Summarize and Critically Evaluate David Hume’s Argument for Sentimentalism
Hume’s ethical thought grapples with questions about the relationship between morality and reason, the role of human emotion in thought and action, the nature of moral evaluation, human sociability, and what it means to live a virtuous life. As a central figure in the Scottish Enlightenment, Hume’s ethical thought variously influenced, was influenced by, and faced criticism from, thinkers such as Shaftesbury (1671-1713), Francis Hutcheson (1694-1745), Adam Smith (1723-1790), and Thomas Reid (1710-1796). Hume’s ethical theory continues to be relevant for contemporary philosophers and psychologists interested in topics such as metaethics, the role of sympathy and empathy within moral evaluation and moral psychology, as well as virtue ethics.
We could never discover a principle that commands all rational beings with such absolute authority through a method of empirical moral philosophy; we must use the a priori method. Moreover, we must keep the pure and empirical parts of moral philosophy clearly distinguished, since if we do not we could find ourselves confusing conditional truths, such as what is prudentially good for certain individuals or species, with unconditional truths about fundamental moral requirements.
Indeed, early in his career he had been attracted to the sentimentalism of Hume and other British moralists, especially Francis Hutcheson (1694–1746), and the influence lingered long after he changed his mind about the value of their approach. For the sake of brevity, this article assumes familiarity with Hume’s and Kant’s main contributions to moral philosophy. The aim here is not to summarize their views or compare them on all matters ethical. Instead, the task is to examine several key areas where we can reasonably see Kant as responding to or influenced by Hume, or where comparisons between their views are particularly fruitful. We may cultivate sympathetic feelings from respect for the law, and then find these feelings prompting us to act in certain ways. In this context, where the focus is on virtue, Kant sounds closer to Hume than he is often taken to be. Indeed, according to one prominent interpretation, careful consideration of this and other relevant material highlights at least a few “deep affinities” between Kant on Hume on motivation and practical reason (Guyer 2008: 164).
Not only have they elevated craven humility to the status of a virtue, which he hints in the Treatise is a mistake, but they also favor penance, fasting, and other “monkish virtues” that are in fact disapproved by all reasonable folk for their uselessness and disagreeableness, and so are in fact vices.
Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics That Will Be Able to Come Forward as a Science, Gary Hatfield (trans.), in Theoretical Philosophy after 1781, Henry Allison and Peter Heath (eds.), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. [Originally published in 1783.]
Denis, Lara, 2006, “Kant’s Conception of Virtue” in The Cambridge Companion to Kant and Modern Philosophy, Paul Guyer (ed.), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 505–37. doi:10.1017/CCOL052182303X.016
Hudson, Hud, 1994, Kant’s Compatibilism, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Irwin, Terence, 1984, “Morality and Personality: Kant and Green”, in Self and Nature in Kant’s Philosophy, Allen W. Wood (ed.), Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 31—56.