The Subordinate Role of Reason in Hume’s Moral Philosophy

Hume thought that what we perceive become images, and these images or pictures of reality are manipulated by reason. But, there is no manipulating these perceptions without the prior perceptions or sensations first: I shall endeavor to prove first, that reason alone can never be a motive to an action of the will. and secondly, that it can never oppose passion in the direction of the will [Cahn and Markie, Ed., 244]. What Hume is arguing, can be described as presenting a very sharp or definite distinction between reason which he calls utterly impotent when contrasted with the passions [Cahn and Markie, Ed., 247]. And, unlike the images that can be manipulated by reason, the relationship between the passions and actions is a direct one or as he phrases it: morals excite passions, and produce and prevent actions … the rules of morality, therefore, are not conclusions of our reason [Cahn and Markie, Ed., 247]. Most might maintain that reason and the senses have a more connected or inter-twined relationship. It is important to stress that reason is only connected to ‘necessary’ types of truths like mathematical equations. That is, truths that are valid regardless of sense experience. Or, truths that are valid because of the rules themselves: reason is the faculty judges of truth and falsehood [Cahn and Markie, Ed., 687]. One of the effects or consequences of this model is that there are actually no irrational actions. If the actions or the relationship between passions and actions are separate or only interact with each-other rather than reason, then this interaction cannot be said to be one that has any rationality. As is summarized by Cahn and Markie: If the only possibility Hume means to be putting forward here, is the possibility of action based on false belief about causes and effects, we get a curious result … people never act irrationally [Cahn and Markie, Ed., 687]. They cannot act irrationally, precisely because ‘action’ in-itself is not a rational thing either in its manifestation as an actual sensible activity or event, and not rational in the sense that it was motivated by an ‘impulse’ or a ‘sensation’. It is the reaction to a sensation. ‘General Statement’ of the Role of Reason as subordinate to the Senses: Thus, for Hume, morality is inseparable from the sentiments or a form of sentimentality. The only possible source of motivation for Hume, is to satisfy a passion [Cahn and Markie, Ed., 685]. The role of reason is to evaluate only the rules that are abstracted from sense experience, which means that all human motivation and all human action is one driven by passions. Thus, Hume resolves that problem in his discussion of benevolence and justice by establishing a theory of sentiments at the core of moral decisions. Sentiments are measured in terms of the greater pleasure or conversely, the greater harm that results. And, therefore, a just society is one that functions in harmony with the avoidance of the sensation of pain and the increase of pleasure. Again, it is important to stress that this connection with justice is one that is grounded in ‘sense experience’ but also the reasoning about it to – as is the nature of laws. Finally, it is possible to put forward a straight forward example to illustrate the notion of ‘benevolence’ and ‘justice’. Just as a sensation can cause an increase in pleasure, so too with