Superphysics Superphysics
Section 1

The General Principles Of Morals

by David Hume Icon
8 minutes  • 1660 words
Table of contents

Author’s Advertisement

Most of the principles, and reasonings, contained in this volume, were published in my A Treatise Of Human Nature

I thought of that book before I left College. I wrote and published it not long after. But it was not successful. I realized that my mistake was to publish too early.

I thus divided the work into the following smaller works which corrects his deficiencies in my reasoning and in my expression. Several writers criticized that original work and thought such criticism would refute it. So I clarify that work with this one.

Section 1

Some people have denied the reality of moral distinctions.

  • Such people can be called disingenuous disputants.

No human could ever seriously believe that all characters and actions were entitled to the affection and regard of everyone.

Nature made each person so different.

This difference is still so much farther widened by:

  • education
  • example
  • habit

Let a man’s insensibility be ever so great, he must often be touched with the images of Right and Wrong;

let his prejudices be ever so obstinate, he must observe, that others are susceptible of like impressions.

The only way to convert such an antagonist is to leave him to himself.

  • He will find that nobody cares what he thinks.

This will eventually make him weary and come over to the side of common sense and reason.

Are morals derived from Reason or from Sentiment?

Do we attain morals from a chain of argument and induction, or from an immediate feeling and finer internal sense?

Should morals be the same to every rational intelligent being, just like all sound judgement of truth and falsehood?

Or should morals be entirely subjective like the perception of beauty?

The ancient philosophers say that virtue is the conformity to reason. Yet they consider morals as being based on taste and sentiment.

On the other hand, modern philosophers also talk much of the beauty of virtue and uglinesss of vice. Yet have commonly endeavoured to account for these distinctions by metaphysical reasonings, and by deductions from the most abstract principles of the understanding.

Such confusion reigned in these subjects, that an opposition of the greatest consequence could prevail between one system and another, and even in the parts of almost each individual system;

Nobody until very recently, was ever sensible of it.

The elegant Lord Shaftesbury first noted this distinction. He adhered to the principles of the ancients. But he himself is not entirely free from the same confusion.

Both sides have specious arguments.

The Reason Camp

Moral distinctions, it may be said, are discernible by pure reason= else, whence the many disputes that reign in common life, as well as in philosophy, with regard to this subject= the long chain of proofs often produced on both sides; the examples cited, the authorities appealed to, the analogies employed, the fallacies detected, the inferences drawn, and the several conclusions adjusted to their proper principles.

Truth is disputable; not taste= what exists in the nature of things is the standard of our judgement; what each man feels within himself is the standard of sentiment. Propositions in geometry may be proved, systems in physics may be controverted; but the harmony of verse, the tenderness of passion, the brilliancy of wit, must give immediate pleasure.

No man reasons concerning another’s beauty; but frequently concerning the justice or injustice of his actions. In every criminal trial the first object of the prisoner is to disprove the facts alleged, and deny the actions imputed to him= the second to prove, that, even if these actions were real, they might be justified, as innocent and lawful. It is confessedly by deductions of the understanding, that the first point is ascertained= how can we suppose that a different faculty of the mind is employed in fixing the other?

The Sentiment Camp

This side will try to show that it is impossible for reason to draw moral conclusions. To virtue, say they, it belongs to be amiable, and vice odious. This forms their very nature or essence.

But can reason or argumentation distribute these different epithets to any subjects, and pronounce beforehand, that this must produce love, and that hatred?

These affections are the original fabric and formation of the human mind which is naturally adapted to receive them.

The end of all moral speculations is to teach us our duty.

By proper representations of the ugliness of vice and beauty of virtue, beget correspondent habits, and engage us to avoid the one, and embrace the other.

But is this ever to be expected from inferences and conclusions of the understanding, which of themselves have no hold of the affections or set in motion the active powers of men?

