hume’s understanding of causation involves the isolation of two experienced events between which there is a constant conjunction, so that a cause becomes “an object, similar to another, and where all the objects similar to the first are followed by objects similar to the second”[20].


Hume’s influential account of causation offers one of the largest philosophical obstacles to non-dualism because it requires a rejection of all language about unconscious causes: and with the a priori rejection of the concept of the unconscious the idea of aspects of the psyche beyond the ego becomes unintelligible. A strict Humean account requires that a justifiable account of cause can only be based on the constant conjunction between two experienced events, not between one type of experienced event and an explanatory construction which itself lies beyond experience. Hume it seems would thus have rejected the idea of the unconscious as mere speculation comparable to the belief in God.


This approach can only be challenged by asking whether Hume’s priority of belief over causation is actually correct. Its widespread acceptance seems surprising given that it actually appears to depend on the doctrine of ideas and impressions. For in order for us to have a justified belief that causation is occurring, that belief, on Hume’s account, must be based on two distinguishable but regularly conjoined impressions, and to accept his account we must thus believe a priori that such independently distinguishable impressions exist. In order to select independent impressions as the basis for “events” which justify propositions about causality, we must pre-suppose the criteria on which they are to be selected as distinct from the surrounding objects and events. This involves limitations in both time and space in defining the “cause” and “effect” and ignoring the possible causal involvement of things beyond the definition in the conjunction being investigated. The constancy of a conjunction between two events also depends on an assumption of uniformity between different pairs of events which appear qualitatively similar to some degree but are quantitatively different, when there are very likely to be differences between such qualitatively similar events which, although relatively small by comparison with the scale of the causal event described, may still be significant[21].


The Humean account of causation thus depends on the atomism or methodological individualism of Hume’s account of impressions, a feature which is likely to remain even if the account of impressions itself is made more sophisticated. A Humean response to such criticisms may well be that they are merely Sceptical and that there is no alternative to the degree of approximation involved in inductive judgements about causation. Yet the claim that there is no alternative involves a dichotomy which we are by no means required to impose. This is the dichotomy of choice between establishing acceptable criteria of belief prior to those of causation, or speculating about the nature of the causation of our beliefs. In this respect the opposed Kantian approach of claiming that the assumption of causation is required for us to form our beliefs is no more convincing for the reverse reasons: for where Hume requires a methodological individualism, Kant requires a methodological holism whereby we assume that causality always operates in some way[22], an assumption which may be true but does not help us in any specific context where we are trying to justify our theorisations of how it does or does not operate in particular ways.


In both the cases of Hume and of Kant, the imposition of the dichotomy arose from the assumption that scientific investigation needed the support of an uncontrovertible epistemology, rather than an epistemology which, like the theories of science themselves, can only be adopted provisionally. The best alternative to Hume’s understanding of causality thus appears to be a pragmatic one in which it is neither assumed that the criteria of justification of belief must be established prior to those of causality, nor that we must have a firm explanation of the causation of belief. Instead, a provisional explanation for the justification of causal beliefs according to observation needs to be held alongside a provisional explanation of the causality of beliefs. If we limit our explanation to one of these paradigms rather than the other it appears that we limit our understanding of ethics, as the justification of belief on Humean lines alone encourages nihilism by ruling out psychological explanations, whilst the construction of causal accounts of belief may encourage eternalist dogmatism about the grounds of ethical universality in human nature. Constructions produced to provide causal accounts of belief need to be constantly examined for their consistency with experience, yet if we refrain from making such constructions we prevent ourselves from finding any grounds of value or justification even for the process of investigation itself.


The Humean account of belief has a further weakness, again resting on an unnecessary dualism, which particularly emerges in Hume’s account of probability. This involves the place of the judgement of the subject in estimations of the likelihood of truth of general claims made on the basis of induction. The criterion of probability is a psychological one in the sense that Hume recognises that our estimation of probability depends on our experience from a given limited standpoint, yet the emphasis in estimations of probability otherwise begins with the object.

‘Tis by habit we make the transition from cause to effect….But when we have not observed a sufficient number of instances, to produce a strong habit; or when these instances are contrary to each other; or when the resemblance is not exact; or the present impression is faint and obscure; or the experience in some measure obliterated from the memory; or the connexion dependent on a long line of objects; or the inference derived from general rules, and yet not conformable to them: In all these cases the evidence diminishes by the diminution of the force and intenseness of the idea. This therefore is the nature of judgement and probability.[23]


At this point the role of the subject consists only in a possible hindrance to an otherwise normal observation, due either to defects in the sense-apparatus or defects in the memory. If such hindrances are not present Hume requires us to concentrate on the objective evidence alone. Later in the Treatise, however, he offers a much more positive view of the role of the subject.

