Saturday, October 03, 2009

Kamm on the Enlightenment

Oliver Kamm on the Enlightenment:

And there is an essential continuity among the national variants of the Enlightenment in their secularism.

By secularism, I don't mean atheism. Atheism is a philosophical position. I hold to it, and I regard the spread of atheism over the long term as both likely and overwhelmingly beneficial. But for cultures born of the Enlightenment, private religious belief is not so much an enemy as an irrelevance. What matters is that religion should not intrude into the public sphere. It must make its accommodation, however it chooses to get there, with modern mores, liberal values and secular education. If it won't, then it makes itself an enemy.

In fact, however, it is very difficult to show that this is the case: to a very large degree this is an anachronistic imposition. The major thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment, for instance, split clearly into people who might be called secularists (Hume, Reid, Gibbon) and people who can in no serious sense of the term be called secularists, despite clearly being Enlightenment thinkers (Reid, Campbell, Witherspoon, Beattie). The French Revolution created what was literally a state religion of Reason. Enlightened Orthodoxy in Geneva was hardly secularist. The famous English 'Moderation' was largely furthered by people like Warburton, who was very far from thinking that private religious belief was an "irrelevance" or that it should not intrude into the public sphere: their Moderation was the middle way of the Church of England (between the two extremes of priest-dominated Catholics and visionary Quakers and Methodists). Actual advocates of separation of church and state, outside of certain religious groups like the Baptists, were relatively rare if all of Europe is taken into account; some on the secularist side, in fact, proposed establishmentarianism as the means for de-fanging religion (Hume is an example), and a major French Enlightenment document like the Civil Constitution of the Clergy is not at all something that banishes religion from the public sphere, despite secularizing it. There are no doubt particular thinkers of whom Kamm's summary would be a reasonable summary. But the 'Enlightenments' were hardly one-note music boxes, and on the topic of religion the notes make for extraordinarily diverse polyphony. (I think David Sorkin's The Religious Enlightenment does a fairly decent job of looking at some strands of the Enlightenment that are often overlooked.) And even the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which Kamm holds up as a key example, doesn't lay down the public/private distinction the way Kamm does: "all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of Religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge or affect their civil capacities" is not a recipe for banishing religion from public view, and it protects public religious expression as much as it limits it. This is one of the possible effects of religious liberty and separation of church and state: no longer enforceable by government, religion still pervades the public sphere because impediments preventing it from participating in the arguments of the public sphere are removed, and therefore it becomes something that regularly has to be dealt with by politicians in their attempts to persuade their fellow citizens. You can take away the force of law from every religion; but if the mind of man is free, that includes being free to bring up religious claims in civic and political arguments. And Americans, to take just the obvious example, always have.

Kamm opens by proposing the Virginia Statute as the most significant document of the Enlightenment. My vote for the most (historically) significant document of the Enlightenment: Rousseau's Emile, the novel that launched a thousand educational reform movements.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Arnhart on Hume on Ought and Is

Larry Arnhart gets Hume right on ought and is:

Like many of the proponents of "evolutionary psychology," Thayer assumes that biological science cannot explain moral experience because science is concerned with factual claims rather than value judgments, and he attributes this fact/value distinction to David Hume. But Thayer misses Hume's point. Hume distinguishes is and ought in order to show that moral assessments are derived not from pure reason alone but from moral emotions. Yet far from denying that moral judgments are judgments of fact, Hume claims that moral judgments are accurate when they correctly report what our moral judgments would be in a given set of circumstances. Correct moral judgments are factual statements about the species-typical pattern of moral sentiments in specified circumstances.

There are, of course, a number of complications; but as a three-sentence summary of Hume's rather complex view of moral judgments, the end of this paragraph is quite good. As I noted in a previous post, Hume is quite clear that the distinction is to show that "moral assessments are derived not from pure reason alone" but from moral sentiments; although, due to complexities in Hume's theory of taste, things are not as straightforward as the second sentence makes it sound, it is still pretty much right, and Hume does treat moral judgments as a kind of factual statement about moral taste; and Hume is quite clear about the "species-typical" part. And Arnhart seems to be right, too, when he says that Darwin recognized that "the ethical naturalism of Smith and Hume allowed morality to become an object of scientific study, because scientists could study the natural roots of moral judgment in the evolved moral emotions of the human animal."

