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§5. The General Appetite to Good:Passion or Principle?

§5. The General Appetite to Good:Passion or Principle?

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or as working as a principle-dependent desire associated with a principle of

practical reason.

. To answer this question, I introduce the conception of a rational

agent specified as one whose general character, or whose full configuration

of passions, includes desires of the following two kinds (among others):

First, object-dependent desires. The object of an object-dependent desire,

or the state of affairs that fulfills it, can be described without the use of

any moral conceptions, or reasonable or rational principles. This definition

presupposes some way of distinguishing these conceptions and principles,

but let’s assume that we have some rough way of doing this with mutually

agreed results.

Indefinitely many kinds of desires are object-dependent, including many

if not most of Hume’s passions. They include desires for food and drink

and sleep, desires to engage in pleasurable activities of various kinds, and

desires that depend on social life: desires for standing, power, and glory,

and for property and wealth. And much else.

. Next, there are what I shall call principle-dependent desires. These are

of two main kinds depending on whether the principle in question is rational

or reasonable.

Rational principles are those we use in practical reasoning about what

we may call prudential questions. For example (read each as qualified by

ceteris paribus):





To adopt the most effective means to our ends.

To acquire reasonable beliefs about our ends and objectives.

To select the more probable alternative.

To prefer the greater good (which helps to account for

scheduling and adjusting ends to be mutually supporting).

(v) To order our objectives (by priorities) when they conflict.

Each of these principles Sidgwick would consider a dictate of (practical)


Let’s take these principles to be given by enumeration and not derived

from a definition of practical rationality, as there is no agreement on

the best way of defining this conception, especially when uncertainty is

involved. We should allow that there are different views of rationality.

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Still, the general idea is that these principles specify what a single agent

with a variety of aims—whether an individual, or association, or community, or nation, or an alliance of nations—is to be guided by, so far as

practicable and reasonable, in what common sense views as rational deliberation.

We may add a second kind of principle-dependent desire connected with

the principles of Hume’s strict reason, reasoning in logic and mathematics,

in weighing evidence and probable inference. After all, strict reasoning, like

any other activity, has to be moved by some passion, Hume would say.

Most people have these desires to some degree, since, as Aristotle says, we

desire to know: we enjoy puzzles, riddles, and so on. No one could be a

mathematician or physicist without these desires.

The third kind of principle-dependent desires are connected with reasonable principles: those that regulate how a plurality of agents (or a community

or society of agents), whether of individual persons or groups, are to conduct themselves in their relations with one another. Principles of fairness

or justice that define the fair terms of cooperation are standard examples.

So are principles associated with the moral virtues recognized by common

sense: truthfulness, fidelity, and so on. I put these reasonable desires and

principles aside for now.3

. Now what distinguishes principle-dependent desires is that the aim

of the desire, or the deliberative, intellectual activity in which we desire

to engage, cannot be described without using the principles, rational or

reasonable as the case may be, that enter into that activity. Only a being

that can understand and apply these principles—that knows how to use

them—can have these desires. A rational agent is someone of just this kind.

By definition, then, a rational agent is one whose character, whose con3. I mention in passing that there are also conception-dependent desires. These can be described

by saying that the principles we desire to follow can be connected with a desire to realize a certain

rational or reasonable conception, or moral ideal. For example, we desire to conduct ourselves in

a manner appropriate to our being a rational person, one whose conduct is guided by practical

reasoning; and desiring to be this kind of person involves having and acting from these principledependent desires, and not only from object-dependent desires as governed by custom and habit.

Such a conception is formed when the principles specifying the principle-dependent desires are

suitably related and connected to the conception in a certain way. Thus we saw that practical

reasoning concerning the future involves, let’s say, a conception of ourselves as enduring over time.

I won’t pursue this thought here. But to speak of conception-dependent desires, we must be able

to make the appropriate kind of connection.