In every judgement, which we can form concerning probability, as well as concerning knowledge, we ought always to correct the first judgement, derived from the nature of the object, by another judgement, derived from the nature of the understanding. ‘Tis certain a man of solid sense and long experience ought to have, and usually has, a greater assurance in his opinions, than one that is foolish and ignorant, and that our sentiments have different degrees of authority, even with ourselves, in proportion to the degrees of our reason and experience….Here then arises a new species of probability to correct and regulate the first, and fix its just standard and proportion. As demonstration is subject to the control of probability, so is probability liable to a new correction by a reflex of the mind, wherein the nature of the understanding, and our reasoning from the first probability become our objects.[24]


This insight of Hume’s appears to have been neglected by subsequent empiricists keen to give objectivity to empirical observation and exclude serious consideration of the psychological, rather than merely perspectival, influence of the observer. Perhaps this is because the implications are difficult to reconcile with the rest of Hume’s naturalism. However, even in Hume this “new species of probability” appears definitely secondary to the first, and there appears to be no recognition that the nature of the observer may help to fix the standards applied to the object in the first kind (at least of a kind that does not get lost in the naturalistic dismissal of Scepticism).


The two types of probability, being based on different criteria, could also be in conflict of a kind that Hume provides no resources to resolve. In Hume’s primary account of probability the different observable aspects of the objects are to be judged by standards that are not fully specified, whereas in the secondary account the specification of standards is to be made by the observer and the probability involved is that of the specification of correct standards. Since even a person who is more likely to specify correct standards is likely to be wrong on some occasions, it is possible for there to be a high probability in this regard, when the nature of the observer is taken into account, together with a low probability in relation to the same objects according to the primary account of probability where the standards of judgement are left open. An experienced ornithologist might reach the conclusion that there was a high  probability of some rare migrant bird visiting Britain at a certain time given particular weather patterns etc, whilst any other person taken at random and provided with the same evidence would conclude that there was a very low probability of the bird occurring because of its general rarity. Without the application of particular skills and experience in this case, entirely different estimates of probability were made from those made with them, and the primary source of probability proved to be not the objective evidence itself but the standards required in interpreting it, by which resemblances in avian and meteorological patterns were to be judged.


Hume thus still presents us with a dualism despite his realisation that objectivity is incremental and a product of the understanding, this being a dualism between the psychological criteria applicable to the subject and the naturalistic ones applied to the object. In effect he seems to want to place objectivity (as a basis of estimations of probability) in the understanding without admitting the ways in which this makes the primary criterion of probability psychological. This approach again supports his scientism, as it allows him to support a criterion for probabilistic objectivity in scientific beliefs whilst separating this account of belief from that of moral motivation.


Hume’s emphasis on the role of force in his explanation of belief is also an indication of the determinism which he takes to underlie it. For the replacement of a more customary account of judgement with the doctrine of ideas and impressions gives him grounds for claiming that the acceptance of a belief is merely the effect of the degree of force with which we experience it, and since this degree of force depends on the degree of truth attached to the impressions which support the belief (and hence the belief itself), our acceptance of beliefs appears to be inevitable. This determinism supports Hume’s naturalism by producing a link between world, observation and theory which, though not one of certainty, reaches the optimum probability obtainable by inductive methods, as it appears that we could not think otherwise or gain any stronger impression. The same determinism later applied to ethics, as we shall see, makes descriptivism similarly inevitable.


iv)                The denial of the self


Before moving on to consider Hume’s ethics I want to briefly consider another application of Hume’s scientism which, like his empiricism, may be interpreted as non-dualist but is in fact much less so than it appears because of its scientistic context. This is Hume’s denial of the self, or of a determinate criterion of personal identity.


Hume’s argument is couched in his language of ideas and impressions, and can be quite briefly summarised. To have a determinate criterion for the idea of a permanent and unchanging self, there must be a permanent and unchanging impression or impressions. But on introspection Hume discovers no such permanent impression, but only constantly changing distinguishable perceptions with which he identifies. “I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe any thing but the perception”[25]. Our tendency to believe in the permanence of the self Hume ascribes to a mistaking of resemblance, contiguity or causation between separate parts for an uninterrupted identity, made especially likely by the gradualness of change in the body and by the mutual adaptation of parts in it to a common end, which make it seem unified[26].


