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§3. Outline of Section .of Part III of Book II

§3. Outline of Section .of Part III of Book II

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above, I shall not critically assess Hume’s arguments here until later; for

the moment we focus on his account of rational deliberation.

(Paragraph One) Hume states the rationalist view as he understands it:

that all rational creatures are obliged to regulate their actions by reason.

And this view he will oppose by holding that:

(a) Reason alone can never be the motive to any action of the


(b) Reason alone can never oppose passion in the direction of

the will.

(Paragraph Two) The two functions of reason that Hume recognizes are

stated as follows:

(a) Reason may establish demonstrative truths founded on the abstract relations among our ideas. These we may think of as

the truths of logic and mathematics and the like. (This is a

fair enough rendering for our purposes.)

(b) Reason may also establish, on the basis of experience, the

relations of cause and effect between objects and events.

The point he emphasizes is that the effectiveness of demonstrative reasoning presupposes some desired end or purpose: it influences our actions only

insofar “as it directs our judgment concerning cause and effects” (T:).

(Paragraph Three) The effectiveness of reasoning showing the relations

of cause and effect likewise presupposes some desired end. We want to

ascertain the means to our ends only because we desire to achieve these

ends. The impulse to reason about means and to adopt them does not “arise

from reason but is only directed by it.” By a psychological principle of transfer, as we may call it, our concern with ends spreads backward to the appropriate means and forward to their consequences. Without concern for ends,

we would be indifferent to means and to the consequences of their use. In

the practical sphere, reasoning from experience is simply the attempt to

discover the causal and other relations between means and the ends we

desire for their own sake, as well as the true qualities and features of those


(Paragraph Four) So far Hume takes himself to have sketched the argument for the first point of paragraph , that reason alone can never be a

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motive of an action. He now contends that the second point—that reason

alone cannot oppose passions in guiding the will—is the other side of the

first. For reason by itself could oppose the passions only if it could generate

an impulse contrary to those passions. But Hume’s first point is that there

can be no such impulse. Nothing can oppose a passion except a contrary

passion; and no passion, or impulse, can arise from reason alone. Thus there

is no struggle between reason and the passions. The appearance of such

comes from mistaking the struggle between the violent passions and the

calm passions, such as the general appetite to good, with a struggle between

reason and the passions. Hence Hume’s famous provocative remark: “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.” A question this remark

raises is: Why “ought” and not “can”? I shall come back to this remark in

the fifth meeting, when we reflect on Hume’s view as a whole.

(Paragraph Five) In this paragraph Hume states his knockout argument

to show that the passions cannot be contrary to reason: a passion is simply

an occurrent psychological state, an impression of reflection that occurs under

certain conditions, gives rise to certain propensities, and prompts us to action. As such, a passion does not assert anything. Hume says that it has no

representative quality since it is not a “copy of any other existence.” The

passions assert nothing, and so they cannot contradict a truth established by

demonstrative reasoning or experience.

(Paragraph Six) In this paragraph Hume maintains, however, that a passion can be considered contrary to reason and unreasonable (his term) when

it is directed in its specific present course by incorrect judgments. This can

happen in two ways:

(a) Our passion is founded on a false belief, as when we are, for

example, afraid of something that is not in fact dangerous or


(b) Our choice of means to our end is mistaken, as when the

means we adopt are insufficient and won’t have the results

we expect them to have.

It is in this paragraph that Hume makes another of his famous provocative remarks (to give only part of it): “ ’Tis not contrary to reason to prefer

the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger. ’Tis not

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contrary to reason for me to chuse my total ruin, to prevent the least uneasiness of an Indian or person wholly unknown to me. ’Tis as little contrary

to reason to prefer even my own acknowledg’d lesser good to my greater,

and have a more ardent affection for the former than the latter” (T:).

(Paragraph Eight) This important paragraph contains Hume’s explanation of the rationalists’ philosophical error: namely, they confuse the pervasive and strong influence of the calm passions with the operations of reason.

Recall that passions can be both strong and calm. The rationalists are misled

by the absence of turbulence or violence in the way these passions work

(T:, , ). Hume assigns a fundamental role to the calm passions, at

least when they are strong, as they sometimes are. Their influence is shown

in how they regulate and control our deliberation and conduct.

Comment: In section  (T:), where Hume emphasizes the same point,

he says that we commonly understand by “passion” a sensible and violent

emotion when any good or evil is presented to us that is fit to excite an

appetite; and by “reason” we commonly understand an affection of the very

same kind that operates more calmly and occasions no disorder. So the

mistake of the rationalists has its foothold in commonsense thought. Sometimes, as fits the context, I refer to reason as Hume defines it as strict reason,

whereas the commonsense idea of reason as the steady influence of the

calm passions I refer to as calm reason (as suggested by T:, ), but this

is not Hume’s term. Next time I want to ask whether the description of this

so-called calm reason (the steady influence of the calm passions as Hume

describes it) is compatible with his official view of rational deliberation.