I hadn't originally intended to blog more on this subject, but I'm thinking at present of writing a post on my own view of the ought/is question -- the things I think Hume gets quite right, the points at which my view diverges from his, etc. If I do, in fact, write it, it will probably be up at some point in the next week.

Proper Place

It's been a while since I've posted the result of a meaningless online quiz. Here's my result from Mark Vernon's My Philosophy Guru Quiz:

Your recommended philosophy-guru is ARISTOTLE.

Key fact: The star pupil of Plato.

Must have: A desire to study the world and see what it reveals.

Key promise: The good life, which comes from living a virtuous life.

Key peril: The virtuous life can be tough.

Most likely to say: "Everything has its proper place."

Least likely to say: "Science is where humanity went wrong."

Even as a Dragon's Eye

Even as a dragon's eye that feels the stress
by William Wordsworth

Even as a dragon's eye that feels the stress
Of a bedimming sleep, or as a lamp
Suddenly glaring through sepulchral damp,
So burns yon Taper 'mid a black recess
Of mountains, silent, dreary, motionless:
The lake below reflects it not; the sky,
Muffled in clouds, affords no company
To mitigate and cheer its loneliness.
Yet, round the body of that joyless Thing
Which sends so far its melancholy light,
Perhaps are seated in domestic ring
A gay society with faces bright,
Conversing, reading, laughing; — or they sing,
While hearts and voices in the song unite.

Thursday, October 01, 2009


Today is the feast of St. Thérèse of Lisieux (1873-1897), also known as the Little Flower; she has the liturgical title, Doctor of the Church, which is given to teachers of great importance. Here is S. L. Emery's 1907 translation of one of her poems. The flowers, of course, are little acts of love, like a kind word, or a small sacrifice for someone else's sake.

To Scatter Flowers

O Jesu! O my Love! Each eve I come to fling
Before Thy sacred Cross sweet flowers of all the year.
By these plucked petals bright, my hands how gladly bring,
I long to dry Thine every tear!

To scatter flowers! — that means each sacrifice,
My lightest sighs and pains, my heaviest, saddest hours,
My hopes, my joys, my prayers, — I will not count the price.
Behold my flowers!

With deep, untold delight Thy beauty fills my soul.
Would I might light this love in hearts of all who live!
For this, my fairest flowers, all things in my control,
How fondly, gladly I would give!

To scatter flowers! — behold my chosen sword
For saving sinners’ souls and filling heaven’s bowers.
The victory is mine: yes, I disarm Thee, Lord,
With these my flowers!

The petals in their flight caress Thy Holy Face;
They tell Thee that my heart is Thine, and Thine alone.
Thou knowest what these leaves are saying in my place;
On me Thou smilest from Thy throne.

To scatter flowers! — that means, to speak of Thee, —
My only pleasure here, where tears fill all the hours;
But soon, with angel hosts, my spirit shall be free,
To scatter flowers!

June 28, 1896

Material Conditionals in Natural Language

Bill Vallicella has a post up on an argument by Errol Harris on material implication. I don't have much to say about his objection to the argument; since I haven't read the work in question, I can only go on the excerpt given, and based on that, the Maverick Philosopher seems to be quite right. But he takes the example, "If the earth is flat, I am the Pope" and says of it:

I submit that this conditional is at once both a material conditional and a piece of ordinary language. Thus here we have an ordinary language example of a material conditional. So although the material conditional is a theoretical construct for logical purposes, it is exemplified in natural language.

But I think it's worth our time to press this somewhat. In order to be a material conditional, this conditional must meet two conditions:

(1) Its behavior for logical purposes must be describable using the entire material implication truth table.
(2) Its behavior for logical purposes must be entirely describable using the material implication truth table.

And by 'behavior' here I mean nothing more than the way the conditional is used in natural language reasoning, since we are discussing whether this can be both a material conditional and a piece of ordinary language. In order to be both, it must be a piece of ordinary language whose usage is entirely describable entirely by the right truth table.

