A Defense Of David Hume's Moral Sense Theory

2667 words - 11 pages

In this paper I will defend David Hume’s Moral Sense Theory, which states that like sight and hearing, morals are a perceptive sense derived from our emotional responses. Since morals are derived from our emotional responses rather than reason, morals are not objective. Moreover, the emotional basis of morality is empirically proven in recent studies in psychology, areas in the brain associated with emotion are the most active while making a moral judgment. My argument will be in two parts, first that morals are response-dependent, meaning that while reason is still a contributing factor to our moral judgments, they are produced primarily by our emotional responses, and finally that each individual has a moral sense.
Morals are not objective because morals are response-dependent—derived from our emotions, or passions, rather than reason. In his argument on the basis of morals in A Treatise of Human Nature, Hume states, “Philosophy is commonly divided into speculative and practical; and as morality is always comprehended under the latter division, ‘tis supposed to influence our passions and actions.” He later argues, “Since morals, therefore, have an influence on the actions and affections, it follows, that they cannot be deriv’d from reason[…]Morals excite passions, and produce or prevent actions” (Hume 1978). At the root of every one of our actions, we find that we will always trace it back to a feeling that caused it. For example, I chose not to lie to my parents about my spending a lot of money because I knew that it would be wrong. It would not only be wrong because my parents have raised me to believe that lying is wrong, but also because I would feel guilty for disrespecting them. Thus, we judge as wrong or bad actions that elicit emotions of displeasure, guilt, sadness, or anger and we judge as right and good actions that elicit pleasure or happiness.
Furthermore, it is proven that morals have an emotional basis, as recent studies in neuroscience and psychology have shown. In Moral Obligations, Jesse J. Prinz draws on some of these studies, in which researchers would measure brain activity while asking subjects to participate in various activities such as deliberating on moral predicaments, deciding whether something is morally right or wrong, showing them morally significant pictures, etc (Greene et al. 2001; King et al. 2006; Moll et al. 2002). Most studies tend to demonstrate that areas in the brain associated with emotion are the most involved in making a moral judgment concluding that emotions are a fundamental part of moral judgment in general (Prinz 2007, 272). It has also been shown that we are less likely to make wrong moral judgments when our negative emotions are reduced. In one study, “watching a comedy routine dramatically reduces the judgment that it is wrong to kill one person in order to save five” (DeSteno and Valdesolo 2006). Because there is such a clear connection between moral judgments and the...

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