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§5. The Epistemological Role of the Moral Sentiments

§5. The Epistemological Role of the Moral Sentiments

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of sympathy is in play, the pleasures of others to which we respond from

that point of view are transmuted into a peculiar, distinctive moral sentiment known to us in our moral experience. This sentiment suffices to determine our judgment and hence to explain our agreement once we take up

the judicious spectator’s point of view.

Hume notes the epistemological as opposed to the motivational role of

sympathy thus transmuted when he says (T:f.): “This [our sympathy with

others from the spectator’s point of view] is far from being as lively as when

our own interest is concern’d . . . nor has it such an influence on our

love and hatred: But being equally conformable to our calm and general

principles, ’tis said to have an equal authority over our reason, and to command our judgment and opinion.” Thus in everyday life, when we compare

an action of some historical figure with that of our neighbor, and blame

them equally (T:), “[t]he meaning of which is, that we know from reflexion, that the former action wou’d excite as strong sentiments of disapprobation as the latter, were it plac’d in the same position.” Further, and

already cited: “We know, that an alteration of fortune may render the benevolent disposition impotent, and therefore we separate . . . the fortune

from the disposition. . . . [T]hese corrections . . . regulate our abstract

notions, and are alone regarded, when we pronounce . . . concerning the

degrees of vice and virtue” (T:). Again: “Sentiments must touch the heart,

to make them controul our passions: But they need not extend beyond the

imagination, to make them influence our [moral] taste” (T:).

Thus the sympathy transmuted into moral sentiment does its work by

determining our judgments, thereby making general agreement possible.

Why we are moved to take up this position and to act from the judgments

we make from it is a completely different question. I return to this below

in section .

. I now ask whether Hume offers an analysis of moral judgments of the

kind we would expect in a contemporary work, and whether that analysis

supports the idea that the main role of the point of view of the judicious

spectator is epistemological.

I think that it is unlikely that Hume intends to give an analysis in the

contemporary sense at all. Many different analyses are suggested by his

rather loose remarks, often several variations on one page, for example in

paragraph  of III:i: (T:f.), which shows, I think, that he is not doing

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that. If he were, he would be careful to stick with a particular analysis.

Moreover, it’s not clear that he knows what is meant by an analysis in our

sense. The question itself is misplaced, since Hume need not answer it to do

what he wants. His aim is to explain, by principles drawn from his science

of human nature, how we actually make moral distinctions; he offers a

psychological account of moral judgments and of their social role. This is

not the same as giving an analysis of the meaning of moral judgments.

If, however, we ask which familiar analysis of moral judgments (in our

sense) accords most closely with Hume’s view, there seem to be two main

candidates. One is some kind of ideal observer analysis. It is found in such

passages as: “ ’Tis only when a character is considered in general, without

reference to our particular interest, that it causes such a feeling or sentiment, as denominates it morally good or evil” (T:). Or the passage we

cited last time from paragraph  of III:i:: “When you pronounce any action

or character to be vicious, you mean nothing, but that from the constitution

of your nature you have a feeling or sentiment of blame from the contemplation of it” (T:).

We might say, then, that the assertion that a quality of character is

morally virtuous means that it would be approved by any normal person

(with normal faculties of reason, feeling, and judgment) when that person

takes up the point of view of the judicious spectator.

. The other candidate is a projective analysis suggested by Mackie.1

The main idea is that Hume’s view about moral judgments runs parallel

with his view of our beliefs about necessary causal connections. Just as in

the latter we ascribe a power or a necessary connection to objects, which we

never observe in them (T:), so also in our moral judgments we ascribe to

qualities of character moral attributes of being virtuous or vicious, which

we do not observe in them (T:f.). We are led to do this by our feelings

and sentiments, which we project onto what is being judged.

Several points support this second view. It is suggested at one place

when Hume says (T:): “We do not infer a character to be virtuous, because it pleases: But in feeling that it pleases after such a particular manner,

we in effect feel that it is virtuous.” If we take the “feel that” here as expressing a judgment, we have a projectivist interpretation of this sentence.

