I will be writing a trilogy on Hume. I will try my best to make it easy to understand as much as possible. This will be really a lengthy post but please bear with me. It is worth of the journey. David Hume is a critical philosopher. I don’t really agree with him at first but Hume is unique in his own way. You will see this when I talk about his position on love. Really interesting. So let us begin to embark our philosophy journey. Vietnamese translation will be tentatively out soon.
In this post, you and I will embark on the journey of metaethics. We will figure out, according to Hume, what constitutes the fundamental elements of morality. We will soon find out that the passion/desire/sentiment/feeling is what is the underlying force beneath moral motivation.
◊ Motivation and ethics
Think for a while. What are the elements/components of motivation? When you think of motivation, what are the things that consist in it?
There are 2 elements to motivation. The end-setting element and the means-finding one. The end-setting element is sort of what determines your goal and the means-finding one is how you go about to achieve your goal. It is pretty intuitive when you think about it. When you think of motivation, you need something to tell you what you ultimately want (the end-setting role). With you already knowing the goal, you ask yourself, how can I go about to achieve my goal that I have already set out before. This is the means-finding role. With two elements working together, you will be able to form your motivation.
For example, the end-setting role of motivation is something like I desperately want to marry Jun Vu ( a really pretty Vietnamese model), I don’t care no matter how unrealistic the goal is, just get it done for me. I don’t care how Jun Vu is going to think about it, ridiculous? crazy? paranoid? I don’t care. So the end-setting role of motivation basically just sets the end, it doesn’t do any of the hard work of finding out how to go about to achieve that goal. Meanwhile, the means-finding role is something like I have to let Jun Vu be aware of my existence in the world at first, and do anything considered necessary like write her a letter to confess my feeling, or whatever you may think of. The point is you can think of the end-setting role as the boss and the means-finding role is as the employee.
At the end of this post, you will find out that Hume considers the end-setting role is more important. He thinks that passion/desire/sentiment/feeling (whatever you want to call it) is the end-setting role of motivation. That means passion/desire/sentiment/feeling motivates you to do what you do. And reason plays no part in the end-setting role of motivation. At best, reason can only play the inferior means-find role. You will also find out that the foundation of morality (what is the essence of morality) is passion/desire/sentiment/feeling. This is Hume’s stance on metaethics. Put it simply, metaethics is the work to find out what is underlying force beneath morality. For Kant, as a deontologist, he thinks what is essentially for morality is reason or rationality. For someone like Mill, as a utilitarian, the foundation of morality is pleasure or pain.
So please bear with me if you don’t understand anything technical term above. It is not of importance, I will explain them along the way.
◊ Different Theories of Motivation
For the sake of understanding Hume, I will briefly mention 2 theories of motivation. Conativism and Rationalism.
So if you a conativist, you will be someone like Hume who thinks that passion is always playing the end-setting role in motivation.
Meanwhile, if you are a rationalist, you will think that reason sometimes plays the end-setting role in motivation. You are just disagreeing with the conativist in the sense that passion is not the only end-setter in motivation. Reason should also be credited too. For someone like Kant, who is genuinely a hardcore dude, he thinks that reason is and should be the only end-setter in motivation. We will get to Kant later when I finish with Hume.
There are several things to take note. In the realm of rationalism, there are 2 kinds of reasoning. Practical and theoretical reasoning. Theoretical reasoning is sort of reasoning that happens inside philosophy classroom, which deals with the way to go about to understand the world, this kind of reasoning is at best the means-finder in motivation. On the contrary, practical reasoning is dealing with our everyday situation, it tells us how should we morally behave, what we ought to do. So, when the rationalist say reason is playing the end-setting role in motivation, he/she actually refers to practical reasoning.
◊ Thought experiment: Assiduous student
Through this thought experiment, you will see that Hume will have a more difficult time to account for what is the underlying force that motivates the assiduous student to stay at home rather than to go the party.
Let’s say you are having an exam tomorrow. You are suffocating in the overwhelming load of work. You feel bored. You ponder what is the point of studying if after all, you are going to die in technically 50 – 60 years. In fact, everybody is. All of the sudden, you received a call from your best friend, saying that you are invited to a party, it is going to be a fantastic party, the party is going to be lit. Why? Jun Vu is going to be the special guest (Let’s assume your friend is one of the rich kids in Singapore or Vietnam and somehow, miraculously, he was able to invite Jun Vu to his party). Not only that, there is going to be Jay Chou, Jackie Chan, anyone you can imagine is going to be present in the party. You think for a while. The party is definitely lit.
