David Hume and Moral Judgements

David Hume
David Hume (photo: Wiki)

Morals excite passions, and produce or prevent actions. Reason of itself is utterly impotent in this particular. The rules of morality, therefore, are not conclusions of our reason. — David Hume

Today in history is David Hume’s birthday. Hume was a 18th century Scottish philosopher who’s writings have gotten more attention lately because modern psychologists, notably Jonathan Haidt, have been praising parts of Hume’s moral philosophy. Haidt sees the core of Hume’s moral philosophy as anticipating Haidt’s research conclusions about how people reach moral judgements.

In short, Hume & Haidt both argue that moral judgements aren’t something we reach through a process of reflective reasoning. That’s a rationalist delusion. Our moral judgements are primarily the product of our intuitions, or in the Humian sense, our passions. Reason is simply the ex post facto lawyer who’s primary job is to defend your moral intuitions. Haidt’s social intuitionism model says, “Moral intuitions come first, strategic reasoning comes second.”

As David Hume wrote: “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” Reason serves our passions, our emotions, our non-rational intuitions.

Of course the down side of Hume’s & Haidt’s idea is that logic and good arguments are not likely to persuade anybody of anything when people’s beliefs or moral convictions are set. Haidt would argue, and I think rightly, that it’s not that reason can’t persuade at all, it’s just that until emotional barriers are soften or lowered Reason cannot make much headway in influencing our morals, politics, religion or football.

As Jonathan Swift wrote: “Reasoning will never make a man correct an ill opinion, which by reasoning he never acquired…”

I think an honest observer of people and human nature would think Hume’s & Haidt’s idea a confirmation of the obvious. I mean watch people at election time…like now in the US.

Politics, which is very moral, is a good example. Facts, evidence, and sound argument are not what typically guides most people’s decisions about issues and who to vote for. Now, I don’t think that’s true with everyone. Certainly there are people who can be persuaded by logic, evidence, and good arguments. There are people who are aware of their emotional barriers and who do want to get at the truth or what’s best for themselves or the society. But that persuadable group is relatively small, unfortunately.

The saving grace for our society is that this group of Independent voters and thinkers have a big impact in the outcome of close elections. They’re willing to go either way and are weighing the reasons and arguments for each candidate—or so I’d like to believe.

5 thoughts on “David Hume and Moral Judgements

  1. Dr. Donald Livingston of Emory wrote a highly readable study of Hume titled Philosophical Melancholy. It argues that reason fails as a standard for politics, as well as morality.

    Which explains why communism, the very highest expression of rationalist political philosophy, was such a horrible failure.

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    1. Mike – Thanks for telling me about the Hume essay. I must read it when I get a chance. This is a very interesting topic. In some ways the idea (confirmed by a 5 minute conversation with the average voter) that people’s politics is mostly emotional is, well, a little grim. At the same time a purely rationalistic scheme of thinking is too detached and unsympathetic. We need the wisdom of the heart informed by the whispers of the head.

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  2. I think the very end of this essay misses the mark: “The saving grace for our society is that this group of Independent voters and thinkers have a big impact in the outcome of close elections.” This is not at all what Mr Haidt is saying. Instead, he’s saying that *no one* is immune to making snap moral judgements that are, quite often, wrong to some degree. However, if you average the snap judgements and later rationalizations of lots of people (via some sort of democratic process), you can wind up with a pretty good result. Here’s a quote from the book:

    “We should not expect individuals to produce good, open-minded, truth-seeking reasoning, particularly when self-interest or reputational concerns are in play. But if you put individuals together in the right way, such that some individuals can use their reasoning powers to disconfirm the claims of others, and all individuals feel some common bond or shared fate that allows them to interact civilly, you can create a group that ends up producing good reasoning as an emergent property of the social system. This is why it’s so important to have intellectual and ideological diversity within any group or institution whose goal is to find truth (such as an intelligence agency or a community of scientists) or to produce good public policy (such as a legislature or advisory board).”

    In the vernacular, all of our individual moral judgments suck. Some of us, however, are good at persuasion and others of us can be persuaded (at least a little bit) and, after some logrolling and argument, a bunch of us together can come to a good outcome.

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    1. Rob – First, thank you for the thoughtful comment. You make an excellent point. I guess my thoughts were that there are some people more persuadable than others—as you say above. I think some people are simply more open to changing their mind based on a good argument than others. That’s my experience at least. Now, does that mean they don’t have biases? Of course not. But they can be more aware of their bias, and thus able to arrest them, than others in the group. Of course I could be entirely wrong since I’m merely stating my opinion….but then that’s why I purposely ended the post with “or so I’d like to believe.”

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