The Subordinate Role of Reason in Hume's Moral Philosophy

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The Subordinate Role of Reason in Hume's Moral Philosophy: To understand the moral philosophy of David Hume, it is important to understand that it is in some regards inseparable from his theory of knowledge. For Hume, there was a sharp distinction between that which is perceived by the senses, and that which is known through reason.


Hume thought that what we perceive become images, and these images or pictures of reality are manipulated by reason. But, there is no manipulating these perceptions without the prior perceptions or sensations first: “I shall endeavor to prove first, that reason alone can never be a motive to an action of the will; and secondly, that it can never oppose passion in the direction of the will” [Cahn and Markie, Ed., 244]. What Hume is arguing, can be described as presenting a very sharp or definite distinction between “reason” which he calls “utterly impotent” when contrasted with the “passions” [Cahn and Markie, Ed., 247]. And, unlike the images that can be manipulated by reason, the relationship between the “passions” and “actions” is a direct one or as he phrases it: “morals excite passions, and produce and prevent actions ... the rules of morality, therefore, are not conclusions of our reason” [Cahn and Markie, Ed., 247]. Most might maintain that reason and the senses have a more connected or inter-twined relationship. It is important to stress that reason is only connected to 'necessary' types of truths like mathematical equations. That is, truths that are valid regardless of sense experience. ...
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