This post provides a brief summary of the additional resources I’ve referred to in trying to understand Hume’s moral theory:
Moral Scepticism and Moral Naturalism in Hume’s Treatise (Nicholas Sturgeon)
This essay explores Hume’s famous dictum that ‘an ought cannot be implied from an is’. Sturgeon also takes a closer look at Hume’s ‘naturalistic’ interpretation of morality, in which Hume claims that morality is a kind of sentiment. What does Hume mean in terms of ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ qualities and how does this relate to previous philosophers (eg Locke) on the subject? And is it true to state that reason plays no part in making moral judgements?
Artificial Virtues and the Sensible Knave (David Gauthier)
Gauthier examines Hume’s distinction between natural and artificial virtues, and in particular, determines why exactly are we motivated to act according to an artificial virtue such as justice, especially when we don’t benefit from the action. The traditional view is that we do this to support the notion of justice as a whole, but Gauthier argues there is a ‘selfish’ reason as well, the desire to be seen as a moral person, which improves our future prospects. Gauthier also examines the story of the ‘sensible knave’, which appears in the Enquiry.
The General Point of View: Love and Moral Approval in Hume’s Ethics (Christine Korsgaard)
Hume’s sense of morality is based on sentiment which judges a person’s character from a ‘general point of view’. Korsgaard examines this statement in more detail, including the idea that it manages to introduce a sense of objectivity into Hume’s theory. Although Hume fails to really explain the reason why we take up the ‘general point of view’, Korsgaard argues that he indirectly provides a justification for it in his discussion on the virtue of love. The idea of ‘sympathy’ can link us from a specific action to a general impression.
Another Look at Hume’s Account of Moral Evaluation (Pall Ardal)
Ardal takes as a starting point Hume’s proposition of a moral sentiment, but then considers what exactly this means. Is it a separate passion of its own, or a weaker version of love/hatred? To explore this further, Ardal examines in more detail the four indirect passions discussed by Hume in Book 2 (love, hatred, pride and humility), eventually concluding that moral sentiment is a weaker form of love and hatred.
A Sensible Subjectivism (David Wiggins)
Wiggins notes that Hume’s theory is often dismissed as being too ‘subjective’ and ‘individual’. However Wiggins argues that perhaps this is misreading Hume, and there is an element of objectivity is his views on morality. For instance, due to the simple fact that we all have a shared language, this forces us to put our own feelings into a form that is understand (and agreed to) by others. In addition, even though we might claim it’s up to individuals to decide, we do have a shared sense of what is ‘good’. As a parallel, Wiggins refers to the art world and how a general consensus builds up on what is good art.
Reading Ethics (Miranda Fricker and Samuel Gutterplan)
Chapter 3 of this book (‘Reason for Action’) looks specifically at Hume and the parts of the Treatisedealing with the question of whether we act from reason or passions. The Book 2 extracts consider action from a general point-of-view, while Book 3 looks at morality in particular. Both come to the same conclusion, in that reason can never be the primary source of motivation for the will, and reason can never override the passions.
Hume’s Moral Philosophy (Stanford… Rachel Cohon)
As always with the Stanford essays, this provides an excellent summary of Hume’s overall moral position, focusing mainly on the Treatise. It considers all the main questions, such as the conflict between reason and passion, the difference between natural and artificial virtues, and the principle of ‘sympathy’.
Hume’s Account of Social Artifice (Annette Baier)
This essay considers those aspects of society that according to Hume are governed by artificial concepts such as ownership of goods, transfer of goods and the making of promises. Baier looks at how ‘justice’ in particular comes about from an artificial sense of maintaining communal harmony. However, at the heart of the social artifices lies the concept of the natural family. Hume recognises and extends our natural obligations in the family towards the wider world.
Hume’s Moral Theory (JL Mackie)
This book provides a critical overview of Hume’s moral theory as a whole, based largely on the Treatisebut including the Enquiryas well. Mackie provides a significant overview of the historical context of Hume’s work, including all the other philosophers both before and after Hume that contributed to the field of natural ethics. There are also detailed chapters on the reason v passion debate, the artificial and natural virtues, and the ideas of having a moral sentiment based on the principle of sympathy.
Hume (Barry Stroud)
This is another book that provides a critical overview of Hume, but unlike the Mackie book, Stroud looks at Hume’s philosophy as a whole. This means there are chapters on Hume’s theory of ideas, causation and personal identity. Two chapters specifically deal with morality, providing a critical overview of the major themes of Hume’s moral theory.