We live in an age that places great primacy on reason. With the evolution of scientific and technological knowledge, most people in Western societies believe that the faculties of reason should determine and motivate people's actions. More than two hundred years ago, however, British philosopher David Hume posited that reason cannot be the major determinant of moral action. Instead, reason should only play a secondary role to another primary human faculty -- passion.
This paper argues the continuing relevance of Hume's thesis, that despite the current level of scientific knowledge, passion remains the strongest determinant of ethical and moral action. The first part of this paper evaluates Hume's conception of reason as an ability to calculate and to discern causation. The next part of the paper then looks at Hume's definition and categories of conception. In the final section, the paper compares Hume's writings on the secondary role of reason to Peter Singer's principle of utility, and shows passion continues to be the prime motivator human action.
Hume's concept of reason
Before Hume, philosophers have taken the Aristotelian view that human beings are rational animals, set apart from other animals by a capacity to reason. Hume believed that humans use rationality to distinguish between truth and falsehoods. People are also rational in the sense that they can discern relationships between empirical objects and facts.
In this sense, Hume is an empiricist who applies the principles of the scientific method to philosophical inquiry. Under Hume's definition, scientists use reason to determine the relationship between objects and phenomena in the real world, such as apples and the ground. Using this system, they can thus conclude the existence of gravity.
Hume rightly conceded that reason is an important human faculty that serves many needs. Reason allows people to recognize and classify objects and phenomena. Through reason, people can infer connections between different events and make conclusions. The task at hand is to take disparate pieces of information and to relate them together (Quinton 17-18).
Hume believed that reason is important because of other reasons. Only through reason, he writes, "can we go beyond the evidence of our memory and senses" (Hume, Enquiries, 586-587). He gave the example of a man finding a watch in the desert. Though the desert may seem desolate, the man may conclude from the watch that other people have been present in the desert at one time.
For Hume, reason is synonymous with causation, a system of factual inference which is "the universal link between the observed and the unobserved, between what we perceive to happen and what must have happened or must be going to happen" (Quinton 16).
Hume did not believe, however, that causal reason could be the sole basis for knowledge and understanding. After all, he believed that "reason does not...give us an assurance of the continued and distinct existence of body. That opinion must be entirely owing to the imagination" (Hume, Treatise, 129).
Despite the causal reasoning, it is difficult for people to form reliable conclusions from observed phenomena. Since most knowledge stems from recognizing causation, Hume thus points out the "utter precariousness of the human condition with regard to knowledge" (Strathern 25).
Much of human knowledge and take as absolute truths are based on reliable supposition.
Role of the passions
In addition to reason, Hume pointed to another fundamental aspect of human nature -- the passions. Unlike reason, passions are not filtered through impressions or discerned through supposition. Instead, passions arise from "something that has given us pleasure or pain...from our natural impulses or instincts" (Norton 126).
Hume further classified passions into two main categories. Passions are divided between the direct and indirect. Direct passions are instinctive and generally reactions to outside stimuli, like desire, joy and grief. Indirect passions, on the other hand, are more tempered, such as pride and humility. While direct passions are often more violent, indirect passions often overcome their direct counterparts. For example, the indirect passions of temperance and prudence often overcome the stronger direct passions of greed and lust (Quinton 37).
Reason by itself is merely inert. It could only motivate people to action by appealing to their passions. Hume believed that since people see the world through a veil of impressions, causal reasoning itself…