But there is some reason to doubt that this is the case, because one might argue in the following way. I am not the pope whether the earth is flat or not. There is nothing about the earth being flat that would make it necessary for me to be pope, and there is nothing about my not being pope that makes it necessary that the earth is not flat. Therefore it would be logically consistent state of affairs if I were not the pope and the earth were flat. But if it is logically consistent for 'I am not the pope' and 'The earth is flat' to be true, then the truth table for the the conditional, 'If the earth is flat, I am the pope," is not the truth table of the material conditional, since it is inconsistent with that truth table for the truth of the antecedent and the falsehood of the consequent to be consistent with each other. To be sure, it happens to be a fact about the actual world that both antecedent and consequent are false, and this is the reason we are using the conditional in the first place. But it seems odd to say that whether or not this conditional is a material conditional depends on contingent facts about how the world is; and given that a true antecedent and false consequent are logically possible, it seems that we would have to say this in order to say that Condition (2) is not violated. The conditional has a modal behavior that would allow it to deviate, in principle if not in practice, from the behavior it would have to have as a material conditional. [ADDED LATER: Re-reading this, I don't find it to be adequately clear. The point boils down to this: If there is any modal or probabilistic component to the conditional, it is not a material conditional, since the material conditional truth table has no modal or probabilistic components. But the conditional as usually used doesn't rule out the combination of the truth of the antecedent and the falsehood of the consequent -- it merely relies on the fact that they both happen to be false, the consequent to a very high degree of certainty, and the antecedent to a degree of certainty that is being put on a level, for practical purposes, with the degree of certainty for the consequent. It is, in fact, what we would usually take it to be: a figure of speech classifying one possibility's likelihood of being false with another possibility that everyone is certain is false. Thus there is nothing about it that strictly rules out the compossibility of true antecedent and false consequent; it merely treats this as an extraordinarily unlikely possibility.]

Moreover, there is the difficult of showing that any piece of natural language exemplifies an entire truth table rather than only some fragment of it. That is, it's difficult to show that Condition (1) is met. In a formal language, where connections are defined in terms of truth tables, there is no problem. One can tell, simply by looking, that p → q has the truth table of a material conditional in standard propositional logic, because that is how → is defined in propositional logic. But natural language connections like 'if' are not defined in this way, and one might well hold that the conditional "If the earth is flat, I am the pope," was composed solely for the purpose of allowing modus tollens, and for no other reason. Can it then be represented by any part of the material implication truth table that does not deal with a false consequent? It isn't clear that it can. The behavior of 'if' in general isn't represented by the material implication truth table, because (to take just one example) common usage takes it in such a way that the counterpart of modus ponens in natural language is defeasible; so we can't take the right truth table to be built into 'if' itself. Therefore the missing parts of the truth table can't be supplied from the way 'if' is generally used. Perhaps there is some way around it, but it seems to be difficult to establish that any piece of natural language meets Condition (1).

This is not to say that there might not be cases of the material conditional being exemplified in natural language. But we run into the same problems here that Jennings has noted with regard to finding exclusive disjunction in natural language: matching natural language usage to truth tables is very tricky, because you have to use the entire truth table and that truth table has to be wholly sufficient for describing behavior for logical purposes. If either of these are violated, we don't have a material conditional exemplified in natural language but merely a conditional that is not a material conditional but sufficiently analogous to it that we can sometimes pretend that it is. And that's a different thing.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Thrones of the Seven Days

The most famous production of the Mercury Theatre on the Air founded by Orson Welles and John Housman was the notorious War of the Worlds broadcast; but they had a number of other classics too. Kim Scarbrough has a webpage where you can find a number of them. I just finished listening to the broadcast of The Man Who Was Thursday, one of the best they made (and all there work is already among the best of the best), which first went to air two weeks before the War of the Worlds broadcast. It is quite interesting because the radio version, by cutting out much of information about the Days, makes Chesterton's strange story even stranger (but still quite good). Welles was apparently a fan of the book, saying it had shamelessly beautiful prose. The transcript is also online.

The Dracula broadcast also brings out some of the stranger features of its original source material.

Hume on Ought and Is, Part III: Conclusions

I was going to approach this in a slightly different way, but Nick Smyth had an excellent comment on the Part II that, after some thinking, makes for a clearer path to the conclusions I will be drawing.

Hume is quite clear about what causes the problem in the inference between 'is' and 'ought':

For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, 'tis necessary that it shou'd be observ'd and explain'd; and at the same time that a reason should be given, for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it.

