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Dec 16, 2011               

Two notes on Hume's Enquiry concerning Morals

I did again some fixing of backgrounds, namely
in my Hobbes and Hume sections, and as happened before, I'll quote some from what I did fix, because (1) this is easier for me; (2) I think the quotes and my comments are interesting (for intelligent and curious people, to be sure, which I bracket because it should go "almost without saying"); and (3) to draw the attention to some of the things on my large site - ca. 350 MB meanwhile - that some may have missed or just not looked into.

This time it is from my Hume section, that contains both of Hume's Enquiries, with my extensive comments, that are - as is usual once I really start commenting a classic philosophical text - about as long as the originals, but then this is in part because I also quote the parts of the text I comment on, simply because that makes things a lot clearer and more helpful, and also allows the reading of my comments without reading the whole text they comment on.

Anyway, since I am at it, two remarks relating to Hume:

One. I have not put the Treatise on Human Nature on my site, and do not intend to do so. My reason is that I have read it, and I agree with Hume (and also, it seems, with C.D. Broad, who was an interesting English philosopher with a very clear mind and a very clear style, who isn't read by far as much as he should be) that his Enquiries are a lot better.

My main reason to say so is that I have read quite a few academic philosophers who say otherwise, and who insist the Treatise is Hume's greatest work. It certainly seems to be his thickest volume - I write "seems" because I have read only one volume of Hume's historical works - and he also was a young man when he wrote it, which makes it more admirable, but I agree with Hume that his Enquiries are clearer, better written, shorter, and contain fewer mistakes and unclarities.

Two. I have also not put his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion on my site, but hope to do so, with my comments, for it is a great small book.

Anyway, here are two quotations from Hume's Enquiry concerning the Principles of Morals (incidentally, according to Hume his best written philosophical book), the first is from an appendix to that book, "A Dialogue", that is mostly concerned with the relativity of morals, and that may still shock people, and the second extends the first note.

The first note is interesting for various reasons, one of which is that it contains a list of qualities of human beings that - according to Hume - are considered useful or agreeable in virtually any human society, and therefore may be considered good in fairly realistic sense, even if there also remains much that is relative in morals, for which see A Dialogue from which the firs note comes:

Note 28 : It appears, that there never was any quality recommended by any one, as a virtue or moral excellence, but on account of its being useful, or agreeable to a man himself, or to others. For what other reason can ever be assigned for praise or approbation? Or where would be the sense of extolling a good character or action, which, at the same time, is allowed to be good for nothing? All the differences, therefore, in morals, may be reduced to this one general foundation, and may be accounted for by the different views, which people take of these circumstances.

Here is Hume's fundamental theory of the Principles of Morals, and it may be helpful to provide a schematic table, and refer to Note 16 in Section IX where a similar table is given:


Human characteristics that are useful as means to desirable ends

Human characteristics that are agreeable or desirable itself

For self

justice, fidelity, honour, veracity, allegiance, chastity, humanity, benevolence, lenity, generosity, gratitude, moderation, tenderness, friendship wit, affability, modesty

For others

industry, discretion, frugality, secrecy, order, perseverance, forethought, judgement serenity, cheerfulness, dignity, undaunted spirit, a tender affection, good-will

These are helpful distinctions, but if one wants to compare different societies (or nominally the same society at different times) one may well ask about the ends of the society i.e. those things and qualities that the society is supposed to further, protect, realize or maintain.

Here one may well ask: Aren't the ends of different societies very different from one society to the next, and often opposed? Was there, for example, not a fundamental and deep opposition between the morals, practices, ideas, ideals and ends of the Soviet-Union and of the United States at the same time?

I suppose Hume's answer would have been along the lines of this Dialogue: Most of the differences between the Soviet-Union and of the United States were superficial rather than fundamental, and indeed both societies claimed to exist to further the greatest happiness of the greatest number of their members, and had in many cases very similar ideals and similar terms of praise and blame.

The reason that different societies may be measured by the same moral rules and criterions is that human beings are mostly the same since they all share the same human nature and all have the same kinds of needs.

The differences between human societies, all of which are fundamentally cooperations for the mutual benefits of the members, are in part local and accidental, and e.g. partially due to climate or geography; in part due to the technology and beliefs about nature men have; and in part due to different ideas and ideals concerning how society should be organized to serve the interests of its members.

For more see Note 3 in Section I.

