Superphysics Superphysics
Section 1

Moral Distinctions Not Derived From Reason

by David Hume Icon
4 minutes  • 686 words
Table of contents

Reason Is Not The Basis Of Morality

Obscure reasoning has an inconvenience which:

  • may silence an antagonist without convincing him, and
  • requires the same intense study for us to know its force, as that which was needed for its invention.

When we go into the real world, the conclusions of obscure reasoning seem to vanish.

It is hard for us to even retain that conviction we had attained with difficulty.

This is still more conspicuous in a long chain of reasoning, where we:

  • must preserve the evidence of the first propositions to the end, and
  • often lose sight of the most received maxims of philosophy.

I hope:

  • that the present system of philosophy will acquire new force as it advances, and
  • that our reasonings on morals will corroborate whatever has been said on the understanding and the passions.

Morality is a subject that interests us above all others.

We think that the peace of society is at stake in every decision concerning it.

  • This concern makes our speculations appear more real and solid, than when the subject is indifferent to us.

What affects us can never be an illusion.

Our passion is engaged on our self or on society.

We naturally think that morality lies within human comprehension.

  • In other cases of this nature, we are apt to doubt this.
  • Without this advantage, I would have never begun a third volume of such obscure philosophy

Nothing is ever present to the mind but its perceptions.

  • All the actions of seeing, hearing, judging, loving, hating, and thinking are perceptions.
  • The mind can never exert itself in any action that cannot be called a perception.
  • Consequently, ‘perception’ is also applicable to our judgments on moral good and evil.
    • To approve of one character and to condemn another are just different perceptions.

Perceptions resolve themselves into impressions and ideas.

This distinction raises a question:

  • Is it through our ideas or impressions that we:
    • distinguish between vice and virtue, and
    • call an action blameable or praiseworthy?

This will immediately:

  • cut off all loose discourses, and
  • make the present subject more precise.

Some think:

  • That virtue is just a conformity to reason,
  • That there are eternal fitness and unfitness of things, which are the same to every rational being, and
  • That the immutable measures of right and wrong impose an obligation on humans and on the Deity himself.

All these systems believe that morality, like truth, is discerned merely by:

  • ideas, and
  • their juxtaposition and comparison.

To judge these systems, we only need to consider whether it is possible, from reason alone, to distinguish:

  • between moral good and evil, or
  • whether some other principles must concur to enable us to make that distinction.

If morality naturally had no influence on human passions and actions, it would be in vain to inculcate it.

  • It would be fruitless to have that multitude of rules and precepts from all moralists.

Philosophy is commonly divided into:

  • speculative, and
  • practical.

Morality is always comprehended under practical philosophy.

Morality is supposed to:

  • influence our passions and actions, and
  • go beyond the calm and indolent judgments of the understanding.

Our common experience confirms this by informing us that men are:

  • often governed by their duties,
  • deterred from some actions by the thought of injustice, and
  • impelled to others by the thought of obligation.

Morals influence our actions and affections.

  • But reason alone can never have any such influence
  • Thus, morals cannot be derived from reason.

Morals excite passions and produce or prevent actions.

  • Reason is utterly impotent in this.

Therefore, the rules of morality are not conclusions of our reason.

No one can deny this.

  • This can only be denied by denying its founding principle.
  • We cannot say that morality is discovered only by a deduction of reason, as long as reason has no influence on our passions and actions.

An active principle can never be founded on an inactive one.

If reason were inactive in itself, it must remain inactive in all its shapes and appearances, whether it:

  • exerts itself in natural or moral subjects, or
  • considers the:
    • powers of external bodies, or
    • actions of rational beings.

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