But we should stop here and think a moment. In Treatise 1.1.5, Hume lists all the philosophical relations that he thinks exists:

relations in time and space
proportion in quantity or number
degrees of quality

Only four of these are entirely relations of ideas, depending on the ideas alone, so only four can be the objects of reason alone (they are resemblance, contrariety, degree of quality, and proportion of quantity or number). But Hume seems to call 'ought' a relation in the is/ought passage. Where, in all of this, is a relation that can be called an 'ought'? The point can be made more acute. In the very same section as the is/ought passage, only seven or eight paragraphs before, in fact, Hume had used as an argument against the moral rationalist that none of the philosophical relations known by reason alone are moral relations. He gets quite sarcastic:

Shou'd it be asserted, that the sense of morality consists in the discovery of some relation, distinct from these, and that our enumeration was not compleat, when we comprehended all demonstrable relations under four general heads: To this I know not what to reply, till some one be so good as to point out to me this new relation. 'Tis impossible to refute a system, which has never yet been explain'd.

And yet any relation that is expressed by an 'ought' would be precisely the sort of answer a rationalist could use; and here in the is/ought passage we find Hume saying that the reason you need to explain how you are inferring an 'ought' from an 'is' is that it seems inconceivable how one can deduce this new relation from another relation.

The point can be made even more simply. Hume is also very clear what conclusion we should draw from the is/ought problem: "the distinction of vice and virtue is not founded merely on the relations of objects, nor is perceiv'd by reason." This implies directly that 'ought' can't be a relation. And yet the argument itself treats it as if it were. Is Hume contradicting himself?

The answer, of course, is that he is not, and there is a very simple and straightforward interpretation available, and it is this: that our conclusion from our inability to draw an 'ought' relation from an 'is' relation is that 'ought' does not indicate a relation. Remember that the is/ought passage is raising a problem for rationalists like Malebranche and Clarke, who believes that morality consists in relation perceived by reason, and "vulgar systems of morality" like The Whole Duty of Man, which are at least partially (even if not rigorously) rationalist, by thinking that unaided reason can draw conclusions about what we ought to do from facts about God or human affairs. Thus it makes sense for Hume to identify a problem that arises from within rationalism itself. The argument proceeds on rationalist assumptions, and identifies a problem that he thinks it is clear the rationalist cannot resolve. On the assumption that 'ought' is a relation, we find ourselves unable to see how we could derive an 'ought' from an 'is'. But rationalists certainly do reason as if they can derive an 'ought' from an 'is', even though such an inference is completely mysterious on rationalist assumptions.

If this is so, however, than we are led to the conclusion that what is often called Hume's Law, the unqualified claim that you can't derive an 'ought' from an 'is', is not in Hume. Hume's discussion of 'is' and 'ought' is entirely geared to showing that an inability to derive an 'ought' from an 'is' is a problem that arises if you are a moral rationalist, which he obviously is not. What is more, Hume is very clear that this is a rationalist problem in particular. It is clear from the context (a section titled "Moral distinctions not deriv'd from reason"). It is clear from the conclusion that Hume explicitly says we should draw when considering the problem ("the distinction of vice and virtue is not founded merely on the relations of objects, nor is perceiv'd by reason"). It is clear from the fact that if you don't interpret it in this restricted way, the argument contradicts an argument Hume has made earlier in the section. And it is clear from the fact that if you don't take the is/ought problem to be a purely rationalist problem, the argument would in fact contradict the very conclusion Hume says you should draw from it. Who can't draw an 'ought' from an 'is'? Only a moral rationalist.

On Hume's own account, there is no problem of drawing an 'ought' relation from an 'is' relation, because morality does not consist in relations at all. Obligations, and therefore 'oughts', aren't relations but results of moral sentiments. On Hume's account of obligations, we say an action is virtuous when it pleases us in a particular way (not just any way, but one particular way), and we say that a virtuous action is obligatory when not performing the action displeases us in the corresponding way (cf., SBN 517). The obligation, therefore, is not a relation: it is a straightforward fact about what sentiments result when we think about it in the right way (namely, when we consider it in general, without reference to our own particular interests). Thus, at its simplest level, 'ought' expresses a matter of fact about human nature. And there is no mystery about how to get an 'ought' from an 'is' if an 'ought' is a particular kind of 'is'. Thus we have what Hume scholars have pointed out for decades, that Hume himself quite often will derive an 'ought' from an 'is' -- when, for instance, he discusses the natural and moral obligations that pertain to justice, promises, allegiance, &c., &c. If you are moral sense theorist like Hume, however, there is no problem: 'ought', not being a necessary relation between ideas, is exactly the sort of thing you explain with a causal explanation (one form of 'is'). And this is what Hume does: he explains our moral obligations causally, in just the same way he would explain our feeling that the air in the room suddenly became colder, by identifying how custom links it to antecedents with which it is conjoined.