They discover truths= but where the truths which they discover are indifferent, and beget no desire or aversion, they can have no influence on conduct and behaviour. What is honourable, what is fair, what is becoming, what is noble, what is generous, takes possession of the heart, and animates us to embrace and maintain it. What is intelligible, what is evident, what is probable, what is true, procures only the cool assent of the understanding; and gratifying a speculative curiosity, puts an end to our researches.

Extinguish all the warm feelings and prepossessions in favour of virtue, and all disgust or aversion to vice= render men totally indifferent towards these distinctions; and morality is no longer a practical study, nor has any tendency to regulate our lives and actions.

These arguments on each side (and many more might be produced) are so plausible, that I am apt to suspect, they may, the one as well as the other, be solid and satisfactory, and that reason and sentiment concur in almost all moral determinations and conclusions.

The final sentence, it is probable, which pronounces characters and actions amiable or odious, praise-worthy or blameable; that which stamps on them the mark of honour or infamy, approbation or censure; that which renders morality an active principle and constitutes virtue our happiness, and vice our misery; it is probable, I say, that this final sentence depends on some internal sense or feeling, which nature has made universal in the whole species. For what else can have an influence of this nature?

But in order to pave the way for such a sentiment, and give a proper discernment of its object, it is often necessary, we find, that much reasoning should precede, that nice distinctions be made, just conclusions drawn, distant comparisons formed, complicated relations examined, and general facts fixed and ascertained.

Some species of beauty, especially the natural kinds, on their first appearance, command our affection and approbation; and where they fail of this effect, it is impossible for any reasoning to redress their influence, or adapt them better to our taste and sentiment. But in many orders of beauty, particularly those of the finer arts, it is requisite to employ much reasoning, in order to feel the proper sentiment; and a false relish may frequently be corrected by argument and reflection. There are just grounds to conclude, that moral beauty partakes much of this latter species, and demands the assistance of our intellectual faculties, in order to give it a suitable influence on the human mind.

In order to discover the origin of morals, we shall analyse that complication of mental qualities, which form what, in common life, we call Personal Merit. We shall consider every attribute of the mind, which renders a man an object either of esteem and affection, or of hatred and contempt; every habit or sentiment or faculty, which, if ascribed to any person, implies either praise or blame, and may enter into any panegyric or satire of his character and manners.

The quick sensibility, which, on this head, is so universal among mankind, gives a philosopher sufficient assurance, that he can never be considerably mistaken in framing the catalogue, or incur any danger of misplacing the objects of his contemplation.

He needs only enter into his own breast for a moment, and consider whether or not he should desire to have this or that quality ascribed to him, and whether such or such an imputation would proceed from a friend or an enemy.

The very nature of language guides us almost infallibly in forming a judgement of this nature; and as every tongue possesses one set of words which are taken in a good sense, and another in the opposite, the least acquaintance with the idiom suffices, without any reasoning, to direct us in collecting and arranging the estimable or blameable qualities of men.

The only object of reasoning is to discover the circumstances on both sides, which are common to these qualities; to observe that particular in which the estimable qualities agree on the one hand, and the blameable on the other; and thence to reach the foundation of ethics, and find those universal principles, from which all censure or approbation is ultimately derived. As this is a question of fact, not of abstract science, we can only expect success, by following the experimental method, and deducing general maxims from a comparison of particular instances.

The other scientific method, where a general abstract principle is first established, and is afterwards branched out into a variety of inferences and conclusions, may be more perfect in itself, but suits less the imperfection of human nature, and is a common source of illusion and mistake in this as well as in other subjects. Men are now cured of their passion for hypotheses and systems in natural philosophy, and will hearken to no arguments but those which are derived from experience. It is full time they should attempt a like reformation in all moral disquisitions; and reject every system of ethics, however subtle or ingenious, which is not founded on fact and observation.

We shall begin by looking into the social virtues of benevolence and justice. This will then lead us to other social virtues.

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