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§2. Three Further Psychological Principles
more delicate revolutions, as dependent on principles too ﬁne and minute for her comprehension.
Observe that he is not presenting an account of rational deliberation understood as normative. Rather, he is saying how, psychologically, we do deliberate.
. In support of this understanding of Hume’s aims, consider three psychological principles he introduces in sections – and . He discusses others
as well but these three sufﬁce for our purposes.
(a) The principle of the predominant passion (introduced in section )
says that any emotion that accompanies a stronger passion may easily be
converted into the stronger one. Hume writes (T:): “The predominant
passion swallows up the inferior, and converts it into itself. The spirits,
when once excited, easily receive a change in their direction; and ’tis natural
to imagine this change will come from the prevailing affection. The connexion is in many respects closer betwixt any two passions, than betwixt any
passion and indifference.” Note that this principle is contrary to what we
might call a parallelogram law of psychic forces: such a law would hold
that the passions inﬂuence the decision reached according to their direction
(object) and strength. Instead, Hume seems to think that at times the
weaker passions are excitable and unstable in the presence of dominant
passions, in which case their energy may be transferred to the dominant
passions, which then largely determine the action taken.
(b) The principle of custom is described in section . Hume believes
that custom and repetition are important in increasing or diminishing our
passions, and in converting pleasure into pain and pain into pleasure. Custom does so by its two original effects on us: ﬁrst, it gives a facility in
performing any action, or in forming a conception of an object; second,
this facility, once acquired, causes an inclination to the performance, or to
the conception. This inclination is, Hume says, an “infallible source of pleasure,” provided the facility is “moderate,” by which he means that the effort
required is not too great. He writes (T:): “The pleasure of facility does
not so much consist in any ferment of the spirits, as in their orderly motion;
which will sometimes be so powerful as even to convert pain into pleasure,
and give us a relish in time for what at ﬁrst was most harsh and disagreeable.” Hume notes that the two aspects of custom (facility and inclination)
tend to increase the active habits and decrease the passive. Together with
the principle of the predominant passion, this means that over time the
active habits tend to absorb energy from the passive, so up to a point the
active habits are controlling (T:).
(c) Finally, there is the principle of the greater inﬂuence of more particular and determinate ideas on the imagination (section ). Hume’s thought
is that pleasures with which we are acquainted, and of which we have
detailed and speciﬁc ideas, have more inﬂuence on us than those we conceive of under the general notion of pleasure or advantage. In fact, the
more general and universal our ideas, the less their inﬂuence on the imagination and so on the passions (T:f.).
He illustrates this principle by the story of Aristides the Just. The date
is the winter of .., when Athens and Sparta were still allies after defeating the Persians under Xerxes (in 480 ..), though now uneasy and
suspicious of each other. Themistocles (an admiral of the ﬂeet) told the
Athenian assembly that he had a secret naval plan. This was to set ﬁre to
a Peloponnesian ﬂeet then wintering in the Bay of Pagasai; but since the
plan’s success depended on secrecy, he could not make it public: the assembly should trust him. Rather than grant this, he was told to clear his plan
with Aristides (also a leading military commander), in whose judgment the
assembly had conﬁdence. As Hume tells the story, Aristides consulted with
Themistocles, returned to the assembly, and said that nothing could be
more advantageous than the plan but at the same time nothing could be
more unjust. The plan was unanimously rejected.1
Unlike the historian he cites, Hume sees nothing extraordinary in this
rejection: he denies that it shows a great sense of justice in the Athenians.
For had they been told the plan in detail, and had they held vividly before
their minds the nearly certain destruction of the Peloponnesian ﬂeet, they
would have approved of it. As it was, they knew of its merits only under
the general idea of advantage, and so the temptation was less violent. Hume
says that otherwise (T:) “ ’tis difﬁcult to conceive, that a whole people,
unjust and violent as men commonly are, should so unanimously have
adhered to justice, and rejected any considerable advantage.” On this princi1. The story is told in many places. One is A. R. Burn, Pelican History of Greece (Harmondsworth:
Penguin Books, ), p. .
ple depends the power of rhetoric and persuasion to stir the passions by
describing their objects “in their strongest and most lively colors” (T:).