Note 3 : There has been a controversy started of late, much better worth examination, concerning the general foundation of Morals; whether they be derived from Reason, or from Sentiment; whether we attain the knowledge of them by a chain of argument and induction, or by an immediate feeling and finer internal sense; whether, like all sound judgement of truth and falsehood, they should be the same to every rational intelligent being; or whether, like the perception of beauty and deformity, they be founded entirely on the particular fabric and constitution of the human species.

These are good questions, but it should be obvious in which direction the truth is to be sought: Both 'Reason' and 'Sentiment' are involved in 'Morals', since morals concerns the question what one should do, and the answer must be normally in terms of beliefs about what reality is like, and desires about what it should be made like.

And it makes sense to suppose that there are no genuine moral or ethical concerns that do not involve both beliefs and desires about reality. Also, it is important to see that in moral and ethical systems the beliefs and the desires tend to influence and color each other: What one believes the world is like depends at least in part on what one desires it should be like, and what one desires the world should be like depends at least in part on what one believes it is like.

Few persons are rational in the sense that their beliefs are independent from their desires.

Also, since we are still at the beginning of a long series of fairly often long Notes to a philosophical classics about morals, it may be helpful if I sketch some elementary semantical considerations concerning the term 'good' and explain a little about supposed ends of society.

What is called morally good tends to be called so, independently from what the speaker holds to be morally good, by reference to a fact and to a standard.

The fact is that what is judged to be morally good, again independently from what the speaker holds to be morally good, tends to be different from and regularly opposed to what feels or may feel pleasurable, both in the short term and the long run. Indeed, this fact is at the bottom of most moral codes, that tend to exist as moral codes in order to correct the natural human tendency to do what is or seems pleasurable here and now.

The standard is that people tend to judge that so-and-so is morally good (or bad, or indifferent) by reference to what they hold to be the ends of human society, whatever they believe or desire these to be, and by reference to what they believe about human nature.

If one thinks about this one realizes that such ends also ultimately depend on a person's desires, just like his non-moral and ordinary judgments that such-and-such is or feels good, but with a fairly important difference if the person who judges is not ignorant about human society, human history and human nature: That what he holds to be ends of human society must then have been judged these to be so by reference to what he believes or knows to be humanly, socially or historically possible and feasible. And this may and often does fall far short of what the person holds desirable without such realistic and sobering knowledge of human capacities and actions. (See Rummel, Muller, Milgram and Kohlberg.)

Next, here are three well-known examples of different ends of human society, and two examples of different theories of human nature. Since my aim here is mostly to clarify in what sense I mean the phrase 'the ends for society' I will only list the examples and will not discuss them. But to allow the reader of these notes to correct for my own biases, I will conclude this note by stating these in the present case.  

Three different conceptions of the ends of society as thought about in Europe since the 18th Century are conservatism, liberalism and socialism, where the last may be subdivided in social-democratic and marxist conceptions.

And two examples of different conceptions of human nature are religious and naturalistic: Whether human beings are created by some divine fiat or stand on their own as an evolved natural kind.

As the reader can find from the links I provided, my own biases are liberal and naturalistic.

Incidentally, while I admire Hume I don't quite agree with him, but then that also should be obvious from my comments, of which you'll find a whole lot more by way of the last link.


Corrections, if any are necessary, have to be made later.


As to ME/CFS (that I prefer to call ME):
1.  Anthony Komaroff Ten discoveries about the biology of CFS (pdf)
3.  Hillary Johnson The Why
4.  Consensus of M.D.s Canadian Consensus Government Report on ME (pdf)
5.  Eleanor Stein Clinical Guidelines for Psychiatrists (pdf)
6.  William Clifford The Ethics of Belief
7.  Paul Lutus

Is Psychology a Science?

8.  Malcolm Hooper Magical Medicine (pdf)
 Maarten Maartensz
ME in Amsterdam - surviving in Amsterdam with ME (Dutch)
 Maarten Maartensz Myalgic Encephalomyelitis

Short descriptions of the above:                

1. Ten reasons why ME/CFS is a real disease by a professor of medicine of Harvard.
2. Long essay by a professor emeritus of medical chemistry about maltreatment of ME.
3. Explanation of what's happening around ME by an investigative journalist.
4. Report to Canadian Government on ME, by many medical experts.
5. Advice to psychiatrist by a psychiatrist who understands ME is an organic disease
6. English mathematical genius on one's responsibilities in the matter of one's beliefs:

7. A space- and computer-scientist takes a look at psychology.
8. Malcolm Hooper puts things together status 2010.
9. I tell my story of surviving (so far) in Amsterdam/ with ME.
10. The directory on my site about ME.

See also: ME -Documentation and ME - Resources
The last has many files, all on my site to keep them accessible.

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