So not only does Hume not argue for 'Hume's Law' or a general gap between fact and value; it is inconsistent with Hume's entire system. The only thing in Hume's argument that could be taken as a reason for 'Hume's Law' is the claim that it is inexplicable how a relation can be deduced from an entirely different relation. But it makes no sense whatsoever for Hume, at this point in the Treatise, to be making a general claim about 'is' and 'ought' on the basis of the claim that it's mysterious how you could get an 'ought' relation from an 'is' relation. He is explicitly arguing against the view that morality consists in relations. He knows an account of morality in which 'ought' does not indicate a relation at all, and goes on to argue for it. And so there is one and only one interpretation that makes sense: on Hume's account of 'is' and 'ought', the one and only way in which you are unable to draw an 'ought' from an 'is' is if you are already conceding too much to moral rationalism.

Mill on Socratic Method

There is no author to whom my father thought himself more indebted for his own mental culture, than Plato, or whom he more frequently recommended to young student. I can bear similar testimony in regard to myself. The Socratic method, of which the Platonic dialogues are the chief example, is unsurpassed as a discipline for correcting the errors, and clearing up the confusions incident to the intellectus sibi permissus, the understanding which has made up all its bundles of associations under the guidance of popular phraseology. The close, searching elenchus by which the man of vague generalities is constrained either to express his meaning to himself in definite terms, or to confess that he does not know what he is talking about; the perpetual testing of all general statements by particular instances; the siege in from which is laid to the meaning of large abstract terms, by fixing upon some still larger class-name which includes that and more, and dividing down to the thing sought — marking out its limits and definition by a series of accurately drawn distinctions between it and each of the cognate objects which are successively parted off from it — all this, as an education for precise thinking, is inestimable, and all this, even at that age, took such hold of me that it became part of my own mind.

J. S. Mill, Autobiography, Chapter 1.

The third post in the series on Hume on ought and is will probably be up this evening or tomorrow morning.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Three Poem Drafts

A Very Bright Moon

The beauty you display
I cannot even conceive
how to tell in words of day
so as to be believed,
but night makes magic real
with its shadows and its swoons,
and wine and the things we feel
give meaning to the moon
and charge my words with sense;
and though the day-words lie,
truth finds recompense
in a smile and a sigh.


Leaves glisten;
starbright raindrops,
thoughtlike, fall.

Psalm 65

All praise to you, Zion's God,
to you the vows fulfilled,
O you answerer of prayer!
To you all flesh will come.
When iniquity's deeds conquered,
you forgave our trespasses;
blessed are your elect, those drawn near,
those dwelling in your courts:
they find satisfaction in your temple,
in your holy dwelling.
You answer us with your deliverance,
salvific God, great in act;
you are the hope of the earth's borders,
of seas beyond seas,
strong establisher of mountains,
girded around with might.
You still storms that roar on the seas,
the thundering waves,
the tumult and shout of nations.
Awed by your great signs,
the fardwellers marvel at your graces,
the gates of the morning,
the portals of night, shout for joy.
Coming, you water lands,
you make them all fertile and rich;
God's river overflows.
You give the grain, prepared for all,
you rain on the furrows,
settling and wetting ridges,
softening the dry ground,
giving blessing to its growth.
With life you crown the year,
all your traces abound with bounty.
Wild pastures burst,
the hills dress themselves with golden glory,
the meadows with fine flocks,
the valleys are decked with rich grain:
they all sing for joy.

Hume on Ought and Is, Part II: The Argument

Having discussed some of the basic background, let's take the original argument and break it into its parts.

I cannot forbear adding to these reasonings an observation, which may, perhaps, be found of some importance.

