Hume continues his evaluation of reason and passion by exploring the following subjects:
- Why reason and the passions can never be in conflict with one another
- Reason can still influence the passions, especially with false judgements
- When a clash occurs, it is actually the ‘calm’ passions that are in conflict with the stronger passions
In this part of the Treatise, Hume is interested in proving that reason and passion can never be in conflict with one another. A passion is an ‘original existence’, whereas reason is based on an idea (a representation) of the world. This means it is incorrect to describe the passions as being ‘true’ or ‘false’. They cannot be compared to reason. Both reason and the passions speak a different ‘language’, so it is fruitless to compare one to the other.
It is not immediately clear what Hume means by the term ‘original existence’. Is he referring to a natural state of being, such as the way in which a person naturally feels pleasure or pain? Hume would insist that an original existence cannot be assessed rationally. While ideas are representations of the world based on belief, the passions are the sort of mental influence that happens without conscious thought. Passions refer to nothing but themselves. The state of anger for instance is neither true or false, accurate or inaccurate.
Although a passion is never unreasonable in itself, Hume notes that the passion could be based on a judgement that turns out to be unreasonable. This could happen in two cases: (1) the passion was based on a supposition that a certain thing or state existed, but this thing or state didn’t really exist, or (2) the strength of the passion is based on insufficient means for the actual situation, that is, we were deceived on the exact causes.
Interestingly, by raising these two exceptions based on false judgements, Hume suggests that reason does in fact have an important role to play in influencing our actions. If we make a judgement true or otherwise and then act on that judgement, we can conclude that reason is not completely inert. It can still have a key influence on our actions. However Hume would argue that the decision has still been made in this case, and reason is simply pointing us in the right direction or is bolstering the decision already made by the passions.
In the case of actions that were based on true suppositions and sufficient means, once the action has been carried out, reason can do nothing to judge or condemn the action. This leads Hume into his famous metaphors: ‘Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger’. We are ruled by our passions, no matter how fanciful or ludicrous the passion may be. By using these examples, Hume is considering the viewpoint of someone who is completely governed by his or her passions. However, it is difficult to conceive of people being so overwhelmed by their desires that they would give so little concern to the destruction of the world.
Hume is satisfied however that he has answered the second challenge. Provided the passions were not based on a false judgement or insufficient means, a passion can never be unreasonable or in conflict with reason. And even if the passions were motivated by a false judgement, it is not the passions that are unreasonable but the judgement. Even a weak desire can influence the will and cause us to carry out an action.
Hume is aware that people often get the impression that reason and the passions are clashing with one another, such as when people are tempted to eat unhealthy food, even though their reason tells them that consuming the food will cause health problems. Next in the Treatise, Hume considers whether this ‘clash’ really does exist.
In general, the process of reasoning is not accompanied by any noticeable emotion, so this gives rise to the impression of reason being a tranquil state of mind. However when we claim that passion and reason are in conflict with one another, Hume believes it is not actually reason we are targeting here. Rather, we have a number of calmer passions that also produce a similar state of mind to that of reason. As examples of the calmer passions, Hume mentions benevolence, kindness to children and a general appetite for good.
Therefore, whenever the clash occurs, it is actually the quieter passions that are in conflict with the more volatile passions. Because the gentler passions have a similar effect to reason, this makes us believe that reason itself is part of the conflict. But this view is mistaken. By eating the unhealthy food, our stronger passions already have the desire to eat the food, so if we feel a conflict, it is a weaker passion (a form of pride possibly) telling us that we should avoid consuming the food as this will adversely impact our health.
With this in mind, how would we deal with someone who is less tempted by food and can control their appetite? On the surface, reason appears to be telling this person about the negative effects of eating unhealthy food, so this person is acting ‘rationally’ in avoiding the food on offer. However, Hume would claim that through habit more than anything, the more health conscious individual has managed to reduce the force of their more ‘base’ passion, so they are not so motivated to fulfil their hunger. Conversely, the weaker pride-like passion has strengthened to the point that this ends up being the stronger passion.
With the discussion of reason and passions wrapped up in Book 2, Hume will return to the subject in Book 3 in the context of morality.