Hume’s argument here needs to be appreciated in its full context. Firstly, as he writes near the beginning of it, “we must distinguish betwixt personal identity, as it regards our thought or imagination, and as it regards our passions or the concern we take in ourselves”[27]. For him the argument about personal identity thus begins with the scientistic division between facts (which are inductively known through thought and imagination comparing perceptions) and values. Hume boldly seeks to know the facts about his own existence, and discovers through his unflinching honesty that he has no such factual existence as an unchanging being: but before doing this he has already insulated himself from any application of the results of this enquiry to his values. Hume’s argument thus offers absolutely no threat to the ego or its separation from the rest of the psyche, but rather reinforces the ego through the belief that egoism is inevitable regardless of the status of what it is identified with. This impression of insulation is reinforced by the way in which, on his own account, Hume does not take the impact of such Sceptical investigations seriously, but rather on finding them uncomfortable merely distracts himself from them[28].


Secondly, the dependence of Hume’s argument on the doctrine of ideas and impressions means that it is subject to the very same false continuity that I identified above in that doctrine. Hume can only consistently draw the conclusion that the idea of the self is not justified by changing impressions through the additional premise that ideas are not qualitatively but only quantitatively distinct from impressions. This in turn springs, as I argued above, from his representationalist rather than pragmatic understanding of the meaning of ideas. In assuming that the idea of the self must be continuous with the impressions which support it, he seems to misunderstand the nature of the idea of the self by applying incrementality to a thing that only understands and creates itself through discontinuity, just as he did with the other ideas. In excluding personal identity “as it regards our passions” from the investigation he appears to exclude personal identity altogether.


Thirdly, Hume’s denial of the self likewise depends on the priority of belief over causation which I discussed in the previous subsection. Hume attempts to examine the grounds for the belief in the self without examining its causes, because he has already concluded that the justification of beliefs is independent of their causes. However, to ignore the affective causes of the self is again to ignore the substance of the belief. Comparison with Kant here is again useful, since Kant adopts a similar strategy of dividing the self between the cognitive and affective spheres: however, for him it is the self as a prior condition of all conceptualisation of experience (transcendental apperception) which is purely cognitive, whilst the self as empirically experienced is contaminated by affect[29]. As Kant gives prior conditions priority over belief, his account identifies the cognitively important aspects of the self with those prior conditions, rather than with beliefs which can only be assessed independently of conditions as Hume does. But he does this for similar reasons in maintaining the purity of cognitive investigation. Despite their apparent opposition of approaches, Kant and Hume thus both impose a duality on their investigation of the self which prevents them from balancing the two sorts of investigation (discussed above) that are required to understand both the power of the self-as-ego and its degree of influence over scientific and ethical thought. Whilst Hume’s account over-particularises the self and obstructs an understanding of our attachment to the idea, Kant’s over-generalises it in a way which obstructs the particular application of rationality to its empirical manifestations.


To imagine Hume’s denial of the self as appreciably non-dualistic is thus to take it out of its epistemological and moral context entirely, and to overestimate the importance of the metaphysics of the self[30]. In a purely metaphysical account of non-dualism the mere denial of the self alone implies non-dualism because there then remains no metaphysical basis for a separation between self and other. This, however, makes the mistake of understanding the self in purely representational rather than pragmatic terms. In the account of non-dualism I offer here this type of metaphysical “non-dualism” is not non-dualistic at all, but on the contrary is dualistic at the start because of its metaphysical assumptions. Hume’s denial of the self is merely an outcome of the particular type of scientism he developed, consistent with its assumptions but not in itself constitutive of anything very much of  either a dualist or non-dualist nature.


v)                  Ethical descriptivism


So I come at last to Hume’s account of ethics and its grounds. Hume’s descriptivist ethics involves three fundamental assumptions: firstly that reason and the emotions can be clearly separated, secondly that ethics is based only on the emotions, and thirdly that our emotionally-driven sense of ethics is inspired by desire for benefits which can be reduced to a conventional framework.


The separation of reason and emotion is at the heart of Hume’s scientism and supports his fact-value distinction. Hume’s argument is that reason consists in ideas, whereas

A passion is an original existence…and contains not any representative quality….’Tis impossible, therefore, that this passion can be opposed by, or be contradictory to truth or reason; since this contradiction consists in the disagreement of ideas, considered as copies, with those objects, which they represent[31].


The dependence of this argument on representationalism should be immediately clear, as should its appeal to the assumption that an idea is a sort of representational impression. If ideas, on the other hand, are not defined as representations, no such contrast as Hume claims between representational ideas and non-representational “existences” can exist. Beliefs and emotions can be seen, instead, as dual aspects of human activity, comprising its inseparable directing and driving forces.


