Reason and the Will

Class notes for 15 February

Main points

Hume set out to show that there is no such thing as the “war” between reason and the passions. Reason and passions have nothing to do with one another, and so there is no conflict between them. We are familiar with acting against our best judgment in the heat of the moment and we think that, normally, we are guided by reason and not passion. But the second thought involves mistaking reason for the calm passions. What we call the conflict between reason and passion is really a conflict between two kinds of passions: the calm and the violent.

We identified some reasons for doubting that Hume had proven anything as sweeping as this. Reason is about comparing things and reaching conclusions about what it makes sense to believe. However, it seems possible to compare passions with other states of mind or of the world in ways that lead to conclusions about what it makes sense to want.

Hume’s arguments

Hume makes two kinds of points corresponding to the two kinds of reasoning: demonstrative and probable. First, discovering the relations among things is not sufficient to determine what one should want. Second, passions have no reference to any other thing and so cannot be contradicted by probable reasoning; beliefs, by contrast, do refer to other things — my belief that the table is brown refers to the color of the table — and so can be shown to be false by reasoning.

There are two problems with Hume’s arguments.

First, he hasn’t really shown that passions do not refer to anything else. His argument that a passion is a modification of a person applies equally to beliefs but it does not follow that a belief does not refer to anything, as the example above shows. Similarly, it may well be the case that passions refer to what is worth wanting or the good or bad qualities of objects.

Second, it certainly seems as though there are relations between passions and other things that bear on whether the relevant passions make any sense.

Pride, for example, is a good feeling about oneself because of something good associated with oneself. That means that pride can be undermined by showing that the things I think are associated with myself are either not really associated as I think they are or that they are not as good as I think they are. Suppose I feel proud of what I take to be my house and then come to realize that the house I am thinking of is not, in fact, mine. Does it make sense to continue taking pride in it? Or suppose that I come to realize that its foundations are rotten and that its walls are riddled with mold. I thought I had made a sharp real estate deal, but actually, I have a horrid mess. Again, it will not make much sense to continue taking pride in it.

The problem is that pride seems to be defined as a feeling that includes several thoughts about what is true and, for that reason, it seems to be open to assessment by reason.

Hume himself points out something similar about passions that are “founded” on beliefs about what exists or about the means to achieving a goal, such as my fear that ghosts will haunt me or my belief that eating a grapefruit will be a way of satisfying my desire to eat something that tastes like an orange. He claims that the passions in these cases are accompanied by an associated belief that reason may confirm or undermine. But he hasn’t really explained what it means for a passion to be accompanied by a belief. (

Reasons and causes

Will suggested that perhaps the relationship is merely a causal one. There’s no doubt that there is some causal relationship between the relevant passion and any ‘accompanying’ or ‘founding’ beliefs. What’s controversial is the suggestion that this is is all there is to it: showing that the accompanying or founding belief is false has no bearing on the justification for the passion (“whether the passion makes sense,” in my terms), it just puts in place or removes the passion’s cause.

Hume sometimes said things suggesting that this was his view. But be careful in interpreting those suggestions. The fact that one state of mind (impression, idea, passion) causes another can be relevant to the justification of the latter. A straightforward justification of my belief that there is a computer in front of me would be to say that a compter is causing my impression of a computer that is causing my idea of a computer that makes up (most of) my belief that there is a computer. (“Most of” because, strictly speaking, we have to add in the bit about the “manner” in which I have the idea.)

What did he need to show?

It isn’t clear that Hume needed to show what he sometimes claimed, namely, that passions and reason have nothing to do with one another.

One of his aims was to show that reason alone can never be a motive to any action of the will. As far as I can see, he can maintain that there are some passions that cannot be undermined by reason in these ways. He is also on fairly solid ground in asserting that acting involves wanting things to be a certain way and that this is different from believing that they are a certain way.

It seems to me that these two points could give him the conclusions he wanted to establish about reason and action, even if they fall short of showing that the war between reason and the passions is a non-event.

In order to make good on that assertion, I would have to do a better job of articulating just what this aim I’m refering to was. Here is a start. He didn’t think that reason could rule out passions or actions in a way that one could knowingly ignore. If I come to believe that there is no such thing as ghosts, I cannot fear ghosts. By contrast, if I come to believe that my destruction would follow from satisfying my desire to help a person unknown to me, I can continue to prefer the former to the latter and press on. Since there is no way of proving that I am wrong to have that preference, having that preference is not unreasonable.

That contradicts something that many people believe, namely, that it is irrational not to act in one’s own best interests. They concede that a person can knowingly fail to do so, unlike the case involving the fear of ghosts, but they maintain that it is irrational to do so. Hume denies what they believe.

Where the fireworks go off is with a similar thought involving morality. Moral rules are rules that people can knowingly violate. Again, in this way, they are unlike the case of ghosts, the grapefruit, or pride. But, again, many people believe that it is possible to prove that immoral action is irrational. The fact that Hume picks this point up again at the beginning of his moral philosophy shows that he was well aware of this.

Compare Clarke’s assertion that those who break the moral rules “endeavour (as much as in them lies) to make things be what they are not and cannot be.” (Clarke, p. 66; see also p. 91). I see why he’s saying that, given his view that right and wrong consist in the eternal fitnesses and unfitnesses of things, much as the relationships between numbers do. But it does seem to commit him to saying that we can’t actually do anything wrong since we can’t make things be what they are not and cannot be.