On one hand, there is certain part, assiduous, innocent, warm-hearted part of you want to stay home and study. But. Certainly, there is much bigger part of you, your wild, crazy, young part of you, and it is really big part, much bigger than the innocent, warm-hearted one, that urges you to go for the party. After thinking, you decide to stay home.
So the question is, what motivates you to stay at home and study. What, in this case, plays the end-setting role in resisting your desire to meet Jun Vu, the girl of your dream, to stay at home and study for tomorrow test?
If you are a rationalist, you may have a good time chilling giving an easy explanation. It is because of my reasoning that motivates me to stay at home. It is reason that dictates that I’d be better stay at home rather go for the party. It is reason that tells me what I should do.
However, this is not going to be so easy for someone like Hume, a conativist. He will have a more difficult time to explain what is actually going on here. You may want to say it may be my fear of the consequence that motivates me to stay at home. But here is the thing. For someone like Hume, a passion is something like having a really strong phenomenal feel. Let’s think of its as flavour. When I eat durian, it gives me certain flavour in my tongue. Now, similarly, when I talk about passion, the passion must give me some sorts of feeling in my mind, a strong phenomenal feel. But when, in this case, you look inside, and you will not be able to find any distinct, strong feeling that motivates you to stay at home and study. You cannot pinpoint what make you desire to stay at home and study, but still, you stay home.
You will come to Hume’s account of this later in this post. But I just want to make several important points.
Hume says that passion is always the thing that makes us behave morally. This is why Hume is called sentimentalist because he thinks that passion and sentiment are behind moral motivation. Whereas, someone like Kant thinks that reason that what make us behave morally.
Besides the nature of moral motivation, Hume thinks that this argument for conativism is an important implication for the nature of moral judgment, i.e whether or not moral judgment can be true or false (whether moral judgment/distinction can be truth-apt). This will be dealt with when we move on to my second post on Hume. However, briefly speaking, the idea is this. When you say murder is wrong. Is this statement can be true or false? Is the statement “murder is wrong” something like “2 + 2 = 4” or “this table is red”. “2 + 2 equals 4” or “this table is red” can clearly be true or false. But according to Hume, the statement murder is wrong cannot strictly speaking be true or false. Because, murder is wrong is originated from my feeling of disapproval. And passion cannot be true or false. For example, I love Jun Vu. Is it something that can be true or false? You may say that it can, because it may be true or false that the fact that I love Jun Vu or not. But you cannot say the same thing about the passion of love itself.
So for someone like Hume, love can neither be true or false. We can never say love is true or false in the same sense that we can say this is true or false that this table is red.
◊ Rationalism in Morality
As I have said earlier, if you are a rationalist. You will think that reason is the king. What motivates you when you stay home and study rather than go for the party and meet Jun Vu? Reason. Therefore, a rationalist think that you should just ignore the empirical sense and follow what reason tell you what you should do. Reason is the king. It has the power of lying in the tension with passion. So what should you do if you have a tension between reason is telling you and what passion/desire is telling you? You should always listen to reason. And virtue or morality is conforming to the dictate of reason.
So if you are a rationalist, you will be upholding 2 propositions
- Reason lies in tension with passion (reason and passion can be contradicting to each other)
- Morality (virtue) is conforming to the dictates of reason (you behave morally when you are listening to the dictate of reason)
We will see in a short while that Hume will give us 2 arguments to show that reason cannot lie in tension with passion. Meaning, reason cannot contradict passion and passion cannot contradict reason.
◊ Hume’s attack on Rationalism
Hume will attack both of the theses that rationalist gives us above. Briefly speaking, his argument goes as such
Premise (1) Reason cannot motivate
Premise (2) Passion can motivate
Premise (3) Therefore, reason cannot conflict with passion because they are not on the same scale.
Premise (4) Therefore, virtue (morality) cannot consist in the dictate of reasons
Why should we believe in premise (1) Reason cannot motivate?
