Sunday, October 30, 2011

We are all Humeans: An Ethical Polemic, Part 1

We are Humeans about morality, for in practice morality is an aesthetic.  We approve what we approve, and disapprove what we do, and if something does not look or feel right, it's wrong.  Don't kid yourself about what you think--you think with you eyes most of the time.  You have the possibility to be other than Humean if you notice this, but not if you do it from a theoretical perspective.  You must do it from a practical perspective, from what you do rather than what you think.


  1. I am not saying that moral aestheticism is good or that we should remain complacent. It is what we should fight against.

  2. Are we all Humeans about morality? One of the interesting feature of Hume's account is that practical reason cannot be a source of ends that we might look to adopt when taking others into account. Instead, Hume posits a moral psychology that makes morality a production of psychological feeling. If one does something "right", he has only demonstrated that his psychology maintains fit with the aggregate of everyone else. He does not desire that which everyone ought to disapprove of. Sadly, however, Hume's sympathetic ethics cannot ever really explain why it is that I ought to do. It is never about me making a decision from within the practical subjectivity of lived-experience. What I do is a feature as to how I am psychologically. Thus, if I was alive in the South as a white male, but wanted ever so much to marry an African-American woman, Hume's perspective cannot explain A) the moral justification I have in my want to marry; it is rather just a feature of my psychology or B) the fact that such racist attitudes are wrong in the first place. The mechanisms of approval and disapproval posited come to explain human behavior, and like the natural attitude prevent thinking through what it is that I ought to do.

  3. Yes, these are all good points.

    However, I am giving a polemic and thus am cutting many scholarly corners to make a point. Hume is right, I insist, that for the most part we mass of humanity treat morality as an aesthetic (social-psychological standards for a judgment of taste). In my next post, I both present and critique Dewey's view, which embraces Hume to an extent.

    Your points about normativity are right on, but that's not what I was getting at. I am saying that in short, Hume does a good job of giving us a descriptive morality, and of course a terrible job of giving us a *theoretical* normative one. However, I am claiming that in practice we mass of humanity are primarily Humeans. Something like this is also in Dewey's thought, but it is often misunderstood or overlooked, as people then critique him using the critique you just leveled or even more sophisticated ones.

    Thank you for dropping by.

  4. Okay, I realize you are doing something different. Your premise is that people treat morality as a social-psychological standard in their judgments. Moreover, you are only interested in the attempt to describe what morality is at the descriptive level than establish a normative theory about how we ought to make judgments. I can compartmentalize the inquiry if need be.

    This still doesn't remove the fact that if we live out morality as something entirely different from Hume states then we might need to rethink the description Hume gives us. No? Why or why not?

  5. In your first paragraph, you have my intent mostly right except for one small point that becomes a chasm in your second paragraph. I am not attempting to establish anything per se, and I am not only interested in descriptive morality. My premise is merely to begin with a fact stated in a Humean way. We do live out morality as an aesthetic, a social-psychological standard for the judgment of taste, for the most part. We scholars call it "culture," and it can be analyzed in many different ways.

    I am not making claims about what we could do or should do just yet, and the "we might need to rethink" moment is a rare one that occurs only among academics and a few other groups. Your response in the second paragraph addresses the normative, not the descriptive, unless you are debating the fact. However, underlying my point is that the distinction between the normative and descriptive does not hold up.

    In sum, it seems that you are taking the post at right angles from what was intended, and thus are trying to make it do something that I wasn't written to do. Please do tell me what you're after, and perhaps I could address that.

  6. First, I am trying to simply get at what you are claiming you find accurate in Hume. Secondly, I offer where I think a productive dialogue can start. Let me start the latter below, and if you want you can clarify what you're after from your initial efforts here.

    I guess what is at issue here is a disagreement about how it is that we live out morality. You have a more Deweyan (and inclusive in that commitment is a Humean) account about how you find people live out moral experience. I tend to side more in line with phenomenology than you tend to work within the cross-traditional boundaries of Dewey and Heidegger. As such, I think of morality as rooted in emotions, but also that this is where values make their entrance way into human experience. There is an interconnection between an emotion and a value-correlate.

    Now, let's back up to the first issue. Perhaps in a short way, could you better explain to me what beginning with the stated fact in a Humean way consists for you. Is this a starting point for a larger project to explain what exactly?

  7. I have time for a short response now and a long one later.

    First, Dewey's is a phenomenological view, and "aesthetic" is a phenomenological term, although not a Husserlian one. Hence, it seems that you are unaware of what "aesthetic" means in Hume and in phenomenology--recall Kant's aesthetic. Or, perhaps just noting this will help recall the details for you, as this point is often overlooked.

    I would agree that morality is partially rooted in the emotions, especially since my forthcoming article gives a pragmatic theory of the emotive influence on the imagination and its phenomenological effects. In short, emotion is part of the valuative activities of humans, that in my other recent post I liken to Scheler. I make the connection mostly to produce whatI suspect to be a double-take from an audience that would know Scheler, because an affinitity between the two would seem counter-intuitive to most. I insist that is the result of a lack of knowledge.

    As for your stated question, I would have to address that later. If you know Scheler's Ordo Amoris, then you know an account of an aesthetic. Or Kant's aesthetic. Or Hume. Valuative activities are the beginning of evaluative activities, but we experience the world as valued first and evaluate later, if at al. Apologies for this last cryptic bit, but I am time-constrained. I have addressed the aesthetic issue many times before--o this blog as well I believe--and perhaps a perusal of it would help.

  8. See this post to see where I'm going with this:

    An aesthetic is also a determination of what is valuable, to what we would attend, to what might become meaningful. We must "value" a thing to attend to it--clearly I'm using "value" in a phenomenological sense to say such a strange thing, especially in a bodily sense.

  9. Apologies, but I am still quite constrained for time. Let me jump to the aesthetics punchline. Valuation, understood phenomenologically or even empirically (Hume) is a kind of selection. Hence, an aesthetic is what one experiences or selects as valuable, e.g., worth attending to, as "good," as "bad," and whether this or that phenomenal quality might be sign for some taken meaning. Hence, this is the connection of aesthetics and semantics; aesthetics indicates in what way something in particular might become meaningful and how. Hence, if we do not connect a black face with humanity, but connect such a face with vile responsive sentiment, then the humanness of that face may be lessened and our moral obligations fall slack even without our conscious awareness.

  10. I might as well make a joke of never having time.

    Morality as an aesthetic. Imagine that one's morals had all the substance of one's sense of fashion. This was in, that was out, and what is in is good, while what is out is bad. It's a judgment of taste, you see, and thus some things are clearly ugly and thus immoral. Society deems that an immoral activity and reacts with disapprobation upon its every appearance. Now, go a step farther from Hume into Kant and post-Kant. We experience in and through an aesthetic, elements and ordering of intelligibility by which we thematize the not-yet-sensible into the sensible. This face, that squinty eye, thar strange tongue. It is all a little shifty, beady-eye'd ya see?! We canna trust 'em, and be wary of their tricks.

    Hence we experience through the social aesthetic of our custom; we embody out aesthetic and it is no longer as simple as a mere habit that we can get out of. It becomes the basis of our intelligibility as surely as that slovenlyness at he side of the road indicates homelessness. Oh, they just loaded onto the poor bus. Worthless and looking for handouts, uh huh. They should pick themselves up by their bootstraps and clean themselves up, no? (Hey, I'm in Texas now, where they pass out boot straps.)