I just read a good article by Alan Carter on Humean Ethics. For a lot of students reading I guess that might seem a little bit of a juxtaposition as I know a lot of students leave A-Level or IB Philosophy thinking that Hume ‘didn’t think morality was rational or real’.
Carter’s exposition is particularly clear in explaining the ‘second tier’ of Hume’s account of morality. The first, as many students do know, deals with the way Hume claims that seeing suffering can cause an emotional response. Impressions are like sense perceptions and Hume call thinking about them having Ideas. What is remarkable about the human animal is that we seem to be able to move not only from impressions to ideas about them, but to go in the other direction too! Ideas, says Hume, can gather momentum, so to speak, until they give rise to things that might better be described as impressions.
When I think deeply about a previous experience and worry that it might happen again, say, then I can ‘feel’ various impressions as a result of this chain of causation.
Hume thinks that when I see someone torturing another, for example, I think about pain and how I dislike it and that leads me to feel some sort of repulsion to the act. This is projection. I am not accessing some metaphysical realm of right and wrong, and it is not a given that others will see or feel as I do. But what happens next is important.
Hume explains that groups of people, where a majority of people do agree, speak as though access has been gained to some objective order. Of course the feelings and perceptions are really unrelated, but when I learn my friend doesn’t like torture too we make the move to speaking as if we are seeing something ‘out there’ rather than projecting. This move, and those following like working out laws are rational not emotional. And it is this rational stage that Carter thinks is of great promise to environmentalists for it promises a potential consistency that is greater than any other normative theory.
I’ll leave exactly why for class but here are your questions:
*Carter, Alan ‘Hume and Nature’ in LaFollette (Ed.) Ethics in Practice (Oxford: Blackwell, 2002) 664-673.