Nothing too difficult here. Hume has just finished with a long series of arguments (some of them very interesting) arguing that morality cannot consist in any relations, nor in any matter of fact discoverable by reason alone, comparing virtue and vice to secondary qualities. Just as early modern philosophy of nature rejected the idea that sounds, colors, and heat and cold were qualities in the objects rather than qualities in the mind, so, Hume wants to say, progress requires taking virtue and vice to be qualities in the mind rather than qualities in the objects. This sentence links this argument to this, but does tell us (1) that it is at least a slightly different argument (it is an additional observation); and (2) that it could turn out to be important.

In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remark'd, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary way of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when of a sudden I am surpriz'd to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is, however, of the last consequence.

This should be seen as Hume's own diagnosis. One of the difficulties people have always had with interpreting Hume in this argument is that nobody actually proceeds explicitly in this way. But that is, of course, part of Hume's point: the change, while extremely significant (of the last consequence) is nonetheless not heralded by anything (imperceptible). Notice the two kinds of is/is-not proposition Hume explicitly singles out: the being of a God and observations concerning human affairs.

For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, 'tis necessary that it shou'd be observ'd and explain'd; and at the same time that a reason should be given, for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it.

Lots to consider here. First of all, notice the double recurrence of the word "relation". 'Ought' expresses a different relation from 'is'; and the puzzle is how this new relation can be inferred from other relations. This ties in, of course, to the context of the passage: Hume is arguing against views that hold that morality consists in relations of ideas.

Second, notice what Hume does not say. His argument is that if 'ought' expresses a relation, and if 'is' expresses a relation, then, given that they are entirely different relations, if you try to infer 'ought' from 'is' you would have to explain how you could do so, because it "seems altogether inconceivable" how a relation could be inferred from an entirely different relation. Hume himself never explicitly says that you can't derive an 'ought' from an 'is', and the reason for this is a fairly straightforward tactical reason. We know from the rest of the section, of course, that Hume doesn't think any explanation could be forthcoming. But simply telling readers this would not do what Hume wants to do, which is made clear in the last sentence of the passage. That is, he wants to force his readers to face squarely the problem with moral rationalism:

But as authors do not commonly use this precaution, I shall presume to recommend it to the readers; and am persuaded, that this small attention wou'd subvert all the vulgar systems of morality, and let us see, that the distinction of vice and virtue is not founded merely on the relations of objects, nor is perceiv'd by reason.

The first and most important thing here is to recognize what conclusion Hume wants us to draw from the problem he has raised; and Hume makes it quite clear: it lets us see "that the distinction of vice and virtue is not founded merely on the relations of objects, nor is perceiv'd by reason". Hume has throughout the section argued against precisely these two possibilities, i.e., that morality consists entirely in relations of ideas or is the kind of matter of fact discoverable by reason alone. (And what are the matters of fact discoverable by reason alone? Matters of fact reached entirely by inference; which, given what Hume has argued previously, can only be by causal inference, the only form of inference available to reason that can conclude to a matter of fact.) Hume is still on topic.

One of the things that has often puzzled people is the sudden mention of "all the vulgar systems of morality". He actually mentioned them before (without the 'vulgar'). It's important to note that Hume does not mean anything derogatory by the word 'vulgar' itself; he regularly uses the term as a synonym for 'popular', where that is contrasted with 'philosophical'. He doesn't specify, but from other things Hume says elsewhere I think we can pin down fairly precisely what he has in mind.

The Whole Duty of Man ('laid down in a plain and familiar way for the use of all, but especially the meanest reader,' as the subtitle goes) was an anonymous Calvinist work, perhaps by Richard Allestree; Hume was intimately familiar with it, having read it avidly when young. His thought also seems to have gone back to it more than once as an example of the sort of foolish thing he had had to escape: he mentions it to Boswell almost at the end of his life, saying that he had made a catalogue of vices from the list at the end of the book and regularly examined his life against it. He also mentions it to Hutcheson, saying that he preferred to take his virtues from Cicero's Offices rather than The Whole Duty of Man (something of which Hutcheson might well have approved if he had thought that Hume was interpreting Cicero correctly -- which he didn't). The Whole Duty of Man argues that some duties are "stamped upon our Souls" and known by "Natural Light," that is, by reason. And throughout the work we see exactly the slide Hume notes: a duty is laid out and the reason for it given, and the reason is always something like the fact that we are creatures of God (an 'is') from which the 'ought' is supposed to be inferred. Thus rationalism is not confined to the learned and scholarly: it can be found even in a text whose express purpose is to present an account of duty for "the meanest reader".

