Hume -- Morals Crasto in Term Paper

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Parenting is a challenging occupation. Indeed, how a parent raises his or her child is the cumulative result of the mental and emotional character of the parent, the background of the parent, the financial circumstances of the parent, how the parent was raised as a child, and also the emotional character of the child or the actions of the child. Consider a situation where the parent indulges in corporal punishment. As an action agent, the parent firmly believes that this punishment is of a corrective nature, meant to discipline the child. For the child receiving this punishment, certainly it is momentarily painful. The child might resent the punishment; alternatively, the child might recognize that the punishment is in response to instances of mischief.

The spectator might as the moral purveyor of this scenario might see this as a virtue or a vice. The spectator might believe that the corporal punishment is virtuous because it is meant to correct the child. Or the spectator might see this as abusive, because society dictates the corporal punishment is never warranted. The spectator might also be confused, vacillating between the two issues.

For the purpose of this essay, the task is to explicate one specific issue associated with morals. What is the origin of morals? Following from the above, in addition to the argument detailed in Part 1 of Hume's treatise, and agreeing that morals are about feeling, where does this feeling come from? Are morals intrinsic to an individual from birth, or does it come from "without" or artificial sources. This passage starts from paragraph 6 of Section 2 and continues till the end of the section.

Throughout his treatise, and in every part of "Of Morals," Hume expounds (quite relentlessly) on the same theme. The "pleasure" and "pain" sensations that one feels on encountering with all the five senses (including senses is quite important) is directly correlated with morals, i.e., virtuous and stemming from vice, respectively. Hume goes on to say that one cannot attribute all of this to outside influences, which have to be learned from experience. His premise is that there is a strong and emphatic component to morals that is instinctual. A physical manifestation of this (though not quite the physical sense that Hume associates with pleasure and pain) is our response to stimuli. This response is immediate and unlearned. A painful stimulus can cause us to flinch or cry out loud as a response to alleviate the pain. When bruised, the response is to rub the bruised area. This response is automatic, and the result is an increased blood flow to the area of the rubbing to alleviate the pain. The sensation of scratching is the same. One alleviates an itch by scratching. We do not have to recourse to an instruction manual to perform what comes naturally.

Consider another example, one that can be borrowed from Newtonian Physics. Newton was the first to identify and quantify the laws of motion that govern the behavior of macroscopic objects. An astute student of physics might know how to calculate the speed, angle and trajectory of a projectile, e.g., a baseball that is being tossed between two people. This student might be able to predict the exact position a ball that is tossed from one position will land. A really bright student might also consider gravitational effects and calculate a more accurate trajectory if he or she takes into account wind speed that provides momentum to the object or retards its motion, and even calculate the shearing effects on a windy day. However, when this student is at a receiving end of the thrown baseball, he reacts instinctively to catch it. He might adjust his position by moving forward, backwards or sideways. He will cup his hands over his head or at his chest to best grasp the ball. Unless he is physically unable to grab the ball, he will make the adjustments necessary, using his sense of sight to guide his motions. He will not sit down with a paper, pencil and calculator to make the calculations that he is capable of as the ball hurtles towards him.

This analogy though as far removed from Hume's philosophical underpinnings in identifying morals (though Newton had already made his mark in the world of physics and mechanics more than a century before Hume wrote his treatise) is an exact analogy. Hume indicates that, contrary to his thesis, if this pleasure-pain dichotomy only comes from learning and reasoning, then each sensation would have to be learned independently. And since there are an infinite number of stimuli, there would have to be an infinite number of adequate responses.

Consider the instances of learning languages. Very few people have the special ability to learn languages fluently enough to be considered linguists. But no matter how difficult the language, even sign language, a child born listening to a certain language will pick it up and become fluent in it merely by listening to those around him speaking it. Icelandic is considered to be the most difficult language to learn. It does not have origins in the typical languages and one cannot learn it by association. Yet, a child born into an Icelandic family will need no special instructions in identifying with and learning the language. Yet, that same child, several years later, will have difficulties learning languages that are significantly easier to learn than Icelandic. The same is also true for certain African tribes, whose members communicate with glottal sounds and clicks. These, to most of us, are meaningless sounds. While we might make these sounds, we have no way of associating them with any linguistic meaning.

Hume believes that the origins of the pain-pleasure response to moral motivations can be found in few responses that manifest differently depending on what reaction is sought on the part of the spectator. He cautions against attempting to find a reason for every response, especially if the attempt is made to find it from our surroundings. Hume then answers the question of a potential critic, who might aver that all this (of Hume's) obfuscating about the fact that the pain-pleasure responses ought to come from a few, general principles that govern every response. The question is: what is the nature of the response to issues that motivate morals, as determined by Hume? The answer, according to the treatise, is nature. But even here, Hume argues, that one should not be quick to attribute it to nature. Indeed, that would be the quick way out.

We have to recognize how nature ought to be defined. Hume starts out by informing that one should consider the difference between what is nature and what is natural. And while Hume does not necessarily advance the concept of "natural" as common or mundane, he does educate that just because something spectacular, unusual or un-natural or (Hume uses the term) "miraculous" should not be considered as natural. One might suppose that Hume's definition of natural has to do with whatever is acceptable to the senses (feeling) since they are the proper manifestation of a response to moral motivations.

The issue about what exactly constitutes "natural" will raise many questions, especially since Hume agrees that the word "nature" can mean many things to many people -- "ambiguous and equivocal." There is no exacting definition of natural, when opposed to what is unnatural. And here (the reader feels that) the thesis stands on ground that is not so strong. If the pain-pleasure responses find their origins in whatever is natural, moral equivalence increases if we cannot define what "natural" is. This is also becomes very stark when natural is to be distinguished from what is rare and unusual. That is because people's definitions of what constitutes rare and deviating from the natural varies. This is especially important, and Hume recognizes this ambiguity in defining natural, because at the beginning of the definition of morality and its origins in nature, he indicates that the general principles that govern morality should be all encompassing. These principles should transcend nations, people and cultures.

Even if one were to take the pain-pleasure bringing situations as morally virtuous or vice-driven, then the next few examples will show how the action agent- receiving agent and observing agent is confounded -- "though not necessarily incorrect. Consider the tribal ritual on Pentecost Island in the South pacific. This is a ritual that marks the coming of age for adolescent boys as they make their foray into manhood. The men and boys in the tribe build a scaffold from available wood. On the appointed day, young boys tie liana vines to their legs, the vines being anchored to the wooden scaffold, and dive off the platforms. Diving from the platforms heralds the emotional metamorphosis of a boy into a man, because it involves overcoming the…[continue]

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