This distinction is closely related to the fact-value distinction, which was first promulgated by Hume[32]. According to this no “ought” proposition can be derived from an “is” proposition: whilst this is strictly true in logical terms, it appears to have no application to any real discussion because it makes the same unjustified dichotomy between a representational “is” and a non-representational “ought” as that between reason and emotion. If “is” is not a term which can be strictly and accurately applied to any proposition without an infusion of “ought”, and every actual “ought” proposition likewise contains an infusion of “is”, then the distinction  is not as clear as Hume suggests. This is not to say that his criticisms of the moral epistemology of rationalist philosophers who derived “ought” propositions from “is” propositions are not justified, but that the justification of the criticism probably derives from the dogmatic nature of both “is” and “ought” propositions rather than merely the logical relationship between them.


For Hume, the implications of the separation of reason and emotion are that no passion can be judged by any objective criterion, as “reasonable” or “unreasonable”. When understood in relation to Hume’s determinism, this means that the passions which drive and direct action are determined, whilst the role of reason is not to direct but to gain knowledge of what occurs. The complete neutrality of reason in the role Hume assigns it leads to his famous provocative comment that “’Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger”[33]. According to Hume’s own criteria, however, no such neutrally rational position occurs from which to remain unmoved by such a comparison, and this statement itself must express emotion. It does not seem to occur to Hume that negative statements about what reason is not concerned with are themselves expressive of value positions, in this case scientistic ones. In this he seems to follow the general nihilist tendency, which I first noted in connection with the Classical Sceptics, to slip from Scepticism to negative dogmatism but to continue to try to give the rational force of the former to the latter.


The non-existence of such a neutral standpoint follows from Hume’s second main assumption, that all actions, and hence all ethics, are driven by the passions. “Reason is, and ought to be, the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them”[34]. Clearly such slavery is only possible given the dualistic separation between reason and emotion discussed above: if there is doubt about the separability of two entities there is a similar doubt about any power relationship between them. Power relations also seem to require will and activity on the part of both master and slave: a will and activity which reason cannot have on Hume’s account. Hume nevertheless concludes that moral distinctions cannot be the outcome of reason because only emotion can motivate action[35].


The mistake made here is one Hume merely copies from many dualists before him: that of placing all passions on the same level and providing no criteria for their moral differentiation. He is prevented from doing so by the duality he has created between reason and emotion, so that, having already given reason a privileged neutral and supposedly amoral position in an entirely separate zone from emotion, Hume cannot allow any emotion to approach reason or share any of its qualities.


It follows from these first two points of Hume’s that there is no such thing as prescriptive ethics, only a description of how people actually behave according to the passions which rule them. This standpoint certainly allows Hume to draw out ways in which apparent rationality can be understood as the outcome of determined forces: a standpoint which has been taken by social scientists ever since. Hume stresses that this does not mean that all moral passion can be reduced to self-love[36], nor that there is no distinction between moral and immoral feelings[37]. Instead he suggests that moral feelings are those which benefit ourselves and others through their utility or agreeability, whilst immoral feelings are ones which do not benefit either the possessor or others. The grounds for this, though, are found in general sentiment as it is constantly reflected in moral language. Hume even claims that this moral language reflects a sentiment which does not merely assume the universality of its prescriptions but is universal[38].


In this way Hume is able to make his account of ethics serve the same function as that served for many centuries by eternalist ethics: to provide a rationalisation for conventional ethical standards. This is both explicitly his intention and evident in his account of the virtues, which, for example, seek to justify common admiration of beauty and wealth by arguing its utility[39]. Yet the way in which he does so suffices to make that process of justification more open, honest and worldly. Whilst Hume’s values are definitely the conventions of the group, then, and as such offer no advance on eternalist ones, his worldliness does enable him to attack some of the extremes of alienation found in the eternalist tradition, offering hedonism in their place.

Celibacy, fasting, penance, mortification, self-denial, humility, silence, solitude, and the whole train of monkish virtues; for what reason are they everywhere rejected by men of sense, but because they serve no manner of purpose; neither advance a man’s fortune in the world, nor render him a more valuable member of society; neither qualify him for the entertainment of company, nor increase his power of self-enjoyment? We observe, on the contrary, that they cross all these desirable ends; stupefy the understanding and harden the heart, obscure the fancy and sour the temper. We justly, therefore, transfer them to the opposite column, and place them in the catalogue of vices.[40]  


