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A peer-reviewed journal of Anglophone Studies


Charles R. Pigden, ed., Hume on Motivation and Virtue (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), £55, 303 pages, ISBN: 978-0-230-20527-7–Pierre Dubois, Université François Rabelais, Tours.

Let us not conceal the truth: this volume is a philosophy book, and quite a technical one at that —not a pleasant, roundabout study in the history of ideas. Whether you are a student of English letters, a benevolent, naive dilettante or an amateur cultural historian interested in questions philosophical only as it were en passant, simply eager to understand the context of ideas prevailing at a given time—on your way! This is no book for you. It consists indeed in a thorough discussion of some of the key issues in David Hume’s philosophy by some of his best exponents and critics and it takes the non-specialist (e.g. your obedient servant) some application for him or her to grasp its meaning and purport. The effort, however—let me hasten to add— is well worth it. In the curious ‘poem’ affixed to his introduction (of which, more later), Charles R. Pigden avers that “from [Hume’s] errors we can lessons take” [2]. Far from being a blind, one-sided plea in favor of Hume, the book is thus an attempt at a modern critical assessment of the philosophical import and relevance of some of his key ideas for us today.

The starting point of the book is one of the most perplexing statements in David Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature (1739), his claim “that reason alone can never be a motive to any action of the will” and that “Reason is, and ought to be, the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” Hume thus seems to reject the thesis that morality is the province of reason, which has “suggested to different interpreters various versions of non-cognitivism, expressivism, subjectivism, projectivism and the response dependence of the moral” [Oddie, 121]. The 12 authors in this volume—all authorities in Humean studies—endeavour to explain what is the meaning of Hume’s so-called “slavery of reason thesis” and to what extent it may be relevant to current philosophical concerns [Pigden, 7]. For the philosophers of the anti-rationalist, or “sentimentalist” school— Hutcheson and Hume—moral properties are akin to secondary qualities [80] and “should receive the same treatment as colour, sound, smell, heat and cold” [Joyce, 52]. The so-called “motivation argument” thus states that the rules of morality do not derive from rational conclusions alone. Morality is consequently “rationally optional. Moral considerations will appeal to those with the right kind of psychological make-up but not to those without” [Pigden, 13]. Quoting the famous passage of the Treatise in which Hume explains that hard sceptical musing can be driven from one’s mind by a dinner or a game of backgammon with one’s friends, Richard Joyce remarks that “one either will or will not, according to temperament and mood” engage in philosophical speculations [51] but that, for Hume, such efforts can only be short-lived. For Hume, it is through sympathy, which is a natural psychological mechanism of the human mind, that we form the sentiments of approbation and disapprobation towards social virtues and vices [Lo, 63]. “In other words, there is a necessary conceptual connection between moral properties and human subjects [66]. Hume was interested in the virtues in general and in some specific virtues such as justice, benevolence and chastity in particular—and not simply in the utilitarian theory of the right and the good.

Not being a philosopher, I have chosen to concentrate on the aspects of the book which I have found accessible enough to my limited understanding. I therefore refer the reader to the more technical and abstruse chapters devoted to the “motivation argument” [Joyce, 30-56, Lo, 57-79, Sandis, 142-55, Hurtig, 179-85], the discussion of whether Hume was a non-cognitivist or not [Smith, 105-20], the question of normativity [Pauer-Studer, 186-207, Russell, 208-225] or that of the kind of virtue-theorist Hume may have been, dealt with in the last four essays in the book [Swanton, 226-248, 259-65, Baier, 249-58]. Interestingly enough, not all contributors to the volume agree on how to interpret these various aspects of Hume’s philosophy and the book is all the more fascinating for its being like a discussion forum in which ideas are put forward, challenged and defended. For instance, Annette Baier disagrees with Christine Swanton’s article on whether Hume was a “normative” virtue theorist. Her reply is followed in its turn by Swanton’s reply to it.

Why is Hume’s theory important for modern moral philosophy, Pigden asks [14]. In the nineteenth century, Hume was widely regarded as an ancestor of utilitarianism, though he was not a utilitarian himself [Pigden, 27]. In the last, stimulating essay in the collection (on ‘Hume on Justice’), Rosalind Hursthouse explains that Thomas Jefferson would certainly have detested Hume since, for Jefferson, rights are primary and virtues secondary. Hursthouse argues that “Hume’s discussion of justice is in fact an attack on that concept of rights we think of as having motivated the American and French Revolutions, a concept that is still (deplorably in [her] view), prevalent.” [265]. For Hume, the laws of justice are determined by convention. There cannot be a “natural” concern to abstain from other people’s property “any more than there could be a natural concern to play chess. Before there can be that concern, there has to be chess, with its rules, which is something which human beings invent or contrive” [268]. The very idea of property, or of “mine and yours in this sense can only arise after we have united in to society and established laws that fix their contents” [271]. Consequently, all these “rights” to life, property, or what happens to one’s body, etc., are “artificial”, in Hume’s sense, although that does not exclude the common intuition that one’s right to life, at least, is “natural” [272]. Contrary to the Declaration of Independence which states that there are pre-existing rights, Hume argued that laws are just simply because they are useful, not because they enshrine pre-existing rights [274]. Rights are determined by laws, not the reverse, which, according to Hursthouse, is the “final nail in the coffin of the modern concept of right” [276]. One sees therefore that Hume still has “something interesting to say about reason, motivation, morals and virtue and maybe even human rights”, Pigden remarks [29].

One must be thankful to the authors, and in particular to editor Charles R. Pigden, for attempting to make such a serious, thorough discussion of some aspects of Hume’s philosophy as clear and accessible as possible. I cannot resist the temptation of quoting the following passage that explains the difference between impressions and ideas in a light-hearted, humorous way:

I open my eyes and I form the belief that there is a computer in front of me. I tuck into my breakfast and form the belief that it is delicious. Or I contemplate my wife Zena in her new red dress and form the belief that she is sexy. In the first case it is my visual impressions that do the trick, in the second my oral impressions and the third case… well, it’s a complicated business, but you get the general idea… I do not deduce or infer that my dinner is delicious or my wife sexy. I feel them to be so in consequence of my sensations. [Pigden, 97-8]

Pigden then goes on to analyse the implication of the difference between sensations and ideas for our moral beliefs: “When it comes to morality, we are moved by our impressions not the copies of those impressions that figure in our beliefs,” he explains [101]. The “Zena” example is later taken up and contested by Michael Smith [112], thus contributing to the pleasant, and intellectually stimulating impression one has of following an actual philosophical conversation between the various authors.

Strangely enough, Pigden opens his introduction with a kind of dedication poem to Hume, called ‘Prologue’ [1-4], somewhat reminiscent of Alexander Pope’s Epistles. The prologue opens with the following lines:

We come to Hume to argue, not to praise him
For Hume’s philosophy lives after him

As for the last lines, they read:

O Hume, great David, thou art mighty yet!
Thy spirit walks abroad; now thy thoughts thrive
They live more now than when thou wast alive!

Who ever thought a philosophy book had to be boring?

© 2010 Pierre Dubois & GRAAT












Senior sub-editor: Hélène Tison