A Note on Hume’s Moral Philosophy


Hume is famous for arguing that it is not logically possible to base an ethical argument in pure reason. His most famous expression of this has come to be known as the ‘is-ought’ problem. Hume argued that there is no logically necessary connection between the ways things are and the way they should be, and that no amount of facts about the world could tell us anything ethical:

“In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remark’d, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary ways of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when of a sudden I am surpriz’d to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, ’tis necessary that it shou’d be observ’d and explain’d; and at the same time that a reason should be given; for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it.” (Treatise on Human Nature, Bk. 3, Pt. 1, Sect. 1)

For Hume, empirical (scientific) facts about the world have no necessary ethical implications; hence Hume’s point about it not being contrary to reason to prefer scratching one’s finger to destroying the world. Of course, he doesn’t truly believe that they are equally preferable. He simply believes that to prefer to scratch a finger is known to be preferable as a result of passion or emotion, rather than cold logic. At the same time, he thinks that reason and passion are intimately linked.

Brief summary of Hume’s position on morality:

1. Reason alone cannot be a motive to the will, but rather is “the slave of the passions”.
2. Morals are not derived from reason
3. Morals are derived of moral sentiments: feelings of approval (esteem, pride) and disapproval (blame) felt by spectators.
4. While some virtues and vices are natural, some – such as justice – are artificial.





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