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Hume- Reasons & Passions

Suppose you have to choose the best between the two concepts of reason & passion. What will you do? People trust the reason to make a decision. And passion always drives you closer to your goals. There is confusion in choosing the best between the two. To understand the concepts in a better way, we have to understand the theory of Hume.

Who is Hume?

David Hume was a Scottish philosopher, essayist, novelist, historian, and an economist who is best known today for his worldwide popular theory in scepticism, empiricism and naturalism.

Hume – “Reason is the slave of passion”

Hume believes that reason has no role to play in making moral judgements. Judgements are taken in a spur of moments. A sudden impetus which guarantees us that the things would go fine.

According to Hume moral theory, “Reason is nothing but a wonderful and unintelligible instinct in our souls”.

Hume ‘Perception theory’ or ‘Empiricism’

Hume was an ardent believer of perception. He says nothing could be known without perception. We believe what we see and; we trust our senses the most. Our perception is the prime defining theory of our actions. We learn from experiences and that converts later in our reasons to choose or not to choose particular actions.

Therefore, reasons are not the first theory, but it’s our instincts. We depend on our instincts to understand the situations and pass on judgments.

Hume pointed out the two most important facts on reasons:

  1. Morality cannot be achieved from reasons.
  2. The reason is not necessary, only sufficient.

Hume’s conclusion on Moral Judgement 

  1. We do occasionally arrive at a moral judgement by reasoning.
  2. A moral judgement those arrived can influence actions.

According to Hume, moral Judgments, arriving by reasoning may not always be true. So, we need something else and i.e., Moral sentiments. 

A computer is good in reasoning but lack of passions devoid it of judging any moral and immoral actions.

Mackie’s Rationalizing of Actions.

We make decisions based on our rationale. We do the thing which we believe to be right or wrong. We know the past events, and using the best of our judgments, we predict future events. Our rationale is our beliefs. It is our past experiences which prepares our beliefs and guides us to take a future course of actions.

In the past, if something wrong has resulted from a particular course of actions, then we would most likely to avoid such actions in future life.

Hume Moral Sentiments- ‘defined’

According to Hume, passion is a prime mover to act. Reasons can only differentiate between gratitude and ingratitude. It is our own moral sentiments which involve us in a particular action. Moral sentiments are our feelings, attitudes, beliefs, dispositions taken towards people or objects. Moral sentiments should always be the first theory in the judgments we pass.

Criticism of moral sentiments in Judgements- ‘Landing Back to Reasons’

Suppose you see a man brutally punishing a dog. You will feel emotional for the mute creature and would curse the man for showing no sentiments towards the creature. You will never think of the man’s point of view. You won’t try to analyze the reasons for the actions of a man. You will only see wrong in his actions. Now, when I say the same dog has bitten the neighbour’s child who died recently. Do you feel the same emotions for the dog now as you felt before? No! Now you will feel the righteousness in the action of a man.

Therefore, our moral sentiments, though best reflect our reasons often neglect the absolute real reason. So, to make the best of judgements we have to calculate all the reasons related to circumstances and then declare a judgment.

Solving the conflicts

John Haugeland points out that a computer doesn’t give a damn. It calculates, manages tasks, runs operations and performs various actions without a thought. It never fears to get judged. It always performs an action in the best of the ways it knows.

Humans should perform actions without the fear of getting judged. In Hume’s language, Humans should perform actions in the best of their moral sentiments.

Impact of moral Judgements

According to Clarke, moral judgments don’t change the course of actions. We know the moral principles of no lying, no cheating, no killing. But, sometimes we ought to do the actions which are morally wrong.

Doctors need to lie to their patients about his health.

A lawyer could cheat his clients for higher goals- like saving the nation from a terrorist.

A girl could kill a rapist in self-defence.

By these examples, it is clear that moral judgments don’t influence a course of actions. It is our own mentality, our own reasons, and our own moral sentiments to perform an action. It is our own interest, passion, desires, willingness, attitudes in a course of actions.

‘Tis one thing to know virtue, and another to confirm the will to it (T 465)’- Hume

Reviewing “Reason is the slave of passion”

By this, Hume doesn’t mean that reason plays no role in a course of actions. He believes the reason has a second role. The prime mover is a passion which generates an action. It is our passion, motivations, thinking, attitude, beliefs, choices, willingness and moral sentiments which helps in the performance of a particular kind of actions.

It is clear that in performing an action, we have to make use of our moral sentiments or passions. But, in the passing of judgments, we have to take take care to use both the reasons and our own moral sentiments. Therefore, it could be concluded that Moral sentiments are good only in actions and not in judgments.

Reference: AT Nuyen University of Queensland, Wikipedia, Britannica

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