Slave of the Passions
We’ve probably all had the experience of being on the verge of acting from anger or jealousy, when someone advises us to act reasonably. A typical picture of motivation for action is one in which emotions or desires drive us one way and our reason drives us in another. I have a desire for a tasty but unhealthy dessert, and the voice of reason tells me that I ought not to eat it. I don’t feel like helping at the food bank on Saturday, but conscience tells me that I ought to fulfil my obligation. On this picture, the morally upstanding or prudent person follows the lead of reason, while the morally deficient character caves into desire or emotion.
David Hume, in A Treatise of Human Nature, rejects this traditional characterisation of action and its evaluation, offering a remarkable theory in response. He defends the views that the ends or goals of our actions in all cases are given by our “passions,” not by reason, and that the practical role of reason is to figure out how to fulfil these goals. He makes the astounding declaration that “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” Subsequently, Hume also rejects the analysis of morality in terms of rationality, and argues that our distinctions between virtue and vice are based on shared sentiments or feelings of approval or disapproval we experience toward persons’ characters.
Although Hume wrote in the 18th century, his philosophy has significant implications for questions posed in contemporary motivational psychology and moral philosophy. In fact, Hume’s work stimulated one of the classical and still ongoing debates in practical reasoning, concerning whether our goals are created by reason and subject to its evaluation, or whether our goals come from feelings or passions. Moreover, his sentimentalist moral theory is the inspiration for contemporary discussions in ethics, such as those presented in Michael Slote’s Moral Sentimentalism, and Jesse Prinz’s The Emotional Construction of Morals. How did Hume reach his significant conclusions, and what impact did they have on the course of philosophy at the time in which he defended them?