(Paragraph Ten) In the concluding and very important paragraph,

Hume asserts that people are guided sometimes by their calm and sometimes by their violent passions. We often act against our interests, as specified (it seems) by our general appetite to good or by the balance of all our

passions together. Yet we often do manage to counteract the violent passions in pursuing our more important and permanent interests and designs;

so the present promptings of the violent passions (as felt impressions of

reflection) are not by any means always decisive. Whether we are moved

by them depends upon what Hume calls our general character and present

disposition. By this he means, I believe, the present configuration of our

passions (of all kinds with their strength and turbulence) that constitutes

our character.

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Note that Hume defines strength of mind as, let’s say, a more or less

pervasive (permanent) present disposition in which the calm passions are

usually effective in controlling our deliberations and influencing our conduct. Strength of mind enables someone to pursue long-run and larger aims

in an effective manner. In doing this, the calm passions are strong as

opposed to weak. Later (T:f.) Hume adds that while the violent passions

have a more powerful influence, often the calm ones “when corroborated

by reflection, and seconded by resolution, are able to control them in

their most furious moments” (T:–). This is an important remark. But

how can the calm passions do this on Hume’s account? I return to this next


§. Hume’s Account of (Nonmoral) Deliberation: The Official View

. I now sum up the ground covered so far with an account of what I

shall refer to as Hume’s official view of (nonmoral) practical reasoning, or

deliberation. (By nonmoral I mean that questions of duty and obligation

and the like are not expressly involved; Hume does not discuss these matters

until Book III, so I put them aside). My account takes Hume at his word

in II:iii: (hence the term “official”) and sets out his view in a straightforward

way. Next time we see that Hume’s view, once we include what he says

in later sections of II:iii, is rather more complicated and raises a number

of questions. Today I conclude with the official view of II:iii: which often

passes as his doctrine: the so-called Humean view. The main points seem

to be the following.

First, in deliberation every chain of reasons in means-to-ends reasoning

is finite and has as its stopping point a final (or ultimate) end, which is an

objective or aim of one or more of the passions as Hume specifies them.

I suppose that a reason in such a chain of reasons is a statement (and so true

or false) saying that (doing) something is an (effective) means to something


(i) Finiteness means that the chain of “in order to” clauses (“I

do X in order to Y”) is finite and usually has a small number

of links.

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He says, “Ask a man why he uses exercise; he will answer, because he desires

to keep his health. If you then enquire, why he desires health, he will readily

reply, because sickness is painful. If you push your enquiries further, and

desire a reason why he hates pain, it is impossible he can ever give any. This

is an ultimate end [my italics] and is never referred to any other object”

(Enquiry, Appendix I, ).

(ii) As the quotation shows, the stopping point must be an objective or aim of one or more of the passions. This means that

if “I do W in order to have Z” (or to possess, secure, establish

Z, and so on for many variations) is the last link in the chain

of reasons, then the having of Z is an objective or aim of

one or more of my passions (original, direct, or indirect).

I think that for Hume, all kinds of passions may specify ultimate, or

final, ends; for example, benevolence and kindness to children, pride and

shame, our general appetite to good as well as our sense of beauty, and

much else, can all specify such ends.

. Second, we see that there are many possible different stopping points

given by the passions. The aims of the passions are many, and there is no

single end, not even that of aiming at pleasure and avoiding pain.

Hume’s view is not, I believe, hedonistic; nor is it egoistic (see Enquiry,

Appendix II, –, on self-love, where he essentially accepts Bishop Butler’s criticism of the doctrine of self-love in Sermons, XI and XII []).

He doesn’t suppose that all our passions are concerned with self-centered

objectives. Benevolence and kindness to children are examples. Of course,

pleasures and pains have an important psychological role: first, pleasures

may enter into the causes (or the generation) of passions, and second,

achieving the aims of passions generally gives pleasure, since fulfilling any

passion does so; but that pleasure is not the aim, not the objective, of the

passion. We must distinguish three roles of pleasures and pains: (i) as causes

of passions, (ii) as resulting from fulfilling passions, and (iii) as the aims and

objectives of passions. In saying that Hume’s view is neither hedonistic nor

egoistic, I mean the aims and objectives of passions are neither hedonistic

nor egoistic.

. Third, the process of deliberation (practical reasoning) may correct our

existing passions in at least two ways:

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§3. Outline of Section .of Part III of Book II

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