In order to understand Hume’s reasoning line, I need to walk you through what he means by saying “reason”, what he thinks reason consists of. From there, it will be clearer why Hume thinks reason cannot motivate a person to act in a certain way.
◊ First Argument against Rationalism: What does Hume think reason consist in? Hume’s fork.
The first thing I want you to note is the form or the line of reasoning that Hume is going to argue that reason cannot motivate, meaning reason cannot play the end-setting role in our motivation.
The form is as follow. If you want to show that X cannot do Y. X has consisted of two elements X1 and X2. If X1 cannot do Y, at the same time, X2 cannot do Y. Then X cannot do Y. Why X cannot do Y? Because X are made of X1 and X2, if certain parts of X cannot do Y, then the whole X cannot do Y. This is the rationality behind Hume’s argument.
Let’s me take you an example. If you want to prove that I can never have a chance to make Jun Vu love me, then here is how you are going to prove that. If there are only 2 characteristics consists in the person who I am. Firstly, I am not rich. Secondly, I am not handsome. If not being able to make money cannot make Jun Vu fall for me, and my ugliness cannot make Jun Vu fall for me. Then I will never make Jun Vu fall for me. Given, richness and physical beauty are the 2 requisites that Jun Vu has for her future husband.
Sorry If I always take Jun Vu as an example, nothing personal here. She is really pretty actually.
Okay. Digression. But come back to our lovely Hume. Hume argues that if reason consists in X1 and X2. If X1 cannot motivate, and X2 cannot motivate. Therefore, reason can never motivate.
So, the question is, what does Hume think reason consist in? What is made of reason? And why elements of reason cannot motivate?
This is really important. Please go with me through this. This distinction is really critical in Hume’s philosophy.
Hume thinks reason has 2 elements to it. Firsly, reasons consist of relation of idea. Secondly, reasons consist of matter of fact.
So you may want to ask? Hume, what do you mean by relation of idea? and what do you mean by matter of fact?
◊ Relation of idea
First thing to note about relation of idea. Read carefully. Relation of idea is a priori statement. What a priori means? A priori statement means that the truth of the statement is justified independently of idependence. It is a necessary truth. That means it will be true whatsoever. A priori means before experience. You don’t need experience to justify the truth of the statement. The truth of the statement is a priori knowable to you. It concerns abstract relation of idea.
Hard to understand? Fret not. You will after I give you an example.
Relation of idea is something like this. Bachelor are unmarried man. This is true no matter what. The predicate is already contained in the subject. When you examining the idea of the bachelor, you will come to the idea of unmarried man. So, what does bacherlor mean? Bachelor means man who is not married yet. So the idea of “unmarried” is already contained in the idea of “bachelor”. You don’t need experience to justify the truth of this statement. That means you don’t need to go out and ask people, is bachelor an unmarried man? People will think you will be crazy because the definition of bachelor is unmarried man. Note! This statement is necesarily true. That means it is true no matter what. You cannot say bachelor is NOT unmarried man. When you do that, you are actually contradicting yourself.
◊ Matter of fact
Unlike relation of idea, matter of fact is a probable claim, it is posteriori knowable to us. That means you need experience to justify the truth of the statement. It concerns with object of experience.
Let me take you an example. Bachelors are depressed. Note. This statement may be true or false. You need experience to justify the truth of this statement. That means you need to go out and ask people who are bachelors and ask whether they are depressed or not. If they are, then it may be true that bachelors are depressed. But note. That is statement is a probable claim, that means, so far, when you ask all the bachelors that you have met, all of them are saying they are depressed. But, you haven’t asked all the bachelors in the world. There may be the case that bachelors are not depressed. And when you are examining the idea of bachelors, you cannot find the idea of depression. This is another contrasting idea to relation of idea. When you negate the statement of matter of fact, you will not end up in contradiction. But when you are negating the statement of relation of idea, you will contradict yourself. When you say, bachelors are not unmarried man (relation of idea) then you are contradictory. When you say, bachelors are not depressed (matters of fact), no contradiction is found.
One small note. We will come back to thid distinction later when we talk about Kant. For Kant, relation of idea is analytic and matter of fact is synthetic. Just another terminology. Nothing much to worry.
◊ With that in mind, we will now come to the premise (1) of the argument reason cannot motivate.
