In Ep. 41, we discussed David Hume’s ethics both providing a challenge for any naturalist (meaning one compatible with a modern scientific world-view) ethics–you can’t deduce “ought” from “is”–and as providing an approach to moral psychology. In this discussion, we grappled with selections from Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature (1740) and Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759).
Both Hume and Smith thought that we understand morality by reflecting on our own reactions to events and comparing these with other people’s. For Hume, we naturally approve of qualities like beneficence and utility (and not just as a gut reaction, but in our reflective moments), and ethics is a public enterprise by which we compare these sentiments with those expressed by others and come up with a code, where some elements, like this appreciation of niceness, are just “natural” and obvious, and some, like justice and property, are social inventions designed to serve our needs: our self-love and our caring for our families and friends.
For Smith, morality is based on sympathy with others: not only on our feeling their woes and wanting to help them, but in putting ourselves in their place and judging ourselves. That’s what conscience is: the “impartial spectator” that judges the propriety of our actions.
We let D.D. Raphael choose our selections from these texts via his compilation British Moralists (Vol. 2, 1969).
If you don’t want to buy that book, you can get free copies of the full texts on the web, and here’s roughly the sections we read from Raphael:
Read the Hume online here:
First, Book II, Part III, Section III, and then from Book III:
-Part I, Sections I and II
-Part II, Section I
-Part III, Section I and Section VI (the conclusion)
Read the Smith online here:
-Part I, Section I, Chapters 1, 3, 4, and 5.
-Part II, Section I, Introduction, Ch. 1-5, plus the lengthy footnote 2.
-Part III, Ch. 1, 2 (1st 3 paragraphs only, then skip to read 4 paragraphs starting at “Very few men can be satisfied with their own private consciousness that they have attained those qualities”), 4, 5 (stop at “There are innumerable other considerations which serve to confirm the same conclusion”)
-Part VII, Section 3, Introduction, Ch. 3.
I ended up delving further into the Smith and found this online abridgement/annotated version useful. Some useful secondary sources I found to put these guys in perspective were this Stanford Encyclopedia article and the introduction to this online version of the Smith. To supplement Hume, we read the conclusion to his An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals along with Appendix I.
One of the great things about the British Moralists volumes is that you can get the context: Hume and Smith were both followers of Francis Hutcheson and were arguing against moral rationalists–who thought that moral truths came not from some moral sense but are delivered by reason–like Samuel Clarke and John Balguy. During the discussion, I brought up specific objections from Balguy to any kind of moral sentiment theory to see whether Hume and Smith had good responses to them: Doesn’t founding morality on some sentiments we have confuse motive (what makes us recognize or do right) and justification (what actually makes it right)? What if our instincts had been different; doesn’t moral sense theory make morality arbitrary? If you’d like to read those figures, pick up British Moralists (Vol. 1).