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Hume Versus Kant Essay

Hume and Kant offered two differing views on morality. Hume’s philosophy regarding moral theory came from the belief that reason alone can never cause action. Desire or thoughts cause action. Because reason alone can never cause action, morality is rooted in us and our perception of the world and what we want to gain from it. Virtue arises from acting on a desire to help others. Hume’s moral theory is therefore a virtue-centered morality rather than the natural-law morality, which saw morality as coming from God. Kant’s notion of morality stems from his notion of one universal moral law.

This law is pertinent to all people and can be used at all times before carrying our actions According to Kant, you ought to act according to the maxim that is qualified for universal law giving; that is, you ought to act so that the maxim of your action may become a universal law. While Hume and Kant’s moral theory differ dramatically, they share one quality and that is the fact that neither centers around the concept of God and his will. Hume’s theories may be considered by some not really philosophical theories at all. It is to say that he is not searching for that philosophical life that is seen in a Plato, or Augustine.

He believes that capitalism promotes prosperity for people, and that only science and math is the realm for reason. To discuss Hume’s ethical theory you have to look at the central theme, which are feelings. Hume’s ethical theory says that moral judgments are made on feelings as oppose to reason. Hume’s feelings are based upon the belief that people make moral judgments because it is useful to society. He uses the examples of benevolence and justice to support this idea. Benevolence leads to happiness in society, which is the main basis for moral approval.

Justice, for Hume, is regarded as good because again it is useful to society. He says that justice would not exist if everybody was not selfish, and one of its main uses is to protect private property. Justice for Hume is a very business oriented type of justice in which a transaction that is made must be suitable for both parties. If humans were not selfish than justice would not even come to mind in these types of situations because the transaction would be totally dominated by one individual, and that would not be justice. Hume’s view poses the question, which is better social peace or economic prosperity?

Hume states that human beings are an animal whose life consists of worldly pleasures, and this is what leads them to a happy life. Again we see a clear contradiction to what “traditional” philosophers believe to be a happy life. As you can see Hume leaves out the spiritual, reasoning, and thinking part of human nature. Leaving all these factors out he comes up with his contributions to the well being of society. He believes that chastity, confidentiality, avoiding gossip, avoiding spying, being well mannered, and loyal are what can lead you to becoming prosperous.

Hume looks at this from being prosperous only from a business-orientated point of view. People do like to become prosperous and have economic growth, but is that all that matters to us as humans? For Hume these feelings are justified because he says that we naturally care about other people and if we do not suffer from something we have a natural inclination to help others out. Hume finally comes a conclusion to his ethical theory in which he states that there are only four reasons in which to do morally good: useful to society, useful to oneself, agreeable to oneself, agreeable to others.

Actions that are morally good are categorized into one of these four categories. These actions must be made with sentiment or feeling over reason, for Hume states man is a creature with feelings and reason let’s us figure that out. Hume believed that reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions. He argued that reason is used to discover the causes of pain or pleasure, but it is the prospect of pain or pleasure that causes action, not the reasoning alone, as that is entirely indifferent to us.

This notion of always being motivated by pleasure or pain is very important, as it follows from this that when we act morally, it is a desire that makes us act and not reason. Since morals, therefore, have an influence on the actions and affections, if follows that they cannot be derived from reason, and that because reason alone, as we have already proved, can never have any such influence. Kant takes a different approach in his ethical theory and the understanding of morality and what is morally good.

For Kant moral goodness is defined as goodwill, and that we as humans have a moral obligation to do what is right. He says that moral worth is seen much clearer if someone does things out of duty. Opposite of what Hume says Kant believes that feelings and inclinations are irrelevant and that feelings are not what drive moral obligations. Then how does Kant justify what is morally obliged? He has cancelled out feelings, and has left it as an obligation for people. For Kant first you must take out all feelings. Moral obligation must be binding for everyone.

If any action cannot be approved be everyone than it is not morally obliged. The standard for moral standards has to be universal or absolute. Kant’s ethical theory is put into a comparison of categorical and hypothetical imperatives. Hypothetical imperatives are looked upon as recommendations or laws by others. This is to say that it is someone else or some other thing is telling us what to do. Hypothetical imperatives are unproblematic. They are straightforward sentences that express mundane statements of fact. Categorical ones, on the other hand, are highly problematic.

Categorical imperatives deal with autonomy. These are the moral obligations that Kant believes in, the morally obliged actions. In Kant’s view, only if a person is acting solely on the categorical imperative such as doing something out of duty, can the act be morally good. This is because if somebody is acting out of the hypothetical imperative, he/she has an ulterior motive in acting in that way and are therefore not acting out of duty but are pursuing a certain end. They need not be acting in self-interest, but if they act because of a desire to act in that way, this is not morally worthy.

You can still act morally if it gives you pleasure, as long as the reason for your action is solely out of duty. For instance we ought to help other because you may need help some day. What makes it valuable is that it is valuable in itself. It allows us to treat ourselves and others with self respect. It is clearly seen that in Kant’s theory there is no feelings or emotions attached to these theories only obligations that will benefit all of society. When taking into account who is right or wrong, the type of person you are comes into play.

Some individuals live their lives based off of feelings and emotions alone, and most decisions that these types of individuals make are what is going to them happy or something that could perhaps make them sad but another group in society happy. Then there are the other groups of individuals that do things without thinking of who they will affect but only take into account what they believe they should do based on society’s circumstances. Ultimately the decision on how to make moral judgments should be entirely based on you and your character and your experiences.

If a person has been hurt by trying to be morally good then his feelings will come into play no matter how he made his original decision. If this person was making a decision based on obligation and he still got hurt from it in the long run then his next decision could be very feeling based. These two decisions on morality may continue to intertwine with each other. Hume and Kant are similar in that their moral theories are not the will as laid down by God, instead they see morality as embedded in humans themselves.

However from here the theories diverge. Hume sees moral judgements as being caused by sentiments of pain or pleasure within an agent as reason alone can never motivate, whereas Kant see the only moral actions as being those caused by reason alone, or the categorical imperative. Both theories have difficulty with coming up with absolute moral laws – Hume’s theory because absolute morality would appear to be impossible if morality is based on an individual’s sentiment, and Kant’s theory because it cannot prove the existence of the categorical imperative.


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