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figuration of desires (passions), contains principle-dependent desires associated with the principles of practical reason. Like all desires, these desires

have a greater or lesser strength, which may vary from time to time. But

beyond this, the principles with which these desires are associated are recognized by the agent to have authority, say, the authority of reason. The

agent will say: “I was foolish not to spend more time being sure I was

taking appropriate means to my ends,” and so on. Thus, it is via principledependent desires that the principles of practical reason have a foothold in

the agent’s character.4 Insofar as an agent is rational—satisfies the definition—the agent will be motivated to act accordingly, not always decisively,

but to some significant degree.

. Finally, we come to our question: Is the general appetite to good, as

Hume describes it, literally a calm passion, or is it a principle-dependent

desire, and if so, what is the principle?

Now, if Hume viewed the general appetite to good as a principledependent desire, it is likely that he would have made explicit its principle;

and the principle most suggested by the text is perhaps this:

Other things being equal, to maximize over time the net balance of

good over evil in one’s life, estimating these goods and evils, when

appropriate, by foreseen pleasures and pains, and measuring pleasures

and pains by their intensity and duration, and discounting them by

their probability.

Or something like that. The principle of practical reasoning becomes: to

take account of our future goods and evils according to their weight, or

their degree of prospective importance or satisfaction, thus determined.

But I think that Hume never describes the general appetite to good as

guided by such a principle, and so never as a principle-dependent desire.

Rather, he sees it as a psychological principle that works in certain ways, but

not as a rational principle that the agent applies in recognition of its rational

4. In Bernard Williams’s terminology, these principle-dependent desires are contained in the

agent’s motivational set. See his “Internal and External Reasons,” in Moral Luck (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, ), pp. f. The account of a rational agent in the text follows that

given by Christine Korsgaard in “Skepticism and Practical Reason,” Journal of Philosophy ( January

), –.

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authority. Some examples of passages that support this are in II:iii:, where

he discusses the direct passions. He considers how probabilities give rise

to hope and fear (T:f.), and he approaches the idea of mathematical

expectation (T:f.). But always the emphasis is on the way certain psychological principles govern the vivacity of beliefs and cause such passions as

hope and fear. Moreover, Hume likes physical analogies, as when he says


If we consider the human mind, we shall find, that with regard to the

passions, ’tis not of the nature of a wind-instrument of music, which

in running over all the notes immediately loses the sound after the

breath ceases; but rather resembles a string-instrument, where after

each stroke the vibrations still retain some sound, which gradually and

insensibly decays. . . . [And so it is that] grief and joy being intermingled

. . . by means of the contrary views of the imagination, produce by

their union the passions of hope and fear.

. I suggest, with some hesitation, that this accords with Hume’s discussion even of the two principles of practical reason he might seem to endorse,


(i) To adopt the most effective means to our ends.

(ii) To acquire reasonable beliefs about our ends and objectives.

For his description of these also seems as if it could be read purely psychologically. He writes (T:f.): “The moment we perceive the falsehood of

any supposition, or the insufficiency of any means our passions yield to our

reason without any opposition. . . . [W]henever you convince me of my

mistake, my longing ceases. . . . As soon as I discover the falsehood of that

supposition, they must become indifferent to me.”

On the other hand, in the case of the principle of practical reason directing us to our greater good, the case is not the same (T:). Recall Hume’s

remark (T:): “ ’Tis as little contrary to reason to prefer even my own

acknowledg’d lesser good to my greater, and have a more ardent affection

for the former than the latter.” We might take Hume to mean that the

desire for our lesser good does not rest on a false belief, and yet that desire

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may be stronger than the desire for our greater good. The explanation, he

may think, is that such a preference is a matter of character: it betrays a

person’s impatience and shortsightedness, impetuousness, and thoughtlessness. The remedy is a change of character, not an appeal to strict reason.

All this is simply a fact of human psychology; practical reason appears to

have no role.

. To conclude: in view of these passages, and the nature of Hume’s

account generally, I believe that if we think of practical reasoning as deliberation regulated by (ostensibly) correct or valid judgments and moved by

principle-dependent desires associated with rational principles, then Hume

does not have a conception of practical reasoning. Or at any rate, he does

not have that conception of it.

