Hume on Motivation and Virtue

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Actions are not praiseworthy or blameworthy: they are only signs of the motive that produced them. We must look within to find the moral quality. The failure to perform an action is similarly indicative of a motive. If one should be influenced by a given motive, we blame the person for not performing the action. There must be another motive than that the action is virtuous. An action must be virtuous, before we can have a regard to its virtue. Some virtuous motive, therefore, must be antecedent to that regard.

An example is the blame heaped on a father for neglecting his child. We blame him for his motive: not having natural affection for his child. His action should be influenced by that motive, but he lacks the motive that he should have. We also say that he has failed to do his duty. But this means only that he has failed to be motivated properly, by natural affection. To say that care of his children is his duty is no more than to say that such care is something he should do, from the motive of natural affection.

Another example is a benevolent man who is kind even to strangers. His character is as virtuous as could be. His actions are meritorious because they flow from his virtuous character. To hold the actions in regard is no more than to laud his humanity. This does not mean that no action can be performed merely from regard to its merit. It only means that it cannot be meritorious if performed merely from regard to its merit.

So if a person lacks the qualities of character and motive that would makes his actions truly meritorious, he might cover this up, or try to attain the missing motive, by performing actions because they are regarded as meritorious. Another example is given.

Introduction to Hume's Moral Philosophy

I borrow money from someone, and on the date when I am supposed to repay it, I ask the creditor what reason or motive I have to pay him back. There are two answers. This is one reason why Hume was widely regarded as a proto-emotivist and hence a proto-non-cognitivist in the middle years of the twentieth century, an interpretation that even today is far from dead, especially in the minds of those with a merely undergraduate acquaintance with Hume. See Hudson, , Ayer, and Flew, , for examples of this kind of thing. For a contrasting view see Cohon a.

Here are four formulations of the Motivation Argument, lifted directly from Hume: Motivation Argument A 1 Morals have an influence on the actions and affections. Pigden 23 Motivation Argument D 1 The distinction betwixt moral good and evil … has an influence upon our actions. II Although Hume thinks that our moral opinions often influence our conduct there is no suggestion that they are necessarily motivating or that they motivate in every case absent special circumstances.


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The possibility of indifference or amoralism is not excluded. But if we allow the possibility of beliefs or opinions that are not derived from reason, then the argument only goes to show that our moral opinions are not derived from reason, which is compatible with their being genuine beliefs based on feeling or sentiment. But if all that 2 says is that reason-based beliefs cannot motivate by themselves, this opens up the possibility that moral beliefs are in fact derived from reason but do their motivating business with the aid of a pre-existing passion such as a desire to do the right thing.

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Whatever exactly Hume was trying to prove, he does not manage to prove it. For Smith thinks that it is possible to extract a powerful argument for non-cognitivism from Hume, and that this is a problem since the premises appear to be true and the conclusion false. Smith, , p. Note that up to step 4 , the argument is deductive. Was the Motivation Argument intended as an argument for non-cognitivism or something like it?

If Hume was not arguing for non-cognitivism, what was he arguing for and how is his argument supposed to work? Does the argument succeed and if not, can it be patched up? Since Hume can be construed as arguing either for noncognitivism or for a response-dependent theory of ethics both of which continue to be popular among philosophers , the Motivation Argument takes us to the heart of contemporary meta-ethics.

Though famous as the contemporary standard-bearer for the error theory, Richard Joyce Essay 1 does not argue directly for the error theory in this essay, either as a meta-ethic or as an interpretation of Hume. Suppose we reinterpret premise 1 as the claim that absent specific circumstances it is necessary and a priori that moral beliefs excite passions, and produce or prevent actions. Call this motivational internalism. Does it follow that the role of moral judgements conceived as linguistic expressions must be to express some kind of conative state? Does some kind of non-cognitivism or expressivism follow?

Not so, says Joyce, since expressivism does not imply motivational internalism thus blocking an inference to the best explanation and internalism does not imply expressivism. Pigden 25 According to Norva Lo Essay 2 Hume construes moral properties as response-dependent properties, geared to a shared moral sense. Thus Hume cannot have been arguing for noncognitivism on pain of inconsistency. Indeed, it is theoretically possible to acquire moral knowledge without experiencing the moral sentiments and hence without being in any morally salient conative state.

Consider a Martian anthropologist who has managed to anatomize the human moral sense.


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  6. What then is the purpose of the Motivation Argument? It is meant to disprove moral rationalism, the thesis that moral knowledge is typically the product of some cognitive or discursive process. And Lo provides three reformulations of the Motivation Argument designed to prove precisely this. Charles Pigden agrees that Hume conceives the moral properties as akin to secondary qualities.

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    Hume on Motivation and Virtue: New Essays (Philosophers in Depth) - PDF Free Download

    To say that a trait is a virtue is to say that it would excite the moral sense of a suitably qualified human observer impartial, dispassionate and devoid of the delusive glosses of superstition and false religion , just as to say that a flower is violet is to say that it would excite the visual sense of a suitably qualified human observer someone with functioning eyesight but without rose-tinted spectacles. Thus the point of the Motivation Argument cannot be to prove non-cognitivism, since Hume was not a non-cognitivist. Where he parts company from Lo is in thinking that it is impossible to convert the Motivation Argument into a successful argument against moral rationalism and for sentimentalism.

