Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Hume Day, everyday!

"""In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remark'd, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary ways of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when all of a sudden I am surpriz'd to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, 'tis necessary that it shou'd be observ'd and explain'd; and at the same time that a reason should be given; for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it. "" (Hume, from the Treatise of Human Nature).

Hume holds that values and virtues, however beneficial to society, are not
"necessary"; they are conventions, based on an individual's subjective desires and "passions". Value statements are not statements about perceivable facts (tho' there might be a debate with that) , nor are they "axiomatic" as say the pythagorean theorem is, or for that matter propositional logic ala Modus Ponens (tho' value "warrants" could be established in a sense as a premise: "you ought not to rob banks if you want to avoid prison; if you can get with it, and want the cash, then rob them") . Is there a way around this view without recourse to theology or appeals to pathos?--- i.e. some argument for objective morality---that an "ought" statement ("you ought not to rob banks, or invade countries") is actually not just a matter of prudence, or taste, pleasure, but somehow rational or logically necessary? . Many secularists, Darwinists, and atheists routinely rely on some sense of shared values or objective morality, without being able to justify those values rationally. Of course anyone who has been through a few blogger ethics BS sessions (or who recalls them--not always fondly) knows that the Hume fact/value distinction is a biggy, and in fact damn near impossible to overcome (which is to say, Hume made a 2nd order insight about "ethics" (whatever that is, ultimately); not merely about ethical relativism or "why be moral", but about the language of "values" itself: modal auxillaries such as "ought" or "should" are sort of semantic singularities. Alas, moralists of left and right do not know that, or they forget it when they log onto ye olde crackerbarrel.org.

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