So we've gone through the argument and noted some of the more noteworthy points. In the next part in this series I will draw some conclusions.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Hume on Ought and Is, Part I: Background

It came up recently, but was scattered through a number of comment sections, so I thought I would write a post consolidating and developing the key points that have to be remembered in properly interpreting Hume's famous ought/is passage. Here's the passage itself:

I cannot forbear adding to these reasonings an observation, which may, perhaps, be found of some importance. In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remark'd, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary way of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when of a sudden I am surpriz'd to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is, however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, 'tis necessary that it shou'd be observ'd and explain'd; and at the same time that a reason should be given, for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it. But as authors do not commonly use this precaution, I shall presume to recommend it to the readers; and am persuaded, that this small attention wou'd subvert all the vulgar systems of morality, and let us see, that the distinction of vice and virtue is not founded merely on the relations of objects, nor is perceiv'd by reason.

The first thing to do in interpreting a passage like this is to determine the context. This passage occurs at the very end of Treatise 3.1.1, which is titled, "Moral distinctions not deriv'd from reason". At the time Hume was writing, there were two major philosophical camps on the explanation of moral obligation, who have come to be called the rationalists and the sentimentalists (or moral sense theorists).

I can let Hume lay out the character and history of the first camp (this is from Enquiry III.2, and Hume is speaking of Montesquieu):

This illustrious writer, however, sets out with a different theory, and supposes all right to be founded on certain rapports or relations; which is a system, that, in my opinion, never will be reconciled with true philosophy. Father Malebranche, as far as I can learn, was the first that started this abstract theory of morals, which was afterwards adopted by Cudworth, Clarke, and others; and as it excludes all sentiment, and pretends to found every thing on reason, it has not wanted followers in this philosophic age.

Hume, of course, was quite familiar with Malebranche on this as on other subjects. In Malebranche's account, we perceive ideas, and we recognize truths by recognizing relations or rapports between them. There are two basic kinds of relations: (1) relations of equality or inequality in greatness and (2) relations of perfection. Relations of equality or inequality are the ground of necessary truths: two plus two equals four and does not equal five. That sort of thing. Relations of perfection are the ground of our obligations; all these relations together express the divine Order that should direct our love. Thus, for instance, souls are more perfect than body, which means we should always love souls (including our own) more than any body. Not conforming to this principle would be irrational, a violation of Reason itself. The other moral rationalists Hume mentions do not have exactly the same system as Malebranche, but the point is that each holds in some way or another that we discover what we ought to do when reason perceives relations between ideas.

This is opposed to theories that do not "exclude all sentiment" but, on the contrary, put sentiment front and center. The most notable example is found in Francis Hutcheson. Hutcheson had argued that we call something good or evil based on whether it causes a pleasant or unpleasant sensation in a sensing creature. One of kind of pleasant or unpleasant sensation is the feeling of approbation or disapprobation that consistently arise when we consider affections, actions, temperaments, and sentiments of ourselves or others. This feeling of approbation or disapprobation is the ground on which we call something morally good or evil; in keeping with Hutcheson's standard terminology, the feeling is also called the perception of an internal sense, and we specify the type of 'perception of an internal sense' by identifying the internal sense as our moral sense.

In this section of the Treatise, Hume is arguing against the abstract relation theory, just as in the next section he will argue for the moral sense theory. Given the philosophical lay of the land, of course, the two go together. As Hume says at the very beginning of 3.1.2, summing up 3.1.1 and transitioning into 3.1.2,

Thus the course of the argument leads us to conclude, that since vice and virtue are not discoverable merely by reason, or the comparison of ideas, it must be by means of some impression or sentiment they occasion, that we are able to mark the difference betwixt them. Our decisions concerning moral rectitude and depravity are evidently perceptions; and as all perceptions are either impressions or ideas, the exclusion of the one is a convincing argument for the other.

In other words, another way of putting the argument is to say that in 3.1.1 he is arguing that we do not discover vice and virtue, right and wrong, by comparing ideas; in 3.1.2 he will argue that we sense or feel them directly. Hume locates himself clearly in the moral sense camp.

