Saturday, May 5, 2012

Hume and morals

David Hume's "An inquiry concerning the principles of morals".

Well, those were the days, before abstruse language and academic pedantry shot the practice of philosophy all to heck! Hume writes a practically stream-of-consciousness consideration of where morals come from, and arrives at a very simple answer: utility.  [Hume was not the first with this idea- in 1690, Locke offered a book heading: "Virtue generally approved, not because innate, but because profitable."]

To back up, I should say that I greatly admire Hume, from what I have read secondarily. He was an atheist, (which only became crystal clear posthumusly), a wonderful writer, and one of the greatest philosophers ever. So I looked forward to reading what little my public library had to offer from his work, which is this book.

The question is simple enough- why do we have morals? Are they legislated from above objectively and forever by some divine command that we need professional divines to discern? Are they, in contrast, completely relative, unobjective and amenable to the taste of whatever society we happen to be in, indeed to whatever person we happen to be?

Societies have in practice not had much problem knowing their morals and setting moral rules. It is always at the top of the list of child-raising and political discussion. But unfortunately, religious ideas got mixed up in the matter, to the point that by Hume's time, morals had become thoroughly theologicalized, claimed for the eternal wisdom of god and his representatives. Yet somehow, these eternal rules kept changing, whether in defiance of the original intention, as the many purifiers of religion (Luther, Wesley, our current fundamentalists, Christian and Islamic) would have it, or by the natural course of social evolution, as one can see with one's own eyes.

As Hume puts it:
"And here there occurs the fourth reflection which I purposed to make, in suggesting the reason why modern philosophers have often followed a course in their moral inquiries so different from that of the ancients. In later times, philosophy of all kinds, especially ethics, have been more closely united with theology than ever they were observed to be among the heathens; and as this latter science admits of no terms of composition, but bends every branch of knowledge to its own purpose without much regard to the phenomena of nature, or to the unbiased sentiments of the mind, hence reasoning, and even language, have been warped from their natural course, and distinctions have been endeavored to be established where the difference of the objects was, in a manner, imperceptable. Philosophers, or rather divines under that disguise, treating all morals as on a like footing with civil laws guarded by the sanctions of reward and punishment, were necessarily led to render this circumstance of voluntary or involuntary the foundation of their whole theory. Everyone may employ terms in what sense he pleases; but this, in the meantime, must be allowed, that sentiments are every day experenced of blame and praise which have objects beyond the dominion of the will or choice, and of which it behooves us, if not as moralists, as speculative philosophers at least, to give some satisfactory theory and explication.
That we owe a duty to ourselves is confessed even in the most vulgar system of morals; and it must be of consequence to examine that duty in order to see whether it bears any affinity to that which we owe to society. It is probable that the approbation attending the observance of both is of a similar nature and arises from similar principles, whaever appellation we may give to either of these excellences." 
[I'll note that theologians have an obvious out here, that god made our feelings (conscience) just so, so that we would know what is right, even if we seccumb to temptation, etc. Of course this looks a bit weaker today if one takes Darwin seriously, which leads to several other issues ...]

Not only were morals eternal and divine, but they just happened to support patriarchy, hierarchy, and monarchy. It is the oldest story in the book. Hume sets out to demolish this conception, and put morality back on a simple, sensible foundation. He asks why we have morals, and in every instance, the path leads back to the same conclusion.. because they reflect what is useful to us, either immediately, or in the long run; either individually, or, more commonly, in the communities that are so essential to our existence.

In a particularly interesting excursion, he considers our position vs animals. He has already demolished the scenario of Hobbes- the war of all against all [see quotes at bottom]. We are brought up in society from the very first moment. Fairness, justice, empathy, sociability, are all instinctive, as are greed and the dark emotions. So society is our involuntary habitat, and structures like justice, rules, morals, etc. exist to negotiate optimal ways of getting along, indeed to train ourselves in social existence.

But what if we have complete power over some other being, like an animal? What morals apply? What does justice mean?
"Whatever we covet, they must instantly resign. Our permission is the only tenure by which they hold their possessions, our compassion and kindness the only check by which they curb our lawless will; and as no inconvenience ever results from the exercise of power so firmly established in nature, the restraints of justice and property, being totally useless, would never have place in so unequal a confederacy. 
This is plainly the situation with regard to animals; and how far these may be said to possess reason I leave it to others to determine. The great superiority of civilized Europeans above barbarous Indians tempted us to imagine ourselves on the same footing with regard to them and make us throw off all restraints of justice, and even of humanity, in our treatment of them. In many nations, the female sex are reduced to like slavery and are indeed rendered incapable of all property, in opposition to their lordly masters."

He then traces out the build-up of societies from family to a larger compass of more or less equal units, and shows how concepts of justice and morals become essential to regulate their relations.

