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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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