It shows the signiﬁcance of the speciﬁc point of view from which things
are seen, enabling strict reasoning and imaginative rehearsal to affect the
passions during deliberation.
§. Deliberation as Transforming the System of Passions
. Hume mentions several other principles in these sections, but the three
principles surveyed, especially when we see them as working in concert,
sufﬁce for discussing our question: How far can deliberation transform the
passions? The following points seem clear from the foregoing three principles.
(a) Deliberation can alter the degree to which certain passions that we
have now are active now and so the weight—the degree of inﬂuence—
with which they affect the decision reached. Deliberation can be carried
out so as to reduce or even to eliminate the present inﬂuence of some
passions and increase the inﬂuence of others. The example of Aristides the
Just makes this point.
(b) While Hume does not explicitly mention it, deliberation could lead
us to realize that we have now certain passions of which we have been
largely unaware (we cannot say they are repressed or unconscious [in
Freud’s sense]), not merely passions we have forgotten about or paid little
attention to. We become aware of them by ﬁnding it attractive to imagine
ourselves doing this or that. So as before, while throughout deliberation
the ﬁnal passions are viewed as ﬁxed, deliberation can affect their felt vivacity and force, and so their inﬂuence on our decision and subsequent conduct.
In these two ways at least, deliberation may largely control which passions direct and inﬂuence our conduct. Hume does not deny this. Recall his
saying that, in general (T:f.), “the violent passions have a more powerful
inﬂuence on the will; tho’ ’tis often found that the calm ones, when corroborated by reﬂection and seconded by resolution, are able to control them
in their most furious moments.” I think that he means by resolution a virtue
built up by custom and habit. On his view, it is clearly incorrect to regard
the passions as already given together with their relative intensity and inﬂuence and as merely being directed by deliberation.
. We must now ask: Since deliberation is an activity, how is it moved
and regulated by one or more passions? After all, it cannot simply happen
without some passion moving it. Hume may answer by saying (as in the
passage cited above) that the calm passions, corroborated by reﬂection and
seconded by resolution, can control the violent passions in their most furious moments. Recall that possessing such control over the passions is what
Hume means by strength of mind, since this, he says, implies “the prevalence of the calm passions above the violent” (T:). Putting these remarks
together (T:f. and ), we might say the following:
(a) In persons of strength of mind, the calm passions have a central
place in the total conﬁguration of their passions and have taken control of
the powers of rational thought, i.e., strict reason and imagination. Thus the
calm passions can normally guide deliberation in the ways already described.
(b) Hume thinks also that custom, habit, and imagination, supported
by the total conﬁguration of the passions, play an important role in strength
of mind. As we have seen, custom bestows a facility in performing an action, or in conceiving an object, and thereby generates an inclination to
act accordingly. These two effects allow us to explain strength of mind as
Deliberation, like any other activity, is something we must learn to do.
It involves forming certain conceptions, going through various steps; it also
involves the imaginative rehearsal of the consequences of adopting various
alternatives, and so on. As we gain practice, we do it more easily, and the
beneﬁts of deliberating, as judged by our success in fulﬁlling our calm passions and more basic interests, are greater. Thus facility in deliberation is
rewarded, and this in turn gives rise to a stronger inclination, a stronger
tendency to engage in deliberation because we enjoy the moderate (not
too hard or too easy) exercise of our facility. (It may be odd to speak of
enjoying deliberation, so let’s say instead that we overcome an aversion to
it, to the mental exercises it requires.) Further, we learn when deliberation
is called for, and we come to appreciate its advantages.
. So far, I have assumed that passions come into and go out of existence
only from the effects of actions undertaken as a result of deliberation