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§5. The General Appetite to Good:Passion or Principle?
or as working as a principle-dependent desire associated with a principle of
. 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
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
Rational principles are those we use in practical reasoning about what
we may call prudential questions. For example (read each as qualiﬁed by
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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:).