What is distinctive about Hume’s view of deliberation is not that it is

simple and not complex: it is very complex. Nor is it that he thinks that

deliberation concerns only the best means to given ends, or that it can have

only a few kinds of effects on the course of action; rather, it can have many

deep and profound effects. What is distinctive of his view is that it seems

to be purely psychological and to lack altogether what some writers think

of as the ideas of practical reason and of its authority.

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H 

Justice as an Artificial Virtue

§. The Capital of the Sciences

. Today we consider Hume’s account of justice as an artificial as opposed

to a natural virtue. This topic is central to his fideism of nature: he wants

to show that morality and our practice of it are the expression of our nature,

given our place in the world and our dependence on society. Recall that

in the introduction to the Treatise, Hume discussed the history of the sciences, how they had begun with mathematics, natural philosophy, and natural religion, and how they have very considerable dependence on the

knowledge of man (T:xv–xvi).

This dependence must be all the greater, he says, for the sciences of

logic, morals, criticism, and politics, which cover all of Hume’s interests in

his writings. Logic explains the workings of our reasoning faculty and the

nature of our ideas. Morals and criticism consider our sentiments and tastes,

whereas politics deals with people joined into society and dependent on

one another. Hume wants to abandon the “lingering method” followed

hitherto and, as he puts it, “to march up directly to the capital or center

of those sciences, to human nature itself ” (T:xvi).

So we have in the Treatise a young man’s attempt to conquer what he

calls “the capital” of the sciences and so to make his reputation and very

considerable noise in the world. Essential to achieving this is showing that

morality is a natural fact, explicable in view of our natural human interests

and our need for society. This explanation is to be based on experience and

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observation. Hume wants to follow Newton’s maxim, “Hypotheses non

fingo,” and to frame no hypotheses about the essence of the soul or the

body; he appeals, he says, only to principles that are manifest in the operations of nature. Explaining the basis of the virtues, both natural and artificial,

and how they arise and play their different roles, is one of the moral subjects

that make up the science of human nature so conceived.

. Today I shall discuss a few basic questions connected with these matters in III:ii:–. Much will have to be left out. But before I go on, a caution

about Hume’s language, which at times is subtly different from ours. For

example, one notices from the subtitle of the Treatise—“Being an Attempt

to Introduce the Experimental Method of Reasoning into Moral Subjects”—

that the meaning of “moral” is very different than it is now. Some changes

of meaning are amusing, as when Adam Smith says, “Virtue, according to

Aristotle, consists in the habit of mediocrity according to right reason.”1

So we are warned that “artificial” does not mean what it means today:

false, fake, not genuine, not real, and the like. The meaning of words, like

water under the influence of gravity, seems to go downhill; this has happened with “artificial.” This is illustrated by an anecdote (too good to be

false) about Charles II. When the king went for the first time to look at

St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, rebuilt by Christopher Wren after the great

fire of , he said solemnly, after having stood some time under the dome:

“It’s awful and artificial,” meaning that it inspired awe but was at the same

time a work of reason. These were words of highest praise.

. Hume’s text plainly confirms this meaning. For example, the idea of the

artificial virtues is mentioned along with three senses of “natural” (T:f.).

The first sense of “natural” is as opposed to miracles, and in this sense

all of the virtues, both natural and artificial, are natural.

Second, there is the sense of “natural” as opposed to the unusual, in

1. The Theory of Moral Sentiments (Oxford: Oxford University Press, ), p. . Other examples

are these: “sensible” means “obvious” or “readily perceived,” “experiments” means “observations

of others under various conditions” (T:xxiii), “specious” means “plausible” (not plausible-seeming

but false), “complacency” means “tranquil pleasure or satisfaction” (E:), “jealous” (as in “the

cautious, jealous virtue of justice”) means “scrupulously vigilant” (E:). And about virtue Hume

says something close to Smith: “No quality . . . is absolutely blameable or praise-worthy. It is all

according to its degree. A due medium, says the Peripatetic, is the characteristic of virtue. But this

medium is chiefly determined by utility. . . . By such reasonings, we fix the proper . . . mediocrity

in all moral and prudential disquisitions” (E:).

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§5. The General Appetite to Good:Passion or Principle?

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