Paper Topics

A rolling list

Rolling paper topics

As of 21 February, I have a reasonably comprehensive list of most of the major topics we have discussed plus, everything everyone has spoke with me about (I hope), and a few spicy extras.

Update: Nathan wanted to write about Hume’s argument for determinism. I obliged.

What to do

Please answer one of the following questions in 2500 words or less, about eight double-spaced pages. Turn in your paper on Monday, 7 March before 3pm in Classics 17. If you are handing in your paper late, please note the date and time. Good luck!


  1. In 1.3.6, Hume argued that “if reason determined us” to make causal inferences, “it would proceed upon that principle, that instances, of which we have had no experience, must resemble those of which we have had experience, and that the course of nature continues always uniformly the same.” ( He considered “all the arguments upon which such a proposition may be supposed to be founded” and, finding them all inadequate, concluded that reason does not determine us to make these inferences. But in 1.3.8, he wrote that “we have many millions” of experiments “to convince us of this principle, that like objects, placed in like circumstances, will always produce like effects (” The millions of experiments are supposed to explain how we habitually make causal inferences. Why do these two claims appear to be in tension with one another? Why might Hume have thought they are consistent with one another? What do you think: is Hume’s treatment of this principle consistent or not?
  2. Hume maintained that we never observe the power or efficacy by which a cause brings about its effect. Suppose someone were to respond that we do: we observe scissors cutting paper, people drinking beer, and cats purring. “Is cutting, is drinking, is purring not ‘efficacy’?” Why does this seem to pose a challenge for Hume? How would he respond? What do you think: do we observe causal power or efficacy or not? (The quoted passage is from Anscombe, G. E. M. “Causality and Determination.” In Causation, edited by Ernest Sosa and Michael Tooley. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993, p. 93.)
  3. Hume’s text in 1.3.14 suggests several possible positions. Sometimes, he seems to have meant to suggest that we revise our beliefs about causal relations: instead of thinking there is a necessary connection between cause and effect we should just think in terms of constant conjunctions. In other places, he seems to have held that we will inevitably believe in necessary connections between cause and effect. Explain each option, listing what you see as its most important advantages and disadvantages? Which way of thinking about causal relations do you think we should adopt?
  4. Hume describes himself as a moderate skeptic. Using an example from Book 1, part 4 explain two things: (a) why Hume regards his view as skeptical and (b) why he regards his view as moderate. Why does he find moderate skepticism to be an attractive position? Why might someone think that it is impossible to be a moderate skeptic? What do you think: is moderate skepticism as plausible and attractive as Hume suggests it is?
  5. Hume tried to explain our belief in personal identity over time by looking solely at our perceptions. But, someone might say, there is another way to do it: we can infer that there is more to our minds than our perceptions since we remember, make causal inferences on the basis of customs, and imagine things. We can get an idea of our identity over time by considering the persistence of these parts of our minds. Explain the advantages and disadvantages of both explanations. Which one is superior, in your opinion?
  6. According to Malebranche, our inability to find necessary connections among natural causes and effects is not a problem: God’s omnipotence explains causal relations. Clarke is quite sure that we can discover moral distinctions using reason because he holds that we are made in the image of God and God uses reason, not passion, to discover what to do. Explain how Hume’s arguments threaten one of these positions. How might Malebranche or Clarke respond? What do you think: did Hume’s arguments challenge either thinker’s view of our place in the universe?
  7. NEW Explain Hume’s reasons for holding that our behavior is causally determined. Describe what you regard as the best objection to this view. How would Hume respond? What do you think the correct answer is?
  8. Why does Hume hold that determinism is necessary for moral responsibility (2.3.2)? Describe what you regard as the best objection to this view. How would Hume respond? What do you think the correct answer is?
  9. Hume denies that prudence, that is, self-interest, is part of reason: “It is as little contrary to reason to prefer even my own acknowledged lesser good to my greater, and have a more ardent affection for the former than the latter” ( But we normally call people who fail to do what is good for them names like ‘irrational,’ ‘foolish,’ and ‘stupid.’ How would Hume analyze these terms of abuse? Why does he think that these people cannot be criticized for being unreasonable or irrational? What do you think: are the imprudent irrational or not?
  10. What does Hume think are the two cases in which reason seems to influence the passions (; How do reason and passions interact in the kinds of cases that Hume has in mind? Has he contradicted his claim that reason cannot influence the will (e.g. 2.3.3, paragraphs 1 and 4)? Why might one think so? How would Hume reply? Is he right?
  11. Hume maintains both that our passions do not represent anything other than themselves and that we think that things are good or bad by imaginatively projecting them onto those things. He says something similar about necessary connections between causes and effects: there cannot be such connections among objects but we believe they exist by projecting our feelings onto objects. Explain how Hume thinks this works in one of these cases. How are these positions compatible. How could our moral and other evaluative beliefs be explained by the projection of passions onto things that could not possibly be good or bad? Or, how could our belief in necessary connections be explained in this way? Is this a genuine problem for Hume or does he have a way out?
  12. Kant holds that it is part of our commonsense conception of morality that actions with moral worth are done from a particular motive, the motive of duty, that is opposed to what he calls inclination. Hume seems to have the opposite view: virtuous people and actions are done from a kind of inclination. Explain each philosopher’s view. Which one is right?