Remember the form of argument that I have said earlier, if I am not rich and I am not handsome, Jun Vu is never going to be my bae. Similarly, if relation of idea cannot motivate, matter of fact cannot motivate, therefore, reason (which is made of relation of idea and matter of fact) can never motivate.
Now, you may want to ask. Why relation of idea cannot motivate? Why matter of fact cannot motivate?
◊ Relation of idea cannot motivate!
Hume thinks this is pretty intuitive. Remember, relation of idea only concerns the abtract relation of thoughts and logics. Like bachelors are unmarried. It just concerns with abtract things. Meanwhile, morality or virtue concerns with our everyday behaviour and actions. Like, murder is wrong or I should not cheat on my bae or something like that. Because, relation of idea only concerns with abstract concepts and ideas, it is just above the ground, there is no application to our everyday actions. Therefore, relation of idea cannot motivate because in order to motivate, it has to apply to our concrete action and concrete object. But relation of idea cannot do that. It is just a bunch of theoretical ideas related to each other. and we already know it.
Fair enough. If you do not understand this. Comment below, I will explain more.
◊ Matter of fact cannot motivate!
Why matter of fact cannot motivate. Hume thinks that motivation concerns with some sort of pleasure and pain. Why do I want to make Jun Vu as my bae? Because doing so will give me pleasure. It may be pleasure of taking pride in having a super model girl friend. Or it may be pleasure of desire to be loved being satisfied. Whatever pleasures you may think of. The point is that loving Jun Vu gives you pleasure, and as long as it gives you pleasure, you are motivated to do such thing.
Come back to Hume. Our lovely philosopher think that at best, all matter of fact can do (remember matter of fact concerns with probable reasoning) is to show how we are going to achieve our goal that we have set out in advance. Probale reasoning only concerns with means-end reasoning. Probable reasoning can only show what is causally connected to the pleasure that we aims at. For example, I have a goal of chasing Jun Vu as my fionce, through probale reasoning I know that she really likes Thai food. As long as I know Jun Vu really is in love with Thai food, I treat her Thai food everyday with the hope of letting her sense my deepest feeling for her. Remember, the ultimate goal of mine is to be Jun Vu’s boyfriend. All probale reasoning has done so far is just to show how I go about to achieve my goal. In the example above, how I go about to drive Jun Vu crazy because of me? Treat her Thai food every freaking single day.
But note, this is really important. If i don’t love Jun Vu at the first place, and if I happens to know that Jun Vu is really in love with Thai food, and even if I know that just by treating Jun Vu with Thai food, she is ready to die for me. But since I don’t love Jun Vu at the first place, I don’t have a passion for Jun Vu. I would never have a passion for treating Jun Vu with Thai food. Pretty intuitive.
So, Hume thinks at best, probable reasoning can only tell you how best to achieve your goal. If you don’t have an antecedent desire for your goal, even probable reasoning can show you how to achieve, you wouldn’t want to go for it. It at best can only tell you the means. But it cannot tell you the end.
◊ Recall the argument
Premise (1) Reason cannot motivate
Premise (2) Passion can motivate
Premise (3) Therefore, reason cannot contradict with passion because they are not operating under the same shape or form
Premise (4) Therefore, morality can never consist in conforming to the dictate of reason (we will come back to this in my next post)
So why should we accept premise (1). Because reason consist in relation of idea and matter of fact. Relation of idea, as shown earlier, cannot motivate, matter of fact, as shown earlier, cannot motivate. Therefore, reason cannot motivate.
Why should we accept premise (2). It is obvious that passion is motivating. We have a passion for Jun Vu, it motivates me to chase after her.
Therefore, reason cannot contradict with passion because they are not operating under the same shape or form.
Remember, what Hume has done so far is just to attack rationalist’s view that reason can conflict with passion. Hume has shown us the otherwise.
◊ Objection to Hume
There are at least 2 worries to Hume’s line of reasoning.
First worry. Why should we believe Hume’s characterization of reason in this way. In other words, why should we think reason only consists in relation of idea and matter of fact? If Hume cannot give us good reason to think that relation of idea and matter of fact is exhaustive explanation of what reason is, then we have no good reason to believe the characterization is a good one. Moreoever, if Hume is about to characterize reason in this way, he is actually begging the question. That means he has already assumed the falsity of the rationalist’s point of view.