Hume does seem to perceive something of the failure of eternalism, attributing it to rational deficiencies which he attacks in his philosophy of religion as well as in his ethics. But at the same time he feels the need to replace it with something of a similar shape: a basis of rational authority which supports conventional norms. This is particularly evident where the claims for his ethics begin to shadow those for cosmic justice which he has emphatically rejected elsewhere[41]. At the conclusion of the Second Enquiry Hume claims that following the kind of ethics he has described will not only lead to the approbation of society, but to personal advantage, with no follower of it needing to sacrifice any pleasure “but in hopes of ample compensation in some other period of their lives”[42]. He denies that there is any real conflict between individual feelings and conventional morality, claiming if the individual bows to social morality they will always benefit later[43]. Even in a case where breaking conventional morality through dishonesty appears to have benefits and no-one will ever discover the fraud, he claims that a person giving in to this temptation will still suffer on balance because they will lose peace of mind and a sense of moral integrity, and set up a pattern of moral weakness which will lead to a future loss of reputation[44].


Whilst this may often be true, Hume’s need to assert it as a general truth is striking. It suggests that for him the scientistic authority of empirical conclusions largely stands in the place of religious authority. The limitations of his empirical method are much more obvious to later commentators than they were to him, and the benefit of a further two and a half centuries has made it generally clearer how much his confidence in the conventional ethics of his own society, like that of Aristotle, was generally misplaced. He differs from Aristotle, however, in making many more unjustified hard-and-fast distinctions in providing a rational justification of this trust, which were the most unfortunate aspect of his scientistic legacy to future generations of thinkers.


[1] See 3.f.vii & viii

[2] Geanakoplos (1979) p.325

[3] ibid. p.329

[4] Popkin (1964)

[5] Popkin (1992) p.239

[6] ibid. p.223

[7] ibid. p.236

[8] Hume (1978) p.269

[9] ibid. p.215

[10] ibid. p.2

[11] ibid. p.4

[12] ibid. p.20

[13] Lakoff (1987) p.45

[14] A more detailed account of this crudity is offered by Stroud (1977) ch.2. As Stroud writes, “He [Hume] never asks himself whether the theory of ideas is correct, and he never gives any arguments in support of it” (p.17).

[15] Hume (1978) p.29-30

[16] Stroud (1977) p.17

[17] Hume (1978) p.96

[18] Hume does later give a twofold definition of truth as either “the discovery of proportions of ideas” or “the conformity of our ideas of objects to their real existence” (1978 p.448). However, he is here discussing the love of truth in a moral context where he is concerned with what it is we love rather than the justification of our beliefs as true.

[19] ibid. p.121

[20] Hume (1975) p.76

[21] In discussing this problem Hume does try to deal with it incrementally by assigning greater probability where the resemblance between cases is greater: see Hume (1978) p.142. I shall discuss this approach later in this subsection.

[22] In Kant’s language “All alterations take place in conformity with the law of the connection of cause and effect”: see Kant (1929) B233-A211/B256

[23] Hume (1978) p.153-4

[24] ibid. p.181-2

[25] ibid. p.252

[26] ibid. p.253-257

[27] ibid. p.253

[28] ibid. p.269

[29] Kant (1929) B152-9

[30] This appears to be a common error both in some Western accounts of Buddhism and in philosophical accounts of non-dualism or of the Buddha’s teachings about the self, which take the Buddhist doctrine of anatta or no-self outside the ethical and spiritual context which might enable it to be understood in a non-dualistic way, as well as failing to appreciate the dualism of the Humean account by comparison. e.g. see Parfit (1984) p.279-80. For a comparative account which is fairly accurate about the Buddha but still seems to underestimate Hume’s scientism, see Jacobson (1966) ch.8

[31] Hume (1978) p.415

[32] ibid. p.469-70

[33] ibid. p.416

[34] ibid. p.415

[35] ibid. p.458

[36] Hume (1975) p.243-4

[37] ibid. 2nd Enquiry Sect. 9

[38] ibid. p.273-4

[39] ibid. p.244-9

[40] ibid. p.270

[41] E.g. in Hume (1975) 1st Enquiry Sect.11

[42] ibid. p.279

[43] ibid. p.281-2

[44] ibid. p.283-4


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A Theory of Moral Objectivity: quick links to other sections


1. introduction

2a. Psychology of belief

2b. Heuristic process

2c. Psychology & philosophy

3ab. Eternalism

3cd. Plato

3e. Stoicism

3f. Christianity

3g. Kant

3h. Hegel

3i. Marx

3j. Schopenhauer

3kl. Utilitarianism

4a. Nihilism

4b. Scepticism & Aristotle

4c. Hume

4d. Analytic Philosophy

4e. Wittgenstein

4f. Pragmatism

4g. Nietzsche

4hi. Existentialists

5. Integration

6. Philosophical Problems

7. Normativity

8. Middle Way Ethics

9. Conclusion

10. Appendix



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