In the next section I will move on from content in order to look directly at the argument in the is/ought passage. But already the reader should begin to see why the conclusion we are supposed to draw from the argument is "that the distinction of vice and virtue is not founded merely on the relations of objects, nor is perceiv'd by reason."

Josaphat and Barlaam

David Hart has a post at First Things on SS. Josaphat and Barlaam. The story, of an Indian prince who converted to Christianity, had a very widespread popularity in Christendom. It's very clear on historical investigation, however, that Prince Josaphat is actually Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, transformed after many, many adaptations of adaptations of adaptations. Even the name Josaphat is the last in a long line of modifications that began as the word Bodhisattva. Hart asks two questions with respect to this:

What then might we conclude about the spiritual temper of much of the Christianity of the Middle Ages and early modern period, and its relative affinity with the spiritual temper of Indian Buddhism, from the ease with which Buddhist teachings could be absorbed without scandal, or even any sense of strangeness, by the Christian cultures of both East and West after the tenth century?

I don't think there's any great mystery here. The basic story is a striking one -- a wealthy prince is protected by his father from exposure to common human misery, but on coming into contact with sickness, poverty, and death, is touched by compassion so as to give up all his princely wealth, comfort, and power. Any religion with an ascetic component is able to make moral sense of such a story; from what I understand, for instance, there is a Shiite adaptation of the very same tale, analogous to (although not as popular as) the Josaphat versions.

But it's somewhat misleading to talk about how the story "could be absorbed without scandal, or even any sense of strangeness"; the story as we have it wasn't taken whole cloth from the original, but had already been adapted: Josaphat was Christianized in stages, losing distinctively Buddhist emphases and claims and as time went on retaining a connection to the original that was increasingly abstracted from anything especially Buddhist. Which brings us to the second question:

What then might we make of the delightful oddity that, in a sense, and admittedly under a foreign guise, the Buddha was for centuries venerated by Christians as one of their more beloved saints?

Any Buddhist reading the legend, I think, will find something of a shock at discovering that one of the most important elements of the original story is missing. The Buddha, on seeing human suffering, meditates and through his own efforts discovers the path to overcoming it. But one will search in vain for this in the Josaphat legend; not only does Josaphat not do this, it's clear from several things he says and does that he thinks it is impossible to overcome suffering through his own efforts. The right path is discovered not through meditation but through hearing Barlaam speak about the gospel of Christ. We are saved through faith, and faith comes by hearing: this is the message of the legend of Josaphat. Despite living the same general life, and despite the same themes of moderate asceticism, Josaphat is very unlike the Buddha, and to that extent the tale shows how the Buddha himself, however admirable, could never be venerated by Christians as a genuine saint. It puts in relief the fact that from the Christian perspective the Buddha's approach is necessarily incomplete, that from the Christian point of view Buddhist rejection of craving is good but not salvation. To make the Buddha a Christian requires making him a Josaphat.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

As the Faire and Cheerfull Morning Light

In What Manner The Soule Is United To The Body
by Sir John Davies

But how shall we this union well expresse?
Nought ties the soule; her subtiltie is such
She moves the body, which she doth posesse.
Yet no part toucheth, but by Vertue's touch.

Then dwels shee not therein as in a tent,
Nor as a pilot in his ship doth sit;
Nor as the spider in his web is pent;
Nor as the waxe retaines the print in it;

Nor as a vessell water doth containe;
Nor as a liquor in another shed;
Nor as the heat doth in the fire remaine;
Nor as a voice throughout the ayre is spread;

But as the faire and cheerfull Morning light,
Doth here and there her silver beames impart,
And in an instant doth herselfe unite
To the transparent ayre, in all, and part:

Still resting whole, when blowes th'ayre divide;
Abiding pure, when th'ayre is most corrupted;
Throughout the ayre, her beames dispersing wide,
And when the ayre is tost, not interrupted:

So doth the piercing Soule the body fill,
Being all in all, and all in part diffus'd;
Indivisible, incorruptible still,
Not forc'd, encountred, troubled or confus'd.

And as the sonne above, the light doth bring,
Though we behold it in the ayre below;
So from th'Eternall Light the Soule doth spring,
Though in the body she her powers doe show.