Hume’s Emotivism

David Hume, a Scottish philosopher and historian during the 18th century, was a dyed in the wool empiricist. Only assertions that could be observed and measured empirically carried any meaning for Hume. Those propositions that fall under the heading of Matters of Fact or Relations of Ideas are the only ones that have merit. He believed that all human morality was grounded in a feeling of universal benevolence toward all mankind. Hume argued that it is this feeling that accounts for human self-sacrifice and acts of kindness and compassion.

This proposition does not fit into either of Hume’s categories and therefore by Hume’s own empiricist beliefs it carries almost no weight. Hume divides all claims into two categories: those that are Matters of Fact, and those that are Relations of Ideas. Matters of Fact claims are synthetic and require experimentation to determine their truth or falsity. These types of claims are those that often pertain to the hard sciences and often add to our knowledge of the world around us. The meaning of the predicate term is not implicitly contained in the subject term. Relations of Idea claims are analytical and are true by definition.

Most often these claims are found in the field of mathematics. The subject of the claim implicitly contains the meaning of the predicate term. Moral assertions however, according to Hume, do not fit into either category. Since any moral assertion has its root in a feeling of benevolence and it is impossible to empirically measure a feeling, they cannot be given validity as Matters of Fact. An incident like patricide can be used as an example. The facts of the event can be measured and recorded, the type of weapon, the various aspects of the scene, the physical dimension of those involved.

It cannot be calculated how wrong it was, the color of malice involved, the weight of the anger that led to the crime. The relationship between the ideas is not the only aspect that must be taken into account. If an acorn fell next to the oak that spawned it and over time grew to overshadow the paternal tree resulting in its death, the grown sapling would not be considered to have committed an immoral act. But should a man kill his father, it is immediately judged to be a horrendous and immoral thing. In the human condition there is something more that for Hume makes it impossible for morality to be a Relation of Ideas.

Hume’s morality holds it basis in sentiment; that which is virtuous gives a pleasing feeling and that which does not is vice. Those who would follow this school of thought often reduced this to a more basic form, that moral claims are only based on expressions of dislikes and likes. Hume realized however that there must be a way for reason to play a part in reaching moral decisions. Hume holds fast to the idea that moral conduct cannot be governed by reason and provided decisive arguments to that end. It is emotion, not reason, which moves us to act often times in ways that are counterintuitive to self-preservation.

To rely strictly on reason would be to remove the understanding of the beauty of virtue and the deformity of vice. Reason has no sway as to what is pleasing and what is distasteful and therefore is unable to affect an understanding of the truth of morality. Assertions pertaining to morality are accounted for by Hume’s acceptance of the fact that all kind acts of humanity are based in a feeling of benevolence that we as humans all possess. Since this benevolence is just another feeling in a vast array that humanity deals with on a daily basis, what chance does it have to become dominant and prevail over all the others?

There is no logical reason why this feeling above all should become the overriding one. It may on occasion surface briefly and provide a glimpse of compassion toward our fellow man before being swallowed up again in the torrent of emotions we have. There is no logic that leads to the conclusion that we ought to act in a benevolent way simply because of the fact that we have such a feeling. There has been no proof that such a feeling exists aside from the occasional good deed. So even if such a feeling of benevolence exists there is no reason for our will to conform to it.

Hume is very clear in his firm distinction between facts and values, or what he calls an “Is” and an “Ought”. To draw evaluative conclusions from facts is to blur the line between facts and values that Hume believes is so important to preserve. There is no logical progression that will lead from a statement of fact to an evaluative judgment. There is nothing in the premise of “there is a feeling of benevolence that all humans are endowed with”, that would lead to the conclusion, “therefore we all ought to behave benevolently toward our fellow man”.

It is not possible to derive an “Ought” from an “Is”. The word “ought” appears in the conclusion but did not exist in the premise; therefore the conclusion being drawn has no logical foundation upon which to base itself. Such a conclusion is comparable to the syllogism: All men are mortal. Socrates is a man. Therefore Socrates can fly. The conclusion that is drawn includes some aspects of the premises, but also contains an addition that drifts from the expected conclusion. Following logic there is no moral obligation to behave in a benevolent manner even if the feeling exists.

David Hume’s certainty that the origin and core of morality was mankind’s benevolence was in some ways contradictory to his empiricist view. His heavy investment in the idea of a feeling, something that is simply subjective and can be boiled down to nothing more than a preference for or an aversion to either an action or an event, despite its inability to fit into either of Hume’s categories, is a difficult issue to resolve and detracts from the overall validity of Hume’s philosophy of morality.