What is a moral? This is a question that has plagued philosophers for many years. Is it possible
to have a set of universal morals? There are many questions that surround the mystery of morals. They
seem to drive our every action. We base our decisions on what is right and what is wrong. But what is it
that actually determines what is right and what is wrong? Is it our sense of reason? Is it our sense of
sentiment? This is a question that David Hume spent much of his life pondering. What exactly is it that
drives our actions? Yes, morals drive them, but what determines what our morals are? What is it that
ultimately drives our actions; our feelings or our minds?
Hume would say that it is our sentiment that ultimately drives our actions. According to Hume,
reason is incapable of motivating an action. According to Hume, reason cannot fuel an action and
therefore cannot motivate it. Hume feel that all actions are motivated by our sentiment. For example, on
page 84 Appendix I, he gives the example of a criminal. “It resides in the mind of the person, who is
ungrateful. He must, therefore, feel it, and be conscious of it.” Here, it is evident that Hume is saying that
unless the person, or criminal in this case, sincerely believes in what he wants to do, he will not be able to
motivate the action. In other words, unless the sentiment is there, the action cannot be willed into being.
Hence, the sentiment is the driving force behind the action.
Hume does not however say that reason is incapable of determining wether an action is virtuous
or vicious (moral or immoral), but instead he tries to say that the reason for the morality of an action does
not dictate the execution or perversion of an act so far as determination of wether the action is executed
or not. In simpler terms, reason has it’s place in determining morality, but it is not in the motivation of an
action. Motivation must come from the heart, or better yet, from within the person; from their beliefs.
Reason merely allows the person to make moral distinctions. Without reason, there would be no morality.
Without reason, one moral clause would not be differentiable from another. That is to say that below all
morals, there must be some underlying truth because “Truth is disputable; not taste” (p.14). If truth were
not disputable, there would be no way to prove that a truth was just that… a truth. To make an analogy to
mathematics, truth is a function of reason, whereas taste is a function of sentiment. Sentiment is a
function of the individual whereas reason is a function of the universe.
The universe as a whole must follow reason, but the catch is that each individual’s universe is
slightly different in that each individual perceives his or her universe differently. “What each man feels
within himself is the standard of sentiment.” (p.14) That is to say each person’s individual universe has
truths. These truths are based on reason. These truths/reasons are what help to determine the person’s
sentiment. However, it should be noted that because the reasons are NOT necessarily the person’s
sentiments, they do not motivate actions. One other reason why reason does not impel action is because
reason is based on truths. Truths are never changing whereas sentiments are dynamic and are in a
constant change of flux. At one moment, the criminal could feel sympathy for his victims and decide to
spare a life, and the very next, the same criminal could become enraged at the pimple on a hostage’s
forehead and shoot him.
Of course these are extreme cases, but the point is clear. Reason would dictate that only the first
action would be moral. If reason drove actions, then moral behavior would prevail and there would be no
immoral actions and hence there would be no crimes. This shows how sentiments can change as the
individual’s perception of the universe changes. Obviously, the driving force behind the criminal shooting
the victim because of a skin blemish is not one based on reason, but instead it is based on feeling, emotion,
sentiment. Although it is an abstract idea and a seemingly tiny technicality, it is easy to see that indeed
reason is not the ultimate motivator but instead sentiment is.
date = 19 Dec 96 03:24:49
subject = Philosophy, Hume
title = An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals