Hume on moral relativism Notes for November 29

Main points

Collins rests a lot on an argument like this (see pp. 22–30):

  1. All people strive to obey a single, universal moral law.
  2. Only God could have given us such a moral law.
  3. In fact, only a personal God that is caring and beneficent would have done so.
  4. Therefore, we have reason to believe in a personal God.

Hume’s “A Dialogue” seems to pose a challenge to the first two premises. After spending a fair amount of time squeezing the meaning out of this deceptively breezy piece, we talked about that.

We ended with an apparent challenge for Hume’s moral theory. Characters like Diogenes and Pascal were both esteemed in their societies while lacking qualities that are either immediately agreeable or useful to themselves or others. That stands at odds with the theory.

Why the first premise?

I think you all were largely agreed on why Hume’s discussion presents a challenge to the second premise. It presents morality as a product of human nature and cultural invention. The universal part of it does not require God, it just requires that people naturally approve of agreeable or useful qualities.

It was harder to sell the putative challenge to the first premise. Here’s my thinking. Hume’s discussion challenges the first premise because it presents the diversity of moral rules and practices. It’s the rules that strike me as most resembling laws and those are the parts that are diverse, even if they spring from a base in human nature that is universal.

But even if I’m wrong about that, I hope to have made a point about the relevance of history. Those who think that human beings pursue a single moral law had better confront the oddities of Fourli and the “nation in which adultery … was in the highest vogue and esteem” (Hume, paragraph 19). That won’t happen unless you consider the lessons of history or anthropology.

Some more detail

Here is a little more information about the reading that may help to understand it. I think that Hume attributes the differences among cultures that we observe to the following factors:

  1. Ignorance plus eloquence: you can make any culture look ridiculous if you give a superficial, ethically loaded description of its practices.
  2. The looseness of our values: our values do not determine our actions. The love of one’s children is compatible with a wide range of actions towards them.
  3. Historical circumstance: different qualities are valuable in different circumstances.
  4. Cultural circumstances: different qualities are valuable in different societies, under different social rules.
  5. Conventional differences: justice is valuable in every society, but different societies could have different conventions assigning property rights or governing promises than others.
  6. Religion: the influence of Christianity is an important reason why ancient and modern values are different. Those under its influence, in Hume’s opinion, struggle against human nature and its virtues.

A couple of references

I picked up the annecdote about duels from Russell Hardin’s One for All: The Logic of Group Conflict. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995. This offers a very persuasive explanation of group identification in terms of the dynamics produced by largely self-interested behavior.

The remark about Galileo is based on Dava Sobel’s book Galileo’s Daughter. Sobel’s book gives you a feel for life at the time that is especially relevant to our point about how it’s possible to love your children while locking them up in “jails.”

This page was written by Michael Green for The Image of God, ID-1, Fall 2007. It was posted November 29, 2007.
The Image of God