A treatise of human nature (1911) PDF - by David Hume

A treatise of human nature

A treatise of human nature

From Introduction:

Hume's main philosophical interest was, as he tells us himself, in morals and politics. " I cannot forbear," he says in the last section of the fourth part of Book I., " having a curiosity to be acquainted with the principles of moral good and evil, the nature and foundation of government, and the cause of those several passions and inclinations which actuate and govern me."

The discussion of logical and metaphysical principles in the first book is intended as an introduction to the moral and political subjects of the second and third. 

Yet the connection between Books II. and III. and Book I. is not strict. Hume's morals do not depend on his metaphysics; rather the purpose of his metaphysical discussions is to show that reason is impotent both in science and in conduct and therefore has no bearing at all on moral inquiries. 

The second part of the Treatise makes it clearer than ever that Hume's scepticism is a criticism of reason and not of life. The self whose existence he explained away in Book I. is taken for granted in Books II. and III.; and in his account of the will, Hume insists emphatically on the reality of moral causation. 

The first part of the Treatise has established the independence and self-suf&cingness of the passions and of man's moral nature and defended them against all dictation of reason. In these books therefore Hume leaves his scepticism behind him. He is no longer a revolutionary. 

His moral theory follows in its main outlines the sentimentalist school of the eighteenth century. In morals and politics, he is " on the side of the angels," and plays his part in making objections to the doctrines of Mandeville and Hobbes, who are the two Mephistopheles of the eighteenth century in morals and politics, as Hume himself was to be in metaphysics.

 This must not be taken to imply that Hume changed his opinions when he came to the consideration of moral ques- tions; rather, to adapt words Kant used of himself, he had criticised reason to make room for custom and passion, and so attained a general position as to the nature of reason and the part played by the association of ideas which admitted in the moral sphere of more constructive results. These books display the same general characteristics as the first: a criticism of reason in favour of feeling, a recognition of the difficulty of explaining some of the facts by mere empiricism, and an attempt to meet this difficulty by the theory of the association of ideas.

 This last point is developed in these books in Hume's account of sympathy, perhaps his most important contribution to moral theory. To appreciate Hume's criticism of reason in the moral sphere we must remember the doctrines he is criticising. When the intellectual school of eighteenth-century moralists, of whom Cudworth and Clark were the most notable representatives, asserted that morals were a concern of reason, they meant that moral laws were such that they could be deduced from the general nature of things and that in consequence moral philosophy was, or at least ought to be, an inquiry of the same certainty and a priori nature as mathematics. 

Even Locke, for all his empiricism, held that morality was, like mathematics, a deductive science, concerned only with the agreement or disagreement of our ideas. All such theories, whatever particular form they may take, whether they seek to deduce moral law from the eternal fitness of things or from the consistency of our own ideas, agree in supposing that in any particular circumstances the right course of action is, or ought to be, deducible with perfect certainty or accuracy. 

Of them all, it may be said that the boldness of their claims makes a striking contrast with the poverty of their performances. Whether in morals or in politics, all that such theories can do is to take actions or principles that are already generally acknowledged to be right and, by the exercise of considerable ingenuity, give an explanation of that Tightness which fits in with their formulae. 

But their wisdom is invariably ex post facto. In any new circum- stances, that is, when information is really wanted, their guidance is not forthcoming. This failure to work out a deductive system of morality, ^ Introduction ix to find any principle from which rights and duties may be concluded from reason alone, has sometimes led to a reaction, a denial of the validity of moral distinctions altogether. The sentimental school were set with the problem of finding a middle way between intellectualism and the moral scepticism of Hobbes. 

For Hobbes makes moral distinctions dependent on the commands of the sovereign and moral principles the outcome of men's fear working through an artificial society. The sentimental school, whatever the defects of their doctrine, had the advantage of holding firm to the independence and self- sufi&ciency of the moral judgment, refusing to allow it to become a mere intellectual exercise or an outcome simply of the desire to seek pleasure and avoid pain. 

Their doctrine of the moral sense is little more than an assertion of this refusal. For when we come to ask of it what the moral sense is, and what is its relation to reason or to feel, from which it is distinguished, we get into difficulties.

For the belief in a moral sense, independent of our reasoning and intellect on the one hand, and our feelings of pleasure and pain on the other, would seem to suggest that thinking and experience had no place at all in the moral life and leads easily to crude intuitionism, a doctrine that in virtue of some mysterious power within us, usually called conscience, we always know infallibly what is right and wrong; that of the rightness or wrongness of actions no other explanation or criticism can be found than the decision of this power which is infallible only because there is nothing to correct it. 

This doctrine, taken thus crudely, is incompatible with any progress in moral insight and with the results of the most modest attempt to see if our moral judgments display any kind of system. If we try to make the doctrine less crude, we are forced to admit both the necessity of thinking in morals (and that should lead to the discovery of some relation between reason and the moral sense), and the influence of pleasure and pain upon our actual moral judgments.
the book details :
  • Author: David Hume
  • Publication date:1911
  • Company: London, J. M. Dent & sons, ltd.; New York, E. P. Dutton & co

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