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§5. Hume ’s Critique of Rational Intuitionism
Statement of the question.
Statement of the knockout argument, as I call it.
This argument supported by recalling II:iii:, paragraphs
–: Paragraph of II:iii: further invoked.
–: Puzzling interlude.
Conclusion of the knockout argument.
. This argument is followed by another meant to show that morality
cannot be demonstrated by reason:
–: If morality is demonstrable, it must consist in some moral
relation derivable from the four philosophical relations.
Such a moral relation must meet two conditions: the ﬁrst
is that it has relata in both the mental and physical
The second is that not only must there be a connection
between the moral relation and the will, but also the
connection must be necessary and causal, a matter of
psychological inﬂuence. No relation meets these conditions.
Summary of paragraphs –.
–: These claims supported by examples of the ungrateful
oak sapling and of incestuous animals.
Nor does morality consist in a matter of fact.
It seems almost inconceivable that the relation of “ought”
should be deducible from “is.”
. The knockout argument in paragraphs – (T:–), given here a
bit more fully, is one that we have met before. In its barest form, it is as
Reason alone cannot move us to action.
Knowledge of morality can move us to action.
Therefore: Moral distinctions are not discerned by reason.
Before commenting on how Clarke would reply, let’s recall the important distinction we made in the previous lecture (at the end of §) between
the epistemological question—how moral distinctions are known or ascertained, whether by reason or in some other way, say by moral sense—and
the question about motivation—how best to account for the fact that our
moral knowledge and beliefs inﬂuence what we do. Hume accepts this
distinction when he says, “ ’Tis one thing to know virtue, and another to
conform the will to it” (T:).
The reason for stressing this distinction is that, as I said last time,
Hume’s moral sense doctrine addresses the epistemological question: it is
intended to account for how we make moral distinctions. The question of
what desires and motives lead us to act on our moral beliefs is for him
. To return to Clarke: how he could reply to Hume’s argument is clear
from our sketch of his rational moral psychology. He might grant that the
bare knowledge of morality alone does not move us, but that knowledge,
given our nature as rational beings, generates in us a principle-dependent
desire, as I called it,6 to act accordingly. This is part of what it means to
be created in the image of God. As so created, we have a basic predisposition
to desire to do what is right once our reason reaches fruition and we come
to know what is right.
I believe Hume’s attempted knockout argument is powerless against
this reply. To be sure, Clarke’s reply is also unsatisfactory. While he may
be able to answer the epistemological question at this general level, he has
yet to answer the motivational question in a convincing way, and both
questions must be answered by an adequate doctrine. It is not enough to
say that, given our nature, knowledge of the principles of ﬁtness generates
desires to act accordingly.
A convincing account will say why the principles of ﬁtness, in view of
their content—what they speciﬁcally declare to be right and wrong, good
and bad—have the central role and signiﬁcance in our life that they do.
This account should lay out how these principles connect with human beings’ needs, aims, and purposes; it should say why, for example, oppression
and tyranny, murder and torture, injustice and degradation and the rest,
6. See Hume II, section , paragraph .
are wrongs, and not only wrongs but great wrongs. From what Clarke has
said, it is not clear why the answers should refer to the ﬁtnesses of things
at all; he doesn’t say how those relations connect with our moral psychology and the fundamental ends of human life. This is not to say that he
couldn’t have done this. With Hume’s ﬁrst argument, then, there seems
to be no convincing conclusion either way.
§. Hume’s Second Argument: Morality Not Demonstrable
. This brings us to Hume’s second argument (in paragraphs – [T:–
]), which does have some force, for it challenges the rational intuitionist
to specify the relation of ﬁtness in such a way that it both coheres with
our moral convictions and is a working, and not an idle, part of a plausible
account of moral motivation. To be such a working part, the relation of
ﬁtness itself must have a role. Hume thinks that the relation of ﬁtness cannot be speciﬁed.
His argument in paragraphs – (T:–) is that morality cannot
be demonstrated from the four philosophical relations that provide the basis
of demonstrative reasoning—resemblance, contrariety, degrees in quality,
and proportion in quantity and number. Once again, Hume’s argument
tries for too much. Clarke claims that certain principles of ﬁtness are selfevident and serve as axioms from which other principles of ﬁtness can be
derived. He would see his doctrine as showing the incorrectness of Hume’s
narrow view of demonstrative reason. Hume can’t simply reject Clarke’s
. So in paragraphs – (T:–), he challenges the intuitionist to
specify the relation of ﬁtness subject to two essential conditions. The ﬁrst
is that it relate both acts of mind and external objects, and not acts of mind
alone, or external objects alone. The relation must hold between items in
both spheres. Hume thinks it unlikely that there is a suitable relation answering to this condition.
The second essential condition that Hume holds the relation of ﬁtness
cannot meet is given in paragraph . Here he says, on the doctrine he is
rejecting: “ ’Tis not only suppos’d, that these relations [of ﬁtness], being
eternal and immutable, are the same, when consider’d by every rational
creature, but their effects are also suppos’d to be necessarily the same; and
’tis concluded they have no less, or rather a greater, inﬂuence in directing
the will of the deity, than in governing the rational and virtuous of our
own species. These two particulars are evidently distinct. ’Tis one thing to
know virtue, and another to conform the will to it.” He continues by saying
that if one is to show that the ﬁtnesses of things express eternal laws “obligatory on every rational mind . . . we must also point out the connexion
betwixt the relation and the will; and . . . prove that this connexion is so
necessary, that in every well-disposed mind, it must take place and have
Hume believes that his account of causal connection earlier in the Treatise, I:iii, is sufﬁcient to show that the proof of the necessity of such a connection cannot be given. The revealing point here is that Hume is talking about
psychological, or motivational, inﬂuence. He thinks that it is simply a fact
of human nature, which his whole account of morality supports, that there
is no such general causal inﬂuence and certainly no necessary causal connection at all. But it seems clear that Clarke is not talking about causal inﬂuence, or alleging a necessary causal law. He thinks of the ﬁtnesses of things
as known by theoretical reason (in the sense earlier explained) and as providing correct normative grounds for moral judgments on actions. Hume is
using different basic ideas than Clarke, and there is no meeting of minds.
. The ﬁnal paragraph, (T:–), is subject to two interpretations.
The one most common for many decades now is to take it as stating
Hume’s law, so-called: namely, the principle of moral (or normative) reasoning that to reach a moral (or normative) conclusion, there must be at
least one moral (or normative) premise. Assuming that moral (or normative) concepts are not reducible to nonmoral (or non-normative) concepts,
this law is correct. We may call it Hume’s Law if we like, but it is not, I
think, what Hume meant to say.
For a sound textual interpretation of what Hume meant, we should see
the paragraph as the parting shot of the long argument against Clarke, and
look back to what he has been arguing in the more immediately preceding
paragraphs. For this purpose, paragraphs (T:–) and (T:–)
seem particularly important, the latter especially so. In paragraph , Hume
says that morality is not a matter of fact discovered by the understanding.
He writes: “You can never ﬁnd it [the vice], till you turn your reﬂexion