But why is all this not completely instinctive? Why do we need cultural rules and structures, if evolution furnished us with all the necessary sentiments? (Hume of course knows nothing of evolution, but takes our natures as innate / given.)
"Had every man sufficient sagacity to perceive, at all times, the strong interest which binds him to the observance of justice and equity, and strength of mind sufficient to persevere in a steady adherence to a general and a distant interest, in opposition to the allurements of present pleasure and advantage, there had never, in that case, been any such thing as government or political society; but each man, following his natural liberty, had lived in entire peace and harmony with all others.
It is evident that, if government were totally useless, it could never have place, and that the sole foundation of the duty of allegiance is the advantage which it procures to society by preserving peace and order among mankind."
"If usefulness, therefore, be a source of moral sentiment, and if this usefulness be not always considered with a reference to self, it follows that everything which contributes to the happiness of society recommends itself directly to our approbation and good will. Here is a principle which accounts, in great part, for the origin of morality: and what need we seek fro absgtruse and remote systems when thre occurs one so obvious and natural?"

That is just a taste, of the argument whereby morals and rules are placed in a utilitarian perspective as being ways to promote our long-term good over our various individual stupidities, temptations, egoism, and other failings.

  • Morality is natural. A lot of humor, plus a few observations on philosophers.
  • What is (or was) social responsibility"Again and again, capitalism reached points where, if the state did not intervene in such ways as to induce more competitiveness, it would collapse under its own weight. In other words, what Braudel saw was this continuing evolutionary balance between the state and capitalism, in which the state needed to support capitalism but at the same time needed to guard against its excesses."
  • The story of Higgs.
  • Hmmm- maybe fruitless peace talks with the Taliban are an effective offensive strategy after all.
  • Pity the billionaire.
  • Problems with using intuition .. in economics.
  • A little history on one of the classic religious cults- the People's Temple. It's all about power.
  • One state goes after the MERS monster.
  • We are all banks, in a manner of speaking.. more on Minsky and banking.
  • Whom do corporations serve, and whom should they serve? "They say that shareholders are the only ones who bear risk in the corporate economy, and so they should also get the rewards."
  • Economics quote(s) of the week, as a special bonus, also come from Hume, who is under-appreciated as an early economist, indeed a Keynesian MMT economist.
"It is easy to trace the money in its progress through the whole commonwealth; where we shall find, that it must first quicken the diligence of every individual, before it encrease the price of labour."
"From the whole of this reasoning we may conclude, that it is of no manner of consequence, with regard to the domestic happiness of a state, whether money be in a greater or less quantity. The good policy of the magistrate consists only in keeping it, if possible, still encreasing; because, by that means, he keeps alive a spirit of industry in the nation, and encreases the stock of labour, in which consists all real power and riches."
"If the coin be locked up in chests, it is the same thing with regard to prices, as if it were annihilated; if the commodities be hoarded in magazines and granaries, a like effect follows. As the money and commodities, in these cases, never meet, they cannot affect each other." 

"Fanatics may suppose that dominion is founded on grace, and that saints alone inherit the earth; but the civil magistrate very justly puts these sublime theorists on the same footing with common robbers and teaches them, by the serverest discipline, that a rule which in speculation may seem the most advantageous to society may yet be found in practice totally pernicious and destructive. 
That there are religious fanatics of this kind in England during the civil wars, we learn from history; though it is probable that the obvious tendency of these principles excited such horror in mankind, as soon obliged the dangerous enthusiasts to renounce, or at least conceal, their tenets. Perhaps the levelers, who claimed an equal distribution of property, were a kind of political fanatics which arise from the religious species, and more openly avowed their pretensions; as carrying a more plausible appearance, of being practicable in themselves as well as useful to human society.
It must also be confessed that wherever we  depart from this equality we rob the poor of more satisfaction than we add to the rich, and that the slight gratification of a frivolous vanity in one individual frequently costs more than bread to many families, even provinces.
But historians, and even common sense,  may inform us that, however specious these ideas of perfect equality may seem, they are really at bottom impracticable; and were they not so, would be extremely pernicious to human society. Render posession ever so equal, men's different degrees of art, care, and industry will immediately break that equality. Or if you check these virtues, you reduce society to the most extreme indigence and, instead of preventing want and beggary in a few, render it unavoidable to the whole community. The most rigorous inquisition, too, is requisite to watch every inequality on its first appearance; and the most severe jurisdiction to punish and redress it. But besides, that so much authority must soon degenerate into tyranny, and be exerted with great partialities; who can possibly be possessed of it, in such a situation as is here supposed?"

"There is another principle, somewhat resembling the former, which has been much insisted on by philosophers, and has been the foundation of many a system- that, whatever the affection one may feel, or imagine one feels for others, no passion is, or can be, disinterested; that the most generous friendship, however sincere, is a modification of self-love; and that, even inknown to ourselves, we seek only our own gratification while we appear the most deeply engaged in schemes for the liberty and happiness of mankind.
An Epicurean or Hobbist readily allows that there is such a thing as friendship in the world without hypocrisy or disguise, though he may attempt, by philosophical chemistry, to resolve the elements of this passion, if I may so speak, into those of another and explain every affection to be self-love twisted and molded by a particular turn of imagination into a variety of appearances.
What a malignant philosophy must it be that will not allow to humanity and friendship the same privileges which are indisputably granded to the darker passions of enmity and resentment? Such a philosophy is more like a satire than a true delineation or description of human nature, and may be a good foundation for paradoxical wit and raillery, but is a very bad one for any serious argument or reasoning."

1 comment:

  1. The Frans de Waal video is fantastic. Thanks.