Why is that so? Example is as follow. If I want to show that Jun Vu is not falling for me by characterizing myself into only 2 characteristics of not rich and not handsome, and I further assume that the only way to make Jun Vu love me is that I have to be rich and I have to be handsome. So if I assume this way, I technically assumes that I can never be Jun Vu’s boy friend at the first place. I have already assumed what I am trying to prove. But unbeknownst to me, Jun Vu doesn’t really care much about money and physical appearances, the only thing that she cares about her future husband is his personality as a virtous man. So, if I characterize myself in this way, being rich and being handsome, I can never let Jun Vu fall for me. I have already assumed my failure of making her my girl at the first place. You see the problem here?
Come back to Hume. The rationalist may say, okay Hume. I agree that reason can consists in relation of idea and matter of fact. But that is theoretical reasoning. You haven’t addressed at all the practical reasoning of your rationalism.
It is not so clear how Hume is going to respond to this.
Second worry. Just because you cannot do certain act doesn’t mean you cannot contradict or oppose the fact. Take an example of the referee in a football match. Obviously, it would be ridiculous to say that a referee can score a goal. But that doesn’t mean a referee cannot disallow a goal. Just because you cannot do a certain act doesn’t entail you cannot contradict or oppose that act. How Hume can respond to that. Hume thinks the inablity to do certain act is equivalent to do certain act in a meaningful way. This is similar to the fact that doing nothing is equivalent to doing something in a meaningful way. Doing nothing is an action in itself. So, if reason cannot motivate, reason cannot contradict passion.
This is the part I am not so clear about. If when you read my work, you have a better explanation of this. Please spell it out.
We speak not strictly and philosophically when we talk of the combat of passion and reason. Reason is and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them [passion]
This is a bit unfriendly of Hume is say that reason is and ought to be a slave of passion. One thing of Hume that is really intriguing me is that he is such a drama king. He writes in a certain way that it seems to mock everyone he is disagreeing with. We will come to this when we talk about virtue and vice, when he attacking religous beliefs of virtue and vices.
If you think about it, if you just have passion, the end-setter in your motivation, without having reason, which shows you the way to achieve the goal that you have set out in advance. Your goal can never be acheived. So reason and passion needs to work together, reasons need not to be the slave of the passion. I mean, it is not really fair for reason to be the slave of the passion because reason also does the hardwork of finding the mean as well. But you know, Hume is being dramatic. What he means is just the end-setting role is much more important.
◊ Second Argument against Rationalism: Argument from Original Existences
Hume gives us another argument against rationalism. In this argument, he shows that not only can reason not contradict with passion, passion cannot contradict with reason as well.
The argument goes like this.
Premise (1) Passion is original existence
Premise (2) The only way to contradict reason is truth-apt (able to be True or False)
Premise (3) Original existence cannot be true or false (original existence cannot be truth-apt)
Premise (4) Therefore, original existence cannot contradict reason
⇒ Conclusion: Passion cannot contradict reason
You may want to ask? Hume, what do you mean about original existence. There is one thing interesting about philosopher, they love to creating acronyms and terminologies. They love making people puzzling. Hume is no exception. When we get to Kant, this guy is even worst.
Okay. There are two options that we can think of original existence. The first one seems a bit coherently wrong. The second one makes more sense.
First option. Original existence means lack of intentionality. Basically, intentionality is aboutness. So when you say passion is original existence, that means passion is lacking of intentionality. That means passion is lacking of aboutness. When I talk about my mental state, it has intentionality. It has to be about something. When I talk about my belief, it has to be about something. For example, I have a belief that Jun Vu is the most beautiful girl in Vietnam. My belief has intentionality. My belief is about something. In this case, my belief is about Jun Vu. But intuitively speaking, our passion or emotion has some intentionality to it. For example, when I say I love Jun Vu. My passion of love is about Jun Vu. It has intentionality of Jun Vu. So if we take this option, then Hume says something that is coherently wrong. But to be philosophically charitable, we will read Hume’s argument from original existence in second sense.
