David Hume’s ethical concepts stem from his belief, expressed in his Treatise of Human Nature, that “reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” In this assertion, Hume departs radically from nearly all Western thinkers before him, who saw reason as separate from and the intended master of the passions. Because of his unique ideas regarding the relationship between reason and the passions, Hume concluded that ethics cannot be a matter of reason and that ethics should instead flow from the emotions. Specifically, Hume believed that the feeling of sympathy is and should be the source of morality.
Annette Baier, in an evaluation of Hume from a feminist perspective, finds a place of agreement with Hume on this point. She sees Hume’s ideas as an early version of the views elucidated by ethical thinkers like Carol Gilligan, whose studies have found that men and women tend to think differently in moral matters, and that the latter tend to make ethical determinations based on sentiment and emotion. According to Baier, in positing that ethics should be based on sentiment and emotion, Hume advocates adopting a woman’s viewpoint in ethics.
As Hume’s views on ethics are such a radical departure from nearly all previous and most contemporary and subsequent thought it is not difficult to find a number of systems and ideas which run in direct contradiction to his or to imagine some of the arguments the proponents of these rival systems might launch against Hume’s ideas. One obvious flaw in his ideas, for instance, is that it does not offer a stable basis for ethical ideas and actions. Rather, all that is offered is the rather unstable basis of human emotion and individual preference. If mere sympathy and sentiment are the sole basis of ethics, the question is how this provides us with any motivation for radical change.
Think of someone with Hume’s ideas living in Nazi Germany, for instance. If this person has no personal sympathy for Jews, which is a very real possibility, he or she has no reason to intervene on their behalf, according to Hume. Even if this person has sympathy for them, he or she has no basis for the kind of self-sacrificing radical action that is called for in such extreme circumstances. In the end, Hume’s ethics are really a description of man at his worst and his most animal: a being of mere instinct and with the will only for survival and self-perpetuation.
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
I had high hopes for this book, but, to be honest, I was very disappointed. Dr. Gaylin spends a great deal of the book repeating the same idea in as many different ways as he can possibly think of and engaging in tangents on a variety of subjects, including history, religion, and international relations, of which his knowledge his woefully deficient. Even when he does stay on topic and on point, I must express my disappointment and disagreement with his ideas, which seem to draw very heavily on Freud and, as a result, suffer from the same problems. I do not recommend this book.
A feeling … is a feeling in the presence of a norm; that is, a feeling of the same type but one which would be what it is. This norm or totality of the affective self is directly present as a lack suffered in the very heart of suffering. One suffers and one suffers from not suffering enough. The suffering of which we speak is never exactly that which we feel. What we call “noble” or “good” or “true” suffering and what moves us is the suffering which we read on the faces of others, better yet in portraits, in the face of a statue, in a tragic mask. It is a suffering which has being. It is presented to us as a compact, objective whole which did not await our coming in order to be and which overflows the consciousness which we have of it; it is there in thie midst of the world, impenetrable and dense, like this tree or this stone; it endures; finally it is what it is. We can speak of it — that suffering there which is expressed by that set of the mouth, by that frown. It is supported and expressed by the physiognomy; it is beyond passivity as beyond activity, beyond negation as beyond affirmation — it is. However it can be only a consciousness of the self. We know well that this mask does not express the unconscious grimace of a sleeper or the rictus of a dead man. It refers to possibilities, to a situation in the world. The suffering is the conscious relation to these possibilities, to this situation, but it is solidified, cast in the bronze of being. And it is as such that it fascinates us; it stands as a degraded approximation of that suffering-in-itself which haunts our own suffering. The suffering which I experience, on the contrary, is never adequate suffering, due to the fact that it nihilates itself as in-itself by the very act by which it founds itself. It escapes as suffering toward the consciousness of suffering. I can never be surprised by it, for it is only to the exact degree that I experience it. Its translucency removes from it all depth. I can not observe it as I observe the suffering of the statue, since I make my own suffering and since I know it. If I must suffer, I should prefer that my suffering would seize me and flow over me like a storm, but instead I must raise it into existence in my free spontaneity. I should like simultaneously to be it and to conquer it, but this enormous, opaque suffering, which should transport me out of myself, continues instead to touch me lightly with its wing, and I can not grasp it. I find only myself, myself who moans, myself who wails, myself who in order to realize this suffering which I am must play without respite the drama of suffering. I wring my hands, I cry in order that being-in-itself, their sounds, their gestures may run through the world, ridden by the suffering-in-itself which I can not be. Each groan, each facial expression of the man who suffers aims at sculpturing a statue-in-itself of suffering. But this statue will never exist save through others and for others. My suffering suffers from being what it is not and from not being what it is. At the point of being made one with itself, it escapes, separated from itself by nothing, by that nothingness of which it is itself the foundation. It is loquacious because it is not adequate, but its ideal is silence — the silence of the statue, of the beaten man who lowers his head and veils his face without speaking. But with this man too — it is for me that he does not speak. In himself he chatters incessantly, for the words of the inner language are like the outlines of the “self” of suffering. It is for my eyes that he is “crushed” by suffering; in himself he feels himself responsible for that grief which he wills even while not wishing it and which he does not wish even while willing it, that grief which is haunted by a perpetual absence — the absence of the motionless, mute suffering which is the self, the concrete, out-of-reach totality of the for-itself which suffers, the for of Human-Reality in suffering. We can see that my suffering never posits this suffering-in-itself which visits it. My real suffering is not an effort to reach to the self. But it can be suffering only as consciousness (of) not being enough suffering in the presence of that full and absent suffering.
Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness, pp. 141-3