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§5. The Epistemological Role of the Moral Sentiments
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
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. –.
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
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