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§2. Hume ’s Account of Sympathy
other persons are conceived with a vivacity depending on the closeness of
their relation to our selves, on how similar our conception of them is to
our conception of our self.
Note here that we do not directly discern others’ mental states. It is
always a matter of inference from their behavior and external actions.
Hume says: “No passion of another discovers itself immediately to the
mind. We are only sensible of its causes or effects. From these we infer the
passions: And consequently these give rise to our sympathy” (T:). Finally,
the degree of similarity we recognize with others increases as we recognize
that their desires, passions, and propensities resemble our own and that
their peculiar manners and their culture and language are similar to ours.
It also increases with the degree of closeness we have with them: through,
for example, family ties, bonds of acquaintance and friendship, and the like.
When these aspects all work together, our ever-present and supremely
lively impression of self converts our idea of the other’s passions into an
impression of reﬂection. That lively impression of self transmits enough
energy to the idea of others’ passion so that it is raised to a passion in us.
. I pass over as not needing comment the resemblance between this
view of sympathy and the account of causal connection in I:iii. Instead I
note two peculiarities about it. First, it is not an account of sympathy as
we normally understand it, but rather of what we may call imparted feeling.
It explains sympathy as a kind of contagion, or even infection, that we catch
from others as a kind of resonance of our nature with theirs. This comes
out in what Hume says later in paragraph (T:f.): “We may begin with
considering anew the nature and force of sympathy. The minds of all men
are similar in their feelings and operations, nor can any one be actuated
by any affection, of which all the others are not, in some degree, susceptible.
As in strings equally wound up, the motion of one communicates itself to
the rest; so all the affections readily pass from one person to another, and
beget correspondent movements in every human creature.”
On Hume’s view, it would seem that when by sympathy we have the
idea of another’s feeling, that very idea is enlivened to become the same
feeling in us. But in fact, when we sympathize with people, for example,
when they are sick, we do not have the same feeling they do. If someone
feels humiliated by the ravages his disease has wrought on his appearance,
leaving him weak and despondent, we feel for him, certainly, but we don’t
feel humiliated. His state may arouse in us a desire to comfort and to help,
but this kind of desire is not what Hume describes. What he describes is
imparted feeling: it is a view of us as passive and not as moved to do something to further the good of the other, as in the case of proper sympathy.
. I mention brieﬂy a second matter. How are we to interpret Hume’s
mention of the impression or conception of self, which he says is always
intimately present at the highest level of vivacity (T:)? It is this impression
or conception—Hume uses both terms—that gives the idea of another’s
feeling the liveliness of an impression.
Now, this impression of self cannot be a simple impression, since Hume
holds in I:vi: that there is no such impression. We might conjecture, as
Kemp Smith does, that II is earlier than I and that Hume is just inconsistent;
but let’s try to avoid saying this. We suppose instead that Hume’s preferred
meaning may be the conception he used in II in connection with pride.
There he says (T:), “This object is self, or that succession of related ideas
and impressions, of which we have an intimate memory and consciousness.” And later “that connected succession of perceptions, which we call
self.” He says (T:): “Ourself, independent of the perception of every other
object, is in reality nothing; for which reason we must turn our view to
external objects; and ’tis natural for us to consider with most attention such
as lie contiguous to us, or resemble us.”
Perhaps for our limited purposes here it’s best to say that Hume views
the self as that connected succession of perceptions of which we have an
intimate memory and consciousness, the vividness of which is sustained by
our directing our attention to the persons who most resemble us and to
the things that belong to us.
. Two further points about Hume’s view of sympathy:
One is that his view stresses its partiality: we sympathize more with
people as they are like us, close to us, similar to us in culture and language,
and so on. Sympathy is not to be mistaken for the love of mankind as
such—there is no such thing—and it extends beyond our species, since we
sympathize with animals (T:).
Another point is that the partiality of sympathy shows the crucial role
of the point of view of the judicious spectator in correcting it. For this point
of view to work as a basis for moral judgment, some form of reason, working in tandem with the imagination, must play a fundamental part. Indeed,
I shall press the question how far, strictly speaking, sympathy, in Hume’s
sense or in ours, is needed at all.
§. The First Objection: The Idea of the Judicious Spectator
. Let’s now turn to paragraphs – (T:–), where Hume discusses
the ﬁrst of two objections to his view that sympathy is the basis of moral
distinctions. It is in reply that he introduces the point of view of the judicious
spectator. The objection is that our actual sympathies are not only highly
variable but, as just noted, highly partial and largely inﬂuenced by our afﬁnities
to persons near to us in space and time, and similar to us in language and
culture, in shared interests and family ties. Outside a small circle of family
and friends, no one is likely to share the same concerns with anyone else.
But we do, nevertheless, agree more or less in our moral judgments.
This general agreement he accepts as a fact: it is not to be doubted but
rather to be explained by psychological principles of his science of human
nature. Today we are less sure of this agreement: often it seems something
to be achieved; and even so we may think it worth trying to achieve only
for the more basic essentials.
. To begin: Hume explains our agreement by saying that our moral
judgments express the judgments we would render if we were to take up
the point of view of the judicious spectator. This point of view is characterized in such a way that when we assume it, our moral judgments are
brought into line. Our agreement in judgment is accounted for once we
understand two things:
First, what features of the point of view of the judicious spectator bring
our judgments into agreement, and how they do so.
Second, what motivates us to assume that point of view in the ﬁrst
place and to be guided by its judgments. Clearly, that point of view would
serve no purpose if either we were not moved to assume it, except perhaps
when we simply felt like it, or we had no inclination to be guided by the
judgment rendered. It might be a curiosity, one might say: so our moral
judgments would agree if we saw things as judicious spectators! But since
we are not such spectators, why ought we to judge like them and act accordingly? That’s a familiar kind of objection.
. When introducing the features of the judicious spectator’s point of
view, Hume repeats that our situation with regard to persons and things
is in continual ﬂuctuation and that we each have, given our partial afﬁnities,
a distinctive position with regard to others. It is impossible, then, to have
a reasonable discussion with any hope of reaching agreement if we each
insist on viewing matters only as they appear to us from our own personal
point of view. He says: “In order, therefore, to prevent those continual
contradictions, and arrive at a more stable judgment of things, we ﬁx on
some steady and general points of view; and always, in our thoughts, place
ourselves in them, whatever may be our present situation” (T:f.).
Hume compares moral judgments with those of beauty. These we must
also correct. He says (T:): “In like manner, external beauty is determin’d
merely by pleasure; and ’tis evident, a beautiful countenance cannot give
so much pleasure, when seen at the distance of twenty paces, as when it is
brought nearer us. We say not, however, that it appears to us less beautiful:
Because we know what effect it will have in such a position, and by that
reﬂexion we correct its momentary appearance.” In the next paragraph he
adds: “Such corrections are common with regard to all the senses; and indeed ’twere impossible we cou’d ever make use of language, or communicate our sentiments to one another, did we not correct the momentary
appearances of things, and overlook our present situation.”
By these remarks, Hume implies that the same holds for moral judgments: they too may be founded not only on moral sentiments we do have
(by actually taking up the judicious spectator’s point of view), but also on
sentiments we know we would have were we to take up that point of view.
In ordinary life, then, we can use our implicit knowledge of how a properly
judicious spectator would judge.
. Thus we must ﬁx on some steady and general point of view that will
lead us to agreement in judgment. To do so, this point of view must satisfy,
of course, certain conditions, of which the following seem the most important.
First, that point of view must be speciﬁed so as to call into operation
at least one sentiment (or passion) common to all (normal) persons; because
otherwise we would be indifferent from that point of view, and we would
make no moral distinctions at all, since these cannot be discovered, or made,
by reason alone.
Second, that point of view must not, on the other hand, call into opera[ ]