Hume on Morality

In 1729 the French Roman Catholic priest Jean Meslier left behind a Testament begging the pardon of his flock for the falsehoods he had been forced to teach during his life. It systematically and brilliantly exploded the myths of organized religion and demolished the notion of a God. I’m sure similar thoughts have occurred to countless human beings through the ages, but I have never seen them set forth so simply, forcefully, and thoroughly as in Meslier’s Testament, later somewhat incongruously christened, “Superstition in all Ages.” I personally rejected religious belief at an early age, and many years later found that not a single one of my reasons for doing so was missing from the pages of the Testament. Meslier did not require Darwin and his theories to reject religious belief. He simply recognized truths that should be obvious to any intelligent human being and set them down. Voltaire complained that Meslier wrote “in the style of a carriage horse,” but if the Testament was not elegantly written, it was simple, logical, and understandable. Anyone who wants to know the reasons I don’t believe in a supernatural being will find every one of them of any significance in its pages.

What Meslier wrote regarding religion is reminiscent of what another of his great contemporaries wrote regarding morality and human nature. I refer to the philosopher and historian, David Hume. Through the power of his logic, Hume grasped a truth that a whole generation of behaviorist psychologists denied, and that has only recently been vindicated thanks in large part to the development of powerful new tools that have enabled us to peer deep into the working brain. In Book III of his “A Treatise of Human Nature,” published in 1740, Hume set forth the reasons for his conclusions that morality has no independent existence of its own, cannot possibly be merely the result of culture and education alone, and has its roots in human nature. Quoting from the book:

…nothing can be more certain, than that it is not any relation of ideas, which gives us this concern (a sense of justice), but our impressions and sentiments, without which everything in nature is perfectly indifferent to us, and can never in the least affect us. The sense of justice, therefore, is not founded on our ideas, but on our impressions.

Since morals, therefore, have an influence on the actions and affections, it follows, that they cannot be derived from reason; and that becaquse reason along, 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.

Reason is wholly inactive, and can never be the source of so active a principle as conscience, or a sense of morals.

If morality had naturally no influence on human passions and actions, ’twere in vain to take such pains to inculcate it; and nothing would be more fruitless than that multitude of rules and precepts, with which all moralists abound.

The utmost politicians can perform is to extend the natural sentiments beyond their original bounds; but still nature must furnish the materials, and give us some notion of moral distinctions.

Obviously, some of these conclusions are based on logical arguments set forth in the earlier books, as are Humes idiosyncratic definitions of terms such as “impressions” and “ideas.”  I heartily recommend that anyone interested in the development of these ideas read the whole book.  However, the point is that one of the greatest thinkers our species has produced didn’t require Darwin and fMRI brain scanners to realize that morality has its roots in human nature, and that it has no existence of its own independent of the human mind.  Now, nearly 300 years later, as attested by a growing flood of books on hard-wired behavior and evolutionary psychology, it’s finally starting to dawn on the scientific establishment that maybe Hume had it right all along.  I suspect the great man may have found it comical that the people who are writing these books are often the same Don Quixotes who continue to earnestly chase that gaudy imaginery butterfly, the good-in-itself.  After all, if their books prove anything, it is, as Hume himself so unequivocably pointed out, that the butterfly doesn’t exist.  Still, let us be optimistic.  One step forward is better than none.

David Hume
David Hume

Author: Helian

I am Doug Drake, and I live in Maryland, not far from Washington, DC. I am a graduate of West Point, and I hold a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Wisconsin. My blog reflects my enduring fascination with human nature and human morality.

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