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Summarize and Critically Evaluate David Hume’s Argument for Sentimentalism

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Although David Hume (1711-1776) is commonly known for his philosophical skepticism, and empiricist theory of knowledge, he also made many important contributions to moral philosophy. 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.

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The ethics of Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) is often contrasted with that of David Hume (1711–1776). Hume's method of moral philosophy is experimental and empirical; Kant emphasizes the necessity of grounding morality in a priori principles. Hume says that reason is properly a “slave to the passions,” while Kant bases morality in his conception of a reason that is practical in itself. Hume identifies such feelings as benevolence and generosity as proper moral motivations; Kant sees the motive of duty—a motive that Hume usually views as a second best or fall back motive—as uniquely expressing an agent's commitment to morality and thus as conveying a special moral worth to actions. Although there are many points at which Kant's and Hume's ethics stand in opposition to each other, there are also important connections between the two. Kant shared some important assumptions about morality and motivation with Hume, and had, early in his career, been attracted and influenced by the sentimentalism of Hume and other British moralists. By “pure” or “a priori” moral philosophy, Kant has in mind a philosophy grounded exclusively on principles that are inherent in and revealed through the operations of reason. This sort of moral philosophy contrasts with empirical moral philosophy, which is grounded in a posteriori principles, principles inferred through observation or experience. While empirical moral philosophy, which Kant calls moral anthropology, can tell us how people do act, it cannot, Kant claims, tell us how we ought to act. And what we want to find, when we are seeking the supreme moral principle, is not a descriptive principle, but the most fundamental, authoritative normative principle

According to Kant, morality's commands are unconditional. 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.

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The relationship between Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) and David Hume (1711–1776) is a source of longstanding fascination. Kant credited Hume with waking him from his “dogmatic slumber”, and he describes the Critique of Pure Reason, arguably the most important work of modern philosophy, as the solution to the “Humean problem in its greatest possible amplification” (Prol 4:260–61). Much of the focus has been on their respective views in metaphysics and epistemology. Yet, as Thomas Nagel remarks, contemporary moral philosophy also “continues to be dominated by the disagreement between these two giants” (Nagel 2012). Comparing Hume and Kant therefore provides opportunity to clarify and assess two of the modern era’s most influential approaches to the central problems of moral philosophy. Comparing their views also illuminates the landscape of eighteenth-century ethical thought. Although there are many points at which Kant’s and Hume’s ethics stand in opposition to each other, there are also important connections between the two. Kant shared with Hume some important assumptions about morality, virtue, and motivation. 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).

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In any event, in the moral Enquiry Hume is more explicit about what he takes to be the errors of Christian (or, more cautiously, Roman Catholic) moralists

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.

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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.

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