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Scottish philosopher David Hume’s “A Treatise of Human Nature” is one of the most celebrated philosophical texts in history. The book delves into philosophical detail in to skepticism, nature of ideas, space and time, knowledge and probability, and systems of philosophy, including the soul and personal identity. In this essay, I will focus on the moral judgements by providing a detailed explanation of Hume’s account of these moral judgments. This will include Hume’s definition of moral judgements. I will then pose a critical query about one of the views that will be discussed, as well as an explanation about why this criticism is important in the overall plausibility of Hume’s account.

Hume provides and account of why we make moral judgments when we are in situations where personal interests are at stake. He says that we are clearly privy to praising people who can improve our quality of life. Hume goes on to say that we have the same feeling when dealing with people who are able to promote the good of others. He explains that we do this by mirroring the behaviors of the people who are near us. “[It is] that principle, which takes us so far out of ourselves, as to give us the pleasure or uneasiness in the characters of others, as if they had a tendency to our own advantage or loss,” (588-89). This says that we also become happy when we see that others are being helped. We have these feelings when we see that a person who we are judging has virtuous characteristics.

As Hume notes, however, our emotions don’t allow for a full account of moral judgement. This is because people have a habit of making associations that cause them to make biases in the way they think, and that translates into their moral thought. He talks about the principle of resemblance, which he indicates leads people to become more easily involved in their feelings and of the feelings of the people who speak the same language, while also presenting the same manners or profession. He names the principle of causation, which leads people to become affectionate of their friends and family more often than how they would feel towards strangers. In his principle of contiguity, Hume talks about the welfare considerations that people have. “The breaking of a mirror gives us more concern when at home, than the burning of a house, when abroad, and some hundred leagues distant,” (429). In talking about this emotional contagion, it appears that it requires some level of exposure. It is more difficult to understand the pain of others when the sight of the object of that pain is not present.

People also consider moral judgement to be not displayed by the reflection that beneficent people are not as virtuous as us. As an example, it could be said that people who aren’t born in the same time or place could be considered to be less than us. “We sympathize more with persons contiguous to us than with persons remote to us: with our acquaintance, than with strangers; With our countrymen, than with foreigners. But notwithstanding this variation of our sympathy we give the same approbation to the same moral qualities in China as in England,” (581).

He says people appear to be equally virtuous and they say they are the same and deserve equal esteem. This is dependent, however, on our esteem, which is therefore not from sympathy. So moral judgements aren’t changing based on the relationships people have with each other. It becomes difficult because of this to understand how our relationships stem from the basics of association. This means that we don’t really consider the well-being of the people around us.

Hume suggests that our moral judgments demand that people adopt a “general point of view.” That means that even when we are considering the merits of people who are far from us, we should have our personal feelings and motivations set aside and just put ourselves in the shoes of those who we are contemplating. “Tis therefore from the influence of characters and qualities, upon those who have an intercourse with a person that we blame or praise him. We consider not whether the person, affected by the qualities, be our acquaintance or strangers, countrymen or foreigners,” (582). The feelings of the people who are interacting with the object of the moral judgement needs to be taken into consideration. The suffering or pleasure that the person who is judging is feeling should be taken into consideration. For example, there is not much moral judgement felt for Nero, who killed his own mother. There is not a high amount of hatred because of his unrelenting cruelty, when we take into consideration’s Hume’s theory. This is because the murder happened in a place and time so far detached from what anyone is experiencing today. We would likely feel much more strongly towards a fictional character in a movie that has offended our hero. However, if we lived under the rule of Nero, then we would find that we have a considerable amount of hatred for him. “We blame equally a bad action, which we read of in history, with one performed in our neighborhood the other day: The meaning of which is, that we know from reflection, that the former action would excite as strong sentiments of disapprobation as the latter, were it placed in the same position,” (584).

In making a moral judgment, Hume factors in sympathy as an important component. Sympathy is needed to have compassion for someone, meaning we should care about those who are distressed. By having sympathy, we can feel their pain. In moral judgement, it is important to evaluate the people who are not only near to us, but to those who are distant as well. By having clear moral judgement to those who are far from us, it is important to imagine how the people are feeling. There is, however, a lack of justice in evaluating moral judgement in this way. Hume makes an argument that the falseness of justice – meaning that justice is rarely ever realized – makes people look like there is little to no regard for the welfare of strangers, when this might not be the case for most people. Even if Hume is right that the vast majority of people are unable to sympathize for those who are in a different place and time, he has a logical fallacy when describing that we can put ourselves in their shoes to gain a better understanding. Hume could be correct that it might just take that extra effort to try to come to an understanding of the way someone else is feeling. We need to attempt to expand the scope of our concern to encompass the feelings of those in other times and places. It is important to understand that the idea of putting oneself in another’s shoes is impossible, and it would therefore be concluded in Hume’s description of moral judgement that people are incapable of fully sympathizing for others, and therefore people can’t be moral judges when contemplating the actions or occurrences of those in other locations or times.
The type of sympathy that Hume describes falls into three categories which can help eliminate the concern over the fallacy that may be present in Hume’s logic. The associative sympathy that looks at the pain that others are feeling can lead to feelings of concern that people have because of the situation that the person is in. It’s also challenging to make moral judgements about the way in which cruelty is expressed on people who are distant from ourselves. However, this is possible if people cognitively sympathize with the situation that people who are close to them are in. There can be some moral judgement about the cruelty that is taking place with the people who are far away, even when there isn’t a concern for the well-being of those who are in the close circle of those who are distant.

It is accurate to say that our minds perceive people in distress and we feel those people’s pain. But it is difficult to hold that theory when we are talking about the general point of view, to which Hume subscribes when he said people should not have more concern for those who are close to them than to those who are far. When we don’t feel an emotional connection to distant people, it is difficult to generate emotion associated with the well-being of those people. But Hume’s suggestion of putting ourselves in the shoes of those who are suffering will help us sympathize for them and form a more general view of moral judgement that can transcend time and place. If the emotional areas of the brain can develop mirror properties in the neural systems, then the moral judgments can be clearly made by forming the capacity to sympathize. This is difficult because our emotional responses to people who are far are generally weak. In order to realize moral judgement in the way that Hume explains, there needs to be biological alteration to the brain. However, there are people who feel much pain for others, even those who are far away. Looking at the images of the holocaust, for example, can generate a massive amount of pain in those who are experiencing them.

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By Hanna Robinson

Hanna has won numerous writing awards. She specializes in academic writing, copywriting, business plans and resumes. After graduating from the Comosun College's journalism program, she went on to work at community newspapers throughout Atlantic Canada, before embarking on her freelancing journey.

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