Second option. Original existence means non-truth-apt. That means original existence cannot be either true or false. Please note that intentionality entails truth-aptness. It is quite intuitive because how can you be true or false if you are not saying about something. So intentionality is necessary condition but not sufficient condition for truth-aptness. Why Hume thinks that original existence cannot be true or false. Take my love for Jun Vu as an example. When I say, I love Jun Vu. Can you legitimately say that it is true or false whether I love Jun Vu or not? I mean you can legitimately say that the FACT whether I love Jun Vu or not can be true or false. But the passion of love itself can be said to be neither true nor false legitimately like when I say it is true that the sun is going to rise tomorrow. Hume thinks original existence does not represent anything in the world. It is not the copy of any modification of existence. Unlike reason, it concerns with belief, it represents something we know about the world. However, the passion is original existence. That means it represents something about us rather than something about the external world. And you cannot legitimately say passion to be true or false. Reason concerns with my belief. My belief has mind-to-world direction of fit. My belief has to represent the world correctly or wrongly. But my passion has world-to-mind direction of fit, it is not representing anything from the outside world. Therefore, it cannot be true or false. Therefore, it cannot contradict reason.
So if passion is original existence, and orignal existence cannot contradict reason. Therefore, passion cannot contradict reason.
However, Hume also notes that passion can contradict reason but only a loose sense. There are two ways that passion can loosely contradict reason.
First, when my passion is toward something that is not existent. For example, I have a passion for a unicorn. But you know that unicorn doesn’t exist. Then in this case, I can say that passion may be contradict reason. But strictly speaking, it is not my passion for a unicorn that contradict reason. It is my belief that contradicts reason. My accompanying belief that unicorn exists that’s what contradict reason in a strict term.
Second, when passion is choosing an insufficient means to a certain end. Let’s say I have a desperate passion for Jun Vu. But I do nothing to let her know how much I love her. Nor do I try to find out what she likes, what she doesn’t like, what her favourite food. Only in this case can I say my passion is a bit unreasonable.
It is not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger. It is not contrary to reason for me to choose my total ruin, to prevent the least uneasiness of an Indian or person wholly unknown to me. it is as little contrary to reason to prefer my own acknowledged lesser good to my greater, and have a more ardent affection for the former than the latter.
Come back to Hume’s on Assiduous student
Hume needs to postulate a sort of desire for the assiduous student that motivates him to stay at home and study. In this case, he appeals to a calm passion.
Hume thinks that calm passion is different from the violent passion in the following sense. Take an example of violent passion first. Note the violent passion has a strong phenomenological pull. Say I have a strong desire for Jun Vu. The feeling is something like my passion for Jun Vu. But for Hume, a calm passion has no phenomenological strength at all. That means, for Hume, you cannot feel the feeling of the calm passion.
There are two kinds of calm passion.
First, our natural instinct. For example, our love for our own life. This is not something like you go out and scream so loud that oh my Gosh, I love my life so much. It is just automatic that you love your life. You love it but you can barely feel it.
Second, our appetite for goodness and aversion to evil. Let’s say you are volunteering for a charity fund to help underprivileged student. You know that this is a good thing to do. But you can barely feel the emotion of it. It is not something like the passion you have for Jun Vu. It is just habituated inside you.
Hume thinks that when our passion becomes calm, it has become a settled principle of action.
So how the assidous student stays home and studies? Because ofthe calm passion that he has. It is just habituated inside him that motivates he to stay at home. Hume thinks when the calm passion wins over the violent passion, that means the person has a strength of will.
Objection to Hume: Ad-hoc appeal to Calm Passion
Okay, Hume. It seems that you are just postulating the calm passion for the sake of convenience of explaining the phenomena. What you call calm passion. Rationalist will call it reason. It seems suferfically different, but they are just the same.
But note that. This has an important implication for Hume because when you can an action is rationally justifed. Hume would disagree, because action is derived from passion. Passion cannot be said to raional or irrational. Therefore, action cannot be rationally justified.
Objection to Hume: Are we just animal?
If we just follow our passion, passion tells us what to do, we follow that. So what is the difference between us and animal? it seems that there is no room for a genuine agency. Hume would say, that’s right. There is not really an distinct difference between us and the animal. actually, he would go further to say that our kind of reasoning is no different fundamentally from that of the animal.
I will let you to decide over this.