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Outline of Humean Ethical Non-Rationalism

david hume

Another outline for my ethics course.

In chapter 1 of his “On the Influencing Motives of the Will,” David Hume makes an argument for ethical non-rationalism on the basis that decisions are not primarily derived from rational ideas but from passions and components of the will not fully under our control. In Hume’s view, the Will, a result of pain, pleasure, and other passions, is the driving force of decision making. This means that decisions are not made rationally, and ethics is not based in reason alone, but in the non-rational drives of passion which guide the will.

Hume argues that morality, which is based in reason as a part of “practical philosophy,” informs moral decision-making, thereby connecting moral decision-making and reason, but that it can never totally eclipse the passions as the driving force behind decisions. The direct cause of an action is never reasoning based in practical moral reason, rather that kind of reasoning informs the decisions made on the basis of the passions and other drives of the will. Decisions are based more directly in our perception of whether we will experience pleasure or pain as a result of the action being performed.

The argument essentially runs along the lines of rational moral decisions being based in causal relationship. If A causes B then rational moral decisions are based on whether A should cause B to produce the best decision from a rational point of view. This basic pattern of thought doesn’t reflect the way decisions are actually made because the additional factor of pleasure or pain as a result of the action A changes the way decisions may be made in response to A. Because these passion-based factors have a greater influence over the decision than simply the rational following of A to B, the decision itself is not a primarily rational one, but a passionate decision informed by reason.

This argument seems to make logical sense and is valid by modus tollens from the premises. It also appears to be sound in the sense that the relationship between the premises and their truth is solid. Moral decisions, viewed as Hume views them, are not primarily reasoned decisions. They are based, instead, on the passions and the drive toward pleasure and away from pain. This drive, informed by certain rational decisions, results in morality as it is between people.

Hume’s arguments, which is followed by an assertion that passions are, in fact, amenable to reason and related to reason, is important because it points to a certain flaw in the way prior philosophers described moral decision-making. Rather than a reasonable, thoughtful decision, most decisions are based in simpler more immediate causes which can only be analyzed in terms of reason after the fact. I agree with his argument generally, and I see its role in relationship to morality because it changes the way individual decisions are seen in terms of their relationship to rational, practical morality.

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Outline of J.S. Mill’s Argument for Utilitarianism

js mill

This is a brief outline prepared for my Ethics course.

In chapter 1 of his Utilitarianism, John Stuart Mill puts fourth an argument in favor of the “Greatest Happiness Principle” or GHP. That is, he argues that a thing is good insofar as it produces the greatest happiness for the largest number of people. While his ideas may seem at first to be an intuitive extension of the Hedonistic Value Theory, when examined carefully through logical analysis, it can be shown to be not only unsound, but actually totally invalid as an argument.

The argument follows like this:

1. If everyone desires his own happiness, then individual happiness is desirable. (Premise.)
2. Everyone desires his own happiness. (Premise.)
3. If everyone’s individual happiness is desirable, then the happiness of everyone is desirable. (Premise.)
4. Every individual’s happiness is desirable. (By conditional elimination from 1 and 2)
5. Therefore the happiness of everyone is desirable. (By conditional elimination from 3 and 4)
6. If the happiness of everyone is desirable, then an action is right, if and only if it produces the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. (Premise.)
7. Therefore, an action is right, if and only if is produces the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. (By conditional elimination from 5 and 6.)

While this argument seems to flow logically, it encounters a problem in the fact that the argument itself is actually invalid. Assuming this is the argument made by Mill, the argument is invalid because it relies on the Fallacy of Equivocation. Mill falsely conflates two different variations on the meaning of desirable, making appear as if something being “capable of being desired” also means it should be desired. The use of the world desirable to refer to the former in the first several premises of the argument, followed by the use of the latter in the conclusion, makes the argument inconsistent, and by consequence, invalid.

In order to make this argument function, one would need to eliminate the false equivocation of the two forms of “desired” by the addition of a premise. Changing the word “desirable” to “capable of being desired” and “ought to be desired” to draw distinction between the two variations would clarify the meaning of the argument, and the addition of the premise “If something is capable of being desired, then it ought to be desired” would add to the validity of the argument. This argument would still be unsound, however, due to the fact that this additional premise is not necessarily true. It seems the problems with the premises and the reliance on fallacies are difficult to overcome in this argument.

Mill’s argument, taken in this way, is both unsound and invalid, and it is difficult to make an argument along the same lines which doesn’t fall into the same issues. The basis of the GHP as a useful ethical principle is quite flawed, and its use in practice is not philosophically viable. This doesn’t necessarily eliminate Utilitarianism as a potentially valid ethical theory, it only draws into question the value of J.S. Mill’s Utilitarianism and his argument for it.

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