    Plausible, yes, but successful, no, since it is formally respectable but based on false and question-begging premises. Michael Smith Essay 4 gallantly goes bat for a non-cognitivist, or at least, an expressivist interpretation of Hume, and a rational reconstruction of the Motivation Argument as designed to prove non-cognitivism.

    Hume Studies

    He freely admits that he may be reading more into Hume than is really there, and maybe more than Hume could have conceived of specifically he suggests a concern with what is practically rational which may have been alien to Hume. But it seems to me that in defending an expressivist interpretation of Hume, Smith is retreating several paces. The expressivism that he is worrying about now is a degenerate descendant of the non-cognitivism that preoccupied him in the nineties.

    It is okay to say that we have moral beliefs and that these beliefs are true or false. It is just that in the normative case but not otherwise the beliefs are somehow constituted by desires. Even the Motivation Argument that Smith defends in Essay 4 is a feeble abductive 26 Introduction variant of the deductive argument that he tried to defuse in The Moral Problem. As for the claim that Hume cannot have been arguing for noncognitivism since he was not a non-cognitivist, Smith has two counters.

    But that is not the thesis. The claim is rather that moral beliefs are typically caused and justified by feelings of approval and disapproval not that they are constituted by such feelings, since they are beliefs about what a certain kind of spectator would feel. To believe that Zena is desirable is not necessarily to desire her, even if such beliefs are typically caused by feelings of sexual desire, and even if Hume himself identifies some beliefs with impressions. In Essay 5 based on his book Value, Reality and Desire Graham Oddie takes up the idea that to be good, or to be valuable, is to be worthy of desire and that the evidence for value-judgments consists in our desires and aversions.

    Such evidence is defeasible, of course, since our desires may be due to some pathological condition. Still, to experience something as valuable is to feel the relevant desires. Hence if I know that something is valuable at least if my knowledge has been derived from experience I will in fact be motivated to pursue or promote it. For Oddie, unlike Hume, does not cash out worthiness to be desired in terms of the dispositions of actual human agents whether idealized or not.

    Nonetheless, the fact that something is desired is evidence of its desirability, and it is because we form value-judgments on the basis of desires that value-judgments — or rather the desires on which they are based — tend to motivate. Bentham, more enthusiastically, claimed Hume as an inspiration.

    But though Hume was indeed a precursor of utilitarianism, he was not really a utilitarian himself. These are not the concepts that exercised Hume. It was the virtues in general and some specific virtues in particular, such as justice, benevolence and chastity that interested him. But from about to about the big questions in ethics could be summed up in the chapter headings of W. But in the s, beginning with the work of Philippa Foot and G.

    Anscombe, a reaction set in and the virtues returned to the fore. See the essays collected in Foot, and , and in Anscombe, The focus was less on what we ought to do and more on what sort of people we ought to be, less on the nature of predicative goodness a concept regarded with increasing suspicion and more on what it is to be a good human being. Although the original inspiration of this movement was Aristotelian, and although Foot and Anscombe themselves display a marked hostility to Hume, later virtue ethicists began to see Hume as a kindred spirit.

    And for some virtue ethicists the determinedly modernist and secular cast of his thought was an added attraction. Hume shows that you can put the virtues at the center of the moral life without succumbing to the creeping Thomism that characterizes Anscombe and Foot. The last four essays in this collection deal with Hume as a virtue theorist. Well, to begin with, he is a virtue theorist who defines a virtue as a trait which arouses approbation in suitably qualified spectators.

    But this still leaves a wide arena for empirical investigation. What traits do we approve of and why? Do they have anything interesting in common apart from the fact that we are disposed to approve of them? Traits excite approbation because they are expressive of the bonds of a non-pathological love, because they are the objects of a proper pride, because they express joy, because they display a justice-based respect for persons and their property and because they manifest a proper appreciation of status. Nonetheless, for Hume there is a lot more to welfare than pleasure and the absence of pain.

    For Annette Baier Essay 12 all this is a bit too pat. She is not sure that Hume is the gung-ho normative virtue theorist that Swanton takes him to be. The martial virtues of the Scythians, parading their towels made from human hides, are a far cry from the polite virtues of an eighteenth century Scottish gentleman such as Hume himself. Sometimes Hume hints that the crosscultural virtues — qualities that would be approved by any non-deluded and impartial human being — may be in short supply.

    Hume on Motivation and Virtue

    He often seems to be more interested in anatomizing what are regarded as virtues than in arguing that a particular set of virtues is the real cross-cultural thing. Sometimes he is a cataloging virtue theorist, sometimes an offensive virtue theorist, out to raise puritan hackles. But though not devoid of normative concerns, he is often less of a moral legislator and more of a moral sociologist than Swanton seems to think.