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Hume Vs. Kant

Hume vs. Kant
On the Nature of Morality
From the origin of Western philosophical thought, there has been an interest in moral laws. As Hume points out in the Treatise, morality is a subject that interests us above all others (David Hume A Treatise of Human Nature’). Originally, thoughts of how to live were centered on the issue of having the most satisfying life, with virtue governing one’s relations to others (J.B. Schneewind ‘Modern Moral Philosophy’). However, the view that there is one way to live that is best for everyone and the view that morality is determined by God, came to be questioned, and it is this that led to the emergence of Modern moral philosophy.

The moral debates continued to see good as merely that which gives happiness or pleasure. ?it was assumed that what we ought to do is always a function of what it would be good to bring about: action can only be right because it produces good (J.B. Schneewind ‘Modern Moral Philosophy’). It was the breaking away from this idea that was perhaps the most important aspect of the works of both Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) and David Hume (1711-1776).

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Hume’s moral theory arose out of his belief that reason alone can never cause action. Desire or feelings cause action. Because reason alone can never cause action, morality is rooted in our feelings. Virtue arises from acting on a desire to help others. Hume’s moral theory is therefore a virtue-centered morality rather than the natural-law morality, which saw morality as coming from God.

Kant’s notion of morality arose from his notion of a moral law; a law applicable to all people at all times, that imposes absolute duties on us. According to Kant, you ought to act according to the maxim that is qualified for universal law giving; that is, you ought to act so that the maxim of your action may become a universal law (Immanuel Kant ‘Lectures of Mr. Kant on the Metaphysics of Morals’). Kant, unlike Hume, saw it as possible to act on reason alone, and whether or not a person acted morally depended on whether he/she had acted on reason alone.

The essential difference between Kant and Hume that affected their whole thinking on the matter of morality was each one’s belief about the autonomy of the will. Kant saw the will as fully autonomous and therefore needing no external sources for motivation, thus making it possible to act out of reason alone.

This view went completely against that put forward by Hume. Hume believed that reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions. He argued that reason is used to discover the causes of pain or pleasure, but it is the prospect of pain or pleasure that causes action, not the reasoning alone, as that is entirely indifferent to us. This notion of always being motivated by pleasure or pain is very important, as it follows from this that when we act morally, it is a desire that makes us act and not reason. Since morals, therefore, have an influence on the actions and affections, if follows that they cannot be derived from reason, and that because reason alone, as we have already proved, can never have any such influence. 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 ‘A Treatise of Human Nature’).

Kant saw it as essential that the will must not be the slave of the passions for moral actions to be possible. Kant differentiated two kinds of imperative statements: first, the hypothetical imperative, which has the general for If you want to achieve P then you should do X; and, second, the categorical imperative, of the form You should do X.

Hypothetical imperatives are unproblematic. They are straightforward sentences that express mundane statements of fact. Categorical ones, on the other hand, are highly problematic. My own reaction to any categorical imperative is to ask, Why?. For instance, if a rabbi tells me You should refrain from eating pork, then that appears to me to be an incomplete statement. I immediately want to hear the missing half of the


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