1. Mackie, Hume’s Moral Theory, pp. –.



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This is little to go on. But it is suggestive that in his account of causal

connection Hume says: “ ’Tis a common observation, that the mind has a

great propensity to spread itself [my italics] on external objects, and to conjoin with them any internal impression, which they occasion, and which

always make their appearance at the same time that these objects discover

themselves to the senses” (T:). This passage seems naturally to apply to

moral judgments. Moreover, there is an explicit statement later in the Enquiry (): “The distinct boundaries and offices of reason and taste are easily

ascertained. The former conveys the knowledge of truth and falsehood: the

latter gives the sentiment of beauty and deformity, of vice and virtue. The

one discovers objects as they really stand in nature, without addition or

diminution: the other has a productive faculty and gilding or staining [my

italics] all natural objects with the colors borrowed from internal sentiment,

raises in a manner a new creation.”

The projectivist view explains, then, why Hume used Hutcheson’s term

“moral sense,” and why he compares moral attributes to secondary qualities. It also accords with Hume’s believing that the spectator’s point of view

orders our use of moral language; for given the agreement in our sentiments

(as projected), we quite reasonably, although mistakenly, take the predicates

“virtuous” and “vicious” to denote certain properties or qualities of character.

I incline to favor this projective view, not of course because it is Hume’s,

but because if we ask which contemporary view fits his aims best, this is

perhaps the strongest candidate. It’s less an analysis of meaning and more

an explanation of how we make moral judgments and of why we mistakenly take them as attributing properties to things. So understood, it goes

best with his science of human nature.



§. Whether Hume Has a Conception of Practical Reason

Let’s now consider whether Hume’s account of the judicious spectator and

its epistemological role includes a conception of practical reason, or whether

it is instead an account of the psychological processes whereby our moral

judgments are expressed. In Hume’s mind, I believe, it is a psychological

account. There are, however, passages that suggest how this account might

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become, if pressed, a conception of practical reasoning. Here are two such

ways of pressing it.

First, we might use the point of view of the judicious spectator as a

criterion to work out, or to construct, what our moral judgments should

be. Given the account of that doubly hypothetical point of view, we can

figure out analytically what the content of the approvals of the judicious

spectator would be regarding various kinds of qualities of character or regarding certain actions and institutions. This content could be spelled out

so as to provide a mutually recognized content for morals. Once the public

use of this criterion was justified by its various features—for example, by

the fact that it characterized a general and stable point of view from which

everyone’s interests are impartially taken into consideration (with further

elaborations as required)—the grounds for accepting this criterion would

have been given.

Alternatively, we might simply introduce something like Bentham’s or

Sidgwick’s principle of utility as the fundamental principle of practical reasoning. One ground for doing this might be that, on the basis of Hume’s

account of our moral psychology, that principle is well adapted to our nature and would be readily accepted. On this view, moral questions are decided directly or indirectly (there are various possibilities) by an appeal to

the principle of utility as the final arbiter of reasonable moral opinion. This

kind of view is developed with great care and detail in Sidgwick’s Methods

of Ethics (th ed., ). (For Sidgwick, a method of ethics is simply a method

of practical reasoning.)

Now, it seems clear that Hume has neither of these views in mind.

While we may find them hinted at in what he sometimes says, they are

foreign to his overall aim, which is to give an account of our moral judgments in line with his psychological account of the understanding and the

passions. This account rests on the psychological principles of the association of ideas, on the principles of custom and facility, and on such principles

as those of the predominant passion and of the greater influence of more

particular and determinate ideas, and so on. The problem that concerns

Hume in the second objection to the point of view of the judicious spectator—how to explain that virtue in rags is still virtue—would never have

bothered him had he been following either of the above alternatives. His

supposition that the imagination has its own special passions that make it

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